Sunday, 30 March 2008

Senedd Circular: Easter Recess Catch-up

This article appears in The Wardman Wire:

This week, Pippa Wagstaff writes her first column for the Wardman Wire about events at the National Assembly for Wales (the Senedd) in Cardiff. It has been held over from last week. Usually the column will appear on Thursdays.

Cranking the Starting Handle

The Assembly is currently in the middle of its Easter Recess, so I’ve taken the opportunity to bring us up-to-date on what’s hot on the political agenda at the run up to the Assembly’s return to Cardiff Bay.

You can take it as read that there are more important things to life. In my life, at least, there’s family and a new career opportunity that’s taking up so much of my time at the moment. I’ve recently taken a short break away from blogging – part work, part pleasure, part nightmare! Now I’ve found my way back to Cardiff, and eventually back to what lurks down the bay – Welsh politics, or beneath, in the darker areas - the politics of coalition.

I don’t sleep deeply these days, and this can be partly blamed (in equal proportions) on having ‘a little one’ and having ‘a big one’. The little one is self-explanatory. The big one being ‘Miss Wagstaff Presents’, which has always concerned itself with the Government of Wales being more of a ‘first-to-do’ or ‘freebie’ government, that has become affectionately known as a gimmick government. Whether the cause is good or bad, it’s a government that concerns itself with headlines rather than getting down to the bread and butter issues of devolution. Whether it’s the first to appoint a Children’s Commissioner; an Older People’s Commissioner; the introduction of free NHS prescriptions; or even its recent attempt – capturing the attention of the UK public (and probably for the first time) – in starting the ball rolling for free parking at hospitals. You can always rely on the Welsh Government to grab some attention seeking headlines in the name of progress. More will be made of this in future columns.

Senedd Snippets:

  • Assembly Members trying to buy their way into heaven
  • Senedd proved to be a success
  • Possible referendum rift between the cohabiting coalition partners
  • History in the making and laws for the taking
  • Plaid/Labour coalition – keep your enemies close
Buying a stairway to heaven

There’s rarely an appropriate time to make such an announcement as ‘a more than significant pay rise’, and now is certainly not the best time when we’re all meant to be tightening our belts. This is one to split the opinion of all parties within the Assembly. To the outcry of public sector workers everywhere, Welsh Assembly Members were handed an extra 8.3% in their pay packets (backdated to May 2007). Meant to be endorsed by the Assembly Commission and its membership from all political parties, Plaid Cymru broke ranks, and six members immediately refused to accept the pay rise, which was seen by some as an opportunistic way to buy your way into the hearts of the Welsh public. Their leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, took this further by stating that he will give most of his rise (that above inflation) to charity in the first year. However, Lord Elis-Thomas, the Assembly’s Presiding Officer and chief diplomat in the making, graciously accepted the pay rise as being a “changing differential in pay”. Whether or nor it is seen as a “slap in the face” to public sector workers, the pay rise is here to stay, and this can be seen as easy political manoeuvring for capital of a different kind. When does a person stop giving the excess to charity? Miss Wagstaff will have to remind certain AMs to set up a standing order in future.

Senedd proved to be a success!

No, not this belated column, or my fellow contributor to Miss Wagstaff Presents, ‘Senedd Whip’, but the leaky Senedd building (well, it is Wales) and its construction, that has been proved to be a Welsh success story according to the Auditor General for Wales.

A report recently published concludes that the landmark debating chamber in Cardiff Bay was delivered “on time and on budget”, which is more than can be said in recent reports of financial flaws and inconsistencies in the way last year's Welsh assembly election was run, which have been identified by the Electoral Commission. Its report shows not all of the £4.5m spent on the election was properly accounted for.

We can’t win them all, so better luck next time.

Cohabiting Coalition Cleavage: Referendum Rift

This was always going to be a major issue between coalition partners in government and a bone for other parties in Wales to chew on. Labour has been accused of working to ensure there is not enough time to secure a referendum on a Welsh Parliament before the next Assembly election in 2011. This month we have been told that the All-Wales Convention, which will judge public support for law-making powers, will not report until late 2009. The powers that this Referendum will give the Assembly are already available through Legislative Competence Orders (a request from the Welsh Assembly Government to legislate in a particular area), and will continue to be available even if a referendum is held and lost. The referendum is far more important to Plaid in being seen as the ‘next stage’ towards independence. Once they clear this hurdle, they can then harp on about a totally independent Wales with the right to its own destiny. However, hurdles are a plenty on this further road to devolution. Being part of the ‘One Wales Agreement’ that binds the coalition government in Cardiff, this could possibly be the section that kills the coalition in the end. A yes vote in a referendum will merely make the whole law-making process simpler.

Those in the red-green coalition are all positive about the prospect of pulling this one off; the rift appears to be in Westminster. However, it has to be said, that this way is the only one, where Labour and Plaid can manage to argue party politics these days and still remain willing partners in Cardiff – hunky-dory in Cardiff Bay and a bit of a kerfuffle in Westminster. Even former Secretary and yes-vote supreme, Peter Hain MP, is getting in on the act: “I set up the Yes For Wales campaign in 1997, but I do not believe the time is right for a further referendum in this Assembly term”. This is much to the annoyance of unofficial Plaid leader and part-time philosopher, Adam Price MP, “Some people in the Labour Party thought Christmas had come early when we agreed to join them in a red/green coalition. But we were very clear-minded and hard-edged in our thinking. If anyone thinks the Labour Party can walk away from an agreement it has signed up to, they are not living in the real political world.”

Someone is going to be disappointed, but not today.

History in the making. Laws for the taking

The word historical is a common one that is widely used in the stages of Welsh devolution. For the first time since May 2007, MPs have debated a Legislative Competence Order, which quietly slipped into the history books. The National Assembly for Wales Legislative Competence (Education and Training) Order 2008 was cleared by Committee and the House of Commons, and is on its way for final approval by Privy Council.

It’s been a long time coming, but the Assembly should be able to legislate in this area before Summer Recess - but don’t hold your breath. Some Welsh politicians were optimistic about the number of Assembly Measures that will be able to be passed in an Assembly term; those original figures now look as believable as a children’s fairy story. The process is time consuming and inefficient when it comes to getting the job done. Many fear that this will play into the hands of the Nationalists who will cry out, “the current devolution settlement isn’t working”. Unionists, on the other hand, need to get the process changed and not wait for the inevitable backlash.

Plaid/Labour coalition. Keep your enemies close

Assembly Government insiders have been suggesting that members of First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s team are trying to undermine Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones.

One allegation is that the Plaid Cymru leader’s diary is being overloaded with engagements, so he is left with no time to think - “There are days when he is working from 8am until 10pm. It seems there could be a subtle game going on, with an attempt to make sure Ieuan gets bogged down in a top-heavy schedule of engagements while having little time to reflect.”

Welsh politicos with long-term memories should remember the fuss that was made when the Deputy First Minister was appointed as he then went on to appoint one of his own political support staff to the civil servant position of Diary Secretary. Sounds like she was also kept too busy to notice what was going on, as surely most political types would’ve seen this coming a long time ago.

And finally…

I’ll have to end it there for a first column article, and as I haven’t even mentioned the upcoming local government election that is on our doorstep, it would be wise of me to make a customer service announcement at this point.

If this doesn’t demonstrate to future would-be councillors the harsh reality of politics, then nothing will… One of Welsh Labour’s rising stars has failed to secure selection as a candidate for his council seat – despite being on a shortlist of one.

Heads down and let’s brace ourselves in anticipation for the build up to May.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Assembly civil servant resigns, but what about the inquiry?

Providing an update to earlier posts (here, here, here and here) it's been announced by the BBC that the civil servant involved in an alleged groping incident at the Assembly Government has now resigned.

The civil servant who was a highways manager in Ieuan Wyn Jones' department, was found in court to have sexually harassed a female Welsh Assembly Government colleague and has now resigned before a fresh internal inquiry has been concluded.

The Civil Court action took place in January 2008 and was followed on 15 January by an announcement from Sir Jon Shortridge, Permanent Secretary of the Welsh Assembly Government.

Sir Jon said at the time he was "very concerned" the court hearing had reached a different conclusion to the assembly government's own internal investigation. He ordered a fresh review and said the independent legal review would provide evidence on which he could decide whether any "further action I should take in this case and whether our procedures need to be changed and improved because of it".

This second Assembly inquiry is continuing into the incident, and is now coming up to the three month mark. Just how long does it take for such an inquiry to be completed?

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Senedd Circular: A New Political Column for 'The Wardman Wire'

Several weeks ago Matt Wardman of the The Wardman Wire asked if I would be interested in writing a regular column for his blog. As a background to his new venture, Matt has asked bloggers from the four corners of the UK to write about their corner (or circle in our case).

The other bloggers are Sadie Smith (Sadie's Tavern) for Westminster, Will Patterson (J. Arthur MacNumpty) for Scotland, a Mr/Ms TBA for Northern Ireland, and a Mr/Ms TBA for Brussels who will also be publishing their columns on their respective blogs.

Senedd Circular

Why “Circular”?

The official reason is that it is a Newsletter and the Senedd Chamber is circular. You may not believe me, but it has nothing to do with 8.3% pay increases and fatcat (i.e. circular) AMs. Nor does it have anything to do with extra-large AMs after too many political lunches.*

The introductory post has been published and the next article will be an Easter Recess Catch-up to be published next week, so we should have our first real Senedd Circular report posted the first week of the new term.

Note to Readers:

I insist, the “Circular” title was inspired by the shape of the chamber, rather than a plan view of any Senedd member after too many political lunches, or the path followed by debates. Really.

* meant as a joke as I love you all dearly.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Is Leighton Andrews Committed to the Coalition?

Assembly Government insiders are suggesting that members of First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s team are trying to undermine Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones.

On the one hand the Plaid Cymru leader’s diary is being overloaded with engagements, so he is left with no time to think.

Another is that Deputy Regeneration Minister Leighton Andrews, the Labour AM for Rhondda, is letting it be known that although his responsibilities come within Mr Jones’ Economy and Transport portfolio, he does not regard the Plaid leader as his line manager.

Instead, Mr Andrews is said to be insisting on a direct reporting line to the First Minister. The allegations, which are strongly denied by the Assembly Government, come in the wake of tensions between Labour and Plaid over when a “Yes” campaign for the next devolution referendum should be set up.

A political source, who did not wish to be identified, told the Western Mail:

Some members of the Civil Service believe that Ieuan Wyn Jones is being deliberately overloaded with diary engagements. There are days when he is working from 8am until 10pm. According to what is being said, the intention is to tie him down so much that he does not have time to think... As Deputy Regeneration Minister, Leighton Andrews is within Ieuan Wyn Jones’ Department of Economy and Transport. Yet civil servants say Leighton is making it clear that Ieuan is not his line manager, but that so far as he is concerned he reports directly to the First Minister... It seems there could be a subtle game going on, with an attempt to make sure Ieuan gets bogged down in a top-heavy schedule of engagements while having little time to reflect.
The crucial time will come with next year’s Welsh Labour leadership election to choose a successor to Mr Morgan, and whether Leighton Andrews sees himself moving from this father-son, master-pupil relationship into a possible contender [wishful thinking in the opinion of the eligible] for the role.

In the immediate aftermath of last year’s election, Mr Andrews was opposed to a deal between Labour and Plaid, although he later became converted to the coalition when it appeared to be the only option.

Welsh Tory Assembly leader Nick Bourne said, “It is clear there are tensions and differences between the two parties below the surface. But if these allegations are true, it would be absolutely extraordinary. “Leighton Andrews should be prepared to put the record straight and make it clear that he is fully committed to the coalition agreement.”

A spokesperson for Mr Jones said:
The Deputy First Minister and his private office are solely responsible for his ministerial diary and there is absolutely no involvement from either the First Minister’s office or from anywhere else in relation to his departmental responsibilities... It is the case that Ieuan’s diary is very full and that he is busy, but that has been of his own choosing because he wants to be a minister who is seen out and about, travelling the length and breadth of Wales rather than stuck behind a desk in Cardiff... As a deputy minister within the Department for the Economy and Transport, Leighton Andrews reports on a regular basis to Ieuan and keeps him fully appraised of all activities in the regeneration portfolio.
Nothing has changed. Remember this from Miss Wagstaff?

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Tony Blair: Love is... A Cruel Mistress

Is there nothing a man wouldn't do for love? The following news story touches the heart on a mild Thursday morning, as the hunt is on for the identity of a mystery Blairite bard who is thought to be a member of Gordon Brown's Cabinet.

At Downing Street upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't Blair,
He wasn't Blair again today,
Oh how I wish he'd go away.
Business Secretary John Hutton was accused by his Tory shadow Alan Duncan of being behind the lines which appeared on the Spectator website. Mr Hutton totally denied the verse was his. "I would write better poetry than that."

The Minister shook his head and looked slightly embarrassed as Mr Duncan teased him that the poem belonged to him. The Tory MP said the poem could only have been penned "by one person" and the "finger of suspicion" pointed at Mr Hutton.
.
During a Commons debate on Post Office closures, he said: "We are told that somewhere in Downing Street, thought to be a member of the Cabinet, there is a poet, a bard. "Looking at the flavour of the language, I think it can only be but one person."
.
Mr Hutton said it was not him, insisting: "Those are absolutely not my words."

Mr Duncan said Mr Hutton had once claimed Gordon Brown would make a "blooming awful prime minister - and I translate for the sake of decency". Total politics at its best.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

How to report the credit crunch...

Some light relief during the Assembly's recess about impending financial catastrophe:

A template for writing a TV news story about the credit crunch

1) “Huge falls in share indexes have left investors and traders in New York/London/Europe/Asia reeling...”

2) “...at one point in the day prices/shares in oil/gas/banks were as low/high as X pounds/dollars/euros...”

3) “...the Bank of England/Federal Reserve/European Central Bank has…”
i) “stepped in to inject X billion pounds/dollars/euros...”
ii) “assured everyone that this is normal” or
iii) “Cut interest rates by half/quarter/one percentage point”

4) “...but how much will this actually affect you?”

5) Enter analyst or business editor: “We don’t really know what the long term effect will be. You’ll definitely be paying more for food/heating/mortgages from now on though…”

Comment of the Week

Reviewing the Welsh blogs, I came across this little gem, by a reader named Rhys. The comment refers to the recent announcement on the subject of a payrise for AMs, which includes extra money for Whips and Committee Chairs.

The real scandal is that Carl Sargeant [as Labour Chief Whip] will still be getting paid £26,000 'on top' of his £50,000, just to remind his fellow champagne socialists how to vote as Labour Whip... Seriously, how can it cost the Welsh taxpayer £26 grand to tell Huw Lewis that he should vote with his government?

Couldn't a post-it note do it more effectively, leaving the remaining £25,999.20 to be put to something worthwhile, like say persuading a dentist not to abandon the NHS?

Well, I thought it was amusing [ever so slightly], athough I do think that a post-it note would also be needed for the desk of Lynne Neagle, so make that £25,998.40 - all the others seem to be in the palm of Rhodri's hand.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Blogging Experiment [no test tubes necessary]

Easter Recess is here and political types are gathering their thoughts, resources, and marbles ready for the big push - Local Government elections - in May.

I've had to take a short break from blogging, but thanks to Dotcommentator and Senedd Whip my regular readers [my mum, partner and child] have been kept up to date with some superb posts. I'll be returning in about a week, to join them in keeping you informed and amused, and have some interesting stories to tell. In the meantime, I've asked someone to assist in revamping the blog. I've already increased the blogroll over the last couple of months and would now like to experiment with the template.

Yours faithbloggery,

Pippa x

Sunday, 16 March 2008

One Wales Grand Slam



ONE WALES GOVERNMENT

EMBARGO: For immediate release as soon as the whistle has blown in our favour.

People of Wales. I speak to you now as your leader, and though I do not take full credit for what we have achieved on the field today, I cannot help but think that this achievement would not have been managed under any other government.*

What the true and honest Welsh Plaid-lab men named Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards have done, is to turn the men in red into men of steel, just like the Welsh teams of the golden years thirty years ago.

This team is playing with a ruthless defensive efficiency, combined with traditional Welsh attacking flair, very much like the Press and Propaganda Office of my government.

If I live long enough to swim and eat with dolphins in my twilight years (subject to my own 'private' healthcare plan), never will I experience such success that we have witnessed together, under the umbrella of a safe, Labour-led government of Wales.

* On behalf of the One Wales Government we thank you for providing space in the stadium for an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss our sycophantic and opportunistic ways to join in with you on this triumphant occasion.

Joking aside. Heartfelt congratulations to the team and coaching staff for providing the public with such an amazing and emotional tournament. You deserve it!

Update: Celebration Parade/Plans. What the hell has it got to do with the Welsh Assembly Government? Assembly politicians, leave it alone! The WRU are in talks with Cardiff City & County Council - keep your opportunistic nose out!

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Economic Development is lame

Peter Hain (maintaining a low profile) has told BBC Wales he is concerned Welsh Ministers are failing to plough enough investment into boosting private companies:

The assembly government had given too much priority to spending money on public services... I do not think Wales can compete with China and India in the future, let alone with Eastern Europe today, unless we have the best skills.
It's as if the general thought in Wales is one of the Welsh public having short memories. Transport yourself to 2011 and the next Assembly election - surely Peter doesn't think that he's starting the ball rolling when it comes to setting up the current Minister for the Economy and his party for a fall - Welsh Labour have been in power since 1999, and Labour (UK) since 1997.

Alas Goldsmith and Jones

Commentators on Lord Goldsmith’s review of citizenship have focused on a specific proposal, that schoolchildren should swear oaths of alliance to the Queen. The oaths, he said, would tackle a “dimunition in national pride” and address the divided nature of Britain. But polls and surveys about national identity suggest nationalism in Britain is not necessarily diminishing, but rather changing and evolving. Take a walk in Cardiff Bay and you will see the Senedd building and the Wales Millennium Centre – two monuments in the Welsh capital to a changing Wales.

Whereas some national groups define themselves on primarily ethnic grounds Wales’ emerging identity is rooted in these new institutions. A Welsh ethnic category does not exist and neither does a British one, except in the minds of a few at the extremes. British identity in more modern times has often been wedded to the British/English/UK state and to the promotion of democracy at home and abroad.

But there are now democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and these have had tangible effects on the nations they represent. Recent coverage of the Welsh Assembly Government’s decision to phase out hospital car park charges show the UK media are slowly beginning to report the differences arising within the UK nations. There have been faults and Freudian slips that reveal a concerning ignorance of UK events. More than one UK broadsheet newspaper has in the past year mistakenly referred to July 1, 2007, as the date of the ‘UK smoking ban’, missing the fact that Wales and Scotland banned smoking in public places earlier.

When George Bush made his 'you're either for us or against us' speech about terrorism, a lot of people decided they were against 'us' not because of the attractiveness of the opposition but the unattractiveness of 'us'. The measures proposed by Lord Goldsmith could well have the similar, unintended effect of alienating anyone who does not wish to swear allegiance to the Queen. What is needed is a better, less polarised debate about what the union is and where it is going.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Civil Servant blogging days may be numbered

A cheeky female civil servant blogger, who has been ridiculing Cabinet members including Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, and taking the mickey out of civil service mandarins, right up to Cabinet secretary Gus O'Donnell, appears to have gone to ground after the Sunday Times reported that the hunt for her was on in Whitehall. Her blog, The Civil Serf, has been swiftly taken down.


The Serf, who has been blogging with impunity for four months, claimed to be a 33-year-old who was "just senior enough" in her department to allow her to know what's going on though "not senior enough to attract suspicion".

In a recent blog, she claimed that Alistair Darling was desperate to use his first Budget, coming up on Wednesday, to garner "a cheap headline" even if it meant announcing unaffordable new measures. "High up on the list will be both child poverty and incapability benefit," she wrote.

She nicknames Gordon Brown 'Velcro' because of the many negative stories that have stuck to him. But she reserves her sharpest barbs for Whitehall culture and personnel. "I've received a meeting request that probably deserves a mention in the Guinness Book of Records," she writes. "It is for something called the 'People Action Team' (don't ask) and it is scheduled to last a staggering seven hours... Truly there is no God."

She has also complained about drunken advances from the opposite sex. "Trapped" at a conference in Brighton, she wrote, "I was being chased about by some bloke from the Foreign Office who wouldn't listen to me saying I'm engaged - yuk!"

She also tells how her colleagues are frequently "under-utilised", saying: "I know two people within eight desks of me whose jobs could be deleted overnight with no discernible impact on our performance."

Because of various mentions of Peter Hain before he stood down as Work and Pensions Secretary, it is thought the culprit may work in that department. A source told the Sunday Times that while no one has yet been disciplined, there were suspicions about the blogger's identity.

Update 10 March 2008, 16:39

  1. Civil servants to get blog and social networking advice (BBC link)
  2. There's a curious comment on this post that suggests, "The first civil servant blogger to be sacked was in Wales, however, no one knows his/her name."

Friday, 7 March 2008

Democracy improves by 8.3%

No doubt blogs in Wales will be shrieking about the proposals by the Assembly Commission to give AMs a pay rise well above inflation. The standard criticisms will be aired: 'public service workers are getting a much smaller increase' and 'why are AMs getting so much when they have so little authority?'

It is worth stopping to listen to Dafydd Elis-Thomas, the Presiding Officer of the Assembly. Defending the pay rise proposals he said: "This is the cost of Welsh democracy. We need informed, businesslike, democratic scrutiny." While it is true that we need informed, businesslike and democratic scrutiny, how will this be achieved by stuffing the mouths of AMs with more gold?

To have informed and businesslike scrutiny we do need to attract decent people to the Senedd with a decent wage. If democratic and informed scrutiny is required then why not spend the money recruiting a few extra AMs to increase capacity? Starting to sound a bit familiar? Well, yes, it's exactly what the Richard Commission recommended years ago.

New Labour has never been particularly warm to the concept of devolution. Tony Blair didn't go along with the Richard Commission's findings and it is unlikely Gordon Brown will agree. Welsh MPs in Westminster weren't particularly happy with proposals to increase the number of AMs either. Perhaps Welsh MPs are more concerned about their jobs than the good of Welsh democracy, which is a running theme at the moment...

Update 16:07: Six Plaid AMs to refuse pay rise

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Beacons footpath repairs top £3m

Footpath repairs in the Brecon Beacons have been priced at more than £3m, but national park officials say there is no money to fund the work.


The park is looking at ways of raising the money to restore parts of more than 1,240 miles (2,000km) of rights of way. However, work has started on one £50,000 project to repair Bwlch Giedd Path on the Black Mountain. Some 200 tonnes of stone has been airlifted onto the mountain and work is set to be completed in three weeks.

Solution: Today, still wanted by the government, he survives as an ex-blogger. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire... The A-Team.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Blogging will be light

I guess this new found experiment does take up a lot of time when you get going. Blogging will be light over the next few weeks as I'm having to deal with a few family matters in addition to spending even more time with the family in the process, which is a blessing in disguise.

I leave you in the capable hands of Dotcommentator and Senedd Whip, and note that the freebie and first-to-do culture of the Welsh Assembly Government hasn't diminished. Nice gesture, but will it impact on budgets? - I can think of plenty of areas that the money could be spent on within the NHS (or other policy areas) and so can you, but suppose an easy-pleasing headline-grabber is needed by Welsh Labour pre-election. God help us!

You can still contact me in the usual places, if not by email (top right).

Pippa x

Monday, 3 March 2008

Sights you don't see in the Senedd

Part 3:

Parliament rooftop protest.






Checklist: Warm coat, scarf, hat, thermal underwear, whisky-filled hipflask, sandwiches, tea-filled vacuum flask, tissues, a reliable friend or companion, a large banner of your choice, and a speech prepared for the media.

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