Friday, 30 November 2007

Crime and Punishment

I always thought that the police investigation into the cash for honours affair, however much fun it might have been to see Tony Blair become the subject of a police investigation, missed the real point. Giving honours to people who have served their party in some way or another, including by donating money, has long been a feature of political life. It is something that Labour and Tory alike have long seen as ‘business as usual’.

The real scandal, to me, was that a governing party which pledged to bring transparency to political funding, and passed laws requiring donations to be declared, then proceeded to use a loophole in its own legislation by asking potential donors to turn their gifts into loans so that they would not need to be declared.

It was not illegal, but it was clearly in direct contradiction of the spirit behind the legislation which they had enacted. I can see how some would assume that that subterfuge must be hiding some bigger sin, which I suppose is how it developed into a suggestion that honours were being sold, but I suspect that it really was as simple as a desire to hide the sources of party funds; no more, no less.

The danger for Labour in the Abrahams affair is that this starts to look like a pattern. Here again, the objective seems to have been to disguise the real source of funds. The key difference is that, in this case, as Brown himself has admitted, there is a clear breach of the law rather than mere use of a loophole, but the underlying cause is exactly the same – an attempt to conceal the source of the funding.

In the case of the ‘loans’, it was clearly the Labour Party itself which instigated the concealment. At this stage in the Abrahams case, it is unclear whether it was the party or the donor or both who wanted to conceal the source – I guess that will be pretty central to the police investigation. It is already clear however that whoever instigated the proposal, the details were known by both the donor and by senior people in the party – and all of them should have known what the law says on the matter.

The surprising thing is how quickly the matter has snowballed to involve donations to internal party campaigns, and the impact on Brown himself. I don’t think it threatens his survival – yet – although things look pretty bleak for Harriet Harman’s prospects. I find myself wondering whether he has really been told everything, or whether there are some misguided people who think that they are protecting him by not giving him the whole picture.

If he wants to come out of this with minimum damage, I think he needs to deliberately over-react at this stage, before things get any worse. Anyone who personally knew about or was involved in an attempt to conceal the source of funds needs to go. And Brown needs to satisfy himself, quietly but definitely, that there are no other little dodges being used to conceal the sources of party funding.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that the other parties are entirely clean on the issue of funding either, and there’s more than a little hypocrisy in the way that the Tories in particular (but not uniquely) have jumped on this one. But trying to respond to this situation by attacking others will only make matters worse, and increase the overall level of cynicism about politicians.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Ambition isn't the same as Ability

It’s not often that I come to the support of the Lib Dems – in fact I think it's a first. But the criticism of that party in the editorial in Monday’s Western Mail was wholly unfair; and that’s a second first in a single post – agreeing with Peter Black about anything.

This is not the first time that the Western Mail has attacked parties for making efforts to achieve a degree of gender balance in Welsh politics, but it is probably the first time that their leader writer has shown so clearly how little time he has for the notion that parties should be actively seeking the best people rather than sitting back and waiting for them to appear.

The Western Mail seems to think that ambition is the key attribute that we should be looking for in our politicans, and if women simply don’t have the ambition, then we should stick to the people - largely men - who do. On this point, I'm afraid that I have enormous sympathy with the standpoint of Billy Connolly, who once said that anyone who actually wanted to be a member of parliament should for that reason alone be automatically disqualified.

I don't particularly want our elected institutions to be stuffed with people (aka macho men) who are bursting with ambition. That’s exactly what we’ve had for generations, and look at where it’s got us. Ambition is not at all the same thing as ability - and an unkind person might even suggest that there's some evidence that the two can be mutually exclusive.

I want the most able and talented people; people who are willing to give of their ability and talents to serve the people who elect them, and to present alternative visions of how things can be, rather than just fight each other for the top jobs. And I want parties which are willing to go and look for those talents and abilities even amongst – no, especially amongst – groups of people in society who might be reluctant to put themselves forward.

Now, the Western Mail might argue that not all of the people whom we have elected, whether to the Assembly or to Parliament, or to the European Parliament, have the necessary talents and abilities to do the job. That’s a different argument entirely (although I am far from convinced that it’s a problem which applies solely, or even predominantly, to the female members of those institutions). If the people we have in our elected institutions are not the best or most able available – and I suspect that a lot of people might actually agree with that suggestion – then we should be asking ourselves why those able people are not interested, rather than simply making do with those who are.

That’s a real challenge for all of the parties.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Wigl he, or Wigl he not?

Along with just about everyone else, I had assumed that Dafydd Wigley was an absolute shoo-in for a peerage now that Plaid have changed their stance on the issue. But the more he talks himself up, the less certain that I become.

Yesterday’s Western Mail piece was, ostensibly, an indication that he was ready and willing to go (and was accompanied by the now customary paean of praise from his chief fan Martin Shipton). But he also seemed to be laying down some conditions - one of which is outside the control of his party, and the other is one that they may well be unwilling to agree to. Is he perhaps trying to give himself some Wigl(ey)-room to decline the ‘opportunity’ after all?

Firstly, he wants to go as part of a phalanx of new peers from both his own party and the Labour Party, and even goes so far as to suggest the people whom the Labour Party should nominate. There is no chance of his own party being able to deliver on this condition - and I cannot imagine that Labour will be overly ecstatic about having him tell them what to do either. (Hopefully, some of the more outspoken Labour members will leave it a day or two to calm down before responding to his friendly 'advice'.)

Secondly, he seems to want to become an ex-officio member of the party’s group in the National Assembly – a status which is currently not even granted to elected members of the Westminster parliament. Is this really about helping him to do a job in the Lords, or is it just a way of trying to get more influence over what his party's group are doing in Cardiff? I can really imagine Ieuan Wyn Jones welcoming this sort of potential interference in the Assembly group. Not.

So, when Wigley says that he would find it difficult to acept nomination if both conditions are not accepted, what is he trying to achieve?

I suspect that, in agreeing to nominate peers, Plaid may have crossed one bridge only to find a much tougher one in front of them. They want 'working' peers; people who will spend significant amounts of time in the House of Lords scrutinising Welsh legislation and attempting to table amendments; what they do not want is a few celebrities with titles (so I guess that weather presenters need not bother applying).

Despite the talk of the level of ‘allowances’ payable to peers, the job is not salaried like that of humble MP’s and AM’s, so the only people likely to be able to meet the party’s requirements are going to be those with another income and no real need to work. 'Retired' politicians fit the bill quite well (which is why there are so many of them in the place already), but they have always been in rather short supply within Plaid. Perhaps the would-be Lord Bontnewydd simply believes that his hand is so strong that his party can’t refuse him.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Defence of the Realm

Hopefully, the dust has settled enough by now to take a rather more objective view of the Plaid position paper on defence which was ‘leaked’ to the media before the party even had a chance to discuss it. The response by some was a little hysterical to say the least; one might almost think that challenging the basis on which defence policy should be built is another taboo subject.

As far as I can see there was nothing particularly new or radical in the paper; most of it seemed to be just repeating what Plaid had said over many years. In that context, my favourite response has to be that of Alun Davies AM - calling Jill Evans a 'nutter' for continuing to espouse a policy stance on which, as I recall, Davies himself fought elections in the past. Does that make him a lapsed nutter?

Anyway, I digress. There were really two aspects to what Evans wrote; the first was a restatement of the principles underpinning Plaid’s defence policy, and the second was a discussion of the Defence Training establishment at St Athans.

Plaid has a serious problem on the whole issue of defence, because they have to try and frame two different policies - one to deal with the way they would like to see an independent Wales behaving, and the other for the (what they would presumably see as interim) period until that point. Clashes and contradictions between these two policies are inevitable.

The soft option would be to frame only a very short term policy, and state that anything else is too far in the future to be worth even considering at this stage. It would avoid many of the contradictions, and enable the party to argue, perfectly naturally for a nationalist party, that Wales should have its fair share of military expenditure and jobs.

But that soft option would be a complete cop-out, and it is surely to the credit of Evans that she has been honest and open on the issue, and has stuck to her principles - something which so few politicians seem to be willing to do these days - rather than simply looking for a more populist position.

It is interesting that the responses all seemed to be attempting to ridicule Evans and her party rather than engage in serious debate. Neither Ireland nor Sweden, for instance (although both members of the EU) are part of NATO, and their miltary policies are geared largely to defence rather than offence – a position quite similar to what I understand that Evans was advocating. Anyone want to go to either of those countries and tell them that their defence policy is so utterly ludicrous that it doesn’t even merit serious debate? For a small independent country, it's a sensible position - surely there can be no great surprise that Plaid would come to similar conclusions.

But an independent Wales, if there is ever to be one, is far in the future; of more immediate significance, perhaps, is the issue of the Defence Training Academy at St Athans. Here we have a direct clash between the economic driver of getting more jobs and investment into the Welsh economy, and the deeply-held views of some people who oppose militarism. It was presented as a problem for Plaid. It certainly is; but it is also a problem for Labour. Perhaps Plaid's anti-militarist wing is more obvious, and stronger within that party, but the strength of similar feelings amongst many long-standing members of the Labour Party should not be underestimated either.

It is a mistake to turn this into a purely party political issue, with the different parties merely trying to score points. There are some serious questions to be answered about the extent to which we want jobs at any price. There are questions about the involvement of companies that are involved in the arms trade, and there are certainly questions to be asked about the training of soldiers for countries whose regimes use their military forces for internal oppression.

Evans and Plaid have raised legitimate concerns; they deserve to be debated, not dismissed. The suggestions, which some appeared to be making, that we cannot afford to even discuss these issues for fear of losing the jobs, or that to even ask such questions is somehow undermining ‘our boys’ is little more than an unworthy attempt to suppress an important debate.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Newspeak

It was entirely predictable that Local Government would face a tight financial settlement from the Assembly Government this year, and many did indeed predict it. The enthusiasm of the junior partner in the coalition for a tighter version of the approach which they condemned so strongly in the past was rather less predictable – the zeal of the convert, perhaps.

In any event, all across Wales, the officers and members of local authorities will be busy scratching their heads as to how they should impose the budget cuts – sorry, identify the efficiency savings - which are now being required of them.

Only the na├»ve or the deluded – and, of course, members of the Assembly Government – can really believe that there will be much in the nature of ‘efficiency’ in what happens. Efficiency, to me, has a very explicit meaning. Doing things more efficiently means achieving the same outcome by expending fewer resources. Yet in most cases, what will be under consideration is how to re-jig what is being done, rather than how it is being done, in order to save cost - not at all the same thing.

There are a few obvious targets, of course. One, which was mentioned, as part of what may happen, by Vaughan Roderick, is to leave jobs unfilled. This certainly avoids expenditure - but does it really improve efficiency? If the work of the post holder gets done by other staff working extra hours, then it's not a service cut as such, but it is a reduction in employment opportunities (aka job cut), and a worsening of employment conditions for the other staff. If the work doesn't get done at all, then it's a service cut. The only way in which it could be called an 'efficiency' saving is if the job contributed nothing in the first place.

Those even more cynical than I might argue that many jobs in Local Government do indeed contribute little or nothing – but that’s not the reality for service users. In practice, unfilled jobs tend to be experienced in terms of longer response times to all sorts of situations - waiting times for grant applications to be processed, delays before children at risk are seen and assessed, delays in processing housing benefit claims and so on. Service level cuts in all but name.

I am aware of some councils looking at reducing the standard of maintenance on buildings and parks. Cutting the grass less frequently may well be something worth doing anyway, but it’s not an ‘efficiency’ saving; it’s a revision of the specification of the service to be delivered.

Maintaining buildings less frequently is a harder case for them to argue; it may save money in the short term, but it stores up problems, and costs, for the longer term. Why else do we have such a backlog of repairs in our schools requiring such a high capital expenditure now to bring them up to standard? This is past ‘efficiency savings’, aka false economies, catching up with us.

There is, of course, nothing fundamentally wrong with the paymaster, in this case, the Assembly Government, telling the recipients of its largesse, in this case, Welsh local government, that they must manage on less money. It's a valid political decision to take, even if one with which some of us disagree. What I object to is the dishonesty of the presentation - trying to present a budget cut (bad) as efficiency savings (good) when you know that you’re actually going to be reducing the level of services or jobs, is just a form of newspeak.

UPDATE: In a line that I couldn't have made up, a spokesperson for the Vale of Glamorgan Council last week stated that school Christmas lunches would be minus the traditional trimmings, and described this as an 'efficiency saving'. I rest my case.

Out of sight, out of mind

Sadly, the need to earn one’s daily crust by working irregular hours and travelling sometimes makes it difficult to keep up to date, but I’m sort of back again now. Consistency and regularity is not a particularly strong characteristic of this blog. There are a few things that I've missed that I may find an opportunity to comment on sometime, although the world is unlikely to come to a halt if I don't. I've had no more leaked transcripts from the Heritage Bunker, though - security in the Senedd is obviously improving, even if HMRC seem to be having a few little local difficulties.

There is another tagged task doing the rounds, which Valleys Mam and Miss Wagstaff have both pointed at me, inter alia. I’m never entirely sure about these things – I always had a very strong aversion to chain letters as a child as well. Not only that, but I can’t find 8 things under most of the headings either; what a sad life I lead. So I’m afraid that I’m going to have to give that one a miss.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

From the Heritage Bunker (Episode 3)

Sir Humphrey: Minister, I’m delighted to be able to tell you that the lengthy and arduous negotiations with the Millennium Centre have been entirely successful.

Minister: Excellent news Sir Humphrey. How much are we giving them?

Sir Humphrey: £13.5 million now and an extra £2.5 million a year.

Minister: And how much did they ask for?

Sir Humphrey: £13.5 million now and an extra £2.5 million a year.

Minister: What was our initial offer?

Sir Humphrey: £13.5 million now and an extra £2.5 million a year.

Minister: That doesn't sound much like negotiation to me.

Bernard: Yes it is Minister. Negotiation is about discussions leading to an agreement or settlement. We’ve had discussions and have arrived at a settlement, so technically that's a negotiation.

Minister: Thank you Bernard. Which projects are going to suffer as a result?

Sir Humphrey: None of them, Minister. In fact, we’re going to be able to give extra money to everybody else as well.

Minister: But I thought you told me that this was a tight budget settlement? Isn’t that what we told the press as well? I can almost hear my opponents talking about smoke and mirrors already. Where’s all this extra money coming from?

Sir Humphrey: Well, yes, it is indeed a tight budget settlement. Very tight. Lots of belts will have to be tightened all round, but we’ve managed to get some significant extra money for this department this year despite that. And the initial payment of £13.5 million is being made from previous underspends on a range of other projects, so it's not new money at all.

Minister: So I can announce that I’ve saved the Centre from debt, secured its future, and I can still give extra money to everyone else. There are no losers?

Sir Humphrey: Relatively speaking, exactly so, Minister.

Minister: Relatively speaking?

Bernard: Well, Minister, you could have decided not to save the Millennium Centre, and then the money that you’re using to save it could have been put to other uses, so that the people who are getting extra money could have had extra extra money which they are now not going to get, which means that the amount of extra money that they are getting is less than it could have been so that they have lost some of the extra money but are still getting the rest of the extra money.

Minister: What?

Sir Humphrey: Nobody will notice that, Minister. They’ll all be jolly pleased at what an excellent job I, I mean you, have done in getting them extra money.

Minister: But we have secured the Centre’s future?

Sir Humphrey: Oh, yes, Minister. Well, until the next crisis anyway.

Minister: Next crisis? When will that be?

Sir Humphrey: Hard to say, Minister. It should take them at least a year or two to spend all the money we’ve given them before they start to run up new debts.

Bernard: But there will have been a cabinet re-shuffle by then.

Minister: I see. This pot of underspent money that we’re using – is there more?

Sir Humphrey: In what sense, Minister?

Minister: In the sense of pounds and pennies, cash in the bank, money that I can spend. Is there another sense to money?

Sir Humphrey: Well there are always underspends, Minister, otherwise how would any Government ever be able to find money to deal with an emergency like this. But they can only be used to deal with real emergencies. It would be most unwise to use them for anything else.

Minister: So how do I decide what is a real emergency?

Sir Humphrey: Most Ministers are happy to make that decision when they read about it in the papers, or hear about it on the television. That’s the traditional way of doing things.

Bernard: Usually after someone has leaked confidential information.

Minister: But there are some underspends which I haven't yet spent?

Sir Humphrey: Most probably, Minister, but we wouldn’t find them until we looked for them, and we wouldn’t start auditing the other projects looking for underspends until we knew that we needed the money to deal with an emergency.

Minister: So if, hypothetically, there were to be other underspends, we wouldn’t know about them until we looked for them, and we wouldn’t look for them until we needed them, and we wouldn’t need them until there was a crisis, and there wouldn’t be a crisis until I read about it in the papers?

Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Devolution Blues

There are times when I almost start to feel sorry for Glyn Davies. He really is trying very hard to sell the message that his party is becoming less hostile to further devolution, but it seems that every time he says anything, one or other of his colleagues opens his mouth, and undermines all his efforts.

This week, it’s been the turn of David Jones MP, aided and abetted by Stephen Crabbe MP, on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. They decided to challenge the first of the Assembly LCO’s to make it to London. The former objected on the basis that the Assembly was daring to ask for power to legislate in a specific area, without telling their masters in London exactly what they might do with the powers. The latter seemed concerned that the result would be that things might be different in Wales. The whole principle of LCO's, to say nothing of the Government of Wales Act 2006, seems to have completely passed them by.

People like Glyn can talk until they're blue in the face; but what Jones and Crabbe have proved, yet again, is that, on Devolution, the Tories as a party still simply don't get it.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Irregular Conjugations

It is surprising how quickly politicians can move from opposition mode to government mode, seamlessly adopting the foibles and failings which until so very recently they were forthright in condemning.

Thus it is that those who until May were so strong in their condemnation of 'spin' have already learnt that it is, in fact, an irregular verb, which is conjugated thus: "I give briefings", "You spin", "He tells whoppers”. I suppose this sort of Damascene conversion is inevitable, but the utter confidence with which they expect us to believe what they say having previously told us to disbelieve the same things when said by the other lot still confounds me.

The Assembly budget is a case in point – and involves another of those pesky irregular verbs. This time, it’s “I seek efficiency savings”, “You impose arbitrary budget cuts”, “He cuts jobs and services and increases council tax”.

Key to the whole budget is the £600 million of ‘efficiency savings’ which they are going to achieve by a ‘bonfire of inefficiencies’, according to Andrew Davies, the Finance Minister. The word ‘bonfire’ is a bad omen to start with; the last time an Assembly government tried to light a bonfire – under the quangos that time – they found that they had no matches, no kindling, the fire was wet, and it was pouring with rain. Much of what was supposed to be burned seems to be still standing. Not an auspicious precedent.

The question, of course, is how they are going to achieve these savings. The answer – although they haven’t admitted this – is that they haven’t a clue. But by cutting certain budgets and telling the budget holders that they must deliver the same level of services with reduced funding, they expect people to do as they say. In short, it’s nothing more than an entirely arbitrary round of budget cuts.

It looks as though the brunt of this is to be borne by Local Government, which has had its funding cut year on year on the same basis by the previous Assembly Government; the only difference being that Plaid then opposed it. I hesitate to put words into their mouths, but I suspect Plaid viewed it as an arbitrary way by which the Assembly government passed on any budgetary problems to local authorities whilst protecting its own spending. It’s different this time, of course; although I have yet to see a satisfactory explanation as to why it’s any different.

The Tories, as the main opposition, are unlikely to be able to do very much to expose this sham - after all, their manifesto for the Assembly elections said that they would fund their spending plans … by imposing an arbitrary ‘efficiency savings’ budget cut on all departments. They cannot disagree with the method, so they fall back on the simplistic – but not necessarily entirely wide of the mark – argument that if there are inefficiencies, it’s Labour that has introduced them, and therefore Labour cannot be trusted to identify and eliminate them.

The Government do, of course, have another old favourite as well – cutting out red tape. It sounds like an immediately obvious thing to do; after all, no-one wants unnecessary bureaucracy. But it looks to me like yet another of those difficult irregular verbs – "I cut red tape", "You repeal regulations", "He takes away workers rights and protection".

I am not arguing that there are no bureaucratic rules and regulations which are superfluous to requirements. But none of them were introduced without an apparent good reason at the time, and when 'business' in particular complains about red tape, they are often referring to those rules and regulations which prevent them either exploiting their work force or polluting the environment. (The Working Time Directive is one of their favourite targets.) Neither would I argue that we do not live in a risk-averse culture where some Health and Safety rules have been taken to excess – but almost all the rules which have been introduced are there in response to a particular occurrence or circumstance, and it would be a brave politician who tried to reform the system.

So, both ‘efficiency savings’ and ‘cutting red tape and duplication’ sound entirely logical and obvious – they are things that no-one could argue with. It’s what the Americans call motherhood and apple pie. Whether they can be delivered in a transparent and measurable way without cuts in services or jobs, council tax increases, or reduced protection for workers and the environment is something that I very much doubt.

PS - There is one other irregular verb to which I should refer here in all fairness – “I comment objectively”, “You criticise unfairly”, “He snipes incessantly from the sidelines”. It all depends on perspective, of course. And it underlines the point that people who expected us to believe them when they spoke from one perspective should not be at all surprised if we have difficulty believing them when they speak from the opposite perspective.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Frying Pans and Fires

A whole week after Hain’s little outburst, and the dust is settling nicely, after a fashion.

In his latest post on the subject, Normal Mouth argued that Labour need do nothing; and that by doing nothing, they would be calling Plaid’s bluff, since Plaid would not leave the coalition government—not yet, anyway. He’s right, of course, in saying that Plaid would find that they had nowhere to go - but that doesn't mean that it would have been a wise move by Labour.

Plaid are not yet ready to abandon the coalition, and will not do so unless and until they become convinced that Labour will not deliver. Last week’s incident is, however, the sort of thing which could hasten that day if allowed to pass without response. In the event, it looks as though someone in Labour has recognised the need for some soothing words, and Hain has issued a 'clarification'.

I suspect that it's not so much the detail of the clarification that will be important to Plaid as the fact that there is one, since that gives a degree of recognition to their concerns. And most important of all will be the implicit recognition that this is not the way to hold a discussion over the timing of the referendum.

Both parties need to become more aware of the internal pressures of the other, and refrain from this style of megaphone discussion. I tend to accept Normal Mouth's contention that Hain’s comments were never really aimed at anyone except his Labour colleagues. It was fundamentally a statement for internal consumption; but making it so publicly inevitably caused some to interpret it differently. The sooner the Convention is in place and this type of internal discussion within the Labour Party can be held in a more civilised (and less public) fashion the better.

Meanwhile, Nick Bourne seems to be trying to ensure that the route to the rainbow remains open - just in case. He misses the point completely. If Plaid's alliance with Labour were to come to a premature end, it would be because of Labour's failure to deliver on their own party’s policy of a legislative parliament. Why on earth would Plaid then jump straight into bed with a party which doesn’t support the idea of having such a parliament, and many of whose members would like to abolish the Assembly itself?

Of course, some would argue that they were close to doing precisely that just a few months ago, and that is true. But, and it’s a big but, the Bourne-Jones rainbow strategy depended entirely on bouncing both parties into a deal before the members of either really had an opportunity to consider the ramifications. So the Tories in the Assembly made their commitment to supporting a legislative parliament, and in their haste to form a government some of Plaid's leading figures accepted that on face value without even asking where the rest of the Tory Party stood.

And why not? After all, the other element of the strategy was that the Tories knew full well that, without Labour, there was no majority in the Assembly for a referendum, so their pledge would never have to be honoured or even tested. So Bourne bounced his AM's into making a meaningless pledge in return for a real share in government – hardly a major concession.

Things are very different now. The words of the Tories have been shown for what they were at the time – a complete sham. Crabbe and Davies have exposed the true views of the party on devolution; and for all that a brave soul such as Glyn Davies says and does, it is increasingly apparent that Crabbe and Davies are more in tune with the party’s membership. Bourne has been left isolated, with his party leader, the shadow secretary of state for Wales, and the rest of the party's AM's conspicuously declining to offer him any support at all. Bourne himself has even been forced to admit in his blog that his views are merely “some personal thoughts”.

Plaid return to the rainbow? I think not.