Friday 26 February 2010

Struggling with the numbers

In one of the places that I've worked over the years, I remember a colleague preparing a business case in which he claimed that costs could be "reduced by over 100%". The case was rejected, naturally. Some people like numbers; others struggle with them.

The Tory candidate locally seems to have a particular problem with numbers. There was the time when he argued that 1 was a larger number than 7, of course. And then there was the leaflet in which he claimed that violent crime had increased by 53% - a statistic for which his party was rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority.

His response when I suggested that the leaflet concerned was misleading, since it tried to give the impression of being an official communication, was to claim that it was in fact "150% clear". Hmmm. Some of the best letters to newspapers are those that communicate their message in a single sentence – and that particular claim by the Tories produced this superb response in the Western Telegraph.

"The fact that Simon Hart believes his canvassing leaflet to be ‘150% clear’ more than adequately indicates how seriously we should take the other statistics contained within it."

Says it all, really.

Daylight Robbery

Reports submitted to councillors for meetings are often long and complicated; and it takes a lot of work by staff to prepare them, often under pressure. Sometimes, some unfortunate wordings end up appearing in reports, where the author knows exactly what he or she means, but…

Take Carmarthenshire's budget report, in which Appendix C lists all the proposed savings under the various headings, and explains how they are to be achieved. Under Fair Trading, they are planning to save £15,000 next year. How? Well, "Proceeds of crime used to offset costs" is the method quoted.

It doesn't mean quite what it seems to say at first sight – the council is not proposing (as far as I'm aware) to set up a team to go out and commit robberies to finance its activities. (Although I'm sure that there are many who would argue that the Council Tax is a form of daylight robbery anyway, which would mean that a large proportion of the council's funds are already the 'proceeds of crime'.)

But what happens if Dyfed Powys Police were to succeed in eliminating crime? I don't think I'd like to be the senior officer who had to explain that the particular budget heading was overspent due to 'an inadequate level of crime' in the county.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Hydrogen Highways

I wasn't really surprised by the story earlier this week that the proposed hydrogen highway through South Wales was 'little more than hot air'. I thought at the time that it was announced that Peter Hain was over-hyping the proposal. Sadly, that's not the first time – and I'm sure that it won't be the last time either – that he has over-stated his case and raised false expectations as a result.

But there's a danger that we go too far and 'under-hype' the idea, as well. I think that hydrogen has a serious role to play in our future fuel economy, and the idea of further research and development is fundamentally sound. The problem is that it's nowhere near as ready to roll out as a practical solution as the original announcement seemed to imply. Politicians are sometimes too keen to present a solution to a problem, before the solution is really fully worked through.

There are a number of technical challenges to be overcome before we see mass production of hydrogen powered vehicles, but I'm confident that there are no insoluble issues on that score. The really big question for me is where the hydrogen itself comes from. There are only two practical solutions at present.

The first is to extract it from hydrocarbons – natural gas mostly – but that leaves us with a waste product - called carbon dioxide. Unless we have a practical and safe way of storing that CO2, then turning the natural gas into hydrogen isn't likely to be any greener than burning it directly.

And the second is to use electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. It's green and clean, but there is inevitably a loss of energy in the process – the electricity generated when the hydrogen is combined with oxygen again in a fuel cell is significantly less than that used to split the water in the first place.

It still makes sense, however, if we are using off-peak electricity from renewable sources. The intermittency, or propensity to produce electricity outside the peak hours when it's most needed, of sources such as wind, sun and tide is much less of a problem if we have a means of 'storing' electricity. Hydrogen can provide precisely that.

What the story highlights though is that energy policy needs to be joined up and planned in a way which simply isn't happening at present, because hydrogen makes most sense as part of an integrated energy policy, not as another stand-alone initiative.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Achieving their ends by stealth

I mentioned yesterday the fact that some councils are looking to distinguish between statutory and non-statutory services, with a view to cutting out the latter. Until Carmarthenshire started considering withdrawing transport for pupils aged 16 to 19, I hadn't realised that providing school transport for pupils aged over 16 came into the second category.

It's not offically a firm proposal as yet, since a task and finish group is still looking at it – but the cost saving has already been deducted from the council's indicative budgets from 2011 onwards. And there are still two options for implementation – simply removing the service entirely, or charging an economic cost for its provision.

One astounding argument advanced at yesterday's budget-setting meeting was that most of the young people concerned receive EMA to encourage them to stay on in school, and that they could pay their own transport costs out of that allowance. What the government giveth, the council taketh away, as it were. (And presumably, if the result were to be that fewer children decided to return to education after GCSEs as a result of reducing the financial incentive, that would give the authority another chance for some 'savings'?)

But there is another aspect to this which concerns me. FE colleges are now independent of local authority control, so any decision to remove transport for 16+ pupils would not affect those who opt for FE colleges. I have long suspected that the unstated agenda of officials at both county council level and Assembly Government level is the abolition of sixth forms, and their replacement by tertiary colleges created by the expansion of FE.

When they try to achieve that aim directly, they hit massive parental opposition. But what if they could achieve the same result by stealth? By, for instance, making FE financially more attractive than the 6th forms?

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Local Democracy

A few different things have come together recently to make me wonder what county councils are for, and what they are achieving.

The first has been the repeated suggestion that Wales has 'too many' councils and that we will need to rationalise the number. It's most often accompanied by a claim that Wales cannot afford 22 Directors of (insert Education, Social Services, or whatever here). The argument feels right, but is not generally accompanied by much light about what the 'right' number is, or how we arrive at that magic number.

The second has been the increasing regulation and drive for standardisation of services across councils, often presented as 'ending the postcode lottery'. The implicit assumption is that there are some services which are 'too important' to allow there to be any variation in quality of provision, or the nature of the provision. (Or in extreme cases some seem to be arguing that we should not even permit a different spend per head).

And the third is the increasing financial pressures on local authorities, all of which are claiming that this year's settlement is the 'tightest ever' (a phrase that I don't think I've heard since last year), and that cash is going to get even tighter in future (with a suitable amount of hype and exaggeration about the likely implications thrown in for good measure). And with something like two-thirds of council funding supplied by the Welsh Government, councils always have a convenient scapegoat to hand.

One consequence of the third factor is that a number of councils are looking to distinguish between the statutory services (which they have to provide), and the non-statutory services (which they do not), and to concentrate their efforts and finances increasingly on the first. Within current legislation, and from the councils' viewpoint, that is a pretty logical decision to be making.

But, if we take a step back a moment, is there a case for standing that logic on its head, and moving to a situation where the councils deal only with the non-statutory services?

After all, the principle of local democracy is that people can exercise local choice, through electing a council, on what level of services they want and are prepared to pay for. And if they want a bit more of one type of service, and a bit less of another, they should be able to choose that.

However, in relation to the statutory services, there is an increasingly diminishing scope for local councils to make those sort of decisions, due to the second factor identified above, namely the drive to increased regulation and standardisation. It is increasingly the case that only in the non-statutory services is there any real scope for differentiation.

What would local government look like if we took all the statutory services away, and ran them under some sort of more central control (which is basically the model of the NHS)?

Firstly, rather than reducing the number of county councils, there could actually be a case for increasing the number and making them more local and accountable.

Secondly, rather than funding them centrally, the remaining services could be funded entirely out of local taxation (either council tax, or Plaid's preferred alternative of a local income tax). Councils would be in a position to raise and spend their income without external control on a range of optional services which local residents could choose either to expand or contract, and be clear of the tax implications in so doing.

It would of course represent a huge degree of centralisation of the management of services like education and social services, but it would be more honest than the creeping centralisation which comes through regulation, defining standards, target-setting, and hypothecated grants.

One of the hardest lessons that I learned when I first moved into a management role is that delegation includes delegating the right to take different decisions and to make mistakes. As far as local government is concerned, I think that we need either to delegate real authority to councils, or else decide that the services are too important to delegate, and manage them properly from the centre. Delegation to people whose hands central government then tie is no delegation at all.

It's a pretty radical suggestion, of course. But we really do need to decide what local councils are for – before we start thinking about how many we need.

Monday 22 February 2010

Why isn't Denmark empty?

There was a slight misconception underlying the reported comments of Gerry Holtham at our conference over the weekend. Since I wasn't at the session, I'm not entirely sure how and where the misconception arose. The implication of what was reported was that our proposal to reduce the level at which the new top rate of income tax would apply from £150,000 to £100,000 was a 'Wales-only' proposal. It was not. Since this is a UK election, our sums have been worked out at a UK level.

Notwithstanding that misconception, it's worth considering whether such a difference could be introduced on a 'Wales-only' basis, and what the effect might be. The suggestion of detractors is that any application of higher taxes in Wales than in England would more or less automatically lead to an outward migration. Actually, we can widen the issue beyond the 'Wales-England' scenario; some opponents of Labour's current tax proposals have argued that there will be an exodus from the UK as a result.

So, do differing tax regimes in neighbouring countries really lead to mass movements of people? I'm not sure that there is any real evidence to back up such an assertion. Denmark has a top rate of 58%, whilst neighbouring Germany only goes as high as 45%, but Denmark doesn't seem to have been depopulated as a result. Some of the latest countries to join the EU have very low top rates of tax, but there's been no huge movement of people from higher tax areas to lower tax areas.

It might be argued that the question of migration based on tax rates doesn't apply to all of us, merely to the highest earners, and that they take their wealth-creating skills with them. Again, where is the evidence for this? I'm sure that someone can point to one or two high profile cases, but there really is no evidence that a difference in tax regimes causes significant levels of migration.

In reality, people decide to either stay put or migrate elsewhere for a variety of reasons; and economic advantage is but one of those. And even economic advantage is assessed by reference to a range of factors, of which income tax rates are simply one. There is nothing wrong per se with different countries, even neighbouring countries, having different tax regimes, including different rates of income tax, as long as the overall economic conditions are conducive to the sorts of businesses and economic activities which we want.

I wouldn't suggest that that's a balance which it is easy to achieve; but the bogeyman of people leaving is often more a way by which opponents of a more redistributive tax regime seek to defend the position of the few, rather than being a real problem.

Sunday 21 February 2010

Differing opinions

Plaid had a really good two days at our Spring Conference in Cardiff yesterday and Friday. Last year was the first time that we extended the event to two days and ran a whole series of debates outside the main hall. It worked well last year, and even better this year.

The biggest problem for many of us was deciding which debates to attend - with two or even three running in parallel, as well as training events for candidates and activists, it was impossible for anyone to be everywhere.

The biggest clash, for me, was between a session on creating wealth in Wales with Ieuan Wyn and Eurfyl and a parallel session on fair funding where Gerry Holtham gave some pretty forthright views on taxation policy. Sadly, the result was that I missed the comments by Gerry Holtham which Tom Bodden reported on his blog.

Glyn Davies seems to think that we will all be regretting inviting Gerry and / or Tom as a result. On the contrary - the only thing I regret is missing the session. I think it's a good thing to have some alternative voices at this type of debate (perhaps we'll even invite Glyn one day!). It's a good thing to have our views and policies robustly challenged; I've never been afraid of a debate, and nor should Plaid be.

We've seen in recent weeks that different economists, or groups of economists, have very different views as to how far and how fast the budget deficit needs to be cut. Similarly, there are a range of different views, even amongst the experts, on taxation policy. Clearly, Gerry Holtham doesn't agree with Plaid's position on that issue! It doesn't mean that his views are 'right', any more than those of any other experts in the field. But they deserve a hearing - and they got one.

It's actually a sign of Plaid's growing confdence and maturity that we are willing to invite outsiders into our conference to present alternative views, and that we're prepared to listen to them and debate with them. It's certainly better than having the whole thing so carefully choreographed that it becomes boring.

Thursday 18 February 2010

How much is too much?

No-one disputes that the size of the public deficit is an issue, and one which needs to be addressed, but the issue is far more complex than generally appears to be the case. Media coverage, in particular, in what I assume is an attempt to simplify the issue, has reduced it to a 'what will you cut?' debate, which seems to take as a given the need for a rapid elimination of the deficit.

Real life is nowhere near as straightforward as that. There is nothing approaching a consensus on the little questions of 'how', 'when', and 'by how much' the debt needs to be reduced, and many of the pronouncements by economists and experts don't shed a great deal of light either.

To hear some politicians and pundits talking, one would think that this was a settled matter, and that the deficit has to be eliminated; and that seems to be the starting point of much of the questioning of politicians. Yet, in practice, I don't think that any of the parties is actually proposing to eliminate debt - and reduction is not at all the same thing as elimination.

So, if no-one actually is aiming to completely eliminate the debt, what is the level to which it needs to be reduced such that it is no longer 'too large'?

Clearly, there's a difference between structural deficit and cyclical deficit. The cyclical element can be expected to disappear as and when the economy picks up again, as benefit payments drop, and tax income increases. Structural deficit, however, is with us throughout the cycle, and is currently of the order of 6 to 8% of GDP, and that is the element about which we should be most concerned.

What determines an acceptable level, and how? The answer, at its simplest, seems to be 'the markets'. But the markets are not some precise piece of machinery – the 'invisible hand' of Adam Smith – they are composed of people who buy and sell government bonds. As long as they remain 'confident' that governments will be able to repay the money they borrow, governments can go on borrowing.

So, there isn't a 'right' level of debt, set in an objective fashion. The level of acceptable debt is ultimately not set in any transparent objective fashion, but on the basis of the subjective opinions of a particular group of individuals - opinions which can change from day to day even if the underlying objective data doesn't.

There are some politicians whose drive to reduce the deficit is primarily ideological (an innate dislike of any form of government spending), and who are seeing the crisis as an ideal peg to achieve their broader objectives. But for most of us, it's much more about working out how much we need to do to maintain that elusive 'confidence' whilst protecting services, jobs, and the most vulnerable in our society. It sometimes seems to me that none of us really do - or even can - know for certain what the 'right' answer is, but there's an expectation that we speak and act as though we do.

We need a more enlightened and honest discussion around the question, rather than an aggressive 'what will you cut?', but it seems unlikely that we'll get one.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Watch the background

This story covers a very serious issue, and I'm glad, of course, that it has been resolved in a sensible and pragmatic way following the intervention of our local Tory AM.

If I can draw a lighter note out of the issue, however, it illustrates how careful all politicians need to be to check what's behind us when we have our picture taken. In this case, the key line in the report is "Cars should now park on the road-side of the pavement, leaving a safe walkway between the vehicles and the buildings." Well, yes, and the picture clearly shows the white line concerned. It also, however, shows a car behind the people, parked very carefully and precisely - on the wrong side of the line. D'oh!

Kicking and Screaming

It has been an ongoing bone of contention in Carmarthenshire that the ruling Labour and Independent parties have systematically excluded the Plaid Cymru councillors from any position of influence in the authority. This is despite clear guidance from the Welsh government that committee chairs should be allocated on the basis of political balance; something which the ruling parties have made it quite clear that they are not prepared to countenance.

Partly because of the recalcitrance of councils such as Carmarthenshire, which wish to concentrate as much power as possible in the hands of the council's leader, the Assembly government is pushing through a new Measure which will compel councils to take account of political balance.

At last week's meeting of the council, the Plaid group in Carmarthenshire invited the ruling parties to implement the change now rather than wait for the legislation. The final question was direct and to the point, "or do you really want to wait until you have to be dragged kicking and screaming into making the change?"

The answer, from the leaders of both ruling parties, was that they will consider any changes in the rules after the Assembly makes a decision, and not before. I'll take that as a 'yes' then.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Triple squeeze on students

Young people seeking a place in higher education seem likely to be facing a triple squeeze in future. And it is the aspirations of those from the poorest backgrounds which are most likely to be shattered as a result.

The first squeeze is the point to which I've referred on many occasions, namely the introduction of tuition fees and top-up fees. Although I think it's the wrong approach, I can see how others might think - from a purely hard-nosed economic perspective - that concentrating support on those most in need is a rational way forward. However, I have no doubt that it has been a direct deterrent to those from less affluent backgrounds who wish to attend university.

The second is direct government decisions to reduce the number of places which are available. Again, faced with major economic difficulties, the decision may appear rational, but it would fly in the face of experience to believe that the cutbacks will have an equal effect across the social spectrum.

And the third is the increasing extent to which our HE institutions are seeking to attract overseas students who can be charged a higher level of fees, and therefore assist the balance sheets of the institutions. Again, from the point of view of those taking the decisions, this is an entirely rational thing to do in economic terms, but the higher the proportion of places filled from overseas, the lower the proportion available to our own young people.

It isn't just the institutions themselves who are actively seeking more overseas students, of course. The government-funded British Council is actively involved in promoting the opportunities to overseas students, as this recent article by the Director of its Executive Board made clear. (Although how effective their efforts are is another question, as I noted recently).

Governments are extremely fond of talking about the need for education and training to produce the skilled workforce we need for the future, but actions speak louder than words, and some of the actions are taking us in the opposite direction.

Sunday 14 February 2010

Stop digging

The first law of holes is that when you're in one, you should stop digging. It's a law which Carmarthenshire county council seems not to fully understand.

I've mentioned before the curious way in which the council takes some of its decisions. The strange case of Christmas car parking raised its head again at last week's council meeting, when one of Plaid's team drew attention to an apparent inaccuracy in the minutes of the previous meeting. At the time, on 9th December, she had asked whether parking would again be free, and was clearly told that it would be. That is not, however, what found its way into the council's minutes, which read:

"In response to a question as to whether free parking would be introduced in the Authority’s car parks over the Christmas period, the Director of Technical Services stated that a recommendation would be made to the Executive Board at its meeting on the 14th December to approve the introduction of free car parking after 10.00 a.m. in all towns in the two weeks leading up to Christmas 2009."

When asked how the decision was therefore implemented on 10th December, and publicised in the council's propaganda sheet on 25th November, the Executive Board member responsible for this area rose to his feet to declare that he had signed off the decision, but thought that he was in order to do so after the Executive Board had agreed the matter on 14th December – completely missing the point of the question.

His answer may also have caused some concern to the council's Monitoring Officer who quickly intervened to confirm that no councillors had taken the decision at all; it was an operational matter delegated to the Director of Technical Services. Fairly clearly, both explanations cannot be correct, but the Monitoring Officer's version is the one which keeps the council legal.

One has to ask why the Director of Technical Services would tell full council that he would take a recommendation on the matter to the Executive Board if, as the Monitoring Office claims, the said Director had already taken the decision himself at least two weeks earlier.

I can only speculate. Unfortunately, the potential for falling foul of the law of libel rather restricts me from doing so.

Friday 12 February 2010

Visions and diatribes

Sadly, Peter Hain's essay on the economy yesterday read more like a pro-Labour and anti-Tory diatribe than a serious contribution to discussion of the way forward for the Welsh economy.

His assertion that he is determined to progress the Cardiff-Weston barrage will only add to the concerns of those who believe that the decision has already been taken on largely political grounds, and the feasibility study looking at the environmental impact of this and other schemes is mere window-dressing.

The commitment to the South Wales LCEA is encouraging, certainly, as are the jobs being created in Chepstow and Ynys Môn.

My biggest concern with what there was of an economic vision, however, is whether government - at all levels - is really managing to struggle free from the idea that the way forward for Wales is to compete in global markets and start looking instead at a re-localisation of the economy. I detected no sign of that, just a continued concentration on large schemes and competitiveness.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Internalising problems

The difficulties being posed to the Euro by the serious economic woes of certain countries within the Eurozone has led to some people questioning whether a single currency is sustainable without the existence of a single state. At this stage, the issue may appear somewhat esoteric to many, but it is of more than passing interest to those of us who believe that we should enter the Euro at some point (whether as part of the UK or as an independent member state).

The question of whether a single interest rate (and therefore monetary policy) set centrally would suit all the different members was an issue from the outset, but as long as the economies of the member states were all growing, the problem didn't really manifest itself. In recession, the problem has become acute.

However, simply turning the EU into a single state wouldn't make the problem go away; it would merely internalise it. In some ways, the position of Wales within the UK mirrors the position of, say, Greece within the EU. Monetary policy and interest rates set in London for the whole UK frequently do not match the needs of Wales. It's not unconnected with the fact that even when the UK economy was growing rapidly, Wales was lagging behind.

Whilst that lag has been, and remains, a serious problem for Wales, it was never something that worried the international money markets, because the problem was internalised within a single state, the UK. It's easy to see, in consequence, why some are arguing that the EU should also internalise the problem by developing into a single state.

That might keep the money markets happy (basically, because they would then know that the larger countries, particularly Germany, would be underwriting the smaller countries such as Greece), but it would not resolve the underlying problem of a series of economies performing at different levels; it would merely hide the problem as far as those outside were concerned.

Internalisation may solve one problem, but it creates another, as Wales' experience shows, because it reduces the incentive to rectify that underlying inequality. I have never understood why so many people seem not only willing to accept Wales' underperformance, but to use it as a reason why Wales should not control her own destiny. It drives me in the opposite direction – to a position which says that the best way (and perhaps the only way) of tackling our underperformance is to take responsibility ourselves.

Countries such as Greece and Ireland are going through difficult and uncomfortable times - it's something which we should watch carefully, and learn from as well.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

More on jargon

Not long back after sitting in the public gallery through a rather epic meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council. I've mentioned before the way in which official reports tend to over-use certain words, and we had another example today when the council discussed its "Supporting People Operational Plan".

The title was ominous enough to start with. Plaid's Cllr Emlyn Dole asked if someone could define the phrase 'floating support', which he said was used at least 76 times in the document. (I haven't checked his count, but on a quick flick through, it looks like an entirely plausible statistic). This support, whatever it is, comes in a variety of guises, including something called 'low level floating support', which, as Emlyn pointed out, sounds like it might no longer be afloat at all, even if not yet entirely sunk.

The Director of Social Care, Health, and Housing was first up with an attempt at an explanation. He assured the meeting that the term was one which was well-used and understood in the 'supporting people community'. I concluded that he was probably trying for his first mention in Private Eye, but that he hadn't exactly spread a great deal of light.

The Chief Executive followed, telling the meeting that the primary audience for the report was not the ordinary reader, but the civil servants in the Assembly Government. This is the sort of terminology they use, and if the council didn't use the same terms, the Government might not understand the report, and might withhold funding. He went on to say - and I paraphrase only slightly - that if the council wrote reports in plain language, they'd only have to explain the terms they used in jargon before submitting them to the Government.

Is it me?

PS - the explanation eventually forthcoming was that 'floating support' is support which is not 'fixed'. So now we all know.

Monday 8 February 2010

Red Tape

Red tape is a little bit like sin – everyone's against it in the abstract, but not necessarily so certain when it comes to the specifics. For politicians, it's far too easy to make a glib commitment to abolishing red tape (and, yes, I know that some of my lot have done it as well), but I'm not sure it's always a terribly meaningful statement.

As a fresh young systems analyst, I was designing a new computer system and having enormous difficulty duplicating one of the reports being produced by a clerk in the engineering department. I sat down with her and looked on in some awe at the processes involved in producing the report, taking a full two days every month.

So I asked what happened to the report then, and was shown the drawer in the filing cabinet where it was stored every month. But who looks at it, I wanted to know. The answer was that nobody looked at it, but about three years previously, the director had asked for the information and it wasn't available, so they had continued to prepare it every month, just in case he ever asked for it again.

Unnecessary and irrelevant clerical activity – that's one of the things which most people think of when they talk about red tape. And I'm sure that lots of organisations have examples of something similar to that I described above. The other favourite is 'unnecessary rules and regulations'. But how much of what is so readily dismissed as 'red tape' really falls into those sorts of categories?

I'd hazard a guess that the answer is 'not as much as people think'. Far more often, one person's red tape is another person's protection.

I've heard some employers, particularly, complaining about the burden of red tape on their businesses. Things like European Directives about Environmental Protection, or Working Hours. Things like Maternity Pay, and discrimination legislation. Of course it would be so much easier for companies to compete with the rest of the world if they didn't have to worry about treating their staff fairly or safeguarding the environment around them.

But that isn't what I'd call red tape.

Jack Straw got into trouble recently for suggesting that some police officers would prefer to sit at desks doing paperwork than getting out and solving crimes. He made his point in an unfortunate and cack-handed fashion. The Tories love to talk about freeing police from red tape, and seized on Straw's remarks. Of course, life would be easier for the police if they didn't have to record details of the people they stop and search for instance. But it would be a lot harder to deal with suggestions of bias or prejudice in the way that the individuals being stopped are selected, or about heavy-handed policing.

That isn't what I'd call red tape either.

So, like everyone else, I'm against sin. But before I try and abolish it, I'd like to make sure that it really is sinful.

Friday 5 February 2010

Fiddling the figures

A few days ago, I mentioned the Tory leaflet being distributed locally with a somewhat misleading front cover, and some rather dubious solutions to the problems we face. The credibility of the leaflet was further undermined yesterday by the UK Statistics Authority telling the Tories that the way in which they have been using crime statistics was "likely to damage public trust in official statistics".

Yes, indeed – the local leaflet uses the same dodgy figures which the Tories have been using elsewhere, claiming that "Since 1998 violent crime in Wales has increased by 53%". As was made clear by the Statistics Authority, any such claim is completely baseless, because the method of recording was changed significantly in the period concerned. Yet the claim is simply repeated in the Tory leaflet with no explanation, and no context.

Violent crime is a serious matter, and it is a matter which greatly concerns people on a day to basis. The causes and solutions deserve proper and thorough debate – and it would certainly help if the government did not keep changing recording methods so that we could all see whether the trend is increasing or not.

But simply playing on people's fears for political advantage by quoting meaningless figures is an irresponsible thing for any politician to do.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Elin Jones visit

Nerys Evans and I hosted a meeting in Llanddewi Velfrey last week at which Elin Jones spoke to a group of farmers. We had a really good session with Elin outlining the policies which she and the government are following, and then an opportunity for questions and debate.

There was lots of praise for the way in which Elin has approached the job, and her knowledge and understanding of the farming industry, although there's always more to be done of course. Those in the industry certainly understand how Plaid can and does make a real difference in government.

One of the biggest concerns for farmers locally remains the question of getting a fair price for the produce they sell, and the way in which the large supermarkets are able to dominate and control the market, because four or five large companies are effectively pitted against thousands of small farming businesses.

Even for those who believe in the free markets from an ideological perspective, the current process doesn't operate fairly, and on this issue, the charge was led by Sir Eric Howells, who lives locally and frequently writes on this matter to the local papers and the Western Mail. When the market is distorted as heavily as it is in this case, we need government intervention to fix prices at a fair level.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Misleading People

This is the front cover of a communication which is being widely distributed locally. Looks very official and ominous doesn't it? But official it is not – although ominous may well be a suitable word to apply. It's actually an election leaflet for the Conservative and Unionist Party, not particularly cunningly disguised in an attempt to get people to open and read it.

It's monolingual of course, apart from the two words "Ceidwadwyr Cymreig" in the logo. Not so Cymreig at all really - and they've even abandoned their previous practice of inviting those who might be stroppy enough to want a copy in Welsh to contact them for an under-the-counter service.

The inside lists the problems caused by decades of Labour-Tory rule in Wales; you know - the usual stuff about how London rule has made Wales the poorest part of the UK, and Wales having the highest levels of unemployment of any UK nation. It doesn't really explain why they think more of the same is the answer, of course. But it does make it clear that one of the Tories' solutions to the problems faced by Wales is "to oppose Plaid Cymru's policy".

It's not immediately clear to me why opposing another party's policy is a 'solution' to anything.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Labour's Nationalists

I was more than a little surprised to read yesterday that one of the leaders of 'True Wales', Rachel Banner, apparently believes that there are 'nationalist sympathisers' in her party, who want Wales to become an independent state. I'm not convinced about that; I think that she, like many others, is confusing identity and politics, an issue on which I contributed an article to WalesHome last week. Mind you, if the Labour Party want to spend some time looking under their own beds for dreaded nationalists, I'm hardly going to complain.

Perhaps she's just read too much into the story a while back suggesting that Plaid's strategy revolved around splitting the Labour Party between its nationalist wing and its unionist wing. In reality, I've never been happy with that idea, for two reasons (apart from the obvious one of why we would ever want to broadcast our strategy to the world in the first place!).

The main reason is that I think it doesn't represent the reality of the Labour Party, any more than does the 'True Wales' view of a party containing 'nationalist sympathisers'. There are those in the Labour Party, certainly, who are suspicious of anyone who has a strong sense of Welsh identity – or even anyone who speaks Welsh – and on occasions such people get treated as some sort of crypto-nationalists. That has tended to strengthen the view of a Labour Party which is somehow divided over the issue of Wales' constitutional future.

But I think that misses the point. Certainly, they have disagreements about the pace and extent – or even the principle – of devolution, but that is not the defining issue of politics for any of them. And there is a great deal more which unites them than divides them. It's easy for people who see the constitutional status of Wales as the defining political issue to project that view onto others; but it just ain't reality.

The second reservation that I've always had about the alleged strategy is that it predicates Plaid's progress on what happens inside another political party. A strategy which makes us the prisoners of a misreading of the internal dynamics of another party hardly sounds to me like a basis for progress.

Monday 1 February 2010

Question Time in Saundersfoot

Friday night in Saundersfoot was the first time that the four candidates for this constituency came together for a debate. The meeting was organised by the Pembrokeshire South East Energy Group, who did a good job of getting a large crowd together on a cold evening (and in a cold hall!) to discuss matters environmental and energy policy.

We had a great range of well-thought questions, many of them coming from young people in the audience, who were obviously concerned and engaged with the issues which we face. Andy Middleton was a good and fair independent chair for the evening, and gave all of us the opportunity to put our views across.

From my point of view, I thought that the session went well, and I enjoyed it.

There was one very detailed question on which I was clueless – what does the Marine Bill do for Pembrokeshire? I didn't know, and said so; it's difficult to be knowledgeable on everything. From the answer he gave, I don't think that Simon Hart, the Tory candidate, had much of a clue either; he just wasn't up to admitting it.

It turned out that the sitting Labour MP, Nick Ainger, knew exactly what it was all about, because he had been a member of the parliamentary committee scrutinising the Bill. Curiously, the question was asked by his next-door neighbour and former Labour AM, Christine Gwyther. Just a coincidence, I'm sure.

Apart from that, we had questions on climate change, nuclear energy, tidal power, population, transport policy, and farming methods. A very wide range of topics indeed. One thing that I particularly liked – and I think that the audience appreciated it too - was that there was no political point-scoring; all the answers stuck to attempting to answer the questions and set out the views of the four parties on the issues, rather then denigrating each other.

I hope that we'll have many more similar sessions.