Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Sustainable spin

In my previous post, I referred to the statement by Ieuan Wyn Jones on the transport grant settlement. Normal Mouth picks up on the same issue, although dealing more with the substance of the issue than the spin.

The idea put forward by Normal Mouth that the burden of reducing CO2 emissions should fall more heavily on the richest parts of the UK – even to the extent of off-setting any increases which are necessary to secure the development of the less well-off areas is an interesting one. It is, ultimately, a form of redistribution of wealth within the UK. It's an honest position to take, and a valid one, as long as the offsets actually occur.

And there’s the rub; with the UK and Welsh governments clearly well adrift from their targets for CO2 reductions, I simply don’t believe that the political will is likely to be forthcoming for the South East of England (which is the area that would ultimately have to pay the price) to take on the additional CO2 reductions which would be needed, or that they would hapen in the same timescales, such that there would be no overall net increase at any point in time. I find myself, therefore, closer to the position of FoE, which is that we have to seize every opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint, and not shy away from the consequences of those decisions.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that rail can displace road, in a Welsh context, to the extent that FoE might wish – Normal Mouth makes some telling points on that issue. But fundamentally, the stance taken by FoE seems to me also to be an honest and valid one.

What is neither honest nor valid is to place the economic development needs higher than the environmental ones, with no attempt to negotiate corresponding additional CO2 cuts elsewhere, and then spin that as being something which it is not, i.e. an environmentally sound decision. Yet that is precisely what the Assembly government, and the deputy first minister in particular, have tried to do.

I said in my previous post that ‘green’ is a word with more than one meaning – so is ‘sustainable’. At its basest, politicians seem to interpret it as meaning nothing more than ‘whatever we can get away with’. As long as they believe that spin meets that definition, they will continue to use it.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

'Green' has more than one meaning

Friends of the Earth Cymru have today attacked Plaid’s Deputy First Minister over his announcements on transport spending, accusing him of “greenwash”, and acting contrary to Plaid policies. Nice word, but I think FoE are rather missing the point. The Western Mail’s editorial comes closer to the real point in my view, with its suggestion that the Minister is re-announcing money which has already been announced at least once in the past.

The latter practice is one to which we have become accustomed under Labour since 1997; it has become standard practice for government ministers - and mostly, they seem to get away with it. In answer to the opening sentence of the Western Mail’s editorial (“Perhaps it was naïve to assume the One Wales administration in Cardiff Bay would be above the kind of statistical sleight-of-hand that have (sic) characterised spending announcements over recent years”), I can only say, “Yes, it was. Very”.

And that’s why FoE have somewhat missed the point (although I don’t disagree with the substance of the concerns that FoE have about the announcements from an environmental perspective) in the way that they have attacked the Deputy First Minister and his party over the announcement. It betrays the same sort of naivety; the same underlying belief that with Plaid ministers something would somehow be different. Why on earth would anyone expect that?

The government is still led by the same people who led it prior to last May; government policy has, in practice, changed little. The same civil servants are still providing the same advice; and ministers rarely go against the advice that their ‘experts’ give them. The ministers claim that it is they who make the decisions; and most of their announcements are peppered with the ‘I’ word. But few, if any, decisions are in any way at variance with the advice that the ministers are given; ‘decision-making’ can often be a rather illusory concept. It takes a very brave minister to take a decision at odds with ‘expert’ advice, and the words 'brave' and 'minister' are not words which I would often use in the same sentence.

So the government carries on doing what it was doing before, and producing the same old justifications; the opposition carries on disagreeing. One party has switched from opposition to government, that's all. Had the rainbow ever come to pass, all four parties would have ‘swapped sides'; but the government would still have continued to make largely the same decisions - and the opposition would have largely continued to argue against them.

(This isn’t just a Welsh phenomenon – look at the way the Tories in London are today displaying their outrage at post office closures - just like Labour did when the Tories were closing thousands of post offices, and using many of the same arguments).

Cynical? Yes, of course. But it's what people in general see when they look at politics, and is one of the reasons for believing that 'they're all the same'. Does it have to be this way? No, it doesn't. But change, real change, depends on having a government which has a real vision, and the determination to make things happen rather than simply a lust for power. For that, we are still waiting.

Management speak has it that ‘the perfect should never be the enemy of the good’, and that's true as far as it goes. But the ‘bad’ doesn’t become the ‘good’ just because a different bunch of people are in charge. One would have to be pretty green to swallow that one.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

What percentage is the brain?

With the decision on the pay rise for our AMs now apparently done and dusted, I’m not sure that I'd award any of the parties any prizes for their behaviour; the best that I can come up with is an honourable mention for (most of) Plaid.

Firstly, the Tories. There was something distinctly unedifying about the man who is probably the wealthiest member of the Assembly (and despite almost nine years as a member, one of the least well-known) leading the charge. Speaking on behalf of a party which has opposed and obstructed the transfer of powers to Wales at every stage, here he was demanding that the 'extra powers' which most of his party have fought so hard to prevent should now be reflected in extra pay for himself and his colleagues.

Secondly the Lib Dems. If they had anything meaningful or original to say, other than ‘give us the money’, then I’m afraid that I must have blinked at the time. They have been no more relevant or visible on this issue than on any other.

Labour have mostly managed to avoid saying anything very much, which was probably a wise move. Letting Alun Davies loose on the matter was a good deal less wise. Rather than attempting any serious attempt at justification of the decision, he resorted to attacking Plaid members for being unable to face up to the ‘difficult decisions’ of being in government. Really? Serious business, this governing, obviously. Having to take major decisions like increasing your own pay – it’s really tough on them isn’t it? How to lose an argument in one easy lesson.

Lastly Plaid. An honourable mention for a degree of consistency. In a previous post, I referred to refusing the rise as ‘gesture politics’, but they seem to have ultimately had little real choice. I haven’t really changed my mind, but from their perspective, having presented evidence to the review body arguing that no rise was necessary, and then having voted against the rise, quietly accepting it would have looked like sheer hypocrisy. Damned if they do; damned if they don’t. So why only an honourable mention?

Three main reasons.

Firstly, because it ended up looking as though some of them were at best reluctant participants in declining the rise, and two seem still to have opted out. In addition, taking the money and giving it to charity sounds well-meaning, but in practice, unless done carefully, it means that 50% of the money gets paid straight back to Mr Darling in tax and NI. It also leaves an easy option for quietly taking the money in a year or two's time.

Secondly, because their opposition seems to have been as much about timing as about the principle. One is left believing that many of them would be quite happy to take the money if only the timing had only been a little better.

All of the parties seem to be obsessed with the idea that their pay should in some way be related to that of MPs, and this whole debacle has been about whether an AM is worth 76.5% of an MP, or 82%. Bandying numbers like that around makes it sound as though there is some clever science and arithmetic behind the equation; but it’s ultimately an entirely subjective judgement.

Yes, but that 5.5% is very important, they seem to be saying. They’re doing more, and MPs are doing less, so the differential should be less. (The obvious question is the one which so many have asked, which is why, if MPs are doing less, the rise for AMs is not compensated by a cut for MPs – I haven’t heard a sensible answer to that question yet.)

But there are also 1.5 AM’s for every MP – 60 compared to 40; and if Richard’s recommendations had been taken up and implemented (which I think they should have been, by the way), the ratio would have been 2:1. Where does that factor into the 82% equation? If there were more AMs to do all this extra work, would that mean a salary cut?

We need to get away from an essentially irrelevant comparison with members of another legislature; stop looking over our shoulders at what’s happening elsewhere, and decide what’s right in a Welsh context for Welsh legislators. Their status and esteem depends not on being a few percent closer to being a ‘proper legislator’ in London, but on what they do and are seen to do here in Wales.

And that brings me to the third reason why I give Plaid no more than an honourable mention. If there is one party which should be prepared to forget comparisons with London, and have the confidence to look only at what is right for Wales, it should be Plaid.

And another thing…

I understand how the Western Mail can refer to the need to attract people of higher calibre to become AMs, but when AMs themselves start to use the argument...

If an AM says “We need to attract people of a higher calibre” isn’t (s)he effectively saying, “I know we’re not up to the job, but we’re the best you can get for this sort of money”? And if that is so, then there is a fairly obvious corollary - if an increase is needed at all, it can safely be deferred until the next Assembly elections, because that’s when better people need to be attracted to stand, not before.

The converse is that we would be paying more to the members who make such statements - and paying more to people who have admitted that they are not up to the job doesn't seem to me to be sending them quite the right message.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Setting the rate for the job

To misquote someone very wise, if the answer is to pay politicians more, it must be a very strange question.

The furore over the inflation-busting increase for AMs was inevitable, and completely predictable; but that is true whenever politicians vote themselves a pay rise, and however large the rise. They knew what the response would be, and decided to go ahead anyway. Blowing the political froth away for a moment, is there a justification?

The two arguments put forward are firstly that AMs are now working harder because the Assembly has more powers, and secondly that there is a need to attract a better quality of AM; both arguments which the Western Mail editorial rehearses eloquently this morning. Do they stand up to scrutiny?

Certainly, the Assembly has more powers now, and is likely to be gaining more as more LCOs are passed, and that in turn means that the Assembly as a whole has more responsibility. But the changed situation under the latest Act also sees a clearer split between the Executive and the Legislature under which it is at least possible to argue that back-bench AMs actually have less influence now than they did previously.

Are they working ‘harder’? I don’t know how those of us outside the institution can ever properly judge that. Much of the work they do, in representing their constituents, is largely unseen by most of us (and likely to be extremely variable between the best and the worst as well). It is probably unfair (although entirely natural) for us to judge their performance solely on the basis of what we see them do in plenary sessions. But it would help their case not insignificantly if people could see that they were actually debating sensibly instead of playing silly games.

I am convinced that increasing the number of AM’s to 80 to deal with the changed situation, as recommended by Richard, is a sensible way forward. Presumably those who argue that they need an increase for working harder now would then accept a decrease as the workload was shared amongst a higher number?

Will paying them more attract a better standard of AM? I see little basis for supporting this argument. The brightest and best in Welsh society can still earn far more in other occupations, and are unlikely to be attracted to become politicians solely on the basis of the money. Although there is a potential argument that some may be deterred by low pay, I just don’t see the argument that high pay will attract them. In any event, do we really want people who are there because they can earn more by being an AM than they could in any other walk of life? (Although those even more cynical than I might argue that we already have a number of those - and still would have even if the pay was halved).

More importantly, how exactly does the electoral process ensure that able people win anyway? Some constituencies are so safe for one or other party that the proverbial donkey would still win, no matter how many able people the other parties in the same seat may put up. ‘Ability’ is only a criterion (and not necessarily the one which determines the outcome at that) in internal party selections; the elections themselves are more to do with tribalism.

We do need a way of fixing the pay of our politicians which doesn’t involve them in having to vote on their own pay. But having fixed it once, why not then link all increases to the average increase in public sector pay, so that they gain from – or lose by – the increases which other public sector workers receive?

PS – some are suggesting that, if Plaid AM's are opposed to the rise, they should refuse to accept it. I have my doubts about this. In the first place, it seems to turn a general issue about politicians' pay into a more personalised one, and in the second place, it looks like gesture politics. Some MPs have in the past refused to accept increases, but I wonder how long that refusal lasts in practice before they quietly accept the rise. Gesture politics is no substitute for a proper resolution to the issue.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Does size matter

If I understand the Welsh Tories correctly, they're against devolving power over some aspects of housing to Wales because they think that the Assembly might use the powers in ways which the Tories would not support. In this particular case, the bone of contention appears to be the badly misnamed 'Right to Buy', which they are afraid Wales might abolish given her own way.

I wonder if they would be consistent, however. If the so-called Right to Buy had already been abolished in England, and there was a chance of re-introducing it in Wales, would they still oppose the devolution of the relevant powers? Somehow, I doubt it.

Opposing the transfer of powers because they might not like the outcome appears at first to be just another confirmation that they simply don't 'get' devolution, but there is a serious point here, which they might be in danger of stumbling on, even if only by accident. How do we decide which issues should or should not be devolved?

The responses of the two extremes on the national question are obvious. For those who oppose devolution, the answer is nothing; for the nationalists, it’s everything. It’s so easy for them to answer, because they both start with a fixed idea about the ‘right’ unit for government. But I find neither response to be particularly enlightening - and I have a question for each.

To those who believe that it is vital that certain areas of policy should remain with the larger unit, for the sake of strength and consistency, I would ask, ‘So why aren’t you proposing transferring those powers to Brussels?” Surely, if consistency and scale are so important, differences between the UK and France are as intolerable and unnecessary as differences between England and Wales?

And to those who believe that everything should be devolved to the smaller unit, I would ask, “So would you be happy to devolve the decision to Ynys Môn?” If local decision making and democracy is so important, why should things have to be the same across Wales?

I tend to start from a ‘localist’ viewpoint, and my personal disappointment with devolution to date is that there seems to be a centralising tendency within Wales, rather than any real effort to empower local communities and counties. My presumption would always be for taking decisions at as local a level as possible, and involving people in them as far as possible; but how to decide which cannot or should not be taken locally?

On pragmatic grounds, I don’t think it would be helpful to go back to the pre-railway times when Cardiff and Newport could set their own clocks for instance. Neither does it seem to me to make a lot of sense to allow different counties in Wales to decide on which side of the road people should drive – although the UK opt-out from most of the rest of the world on this one doesn’t seem terribly logical either. Those are obvious examples where consistency is important for purely practical reasons, but not all issues are as black and white as this.

The second problem with devolving as much as possible to the lowest levels is how you achieve a fair distribution of resources. There can surely be no real question that, the bigger the unit, the more resources it potentially has at its disposal, and the more it can do to switch resources from the wealthiest to the poorest. I’ve always felt this (the idea of a fairer distribution of wealth) to be one of the strongest potential arguments against devolving power downwards. (It does not, of course, follow that having the ‘power’ to do something means that it always gets done effectively, or even at all, and that is one reason why the argument does not stand up as strongly as it could).

The other problem with local decision-taking is that it might lead to decisions with which I don't agree - and this is where the Tories have stumbled on a point which worries me. One of the greatest and most courageous decisions taken by the UK Parliament was the abolition of the death penalty. Yet, I am fairly confident that, if this decision was given to the people to take, we would not only still have the death penalty, we would probably reinstitute flogging as well. So what if, in devolving maximum power to the lowest possible level, some areas/nations/ countries (delete according to prejudice) end up taking decisions which I would find completely unacceptable? That is, surely, precisely the point which the Tories are raising.

I don’t know what the answer to my question is – but I am absolutely convinced that it’s not the one that the Tories seem to be pursuing, which is that you should not trust people to take their own decisions unless you are certain that they will take the ‘right’ ones. Devolving decision-making closer to the people can sometimes be a difficult road to follow, but that doesn’t make it the wrong road.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Missing words round

According to David Cornock:

A Church of England Bishop told the MPs that it's "entirely unreasonable"
that some patients on either side of the Wales/England border face longer
waiting times for treatment.

Anthony Priddis, the Bishop of Hereford, said people should be treated
equally wherever they live. "I think from where we are, it is entirely
unreasonable that there should be that difference of treatment according to
where people live and waiting lists, and we would want to see a much greater
equality for people whichever side of the border they live.”

Sounds obvious at first, but suppose it had been the Bishop of Cracow comparing services along the border between Germany and Poland. Or the Bishop of Dover, comparing services at each end of the Channel Tunnel. Would it still sound so reasonable and obvious?

I do not argue for, or attempt to justify, lengthy waiting times, of course. Long waiting times are always unacceptable, whether in Radnor, Cracow or Dover. And all those charged with reducing them can study and learn from the success of others, even if there may be reasons, sometimes even good ones, why some of the approaches used in one place do not necessarily transfer to another. But to argue that there should never be differences seems a little absurd to me.

I suspect that, in reality, the good bishop simply missed out two words from what he said, namely “in Britain”. It's part of a mindset, shared by many, which hasn't really got to grips with the idea of devolved administrations setting their own, and sometimes different, priorities.