Thursday, April 30, 2009

'Expenses' Confusion.

I am bemused. Can anyone tell me what our Members of Parliament have resolved this afternoon regarding their expenses. Its clear that the Prime Minister's 'YouTube' idea of introducing a clocking-on payment has been dropped - another day, another humiliation for Gordon Brown. But what else? My understanding is that the first resolution carried by MPs was not to take any decision until Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee has reported. To any normal person that would have been it, But no. MPs then went on to resolve that anyone living within 20 miles of Big Ben, as a pigeon flies, cannot claim the higher 'second home allowance'. They also resolved that details of any secondary employment should be made public. And they resolved that the House of Commons be responsible for employing every MP's staff. These motions seem a touch contradictory to me - unless today's resolutions apply only until Sir Christopher reports in a few months time. This does look utterly shambolic to the outsider looking in.

We are told that the reason Gordon Brown has been so keen to agree something on this issue is that one million receipts are to be made public in a few weeks time. And that this is going to be incendiary, with resignations and even by-elections. There are all sorts of rumours relating to multiple televisions, aircraft flights, health insurance and inventive ways of benefiting from the second homes allowance. In passing I'll share with you an extract of the views of Montgomeryshire's MP on this issue. Only conclusion that I can draw is that he's taking a special interest in farmers. Now why would that be?

" Let that body determine whether there should be regional weighting or not - probably not, otherwise we should have a regional variation minimum wage. Also if people are required to do time sheets, then where exactly does this end? Raising children is time consuming - should this not be recorded? What about farmers? Why isn't voluntary work included - or is it? What about church commitments? Etc. Etc......"

I see that some of the media are not reporting this as the humiliation for the Prime Minister that it so clearly is. Perhaps they thought that his Gurkha's defeat yesterday, plus the way some European leaders have been humiliating him this week was enough. There cannot be anything more demeaning to a Prime Minister than to be defeated on a Lib Dem motion - so congratulations to Nick Clegg and his MPs. It was nice to see him and David Cameron working well together in support of an important principle. For once I was going to congratulate my Montgomeryshire MP, but I'm told he wasn't there to vote or join in what was a great victory for decency. Pity that.

Its no big deal anyway.

Attended an Institute of Welsh Affairs Conference in Wrexham last night. Under discussion was the future of health care in Wales. The event was sponsored by the European Care Group, an international care provider with which I have an involvement. Despite there being a poor attendance (and one of the three speakers being silenced by an equipment failure), it turned out to be useful for me - not so much for what it told me about health care, but for what it told me about the impact (or not) that would arise from the granting of law making powers to the National Assembly for Wales. This was the second time this week that the changes, when properly understood, are seen to be much less significant than is generally supposed. This view is also the basis of an article published in today's Western Mail here written by David Williamson following some whinging by Cymru Yfory.

First time was on Monday, at my poorly attended meeting in Llanfyllin where I tried to engage the interest on the public in 'How we govern Wales'. I noted the change in the expression on the face of a 'devosceptic' in the audience (if 6 can be termed an audience!) when he realised than the move to law making power does not devolve power over any new policy area.

Last night it was Jon Wyn Owen's turn. He's a former head of the NHS in Wales, among a clutch of other things. The core theme of his presentation was that Wales needs a new Public Health Act. I've heard him make this case before. I asked him whether such an act could be passed under the current devolved powers, which he conceded it could not. But when I asked if it could if the Assembly were to be granted full law making powers, he responded with a 'It wouldn't make much difference' comment. A Wales Public Health Act could only be framed and enacted, if both the UK Parliament and the National Assembly worked together on it. I do keep on trying to make the point that governing Wales is as much a concern for Westminster as it is for the Assembly - and will carry on being so.

Am off to the Cardiff now. Amongst other things, I will be talking to the BBC in the Senedd about how devolution has developed over the last 10 years.. But have to be back in Montgomery by 7.30 for another of my meetings about 'How Wales is Governed'. I hope someone turns up!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In Office but not in Power

I was struck by the similarity of several stories in today's Telegraph. "Jaquie Smith, the Home Secretary, yesterday scrapped plans for a national computer database" and "Jack Straw yesterday shelved plans to build three 'Titan' super jails" and "Gordon Brown was last night forced to drop controversial proposals to introduce a daily 'attendance allowance' for MPs who turn up in Parliament". It really does look as if the current Labour Government have lost the ability to put any of its announcements into effect. I suppose that's what happens when a Government makes policy announcements for the purposes of winning headlines rather than for improving the lot of the British people. Its no surprise that I've met no-one who believes a word of what Alistair Darling said in his budget speech last week.

And by the way, did any of you see Liam Byrne making himself look ridiculous on Newsnight tonight, when he tried to defend Gordon Brown's position on the 'expenses' fiasco - following Sir George Young's casual final scuppering of the PM's loopy proposals. Labour continue to be in office, but they can no longer be said to be in power.

You can have too much pleasure

Noise pollution is a curse of our age. Chain saws, low flying aeroplanes, wind turbines, snoring wives, boomer monkeys etc. etc.. But the long suffering people of Sunderland have had to cope with the excessive exclamations of pleasure emitted by Caroline Cartwright when she is having sex. OK, so its probably something of a moving experience to overhear this sort of activity as a one-off. But things became so bad in Caroline's street that on April 17th, the magistrates of Sunderland decided to protect the people of all England by slapping a four year ASBO on her to keep the noise down. But it seems that she can't help herself, and on April 18th, April 22nd and April 26th (at least Caroline's locked into a regular 4-day pattern) she screamed with such enthusiasm that the magistrates decided to lock her up. Thank goodness the Telegraph is back to running totally daft stories.

Giant Bowel on display in Cardiff

Hayley emailed me today, inviting me to what really must be the most unusual event of the year in Cardiff tomorrow morning. I am distraught that I cannot attend. Oh, how I would like to have been there. She tells me that an 11 metre colon is to be unveiled outside Cardiff Central Fire Station. The Fire Service has been recruited to inflate it. My first thought was that the giant colon should have been attached to the big vent above the National Assembly Debating Chamber. It would have been fully inflated in minutes if it coincided with First Minister's Questions.

You may well ask what this is all about. Well, its six months since the Bowel Cancer Screening Programme was launched for 60-70 year olds in Wales, and inflating an 11 metre colon must have seemed an eye catching way to mark the occasion. I'm in Cardiff on Thursday, and I hope that the contents of the colon will not have been expelled. A few weeks ago, I underwent a colonoscopy, without anaesthetic, and so know exactly what a colon looks like. I'd like to check it out. Wonder what sort of props a testicular cancer screening programme would have used.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Aled was right.

I hate it when I'm wrong. I'm blogging late because I'll be tossing and turning in my bed tonight, as I search the recesses of my mind for the silver lining which will soothe my suffering. What makes it doubly painful is that my association Chairman, Aled predicted exactly what would happen. To be fair he had the good grace not to gloat. But here, in the privacy of my office, as midnight approaches, I can admit to myself that I feel dejected.

The problem is that I have this consuming interest in 'How Wales is Governed'. I've briefed myself on the issue to a high standard, and like all obsessives, want to enthuse others to share my interest. So over recent days I have been delivering invitations to the people of Llanfyllin to join me for a discussion of this most fascinating of subjects in their Town Institute earlier tonight. I can only describe the turnout as meagre - not in quality, but in quantity. I'd hoped for at least twenty. I'd been looking forwards to chiding Aled, who had predicted that very few people would leave the comfort of their homes to hear me outline how Wales is currently governed, and what moving from part three to part four of the Government of Wales Act would mean for us all. I do so hate it when I'm wrong.

But tomorrow I must rise up like a phoenix from this pit of dejection, and set about the people of Montgomery - stuffing invitations through their letterboxes. Perhaps they will come rushing out from their houses in droves on Thursday evening to engage with me in a lively debate about the complexities inherent in Legislative Competence Orders. Oh how I would enjoy such a miracle. How I would enjoy telephoning Aled on some other unconnected matter, and nonchalantly making reference to a room full to the gunnels of people desperate to listen to me, and to a discussion, both scintillating and uplifting for all. Oh please let it be.

Another Prime Ministerial Blunder

Our Prime Minister has made a total fool of himself, and he went to the trouble of putting it on YouTube - so everyone can view his humiliation again and again, just as I might listen to a Springstein CD over and over. A few weeks ago he was determined to allow the Parliamentary watchdog, Sir Christoper Kelly to conduct a review of MP's expenses, despite the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties wanting a response to the public disquiet about this issue dealt with more quickly. Last week, completely out of the blue, he starred in his own comic film, announcing that the 'second homes allowance' would be replaced by an 'attendance allowance' - and it would be voted on this week. I happened to be watching the TV with Mrs D when I first heard about this. Told her immediately "No chance. The public will go bananas if MPs pay themselves for just turning up. And anyway, his own MPs won't have it. He's made a total a*** of himself."

Today, he's withdrawn his proposal, and asked Sir Christopher Kelly to bring forward his report on expenses and allowances before MPs break up for their summer hols. Sir Christopher responded immediately, telling our Prime Minister to shut it and wait - in diplomatic language of course. A bit like the way Blackadder treated Baldrick. He'll produce his report when he's studied the evidence and considered the issue properly. The only reason this should not be seen as a humiliation of our Prime Minister by Sir Christopher is that Gordon Brown beat him to it. A truly spectacular self-humiliation.

Now why do you think Gordon Brown is so desperate to have a 'solution' before the recess. Could it be to limit the flak that's going to be flying when MP's receipts for expenses are published - probably on the last day before the recess, when MP's will be safely away from Westminster and the probing questions of the media. I don't know what Gordon Brown knows about what's coming, but all that his machinations to create a smokescreen will have done is sharpen the pencils of the press.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Man made for Opposition.

I know that many Welsh people see Rhodri Morgan as a 'towering figure' in Welsh politics. I don't agree. Yes, he's been very successful in gaining and holding office, and he's remained a very popular figure down the 'Dog and Duck'. But that's because he is extremely able, with a truly remarkable capacity to hold information, an appealing turn of phrase, and a razor sharp wit. But for all these qualities, I've never seen him as a 'leader' or 'a man of vision' in the way Ron Davies or Dafydd Elis Thomas would have been as First Minister. Wales current First Minsiter has always been a man very good at 'opposition'. And that's why devolution has delivered a declining GDP (or GVA if you prefer) compared with the rest of the UK. Its why devolution has not moved forwards as was expected. We have not had a leader as First Minister.

Now I wouldn't have written any of this, if Rhodri Morgan had not used up most of his speech to his Party Conference this weekend as an attack on the 'Tories'. Someone really should tell him that Labour have been in Government at Westminster for over twelve years. So many times I sat in the Debating Chamber of the National Assembly listening to him banging on about the Tories delivering high unemployment in the early eighties - as Margaret Thatcher fought manfully to restore the British economy after the last time a Labour Government had demolished it. He'll probably be saying the same sort of thing if and when the next Conservative Government is fighting to restore the British economy from its near destruction by Gordon Brown. Most current predictions are that unemployment will rise beyond the level it was in the early eighties, by the time Labour leave office - if they manage to hang on until next June.

This is what the BBC report him as saying today. "It is one of the disgraces of these past few weeks and months to see David Cameron and George Osborne traipsing from TV studio to TV studio without once giving a straight answer to a straight question". It beggars belief. We have just witnessed probably the most dishonest budget speech in history by a Labour Chancellor, (probably written by the Prime Minister) and each week we learn of new depths to which the Labour Government has driven the British economy - and he attacks the Conservatives about straight answers.

And on and on he went - attacking the 'Tories' for having a "hidden agenda" to cut public services. Has Rhodri Morgan not understood a word of the budget speech. Does he not realise that 'efficiency savings' are Labour-speak for cuts. And did he not notice the announcement about cutting back the increase in spending to 0.7%, which must mean real reductions, because budgets such as the social security budget are going to continue to grow. And Rhodri Morgan must know (because he is a clever man) that most of Alistair Darling's predictions were such fantasy that its simply not possible to have an agenda more hidden than Labour's.

None of this would be so bad if he wasn't himself inflicting such damage on his own party and on Wales by remaining in office after he's gone into semi-retirement. He's a lame duck First Minister. And nobody in the Welsh Labour Party has got the gonads to tell him to go. Rhodri Morgan is a man who made his name in 'opposition' at Westminster, who led economically unsuccessful Governments while prattling on about 'clear red water' to establish a perception of 'opposition' to New Labour, and has just delivered his farewell speech to his Welsh Labour Conference by reverting to 'opposition' against a Conservative Government that has not yet been elected to office. He is a man truly cast for the role of 'opposition'.

Late April Colour

There is no better shrub in any garden in late April than the Pieris. Our star specimen is a 15 foot tall Pieris forestii which will not be at its best for another week - so I've left this treat for your pleasure next weekend. This one is one of the dozens of new varieties that litter garden centres today. We grow a few of them, and keep the best, and this is the best. Its offers really nice variegation even when the bracts are not showing colour. A Pieris does like a good rich soil - even if it will survive almost anywhere. The little yellow plant in the background is a dwarf doronicum.

We grow several rhododendrons. One was featured on this blog last weekend, and there will be another next weekend. This variety is not particularly striking as a shrub, but it does carry brilliant individual blooms. Its still a young plant, but so far the downside is that there are not many blooms. Perhaps it will improve with age. But this one bloom has made it worth growing in my book.

And my third offering today is one of the Azaleas. We grow the deciduous varieties mostly, but I'm really taken with this one, which I bought for a fiver in an end-of-season sale. We've been around the Derwen Garden Centre today, and there were some super examples of this type of Azalea. Didn't buy because they were not showing full colour yet, and I want to know exactly what colour I'm buying.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bullock goes shopping

My first reaction to this entertaining BBC video, was that it wasn't a bull. It was a bullock. If it had been a bull, we would have noticed testicles dangling as he departed the shop. Not that it makes a lot of difference whether there are testicles included, if half a ton of beef runs into you! It was a lucky escape for those in the shop. Large bovine animals can be very dangerous creatures, though in this case I think any damage inflicted on humans would have been accidental. Its also terribly embarrassing for the farmer. Around 25 years ago, I was unloading bullocks at Welshpool Livestock Market when one of them just 'lost it' and escaped. I was sitting on my backside, having been flattened, as I watched in disappear up Mill Lane in the direction of the town centre. Found him next day. Someone had seen him emerging from the big culvert which runs under the town and carries the Lledan Brook, jump over a gate and a couple of hedges before coming to a standstill, eyes wild and nostrils flaring. He was as quiet as a lamb when I collected him after allowing him a day or two to settle down.

Sometimes bovine animals do 'turn', and resort to violence. With bulls, its usually to do with the sexual urge, while with females it normally concerns protection of their offspring. I remember my father being gored by a mad cow, when he entered a small 'kit' (a word for a shed that we never hear today) soon after she'd 'calved'. He survived only because two of us happened to be in the yard and heard the noise of battle. I also recall moving a cow and calf out into the fields, when I was hit from behind and was tossed through the air like a doll - very lucky to land on my feet and be well positioned to run for it. Over the years, many farmers have been killed by angry bovines. But this Irish bullock was just confused and frightened, and meant no harm. I must say the Irish farmer did not show much courage in the face of the enemy though. I wonder what happened afterwards. The animal was probably shot by the Garda, but there's me, taking the humour out of the story by the injection of cold realism.

How does he get away with it?

Too much on yesterday to blog, so catching up this morning, before heading down to a Parkinson's Disease Coffee Morning in Welshpool - and then on to a public exhibition by SP Power at Kerry of their amended proposals to construct a 20 mile long 132kv transmission line through beautiful Montgomeryshire to carry power from the Llandinam wind farm to the Grid. Spent the morning with the Ladies Committee of the Conservative Party in Wales, the afternoon at a meeting of the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust, and the evening at a meeting in the Black Boy, called by the 5 Councillors who represent Newtown on Powys County Council to discuss the future of the town. I like Newtown, despite my orientation being more Welshpool. Mrs D, who is a Welshpool girl reckons its only a politician who can claim to like both towns. There's the local rivalry you always find between neighbouring towns and villages. Its friendly, but real.

But to get to the point of this post. In attendance last night were Montgomeryshire's Assembly Member, Mick Bates and our MP. When the latter was speaking, I thought to myself "How does he get away with it?" I'll explain. During the day I had read this blog post written by the BBC's Vaughan Roderick. Its written in Welsh, but the bits that count are in English. Its the latest offering from the political columnist of that soft porn newspaper, the Daily Sport.

Now if I shut my eyes and contemplate, I can just about imagine the reaction from the media if I wrote an article for a national newspaper which referred to the French as 'frogs'. The telephones of the offices of David Cameron and Cheryl Gillan would have been buzzing as the media were asking for comments on this 'unacceptable slur' by a Parliamentary candidate upon the French nation. Believe me, its happened. But if you are a Lib Dem MP, it seems you can get away with it. But everything he said at last night's meeting was sensible, with no references to national stereotyping.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Efficiency Failings

Lots of fuss about reductions in the budget of the National Assembly for Wales today, as a consequence of yesterday's budget. Impetus for this was a statement from the Welsh Local Government Association suggesting that parts of the Coalition Government in the National Assembly's programme for Government are no longer affordable. Anyway, Nia (or Mia) rang me and invited me to be a guest on Taro Post again today to talk about it. I was on with the unique and wonderful Mrs Gwenda Thomas AM (Labour), Hywel Williams MP (Plaid) and Aled Roberts (Lib Dem). Never done so much Welsh Language radio as over the last two days. Its very good for my language skills, but things do go wrong.

Before I head off to the studio for a Welsh Language interview, I usually check with my chunky pocket-sized Welsh Dictionary and come up with some new words to use for the first time. Today it was 'effaithlonrwydd' (efficiency), 'siomedigaethau' (disappointments) and 'hygredydd' (credibility). First time I spoke of 'efficiency' as in savings, I got the 'lon' and the 'rwydd' the wrong way round and said 'effaithrwyddlon'. Appropriately, I was saying that efficiency savings are not easy to achieve (or say!). Whenever I begin to get cocky about my Welsh, this sort of thing brings me back down to earth with a thump.

Felt quite naggy with Dylan today. He scoffed dismissively when I said the Chancellor's future growth figures for the economy were not credible. I said 'ddim yn hygregol', not knowing for sure that this was correct. I pointed out with some vigour that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling are probably the only people on the planet who believe the figures are credible. The budget was so awful that I find it as easy to demolish in Welsh as to demolish it in English.

Putting the 'Ceiliog' in Corn Flakes.

If I have two or four hours to spare, and the weather's OK, I like to deliver leaflets around a Montgomeryshire village - and there are lots of them. If there's between 100 and 300 letter boxes, I'm quite happy to do it on my own. Tonight, I leafleted the entire village of Penybontfawr, famous for its male voice choir and for the ladies of the village who stripped off (very tastefully) for a charity calender. I still recall a lady named Kim, completely starkers, livening up one of the pages of the Montgomeryshire County Times. It came as a great shock to CT readers, almost as much of a shock as last week, when there was a photograph on page 2 of a naked football supporter doing a handstand, without a stitch on except for what looked like a large sock dangling over his penis. It had the effect of making him look like an aroused horse. Anyway, I delivered to every house in Penybonyfawr tonight with eager anticipation - but all the ladies and gentlemen I met were very properly attired.

One of the pleasures is that I usually hear of some new fascinating snippet of knowledge. Tonight it was about the famous Welsh harpist, Nansi Richards Jones. There was a plaque on the wall of one of the houses in Penybontfawr, recording that it was her home. The only personal connection I have with Welsh harpists (that I know of) is that the famous Sian James and I are of the same family, 'Y Jamsiaid'. But back to Nansi, and the interesting snippet of information. She spent a lot of time in America, and became very friendly with Mr Kellogg - and it was she that suggested to him that he should adorn the boxes of his new product, Corn Flakes, with a cockerel. There were several reasons behind this suggestion. Firstly of course, the cockerel is very much a creature of the dawn, and by extension, the breakfast. But the 'killer connection' was that the Welsh word for cockerel is 'Ceiliog' which sounds very much like 'Kellogg' when pronounced in that part of America - and Nansi was a dedicated Welsh speaker, as are so many others in Penybontfawr today. Its clear that if she hadn't been such a wonderful harpist, she could have made her fortune as a 'marketing executive'.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Today's Dishonest Budget

I'd been planning a lie-in this morning at the Randolph in Oxford, but Rhodri from Post Cynta rang me late yesterday afternoon inviting me to share with Gary Owen my thoughts on the budget. The BBC laid on a taxi to collect me at 7.30 and convey me to the studios of BBC Oxford. Incidentally, I had to find my own way back, and it cost me £6.50 - if you happen to read this Rhodri! But to what I wanted to see in the budget. Firstly I was hoping for honesty about the financial hole that the UK has been dropped in. And secondly, I wanted the Chancellor to outline 'a credible plan' outlining how the UK economy was to brought back under some sort of control.

Now it would not do justice to my response to the budget, simply to say that it failed to satisfy my hopes. I believe that today's budget was so awful that it demonstrated the unfitness of both Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown to hold the offices that they hold. The borrowing figures were worse than any one could have expected - £175 billion in 2009/10. More money is being borrowed in the next two years than has been borrowed in every other budget in history added together. A total of £700 billion is to be borrowed over the next five years. No, its not a typo - it really is £700 billion. And incredible as these figures are, they are based on a rapid and huge recovery in the British economy, beginning in this financial year, and growing by 1.25 next year. It is then expected that the British economy will grow by a whopping 3.5% every year thereafter - almost double trend growth. Darling and Brown (plus the lackeys who parrot whatever instruction that the Prime Minister issues to them) may be the only humans on this planet who believe this. Today, the International Monetary Fund made it clear that its opinion is as different from the Labour Government's as a carrot is from a discus.

So it's not a credible budget. To be honest I hadn't expected it to be - neither credible nor honest. And there was no credible plan. To be blunt, I thought the budget was a disgrace. I'm not going to comment much on the new 50% tax rate, except that its introduction has nothing to do with raising revenue, and everything to do with squalid posturing for political purposes. Its purpose is to divert attention from the horror of today's budget.

The elephant in the room that's being ignored is cutting the size of the state. Alistair Darling did make a start today by reducing the rate of increase they had been previously been promising. Its clear that there is going to be significant reductions in public spending by the Treasury - and this will flow down to all tiers of Government. First indications are that the National Assembly for Wales will have to operate on a lot less money, and will pass a lot of this on to local government. Just because there's a reluctance to talk about precisely where cuts will be made, it doesn't mean that they are not going to have to be made. I do think that the public are ready to accept cuts in public spending. But its going to be a tough time for all politicians over the next few years.

Using 'Allowances' as a Smokescreen.

Back at my keyboard after two days absence. Important things have been happening. I feel a desire to post. Yesterday I joined a discussion group at Green Templeton College, Oxford, led by Gordon Willcock, the founding chair of the Alzheimer's Society. The subject under discussion was England's National Dementia Strategy. Mrs D came along as well, (to Oxford that is) and we stayed overnight at the Randolph, a fine old hotel smack in the centre of the town/city? and made internationally famous by Inspector Morse. But Chatham House rules apply, so I must post about something other than the discussion. So why not the Prime Minister's quite extraordinary stunt yesterday, when he announced, via a short video, that the 'second homes' allowance would be replaced by a payment to MPs just for turning up to work.

This was extraordinary for several reasons. Firstly, because it was announced on the day before the budget. I cannot remember anything similar happening before. Whether true or not, it looked like a stunt to divert attention from what my party was describing as a 'Day of Reckoning' for the Chancellor. My immediate reaction was that the PM's proposal would not be approved by MPs. He would be humiliated - and not because MPs are a greedy lot of self servers. But because its a thoroughly bad, bad idea. I've been in the house when MPs have turned up and intervened in the first ten minutes, (with an intervention unrelated to the speech being intervened on) simply to register presence before slipping off for the day. The intervention would then be written up as a press release for consumption in the constituency, while the MP sloped off to earn extra money elsewhere. This sort of behavior would probably increase. With an 'attendance allowance', the only difference will be that there will be no need to bother with the intervention.

And what will the public think of it. MPs (already well paid in the public's eye), will be receiving a juicy little bonus - just for turning up for work. I cannot believe that either David Cameron or Nick Clegg will be comfortable supporting this - and neither do I see some Labour MPs accepting it either. It would be political suicide for them. And that's the other thing about yesterday's 'video announcement'. Just a few days ago, the Prime Minister was refusing to discuss the issue with opposition party leaders at all, insisting on awaiting the report that has been commissioned into allowances in general. Without informing anyone he just announced it. When will this man begin to operate like a Prime Minister, and not like a signed up member of the Damian McBride School of Spin. Answer is an anagram of 'verne'. Actually, I support the idea of the party leaders thrashing something out now. The boil needs lancing, before it poisons the system any more. But why on earth don't we just ensure that all payments to MPs are made on the basis of receipts, require that all those receipts plus details of the living arrangements be made public, and if the total cost is too much simply cut back the allowance claimable to a level that is acceptable.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Budget

Last week the only British political issue of major significance was smear-gate. The reason that it grabbed and then dominated the headlines was that it resonated with how so many British people think Gordon Brown operates. The Prime Minister might have thought he could isolate himself from association with the unpleasantness that flowed from the 'black' culture he himself has always encouraged. But that was not how it turned out. And that's because the British people are not so daft. It was a question of credibility.

This week, the only British political issue is going to be the budget. The biggest challenge facing the Chancellor on Wednesday, is again one of credibility - persuading the British people to believe what he says. He starts at a great disadvantage, because of his incredible predictions when he delivered last November's Pre-budget Report. No-one believed what he said at the time, and his predictions, as expected, turned out to be fantasy. Let us recap on these predictions.

A year ago, the Chancellor, predicted that the Government would need to borrow £38 billion to balance the books in 2009/10. That was not believed. And the last November he increased this figure to £118 billion, a figure calculated on the utterly ridiculous basis that Britain would exit recession in July. No-one believed that either. This week he is expected to increase his prediction of public borrowing in 2009/10 to well over £150 million - and that does not include the many billions put at risk through the bailouts of the banks. These are figures way beyond anything we could ever have imagined. It means that Britain will exit the recession (at some stage) with a truly massive mountain of debt. Rucksackfuls of debt have been loaded onto the backs of our children. Its a gluttonous extravaganza of irresponsibility and greed by one generation at the expense of the next. This dreadful Government has enveloped the current generation which elected it in a collective shroud of shame.

If the 'leaks' are to be believed and the Chancellor intends to base his 'route map' out of this mess, and into some sort of balanced budget, sometime in the next decade on the basis of 'cuts' in bureaucracy and administration, and tax increases which kick in after the next election, he will not be believed. He will be mocked and he will be derided. And he will deserve it. Usually, when the Chancellor sits down at the end of his budget speech, attention immediately turns to studio analysts as they begin calculating how many pounds better off or worse off particular groups are. This year a higher proportion of these listeners will want to hear the Conservative's response. But the most important aspect of it all will be whether what the Chancellor says is believable.

Mr Osprey has his mate.

You've got to hand it to the Ospreys. They didn't waste much time getting re-acquainted. No messing around with foreplay or anything like that. They haven't met for best part of a year and they're at it like knives within two hours. This might seem a bit hasty by human standards, but its fantastic news for we bird lovers in Wales. It really does look as if all the hard work has paid off.

It was a bit of a gamble to build a special nest site for the pair of Osprey which visited the Dyfi briefly last year, hoping they would return and breed this year. I posted when the nest was built, and when the male bird arrived, and today we have consummation. It does look as if the gamble has come off. Hats off to the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Standing up to the red rose.


Today, we attended a luncheon in the Wynnstay Hotel in Oswestry - the other side of Offa's dyke. Should note that the Wynnstay became a four star hotel this week - so congratulations. Now you might wonder what this has to do with a photograph of the tie I wore. Well, the luncheon was to celebrate St George's Day, and as one of the very few non English present I felt I should try to make a provocative statement. All the other men wore a red rose. I've always thought of Oswestry as almost part of Wales anyway, and the organisers of the luncheon must have warm feelings towards the Celts, because the guest speaker was a Cornishman. One speaker made what I thought was rather a good joke about today's menu when he referred to his concern after reading that he was expected ' to enjoy roast beef and pea soup' on the invitation. He said he knew how to enjoy roast beef but.......

Plant of the day



Rhododendrons come in lots of shapes and sizes. This yakushimanum (usually shortened to 'yak') is one of the best we have. Its early, compact and consistent. And the red is strong and brilliant. Its a slow grower, as most of the yaks are, and has reached about 4' high and about 6' across. Its probably about 10 years old. And what's best about it is that it was a friends cast-off, so it did not cost anything. The splash of yellow behind is a very old fashioned herbaceous plant we've always given space to - the doronicum. It flowers profusely every April, and though the stems are long and thin, they stand up well in whatever weather is thrown at it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

'Confidence' betrayed.

Another Powys County Council post. A while back, I was told that a 'confidential' letter had been dispatched from the Powys Independent Group to Liberal Democrat Councillors on the Council. But I decided not to blog about it, because I was told that it was strictly 'confidential'. But a Lib Dem blogger, David Peter has put the contents of this confidential letter in the public domain here. The gist of it is that the Liberal Democrats are being asked if they would like to form a 'coalition' with the Powys Independents - firstly, to change the structure of the Council, and secondly, to form a governing 'Cabinet'. The aim seems to be to remove the Conservatives and the Montgomeryshire Independent Group from any positions of influence within the Council.

At present, Powys County Council is run by an Executive Management Committee, formed in the most bizarre way. Its 15 members are chosen on the basis of how many seats each 'group' holds, and the Council 'leader' is chosen by the largest group. The effect of this means that there is no formal 'opposition' at all within the Council, (which is why genuine 'scrutiny' is so important). It also means that the Council's 'leader' can be chosen by no more than a small minority of Councillors. I'm told he gets naggy when this is pointed out - but it happens to be the truth. So happens that I, personally agree with this change, even if I don't believe the Conservative Councillors do.

I say this to disabuse David Peter of his misguided notion that I have influence over the Conservative Group. Truth is David that the Conservative Group have a lot more influence over me than I do over them. And that is exactly how it should be, particularly on issues that concern local government matters. Anyway, I was disappointed to see a letter so clearly marked 'Confidential' appearing on a political blog. You really can't trust anyone today to keep a secret.

Friday, April 17, 2009

All aboard the Countess.


Spent the afternoon indulging in that unmatchable pleasure available only to Taids and Grans. Mrs D and I took little Ffion for a ride on the 'Countess'. First photograph is of her pulling into Castle Caereinion Station on the Welshpool to Llanfair Light Railway. We were the only passengers who embarked at this little used stop, though there were already lots of passengers already on board, having embarked at Welshpool. I'd thought that Ffion (18 months) is too young to enjoy a ride on a train. Very wrong. She was running up and down , communicating with everyone on the train - just like a politician on the stump. At present Ffion lives in Cork, but in about a year's time she's coming back to Berriew to live. If she's back before the General Election is called, she's could be a wonderful asset!

Anyway here she is - the little campaigner. One look from those eyes, and the votes will be in the bag. At Llanfair Station there is a teashop which serves as a refreshing waiting room while the 'Countess' is refuelled, ready for the return journey to Welshpool. Outside the Station Teashop door there's this little train which eats 20p and bucks gently like a lazy horse. I know this little train rather well. My own taid, who farmed further up the Banw Valley, used to send livestock to Welshpool Livestock Market on what was known as the 'Puffing Ginnie'. And for many years I competed in the 'Race against the Train' an 8 mile run along the road from Llanfair to Welshpool. Never quite managed to beat it, but came close. I remember being alongside the train, until losing ground on the long slope down to the finish. Didn't enjoy losing year after year, but Ffion, Taid and Gran all enjoyed themselves today.

The most despicable allowance of all.

Now, my friend Willy knows just how to rile me. He's an expert at riling people. It comes with having spent a lifetime in the legal trade. Normally it takes a lot to stir my hackles or disturb my composure, but Willy managed it today. He called because he needed to use my computer, and casually dropped on my desk a copy of a promotional leaflet he'd received in the post from our Liberal Democrat MP today. I'll probably get mine on Monday. It was very polished. I knew it had been produced professionally, because the usual grammatical and spelling mistakes were missing. See - you can tell my hackles are rising again as I type out these words. "Its very good he said". "And you bl***y well paid for it" I responded with undisguised fury. "Look at the bottom - it'll say its been paid for from his 'Communications Allowance'. This is the most reprehensible allowance that has ever been available to politicians in Britain. 'Communication' my backside. Its straight forward use of taxpayer's money for the personal 'political' promotion of incumbent MPs. In my opinion its worse than any of the inventive ways that have been found to make the 'second home allowance' fit the rules, or anything ever bought from the John Lewis list. This allowance disfigures and pollutes our democratic system as well as wastes taxpayer's money. There's no way I could ever use such an allowance. It should be banned.

Now this is not in any way a criticism of my MP. Its entirely within the rules. MPs of all parties, including my own use it. Its all completely above board and above reproach, because its what this despicable allowance was created to do. Its purpose is to produce lovely glossy, professionally designed 'brochures' explaining what a fabulous job every sitting MP is doing - all at the public's expense. Why doesn't Guido Fawkes lead a campaign against it? I need to go and lie down for a while to recover.

Now that's what I call a raffle prize.

I read in today's Telegraph that Hilary Clinton is raffling off a day with her husband and ex-President, Bill Clinton. Must be her way of bringing a little pleasure into his life, now that she's so busy in her new role as US Secretary of State. There is no reference to any restrictions on what activities the 'day' might comprise of. Bill and the winner will have to work out a plan. I wonder how many raffle tickets Monica Lewinski has bought. Or perhaps manufacturers of Cuban cigars will buy thousands of tickets - hoping to win an appearance by Bill in a promotional video called something like 'How to make the most of your Havana'. Daresay I'm being unfair to the former President, but he'll never live down his reputation for inappropriate 'enjoyment' of ladies company. One of William Hague's best anecdotes concerned the responses given by 100 American women, chosen at random, when they were asked if they would be willing to sleep with Bill Clinton. 20 said yes, 20 said no, and 60 said "never again". I think William thought of that one himself.


I suppose the ex-President could be slowing down a bit though, now that he's becoming something of an elder statesman. Happens to the best. When he was 82, and not too long after a knee replacement, the late Clement Freud said "When recently propositioned by a woman to "come upstairs and make love", I had to explain it was a case of one or the other. That was in today's Telegraph as well.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Openness and Transparency - or lack of.

Edna's Mopbucket, a good friend of mine who does a bit of itinerant cleaning has been on the phone. She's been browsing through the minutes of the last meeting of the Management Board of Powys County Council. After reading the first page, she flew into a panic. Her first words were "They're going to come for me. Please make sure my kids are looked after." Told her to calm down and said I'd look into it. Must admit that it does sound a bit sinister though. "Members expressed concern that matters which had been discussed in confidential session at the last meeting had been reported on a political blog. The Chair advised that he had raised this with the Acting Chief Executive who was considering how to address it " I wonder what plans the Acting CEO is going to come up with to investigate and punish her. Whatever, it makes no difference because they'll never find her. She's off to the Bolivian jungle for a holiday of indeterminate length.

Edna was comparing herself with Damian Green, who was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Crown Prosecution service today. She kept going on about "Damian and I " being targeted for highlighting information that was already in circulation outside of 'the secret circle' of those who were supposed to be in the know, and which was in the public interest anyway. Told her not to worry. The only reason that a 'Police State' mentality ever takes hold is when people are taking notice of what you say.

While she was on Edna told me a really funny story (not funny for taxpayers though) about costs incurred by Powys Council when buying new refuse collection vehicles. It seems that a while back, the Council decided to by several second hand vehicles, because they were such low mileage that they looked a bargain. But turned out that they had been used in the middle of London, and while the mileage was low, the hydraulic mechanisms were completely done for and had to be replaced. Yes you've guessed it. The cost of the refurbished second hand vehicles was much higher than the brand new price. I just said that there was no way this could be true. No-one would be that daft. Told her I wasn't going to do anything for the media about this because I didn't know the full facts or whether the information was 'confidential'. Don't want the Crown Prosecution Service coming after me.

During our little chat, Edna told me that in some Councils, there is an entirely different approach to what is kept from the public. She does a bit of work for Maidenhead and Windsor Council, which is where our No 2 son, Patrick and Verity live. It seems that every payment over £500 is made available to the public. I was amazed by this, but its true. The Council was elected on a platform of total transparency, and the councillors have delivered. I'm a bit worried that after she slinks back from Che Guevara land, Edna might move to live in Maidenhead full-time. She's a deeply principled woman, and just loves honesty and transparency in her politicians.

Business Advice in Powys - or not.

End of March I posted this which outlined the absolute 'Horlicks' that the Assembly Government had made of providing advice to businesses in Mid Wales. To recap briefly - after many years of business advice provision by Powys County Council, (through Business Connect and Business Eye) the contract to supply the service was given to a company from outside the area called Business in Focus (BiF). But there was a problem in that BiF did not think there was any ongoing responsibility to the Council staff who had been doing the job for years. Mid March, I was being told with certainty that this was not the case - and I wrote privately to the Minister responsible, Ieuan Wyn Jones warning of the impending problem. Almost three weeks later I received a reply written by some 'Jobsworth' on Ieuan's behalf, completely misunderstanding the point at issue (probably deliberately). Anyway BiF pulled out at the last minute, leaving no service at all on April 1st. Just guess what the Assembly Government's pathetic response was. To persuade BiF to have a change of heart, and ask/pressurise the Council to indemnify BiF against any costs associated with accepting responsibility for the previously employed staff.

I don't want you, dear readers to think I'm becoming a sycophantic cheerleader for Powys County Council, but they did the only sensible thing - told the Assembly Government to 'get lost'. The minute of the Management Board of the Council's discussion earlier this week reads "The Board is not minded to accept secondment on the terms offered (by the Assembly Government). The default position is that the staff are entitled to redeployment/redundancy. This is to be conveyed to WAG and if there is a revised proposal......certain designated councillors were given delegated authority to deal with it. The Board also decided to explore the options of taking action to recover any costs that will have fallen on the Council as a result of this fiasco. As for the local economy. Well that can go the same way as the Wales GB Rally.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Scene from the bunker.

Today is a day for amusing videos. This one is not going to do it for everyone - but it did it for me. There will be some who think its poor taste.

Rat leaving Downing Street.

This made me laugh. A rat in Downing Street, going round in circles, aimlessly searching for something - it knows not what. And a hideously scrawny rat at that. Even the rats are looking for a way out.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Smeargate - and implosion.

The reason that 'smeargate' is not going away is that there seems no recognition by Gordon Brown of the seriousness of what has been revealed. He cannot accept that the brutal strategy that has maintained his power base for many years has been laid bare. The people of Britain are shocked by what they see exposed before them. They are concerned that Gordon Brown is a threat to Britain's democratic heritage. This is no longer a row between political parties. Today's most wounding attacks on Labour have not been coming from the Conservatives. They've been coming from the Labour people who have been brutalised by these thugs, and from journalists who have been aware for years that Gordon Brown has surrounded himself with a small cabal of ruthless operators who would stop at nothing to destroy anyone who does not pay homage at the Prime Minister's feet. The reason it no longer matters that Gordon Brown says 'Sorry' is that no-one would think he meant it. Sure, he regrets that such vile emails were written, but we know that he has employed Damian McBride for ten years because he believes that all opposition to himself must be squashed. Macavity never did know about the specifics - but approved of the generality. The troops just carried out what they believed their boss wanted them to do. Thank God that the scales have fallen from the eyes of the British people.

Robust debate.

At least our politics hasn't reached this level yet - though I suppose its only a matter of time.

Mr Osprey has arrived.

A week ago I published a post about all the effort that had gone into preparing a suitable pad for a pair of Ospreys on the lookout for a summer retreat where they could settle down and bring up a family. It was on the River Dyfi, near Machynlleth. This morning, the male bird turned up and can be seen in this photograph pondering the suitability of the accommodation. No stone is being left unturned in the efforts to make him feel at home, including painting the post in a delightful shade of birdsh** magnolia (complete with fishy streaks perhaps). The BBC have covered this story here. Now all of us are awaiting the arrival of the female. I remember a shockingly sexist old rugby colleague of mine who used to say "the trouble with birds is that they're always late and never there when you want one". I always used to reprimand his disrespectful tone when speaking of the more fragrant half of the human race - but this osprey may be thinking along exactly the same lines.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What 'Blogs' have acheived.

Seems like a good day to reflect on what effect blogging is having on our access to news. First point to make is that blogs are not all the same. They are individual, written for different reasons, in different styles, about different subjects, and they are based on the individual ethical codes of the blogger. The influence of a blog is exercised through the people read it, how many of them there are, and also who they are. People who don't like blogs tend to group them all as one, as some sort of malign influence on public affairs, written by people who need to get a life. They are very wrong - and becoming more wrong by the day.

Over the last few weeks, blogs have wrought great influence on our mainstream news. Gordon Brown's visit to the US to meet Barack Obama was being portrayed as a great success - until the Internet showed us images of Obama, bored out of his mind, listening to our Prime Minister prattling on for the cameras. And Gordon Brown's speech to the European Parliament was being portrayed as a triumph until Dan Hannan's full blooded assault on him became an Internet hit. But this last weekend, the blogosphere has shaped the news, completely overwhelming the mainstream media. Despite the Telegraph's failed attempt to draw the sting out of the 'Smeargate' story by running it early, and from a Downing Street's perspective (two lads 'aving a laugh'), Paul Staines' revelations have led the news for two days. Gordon Brown's closest (?) political advisor has gone. It looks as if most Labour people are desperate for their leading blogger to be ditched as well. And we are being told that the Prime Minister has been forced to write personal letters of apology to several Conservatives. Well maybe. But Paul Staines' success is greater that any of these things. What he's done is show us that the Emperor has no clothes. It doesn't matter what spin Labour spokespersons are putting on this, the punters are not believing it. They know that at the heart of the court of Gordon Brown, there is this 'tub of evil' trained to crush everything before it, by whatever vile means it takes. They probably accept that the Prime Minister had no knowledge of the specifics, but they know that this has gone on for so long that Gordon Brown cannot disassociate himself from it. The 'Moral Compass' and the 'End of Spin' are the most discredited phrases in today's political vocabulary.

Now I'm no Paul Staines. I would never want to write a blog like his, even if he does have zillions of visitors. I have 400 visitors on a good day, and in the low 200s at the weekend. All I want to do is satisfy my urge to write down some of the things I think, and stimulate a bit of discussion. But even my innocuous efforts are being challenged as 'subversive'. Some people just don't like blogs. I suppose if I entertained but 10 visitors a day no-one would care. The criticism that is levelled against me is that I publish 'confidential' information - sometimes relating to my local authority. Actually, this is a completely untrue accusation. What sometimes does happen is that I publish a story that is public, but still largely confined within the Council 'village'. And then too many of the 'wrong' sort of people are reading it before the story is released in a form considered suitable. Whatever, it has been such a good week for the blogosphere that I do not think things will ever be quite the same again.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How many MPs do we need?

Kenneth Baker was a leading Conservative Minister during Mrs Thatcher's period as Prime Minister. Because he was so 'smooth' an operator, he was most unkindly satirised as a slug in a popular TV programme. Today, as Lord Baker, he has written an interesting article for the Sunday Telegraph, asking questions about how many MPs we need to represent us. Actually, he's asking a second question as well. Should the size of constituency electorates be equalised - not a straight forward question in a devolved UK. Nick Allen has also written a piece for tomorow's Telegraph, claiming that David Cameron takes a similar view. Whatever, in my opinion, Lord Baker is a man worth listening to.

The assumption on which Lord Baker has based his figures is that the number of MPs would be reduced by 10% from 646 to 579. Each constituency would have an electorate of around 76,000. There would be 486 MPs representing English constituencies, 51 representing Scottish constituencies, 15 representing Northern Irish constituencies, and 29 representing Welsh Constituencies. I don't think any allowance has been made for the fact that much of the work of MPs has already been devolved. I can imagine these proposals not receiving a unanimous welcome.

The Conservative manifesto at the last General Election also included a policy about this issue. It was linked to the holding of a referendum on full law making powers in those policy areas which had been devolved by the 1998 Government of Wales Act. If the Welsh electorate voted yes, the number of MPs would fall to 26 (I think); if the position remained as it was the number of MPs would only fall to 33 (I think), and if the Assembly were to be abolished, the number of MPs would remain at 40 (I think). If I'm wrong here, I hope someone will let me know. All the current media comment I see emanating from my party in Wales tells us that any change would still be linked to a referendum. So I'm not at all sure where Lord Baker is coming from with his article. The bit of it that did catch my eye was "It is now official Conservative policy". Anyway, I found it an interesting read.

Magnolias

I want to begin this Easter Sunday post by mentioning our four children, Edward, Patrick, Sally and Tim. No reason other than they are all home for the weekend, and have been whinging that they never get a mention on this blog anymore. I've explained that this is not entirely my fault. Mrs D, who is an obsessively private person, has banned me from mentioning family members, except for the occasional photograph of little Ffion, Edward (and Karen's) daughter. They've all been helping in the garden, though this is a somewhat 'generous' statement as far as Pat is concerned. I don't know whether they have been admiring the Magnolias, which is what you are about to do. First up is Magnolia stellata, brilliant when it misses late frosts, which this year it has succeeded in doing.

Next up is a Magnolia soulangiana. This has a funny history. When my in-laws were moving house about 20 years ago, Robbie (as I referred to Mr Austen Roberts, Mrs D's dad) heeled it in my veg garden and its still there to this day. It is still thought of as his tree - and serves as a sort of 'rememberence tree'.

This (or more correctly 'these') is another type of soulangiana. We bought several from one of Andy Joseph's 'end of season' salesat the Derwen Garden Centre. They cost only about a fiver each. I think variety is called 'Susan'.

And finally, we have another soulangiana. I planted this one only last week, and it has already made one appearance on this blog. Its another sort of 'rememberence tree'. I'll tell you what its significance is next year. Its that privacy thing kicking in again.

Odd things from Oldham.

These are supposed to be genuine extracts of letters sent to the Council Offices at Oldham. I don't want to cause any offence to the people of Oldham, but there must be a few odd types living up there.

"This is to let you know that there is a nasty smell coming from the man next door".

"I wish to complain that my father hurt his ankle very badly when he put his foot in the hole in his back passage".

"I am still having trouble with smoke in my drawers".

"I request your permission to remove my drawers in the kitchen".

"I want some repairs done to my cooker, as it has backfired and burnt my knob off".

"The toilet is blocked and we cannot bath the children until it is cleared".

"The person next door has a large erection in his garden which is unsightly and dangerous".

"Our kitchen floor is very damp, we have two children and would like a third, so please send someone around to do something about it".

"Would you please send someone to repair my spout. I am an old aged pensioner and need it straight away".

"This is to let you know that our lavatory seat is broken and we cannot get BBC 2".

And my favorite - "Can you please tell me when our repairs are going to be done, as my wife is about to become an expectant mother".

Saturday, April 11, 2009

More on 'Smeargate'.

There has been only one story in town today. Yet again its been led by the blogosphere - this time Guido Fawkes. When I first heard about this story early today, I sensed immediately that it was not just one of those gossipy stories that often appear on blogs (as Labour spokespeople would have had us believe). There was a real stench of evil about it - and it was emanating from the very heart of No 10 Downing Street. By now, Mr Damien McBride, one of Gordon Brown's closest political henchmen has resigned in a most extraordinary way - claiming that the scandal is that Guido somehow got hold of his disgusting emails, rather than that he had written them. You couldn't make it up. I cannot believe that Labour are not also going to disassociate itself from Mr Derek Draper, with whom Mr McBride was in cahoots. And there is also an MP named Tom Watson who seems to be awfully close to what has been going on. Anyway, I will be buying the News of the World tomorrow to get a feel for just how rotten is the heart of the Labour machine.

I'm not going to repeat the lies and smears that McBride and Draper intended to publicise about David Cameron, George Osborne, Nadine Dorries and one other Conservative MP, but a 'trailer' is on the News of the World website. What we have seen is utterly revolting behaviour at the heart of No 10 Downing Street, perpetrated by one of Gordon Brown's most trusted colleagues, in Government time, using Government facilities. Another man named Derek Draper, who has been all over the media for the last few months. speaking on behalf of the Labour Government, is also closely deeply implicated. And the Government's Minister for the Civil Service, Tom Watson MP could well be involved as well. We are all asking how far this poison has spread.

Yesterday, this story was confined to blogs. Today, it broke as the Government tried to 'spin' (in the Telegraph and the BBC) that it was all 'a bit of a joke' between mates. By midday in was leading the news on all media. By teatime, McBride had gone, and now we await tomorrow's revelations. Another day when politics has been dragged into a gutter of filth.

Smeargate

I do hope that my daily newspaper, the Telegraph is not involved in some stunt with the two individuals who massively popular blogger, Guido Fawkes reckons are behind a smutty smear campaign against leading Conservatives. Guido's post on this is worth reading (and Iain Dale's post) before you read the Telegraph story. I don't know either Gordon Brown's political advisor in No 10 Downing Street , a man named Damian McBride, but Guido is fingering him as the man behind it all. Guido reckons there are others as well - and he's going to name them. We have seen the other main player involved in this brewing scandal, one Derek Draper. Over recent months, he has frequently appeared on the media, speaking in support of the Labour Government. Personally, I find his general approach so unpleasant that I usually exercise my right to turn the TV off whenever he comes on.

I don't normally blog on this type of story - but this one looks different to me. It smells of something rotten that has been going on at the heart of the Labour Government. And they know it. Which is why a spoiling story has been placed in one of our national newspapers today. If it does turn out that the Telegraph has been an integral part of this, I will be changing my newspaper after decades of loyalty.

UPDATE - And now the BBC has joined in. Not sure whether this is in response to No 10's rebuttal unit's strategy to de-toxify the story before it breaks bigtime in tomorrow's papers.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Second Homes for Politicians

I realise this is a post which will receive scant sympathy. But its been irritating me ever since I read the article in today's Telegraph which informs us that the Leader of the Liberal Democrats proposes that MPs should not be allowed to use their allowances to buy second homes - particularly since he claimed £23,000 for his own second home last year (according to the Telegraph that is). Lets consider this in a rational, logical way - though I do accept that the levels of inventiveness with which allowances have been used may have taken the issue beyond rational consideration.

Now what seems reasonable? To me its where a politician's constituency is sufficiently far from the relevant 'parliament' to make commuting impractical. In such cases, financial support should be given to help with the additional unavoidable cost. It also seems reasonable to me that a politician living within commuting distance should not be eligible. The total of the financial support should equate to the cheapest way of accessing what is deemed to be 'reasonable' accommodation. The cheapest way would probably be the use of hotels - and I reckon a 'mid-standard' hotel should be the benchmark. Whatever figure is decided, I cannot see any reason why a politician should not be free to use that 'allowance' to pay for a hotel, pay rent for accommodation, or pay the mortgage interest on a flat. Personally, I detest staying in hotels or in beds that others have slept in - so I would prefer to rent or buy a property which would be a family home, if I were to find myself facing such a situation.

We can all see that there is a serious problem at the moment - which has to be addressed. Its destroying what respect there was for politicians. But it should be addressed by dealing directly with the problem. The allowance should be restricted to what most of us thought it was - help with accommodation near the relevant 'parliament' for those who cannot commute. Some of the arrangements we've been made aware of over the last few weeks have astounded me. And then being told that they are within the rules has astounded me even more. The rules need changing. In addition, every payment should be made public, and based on the production of a receipt. Problem solved.

What I would find objectionable is that a position be created where politicians who live near London, Cardiff or Edinburgh should, in effect, be receiving higher remuneration that those who live beyond commuting distance - and it would be considerably higher if a flat rate salary were to be paid. I also see a problem with requiring any 'profit' made on a purchased property to be handed back. It could work, but to be fair, there would have to be some complex system of assessing inflation during the period of ownership. And what about losses incurred on a property - the one-way bet doesn't seem very fair.

Anyway, I've posted this blog, expecting disagreement, but hoping for rational debate and reasoned argument. And I didn't post it deliberately on Good Friday, when most people have gone on holiday for Easter, hoping that no-one would notice. That's another expenses trick that I strongly disapprove of.

Tribute to Ernie.

My various interests result in membership of several different 'teams'. When I'm enjoying a morning coffee, Telegraph in hand, timing myself completing the 'moderate' sudoku, complete strangers join me for a chat. They are members of one of the 'teams' to which I belong. Examples are the 'Rugby fanatics' team, the 'Wind farm sceptics' team, the 'Parkinson's Disease' team, etc., etc.. My team with the strongest bond of all is the 'Welsh Language speakers' team. This post is about my membership of the 'Ostomates' team - and that's because I've just opened my latest copy of Tidings, the house magazine of the Colostomy Association. I've been a member or over six years.

This post is a tribute to Ernie Hulme. Actually, its a tribute to all those thousands of other Ernies as well, who give so much of themselves to benefit others. Ernie used to be a lorry driver from the Midlands, until he went down with Bowel cancer. First time I heard about him was when I was awaiting an operation to remove my cancerous rectum and to create a colostomy in its place. A few days after my op Ernie drove over to meet me, and we've met and spoken several times since. Sometimes I'm roped in to speak at events. I thing he shared my awareness about how lucky we two were to survive, and wanted to help others who had gone through the same experience.

Anyway, Ernie's just been to Buck House to meet the Queen, along with Sue Hatton, retiring Chair of the CA. It was a special reception for people working in health care across the UK. That's the wonder of having a royal head of state. Last week it was Barack and Michele Obama who were wowed by a meeting with the Queen. This week its my good friend, Ernie and others like him, who do great work, quietly and unheralded. Ernie tells us that he considered it a wonderful honour and that he had a special time.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

'Style' and 'No Style'.

You can always judge a man by the respect he shows to others. Its just a matter of style. Obama has got it, and Gordon Brown hasn't.

Losses in Icelandic Banks.

Effective 'scrutiny' is vital if our public servants and representatives are to held to account. Yesterday, I issued a press release commenting on a 'draft' report published on the website of Powys County Council. It was entitled Scrutiny Review - Treasury Management. Have to say it seems odd to publish such a sensitive report in 'draft' - but the last thing I'm going to do is accuse the Council of being too open!! The subject of this review was the Council's investments in Icelandic Banks. I've taken a close interest in this issue since it blew up last September/October, and have been awaiting the report from Powys with keen anticipation.

Now its not just Powys Council which had big investments with Icelandic Banks. Hundreds of public bodies did. I hope other Councils will carry out the same sort of scrutiny into what happened. What we know about my local Council is that it had £4 million invested - and it may be that most or all of this money could be lost, plus the £200,000 per annum interest. I happened to be in the Council chamber last year when a 'Statement' was made to Councillors outlining potential losses. I remember my eyebrows shooting up when I heard that £1 million was invested with Landsbanki as late as September 5th, just one month before things went completely belly up - and after several other local authorities had decided Icelandic Banks were too risky. There is a local irony in that the Dyfed Powys Police Authority had so decided several months previously.

Anyway, here are a few quotes from the Draft Report - "identified weaknesses in the Council's operational system which require action" and "the Council has become complacent after several years of 'risk free' investment" and "The Council's management team has been given little supervision or direction by the Board or senior management" and "the CIPFA Code of Practice encouraged too much trust to be placed in credit ratings - credit ratings (which) turned out to be virtually worthless". This is strong stuff - and the fact that its taken such a long time (and is still in draft) suggests there's been quite a bit of debate going on behind the scenes.

I think we should wait until the final report is published before making any final judgement on this. But I do think there is a genuine stab at real scrutiny happening in Powys. This is very good news for democracy in Powys, and I'm all for it. Real scrutiny isn't comfortable for Council officers or Councillors themselves - but its very good indeed for public confidence in our Councils over the longer term. All I will add is that when the Final Report is agreed, the Council should present it at a Press Conference, as up front as possible, and take any criticism there might be on the chin. Effective opposition is virtually non-existent when a Council is run by an Executive Board on which all groups are represented as of right (as it is in Powys) - but the sort of scrutiny we've seen here goes some way to providing it.

Ready for our guests


The newly constucted nest awaits. There's a high resolution dome camera secreted away on the nest perch. There's a high definition dome camera on top of the recently erected dead ash tree. The power systems and transmitters are all installed. There's even a microphone in the nest. And there's a 32" plasma screen rigged up in the nearby hide at Cors Dyfi, near Machynlleth, in order for us to have a close-up of the action. There's a new visitor centre, a car park is being prepared and a new circular road system is ready for the rush of visitors. Finally, there's roads signage all ready to be installed at a moment's notice. The Dyfi Osprey Project is ready to roll. All we need is for a couple of Ospreys to turn up and make themselves at home.
Reason I know all this is that I'm one of the Trustees of the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust - and based on last year's visit by a pair of Ospreys to this site, we have anticipated a return visit this year. We're all crossing our fingers.
But it has to be said that we humans are odd creatures. On the one occasion that we visited the Turks and Caicos Islands a few years back, there were Ospreys fishing right under our noses when we were sitting in our hotel restaurant. So common that by the end of the week, we stopped noticing them. They were as cheeky as sparrows. Yet, if we see two in Machynlleth, the excitement will be mega. Anyway, if they do turn up, maybe I'll see you in the hide!! I do hope some trigger happy Frenchman doesn't bag our expected visitors en route.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Municipal Desecration.

I reckon that I do 'outrage' rather well. When I was an Assembly Member, only Alun Cairns and Rhodri Glyn Thomas were as good. Well today I've been doing 'outrage' for the Montgomeryshire County Times. It was directed in the direction of Powys County Council for its Philistinian desecration of a conservation area in the historic town of Welshpool. This is what has happened.

Welshpool is blessed with lots of little passageways, (known as 'shutts I think) leading off the main street. The flooring is a mixture of old paviers and cobbles. This is wholly appropriate for the 'shutt' which leads to and by the Wales office of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales - of which I am the current President. Now someone must have stubbed a toe or suffered some similar injury, because today Powys County Council arrived with a flying squad and covered the lot with a coating of black tarmac. I accept that it looks incredibly neat. And henceforth the toes of the local population will remain unstubbed and pain free. When Chris Corfield of the CT asked me for a comment, I said "I'm outraged by the Philistinian desecration of a conservation area of our historic town, and I will be writing to the 'Interim' Chief Executive of the Council demanding that the 'shutts' be reinstated to their former glory" - or something like that. Tomorrow, they'll probably be pebble-dashing the Town Hall.

Edna at the 'Kremlin'.

Edna Mopbucket, who does a bit of 'itinerant' cleaning and occasionally listens in at keyholes is a very nice woman. Never a bad word for anyone. But today she was incandescent. The subject of her ire was Powys County Councillor for Montgomery, Stephen Hayes. Seems a decent enough chap to me, but I cannot repeat on this family blog some of the things she said she wanted to do to him. I doubt whether he's ever had such things done. And if he has, it would have cost him big-time. Anyway, after I promised to put a good word in for her with the man for whom she has the 'hots', Councillor Bob Mills, she calmed down and told me what it was that raised her blood to such a pitch.

Seemed she'd been listening in at today's meeting of the Executive Board of the Council, and straight after approval of the minutes, the aforementioned Councillor Hayes leapt in with a personal attack on Edna. She couldn't believe her ears. And then they were all having a go at her. Seems they're all in favour of keeping things secret (at least this is what Edna said) and they want another whistle blower hunt to find out who's been leaking all these issues that they would prefer to be kept 'confidential'. Seems that the 'Interim' Chief Executive is going to bring forward a special item for discussion. Edna doesn't know at this stage whether he's going to recommend spending several thousand pounds of taxpayer's money, trying to find the culprit. "Its like the bl**** Kremlin" she said. After a while she sniggered. "Never catch me though. I just keep my head down over the mop, and they don't notice I'm there". Then she started telling me about all sorts of 'confidential' stuff concerning the absolute cock up that the Assembly has made of the business advisory service. She was amused to hear Board members being told about it all today, as if it was news - while she's known about it all for months. "They make problems for themselves by trying to keep all these things secret - and for no apparent reason" she said. That's the thing about Edna. She's not daft. I'd vote for her.

Monday, April 06, 2009

How to smack a friend in the mouth.

This is one of the most disappointing posts that I've ever read on ConservativeHome. Despairing is probably a better adjective to use. How Wales is governed is a matter of great concern to me, and would be my principle interest if I were to be elected an MP. Though not directly connected to this issue, the 'row' has reinforced my opinion that the 2006 Government of Wales Act is the constitutional equivalent of a slow-motion car crash.

At the next General Election, I will be seeking election to the UK Parliament. Because of my almost obsessive interest in Welsh politics, many friends are surprised when I tell them that I would now prefer to be an MP than an Assembly Member. I explain to them that Wales is a part of the United Kingdom, that the National Assembly is a 'devolved' institution and a creation of the UK Parliament, and that I want to see our MPs enthusiastic about the creation of a successful and effective Assembly. It follows that I want there to be a stable UK constitution, which in turn spawns my enthusiasm for establishing a clear division of responsibilities. It is this approach that drives my belief that full law making powers should be transferred to the National Assembly in those policy areas that are devolved. The current position is, in my opinion, a constitutional crisis waiting to happen - and it seems that we won't have long to wait. Only last month, the Assembly's Presiding Officer was all over our TV screens talking about a complex matter concerning the transfer of power finishing up in the law courts. And now this. Thankfully, most of the media have signed off for Easter, so its unlikely that anyone outside the political 'village' will get to know about it. Let us look briefly at what's behind it.

A few days ago, the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron announced that should he become Prime Minister, he would want to submit himself to questioning by the National Assembly for Wales. I thought this a big deal - though I admit to being unsure about how it be arranged. I was looking forwards to a constructive discussion about what form this proposed annual meeting would take. So much of what happens in the Assembly flows from decisions by the UK Government, that an annual meeting with the Prime Minister seemed to me to be a really positive commitment by David. But it seems not - to some. This is one part of how the Presiding Officer of the National Assembly of Wales responded.

"The idea that the Prime Minister of the UK can breeze in for a Q & A isn't allowed under our standing orders and I have no intention of changing it. He is the first minister of another Government in terms of our constitution. I would think that if those people were serious they would have looked at the constitution. It smacks a bit of paternal unionism."

HE has no intention of allowing such a thing. It seems that the other 59 AMs are of no significance whatsoever. I despair.

A nice place to stop.



If any of my visitors want to stop off for a coffee and a chat as they travel through Mid Wales, why don't we arrange to meet up at the Lychgate Tearoom and Deli in the beautiful village of Berriew (less than a mile off the A483). It opened this morning - following an exceedingly tasteful renovation by its owner, Elaine Williams. Its small and intimate - and comes highly recommended by me.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Valued by Society.

Vice Presidents day at Newtown RUFC today. Despite Newtown being 'the enemy' when I played for near neighbours, Welshpool RUFC, I've always felt warmth towards the club, and been a VP for many years. Three of us were reminiscing over a pint before the game when Alun suddenly thanked us for allowing him to feel that he was greatly valued by society for the first time in his life - in a purely professional sense. Though I'm currently what's termed 'resting' in the acting profession, I'm seen as a politician and Martin is a banker. Alun is an estate agent.

At peace with the world.

When I was accused of sleeping on the job, I denied it furiously, claiming that I was only resting my eyes for a moment - a stance which proved rather difficult to maintain in the face of this photographic evidence.

Tree to Remember


Big job this morning was planting this Magnolia - a soulangiana type. It arrived by lorry from the Derwen Garden Centre at ten, and I recruited Phil next door and his digger to shift it into its permanent home. Looks as if its been there for ever, even though it had been in the ground for but 10 minutes when this photograph was taken. Whenever anything significant happens in our lives at Cil Farm, we plant a tree in the garden. One problem with trees of this maturity is that it will need to be roped to a support to prevent it being blown about, and watered for its first season. It has joined another special Magnolia soulangiana in the garden to make a special pair, but its flowering perhaps 10 days before it normally would in our garden - so it might make another appearance on my blog when its partner is also in full glory. Anyway, Mrs D suggested the perfect sheltered spot for her, and she looks absolutely terrific.

Friday, April 03, 2009

What did it all mean?

The G20 Summit has been the only story in town this week. I have not commented on it because I cannot yet decide whether it has served any worthwhile purpose. Looking forward to the Sunday newspapers, when there will have been a little time for sober reflection. But even at this stage, I can say that it was much better than I'd feared. At least President Obama made a real effort to butter up the British Prime Minister, after the dismissive way he treated him on the only previous occasion that they met. For those of us who set great store by our relationship with the US, this was important.

It also seems to me that the Germans and the French got together to save us all from another crazy fiscal stimulus. At one stage this had seemed to be Gordon Brown's main aim at the Summit, but by the closing photo op, it had disappeared completely. And most of the other words struck the right note as well. The questions will be whether there will be any conversion of the words into actions. Personally I cannot see anything of value coming out of this massively hyped, and monstrously expensive meeting that could not have been achieved through a phone call. But I have to say that Mr and Mrs Obama, and Mrs Brown and genuinely class acts. And yet again, Her Majesty made me proud to be a supporter of the Monarchy.

The only really big development seems to have been the huge dollops of cash made available to the International Monetary Fund. There could be more to this than meets the eye. It really was interesting to hear Lord Mandelson talking about taking the stigma out of a visit to the IMF, and I need to know more about who can access, (and in what circumstances) the £250 billion Special Drawing Rights Fund that has been made available to IMF members. I've always thought that if Gordon Brown is forced to ask the IMF for financial help, his credibility would be totally destroyed. There's something tells me that this could all be a ruse to obscure our Prime Minister's ultimate humiliation. But then, I need to read the Sundays (Liam Halligan especially)to help me form my opinions