Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Lobbying and Transparency Bill

A few months ago the Coalition Gov't brought forward a bill to fulfill its promise to control lobbyists and introduce more transparency into government. I thought there were major improvements needed, and I arranged meetings with the Leader of the House, Andrew Lansley who is responsible for taking this Bill through Parliament. Today we reached the stage where the House of Commons were  considering amendments made to the Bill in the House of Lords. Those we overturn will be sent back to the Lords for more consideration before coming back to the Commons. This process in known as 'ping-pong'. This post lays out where we are and how we got there. I have written it because there has been a orchestrated campaign pressurising MPs to abandon the Bill. Though its written as my take on it, I accept that its also written from a Coalition Gov't standpoint.

Its important for democracy that campaigning in elections is transparent and properly accounted for. Fundamentally, this Bill contains reforms to bring greater transparency and accountability to the political system. The measures in the Bill do not affect organisations who do not seek directly to influence the outcome of elections.

During its passage through the Commons, the Gov't made many concesions to meet the concerns of MPs on all sides. The bill sent to the Lords was much changed. In addition, during passage through the Lords Government made amendments which address the concerns raised about the potential impact of the Bill and existing rules on non-party campaigning at elections. These changes have been welcomed by charities and other groups.

Fundamental to the amendments was the raising of the registration rates to £20,000 for England and £10,000 in each of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This will effectively exempt most campaigning groups and charities who are either small or undertake limited political campaigning from the requirement to register as a third party, and the associated reporting requirements that entails.

Other key Government amendments to which the House agreed were:

• Increasing the spending limits in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from the levels originally set out in the Bill, giving an uplift of £20,000 to each nation.

• Removing all burdens from low-spending participants in a campaigning coalition by allowing larger campaigners to provide a single report on their behalf.

• Removing the requirement for a return, or a nil return, in relation to spending returns, donations reports and statement of accounts, if a recognised third party has not spent above the registration threshold.

• A review of the effects of the provisions of Part 2 to report following the 2015 UK Parliamentary General Election, to ensure the regulatory system remains effective and proportionate.

• Reducing the length of the 2014/2015 regulated period for non-party campaigning. It will now commence the day after the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September 2014.

• An exemption for the costs of translating material from and into Welsh, and for campaign costs relating to disability and security.

My view is that the Lobbying and Transparency Bill is now much better than it was, and that a lot of my concerns have been met. On balance I am now willing to support it. The Bill does not prevent third parties from campaigning, but it does require that they be upfront about their spending, and not be allowed to overwhelm and outspend candidates and parties.

It remains the case that there remain some constituents that disagree with me, and I'm sorry about that, particularly bearing in mind the work I've put in. I do have to add that some of the tactics employed by an organisation named 38 Degrees have been extremely non transparent and have not been at all helpful to anyone. I sense that the Bill has now reached its final form, and will go as it is foward to Royal Assent.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hayley's Suicide and the Policy Context.

I wrote this yesterday, hoping a national newspaper would pick up on it. I the event, the Telegraph ran an article and rang me for quotes. I thought it was quite a decent article so thought I'd post it.

'Let sick Brits die like Hayley'. So read the headline in The Sun a few days ago, referring of course to the suicide of the soap opera character Hayley Cropper in ITV's Coronation Street. What was meant by this, of course, is that Parliament should legalise what is being called 'assisted dying' - the phrase that has become code for assisted suicide. 

There have been concerns expressed over copycat suicides. I share these concerns. However, I am also worried that Hayley's suicide is being depicted as a response to terminal illness. That risks sending a message to people who really are terminally ill that to take your own life might be 'the decent thing to do'. At a time when we have an ageing population and rising health care costs, is this really a message we want to send? 

 The 'Corrie' storyline is about an act of suicide. Predictably, however, the campaigners are jumping on the bandwagon to try and bolster their own agenda, which is legalisation of assisted suicide. Law-making is a serious business. It has to be, because laws have consequences. They can bring benefits, but they can also do harm. It's one thing to say you like the idea of 'assisted dying' but, if you are talking about legislating for it, you have to consider the practicalities. And it is here where the campaigning falls flat. 

Take, for example, Lord Falconer's 'Assisted Dying Bill', now before the House of Lords. It sets out various criteria that a request for physician-assisted suicide should meet. But nowhere does it specify any steps that a doctor who is faced with such a request must take in order to be satisfied that those criteria have been met. Don't worry about that, we are told, it will all be decided by other people at a later date if Parliament agrees to legalise assisted suicide. I'm sorry, but this just won't do. When I buy a used car, I want to see the MoT certificate and the service history before I pay up, not after. 

We are not talking about tax law or planning law or traffic regulations here. We are talking about a law with (literally) life-or-death consequences. For such a law the safeguards debate cannot be by-passed. If the supporters of assisted suicide are so sure that their ideas can be put into practice without causing harm, let them come out and show us their safety system upfront. If Parliament were ever to consider passing such a law, it would need to be very tightly drawn. What has been served up to us so far is about as watertight as a colander. 

It's also about time that all the euphemisms were jettisoned and the campaigners start using plain language about what they are proposing. MSP Margo MacDonald, who has introduced a bill of this kind into the Scottish parliament, is refreshingly upfront about what she wants to legalise: her bill is titled the 'Assisted Suicide (Scotland)' Bill. Yet south of the border Lord Falconer hides behind the term 'assisted dying' and describes the lethal drugs that he wants doctors to be able to supply to patients as 'medicines'. In legislation with such potentially serious consequences we need clarity and transparency, not language bubble-wrapped to disguise its real meaning. 

And it's about time too that the campaigners summoned up the courage to bring their proposals to the elected House rather than, as has been the case up to now, to the House of Lords. Most of the debate over the last 10 years has been in the Upper House. A year ago Richard Ottaway MP secured a debate in the House on one aspect of this subject - prosecuting policy in cases of assisted suicide. Richard and I take different views on whether the law should be changed, but I supported his action and I participated, along with many others, in what was a very worthwhile debate. It is the Commons where any future bill should first be considered. 

This is a complex and difficult subject on which we need open and informed public debate. But that isn't what is happening. What we are getting is spin and sensationalism, not rational discussion. So let's have an end to the euphemistic language and asking Parliament to sign blank cheques. If the campaigners want Parliament to take them seriously, let them say what they mean in plain language and tell us how it will work. Only in that way can we take informed decisions.

A Politically Correct Christmas Poem

First time I have visited my blog for many weeks. I did post this in draft. Forgot about it, until visited now to post the article I wrote on last night's Corrie suicide story. I heard this read by Rod Liddle at the Spectator Christmas Carol service. Rod gave me a copy afterwards. Thought I may as well post it.

T'was the night before Christmas and Santa's a wreck... How to live in a world that's politically correct? His workers no longer would answer to "Elves". "Vertically Challenged" they were calling themselves. And labour conditions at the North pole Were alleged by the union to stifle the soul. 

Four reindeer had vanished, without much propriety, Released to the wilds by the Humane Society. And equal employment had made it quite clear That Santa had better not use just reindeer. So Dancer and Donner, Comet and Cupid Were replaced with four pigs, and you know that looked stupid! 

The runners had been removed from his sleigh; The ruts were termed dangerous by the E.P.A. And people had started to call for the cops When they heard sled noises on their rooftops. Smoke from his pipe had his workers quite frightened. His fur trimmed red suit was called "Unenlightened." 

And to show toy the strangeness of life's ebbs and flows, Rudolf was suing over unauthorised use of his nose And had gone on the One Show in front of the nation, Demanding millions in over-due compensation. So, half of the reindeer were gone; and his wife, Who suddenly said she'd enough of this life, 

Joined a self-help group, packed, and left in a whiz, Demanding from now on her title was Ms. And as for the gifts, why, he'd never had a notion That making a choice could cause so much commotion. Nothing of leather, nothing of fur, Which mean nothing for him. And nothing for her. 

Nothing that night be construed to pollute. Nothing to aim, Nothing to shoot. Nothing that clamored or made lots of noise. Nothing for just girls, or just for the boys. Nothing that claimed to be gender specific. Nothing that's warlike or non-pacifistic. 

No candy or sweets...they were bad for the tooth. Nothing that seemed to embellish the truth. And fairy tales, while not yet forbidden, Were like Ken and Barbie, better off hidden. For they raised the hackles of those psychological Who claimed the only good gift was one ecological. 

No baseball, no football...someone could get hurt; Besides, playing sports exposed kids to dirt. Dolls were said to be sexist, and should be passe; And Nintendo would rot your entire brain away. So Santa just stood there, disheveled, perplexed; He just could not figure out what to do next. 

He tried to be merry, tried to be gay, Hut you've got to be careful with that word today. His sack was quite empty, limp to the ground; Nothing fully acceptable was to be found. Something special was needed, a gift that he might Give to all without angering the left or the right. 

A gift that would satisfy, with no indecision, Each group of people, every religion; Every ethnicity, every hue, Everyone, everywhere...even you. So here is that gift, it's price beyond worth... May you and your loved ones, enjoy peace on Earth.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Times and devolution to Wales - Sept 1969.

Clearing out an old cellar space today and came upon a yellowed copy of The Times from September 16th 1969. A most interesting read. Two front page stories. First there's reports of an EEC summit conference to be held shortly in The Hague to consider terms of UK membership. Bill Cash MP is not quoted. Second story is about Whitehall greeting figures which demonstate that export-led expansion of the economy is finally underway. Amazingly, no politician of any sort is quoted. In Sept 1969, they would all have been enjoying their 4 month recess around the Med or in the West Indies. And then there's a photograph of Liberal Leader, the beautifully besuited Jeremy Thorpe with two handsome young men in swimming trucks on Brighton beach, chatting before a two day Liberal conference on constitutional reform. I promise you I have not made up a single word of this. So over to page 2, and what do we have here. A report about the interests of Wales not being properly represented at Westminster. Sir Goronwy Daniel, a man of fame when I first entered public life, insists that the interests of Wales are not being neglected. Sir Goronwy is of the view that at present the Welsh Office and the Secretary of State are well able to exercise considerable influence on the 'Whitehall and Westminster Gov't'. (No need for too much of this devolution nonsense perhaps). Sir Goronwy accepts the possibility of change and that the Welsh Office could be ready in a year or two to take over functions such as education, Home Office matters and agriculture. Wonder what Home Office matters he had in mind. But he is concerned that too much work would mean that the Secretary of State would not be able to cope, which in turn will mean a danger of Wales being increasingly governed by civil servants. He goes on to say that a reform of local governmnet is needed to reduce numbers of councils and councillors. Rest of report is about Lord Ogmore, a Labour MP who became a Liberal peer advocating a Welsh Assembly with extensive powers. Plaid Cymru are to outline its view tomorrow. What strikes me as interesting is how little has changed in 44 years!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Last Word on EU Referendum til 2017

Shared an interview with Peter Hain on Radio Wales' Sunday Supplement this morning. Not sure what reach the programme has, but its my favorite to appear on. Vaughan Roderick, a sort of Radio Wales Paxman without the sneer is most knowledgeable journalist I know in Wales. Always asks the one question you dont want him to - and very politely which makes it worse. Anyway, this morning's discussion was most odd. I couldn't for the life of me understand what Peter Hain was on about. Now Peter is a serious politician to tangle with. Crafty as they come, and been around a long time. So I was waiting for the 'killer line' - which never came. Seems he was demanding that David Cameron does pretty well what David Cameron has said he's going to do. The subject under discussion was an EU Referendum (again) - a subject designed to drive readers away from any blog that opens discussion about it. But its taking up so much Parliamentary time, and exercising some of my colleagues to such an extent, that I should set out what I think about where we have come from, where we are and where we are going - at least as far as I'm able to. It will be this blog's last word until 2017. I have always tended towards the Eurosceptic - driven by libertarian and anti-statist instincts. In 1975, after developing in YFC confidence to speak in public, I campaigned a bit for the 'Out' side. When the debate at that referendum started out, my side thought we could win, but as the campaign wore on, we were soundly trounced - an experience that some current politicians would do well to note! Today, I sense that the people feel that the EU interferes more than it should in matters that are properly affairs of the nation state. I also feel that the people of the UK want another referendum to establish whether they wish to remain members of the EU. It also seems to me that politicians across the EU are realising that Europe is losing competetiveness with other parts of the world. You might even say losing ground in the 'Global Race'. David Cameron seems to take the same view, and has developed a pragmatic policy to address all of these issues. In his Bloomberg speech last January, the Prime Minister announced that if he were to be elected as leader of a Conservative Gov't in 2015, he would immediately open discussion with our EU partners about what changes could be made. I suspect some EU leaders, notably Angela Merkel share some of the Cameron concerns. And then when we know what the result of all this discussion is, the British people will have their referendum in late 2017. Personally, the Bloomberg speech was good enough for me. I was happy to leave it at that. But not for all my colleagues. Some of them want to legislate in an effort to bind any future Gov't to holding a referendum in 2017. Its this which is swallowing up MPs time, and making meaningful engagement with constituents almost impossible. 3 Fridays at Westminster in November. Sometimes I do reflect how much easier it would be to be a Lib Dem MP. Sometimes, I'm aked which way I will vote in 2017. How on earth do I know. It depends what the negotiations produce. If there were to be no change at all, I could well vote to leave the EU. If there were to be substantive change I could well vote to stay in. There is absolutely no point whatsoever in being committed to a renogatiation with a closed mind. It would be good if this were to be my last word on this subject. It is my intention. But EU discussion is a bit like Bruce Forsyth - keeps coming back week after week.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Silk Part One and All That

Last week, the Prime Minister came to Wales with a veritable bag of Halloween 'goodies'. Firstly, and I put this first because its received nothing like the coverage it merits, is the next Nato Summit coming to Newport in Sept 2014. This is huge for Wales. President Obama walking in the steps of Tiger Woods at Celtic Manor will be beamed across the world. Biggest opportunity for Welsh tourism and recognition since...Ryder Cup. Now I don't expect an invite to the Summit, and no doubt the Welsh Gov't will put on some associated hospitality, but I do hope Welsh MPs, Welsh tourism and Welsh business are in on the act as well. Now the other package of announcements (which pushed the Nato Summit off the Welsh front pages) was what we can describe as an initial response to the Silk Report Part 1. This may well mean nothing whatsoever to you! In essence its about how Wales should be governed in the future - how devolution develops. Paul Silk was asked to produce the Report by the Secretary of State for Wales. It was published a year ago and the response had been long anticipated. Generally to be welcomed (by me anyway) but there remain uncertainties. A full response to the Report will follow in due course. But PM told us that Stamp Duty Land Tax and Landfill Tax are to be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales (as recommended). The Aggregates Levy and Air Passenger Duty are not. Upshot of this is that the Welsh Gov't will now have capacity to raise taxes for the first time. The Welsh Govt will also be able to borrow money, but I am a bit uncertain about what's involved here. My understanding is that some old existing WDA powers are being used to facilitate this. My understanding is also that its only proposed that the borrowing powers can be used for M4 and A55 inprovements. Also I'm not sure whether the tax raising capacity is actually needed to cover the borrowing if existing powers are being used, or if they are whether they are sufficient to finance what will be in excess of a £billion of investment. If its using powers already in existance, and limiting it to what UK Govt approves, not sure how much of a constitutional change this actually is. All will be revealed in due course. The biggie is devolution of income tax - as already happens in Scotland. The position is that legislation will be introduced at Westminster, giving the National Assembly for Wales the power to call a referendum on devolving to the Welsh Government the responsibility for levying half of our income tax bills, together with the power to vary the rate. There seems a view by many that the Silk Commission recommendation that this power to vary should apply to each tax band separately is what's envisaged. I do not believe this is what the Prime Minister said. As in Scotland, its only the power to vary the tax rate across the board. So bang goes the campaigning opportunity for Welsh Conservatives to promise a cut in 40p rate at Assembly Election, a real opportunity to sell Wales as an attractive place to move to. Such a promise in Wales would be wholly financially positive. Again all will be revealed in due course. Anyway, the Labour Party hate the idea of the Welsh Gov't becoming financially accountable. So easy just to blame Westminster Gov't for everything. The co-ordinated message coming out of the First Minister's office and the Shadow Sec of State for Wales is 'no income tax powers til the Barnett Formula is reformed' - in other words 'No Thanks'. Next step is the official response to the Silk Report Part 1 - which seems likely to be tied up with the 'Wales Bill' promised in the Queen's Speech. There is no doubt that the Coalition Gov't moved the devolution process on last week, especially with the granting of borrowing powers. But there's still a bit of water to flow under the bridge until we can be sure where it will lead. All will be revealed in due course.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Leonardo Glyn Martinez Davies

This day a fourth grandchild was delivered unto Glyn and Bobbie Davies, named Leo. His mother Zulma is an proud as punch and Leo looks at home in his big new world after a tough journey into it. Like all families there are problems to be faced, but today belongs to Zulma, Pat and Leo.