Thursday, March 31, 2005

German humour

Showing a group of Germans around the Welsh Assembly committee rooms this morning I commented that on a visit to a committee in the Berlin State Parliament a few years ago I had been amazed to see caterers pushing trolleys loaded with coffee, cakes, chocolates and other delicacies around the room for the politicians to help themselves to whenever they felt the need for sustenance.

“when we are discussing policies in the committee rooms” I said “ We are allowed only tap water.”

“Ah” said one of my guests “we give our politicians food because the more they eat the less they can talk.”

I think he was joking…..

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

How accurate are school inspections?

Ensuring that their child’s school is performing well is of the upmost importance to all parents. State schools are inspected by a Welsh Assembly body called Estyn whose reports are supposed to highlight any problems. But questions have arisen about how rigourous these inspections really are.

I have been informed by the former head of education in Gwent, who went on to work as a schools inspector, that he and his colleagues were actively discouraged from writing reports which suggested that a school was failing.

Following his complaints about the system, the gentlemen in question found that his services as a schools inspector were no longer required.

Needless to say I am making further investigations into this matter and more information will be published tomorrow in the Western Mail.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Cutting taxes - no tall order

There has been much gnashing of teeth over Howard Flight's comments. Labour are now saying that there is some secret agenda to cut spending on schools hospitals the police or other frontline services. There is no such thing and Conservatives like myself actively campaign for better public facilities in our areas. However there is no doubt that large amounts money are wasted in the public sector. This morning I revealed in the Western Mail that the Welsh Development Agency had spent £43,500 sending eight members of staff to the exclusive resort of Cannes in the South of France where they visited a "property conference." This is just a drop in the ocean compared to the millions which have been wasted on schemes like the Welsh Assembly debating chamber, Welsh Embassies around the World, not to mention the millions earmarked for free schools breakfasts. And this is just a sample of what is going on in Wales. Cut out the waste and we can cut taxes without cutting public services. Simple.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Why Council taxes are going up

Given the comments on my previous post I think a brief lesson on why Council taxes have been going up is in order:

Council tax is largely determined by the amount of money which a local authority (eg Monmouthshire County Council) receives from the Assembly. The lower that amount is, the more council taxes have to rise to make up the difference.

There are two reasons why council taxes have risen each year at levels that are way above the rate of inflation.

The first is that the each year the Council faces a rise in their costs, often due to initiatives which are imposed by the Assembly without being properly funded. The Council has faced a rise in costs because of these extra regulations such as the Teachers Workload Agreement. The difference between what the Council gets from the Assembly and what it has to spend is made up by the Council tax.

The second problem is that formula which is used to determine how much money each local authority gets from the Assembly, (and therefore how much extra they will have to levy in Council tax to meet their costs) is shamelessly skewed against more rural areas such as Monmouthshire.

Monmouthshire suffers from the misconception that it is a “leafy area” which, to quote the former leader of Blainau Gwent, “can afford to pay.” This is simply not true, but on top of the poverty that exists here the costs of maintaining services in a rural area are much greater than in neighbouring urban areas. Road maintenance alone will be vastly more expensive, and as the Free Press recently reported Council officials are warning that the roads are turning into cart tracks because of a lack of upkeep.

This County also has a relatively high elderly population many of whom need help from social services. None of this is properly factored into the formula which the Assembly use to decide how much money to give to each of the 22 local authorities so our taxes go up.

On numerous occasions both inside and out of the Assembly I have spoken out about this issue and highlighted the way in which Monmouthshire is being short-changed. Money which should be coming into this area as of right is being diverted to other local authorities which, in many cases, have consistently failed to spend to within their targets.

The Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly have been trying to get changes to the formula used for distributing funding to local authorities so that it properly reflects the genuine needs of each area of Wales.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Gordon's Council tax gimmick

The Chancellor’s announcement of a one-off council tax rebate of £200 for pensioners will do little to assuage the anger of those who have worked hard all their lives and are now being clobbered by tax rises which, as I know from my surgeries, they can ill afford to pay. In a few weeks time, those of us living in Monmouthshire will receive bills for what would have been the lowest increase in Council taxes for years, were it not for the revaluation, which has resulted in nearly half of the houses in the county being put into a higher band.

I have doubts as to whether we should actually continue with this method of taxation given the unfair impact it has on pensioners and those living on fixed incomes. However it is worth remembering that it is not the tax itself which causes the problem – when I first stood for the Assembly the issue was barely mentioned. The issue has come to the fore because over the last 6 years the tax has been forced upwards by the Assembly who have kept local councils short of money, forcing them to raise council taxes at high levels to make up the difference. Any change in the method of taxation would therefore be worthless unless it were accompanied by a commitment from the Assembly to fully finance the extra obligations which they impose on local authorities.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Abortion - lets have the debate

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O Connor was quite right in suggesting that abortion is a legitimate topic for debate in the next election. It is grotesque that we allow healthy babies to be aborted at 24 weeks when they could survive if born prematurely.

We should also be told what came of the enquiry into the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. Back in September they were caught by an undercover journalist advising women on how to get abortions at 25 weeks.

The BPAS continue to recieve large amounts of public money every year.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Who shut the pits anyway?

to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the end of the miners strike I thought I would pose an easy question to which everyone knows the answer:

Which government has shut down the most pits in the last 40 years?

Easy one that - we all know it was Mrs Thatcher and the Tories who shut down the all pits don't we? The BBC were showing a drama about it only the other day.

Actually no!

Here are figures I obtained from the Assembly in the number of mines closed between 1963 and 1990:

1963-1970 - 303 pits closed (Labour were in power from 1964-1970)
1970-1974 - 35 pits closed (Conservatives in power during these years)
1974-1979 - 37 pits closed (Labour in power during these years)
1979 - 1990 - 127 pits closed (Conservatives in power with Mrs Thatcher as leader)

So in actual fact in just 6 years Harold Wilson closed down around twice as many mines as during the 11 years Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister who closed the fewest mines was Edward Heath whose Government was, ironically, brought down by the politically inspired miners strike.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Are we so intolerant?

Celebrating the legal ruling allowing her the right to wear the jilbab - a long outer garment favoured by some Muslims, Shabina Begum read out a long statement condemning the "prejudice and bigotry" of western society.

I rather think that a society which allows a 17 year old to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers money on a legal battle over school uniform is remarkably, indeed overly tolerant.

There are many countries in the world where women of any age have no legal rights whatsoever. Had Ms Begum been living in such a place she would not have been given any more than a rudimentary education and would been the victim of a forced marriage many years before reaching her late teens.

Having won her case I hope she will be as outspoken in defence of the rights of any of her peers who may now be "encouraged" by their families to wear the jilbab against their wishes.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Labour's stereotyping of minorities

Labour Assembly Member Carl Sargant displayed exactly the sort of prejudices which Labour are usually fond of condemning. During a debate on the Right to Roam Act he got up and to cheers from his colleagues referred to "gunslinging landowners." who he suggested posed a threat to the safety of ramblers. I wonder what the Labour AMs would have said had any other minority group been described en masse as gunslingers, bomb throwers or terrorist supporters.