Thursday, 29 July 2010

Social Legislation

Attitudes change. When the breathalyzer was inteoduced many people opposed it as an infringement of personal liberty. Not now. Indeed there is a strong case for reducing the alcohol limit in line with most other countries in Europe. I have sympathy with that view.

Then again when the Race Relations legislation was first mooted there were voices raised against legislating in this area. I believe had we not done so there would have been racial division and bitterness in Britain today that has largely been avoided.

We would probably not have seen the emergence of politicians, business leaders and sportsmen and sportswomen from the ethnic minority communities that has occurred.

Thank goodness that we live in a country that has embraced change and diversity and recognised the strength that this gives our country and us all.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


I have always considered Hay-on-Wye to be an economic wonder. The fascinating blend of literature, boutiques, cafes, restaurants and pubs, together with a lively local arts movement, seems unique to such a small town.

We are all aware of those who helped to create the wonder of Hay that we see today and it is this wonderment that continues to attract people from far and wide. For sure, this attraction ensures a certain level of financial affluence but it is also the continual stream of new ideas that serves to stimulate the whole town.

Hay could easily serve other towns as a social and economic blueprint for success; if you could ‘bottle’ its charms, it would be a sure-fire best seller.


So we have our first three new candidates selected for Assembly seats. So far it has been a triumph of the double-barrels.This bucks the previous trend where accusations of discimination against double barrels were rife.

Anthony Ridge Newman who fought Ynys Mon for us in the General Election and who is committed and energetic gets Gower.

Angela Jones Evans is the choice for the Vale of Glamorgan. Angela fought Cardiff West for us previously.

Then last night Janet Finch Saunders who leads our group on Conwy council was selected for Aberconwy.

There has since been a headlong rush of candidates seeking to hyphenate their names before the selection process goes any further!

Quite seriously I wish them all well. I know all three well and they will make excellent members.They were all up against some very strong competition.

Monday, 26 July 2010

NHS policy a real concern for council staff

During my most recent meeting with the Conservative group on Powys County Council, we discussed at length the implications of closer collaboration between the Council and the Local Health Board.

My concerns at the recent plans to merge these two organisations are well documented and consequently I was relieved when the merger idea was shelved only weeks ago in favour of ‘closer collaboration’.

One of the problems identified in preventing the merger was the NHS’ no redundancy policy at the Health Board; a policy that remains a very serious problem for the collaborative model.

The primary driving force behind this closer collaboration between Powys County Council and Powys Health Board is the desperate need for both organisations to reduce costs.

The envisaged streamlining of office functions between the two organisations will inevitably mean job losses. One would naturally expect and hope the burden of such cuts to be shared between both organisations, however as things stand with NHS policy, it is the Council that is going to incur all the consequential redundancies.

The Conservative group and I are in complete agreement on two points here. Firstly, the burden of any job losses must be shared between the Council and the Health Board; I will be raising this concern with the Health Minister as this policy will need to be addressed. Secondly, both organisations must focus solely on voluntary, rather than compulsory, redundancies.

We are all painfully aware that the consequences of Labour’s disastrous economic policy and their legacy of unprecedented debt, will mean some very tough years ahead. The need for Powys County Council and the Local Health Board to make these cuts is because of the financial and political incompetence of successive Labour led governments. However, where job losses are now inevitable, we must make sure that redundancies are made fairly and with as little pain as possible.

Political Success

Looking at Europe since the Second World War it is clear that those societies that have succeeded, that have brought more prosperity to their people have been those that have combined freedom and fairness.

Totalitarianism and over-regulation explain why Eastern Europe had a marathon task of catching up to do when the countries behind the Iron Curtain threw off the Communist yoke, entered the free world and sought to trade through the European Union.

I am keen for Wales to emulate Singapore in terms of a low regulation, business friendly environment which will grow employment and swell the nation's coffers.

We need fairness too. No government for Wales can turn its back on the Valleys and their considerable challenges. We need to provide first class education in our schools, and we must tackle the deep seated health problems that confront so many people in some of our poorest communities.

One challege is that as transport links are improved to Cardiff some of the Valleys communities are developing into dormitories rather than living communities.

Use of European funds to attract jobs to these towns and villages is part of the answer. As a nation we have not so far made that transforming breakthrough with European funds, witness the fact that contrary to popular belief we are in danger once again of qualifying for additional funds because of I believe too that we need to draw the line a little closer to individual freedom than is the case in Singapore. I am personally pleased at the libertarian instincts of the present Conservative - Liberal Democrat Coalition government.

Future challenges in the next Assembly term will include, hopefully with full powers, electoral reform, financial accountability, working closely with the Higher Education sector (much undervalued) in delivering for Wales, freeing up schools and cutting bureaucracy, assessing how social care can be provided in a fair and cost effective way for our senior citizens, providing funding certainty and assistance for the voluntary sector, driving up literacy and numeracy in more deprived communities by focussed funding, protecting and enhancing the Welsh language including through the broadcast and written media.

Keeping the party united and heading in the same direction being not the least of the challenges!

Not much work to do there then!

British Retail Consortium

I had a very useful discussion with this body - thanks Andrea and Alison.

It focussed on healthy eating and labelling.

I have always taken a rather paternalistic line on this. I believe that we do need a system that is clear to consumers on the amount of fat and salt etc in foods. Different supermarkets operate in different ways. Sainsbury's go for the traffic light system, and this has certainly resulted in switches to healthier options. Others like Marks and Spencer specify what percentage of the GDA (guideline daily amount) the salt, fat etc is. This too has shown changes by consumers to healthier options. Probably there is no need for prescriptive regulation on this.

The Consortium has also had success in that members like the large supermarkets, Burger King and McDonalds have been reducing salt and saturated fats in products.

Labelling is important. So too is education. I recall, and not long ago either, trying to get a salad at a restaurant in the Valleys. The response was not encouraging.

School meals and those at hospitals and care homes too need to reflect the need for healthier content. To my mind Jamie Oliver is a national hero for pushing the agenda on this.

Sunday, 25 July 2010


The Arts Council Wales recently made an announcement regarding funding for the arts in Wales, and this has had a massive impact in rural Wales where many organisations have had their funding withdrawn.

I have visited some of these such as Theatr Harlech, Theatr Powys and the Wyeside Arts Centre.

Given the impact that these cuts are having in rural Wales and the importance of scrutiny, I believe the Minister should facilitate the opportunity for proper scrutiny in the autumn of the principles on which the Arts Council is basing its decisions.

I appreciate that Arts Council Wales operates at arms length from the government, which is as it should be, and the Minister has no direct input but there are guidelines and principles issued by the Minister in his annual remit letter.

I believe this should be subject to review in view of the cuts in funding that rural Wales has seen in this round.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Astral Challenges

I am trying to visualise this recently discovered star that is over 300 times the size of the sun and 300,000 times brighter than it. Astronomists say it will not burn for long, apparently that means in 3 million years it could burn out. It is hard to see this as an immediate threat to life on the third rock from the sun especially as we have only just discovered its existence!

This is almost beyond human comprehension. I find it difficult to comprehend the size of the national debt at nearly £1 trillion but this is way beyond even that.

It certainly puts things in perspective like Rick's row of beans in Casablanca.

Friday, 23 July 2010


I very much welcome news that Harlech Swimming Pool has secured a grant of £800,000 which will help secure its future.

I applaud everyone involved in the campaign to keep Harlech Swimming Pool open, especially the Harlech Swimming Pool Action Group which I had the pleasure of meeting on many occasions.

Without this pool, school children, pensioners and many others who used it on a frequent basis would have had to travel to Porthmadog to swim.

It is great to know that this facility has been saved for the benefit of the local community and my congratulations go to the campaign committee and to the community.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Policy Development

We have come a long way in a short time-in political terms.

The Conservative-Lib Dem Alliance has committed to review fair funding. No government has done that before and indeed as recently as the election campaign Labour's Treasury team in the shape of Alistair Darling and Liam Byrne were ruling it out. More recently still Ed Balls of the Labour persuasion said Wales was doing well from funding and Barnett should remain. They need to move on.

Members of the opposition parties in the National Assembly are missing no opportunity to push this agenda. Labour need to convince their top brass to change their tune and Plaid Cymru could do much worse than seek to convince their Scottish Nationalist colleagues of the need for change too.We need to push on other fronts too.

The economic inheritance from Labour is in stark contrast to the golden scenario they picked up in 1997 but within resources we need rail electrification to Swansea (though to hear Plaid Cymru talk you would think electrification stops in Bristol, it actually goes to the area around Heathrow, so it is quite a challenge!) The Defence Academy at St Athan is also obviously a key concern. Some aims are less costly.

I hope that patriation of the Welsh Archive to Aberystwyth from Kew can be achieved, for example.

Other things we need to deliver within NAW budgets: more focussed help for home grown Welsh SMEs, help for communities, whether rural or urban that want to protect community assets, a coherent strategy to tackle rural depopulation recognising the threat that this is to the Welsh language and to communities generally, a campaign to encourage walking and cycling, a roll out of Smart meters to homes in Wales, an NHS for for the twenty first century making fresh drugs and treatments available to all our citizens regardless of their address, a dedicated Art Gallery, a Welsh Statues Fund, and, on the process side, an effective Policy Unit drawing expertise from all sectors and all political backgrounds in Welsh life to set out policy options.

These are items from our policy menu, some of which have already been announced.

I am sometimes amazed when some of the more ideologically driven politicians in Wales talk of the reactionary nature of our policy in Wales. The most cursory of glances at our policy proposals would show how threadbare an attack this is.

No government gets it wholly wrong or wholly right and the last Labour government was no exception to that rule but they did leave us with a greater wealth gap than when they came in. In Wales we have 96,000 children living in poverty.

In other devolved areas there are problems too. Still waits for many treatments are too long (longer usually than in England), and our prosperity levels have slipped behind those of large tracts of Eastern Europe that a decade ago had trailed behind us economically, so let's not pretend that there isn't a job of work to be done!

Secondary schools: Closer collaboration for sure, but closure ... absolutely not!

Powys County Council’s secondary school modernisation programme remains one of the most controversial issues in local government that we have seen for a very long time.

Over a decade of neglect from Labour led Assembly governments and an unprecedented level of economic incompetence from a Labour government in Westminster has left us in Powys well used to the continual fight to save local services. The threat of closure to primary schools, post offices, community hospitals, public toilets, libraries and leisure facilities, amongst many other services, will remain firmly etched in the minds of Powys residents as the consequences of Labour’s disastrous economic legacy.

Small primary schools in particular have felt under siege over the last few years. All too often I receive letters or emails from parents or teachers, worrying about the future of their school. I note how the residents of Clyro are the latest community to launch a campaign to fight to keep their primary school safe from the current closure threat. I have witnessed on more than one occasion how the closure of a primary school can rip the heart out of a community. The closure of a secondary school is much rarer indeed; in fact comparatively speaking, seldom do you hear such proposals. For the closure of several secondary schools within a single authority like Powys to remain on the table as a legitimate proposal is absolutely shocking and quite possibly unprecedented.

If the closure of a primary school can rip the heart out of a community, then communities are rightfully fearful of being torn asunder by secondary school closures.

I have visited some of these secondary schools recently and I simply cannot imagine the closure of any one. Change and modernisation is often a necessity but the solution to Powys County Council’s very serious problem with secondary education funding must be resolved by means other than closure. Closer collaboration between schools, the streamlining of services and the sharing of resources are other less extreme options being looked at.

Whatever the decision, we must see all of Powys’ thirteen secondary schools remain open, including their sixth forms.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Lack of indepth reporting on Plaid mess-ups

I have noted with interest that a total of nine Plaid Cymru councillors went against Gwynedd’s Plaid –led local authority line and voted in favour of keeping Ysgol y Parc open in the Berwyn catchment area of the county at last week’s explosive full council meeting in Caernarfon.

It is now clear to most parents, school governors and communities who are facing a school closure within the county, that a number of Plaid councillors are obviously struggling with their education portfolio holder’s dogmatic stance on this issue which is to railroad these closures through come-what -may. Many parents and community members across the area have written to me with concerns that the consultation process on these closures is flawed and unfair, so it does not surprise me that councillors are at long last starting to question the party’s line, (well, the party’s line in Gwynedd, that is!).

However, what does surprise me, is how little take up of the story in the local and national media.
Rumour is rife in Gwynedd that the Plaid councillor for Bala has felt bound to resign from his party over this issue. Whilst Gwynedd County Council’s website shows that he may already have resigned as the portfolio holder of the Finance brief, remarkably, no headlines anywhere commenting on the likelihood that he may also have resigned from Plaid Cymru.

Just as several weeks ago, no reports of Ffred Ffransis’ and Cymdeithas y Iaith’s loud and vigorous protest in the public gallery of the council chamber when the controversial schools’ reorganisation was being discussed and accusations of ‘Bradwr!’ (Traitor!) were being hurled across the chamber, we find ourselves hitting yet another wall of silence surrounding the full events of last week.

Ah well, time for change! I am pleased to say that thanks to local people’s own social networking sites the news is getting out!

Wales Needs Leadership on Badger Cull

The Government needs to move to end the air of uncertainty about what happens next in relation to the control of bovine TB. Last week’s Court of Appeal judgement could have gone either way. The Government cannot have failed to countenance the possibility of losing the court action in the Court of Appeal and must, accordingly, have made some preparatory moves to deal with the possibility of losing the action.

For the people of North Pembrokeshire and area, for the farming community, indeed, for the people of Wales in general, the Minister needs to move to end the uncertainty about what she intends to do next.

We have backed the Minister and will continue to do so if she shows decisive action.

Summer Reading

I usually manage to get a little more leisure reading done in the summer than during term time. I am keen to read the biography of Alan Clark by Ion Trewin, and will not doubt also read ‘The Third Man’ by Labour’s third man, though I am not sure that it adds greatly to what we already know, based on what has been in the Times and other media so far.

On the fiction front there are one or two Robert Goddard’s I have not yet read but I hope to catch up on, and I will no doubt dip into a re-read of some PG Wodehouse. I have also discovered Sharmini Flint who has written some South East Asian whodunits which appear to be very good. All of these plus some Colin Dexter’s and Ian McKewan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ are on the ‘to read’ list.

I am also keen to read on one of my long train journeys through Europe ‘Halfway to Hollywood’ the Michael Palin diaries from 1980-1988. His kindly and ironic eye make for a very good read.
In passing, I am much relieved to find that Arthur Ransome, who was a staple when I was a school boy, has been cleared as a spy and was in fact responsible for recruiting MI5 agents in the Soviet Union for Britain. It is just as well, ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and ‘Coot Club’ would never have been the same again!

Quis Custodiet Custos Ipsos

The media perform a vital function in British public life. All should be treated equally by the media. It is increasingly hard to justify that uniquely in British public life the BBC should be exempt from publishing salaries and benefits of its highest earners, whether they are the stars of screen or radio, or whether they are members of the BBC Board.

In tougher economic times it is all the more difficult to justify this.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

They Cope in Switzerland

Much talk at the moment about the three votes that are to take place in Wales next year – the referendum on full powers for the National Assembly, the Assembly elections, and a referendum on the ‘Alternative Vote’ system for Westminster elections.

Already people are highlighting the potential cost and voter fatigue. These are relevant matters no doubt and have to be balanced against the possibility of having some of the votes on the same day, i.e. the ‘Alternative Vote’ referendum and the Assembly elections.

I thought I would have a look at how they cope in Switzerland. Typically Switzerland, which practices direct democracy where citizens can challenge laws, has votes generally four times a year. They had four votes last year for example. These votes would include both referenda and elections, and the votes take place at the weekend, typically finishing at noon on the Sunday.
They cope there though admittedly turn out is generally below 50% unless there is something truly controversial.

Meanwhile discussion here will be had amongst Party Leaders and with the Secretary of State for Wales on how Wales approaches these votes.

The most likely scenario is the powers referendum in early March, and a vote on the issue of ‘AV’ and the Assembly elections both on 7 May 2011.

Clearly there is a cost to having these votes but then democracy doesn’t come cheap. All of the alternatives to democracy, and let’s face it there really is only one, look pretty unattractive to me.

No doubt we will cope.