Thursday, 25 June 2009

BNP Vile Message

Like many others, I have read the offensive comments of Nick Griffin of the British National Party claiming there is no such thing as a black Welsh man.

Thousands and thousands of black Welshmen and women up and down our country will, I am sure, quite rightly view these comments as bizarre, offensive and outrageous. We must not lose sight of the fact that many of them will also be worried and concerned that these comments, and what lies behind them, could even become mainstream political thinking in Wales and more widely in Britain. We must ensure that never happens.

Whilst I was thankful and relieved the BNP did not make a breakthrough in Wales, sadly they did in England. We must all seek to ensure they never get the sort of foothold in our country that the National Front has in France.

Thankfully the heartbeat of Wales, England, Scotland and Britain is represented much more accurately by decent people like Joanna Lumley who campaigned for the rights of settlement for Ghurkhas in our country, and the decent majority in our country.

That said, we must not leave the field clear for the BNP to get away with the outrageous and offensive claims of which this is surely the latest.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Labour dancing in the Titanic ballroom

This week in the Senedd a deep difference of opinion manifested itself. It concerned the topic of free prescriptions and health policy. The division, I suspect, will end up being played out across other areas of policy too.

Welsh Conservatives this week announced our commitment to investing extra resources in hospices and stroke services. To pay for this, and to invest money in what I believe are two areas in desperate need of resources (even the Health Minister has described the stroke service in Wales as “patchy”) we would ask those people who could afford it, to pay a modest contribution towards their prescriptions.

Prior to the Assembly Government’s scrapping of charges, 93% of prescriptions issued in Wales were already free.

The same people as before would still get free prescriptions under our policy, with this also being extended to cancer patients. We are currently consulting on what the contribution would be.
Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour completely oppose this policy. So too does Peter Black for the Liberal Democrats, or at least I think he did. It is a reversal of the line his party has previously taken and espoused recently by Jenny Randerson.

The Lib Dem position is a veritable dog's dinner not to say a pig's breakfast. Their revolving door manifesto on this issue caused amazement across the chamber on Wednesday. Only recently Jenny Randerson referred to free prescriptions as 'a time bomb for the NHS', 'disastrous', as something that should only be given to 'those who could not afford them'.

Well, voters will be able to vote for the Lib Dems whether they believe in free prescriptions or are resolutely against the policy as the Lib Dems seem to be fighting both sides of the argument!
Wales budget will be cut by £416mn over the next two years, so tough but necessary decisions on spending have to be made.

Labour’s free prescriptions cost the Welsh health budget £30mn last year, with that figure continuing to rise.

This policy is unsustainable and with the reintroduction of charging for some, we are prioritising the health budget.

The important policy and attitude difference of the Labour Plaid parties and the Welsh Conservatives as the Official Opposition is now manifest and lies at the heart of our approaches.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Harlech pool

A lot of my time seems to be spent trying to keep things open, whether Post Offices, Primary Schools, Pubs or Harlech Pool. It often strikes me as odd that as we advance more as a society and, in general, become more prosperous over the years (admittedly that is not a universal pattern for everybody nor is it a relentless, remorseless process, is often punctuated by the odd hiccup or, as now, a massive spasm) institutions and facilities are closed down.

I visited Harlech this weekend and met the magnificent campaigners who have been fighting to retain the swimming pool in Harlech. Without this pool school children, pensioners and many people in between who use the pool on a frequent basis in the community, will have to travel to Porthmadog to use the pool there. Many, of course, will simply not do so. Doing so is also, of course, contrary to the government’s agenda, which I certainly support, of encouraging people to use their car less frequently and to make use of local facilities.

The campaigners for Harlech Pool, extremely well led by Richard Holland, have put together a business case, a very good business case for taking over the pool. They have presented this case to Gwynedd County Council but the County Council is prevaricating. There is a feeling in the community that perhaps the business case was far better than Gwynedd anticipated and they are now looking around for reasons not to trust local people to run the pool and reasons for not transferring the assets to them. The date at which the County Council is due to look at the business plan is only three days before the pool is due to close. This is preposterous. What is now needed is a stay of execution for the pool until the autumn while the business plan is considered, if necessary adapted, and then adopted. The summer is after all, in any event, a busy period for the pool.

Let’s see a degree of common sense from Gwynedd County Council and a trust of local people to get on with managing something for their own community.

European Elections

Now that some water has flowed under the bridge since the European elections a week ago, and after those heady celebrations at topping the poll in Wales, perhaps a calmer reflection is advisable.

First, even at the time, I think all Conservatives recognised that despite the winning in 17 constituencies in Wales in those European votes, and despite defeating Labour in another 7 constituencies, there is a massive challenge to replicate those results in a general election.

That said, in every election since 1999, the Party has always done better than even its own predictions during the campaign and this one is no exception. We did not expect to top the poll in Alyn & Deeside or Wrexham in these elections, and doing so encourages us to put in much more effort in those seats, for example.

The election campaign itself was teamwork involving Cheryl and the Westminster team, the hardworking team of Assembly Members, valiant efforts by the voluntary party, and a professional machine superbly led and driven by Matt Lane our Director. It involved a lot of hard work. The gospel according to Rhodri Morgan that this was all about massive resources being pumped into the Conservative campaign with no troops on the ground is extremely wide of the mark. Would that we had the same sort of resources as Labour in Wales. Labour out spends us in Wales and I am sure that this election will be no different.

I was also amazed at Rhodri Morgan’s remarks about the Conservatives relying on new campaigning techniques and then citing telephone canvassing as one of them. Yes we did do quite a degree of telephone canvassing, and yes we sent out letters to a lot of voters. These are not new techniques Rhodri, and it says much for your political longevity if you believe they are.

Huw Lewis’ comment on his blog is a stark true reminder for Labour that however you juggle these figures the Welsh Conservatives defeated Labour in these elections. This is a graphic illustration of a trend that is manifest over many years. Labour did not do well in votes or a percentage share of the vote in the Assembly elections in 2007. The final result massively flattered the Labour Party and seemingly deluded a large part of it into believing that Labour remained dominant and invincible. The 2008 local election results were not good for Labour. It now controls outright only two councils in Wales.

What the 2009 European elections demonstrate is that Labour can be beaten in Wales and life, I believe, will never be the same in Wales. The old tribal loyalties have broken down and I believe that people in Wales are looking for a Party that believes in harnessing the private sector and operating a regulated market system, a Party that believes in strong public services and a progressive social agenda, and a Party that believes in Welsh culture, the Welsh language and Welsh aspirations.

I believe that as they survey the Welsh political landscape, it is the Welsh Conservative Party that will tick those boxes.

That said, no room for complacency and we must go out and harness what Rhodri regards as new fangled techniques for the forthcoming general election.

I suppose it is characteristic of Rhodri to believe that these are new fangled techniques. However, as I look at the Labour Party and the number of members of the House of Lords now in Gordon Brown’s Cabinet, the Party begins to look like something tripping off the pages of Trollope (and I mean Anthony and not Joanna). Far gone are those heady days of new Labour and cool Britannia. What we see now is a rather old fashioned political fix.

Friday, 12 June 2009

The Cross Party Group on Beer and the Pub

I was delighted yesterday, along with my co-Chair Jeff Cuthbert, to launch the Cross Party Group on Beer and the Pub. The aim of the Group is to promote the wholesomeness and enjoyment of beer and the unique role of the pub in Welsh society to increase understanding of the social, cultural and historic role of brewing and pubs in Wales and their value to tourism, to broaden recognition of the contribution of brewing and pubs to employment and to Wales’ economy, to promote understanding of the social responsibility exercised by the brewing and pub industries to support Wales’ brewing industry world wide, and to promote a positive future for beer and the pub.

I spend a lot of time convincing friends and colleagues that this is not just a lot of fun. It is a lot of fun of course, but there is a serious purpose to the Group, a very serious purpose. Pubs across Wales act as the hearts of our communities, some acting as Post Offices as well as social centres. They are essential to our tourism sector, our social services and our community cohesion.
Over the last year or so I have been touring pubs in my area of Mid and West Wales and, with every visit, become more and more convinced of how important they are to our society. They are disappearing at an alarming rate, currently three a week on average in Wales alone.

Some of the issues that have arisen when I have visited pubs are as follows:

(i) the high level of business rates;
(ii) the fact that many publicans pay business rates, council tax for living above the pub as well as extra for collection of rubbish and extra again for collection of recyclables;
(iii) the lack of a level playing field with the supermarket where liquor is sold very often as a loss leader and where they have benefited from the Chancellor’s reduction in VAT, the pub industry had an excise duty increase similar to the reduction slapped on at the same time – the increase in excise duty, of course, will be permanent, though the reduction in VAT is only temporary;
(iv) suffering because of the current credit crunch;
(v) the cost of Sky television is assessed on rateable value and is massively high for many pubs which offer this to attract custom;
(vi) payments for the Performing Rights Society whenever music is played;
(vii) masses of visits from different public authorities rather than a cohesive approach by a single visit to assess food standards, health and safety etc.

These are some of the issues that Jeff and I will be wanting to discuss in the Group and we will no doubt want to look at the Scottish experience as it builds up in relation to charging a minimum amount for a unit of alcohol and whether this is effective.

Some of these decisions can be affected by Assembly action, others would need action at Westminster level. What is clear is that this Group will be having a focus on seeing what can be done positively to protect this marvellous asset that we have in Wales and, indeed, more widely.
At the launch Justin Grant, or Buster as he is known, spoke very effectively. He heads up the Association of Welsh Independent Brewers and also Breconshire Brewery. He told us that there are 40 breweries currently in Wales. When he started in 2002, they were then the 13th, so this is a great growth area. He laid down a challenge for me and Jeff, which is very reasonable, to see how we can ensure that Welsh independent brewing is represented in receptions and meals that are put on by public bodies in Wales, and we will be trying to rise to that challenge.
Various Welsh breweries were represented at the launch:-

The Artisan Brewery
The Bull Mastiff Brewery
The Vale of Glamorgan Brewery
The Otley Brewery
The Rhymney Brewery
The Celtic Experience
Breconshire Brewery

I also had a very interesting discussion with Iain Loe of the Campaign for Real Ale to get his advice on how we tackle some of these issues.

An enjoyable evening but certainly one with a serious purpose.

I followed this up with a visit to the Great Welsh Beer and Cider Festival in the CIA on Thursday. I pulled a pint of Mountain Rescue and had a tour of the stands – thanks Arthur.

Monday, 8 June 2009

‘The Perfect Hostage’

I am currently reading Justin Wintle’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi entitled ‘The Perfect Hostage’.

Aung San Suu Kyi has, of course, become an iconic figure in the struggle for democracy in Burma. She is currently in her thirteenth year of detention spanning several house arrests. The latest house arrest commenced in 2003 after the Burma regime’s militia attacked her convoy and killed up to 100 of her supporters.

Her poise and dignity is reminiscent of that of Nelson Mandela. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991 and has been opposing Burma’s brutal military regime since 1988. Her steadfast opposition to the military regime and her promotion of democracy has, of course, landed her in desperate hot water.

In the 1960s she studied at Oxford University (nobody’s perfect I suppose!). Her British parents are Lord and Lady Gore-Booth. Lord Gore-Booth was, of course, former British Ambassador to Burma as well as High Commissioner in India. It was at their home that she met Michael Arris, an Oxford student of Tibetan civilisation, whom she married.

Their separation while he was in Oxford and she was in Burma, and the Burmese regimes callous and ruthless refusal to allow him an entry permit to Burma during his fatal illness, amply demonstrated the lack of humanity of the Burmese regime on an individual issue which has been amply demonstrated elsewhere across the board.

She has repeatedly rejected offers to free her if she will leave Burma and withdraw from politics – a measure of her commitment and integrity.

She has discouraged tourists from visiting the country and entrepreneurs from investing in Burma until it is free.

Ultimately, no doubt, Burma will be free and in no small measure due to the quite emphatic dignity of Aung San Suu Kyi.