Great Western upgrade put on hold

The BBC and others ran this story on Friday without particularly highlighting the huge economic impact it would have on Wales:

     Intercity train upgrade postponed until after election

The completing the contract to provide new trains to replace the backbone of the service between south Wales and London Paddington has been put on hold by the Labour Government ... until after the election.

Lord Adonis said difficulties with finance and slowing passenger growth had affected the project.

A "reduction in the capacity of the debt market to support the transaction" had made an impact, he said. But he added that good progress had been made, with Agility Trains being announced as the preferred bidder in February 2009. It was "not appropriate" to enter the contract before the election, he said.

The government had also had to identify "appropriate adjustments" after it and Network Rail committed to electrifying the Great Western Main Line from 2016.

"This has inevitably extended the contractual negotiations, which are not yet complete and would not be so until mid-March at the earliest. In all the circumstances, the government does not believe it would be appropriate to enter into this particular contract in the immediate run-up to a general election," Lord Adonis said.

He said Sir Andrew Foster, former controller of the Audit Commission, would provide an independent assessment within three months of the "value for money of the programme and the credibility and the value for money of any alternatives which meet the programme's objectives".

"Appropriate adjustments" and "an independent assessment of credibility" are, to my way of thinking, rather obvious ways of saying that the Labour Government in Westminster are now backing themselves away from their commitments to upgrade the route, a commitment that we in Wales fought hard for and thought we had secured. See here, here and here.

Now of course this contract is only for the trains, rather than for electrification of the line itself. But obviously we can't have an electrified service between Swansea and London unless we have both. The cost of electrifying the line is about £1.1bn, but the cost of this contract for trains is much larger, about £7.5bn in total for the GWR and East Coast main line. So if we can't get the finance right for the big part, we might as well forget about the far smaller matter of electrifying the line.

Now the one thing that the BBC didn't really grasp was the financial aspect of the story. The BBC stated that Agility Trains (the preferred bidder) was a consortium made up of John Laing, Hitachi and Barclays. Wrong.

On the very same day—just as it happens—Bloomberg in America broke the news that Barclays had in fact pulled out of the consortium:

     Barclays Withdraws from Hitachi’s $11.4 Billion UK Train Bid

The critical part of the story is:

Barclays Private Equity, the buyout unit of Barclays Plc, Britain's second-biggest bank, withdrew from Agility in November, according to Alistair Dormer, the bid group's chief executive officer.

"Barclays decided not to continue with the bid," he said in a phone interview. "They decided to invest in other projects."

Note the date. Barclays withdrew several months ago. So what's actually happening behind the scenes and why hasn't this been made public until only a few weeks before the election?

The obvious answer is that Barclays won't provide the finance, and that it is proving very difficult to get any other private company to do it. That's why Hitachi has bought out Barclays share ... but that of course would leave the consortium struggling, and that is why the bid now seems doomed. But, if it falls, are there viable alternatives? And even then, what of the delay?

Now I don't have the answers. But there is one thing I'm sure of ... and angry about. This Labour government either doesn't have the first clue about how to solve the problem, or doesn't want to solve the problem. Why else leave things for four whole months and then, rather than make a decision, announce that they won't do anything until after the election, when—as we all know—they will no longer be in power ... nor deserve to be.

That is nothing but cynical political buck passing. They are afraid to announce what can only be bad news until after this Westminster election. But you can be sure we would then see Peter Hain and Cobweb Jones going into the 2011 Assembly elections saying that Labour was going to deliver on electrification ... but that the Tories came in and scrapped it.

It's a cheap electoral trick that might well have been lost in the fine print of the business pages, rather than being played out in the full glare of the spotlight in Wales. No wonder Labour were looking so pleased with themselves this weekend:


Now perhaps the Tories will find a way to provide to upgrade the line ... but perhaps they won't. They do have some good ideas for rail infrastructure, as Penddu noted here. But I would be willing to bet that their priority would be to do exactly what the Bow Group says: Heathrow airport, the midlands and the north of England first, then on to Scotland.

If we want the best for Wales, our only hope is to elect enough MPs who will put the interests of Wales at the forefront of the agenda. Labour have just failed us on this, the Tories are looking in a different direction ...

... so I'm sure you can work out the rest for yourselves.

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None so blind ...

For a party that claims the Westminster election is a straight choice between them and the Tories, Labour do seem to be putting rather a lot of emphasis on trying to keep the United Kingdom together. This is what Gordon Brown said in an interview in this morning's Western Mail:

I think everybody knows that Wales, like Scotland, is stronger within the Union, and the strength of Great Britain and the United Kingdom is important to developing the modern economy and international relations that we need.

Because we can work together, we're stronger together than we are apart. I want a Britain that grows together and doesn't grow apart.

Gosh. Anyone might think the real challenge to his party is coming from another direction.


He then goes on to make this even stranger statement:

He also suggested that Labour could look again at the contentious system of funding Wales from Westminster, saying: "The principle should be that Wales and Scotland and the regions of England should be funded according to their need.

"How you implement that depends on you coming forward with proposals to do so, and we're always ready to look at any proposals that come forward."

This may come as news to Mr Brown, but the Holtham Commision has already put forward proposals to do exactly that.


So what are we left with? A Labour Party leader who knows that the funding formula is unfair, who knows the principle on which a fairer funding system should be based ... but who claims that someone has yet to come up with a way of changing the formula.

Now why would he do that? It's obvious: if Gordon Brown were to acknowledge the work already done by the Holtham Commission he knows people would then ask him why the Labour government did nothing to implement any changes. So it's better for him to turn a blind eye to it.

But he still expects people in Wales to vote for his party. Fat chance!

Labour have had plenty of chances to deal with the problem. They've chosen not to do so because unfairness to Wales matters little to a party whose main purpose is to hold onto power in Westminster.

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Schools in Whitchurch

There seems to be a plethora of options being floated for schools' reorganization in Whitchurch, with news of a fifth option in the South Wales Echo today.

I contributed to the debate on the WalesOnline forum in its earlier stages, but think that it may well be appropriate to comment again on the more recent developments. My major concern is that Cardiff ends up with a scheme that respects the wishes of parents wanting both English and Welsh-medium education for their children, rather than pitting one group against the other. It is a matter of great sadness that some people want to turn this into an acrimonious battle.


My starting point is the current situation on the site shared by the English-medium Eglwys Wen Primary (EW) and Welsh-medium Ysgol Melin Gruffydd (MG).


As we can see from the picture (click to enlarge it) the original building is much too small to accommodate both schools. There is a huge number of temporary classrooms—thirteen, including the doubles—which between them probably house enough pupils to fill a 1.5FE school.

Therefore the first necessity is that these classrooms are replaced by permanent accommodation. The question is only where this accommodation should be. The "fifth option" presented last night suggests that this should be somewhere on the site ... which would essentially mean building a new school of roughly the same size as the original on a tight site that can only be entered from one corner. There wouldn't be much open space left for play and outdoor teaching for one school, let alone two. So in my opinion, it would be better to do the new building that is required somewhere else.

Now, as it happens, there is a very good site for a new school on Heol Don which was used by the Council's Adult Services department, but is now no longer required. This was included in the previous set of proposals and still, to my mind, represents the best option for a new school. These two pictures from the report of July 2009 show both the site as it is and how it could be used for new school:



As we can see, the proposal would take some land from Whitchurch High, but not very much. However what has been drawn on the second plan is a two form entry school, and also a new community centre. If the new school were smaller, and if the community centre was somewhere else, very little land would be lost.


The question now becomes what size the schools should be, which schools should be where ... and of course how the scheme contributes to the overall need to reduce surplus places in Cardiff. However in all the plans and proposals put forward there is no doubt that MG needs to become a 2FE school (420 places, plus nursery). So I think it would be best for MG to remain where it is, and for EW to move to the new Heol Don site.

The inconvenience of moving would be balanced by the fact that the school would have a brand new, state of the art building which is only a few hundred yards from its present site.

The tricky question is how big that new school should be. It could be a 1.5FE school, but this would be bigger than the current school. So if the aim is to reduce surplus places, then it might be better for it to be a 1FE school (210 places, plus nursery). Obviously a 1FE school will be cheaper to build and will take a little less space. But in my opinion that is a different fight which must be decided on the basis of population projections, catchment areas and a proper survey of parental wishes.


What this means is that Eglwys Newydd primary can remain as it is. However, as we can see below, EN also relies on temporary accommodation. So, if the aim of the council is to reduce surplus places, this can be done by simply removing that temporary accommodation. However this is not an urgent decision for now. If population projections, catchment areas and a proper survey of parental wishes justify it, the surplus places can be removed in due course. On the other hand, if things move the other way, that temporary accommodation can be replaced by a new, purpose built block at some time in the future.


Overall, the solution I have outlined will mean that surplus places can be reduced if that proves necessary. But the big advantage of what I propose is that the two English medium schools can continue without being forced together into one school. The only thing wrong with my proposal from Cardiff's point of view is that they seem to have an educational preference for larger, 2FE schools (or 2.5FE under Option 4) rather than two smaller schools. But in my opinion a 1FE school is perfectly acceptable—and having two of them retains parental choice, minimizes travel distances and, most importantly, allows both to retain the "ethos" that they have built up over the years. Yes, one school is inconvenienced by having to move, but that is compensated by the fact that they will be in a brand new building.


So far, I haven't mentioned the plans for Whitchurch High. My own personal opinion is that a twelve form entry school is horrendously big ... but what matters is what parents think. Cardiff's rationale for the reduction seems to be that diverting future secondary age children away from Whitchurch will help maintain the viability of other secondary schools. That is a probably a fair point.

My main concern (as will be obvious from a good many of the posts I have written) is to ensure that Welsh-medium education can expand in response to parental wishes. From that perspective, I do not particularly mind if Whitchurch High's popularity makes other EM secondaries less viable. It has been a struggle to get a third WM secondary, but the way primary demand for WM education is growing, Cardiff must start looking for a fourth.

My view is that plans for education must first and foremost reflect parental wishes. So if the popularity of Whitchurch High leads to a less popular EM school having to close, then that provides Cardiff with an option for the next WM secondary.


Finally, the other thing that has pervaded Cardiff's thinking (with the exception of the fourth option) is that school land must be sold off in order to pay for some of the new buildings. That may be valid, but it ignores one of the hidden factors in the "surplus places" argument. As I have shown in the photographs, a good percentage of these surplus spaces is temporary accommodation, some of which is well past its intended lifespan. Temporary accommodation is just that: temporary. Cardiff is under an obligation to replace this with proper purpose-built accommodation, but in the case of EW/MG site there is so much that needs to be replaced that it might as well be built as a brand new school rather than an extension. Building something has to be done anyway.

That said, I would not object to selling some land. For example the south east corner of the EW/MG site is presently occupied by two double temporary classrooms. These would no longer be needed if EW moved to Heol Don, and that corner would make a good site for new housing, as was proposed in the previous set of options. But it would make a very good site for a new community centre too ... better in fact than the one shown on the Heol Don plans and with the added advantage that it would take that much less space from Whitchurch High's grounds.

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The Western Mail

Wednesday's editorial in the Western Mail was one of those rare occasions when I have been genuinely surprised by a newspaper's stance on an issue.

Powers that would boost Welsh democracy

Devolution, as Ron Davies memorably said, is a process not an event. While the next step in Wales will be the referendum on further lawmaking powers, an equally important debate concerns the level of financial autonomy that should be available to the Assembly Government.

Many will be instinctively reluctant to grant any kind of tax-levying powers to Cardiff Bay, fearing that that would inevitably result in a higher tax burden. But that is by no means necessarily the case, as the Scottish Government has demonstrated by choosing not to vary the rate of income tax during the first 10 years of devolution.

We believe there is a strong argument for changing the way the Assembly Government is funded. There is already substantial concern about the workings of the Barnett formula, which allocates resources to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Holtham Commission, which has been asked by the Assembly Government to investigate current arrangements, has already concluded that Wales stands to lose £8.5bn in Treasury funding over the next decade because of the way Barnett works. A move to a robust needs-based formula is clearly appropriate.

But there is a wider issue of accountability that suggests granting the Assembly Government the power to levy or at least vary taxes would strengthen Welsh democracy. At present AMs are only able to make decisions about how to carve up the block grant from the Treasury – they have no ability to vary the total amount of the cake. In this respect, they are in a less powerful position than the smallest community council in Wales, which can fix its own precept. Political parties and others often deplore the lack of political engagement with Welsh politics. Nothing would be more likely to stimulate a greater interest in the affairs of the National Assembly than the possibility of a tax increase. More crucially, the existence of tax-levying powers would force parties to concentrate their minds on the need to create the wealth from which tax revenue springs.

We also support calls for the Assembly Government to be granted full-scale borrowing powers. In the short term, this would allow a forward-looking administration to overcome the constraints on capital spending to be introduced whoever wins the general election. It would also give ministers greater flexibility in planning projects like new hospitals.

An additional reason for supporting tax-levying and borrowing powers is that Wales cannot afford to lag behind Scotland as devolution goes forward. With the Scottish Government likely to be granted income tax-varying power of up to 10p in the pound, our politicians should be trusted with the same responsibility.

Western Mail, 24 February 2010

The last time Martin Shipton said something that made my jaw drop was when the first part of the Holtham Commission's report came out in July.

As I mentioned in this post at the time, the doyen of Welsh political journalism—or weathered old hack, if he doesn't mind a little affection—said this:

The importance of the Holtham Commission’s findings about the way the National Assembly is funded cannot be overestimated.

... What is particularly neat about the Holtham report is the way the Commissioners have deployed the very same formulae used by the UK Government to allocate funds in the English regions to demonstrate that Wales is likely to lose out by billions of pounds over the next decade.

It is astonishing – and grossly unjust – that what is considered the right way to do things within England is regarded as unnecessary or unacceptable in the context of the UK as a whole.

Western Mail, 8 July 2009

The subject is the much same, so I'm not surprised at that. However what has changed is that the earlier statement was just one journalist's opinion, but it has now become the Western Mail's editorial position.

That is quite some shift ... and of course it is one that I welcome.

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A hermit crabb flipping its shell

Some of us are still amazed at how such a small, insignificant creature would be able to flip his home, but this exclusive footage from the shallow waters off the Pembrokeshire coast reveals how it was done:


Of course, we'll need to hit the replay button to get the full picture, because this particular specimen managed to flip his home not just once, but twice!

Since his exploits came to light he's found the shame rather hard to live down, and has been told to keep a low profile in the hope we'll all forget about it.

Crabb by name, hermit by ... er ... political necessity.

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Accommodating the Housing LCO

News is breaking about the Tories voting against the revised Housing ELO both from Betsan Powys, Gareth Hughes and Vaughan Roderick.

Betsan and Vaughan have pointed out some of the blatant discrepancies in the position taken by Tory AMs. However those don't really matter too much, except as an embarrassment to them ... and another reason not to vote for them. There isn't any need for a two-thirds majority on this matter, so the vote in the Assembly will be passed irrespective of what Tory AMs do.

The problem is in Westminster ... and it's a slightly different problem. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee has eleven members in total, reflecting the composition of the Commons. It has six Labour MPs, three Tories (one from England, because the Tories don't have enough MPs in Wales that are up to the job ... one of them has to keep a very low profile for obvious reasons) one LibDem MP and one Plaid MP. In fact the Plaid MP shouldn't really be there because, even though Plaid have the same number of Welsh MPs as the Tories, all that counts is the overall number of MPs in the Commons. Hywel Williams is only on it because it would be too politically embarrassing for the other parties to deny Plaid a place.

But anyway, the votes of those three Tory MPs wouldn't be enough to defeat the LCO request in the WASC either, so the LCO would go through by 8-3 in the normal course of events. However we are approaching a general election, which means that there isn't time to get every piece of legislation through. So what happens is that the parties do a deal with each other to let some items of business through without forcing time consuming debates or votes on the issue ... a process known as "washing up".

Now we don't know for sure whether this LCO will be included in the washing up or not. It's just one part of the horse trading. But the signs do not look at all good. However this is a constitutional rather than a policy issue and as such it should not be a matter for a few Tory MPs alone, but a matter for the Tory party leadership to decide.


David Cameron has made a big deal about "not standing in the way" of a request for a referendum on primary lawmaking powers. However, as I have warned on a number of occasions, passively "not standing in the way" is very different from saying that he will give us in Wales the right to decide. Doesn't this show in the clearest possible way that principle will always get thrown to one side if the Tories disagree with any aspect of what is being proposed?

If he wants to show that he is really in favour of us in Wales being able to decide things that affect only Wales for ourselves, he can still include this revised Housing LCO in the washing up. If he won't, it will be yet another example of him wanting to give people the impression of being in favour of downward devolution, while in fact doing absolutely nothing about it.

All mouth and no trousers.

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Holtham: Taxes and Barnett

A few people have followed up on a post on Tom Bodden's blog about what Gerry Holtham had to say in one of the Plaid Conference meetings over the weekend. Although some good comments were made (and some not so good) I'd like to offer a different perspective. This is what he said:

On Taxes

Some 100,000 people commute across the Wales-England border each day, many of those in the North East, while some 25% of population live within 50 miles of the border.

Varying the basic rate of tax by one or two pence, adding a few hundred pounds to tax bills 'wouldn't pay the cost of the removal van' for the economical mobile to up sticks and leave.

But raising the upper rate of tax, adding £10,000 to £20,000 to the bill ... well, 'they are gone.' You would get virtually no revenue from the upper rate of income tax and if you raise it too far you would probably lose it. If you want to maximise revenue you would cut the upper rate of income tax, then if you put a penny on basic rate ... How you explain that to the Welsh electorate I don't know.

I wasn't there, so I can only comment on what he was reported as saying, but it strikes me as a truism to say that adding 1p to the basic rate of income tax paid by, say, one million people in Wales is going to bring in more money than increasing the top rate of tax for a few thousand high earners by, say, 10p in the pound. That's just simple maths. It wouldn't be right for me to speculate why he would say it ... except maybe as a counter to the assumption that raising taxes for the rich is some sort of "silver bullet" that would solve any country's financial problems at a stroke.

But tax is not just a matter of raising money, it is a matter of fairness too. I am not in favour of "squeezing the rich until the pips squeak" ... but I am all in favour of squeezing the rich until it hurts them (and I realize I've sometimes been in that category) as much as it hurts everybody else. The UK is in the scandalous situation that the poorest pay a bigger proportion of their income in taxes than the richest, as reported here and no doubt elsewhere too. That is immoral and the balance must be reversed.

Where I would take particular issue with GH is his idea that people would "up sticks and leave" if the top rate of tax was 10p higher on one side of the border than the other. Tax is complicated, and every country in the world seems to take the default position of wanting to claim tax from you whether you earned it in one country or another. But to avoid the unfairness of paying two sets of taxes, countries enter into "double tax agreements". These are all different because every country has a slightly different system, but I've no reason to doubt that the UK would want to do much the same as in its agreement with France for people who live in France but work in England (a situation that was not uncommon with commuting on Eurostar). The principle was that tax was primarily paid where it was earned, rather than where the taxpayer lived.

So, in our case, if someone had a £150,000 job in Wrecsam it would of course be a no brainer for him or her to choose to live in the country that had the lower taxes if the rules were set up that way. But—if the UK is consistent—it won't be done that way. People will be taxed according to where the money is earned. So the choice is not where to live, but to try and find another £150,000 job in England. That is something very different.

On Barnett

The Holtham Commission discovered that, in his words, Wales received 'slightly less' under the Barnett Formula than it would if it were treated in the same way as an English region, that is £300m-a-year less. If Wales received a share as an English region it should at least receive about £114 for every £100 on spent on average in England. It actually receives £112.

The Treasury, Mr Holtham reports, are 'fairly reluctant to do anything' about that. Northern Ireland receives £125, when it should get £121, while Scotland's share is £120 compared to £105. So while Wales is £300m under-funded, according to Holtham's calculations, Scotland receives £4.2bn-a-year more.

And running into a General Election where the main opponents to Labour in Scotland is the SNP, Holtham reckons: "If you think they're going to change that, forget it." The Calman Commission in Scotland suggested extending the tax-raising powers there by sharing the income tax base, allowing the Scottish government to tax at 10p in the £, or to vary the bill, and reducing its block grant from the Treasury by say £5bn in recompense. Holtham says this is attractive because it "clarifies political accountability" for the electorate. If the UK Government accepts that argument for Scotland, then it should do so for Wales, he said.

What about a resources tax, say charging more for Welsh water exported to England? The Treasury would probably respond by cutting the Welsh block accordingly, says Holtham and, at any rate, it would be slim pickings, some 5% on £600m turnover would raise £30m, and half of that would lost.

The second part of what Gerry Holtham said is to do with the Barnett formula. Specifically that Scotland does much better out of it than would be the case if a needs based formula were to be applied. Well again, that is undeniably true. But the complicating factor is that Scotland's position is a sort of compromise that in practice reflects the fact that Scotland contributes a substantial amount to the Treasury through North Sea oil and gas even though in theory it is a simple head count formula. More by luck than judgement, the two tend to balance each other out.

Of course it's right to say that Labour, in particular, would never want to open the "can of worms" for fear of increasing support for the SNP if it treated Scotland as severely as it has treated Wales over the last decade or so. But I think the question is much easier to solve if the two issues are kept strictly separate:

•  Firstly, the UK should adopt a needs based formula for funding to replace Barnett. The Holtham Commision has suggested a number of simple to apply indicators that could be used to assess need. That would result in Wales getting more and Scotland getting less, thus being fair to Wales.

•  But secondly, the UK should adopt some way of allowing Scotland to keep a proportion of the taxes raised from North Sea oil and gas. In other words what Scotland loses on one side, they would stand to gain on the other. By separating, rather than conflating, the two issues it should be possible to reach a fairer overall solution.

Of course allowing Scotland to set the level, and keep, some of the taxes which used to go directly to the Treasury is one step further towards fiscal autonomy. But a degree of fiscal autonomy is now inevitable for Scotland because Calman, set up by the three unionist parties to establish a common position between them, has recommended its minimalist proposals for further devolution. In my opinion the principle is right (it is one half of what I said above) but what is wrong with the 10p proposal as it stands is that it gives Scotland control of only one lever. Effective taxation requires a balance of taxes tailored to suit each country's unique circumstances, to promote particular policies (such as green taxes) and to create fairness (because the 10p proposal has no mechanism for varying allowances, tax bands and higher rates it could increase the gap between rich and poor).

I think Gerry Holtham has got it wrong about any taxes Wales raises on its resources. It would be pointless to automatically reduce the amount of block grant Scotland or Wales gets to the same extent that we gain from any money we raise by taxing our natural resources. Of course the Treasury, under its present political masters, would try to do it, even though it would be unfair. One of the problems the UK has is that the Treasury acts as judge in its own cause ... so we need a more objective and independent way of making such decisions. For example, in a federal UK the federal chamber (currently the House of Lords) would make such decisions in a quasi judicial way, with each of the countries of the UK having its own Parliament ... the current House of Commons becoming England's.


However, for as long as we remain in the Union, we should expect to keep only a proportion of taxes raised in that way, or to get a proportionately, rather than strictly equal, lower block grant. The path towards fiscal autonomy must be one of increasing the proportion we keep from the taxes we set and raise, while reducing the proportion we get because of needs.

So for Scotland, for example, there would be an absolute needs based formula for assessing the block grant, but only 80% of it would be paid if 20% of the baseline taxation raised from Scotland were retained by Scotland. Scotland would of course be free to vary its taxes from that baseline in line with what it sees as its priorities. Later, the proportions could by mutual agreement be adjusted to 60%-40% ... 40%-60% ... and so on. There is also no reason why the proportions should be the same for Wales, Scotland, NI and England. Each could be negotiated separately after allowing for common expenditure such as defence, and it would of course be prudent to set aside a proportion as a common reserve or contingency.

And if any country got down to 0%-100% it would effectively be independent ... at least in fiscal terms. Though I think the political decision to be independent will have been made before then.

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Update on New Welsh-medium Schools

Having talked about education in Euskara (the Basque language) last week, I thought I should balance it by talking about some developments in Welsh-medium education.

One year delay in Vale of Glamorgan

I mentioned the Vale of Glamorgan's plans for expansion of WM education here in November. I praised VoG for taking the initiative in both surveying demand properly and coming up with a good set of proposals in the form of starter schools. So I was rather disappointed to read their official consultation document, and find that they have had to put those plans back by a year. Instead of starting these new schools in September 2010, they are now proposing to launch them a year later.

The demand for Welsh-medium schools has increased substantially in the past three years to the extent that current demand now exceeds capacity; this is especially the case in Barry and the rural Vale.

To confirm future demand for Welsh medium education a survey was undertaken during July and August 2009 of parents with children under three years of age living in the Vale of Glamorgan. The survey revealed that, of those who responded, 26% are very likely to require a Welsh medium school place for their children. The survey highlights an unmet or latent demand for Welsh medium education. This is due to the existing distribution of Welsh medium primary schools across the Vale and the travel distances involved to access these schools, especially Ysgol Iolo Morganwg in Cowbridge.

Analysis of Welsh medium demand for September 2010 indicates a shortage of places throughout the Vale to accommodate parental demand for Welsh medium reception school places. The Council, therefore, is in danger of not meeting its statutory obligations.

Ysgol Iolo Morganwg serves the rural vale including Llantwit Major. There is insufficient capacity to accommodate the anticipated demand for Welsh-medium reception school places for September 2010 onwards from those resident within the school’s catchment area. Around 40% of children attending Iolo Morganwg (66 children) live in Llantwit Major and the surrounding area and receive free school transport to Ysgol Iolo Morganwg costing the authority in the region of £115,000 per annum.

Due to the length of the statutory processes required by the Welsh Assembly Government including the need to undertake proper and reasonable consultation when proposing the establishment of new schools, we will not be in a position to open new schools in September 2010 as originally planned. The opening dates for both new schools will be set at September 2011.

Consultation Document

The reason they have given is that the statutory procedures they have to follow are so complicated that they cannot act as quickly as they had hoped to. I don't want to engage in any finger pointing because I don't know the full circumstances. My main reaction is simply disappointment.

It's almost certainly too late to do anything differently in terms of formal procedure now, but there are still immediate issues to be dealt with; namely that there will be parents who want WM education for their children this coming September. These can't simply be turned away. Therefore it looks to me as if VoG are going to have to find one or two more temporary classrooms for their existing WM schools.

But if VoG wanted to be more proactive they might well look at what Cardiff did in a very similar situation last year ...

Ysgol Gabalfa, Cardiff

Cardiff planed to open a new WM starter class in Gabalfa Primary School in September last year. The existing EM school had a large number of surplus places so it made perfect sense to put it there, especially to relieve pressure on Ysgol Melin Gruffydd, about a 1km to the north, which is full to bursting and with no room to expand.

But as it happened, even though Gabalfa was quite happy with the arrangement, there were still the same drawn out formal procedures to go through (if there is even one objection, the matter has to be referred to the Assembly) and these simply could not be completed in time for September 2009. Therefore the Education Minister in the Welsh government gave permission for it to happen in September 2010 instead.

But this is where Cardiff got clever. When it was obvious that the decision would be delayed they could have just let things rest for a year, but instead they went ahead and set up the starter class. However they did so not on the basis of it being a new starter stream, but as temporary accommodation for Ysgol Melin Gruffydd ... which just so happened not to be on the Melin Gruffydd site.

So the question is, Why can't VoG do exactly the same? Some of the new starter schools they propose will be on land that is currently part of other schools, so it might well be possible to go ahead anyway but with the temporary accommodation "technically" being part of the existing school. I'm not saying it can be done, perhaps there are insurmountable difficulties, but I am suggesting that someone tests the water to see what's possible.


Meanwhile, the good news for Gabalfa is that Cardiff Council have now decided [details here] that they want the starter class to become a permanent WM school. As we can see in the picture above, Gabalfa Primary has separate Infants and Junior blocks, and the intention is to convert the Infants block (top right) into a 1FE WM school, leaving the Junior block (top left) as a 1FE EM school. The building in the foreground is a special school. One of the good things about this plan is that the site has an abundance of open space, so in future there would be room to expand the WM provision as the demand for WM places increases.

Ysgol Glan Morfa, Cardiff

At the same meeting, Cardiff also decided that they want to increase the age range of Ysgol Glan Morfa in Splott from 4-11 to 3-11, i.e. to incorporate nursery provision [details here]. Cylch Meithrin Gwaun Sblot are providing a nursery in the school on a non-statutory basis, but if the Local Authority step in it will provide a more solid core service, enabling the Cylch Meithrin to use its resources to provide an extended wrap-around service.


Of course these positives in Cardiff still leave a number of more long-standing problems in the city such as the Whitchurch reorganization and the future of Treganna/Lansdowne. The second of these is in Leighton Andrews' intray, and what he does with it should provide us with an idea of whether he'll prove to be any good at his new job.

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High Speed Wales


There has been lots of discussion over the last year about Britain’s High-Speed Rail network, or rather its lack of one, and there have even been promises made about electrifying the Great Western Main Line from London to Cardiff and possibly Swansea. Ignoring the obvious electioneering and political gamesmanship, this issue has major implications for the Welsh economy, and needs to be looked at carefully.

There have been a number of reports published by various rail lobby groups and there is a report due to be published soon by the UK government, but the most significant one is arguably this one published last month by the Bow Group:


The Bow Group who are a Conservative policy body, and considering that the Conservatives are almost certainly going to form the next UK government their views are particularly relevant.

Before considering the Welsh implications in more detail, their report proposes a new High Speed line – HS2 – running from London Euston to Heathrow then on to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The line would allow direct connection to the existing HS1 line to Paris and Brussels, and could be extended later from Manchester to Glasgow and from Leeds to Newcastle and Edinburgh.

The report comes out very strongly in favour of routing the line via Heathrow, where a major transport interchange would be created, linking HS2, The Great Western Main Line, CrossRail and local services. This station would be situated a few km north of the airport itself, adjacent to the M4 and M25 and with a people mover system used to shuttle passengers from the station around the various airport terminals.

And it is the Heathrow Hub which is key to Wales. As a frequent flyer myself, it is very difficult to get to Heathrow from Wales by train, and many businesses will have chosen not to locate in Wales because of its poor air connections. But simply by locating a HS2 station at Heathrow – adjacent to the GWML, it immediately makes Heathrow more accessible from Wales, reducing the connection time significantly as well as providing an opportunity to connect to international trains with a simple cross platform transfer.

But the report goes further than that – it notes that the GWML is already built to an excellent alignment and could easily be upgraded to a 200 mph capable route mostly by just resignalling, although the Severn Tunnel would remain a bottleneck. It even suggests that a high speed GWML would be completed before the HS2, reducing the Cardiff–Heathrow journey time to as little as 1 hour. This would make South-East Wales a much more attractive location for international businesses.

The report does not make any specific proposals for North Wales, although a station at Manchester Airport is proposed which would effectively become the gateway to North Wales, and we need to ensure that the North Wales railway network can connect directly to Manchester Airport in order to reap the same benefits as HS2 will bring to the South.

For some information and discussion about various other High Speed Rail proposals, please look at this page on the Syniadau Forum.

14:30 - Monday 22 February 2010

MH: These two images from the Bow Group's report show the location of the Heathrow Hub in relation to both the airport and to the wider rail network. Not only would it be easy to get to Heathrow from south Wales (and the south west of England) directly by rail, but it would also be possible to change at the Heathrow Hub to catch a High Speed train directly to Europe.

Passengers from mid Wales would travel by rail to Birmingham, and passengers from north Wales to an interchange just south of Manchester, in order to catch a HS train to directly to Europe.

At present only 27% of journeys to Heathrow from south Wales are made by public transport, either train or bus. 73% of journeys are made by car or taxi. From south west England the figures are 34% and 66%.



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Strange ways of thinking

The news that all six Councils in north Wales are in favour of the government building a 1,500 place prison in north Wales amazes me.

     Welsh councils campaign for new prison in North Wales
     Cynghorau'r gogledd o blaid carchar yn yr ardal

As there are only somewhere around 700 men from north Wales in prison, it means that the majority of the future inmates of a 1,500 place prison will be from England. So if the prison is built anywhere in north west Wales, it will mean those English prisoners being as far away from their families and the facilities that will be required to reintegrate them back into society as prisoners from north Wales are now. Of course it is nothing short of scandalous that prisoners from north west Wales are accommodated so far away at present, but why swap one scandal for an equal and opposite scandal?

So the only viable location for a large prison in north Wales would be in north east Wales, close to the English border. Therefore I have to question the sanity of Gwynedd, Ynys Môn and Conwy Councils. Why are they supporting this joint bid when it is almost certain that any prison that is built would be in Wrecsam, Sir y Fflint or Sir Dinbych? No wonder Aled Roberts of Wrecsam is all in favour. And is a prison in north east Wales really going to solve the problem of distance for those in north West Wales?


Of course there is one reason why the Councils are falling over themselves to get it. Jobs. I know I won't be popular for saying this, but some jobs come at too high a price. If this Labour government had stuck to their original plans, we would now be building a 600-or-so place prison just outside Caernarfon. That would have been a good solution: it would still bring jobs to the area as well as serving the interests of reducing reoffending.

The main reason why the Caernarfon site suddenly became unsuitable was that it was only big enough for a medium size prison, but the Labour Government in Westminster changed their mind and wanted fewer, bigger prisons instead. Even if there were problems of ground contamination at the Friction Dynamex site that would be expensive to remediate, it should be easy enough to find another site in north west Wales for a 600-or-so place prison ... anywhere along the A55 corridor would be fine, but the closer to Caernarfon the better, because that's where we've just spent millions on a brand new Criminal Justice Centre.

Do the Councils of north west Wales not realize that if a large prison is built in north east Wales, it reduces the chances of getting a prison in north west Wales at any time in the future to precisely zero? For why would anyone build a smaller prison in north west Wales if north Wales already has a prison that is more than twice as big as we need?

It is surely better to let this 1,500 place prison be built somewhere in England, and wait for a government that is prepared to build a prison that suits the needs of north Wales, rather than one that will primarily serve the needs of England.

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Virtually no demand for Castilian-medium schools in Euskadi

I came across a story in El Periódico about the language preferences for primary schools in Euskadi (the Basque Country)

Euskadi will not open Castilian-medium classrooms for lack of a quorum

The Basque Government will not be able to open Castilian-medium classes next year due to lack of applications. In the whole of Euskadi, a total of 104 Basque families have requested to enroll their two or three year old children in Castilian in schools that do not offer Model A, in which all subjects are taught in Castilian.

As reported yesterday in The Courier, no school, either public or mixed, received the 20 applications that would bring the opening of new classrooms in Castilian. There is not even a school that reaches a minimum of 15 pre-registrations, the threshold proposed by the Peoples Party [strongly unionist, right of centre].

At the close of the pre-matriculation campaign, there were 728 applications for Model A, a huge gap compared to 4,077 applications for B (bilingual) and 13,436 for D (all in Euskara). Requests for full education in the Basque language are 20 times greater than those for Castilian. Demand for Model A represents only 4% of the total.

El Periódico - 18 February 2010

The translation may not be perfect, but the picture is clear enough. In many respects the language situation in Euskadi is remarkably similar to that in Wales. Euskara is spoken by 25.7% of the population (665,800 out of 2,589,600) although it should be noted that the Basque Autonomous Community (where the schools figures are from) is only one of three areas that make up the Euskal Herria (Basque Country) ... but it is not markedly more Basque-speaking than the other two areas.

In essence, even though only a minority of parents speak Euskara, the overwhelming majority of them want their children to speak it. And of course, just as with Welsh-medium education, children that go to Euskara-medium schools come out being able to speak both Euskara and Castilian, whereas most of those who only learn it as a subject in Castilian-medium schools don't.


I'm sure some people will think I am being over-optimistic, but I see this as a pattern of what we should expect to see happening in Wales. We know that in some areas of Wales (Ynys Môn, Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Sir Gâr) most primary education is Welsh-medium, in some cases over 90%. Elsewhere in Wales the demand is far greater than the current provision. Only a few Local Authorities have properly surveyed demand, but I think it would be safe to say that over 40% of parents in Wales as a whole would send their children to WM schools now if there were enough of them, and if they were close enough to where they live.

We also know that because Welsh is so ineffectively taught in EM schools, many Local Authorities are increasing or aiming to increase the amount of Welsh used both in teaching and non-teaching activities. If this trend continues we might well see that EM schools as we know them today become the exception, and that they will become bilingual schools instead. However, this trend should not be used as an excuse not to provide full WM education for those who want it.


So how long will it take until we get to the situation Euskadi is in now, with 74% of our own primary education being WM, 22% being bilingual and only 4% EM?

Well, democratically elected devolved government started in Spain in 1978, just over twenty years before devolution in the UK ... though of course the big changing point in education in Wales came ten years earlier as a result of the 1988 Education Reform Act. So I think it's reasonable to expect us to reach figures like these in twenty years, if not ten.

Which of the two it is will depend on whether the political decisions we take now respond to the ever-increasing parental demand for WM education. Two things are crucial: we need to put in place the resources to ensure we have enough teachers able to teach in Welsh, and we need to see more EM schools being turned into WM schools.

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Interview with Elfyn Llwyd

Elfyn Llwyd was interviewed by Andrew Neil on Straight Talk last week. As it is no longer available on iPlayer I've taken the liberty of posting it here:


There's one small thing that he got wrong. Crossrail in London is a £16bn project which is being paid for partly by money from Central Government, partly by London businesses and partly by borrowing against anticipated fare income. Although it wasn't obvious at the time of the first announcement (in fact when I talked about Crossrail on the WalesOnline forum I said the same as Elfyn has just said) after a little arm-twisting it was agreed that the portion of the cost funded by Central Government, some £5.5bn, will attract a Barnett incremental for Scotland, as mentioned here:

     Scotland given £500m sop for Crossrail - Evening Standard, 29 October 2007

And confirmed more officially here:

     Select Committee on the Barnett Formula - §44

That means that we in Wales will receive our proportionate share too, about £320m.

Of course, as the Select Committee report confirms, many other projects such as the Olympics are classed as UK-wide money and so won't attract any Barnett consequential. The decision is made by the Treasury and is actually quite arbitrary, rather than based on any consistent rules. So Elfyn's general point is quite valid ...

... and everything else was top notch.

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The Grey Cobweb

Believe it or not, I did draft a post congratulating Carwyn Jones on managing to get a slot on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday, and for his rather good toolbox illustration. In the end I thought it was too un-newsworthy, though I did finish it off by saying the question I would have asked is whether he had sent the letter off to Peter Hain.

As we've learned today, he hasn't.

Which says just about all we need to know about Carwyn Jones and why he got his reputation for being so dozy. He's so laid back he might as well be horizontal. I had thought he'd dyed his hair grey in order to follow in Rhodri Morgan's footsteps. Now I realize it's just a cobweb.


Beneath the grey cobweb, there's precious little decisive activity in the grey cells. Nick Bourne was right. Peter Hain is, in the shadows, still very firmly in control of Welsh Labour. It looks like we'll have to wait some time before we get to the N of the Bang.

Just remember that David Cameron has only said he will not stand in the way of the Referendum Order, and that he will give his MPs a free vote. Nobody in Labour will be able to say that they weren't warned when his MPs either vote it down or impose new conditions. Peter Hain will be laughing. He might just get what he wanted all along ... to scupper the referendum for the next ten years.

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A Workable Compromise?

As I'm sure we'll remember—and if it's faded we can, as I have, refresh our memories here—the decision to hold three televised election debates between three of the party leaders was seen as unfair to both the SNP and Plaid, and open to legal challenge.

Obviously things have been going on behind the scenes since the announcement was made, and it is very welcome news that Sky now seems to be on the point of inviting Alex Salmond of the SNP to participate in their debate. Jeff Breslin of SNP Tactical Voting picked up the story from Techwatch, though I have to say that I'd be more comfortable if it were to be confirmed from the horse's mouth ... or even if the story carried some sort of quote or reference to back it up.

Nonetheless I hope it is true. It is a step in the right direction (though it would be even better for each participant to appear on equal terms) and may prove to be the basis for a workable compromise in the other two debates. The first debate on ITV and the third on the BBC could be similarly modified to address the concerns of other parties. I would suggest that Plaid Cymru—represented by either Elfyn Llwyd or Ieuan Wyn Jones—is invited to participate in one of these on the same terms as Alex Salmond. All it would take is for one of either ITV or the BBC to make the offer. Perhaps another party such as UKIP could be in the third, though that would be harder to justify because UKIP do not have any elected MPs (Bob Spink was elected as a Tory) if not, the third could be between the three larger parties as originally intended.

It would also be good if one of the debates was held in Wales, one in Scotland and one in England. That may seem hard on Northern Ireland, but politics there is rather too different for the model to fit.

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Proper Support for War Veterans

I was very impressed with Plaid's video on Channel 4's Political Slot last night:


As with pensions, it is another good example of how Plaid is making a significant contribution not just to politics in Wales but for the benefit of the UK as a whole.

However this video isn't just a soundbite. This is something that I know has concerned Elfyn Llwyd—a barrister with plenty of experience of the problems faced by ex-servicemen—for some years. As he mentioned in the video, the UK is very bad at integrating some of our ex-service personnel back into civilian life.

Even for those fortunate enough to avoid the physical wounds, no one in the services who has seen war can fail to be deeply affected by their experience, and far too many develop behavioural problems because of it. Some are left to cope on their own, for some it is taken out only on their families and friends, but for others it is taken out on society as a whole. A hugely disproportionate 10% of the UK's prison population are ex-servicemen, a figure which required a good deal of investigative work to obtain ... and perhaps unsurprisingly, as it is a terrible indictment both of the lack of support available and of how much the government has wanted to sweep the problem out of the public eye. Our ex-service personnel deserve—and we owe them—much more help than they are getting at present.

Plaid's team at Westminster has produced a detailed background paper on work in support of our veterans: the problems, what is good and bad about the current provision and some concrete suggestions about how to improve the situation. It is available from Plaid's website as a pdf here. However I have to say that the format (since it is set out for printing as a booklet) makes it very difficult to read. So perhaps people will find this version a little easier, especially if you need to print it out:

     Support for Veterans

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No, you're still racists!

Nick Griffin is now claiming that, because the BNP has voted to change its membership rules, they can no longer be called a racist party:


     BNP votes to ditch whites-only membership rule

I have just two comments on that. First, that it seems to be an admission that the BNP could be called a racist party before this rule change. But second and rather more importantly, that what makes the BNP a racist party is not its membership, but its policies. Any party that seeks to deny some people in our society the same rights as others because of their racial background is racist.

So the BNP are still racists ... unless they change their policies as well as their membership rules.

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Cameron on Wales


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Cameron on Scotland

Thanks to the links on Alan Trench's blog, I read David Cameron's speech to the Tory Party in Scotland. There were a couple of things that particularly struck me about it, apart from the normal sort of stuff that we would expect from any speech of this sort.

Forced Cooperation

"And it's shameful that during one of the most emotionally-charged moments in our recent history, when the Lockerbie bomber was released from jail to return home to Libya where he still is today, the Scottish Government and British Government refused to cooperate.

"That would not happen on my watch."

The matter of compassionate release—whether one agrees with the decision in the Al Megrahi case or not—is a quasi-judicial decision exercised by a minister of government: in Scotland by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and in RUK by the Secretary of State for Justice. So how precisely are two different governments meant to "cooperate" if they disagree?

It might mean that the government that did not have the responsibility for making the decision simply made whatever representations it wished to make in private. In fact the Labour government in Westminster did do exactly this, constantly saying in public that it was a matter only for the Scottish government. I think that was entirely right. But Cameron has called it "shameful". Read the sentence again carefully, he did not say the decision to release was shameful (although he undoubtedly thinks it was) but that what happened was a refusal to cooperate, and that the refusal to cooperate was shameful.

So what are the alternatives? Well, one alternative would be that each government openly declared its disagreement with the other. At least that's an honest position. The American government certainly voiced its disagreement with the decision in no uncertain terms. And the Conservative Party both in Holyrood and Westminster were particularly vocal in their disagreement too. But how on earth can open disagreement be described as "cooperation"?

So what's left? If Cameron's statement has any meaning, it can only be that he intends Westminster to overrule any similar decision the Scottish government might make in future. I find that very sinister.

Privatization of Welfare and Benefits

"Just look at our plans for welfare. It's shocking today that some people talk about five million people living on out of work benefits as if it's just some un-alterable fact of life. We know that there are millions who could be working but aren't. So we're going to take that twisted logic that rewards idleness and punishes hard work and turn it on its head. If you really can't work, we'll look after you. If you want a job but can't find one, we'll help you.

"We're going to remove the mad restrictions that mean money can't be spent even if the end result is a saving for the taxpayer. And when we've freed up that money, we will then invite commercial specialists and the voluntary sector to come into our welfare system and give the unemployed the intensive, personal help they need, paying them by the results they achieve in getting people off benefits and into work."

I've heard these plans before, but perhaps not quite so clearly as they were expressed here. Essentially the Tories are looking to privatize a major part of the system. Now of course this is a matter of ideology: it is a central plank of right wing thinking that whatever can be privatized should be privatized ... because they believe that this will make everything work more efficiently.

Now I think we would all agree that we need to do more to help people into work. This is something that is not only right in itself, but needs to be done because of the large cost of maintaining the welfare and benefits system as it stands. The question is how to do it.

Only a few days ago in this post, I mentioned that the large majority of people in Wales, some 59.5%, think that the welfare and benefits system should be devolved to Wales. Only 22.7% think that decisions on this should be made at Westminster, and 16.8% think they should be made at Local Council level. So it shouldn't come as too big a surprise to find that opinion is much the same in Scotland.

The ongoing Scottish Social Attitudes survey published its headline results for last year a few weeks ago. 60% of Scots thought that welfare and benefits should be decided at Holyrood, 19% at Westminster and 16% at Local Council level.

So this is clearly an area where there opinion is different in both Wales and Scotland to that in England. Even back in the 2005 election, the Tories polled more votes in England than Labour (though thanks the unfair FPTP electoral system, Labour won 92 more English seats than the Tories) and this time round nobody doubts that the Tories will do much better. They will get a big majority in England, even if not in the UK as a whole.

England is a generally right-leaning country; Wales and Scotland aren't. So privatization of part of the welfare system is something that might well find a degree of acceptance among people in England. In many ways it's similar to the increasing privatization of aspects of the English National Health Service as part of an internal market structure that relies on competition. But this is very clearly not the way the majority of people want to do things in Wales or Scotland ... in fact in Wales we dismantled the internal market in our NHS only a few years after it had been implemented.

So I'm not going to be dogmatic and say that a similar sort of privatization of the welfare system is wrong. It's fine if that's the sort of system people want ... and if they vote for a party that will implement it. But it is definitely wrong for a party that will be lucky to get five seats in Scotland and ten in Wales to impose it on Scotland and Wales simply because the vast majority of seats in Westminster are English.


Cameron has constantly said that he wants to devolve power downwards from Westminster ... and I couldn't agree more. But power has to be devolved to the appropriate level, and the only way to determine what that level might be is to look at what people themselves say they want. In England, there is no intermediate level between Westminster and Local Councils, so the next step down is to devolve more decision making power to those Councils. But in Wales and Scotland things are different, and the large majority of us want things such as health, education and benefits decided at our respective national levels rather than at either a UK level or Local Council level.

It is not going to be easy to devolve welfare and benefits to Wales and Scotland, in the main because the system has become ever-more entangled with the tax system. But I think the system has become over-complicated as a result of Gordon Brown's changes as Chancellor and now Prime Minister, with the result that many people don't have a clue how it works and miss out on credits that they are entitled to. So disentangling the two would be a very good idea anyway.

My point is this: if the Tory party is determined to pull the welfare and benefits system radically in one direction, they must give Wales and Scotland the opportunity to do things differently. If they don't, their commitment to devolve decision making power downwards is meaningless ... especially when people in both countries want it by a majority of about three to one.

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The A of the Bang

I'm delighted that the motion asking for a referendum on primary lawmaking powers was passed yesterday, and even more delighted that it was passed unanimously. No one against it, no abstentions. Who could ask for a more positive signal?

I had hoped this would happen, and I want to express particular thanks to both the Tory and LibDem groups in the Assembly for putting aside their very real, and still unresolved, concerns about the date of the referendum ... as well as for some excellent contributions in the debate.



However it is important to realize that yesterday's vote was only a small step in the process, and that we still don't know for sure whether we will get the referendum, when it will be held, or what the wording of the question will be.

The next stage is simple: Carwyn Jones has to write to Peter Hain to let him know the result of the vote yesterday ... not that he needs to be told. Due process must be followed, of course, but how quickly things now happen will be a clear sign of whether the Labour Party want to get this referendum sorted so that they can concentrate on the upcoming Westminster elections (I only hope they don't forget the "minor" matter of all the ongoing aspects of government in both the Assembly and Westminster) or whether they just want to go through the motions.

Yesterday's statement by Peter Hain was interesting:

Carwyn and I have been working very closely together over the past two months to make progress on this issue. I fully support the First Minister's approach and now look forward to receiving his letter so I can begin the necessary preparatory work to take this forward. In the meantime, as Carwyn and I have said jointly, we both agree that the priority in the coming months will be the General Election, the outcome which will be so important for Wales. We must secure economic recovery for Wales, not choke it off with hasty cuts to Government spending.

The first thing is that Peter Hain hardly needs to wait for a letter before he gets on with his job of drafting the Referendum Order to be laid before Westminster. The issues are quite straightforward, and the only thing which will require any external input is the Electoral Commission's opinion on the wording of the question. However they can't give their formal opinion until they know for sure what Peter Hain is going to put into the draft RO.

In reality, we know that the Electoral Commission are already on the ball. Nick Bourne mentioned before Christmas that he had been approached for his (or the Tory group's) opinion on the wording of the question, and it is inconceivable that other parties would not have been asked the same question. Therefore ideas have been well aired for some time, and it is only a question of choosing what seems to be the best option. We don't need to make too big a deal about it, because the precise form of the question will have absolutely no effect on what will happen if we get a Yes vote. What we will get after we vote Yes is already set out in detail in the GoWA 2006. There is no room for other options.


What strikes me is that the wording of Hain's statement is very deliberately ambiguous. It could mean that Carwyn Jones is going to take the full 14 days before sending the letter, so as to mean that Peter Hain can sit on his hands and do nothing in the full knowledge that the 120 day period he has before he needs to respond will extend past the Westminster election. So we will see if the essence of the "very close working" between Jones and Hain a few months ago was, to paraphrase:

I know you don't want this referendum, Peter. But I've got Plaid on my back, and I have to make it look as if I'm serious about it. So I must put it to the Assembly. But if I make it vague enough, the LibDems and Tories might just throw a wobbly and get us out of it ... then we can then blame it all on them. Plus, if I just string everything out by a week or so here and a couple of weeks there, by the time it gets to your desk you will have time to ignore it without actually being seen to have rejected it. That'll mean you can still make out that you're in favour of more devolution.

Of course it might not be that way at all. The First Minister's letter could go off today, and Hain could lay the draft Referendum Order before Parliament on Monday. Only time will tell, so the A of the Bang is:


I would say this: if the intention really is to get on and fight the Westminster election, then the simplest way to do it is to get everything about the referendum sorted as quickly as possible. While there are still unresolved matters, people are going to have to spend time and effort trying to get them resolved.

Look how quickly Labour is moving to get a referendum on the Alternative Vote for Westminster ... and in particular how prominent and proactive Peter Hain has been in the process so far. There is no reason why he should not move just as quickly to set this one up before the Westminster election is called.

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More effect on Parliament than the entire Liberal Democrats

Yes, the lesser mortals in the House of Commons cringe in fear and shame before the power and majesty of Plaid's glorious trio. Well, at least that's the picture as seen by the Independent this morning.


Plaid Cymru's fearsome threesome pack quite a punch

What a relief to see Elfyn Llwyd in the House yesterday, still alive and asking questions. He's always more interesting than he looks. Tiny Plaid Cymru are a great parliamentary asset. Blair and Mittal's £2m, that was them. They kicked off Cash for Honours. The Blair Impeachment project, they did that too. Llwyd and Adam Price (they are two-thirds of their party) have probably had more effect on Parliament than the entire Liberal Democrats.

He was suggesting to Jack Straw that half the women in prison shouldn't be there (did you know women have gone to jail for not paying their television licence?) Leave aside his imprisoned women, Elfyn has another fish on the line.

Four years ago, he received a document—top secret, unsigned. From whom? I don't know. Why did he get it? Don't know that either.

What's in it? Ah yes, it details, he says, our leader's conversation at the famous Crawford meeting a year before the Iraq war started. It is, he tells me, "evidence of a done deal between Bush and Blair" and shows that in the light of Blair's subsequent answers on the subject that "the depth of the deceit is astonishing".

So that's why it's nice to see him kicking and swinging—and not from underneath Blackfriars Bridge. Why he has taken four years to bring it up? I can't say but the news has been taken seriously enough to bring in interviewing officers from Special Branch and the Met. Over a week ago he offered the document to the Chilcot inquiry and he hasn't heard back. We'll just have to wait and see.

Independent - 10 February 2010

Mind you, packing more of a punch than all sixty-three Liberal Democrat MPs combined isn't really saying so very much, is it? And that was with only two! Include Hywel, and we have more positive effect on Parliament than both Labour and the Tories combined.

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What are the LibDems for?

It is always good to hear someone advocating a fairer and more consistent devolution settlement for Wales, so some of these sentences from Nick Clegg, the leader of the LibDems, are particularly welcome:

Clegg "passionate" about giving more power to Wales

The National Assembly should be transformed into a full parliament with the same powers as its Scottish counterpart, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has declared.

The party will vote on Tuesday to support a referendum which could give the Assembly law-making powers in 20 strictly defined areas. But Mr Clegg believes devolution in Wales should go further.

In an interview with the Western Mail, he said: “I am a passionate believer in devolving power away from London and Westminster to the constituent nations of the United Kingdom and I think that means the maximum amount of powers for Scotland, for Wales and the other parts of the United Kingdom.”

Arguing this was the best way of guaranteeing the long-term future of the UK, he said: “I think there is nothing inconsistent between keeping the union but devolving ever more powers. In fact, I think the way to keep the union fresh and strong in the decades ahead is precisely to give more and more powers to Holyrood and Cardiff.”

Western Mail - 8 February 2010

However the problem with the LibDems is that they are very good at talking this sort of talk, yet don't have such a good record of walking the walk. The language that Nick Clegg has used is one of devolving "the maximum amount of powers" away from London and Westminster. Fair enough. But when it come to an obvious area in which powers could be devolved to Wales he suddenly becomes very vague and noncommittal:

When asked if he would support the devolution of criminal and justice powers to Wales, he said:

"We would look at it. We are completely open-minded. We have no arbitrary red-lines at all ... "

That isn't a consistent answer. These powers are devolved to Scotland, and are—if everything goes according to plan—going to be devolved to Northern Ireland as well. So why couldn't Nick Clegg answer the question with a simple, unequivocal "Yes"?


Much the same is true of the LibDems' position in Scotland. As I commented here a few months ago, if the LibDems really did want "devolution max" for Scotland, why tie themselves to the almost minimal increases of responsibility for matters in Scotland advocated by Calman? They could very easily come up with their own devolution policies for Scotland to include much greater fiscal autonomy, responsibility for the tax and benefits system, broadcasting and many smaller issues. These could then be put as a third option in a referendum on independence later this year. (It is pointless putting the Calman proposals to a referendum since all parties, between them representing the huge majority of people in Scotland, agree on them as a minimum.) Between them the SNP, Greens and LibDems could carry a vote in the Scottish Parliament to set up such a referendum, and it would put the two big parties in London in a very awkward position if they decided not to implement what had been voted for.

So why exactly are the LibDems so lily-livered? They have a golden opportunity to present the people of Scotland with their ideal vision of a Scotland within the UK. Why are they so afraid to put those cards on the table?

It is hard for me to escape the conclusion that they are putting their own electoral advantage before any issue of principle. Following their "behind closed doors" conference last year it seems that they only want to do this after the Scottish elections in 2011, hoping that their number of seats will increase as a result of them showing themselves more in favour or more devolution that either Labour or the Tories. But they have enough seats to do it now, so why wait?


In Wales, the Labour party has shown us that it only wanted devolution as a way of strengthening its own hold on Wales, and now only wants to move to primary lawmaking powers for the Assembly because it is about to lose power in Westminster. But at least Labour has now come round, the Tories will always be in two minds.

But there would seem to be every opportunity for a party that wants to see devolution progress further in Wales ... but stop short of independence. Why aren't the LibDems in Wales making more of that message? Why are they only prepared to say they are "open minded" over policing and justice? Why, for example, don't we hear them say that they want control over the question of welfare and benefits transferred to Wales? After all, there is very substantial support for it in Wales, as I've mentioned before:

Survey respondents were asked about which level of government "ought to make most of the important decisions for Wales" for four key policy areas: Welfare Benefits, the National Health Service, Schools, and Defence and Foreign Affairs. Results are presented in Figure 6.3 below. These show not only clear majority public support for the devolved level of government to have control over areas where they already make many decisions—on schooling and healthcare—but also a similar level of public endorsement for those powers to extend to an area like welfare benefits. The latter is striking, as it is a policy area that currently remains very much reserved to Westminster.


In fact, for the last four years in a row, the BBC's annual poll has shown that people in Wales think the Assembly should have more influence over our lives than Westminster by a huge margin of about three to one:

60% to 21% in 2006
56% to 19% in 2007
61% to 22% in 2008
61% to 21% in 2009

It is good to see that Dib Lemming is blogging again, I hope she continues. But her first post after a long absence was to berate the fact that the LibDems could not escape being asked which parties they would work with. I want to be less mealy mouthed. In the 2011 Assembly election I expect to see Plaid get somewhere between seven and ten additional seats, but it is hard to see how we could win more than 25 seats.

After the 2007 election Plaid were in the unique position of being able to work with either the LibDems and Tories in the Rainbow, or with Labour. I think it's fair to say that we chose Labour for two major reasons: first because we could not get the referendum on primary lawmaking powers without them (it needs 40 AMs to vote in favour) and second because some of our AMs would have found it almost impossible to work with the Tories, even though the All Wales Accord itself contained hardly anything that was distinctively from the Tory manifesto.

Next time will be different because the referendum will have happened. Although Plaid probably won't get enough seats to form a government alone in 2011, there is a very real chance that we could form a government with the LibDems, even if only a minority government (Labour and the Tories will always cancel each other out because that is how they choose to position themselves in a UK context.) But to do that, the LibDems in Wales have got to start being a lot clearer about what they want for Wales. I would suggest that a clear commitment to the transfer of policing and justice, the responsibility for administering the welfare and benefits system, plus of course a substantial degree of fiscal powers for Wales (since we could use those levers to make it more attractive to do business in Wales, and therefore increase employment) could form a decent foundation to build an agreement on.

But although I think that might make sense to some LibDems, we have to go back to the rather sad fact that the majority of LibDem voters in Wales don't really seem to want the same things as LibDem politicians, as I mentioned here. And that—if you think that asking what the LibDems are for is facetious—does raise serious questions about why people actually vote for them.


Over the weekend I had the great pleasure of meeting Gwynoro Jones for the first time. Something which, by happy coincidence, ties in nicely with these two pieces about him and his son Glyndwr, Plaid's candidate in Merthyr, by Martin Shipton in the Western Mail yesterday:

     Once the biggest foe of Gwynfor, ex-Labour MP aids poll bid by Plaid son
     Gwynoro Jones brands Independent Wales a "childish fantasy"

Gwynoro was particularly active in the early days of the SDP when, for a brief year or two after breaking from the Labour Party, they looked like making a breakthrough in UK politics. But in the end they lost momentum and were subsumed into the old Liberal party, with all their passion for actually making a difference lost. Gwynoro can support his son because he knows Wales needs that sort of passion, even though it wouldn't be right for him to join Plaid because he does not want Wales to be independent (... and, as with Ron Davies, I would not want him to join unless he came to believe in independence.)

So my advice to the LibDems in Wales would be not to leave your leader in London to talk about his "passionate" (though not thought through) desire for greater self-government in Wales, but to start shaping some firm ideas on how you intend to go about it. If you can do that, you might have a reasonable hope of getting the votes of some of the consistent 60% or so who want to see the Assembly have more influence over the lives of people in Wales than Westminster ... but be careful, they might not be the people who vote for you now, since the majority of those who vote for you now are against further devolution.

However if you can't do that, don't be surprised if more and more of those people vote for Plaid simply because we are the only party with consistent ideas on how to devolve more areas of responsibility to Wales, even though they may not be persuaded about independence ... yet!

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