Sunday, December 10, 2017

How many Assembly Members?

On Tuesday we are expecting a report to emerge from somewhere in the National Assembly for Wales - from the office of the Presiding Officer, Elin Jones I think. We expect this report to put forward proposals to increase the number of Assembly Members, plus options outlining how they are to be elected. I was in the Interview Chair with Arwyn on Wales Politics today (discussing Brexit) but since it followed an interview with Elin About this report, I was invited to comment. So I did. And I’m not expecting total support for my opinion. Though I think Elin herself might be pleased!!
Firstly, I need to tackle the desire by public opinion to reduce the ‘cost of democracy’. The public (or at least the most vociferous) neither care for or have any respect for politicians in general. The public wants to cut 5he cost - let’s do it. We are eliminating the 73 MEPs, which will be a huge reduction. I also believe there is an unanswerable case to reduce the size of the House of Lords. At present there are around 800 appointed to sit on the red benches. It’s too many. There are two reduction scenarios. Firstly to halve the number, or secondly reduce to the same size as the House of Commons (650). This would make things much more democratic, even with an increase in number of AMs from 60 to 80ish.
Not sure I should be taking a public view on this, except that I was asked. Its not going to be popular I sense. It’s up to the AMs themselves to justify. The case has to be made by Assembly Members, led by the Presiding Officer, and the political parties in the National Assembly.
When I was elected an Assembly Member in 1999, we were not overworked, in the sense that we had time to become involved in various related activity. I particularly enjoyed involvement in developing a political instruction that can be looked on a proper Welsh Parliament. So much so that I was mega-disappointed to lose my ‘seat’ in 2007. Later on, the National Assembly was given limited law-making powers, which were manageable in my view. But the recent Wales Act has invested the responsibility of raising half of our Income Tax in Wales. There will also be significantly more power vested in the Assembly as a result of Brexit. In my view, the National Assembly for Wales has grown into ‘The Welsh Parliament’.  I really don’t think 60 AMs are enough to do that job properly.
The case for more AMs is so strong that I consider it unanswerable. Of course, those who have never accepted the reality of devolution, will oppose this. Many would still like to put devolution into reverse. But in the end there will be agreement on around 80 AMs.
But there may not be Agreement on how they are to be elected. Labour will not want any possibility of losing its role as leading the Welsh Government. There could be a monster row over this. Best of luck Elin! Anyway, I just thought I’d outline how it seems to me.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Sufficient Progress to talk Future Trade Deal

In the early hours of this morning, the Prime Minister reached an agreement with the EU that ‘sufficient progress’ has been made on the three policy areas deemed crucial by the EU to be settled before discussions on any future relationship can take place. It is now being recommended that the talks move on to Phase 2 of the preparation for the UK’s departure from the EU.
It’s not actually a cast iron ‘deal’. There is the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. But the general principles are accepted by both sides, even if the detail has to be filled in when the final Withdrawal Agreement comes to be drawn up.
Firstly, there is agreement that the rights of three million EU citizens living in the UK, and of the one million UK citizens living in the EU are secured. Secondly, the common travel area within Ireland will be maintained, averting a hard border between Eire and Northern Ireland. And thirdly, there is agreement on the principles on how a ‘fair settlement’ or ‘divorce payment’ will be calculated. There is much detail behind these three headline statements.
I do think the Prime Minister has played a ‘blinder’. For 18 months she has been attacked from all sides, particularly by those who have never accepted the referendum result. And attacked by media commentators who have seemed ready to swallow any daft comment from The Prime Minister’s opponents. I’ve wondered at Theresa May’s astonishing resilience, as so many brickbats have been thrown her way. This morning she demonstrated her toughness and determination. Those who have sought to be as hurtful and rude as possible are shown up as rather lesser persons than she is.
There will be more difficult moments as we proceed to Phase two of the negotiations. There will be more posturing, more Internet based garbage, more opposition opportunism and discussions as the wire is approached. But today, I think we are going to secure a deal by 2019. The UK and her Prime Minister won’t win every argument, and may well have to compromise, but we will have a deal. And it will be a balance between what is good for the UK and what is good for the EU. And this morning’s agreement will, in my view, be a turning point in Theresa May’s fortunes.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Panorama Allegations

Rarely do I respond to internet inspired stories, particularly if it’s some media/lobbyist campaign. There are simply not enough hours in a day. So it’s rare that I am stirred to respond. I am using today’s blog post to reflect on the  recent Panorama allegations concerning Adam Smith International and the Government’s Access to Justice and Community Security Programme in Syria. This sort of media coverage seriously undermines the Government’s commitment to International Aid - a budget investment to which I am totally committed. I would like to have had time to write it sooner.
I fully understand why constituents will be concerned about these allegations. The Gov’t is also concerned. And because the BBC decided to run this in the way it did, the Govt has decided to suspend the programme while a full investigation takes place. The outcome of these investigations will be known shortly.

The Foreign Office has already issued a formal response to the allegations, as follows; 

“We take any allegations of co-operation with terrorist groups and of human rights abuses extremely seriously and the Foreign Office has suspended this programme while we investigate these allegations. These programmes, also supported by international partners, are intended to make communities in Syria safer by providing basic civilian policing services. We believe that such work in Syria is important to protect our national security interest but of course we reach this judgment carefully given that in such a challenging environment no activity is without risk. That’s why all our programmes are designed carefully and subject to robust monitoring.”

It may be worth explaining what the AJACS programme actually does. AJACS is a long-term programme that supports the unarmed Free Syria Police (FSP) to deliver basic community policing services (patrols, checkpoints, traffic management etc) in non-regime held areas of Syria. Since 2014, AJACS has helped train 3,500 FSP officers, across 60 police stations, providing much-valued community policing services to around 1.6 million people in Syria. The FSP help to protect some of the most vulnerable in Syria. They offer a visible, unarmed policing presence and help to make communities safer and more resilient to terrorist threats. The project is jointly funded by the US, Danes, Dutch, Canadians and Germans.
This work in Syria is important to protect our national security interests. But operating in this challenging environment, particularly in close proximity to extremist elements and in such contested space, means no activity is without risk. That is why all our programmes are designed carefully and our contracts include a requirement for robust monitoring of supplier performance and regular reporting. In many cases (as with AJACS), implementation is also reviewed by an independent third party organisation.

Its not possible for me to attempt a detailed rebuttal of the main allegations, but I am confident that the Govts investigation will comprehensively address the allegations and the report will be made public. I hope the BBC will give the response to its allegations the same prominence. Personally, I am very proud that the United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Syrians’ efforts to build pluralistic and inclusive institutions through targeted interventions like the AJACS programme. We are joined in that effort by likeminded international partners who share our commitment to stand with the people of Syria and support their aspirations of living in dignity, free from all forms of tyranny. And we will continue to support independent Syrian entities which adhere to inclusive and pluralistic values, in order to provide crucial services and life-saving assistance to communities in Syria.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Organ Donation and Presumed Consent.

It’s now two years since the Welsh Government passed the Human Transplantation (Wales) Act. At the time, the Welsh Health Minister was informing us of the many lives that would saved by this ‘progressive’ legislation. The First Minster was telling the world that the new Act was Welsh law-making at its best. I was the only Wales based voice on the Welsh airwaves telling listeners and viewers of my opposition to this legislation - because it would not increase the number of organs available for donation, and could have the opposite effect. There were other prominent individuals opposed to the new legislation on ethical grounds, which was an entirely different argument.
Eventually I gave up ‘appearing’ on media programmes because of the invariable tone of the interviewing - usually beginning with a very ill patient in need of a new life saving organ, followed by me being asked why I wanted to prevent it. No matter how often or how patiently I pointed out that I wanted to do no such thing and on the contrary, that what I wanted was for there to be more donated organs. The next question (completely ignoring what I’d just said) was how could I put ‘faith’ or ‘ethics’ before saving lives. When I pointed out that reference to faith and ethics was the interviewer, and had no part of my thinking, I might as well have been speaking to a brick wall. I just tried to keep on repeating that ‘presumed consent’ would not increase the availability of organs for donation and could well reduce them. No-one so deaf as those who will not hear! No-one listened.

There are ways we can increase organ donation - increase number of Specialist Nurses (SNODS), increase number of Intensive Care Beds, and invest in “Tell Your Family Your Wishes” campaigns. But it was so much easier to look as if something is being done by passing a new law, when there was no evidence that it would work.

Today we’re told that the level of organ donation has not increased over the two years that the new law has been operating. I know it’s too soon to make definitive judgements. And the publicity generated by the Welsh Government may well have raised awareness, which is positive. And may have a longer term impact. It’s just that I don’t think so.
The most worrying aspect of this new law, is impact on the number of ‘live’ donors, which has fallen significantly over the last three years. Another argument I put forward at the time the Human Transplantation (Wales) Act was being discussed was that if organ donation, through legislation becomes a responsibility of the state, rather than a gift by donors based on love and generosity, it would become a matter for the state in the people’s mind. Well, maybe it has already done so. The fall in ‘live’ donors is an utter tragedy, and has led to less lives being saved. I don’t suppose I’ll be invited to do many interviews now!

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Migration into the U.K.

UK politics continues to be dominated by Brexit. While the British people may be thoroughly bored with this situation, I’m afraid it’s going to carry on for several years yet. Certainly, there will be no escape for those of us involved in politics. Or for those who write occasional newspaper columns or blog posts! Today, my writing reflects on last week’s immigration figures.

During the lead-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, one of the biggest issues of debate was migration into the UK.  I have always thought it likely (though unprovable) that this was a major influence on how the UK voted in the referendum. At the time, net immigration was about 336,000 per annum. I was often asked about this. My response was that while over the short term, this would not be disadvantageous to the UK, it was not sustainable over the long term. This remains my view. I also thought that a vote to Leave would not have much impact on net immigration figures. I was wrong, though not for the reasons I thought.

Net annual immigration into the UK began rapid growth in 1993, and reached its peak of 336,00 in 2015. The first full year figures since the EU referendum shows net immigration falling by 32% to 230,000, the sharpest decrease on record. Less than a half of is from the EU. Well over half of it is non EU. At same time there has been a significant net outward migration of UK citizens.

Of course we don’t know why net immigration has fallen so significantly.  In part it may be because the economies of the countries from which has been the source of immigration has created and is providing more jobs at home. Undoubtedly, the fall in value of sterling will have made a big difference, as the spending power of what immigrants earn has fallen significantly. There may even be some truth in the suggestions that EU based immigration has felt less welcome since the referendum.

While net immigration figures were undoubtedly too high, putting strain on our public serices, too sudden a reduction will cause serious problems. Our social care and hospitality sectors have been very dependent on immigrant workers for many years. In the agriculture, horticulture and tourism related sectors, too sudden reduction in migrant labour will have serious consequences. As the UK takes back control of immigration, we must remember the benefits, both economic and cultural that immigration brings.

Friday, December 01, 2017

The ‘Not So daft’ President.

I’m inspired to write this post by the Fraser Nelson column in today’s Telegraph, in which he suggests (correctly in my view) that all this condemnation of President Trump is playing into his hands.
When Donald Trump first appeared on my radar, I thought him to be nothing more than a disagreeable loud mouth. The idea that he might be elected President of the US, and leader of the free world didn’t cross my mind. I’d met, and been seriously impressed by Jeb Bush, and thought him to be the ideal candidate. There were others as well. I continued to be astonished when Donald Trump was chosen by the Republican Party to be its candidate for President. “What possessed them” I thought. Must admit I assumed Hilary Clinton would be a shoe-in.
The first time I really thought the ‘impossible’ could happen was when I asked a few Americans working in the UK what they thought. They were all voting Trump. They were sensible business people. When I asked what could possible explain their totally irrational (to me) intentions they said something like “Trump will shake it up a bit. We have to kick out the self servers based in Washington.”. And when I tried to point out that a President Trump could cause mayhem across the world, they disagreed. “The US Constitution won’t let him’. He will not be able to deliver on his claims”. Must admit I wasn’t at all convinced at the time. I feel a bit more reassured now - except for the damage ‘protectionism’ may cause to the world economy.
But what to think about his tweets, often offensive and outrageous. Reality is that the President is using Twitter, and using all the ‘helpful’ journalists across the world doing just what he wants to set the agenda for debate. One man’s tweets are ensuring political debate is on the issues that help his cause. It was the same with UKIP before the 2015 General Election in the UK. Dominant coverage was of internal party strife, normally thought to be politically damaging. UKIP set the agenda through its outrageous behaviour. The BBC had Farage leading the news or as a Question Time guest every other week. The reality that most of it was ‘cobblers’ made no difference. Reasonable debate was relegated to the second division. Now what is definition of that much used term, ‘useful idiots’.
The reality is that the more outrage against the Trump tweets (understandable though it is), the more it suits President Trump’s agenda.  If we could all manage to just ignore him, he would be gone in a year. If we carry on ensuring political discourse is driven by Trump tweets, he will be re-elected for a second term. The reason Donald Trump is “not so daft”is that he can see that. Welcome to the hell that is Twitter World.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Not a good story from Stafford Crown Court this week. Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust fined £333,333.00 plus £130,000 costs following patients falling, leading to being fatally injured. At first reading, this sounds very troubling. And of course it’s serious. It’s the Hospital Trust which serves most of Montgomeryshire, so it’s a big issue for me. I’ve tried to find out a bit more about it. No getting away from it not being good, but it should be considered in perspective.
Patients do sometimes fall in every hospital, and sometimes these falls result in death. I’m told that there are around 200,000 falls in NHS hospitals every year, with around 250 deaths. And even with the very best ‘Gold Standard’ management, around two thirds of these deaths are unavoidable. Also told that the Shrewsbury and Telford Trust are no worse than other hospitals. Even so, the Health and Safety Executive decided to prosecute - maybe because of the shocking experiences of what happened in South Staffs a few years ago. So it’s a matter of real interest to me.
I’m told that in cases of this sort, the judge is obliged to follow sentencing guidelines, which indicates that the fine should have been between £1.5 million and £2.9 million. For several reasons, and taking account of what he considered the Trust’s sincere interest in safe care and transparency, and culture of openness and cooperation, and impact on services of a higher fine, he reduced the fine to £333,333.00. In general the judge found that the falls were a result of individual lapses rather than any systemic failure.
I’m sure we will learn more about this issue over the next few days/weeks. We need to know as much as possible about what has happened. Crucial if we are to have full confidence for the future. On a related issue, I do think the NHS is working under great pressures and is struggling to cope with an the increasing workload. Personally, I do think there will have to be more funding for healthcare and social care over the next few years.