Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.

Assembly

The latest news, debates and reports from the Senedd. (Fourth Assembly stories are under 'Archive').

Bridgend

The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.

Laws

We gave AMs law-making powers; this is what's being done with them.

Committee Inquiries

Detailed scrutiny of how Wales is being run. (Fourth Assembly inquiries are under 'Archive').

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Senedd Watch - July 2013

Owen : As you'll notice, I've switched from the default Blogger comments system to Disqus (notes available from Welsh not British) and I've updated the Comments Policy accordingly. This isn't because of any problem, I just thought it needed an update.

I have no issue with anonymous comments, and you can still leave them as either a guest or under the name “Anonymous”, but you need to provide an e-mail (which isn't revealed). You can also sign in to the system using Facebook, Twitter or Google+ too as far as I can tell.
  • The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee report into civil emergencies recommended that some executive powers be devolved to the Welsh Government. It followed a critical report by the Wales Audit Office, which highlighted confusion between Welsh and UK roles during such emergencies.
  • Education Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) introduced the Education Bill, which will reorganise the General Teaching Council for Wales, makes changes to procedures surrounding post-16 education for special needs pupils, and give Welsh Ministers powers to set school holidays.
  • The chief executive and acting chief executive of Caerphilly Council were arrested and bailed on suspicion of fraud. It follows an investigation by Avon and Somerset Police into pay rises awarded to senior council officers, which were criticised by both the Wales Audit Office and trade unions.
  • The Assembly passed the Human Transplantation Bill on July 2nd by 43 votes to 8. The Human Transplantation Act 2013 will create an “opt out” system for organ donation for Welsh residents, sets out arrangements for appointing representatives to make a decision on someone's behalf and defines “consent”. Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) said he was “proud” of both passing the Bill and the way in which the Assembly scrutinised it.
  • The measles outbreak in the Swansea area – which resulted in more than 1,200 confirmed cases and one death – was declared over on July 3rd. On July 9th, it was revealed that the epidemic cost Abertawe Bro Morgannwg LHB up to £500,000.
  • Opposition politicians criticised Welsh Government claims that the Welsh NHS had broken even, as £82million was brought forward from contingency funds to enable local health boards to meet their annual targets.
  • The Information Commissioner upheld an appeal, requesting the Welsh Government release draft “Case for Change” report documents, which set out arguments for hospital reorganisations. Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion), said it was a “victory for openness and transparency”. The Welsh Government said they withheld the documents because resources were increasingly diverted towards media management. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) described it as a “nonsense excuse”, proving that Welsh Ministers thought they were “above scrutiny”.
  • Minister for Food & Natural Resources, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), said he would work to create a “transparent and fair” farm subsidy system in the wake to reforms to the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Welsh Lib Dem leader, Kirsty Williams, said cancelling the Tir Mynydd scheme in 2012 had “put farmers at a disadvantage” compared to the rest of the UK.
  • A redacted version of the Jillings Report – not previously published - into child abuse in north Wales care homes was released on July 8th. It revealed “extensive abuse” from the 1970s through to the 1990s, described as “bestial”. It resulted in at least 12 deaths, five convictions and highlighted significant failures in police and staff investigations.
  • Health Minister Mark Drakeford announced that ambulance services would be commissioned by local health boards in future, in response to the McClelland Review into the Wales Ambulance Trust earlier this year. He also announced that NHS budgets would be reviewed to prevent care and mortality scandals.
  • Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) announced that several road projects were to “progress” - including the Cardiff Eastern Bay Link - subject to finance. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) said Severn Bridge tolls could be used to finance the proposed M4 Newport bypass.
  • A Beaufort poll for The Western Mail found that more Welsh voters would vote to leave the EU than stay – by 37% to 29% - with the rest undecided or uninterested. A referendum is expected in 2017.
  • PCC Alun Michael (Lab, South Wales) called for the devolution of policing and criminal justice to Wales, describing the current arrangement as “de-facto devolution”. He echoed comments made by the First Minister about devolving policing as part of the Silk Commission.
  • A land deal between the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) and South Wales Land Developments was referred to the Serious Fraud Office. It follows an initial complaint by Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), and subsequent Wales Audit Office and Welsh Government internal investigations.
  • The Standards Commissioner – Gerard Elias QC – published his annual report on July 15th, calling for AMs to behave better in their private lives, following high-profile censures of Assembly Members during the past year.
  • The Assembly's Local Government Committee report into home adaptions for the elderly & disabled described current arrangements as “bewildering” and means testing as “complex and unfair”. They recommended a customer charter and that the Welsh Government set minimum standards.
  • Alun Davies announced that the “True Taste Awards” - which recognised good quality food – were to be scrapped and replaced for not having enough “positive aspects”. The Minister will launch a review on a new brand, which would "place a distinct emphasis on Wales".
  • Housing and Regeneration Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), lowered housebuilding carbon emission reduction targets – due to come into force in 2014 - from 40% to 8%. It's claimed the reduction would save £4,000 on the cost of a home. Environmental campaigners were said to be “gobsmacked” and questioned the Welsh Government's commitment to sustainable development.
  • On July 17th, the National Assembly approved the Agricultural Sector Bill. It'll create a new panel to replace the Agricultural Wages Board, which was wound up by the UK Government in June. On July 2nd, the Assembly approved a government motion that it should be treated as “emergency legislation”. On July 9th, the Assembly approved the general principles of the Bill. A Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East) amendment to scrap “zero hour” contracts in agriculture was rejected, drawing condemnation.
  • The National Assembly entered summer recess on July 19th, remaining so until September 23rd 2013.
  • Sports Wales chief, Prof. Laura McAllister, warned that Wales' Olympics legacy was threatened by budget cuts to local authorities. There are indicators that participation has increased by 30-40% in some sports, but Prof. McAllister highlighted the need to match sports budgets to health and education.
  • Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Wales rose by 191% in 2012-13 according to UK Trade & Industry – a performance described as “sparkling”. 67 projects creating or safeguarding more than 6,500 jobs. The First Minister said the figures were “extremely encouraging” but warned against complacency.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), called for an inquiry into neglect at two Abertawe Bro Morgannwg LHB hospitals, after an elderly patient was left dehydrated - subsequently dying - after receiving treatment at both. The cause of death relayed to the family was also different from the post-mortem results. The LHB accepted the criticisms of the Public Services Ombudsman and paid the family £1,000 in compensation.
  • Plans for a £280million motorsports complex in Blaenau Gwent were approved by Blaenau Gwent councillors, but were put on hold by the Welsh Government for further consideration to determine if it should be called in. Natural Resources Wales expressed concerns about the impact on the environment, but supporters claim it could generate up to £50million per year for the local economy.

Projects announced in July include : A personalised support programme for 5,000 people as part of the Welsh Government's Tackling Poverty Action Plan, approval for a £13.4m replacement for Afan Lido in Port Talbot, plans for a £33million agri-research centre in Aberystwyth, a £1.2million grant scheme to part-fund the costs of bovine TB vaccinations and the launch of an express bus service between Cardiff city centre and Cardiff Airport.

Monday, 29 July 2013

All eyes on Môn Mam Cymru

Assembly by-elections are rare, and Ynys Môn's this Thursday – prompted as you know by Ieuan Wyn Jones' resignation to head the Menai Science Park – is the first since Trish Law won Blaenau Gwent as an Independent in 2006.

The by-election itself has been covered extensively by Blog Menai in particular; also Syniadau, National Left, Click on Wales, Ifan Morgan Jones, Inside Out and Politics in Wales.

The candidates lining up to replace Ieuan Wyn Jones are :
  • Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid) – Former political journalist. Former presenter on Radio Wales, Radio Cymru and of S4C's Newyddion.
  • Steve Churchman (Lib Dem) – Local councillor in Caernarfon, Gwynedd. Former Westminster candidate in both Barking (1992) and Dwyfor Meirionnydd (2010).
  • Rev. Neil Fairlamb (Con) – Rector of Beumaris. Stood in the May local election and finished 6th of 9 candidates.
  • Nathan Gill (UKIP) – Formerly ran a care home business. Stood in the May local election and finished 8th of 9 candidates.
  • Kathrine Jones (Soc. Lab) – Stood in the Gwynedd council elections in 2012, winning 31% of the vote in a two-candidate seat.
  • Tal Michael (Lab) – Policy consultant. Former chief executive of North Wales Police Authority. Unsuccessfully ran for North Wales Police & Crime Commissioner in 2012.

What are the likely issues?

I can't comment on local nuances, so I'm looking at this more from a general perspective.

The island's economy – Anglesey remains one of the least productive parts of Wales in terms of GVA per capita. Will the voters reward Plaid/IWJ for getting the Menai Science Park on the agenda as part of their budget deal? Or will they go down the "sending a message to Westminster" narrative, perhaps boosting Labour's chances?

The mothballing of Anglesey Aluminium has probably been a bigger economic and productivity blow to Anglesey than anything before or after it, including....

Wylfa B – This could cause problems for Plaid due to their confusing stance of supporting Wylfa B for local economic reasons, but opposing nuclear power elsewhere. Syniadau's coverage of this issue might appear to be slightly contrarian, but I think he's right in principle.

There were hints from Blog Menai that Wylfa B
hasn't been brought up often on the doorstep.
(Pic : anglesey.info)

This is going to be a decision taken by the UK Government, so Labour don't have much leverage either – though they likely will in 2015. Could that open the door for the Tories? I presume the main issue here surrounds securing as many local (construction and operation) jobs as possible, and deciding whom would be in the best position to press for that.

The construction jobs will be gone once the plant's completed – and will likely be carried out by contractors experienced at building nuclear plants, probably French - while the net-gain in jobs will be around 200. So, the economic case isn't exactly brilliant in the long-term, while the energy case isn't even there at a Welsh level as North Wales exports more energy that it uses already. Jobs are jobs I suppose, but we can probably do better than this.

Stability on Anglesey Council – Anglesey Council has hopefully moved on from its period of destructive personality politics, and the humiliation of being directly ruled from Cardiff. Labour have influence in the council, but they don't have the numbers and are very much second fiddle to the four Independent groups. Plaid have the numbers, but can only scrutinise and have limited influence in Cardiff Bay. Who would be best placed to keep the council in check as a local AM?

Agricultural Reforms – Ynys Môn is Wales' "breadbasket" with some of the highest concentrations of high-grade farmland in the country, and an important player in the Welsh meat and dairy industries. Issues like CAP reform will disproportionately affect Anglesey more than many other parts of Wales. Moves like the emergency Agricultural Sector Bill – and Plaid's attempt to remove zero hour contracts - might've played well to a large chunk of the island for different reasons.

Will north follow south in the rail electrification stakes?
(Pic : The Mirror)

Improving access – There've been outline plans to improve/widen the Britannia Bridge since 2007, removing a pinch point on the A55. There's also the question of pressing for electrification of the north Wales mainline, the proposed reopening of the railway serving Gaerwen, Llangefni and Amlwch to passenger services and the expansion and retention of services from Anglesey Airport.

Hospital and social care services – Anglesey doesn't have a district general hospital, and is reliant on Ysbyty Gwynedd for acute care. Current hospital reorganisations are going to affect the island like the rest of Wales, with the general trend being to close or downgrade some community hospitals – and there are at least two on Anglesey. Betsi Cadwaladr LHB were recently ripped a new one over their management of health services.

There's also been a controversial review of residential care homes on the island, with the possibility of closures, centralisations or a shift to social enterprise provision. Compounding this issue, Anglesey has seen amongst the biggest increases in the proportion of people aged over 65 in the 2011 census. Anglesey Council are due to make a decision this autumn.

Summer party poop


It's being (fairly) described as a "two horse race" between Plaid Cymru and Labour.

I'm not going to focus on how Plaid or Labour selected their candidates as I don't think either party did anything too controversial. You could see Tal Michael standing for Labour coming a mile off, and urgency was perhaps used as cover by Plaid to rush through a candidate with stature – even if they had at least two such potential candidates.

Plaid have – as you might expect – gone hard to retain the seat, with many visits by the top brass over the last few weeks, aided by the weather. They seem to be quietly confident, and are "getting a good response". I take pronouncements like that with a pinch of salt, but my gut instinct tells me it's probably correct. As I pointed out though, they've left open goals due to confused policies – which has always seemed to be a problem with Plaid due to their left-of-centre, "broad church" makeup. That's something I've often dubbed "Plaid's Paradox" of being both electable and unelectable at the same time.

Despite their poor showing in May, Labour have been taking this seriously (though perhaps not seriously enough) with the First Minister visiting the island several times. A working majority – which recent polling suggests might come in 2016 anyway - would prove incredibly useful for the remainder of the Assembly term, and would render the Plaid-Lib Dem budget pact largely useless just weeks after it was announced. That would be huge in political terms, so you've got to wonder why nobody seems too bothered?

The Conservatives had a miserable local election in May. However, they have an ability to pop out of nowhere on Anglesey, more famously Paul "The Druid" Williams in 2011, in addition to Peter Rogers in 2003 and (as an Independent) in 2007. They should be preparing themselves for disappointment due to the effect of UK Government policies, or at the very least aiming to finish above UKIP.

You would expect Anglesey to be fertile ground for a populist, anti-politics party like UKIP. However, when you think "UKIP", the first thing that comes to mind is "anti-EU". The second thing is "anti-devolution". They've campaigned (in Wales) so hard against the Assembly, they've backed themselves into a corner. There are eurosceptics across the political spectrum, but I'd imagine a large chunk of UKIP's Welsh base consists of what's left of the hardcore anti-devolutionists.

Doing an about face is strange, and I suspect potentially damaging to UKIP in Wales – the signs of a split are already surfacing - even if it's a more pragmatic stance. I think they'll do better than they did in May but nothing more than a distant third/fourth. Next year's European elections will be more important to them, I'd expect.

For the Lib Dems and Socialist Labour, I suspect it'll be a case of trying to retain their deposits.

The big issue will be how many people bother to vote – I'd guess turnout will be a rather low ~35-40% – and that might aid Plaid, especially in the absence of a strong Independent candidate. Or, as others have said, voters could equally punish Plaid for prompting them out of their homes in the first place.

You've got to say that Plaid should hold the seat as long as they continue their momentum from the local elections. I think we'll all be surprised if they didn't, and it would be a story in itself.

Having said that, I don't think Plaid should get over-confident, and still need to get their vote out. I wouldn't be surprised if Labour come an uncomfortably close second (within 2,000 votes compared to 2011), possibly making Ynys Môn a hotly-contested seat in 2016....or simply off the back of a low turnout.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Porthcawl's supermarket sweep & Bridgend Library future


Morrisons set for Porthcawl - With a £1million sting in the tail?
Is a supermarket finally on the way to Porthcawl?
It looks like it, and it'll be a Morrisons.
(Pic : thedrum.com)
For the second time in as many years, supermarket chains have expressed interest in building a new superstore as part of the regeneration plans for Porthcawl.

After the original Tesco deal collapsed, in September 2012 I said :
"(BCBC should be) aiming for a supermarket that might want to expand into the area. That could be Morrisons - as they're the only one of the "Big 4" that doesn't have a store in the county - or Sainsbury's who might want to take advantage of Tesco's poor press."


Although the news has already been released by Bridgend Council and Glamorgan Gazette, at this week's BCBC cabinet meeting, a report (doc) confirms that Morrisons are the preferred bidder to build the new store, with Sainsbury's being held in reserve.

As Morrisons don't currently have a store in the county, it could well be a draw for people outside Porthcawl too.

A word of caution though – no formal plans have been submitted yet and something could still go wrong, though this seems a lot more concrete than Tescos. I'll cover any formal plans once they're submitted.

The tricky issue originally was that BCBC were going to spend/borrow £4.7million for highway improvements once they had a confirmed developer. The costs would be recouped through the sale of the land, and a revised agreement between the land-owners (Evans family) and BCBC would mean both would get a share of the profits.

BCBC haven't selected a contractor to carry out the highways works yet, they're still drawing up a shortlist. However, it's now estimated that the highways works will cost £5.7million - £1million more than the council planned for - because public realm and promenade works are being included as part of Morrisons bid (as far as I can tell).

It's been recommended that the council approve that further £1million. I think the idea is that because of the extra public realm works on the promenade, the land set aside for residential development would be more attractive to developers and easier to sell. So BCBC will be able to recoup the extra costs through those land sales.

I hate to be a cloud, as I hope the regeneration kicks off in earnest. But BCBC's budget is looking tight to say the least, and if they're honestly expecting to base this off significant increases in land values for residential development, then I think they're in for a shock.

Bridgend Library to become an arts venue?
The future home of Bridgend Town Council?
And a much-needed arts venue?
(Pic : 192.com)
Next, there's been news regarding the future of Bridgend Library on Wyndham Street.

As you probably already know, the current library will move to the Recreation Centre in the near future once the revamp is completed. It's unclear precisely when, though I'd guess sometime in 2014.

Bridgend Library is a listed building, with a prominent town centre location. Questions were inevitably raised about what will happen to it once the library moves. BCBC say in the cabinet report (doc) that they want to retain some sort of civic role for the building.

It appears as though Bridgend Town Council have made an approach to take over the building as a replacement for their current offices at Glanogwr, which they say is too far away from the town centre.

The idea is that the town council would take over the top floor, and the ground floor would be used as a general purpose arts venue – aimed mainly at performance and exhibition space. I don't think it's big enough to host significant concerts though.

BCBC want the town council to draw up a "democratically-approved proposal" before they'll enter negotiations on leases etc, but describe the proposals as "attractive". It'll also mean that the Glanogwr offices can be "disposed off" at some point.

I've mentioned that Bridgend town centre lacks an arts venue when discussing the town centre back in March.

In the last few weeks it's been revealed that BCBC are also drawing up a bid for Vibrant & Viable Places funding, which will include more town centre housing and improved parking. Maybe it's just a case of great minds thinking alike, eh?

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Page 3 - Nobody's DD-cup of tea?

Is it a simple case of covering up? Or
are the issues much deeper?
(Pic : The Guardian)

Around a fortnight ago, the Assembly unanimously agreed - following a cross-party debate - that The Sun's Page 3 feature should be discontinued.

Time's set aside every few weeks for debates on whatever AMs want to discuss. I wouldn't be surprised if AMs have since been criticised for not discussing something "more important", but I think it's a good thing they debate issues like this – issues that aren't top of the political agenda, but topical.

It reads as though the debate itself was good-humoured and raised many interesting points.

I thought Page 3, or its equivalent, was a "British thing", but it looks though as if it has various manifestations globally. The Sun aren't the only ones who do it in the UK either – The Daily Star do so too, while there's also Mail Online's efforts.

A grass-roots campaign against Page 3 is starting to bear fruit, with high-profile activism and even a concession from Rupert Murdoch that Page 3 could be dropped in favour of "clothed fashionistas" in the future. I don't know what that means exactly, but it could easily mean something worse. Some clothes leave very little to the imagination.

First thing's first, the Assembly or Welsh Government can't do anything about it. I don't think even the UK Government would try. It'll have to be done voluntarily or indirectly, with co-operation from newspapers – and I think that's the right way to approach it.

Why should Page 3 go?


Any objections I have to Page 3 come from a different direction – there's not enough "non-sexualised" nudity out there, so we all end up with hang-ups about what things should or shouldn't look like.


Hypocrisy now
(Pic : themediablog.co.uk)
I don't think depictions of nudity in the mainstream media are wrong at all, as long as it's done tastefully, with consent, the models are treated respectfully and it doesn't have any "slap and tickle" conditioning attached to it.

Page 3 is a bit childish. It reinforces prudish and unhealthy attitudes about sex because on the one hand you have populist ranting against pornography, and on the other hand, bare breasts are presented as bawdy to the point of being comical. That's not healthy.

I suppose its original aim was to be "edgy" and a "poke in the eye of political correctness", but it isn't anymore. It's a bit....sad. It's a bit Benny Hill and flared trousers.

Then there's the impact on body image. If I turned the first page of your average tabloid, only to be confronted with ten inches of diamond-cutting King Dong and an eight pack, I'd probably feel uncomfortable.

I imagine there would be a similar effect for some women when confronted with topless photos alongside their "news".

Most women don't look like Page 3 models, and the pool from which they're drawn from probably numbers 0.1% of the adult population. The same thing goes for male models too. It's a myth that there's one be all and end all of what constitutes "attractive", as we're all going to have different ideas on that.

So Page 3 is wrong because it's too generic. If we're going to have nudity, it should be of all colours, shapes and sizes, shouldn't it?

Bernadette, 22, from Purfleet.
Anal Trauma.
(digplanet.com)

Take Channel 4's "Embarrassing Bodies". You can see - not only plenty of body parts of all kinds - but complete rectal prolapses, skin lesions oozing pus and STIs destroying genitalia one sore at a time.

I think it's a triumph.

You also have to consider the more practical consequences arising from this that we might not think about.

What effect does it have on women who want to breast feed in public? Women who might want to bathe topless for comfort? Would women be worried about going for a mammogram or exercising because they've had seeds planted in their heads that they should measure up a certain way?

For example, 139 people with nothing better to do with their lives complained about Holly Willoughby's choice of clothing a few weeks ago.

This, in part, results from the attitude Page 3 perpetuates – body parts are only allowed to be seen when it's got something to do with sex or sex selling stuff. It could directly impact what women feel they can or can't wear/do to avoid being labelled or stereotyped. That's the real problem as I see it, not the breasts themselves.

Until we eliminate that attitude, we're unable to have grown up discussions about "things that really matter" - like sex education, sexuality, pornography and teenage pregnancies/sexual activity.

If we're going to have debates on those issues, we have to be able to do so without resorting to outdated and hypocritical Victorian rhetoric about modesty, or only presenting idealised and uncommon human forms.

Models? Or Objects?

Are there varying degrees of objectification?
Is the above example worse than Page 3?
(Pic : adrants.com)
The big one – objectification of women. I think it's a separate argument from the rest, and I doubt it's an open and shut case.

I doubt Page 3 qualifies as objectification under the strictest definitions. If Page 3 were just a photo of a pair of breasts every day, then it would qualify because you're quite literally reducing someone to a sum part, like a cut of meat.
I'd say Page 3 is a soft form of objectification - casual, expected, and missed when not there.

However, Page 3 models have names – albeit single pet names. They're also clearly doing it willingly, even if they're two dimensional and any quotes attributed to them are done so sarcastically.

You can argue the models are making a free choice to pursue a career, and the decision to do it rests with them alone. I agree with that. I doubt it's a question of whether the models are being objectified, but whether their material belongs in newspapers instead of magazines.

I know this is going to come as a terrible shock to you all, but straight men objectify women we find attractive (to varying degrees). I'm not going to claim that I'm some sort of enlightened man, because that would be a condescending lie - I'm willing to admit I do it as well. I'm also willing to bet you do too regardless of gender or sexuality.

I'm not talking about cat-calls, groping and unwelcome advances - that's wrong. I'm talking about the stuff in your head. It's often said men think about sex "every seven seconds", but to put things in perspective, the reality's more like for seven seconds every hour.

This sounds silly, but we do it without thinking about it and shouldn't need a newspaper to do it for us. It's a type of day-dreaming, and if that's what activists are trying to fight as "objectification" then I don't think they're picking the right battles.

I'd say the majority are able to do that privately and don't expect women to take whatever fantasy we might have as "a compliment". You can easily switch it on and off, making sure it's appropriate to the situation. Most of us know it's not polite to leer and - hiding behind bluster in front of friends - will be genuinely embarrassed if we get caught out.

It's those men (and women) who don't have an off switch who are the problem, combined with peer-pressure, things like alcohol and "expecting something" from it. That's probably because they lack willpower to do it in their head, confusing fantasy with reality and crossing boundaries that shouldn't be crossed.

I doubt you can really do anything about "mental objectification" because it's a key part of attraction, flirting and all that stuff. You might be able to "unlearn" it, I don't know.

You can do something about the commodified "hard" versions that give people the impression that it's OK to do it openly through blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality – like Page 3.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Vivat Vagina!

(Pic : explodingactresses tumblr)
Congratulations, Unnamed Royal Fry George Alexander Louis!

You've emerged from a pool of bodily fluids, released during a wall-banging night of steaming hot blue-blood sex, to become one of the planet's 7 billion or so resident humans, and the "Great British" public's new favourite goldfish.

On some battlefield hundreds of years ago, your ancestors and their friends proved they were bigger and stronger than everyone else's ancestors. After generations of men being able to find the right hole, executions by disembowelment, murders, religious genocide, extreme domestic violence, civil wars, genetic illnesses - and other less pleasant things – here you are.

Although you'll be the most important person in the world to your parents and family – the only people who should matter to you - because of whom the uterus your collection of genes resided in for nine months belonged to, lots other people think you're important as well.


As the television people are just discovering (and broadcasting to us non-stop), "Isn't it remarkable how far a royal muff can stretch?" It almost makes your mother seem...."human".... doesn't it? Rather than an ornament. I suppose she's done her job now.

All this is because some people are trying to fill a commemorative plate shaped hole in their lives.


Your job, as you've probably figured out, was decided for you the moment your father - going balls-deep, his balding head caked in sweat - roared to Thor as he cream-pied the inside of your mother's baby clown car.


If all goes as planned, one day you'll not only become a head of state and run the country, but a head of a church too.


Actually, "run the country" is a bit of a fib. 
You were, apparently, chosen to do so not because you might be any good at it – unlike most of us, unfortunately – but because centuries ago, people really believed that your ancestors were chosen by magical sky people to do the terrible things to them that they did.

You'll never become a doctor, accountant, estate agent or train driver. Your job will consist of waving, shaking hands, looking slightly up whilst pointing at things and using scissors until you die or get bored. It's also a good idea to get used to the smell of fresh, wet paint as soon as you can.

Forget retirement or running away and hiding, you won't have that opportunity. If any of your children turn out to be a disappointment, or a bit strange, you'll probably hang on until you're well into your 80s or 90s!

Some people are going to hate your guts because you exist. A handful of loons will probably go so far as to try to kill you or/and your parents. Another handful of loons will remain convinced you're a lizard until the day they die. Some will go so far as to literally worship the ground you walk on. It's probably best to ignore the lot, but most of us are alright.

If we don't care, or if we see you as what you are - just another kid - we're probably one of those "alright" people.

You'll eventually come to deal with some of the most unpleasant specimens of humanity. We call them "Prime Ministers". You'll have to listen to them moan on and on, whilst resisting the urge to do what your seventeen-times great uncle did and have their heads cut off.

Don't worry about Carwyn – who'll probably still be in the job when you come to the throne. You can just contact him via his telepathy implant, as his brain stampedes across Wales in its mech-warrior suit, terrorising the natives with questions, like something out of a Stephen King inspired game show.

You should expect yourself, or your mother, to be compared to your dead grandmother at every opportunity by tabloid newspapers. If they stoop really low, they'll try and think up of scenarios of "what it would've been like" if she were still alive.

Your parents will have every right to get annoyed at that. And yet, they'll be expected to smile through it, even if what they want is for the world to leave you all in peace. You would best get used to it too, and pretty quickly I'd imagine.

Because...."tradition"....or something.

Monday, 22 July 2013

WAG End of Year Report Card 2013

School's out for summer, so it's report time.
(Pic : BBC)
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Assembly's in recess until September 23rd. So it's worth taking another look at how I think the Welsh Government and opposition leaders have performed over the past year.

Because of the March and June reshuffles, I've altered this compared to 2012 to grade whole departmental performances (where applicable), as it's unfair to judge ministerial performances off four months of work (or three weeks).

Carwyn Jones (Lab, Bridgend)
First Minister

C+ domestically, B externally

The overall impression is - "Better than last year".

Carwyn continues to talk some sense on the bigger issues, including the fall out from Scotland's independence referendum. His problem's that nobody's listening. It doesn't matter that bloggers care, or articles get posted on Click on Wales. Until Ed Miliband and David Cameron take notice, then talk of grand constitutional conventions is moot.

On the "domestic" side of things, I'd echo what the IWA said about "patchy" performances. "Treading water" is the best description for how Welsh Labour have gone about things for the last 14 years, and this year's no exception.

The decision to buy Cardiff Airport stands out as particularly brave, proving the First Minister can shift when he wants to.

The only thing that's reflected badly on Carwyn personally this year was that ridiculous S4C badger row. I can't think of much else aside from performance - and that's not entirely his fault, even if he's the "face" of it. There's how he handles FMQs, but that's probably how he naturally does it. I don't think it's worth reading too much into the chaos at the end of this term either (for the moment).

Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda)
(Former) Minister for Education

B (A for effort)

Considering it's only been three weeks since his resignation, it's fair to give Leighton the "credit" here. His resignation will be the biggest political story in Wales this year, for good reason.

It's hard to question his determination. In many ways it was refreshing and commendable. Leighton clearly wanted to get to grips with school standards, and – in principle – the new literacy and numeracy framework is a good idea. It's just a question of rubbing teachers -
who actually have to work with his ideas - up the wrong way .Though it's traditionally taken very little to annoy them, they might have a point this time around.

He seemed obsessed with mergers. I don't see what the point of much of that is as it doesn't seem to make much difference other than rebrandings and governance changes.

The underlying fact remains that school standards are stagnating. Reforms take time to filter through, though. His halo slipped due to matters outside his brief, but you couldn't knock the effort.

Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower)
Minister for the Economy, Science & Transport

B

I think lessons have been learned from that Green Investment Bank bid, so I'll move on from it now, but I'm always going to believe that AMs never looked into that debacle properly.

Some of the policies developed - life sciences in particular - have the potential to be exciting in the long-term, and a model that could be applied to other parts of the economy. Edwina's taken to this role better than I was expecting, but questions remain about the overall performance of the Welsh economy, as well as high youth unemployment. That's a burden shared equally between Cardiff and London.

Overall, I'd say Edwina's doing a decent job and seems to enjoy it. For Sêr Cymru and its related fund (which is starting to bare fruit), the trade trips, and actions like the SME finance report, I'm going to be kind. I think transport infrastructure needs to be Edwina's priority in the coming 12 months.

Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan)
Minister for Finance

B-

Another solid performance whilst enduring difficult financial circumstances.
Jane's been a competent and fair Finance Minister so far. It's just a question of how long she'll be able to put off the inevitable slashing of funds to local authorities, and what discomfort the Plaid-Lib Dem budget pact might cause later this year (depending on the Anglesey by-election result). My only complaint would be about where the money's going – I don't think enough capital spending is heading towards "hard infrastructure".

Theodore Huckle QC
Counsel General

C

One of the roles of the Counsel General is to ensure legislation falls within the competence of the Assembly. The Welsh Government were proven right on the Byelaws Bill, but it should never have gone that far in the first place.

There were more problems caused recently, with the Electoral Reform Society raising concerns about the clarity of law-making powers. That's nothing to do with him, more the devolution settlement, but as I said at the time, I don't think he's being properly utilised by AMs as a whole - with the notable exception of Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales).

Reshuffled Departments

Health

E

"In a critical condition." The Human Transplantation Act is a major initiative by itself, and I think the handling of the measles outbreak was spot on. Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) has also shown promising early signs. The compliments end there.

The McClelland review was faintly damning, but even more damning was the 7-8 years of Welsh Government inaction in response to previous reviews. Some parts of the Welsh NHS, like A&E departments, are buckling under the weight of demand because many of the Welsh Government's key public health messages – like "Choose Well" – aren't getting through, in addition to chronic recruitment problems.

Hospital reforms have come ten years too late, and are showing signs of possibly becoming a major public policy bungle – not because of the proposals themselves, but for how its been handled. If these reforms fail, and enough people question if Labour can be trusted with the Welsh NHS, it'll be a game-changer.

There've been nauseating levels of hypocrisy from some AMs, who seem to support government health policy in the chamber – or say nothing at all - then openly/subtly oppose it outside. If they can't set out their own case, why should any of us listen to them? That goes for opposition AMs too. They're probably doing more damage to themselves, collectively, than they realise.

Local Government

C-

The Local Democracy Act is limp, and the only major change – STV for local elections – was subsequently killed off, though the opposition did get the local authority bigwig salary panel in there. Huge mistakes were made in changes to council tax benefit at the end of 2012 too. The Welsh Government also come across as having a weak leash when it comes to dealing with local authorities themselves, and when it comes to enforcing their own orders.

One thing I will say, is that local government settlements have been generous. That's probably going to change next year. Plus there's the elephant in the room regarding reorganisations of services or local authorities themselves. Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) has shown early signs that she might be the right person to deal with it.

Culture

C

Not much has happened here, to be honest. The Welsh language question should've been put to bed now. However, there's more question marks following the census results. I think there's also been a failure – so far - to properly capitalise on the success of the London Olympics, and an Assembly committee is looking into that AFAIK.

One good thing is that museum attendances are up, but that's matched by general falls in arts participation. There's also the long-standing issue about the media, in particular the future of Welsh newspapers and S4C's independence. For pity's sake, don't launch another inquiry! More from me on that in September (hopefully).

Housing & Regeneration

C

A mixed year. In terms of the good, you can point to the recent renting white paper. You can also point to increased capital spending on housing, and a commitment to a public-private approach to things like regeneration and renovating housing stock. Schemes like New Buy help prop up house prices and create a bubble, so I think the Welsh Government were right to pull the plug. However, the Lib Dems have a right to be miffed.

In terms of the bad, there's the bubbling RIFW scandal – that's still yet to be properly cleared up. I also think many of policies here are stuck in a certain way of thinking and aren't radical enough, bordering on defeatist and undermining the supposed commitment to sustainability.

Communities & Tackling Poverty

C-

Credit needs to be given in the area of community safety, but until criminal justice powers are in the hands of Welsh ministers I'm not going to give Labour too much credit.

Like the economy, there are underlying performance issues. Poverty levels haven't improved, and it looks like the target to eliminate child poverty by 2020 is going to be spectacularly missed, maybe even heading backwards.

Once again it's a burden shared between Wales and the UK, with the main policy levers – like welfare - resting in London's hands. They (Westminster) haven't helped themselves with their decisions over the last few years, notably the "Bedroom Tax", some aspects of Universal Credit, and disability welfare reforms carried over from the previous Labour government.

Food & Natural Resources

C

A mixed bag, verging on disappointing.

Welsh Labour delivered a major manifesto commitment through the creation of Natural Resources Wales, but it's low hanging fruit and unlikely to make too much of a difference, even if it's a logical administrative choice. With significant energy powers missing, this portfolio seems rather weak - farms, fields 'n' trees.

Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) has been doing a very good headless chicken impression – in good and bad ways. I think the Agricultural Sector Bill was the right thing to do overall, but there've been some big chinks in his armour due to his handling of the cold weather back in March/April. I think farmers have a right to be angry about that.

Junior Ministers

Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath)
Deputy Minister for Children & Social Services

C+

The Social Services and Well Being Bill is the most wide-ranging and complicated piece of legislation passing through the Assembly since the 2011 referendum. It's also been incredibly troubled at many points. Managing that Bill - as well as various care reviews - through the Assembly counts as an achievement in itself. The whole thing seems to have been incredibly stressful for Gwenda Thomas herself, consultees and the other AMs dealing with it. A safe pair of hands.

Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly)
(Former) Deputy Minister for Skills

C+

I've been pleasantly surprised. Jeff's been more visible over the last 12 months, and has subsequently been promoted. The review of qualifications was fairly comprehensive, if a bit of a missed opportunity, and he's also overseen an expansion and focus on apprenticeships and technical qualifications. Not a bad job, overall, but he's taken a big leap by being moved to Communities & Tackling Poverty, which – as I've said – is a difficult portfolio to manage without any significant powers. I'm not sure if it was the right thing to do (creating that cabinet position in the first place).

Opposition Leaders

Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central)

C

Better than last year, it's fair to say. I was getting worried, but I think Andrew's found his feet as leader at long last. You get the impression his party are trying to become a bit more populist than the traditional Welsh Tory stereotype of grumpy farmers and bland, grey accountants.

Having said that, they remain hysterical and ineffectual as a group, despite individual AMs punching above their weight. Labour can afford to ignore them, while Plaid can out-campaign them. They've probably been the most vocal on hospital reorganisations, and NHS in general, but haven't offered anything remotely palatable in terms of their own changes. Fines for missed appointments? Reintroducing prescription charges? Talk about missed open goals.

Leanne Wood
(Plaid, South Wales Central)

B

I can't pinpoint anything Leanne Wood's done wrong so far. Plaid are starting to make (slow) progress and got a decent result on Anglesey in May – albeit not the final outcome they would've wanted. I think the new backroom staff deserve credit, as there's the impression of a growing can-do spirit. They seem sharper in terms of policies - and pointing out failures - without being chopsy. They're a lot more practical than they've been in the past.

My only concerns would be confusion surrounding nuclear energy policy – which is causing them problems - and a lack of detail when announcing their own proposals.

Needless to say, Leanne is the de facto opposition leader at the moment. It's been a more than promising first full year for her personally - I think she's matched what I said during the leadership election about a "progressive popular front"  and a "Welsh politician people will want to be seen with" perfectly. But there's clearly still work to be done by Plaid as a whole. My gut instinct tells me the coming year is going to be tough, but manageable.

Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)

C

Kirsty's always had a level of visibility and vitality – and to be honest, she's always been a pretty good leader too. However, I think that effect has been neutralised somewhat by Leanne Wood, and there are hints that she might not be enjoying life in the Senedd anymore.

The Welsh Lib Dems have frustrated. One moment they'll make the usual good contribution - I think Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) has been excellent in particular. The next they'll big up some insignificant concession they get in Westminster. They - or one AM - briefly showed a cruel/calculating side too, but I won't go into that to save those involved embarrassment.


I've been struggling to think of any mark they've made at the Cardiff end of the M4. They were clowned by Carl Sargeant pulling the plug on New Buy, and increasingly look and feel like they're becoming an irrelevance. I don't think things are that bad for the Lib Dems or Kirsty Williams....yet. They need to do some soul searching and ask themselves what their party's actually for.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Exclusive : Senedd anonymous sauce revealed?

An anonymous Senedd source has exclusively revealed that the National Assembly considered launching their own range of sauces, but the idea was scrapped following an embarrassing incident.The Assembly insider - codename Martin Shitpun - told Oggy Bloggy Ogwr that following secret late-night talks, the four parties colluded to keep their sauces anonymous, making underpants explode in delight across Wales Online.

Each party group were to go before guest judges at the Pierhead Building - Masterchef's Gregg Wallace and John Torode - to decide a winner. The winning sauce was to be sold to raise funds for a Postman Pat ride on the steps of the Senedd, which will be officially opened by Made in Chelsea's Her Majesty The Queen.

The contest was dubbed a "PR disaster" and all footage has been suppressed. After painstaking investigative journalism involving flying monkeys and massive bong rip (in no particular order), it was smuggled out, and I can reveal the details of this new low point of Welsh devolution.

First up was Carwyn, 46, Bridgend.

"What've you made for us today, Carwyn?" asked John.

"What we know," Carwyn says, "is that I'm carrying out a due diligence process with this saucepan over a low heat - subject to a sustainable anonymous sauce - before following a pathway towards a framework of chips."
"But what the people of Wales want to know," Carwyn turns to his well-wishers, pointing at the judges while leaning on the counter, "is what are Gregg and John doing!?"

"It's a bit....blaaand," Gregg appears disappointed with himself for going back for more. "Very little seasoning. It's also a bit thin. I can't taste nuffink," he added, licking not only the plate, but the bottle clean.

"To be honest, Carwyn," John says, "when you first described it, it didn't sound like much, but it was achievable in the time we gave you. It told us you were playing it safe.Yet...." he pulls a pained expression, "you've delivered so little here today."

"Do you have any more, please?" Gregg asks. "Thirty bottles should do."

Next up was Andrew, who introduced himself with a video.

"ORITE!?"
Andrew stands outside his farm. "MY YURS CAN'T STOP RINGING! CAN YOU YUR ME!? CARWYN'S REDIRECTING PLANES OVER MY 'OUSE!  WHAT A WAN...." He's drowned out by the 13:15 Air Koryo from Markjamesgrad International.

The judges take tentative spoonfuls. Gregg puffs his cheeks and scratches his head. "It's tastes....It's tastes a bit off....mate. I don't know how you managed...."

"....You had all the ingredients there," John interrupts. "You said your mate Nick left you the recipe? 'Cast iron success' were your own words."

"Well it was supposed to be blue, but it started to turn this pinky-purple colour...."

"....if you don't mind, Andrew, we're trying to have a society here."

"Yeah, I....uh...I fink somefing's gone wrong there, mate," Gregg adds. "Needed a bit more time, I reckon. The blue would've worked for me. What did you use?"

"BRAISED DONKEY ARSE!"

Next, the judges moved to Leanne, who was handing out pamphlets and flyers with the commitment of a militant Jehovah's Witness. After handing two to the judges, she serves up her sauce, doing the swoosh thing with a spoon.

"Mmm, spicy!" Gregg says, with a slight smile. "Biiiiiiiig flavours. Very rustic, very fresh. Nice use of vegetables and 'erbs."

"Grew 'em myself, see," Leanne says, tapping a pamplet and winking to the camera. "Hashtag Greenprint."

"It needs a bit more refinment, but it's a decent effort." He raises his eyebrows, "Not baaad."

"There a definite spicy, slightly nutty aftertaste,"
John says. "There's also a hint of bitterness, perhaps because one of the mature ingredients was left in too long. It's bold. It's bright. If you can tone it down you'll be on to a winner." He smiles wrily, "Are you sure you didn't have any help?"

There's a mutter as several heads disappear behind the counter. "Uh....nore!," Leanne stutters. "Nore 'elp! Team Leanne, hashtag ymlaen."

Last, but not least, was Kirsty from Powys.

John and Gregg look over the sauce, nodding to each other. "You've presented this very well," John says, "probably the best we've seen today."

"Looks laaavly," Gregg adds. As soon as his shovel-like spoon hits his gob however, he starts coughing, discretely spitting it out. "Oooh, Chrrrrrist almighty....tastes like bullshit!"

"But.....it's not bullshit!" Kirsty pleads, her lower lip wobbling, "It's organic!"

"As I walked around," John waves his hands in front of him, "you could pick up thick, cleggy wafts coming from your workstation.
It'll take decades to get that smell out of the walls.

"I couldn't tell if it was just the characteristic aroma of an anonymous sauce, or if Danny Alexander had let one go again."


"Kirst, love,"
Gregg doesn't know how to break it gently, "you....um.....you might've....breached the Food 'ygeine Act...."
"Oh, don't cry, Kirst!" Gregg puts an arm around her shoulder,"It's well-presented bullshit!"

With the judging over, the contestants entered from a side door and lined up. "Only one of you can be our Anonymous Sauce champion," Gregg says, checking his watch. "We've 'ad better days, to be 'onest."

"We've made a decision," John says, as the contestants gulp. "Our Anonymous Sauce 2013....is...."

"I've 'ad enough!"
Everyone's distracted by a slanging match, as Carwyn fires passive-aggressive questions at the production team, whilst fiddling with the camera.
Leanne shouts, "Hashtag stopitmun!"

"Hashtag Plaid question mark!"
Carwyn shouts back. He starts pulling wires out of the camera. "Gimme the tape! Gimme the bloody tape! It's what we call in Welsh Labour a 'right to reply'! What does this button do yur? This one y..."



Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Dirty deeds done dirt cheap - Round III

Did the "local property boys and girls" simply run rings around the agents?
Or is something fishy going on?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
I'm loath to end the Assembly year on a bad news story, but this constitutes a bubbling scandal that's worth following closely due to its potential impact.

It's escalated further, with BBC Wales reporting on Monday that the EU-backed Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) handling of a deal with South Wales Land Developments (SWLD) has been referred to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) by the Wales Audit Office (WAO). That's a lot of acronyms. It hasn't been confirmed yet, but hasn't been denied either.

It's worth pointing out that, at this stage, it doesn't mean anything's wrong, just that the auditors must've had information significant enough to be sent to the highest fraud authority in EnglandandWales. Not looking good, is it?

A recap of the story so far
  • A parcel of WDA-owned land was sold by RIFW to Guernsey-based South Wales Land Developments for £20.6million in March 2012.
  • The value of some of that land – especially around Cardiff – will have sky-rocketed due to (at the time undisclosed) housing development plans. It's estimated from under £2million to £120million in Cardiff alone.
  • This was an obvious business opportunity. The parcel should've have loads of interested parties, but it seemed RIFW, or their agents, approached developers directly rather than selling the land on the open market, which is odd in itself.
  • Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) referred the deal to the Wales Audit Office in September 2012 after the deal raised his suspicions.
  • The Wales Audit Office widened the scope of their inquiry after a preliminary investigation in late 2012.
  • In February 2013, the then Deputy Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), suspended RIFW projects (except Neath town centre) and launched a double internal Welsh Government investigation into both RIFW itself, and the deal.
  • On Monday, after the best part of a year, the WAO (apparently) referred the deal to the Serious Fraud Office. The Welsh Government are yet to comment, and Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) became the minister in charge in March.
Update 19/07/2013 : Carl Sargeant released a written statement on the 17th July, which was linked to by an anonymous contributor further down. You can read it here.

The statement is pretty much what you would've expected. He confirms that the double Welsh Government investigation into RIFW ordered by Huw Lewis is still ongoing, but says that no further details will be released until after he's discussed it with the agents (Amber) and the RIFW board. There's no mention of Lambert Smith Hampton.

He also confirms that RIFW will remain suspended (but he doesn't mention the Neath town project, which is still going ahead AFAIK), and hints that it's likely that RIFW will be wound up, subject to alternative arrangements being found. Understandable, but a bit "deckchairs and Titanic". He says all this will be completed "by the end of August", and of course I'll come back to it.

Needless to say, the fact that this was a written statement, released on the last day of the Assembly term, denying AMs the opportunity to question the minister on this until September, hasn't gone down well. Byron Davies AM raised a point of order during the last Assembly debate on the 17th, and Deputy Llywydd David Melding (Con, South Wales Central) gave Carl Sargeant, and other ministers, a sedate ticking off for constantly pulling stunts like this.

They're getting twitchy about it, and so they should be.

The key issues

The land valuation process – It's been hinted that the land was sold at a 2009 value, rather than its value at the point of sale in 2012. That could be because the agents thought it would be hard to shift – which would make them pretty silly in the case of the Cardiff land. Was it under-valued deliberately?

Cardiff's LDP – The BBC report says the Cardiff land alone was sold to SWLD at an "agricultural rate" of ~£15,000 per acre. This is land that anyone with even a casual interest in planning/development would've known was being eyed up for housing, despite no formal plans being put forward. So it had huge potential value, yet was sold for practically peanuts. A few months after the sale, Cardiff Council revealed that it was going to be used for housing, and SWLD – who were directly courted by the agents - were sitting on a goldmine. That hints at either inside knowledge (fraud?), a stitch up, or incompetence by RIFW.

The claw back agreements – The Welsh Government had, sensibly, included clauses where they would benefit from land value rises after sale. However, as Nick Servini says, it appears some plots didn't have these agreements, whilst the claw back agreements might've been set too low. In the case of the Cardiff land alone, it could cost the Welsh Government tens of millions of pounds.

South Wales Land Developments Ltd – Who are they? What are they up to? Why Guernsey? All valid questions with no answers at the moment. On the surface, it looks like they're a legitimate property company and are currently seeking outline planning permission for housing developments on the land they bought – including Pyle and Brackla in Bridgend county. Getting planning permission raises the value of the land when selling to potential developers – a "land bank". The Brackla application agent is RIFW's Investment Manager – Lambert Smith Hampton – the other applications have been dealt by other agencies.

What the Welsh Government knew – Technically, RIFW is "arms length" of the Welsh Government, but ultimately under its control. The fund was managed on the ground by various managers/boards etc. But how much of a leash did the Welsh Government have? Were they monitoring it properly? What are the backgrounds of the people on the management board? Did they have any interests themselves?

Why might've this been referred to the SFO?

How about "Economically Responsible?"
The overriding issue as I understand it is that if RIFW had kept hold of the land until  Cardiff Council revealed their draft LDP, they could've sold the Cardiff land - alone - for something approaching £120million, and doing so directly to the flock of housing developers who would've come knocking on their door.

They sold it instead, along with loads of other bits of land, for £20.6million to a mysterious offshore company. To add insult to injury, the Welsh Government might've had embarrassingly-low claw back clauses, and might've lost out on significant sums of money.

And it all might've been done deliberately and with prior knowledge.


We (or rather, the Welsh Government on our behalf) are the ones who could've been defrauded – by potentially tens of millions - sums literally 500,000 (perhaps upwards of a million) times greater than the average night in a Cardiff hotel.

That money could've been match-funded for significant regeneration projects in our Objective One towns and cities during sluggish economic conditions. Instead, at the moment it looks like it's heading for an offshore bank account.

That's why this is serious, and why heads should roll. This is not only potentially corrupt, but possibly an example of gross incompetence by the Welsh Government, or more likely people working on their behalf.

It's unclear at the moment precisely why this has been referred to the SFO. But I suspect - as I said in my second post on this - that it's because of a "failure to disclose information".

That information being something like prior knowledge of Cardiff's (or others) Local Development Plan – and subsequently, the fact that this "cheap" RIFW land was going to be worth a fortune. Or, it could be a business relationship/interest between parties that wasn't disclosed when it should've been. Both might count as fraud, and there are other possibilities too.


I said this had the potential to be one of the biggest scandals of the devolution era, and I doubt I'll be far off. If the SFO are getting involved, this could be heading towards a criminal investigation. It's unclear how far up this is going to go, or where.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Up Shipton Creek

With The Western Mail bringing her more stormy weather
Should Bethan have slept under her umbrella-ella-ella-ella?
(Pic : The Telegraph)
Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) attended a concert and seems to have confused the Assembly's Member's Services with lastminute.com.

As you might expect, by doing so, her family will bear the dishonour for ten generations, and she should be sent to the ducking stool post-haste. Wales' very own Inspector Javert and Snitchfinder General - Martin Shipton - stands ready to dunk her into the Taff for the third/fourth time in 18 months.

The story's also been covered by Inside Out, National Left and A Change of Personnel. I didn't think it was worth noting, but supposedly it is. Court of public opinion and all that.

I prefer the scalpel over the club. So far from taking to the streets with a pitchfork, it's worth looking at the details regarding this latest "incident" and deciding how serious it is for myself.

What happened this time?

On to the details :
  • Klingon warbler, Rihanna, held a concert at the Millennium Stadium on June 10th as part of her World Tour. Bethan Jenkins attended, and claimed for an overnight hotel stay in Cardiff via the Member's Support Service – who arrange hotel accommodation for AMs.
  • At some point, Bethan discussed with the Assembly's Chief Executive, Claire Clancy, whether her expenses claim was legitimate. She was also (apparently) asked by Leanne Wood to report herself to the Standards Commissioner. (Presumably, Bethan wanted to check if she'd actually broken any rules first.)
  • Bethan's expenses claim was given the OK by Claire Clancy – as Bethan was working at the Assembly on the morning of the 11th, meaning it was within the rules. Despite this, she paid back the costs for the hotel stay, perhaps acutely aware of how it looks.
  • Simultaneously, The Western Mail received a "tip off" about the concert and expenses claim. They questioned Bethan, and she explained that despite her stay being within Assembly rules, she paid the money back.
  • The Western Mail ran the story on 5th July, citing unnamed "Assembly insiders" who were critical of Bethan's behaviour. An unnamed "member of the public" also submitted a separate complaint to the Standards Commissioner, which is currently being dealt with.
  • Bethan released a statement on July 11th, explaining (once again) that the cost of her hotel stay was met by herself, and expressing her disappointment that anonymous sources were briefing against her.
  • The Western Mail ran another piece the same day, suggesting there was "internal turmoil" within Plaid Cymru due to Bethan's "refusal to apologise" or report herself to the Standards Commissioner. They speculated both Bethan and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) could leave Plaid if any disciplinary action were taken against her.
  • On July 13th, Martin Shipton ran an editorial piece, criticising Bethan's refusal to apologise (again). He also criticised the Assembly's policy of allowing AMs to claim for hotel expenses for overnight stays prior to a working day, even if they live within a "reasonable travelling distance" - which is what Bethan was "accused" of doing.

The Key Points

Attending the concert – This is a ludicrous criticism. AMs aren't the property of the state and can do what they want in their own time. If Bethan wants to go to a concert, why shouldn't she?
Live concerts by world famous performers are rare events in Wales, and not being a complete cynic, AMs do enough work to earn treats.

Being an AM isn't just official committee and plenary meetings; it's office, portfolio, legislative and case work which happens behind the scenes too. This happened during the midst of a major hospital reorganisation in her region, I think she had a short debate on mining around the same time and also whilst several major Bills were going through the Senedd. Presumably, all this "other stuff" is what she was dealing with on the morning of the 11th. 

That comes with the job, and
Bethan hasn't neglected those duties once as far as I can tell, but you can see why she wanted a night off. The only "outrageous" thing here is her questionable musical taste.

The necessity of an overnight stay - I'm guessing the concert would've finished around 11pm-midnight. Cardiff to Neath takes the best part of an hour by train. With a taxi/bus/flying carpet journey on top of that, you're looking at getting home in the early hours of the morning.

Then there's the journey into Cardiff the following day. Whenever I've had to commute for 9am (or earlier) starts by public transport from Bridgend, in reality it's a 6:30am start - taking into account delays, foot journeys and leaving a cushion to avoid being late.

AFAIK, Bethan Jenkins lives closer to Pontardawe than Neath.
"Reasonable travelling distance" depends on method of transport too as it adds to journey times. She can't pop on public transport and be in Cardiff in an hour - we all should be able to in an ideal world - but it's more like the best part of two hours. You're looking at a ~6am start and not getting home until 7-8pm.

Now, you can argue, "Lots of ordinary people do that!" Actually, there's little evidence of mass commuting to Cardiff from anywhere west of Bridgend.

According to Stats Wales, in 2011 ~1,000 people commuted from Neath Port Talbot to Cardiff each day, and just 1,900 from Swansea, out of 70-80,000 in total.
That's compared to 6,000 from Bridgend alone and even 5,800 from outside Wales! Saying that Neath and Swansea are within "the Cardiff commuter belt" is an exaggeration. It's the exception rather than the norm.

The expenses claim – Should Bethan have stayed in Cardiff, on the same night as a concert she attended, using Assembly services?

Stay in Cardiff - yes, that's sensible. Claim on expenses? - Nope! She shouldn't have even thought about it. She must've known how that looks, and it's the reason this became newsworthy. Not only does she have chronic bad luck, but Bethan's her own worst enemy sometimes.

However, when you look at it objectively and within the context of the expenses rules there's no issue. In that situation you want the room, not the money.

It's like using a employee/corporate discount. It's cheeky, but in this case doesn't even count as bending the rules as it complied with them entirely. Despite how it might "look", Bethan didn't do anything wrong at all.

The "Assembly insiders" and Plaid's "turmoil" –  I'm suspicious of any story that's reliant on unnamed sources, as it screams out, "This is probably a load of old bollocks". That's just my personal opinion though, and it's not unusual to use such sources.

Though there'll no doubt have been discussions, I suspect talk of "turmoil" in Plaid is bollocks too. There haven't been any signs of a problem.
Plaid seem to be having a jolly old time on Anglesey at the moment with their new pal, Rhun; riding tractors, wearing Welsh hats and getting sun burns tans.

I suspect the "rat" isn't someone in the current Assembly Group or a Plaid staffer, but outside the Assembly. Maybe it's someone who isn't in Plaid at all, but they clearly had inside knowledge.

I'm a constituent too, and I value loyalty. If it is someone within Plaid doing it with eyes on 2016 selections, someone doing it on their behalf, or someone from another party hoping to benefit from this, I don't want them to represent me as an AM, now or in 2016.


If they can do it to a backbencher over a minor thing, they could easily do to a leader or ministers one day. Do we need people like that in the Senedd? Would someone want to share a party with someone like that? I'd say no.

Despite the picture they're painting of Bethan, the insider isn't showing the character traits necessary to be an elected representative or represent one. Depending on which direction it's coming from, they breach "Nolan Principles" - in particular selflessness and objectivity - as well as other unofficial ones by being an opportunistic coward, lacking honour and breaching trust.

You don't have to like everyone, but someone smearing a member of their own or another party for non-political reasons - instead of maintaining a dignified silence - has serious issues and, in my opinion, is unsuitable to be a candidate at any level. I have my suspicions as to who it could be, but I'm well-mannered enough to keep that to myself.

If the complaint to the Standards Commissioner is ruled as admissible - it shouldn't be, based on the evidence - we'll find out who the "member of the public" is too. And isn't it funny how the reported complaint from a "member of the public" - a single complaint, which nobody without inside knowledge will have seen - almost matches The Western Mail's grievances word for word?


The story falls apart - Martin Shipton torpedoes his own scoop in his July 13th editorial.

He acknowledges the Assembly's own rules state that AMs - even those living within a commutable distance - are allowed to claim for overnight stays in Cardiff up to a certain limit,  including the night before, as long as they're carrying out  official duties the following day.

"An AM's official duties"
will include the office work that's not on the official Assembly timetable, but part of their general duties. Sometimes AMs will do that at home, sometimes they'll do it in their constituency offices; when the Assembly's in session, they'll do it in Cardiff - as Bethan presumably did on the 11th.

Oh, and to repeat, we must remember that Bethan paid back the costs of the hotel stay – which, in fairness, was pointed out in previous articles, but drowned in righteous indignation.

He's demanding Bethan apologises for not breaking any rules and, it appears, for attending a concert!? That's a nonsense position, going down the "She shouldn't have gone to a concert when people are enduring tough times etc." line - neither should anyone else then. Also, trying to equate a hotel stay to second homes is a lame attempt to create guilt by association.


Bethan should only apologise if she has something to apologise for - and she doesn't.


I doubt there'll even be a rule change because of this, as under these circumstances, what sort of person chooses a night in a hotel over their own home?

Someone who wants to turn up to work on time and well-rested so they can do their job properly, I presume - regardless of what they were doing the night before. In other words, a responsible adult.

"Oooooohhhm, I'm telling on you!"

I'm developing a habit of foreshadowing events. Last October, in response to a comment on the more serious incident, I said this:

"I wonder if she (Bethan Jenkins), or other AMs from South Wales, don't stay in Cardiff overnight because of how it would be reported? I think we all know certain newspaper editors have a broom up their arse with regard certain AMs."
Heh.

Then, back in May this year, I warned that once stricter punishments for AMs come into effect - including the option of temporary expulsions - we're going to see AMs get over the top punishments for any and all slip ups. I suspect I'm going to be right, and I suspect someone's hoping that Bethan will be the test case for those new laws of the Senedd playground.

This certainly started off as a story in the public interest, I don't criticise The Western Mail for running it.

What began as serious political gossip though - which could've been expanded to look at similar expenses claims from other AMs - changed its tone in subsequent articles to become an attempt to batter an apology out of Bethan for no good reason.

As soon as The Western Mail made this personal,
the story becomes easy to pull apart - because you had better be sure it's serious enough to have such attention focused on one person - leaving The Western Mail with all the credibility of a playground grass. News became opinion.

The final derailment was a backtrack to a generic straw populist "Aren't politicians out of touch?" line. The focus shifted from Bethan to the Assembly Commission. That's because Martin Shipton comes across as being almost disappointed and angry that she didn't
break their rules in the first place, rendering the story a mangled wreck.
The fuss surrounding a youngish person – ignore the AM bit for a moment - wanting to watch Rihanna live on a "school night" seems rather vindictive and borders on bullying, IMO.

I'm not sure if Bethan's owed an apology, but I hope she has the class to not demand one in public.