A Political Life: Watch out, England – Wales is ahead of you in more than just the rugby

Plus, surely Tony Hall can't run the BBC and sit in the House of Lords?


In case anyone is still smarting from the drubbing England received from Wales at the Millennium Stadium last Saturday, you should know that it’s not just in rugby that Wales has taken the lead.

Eighteen months ago, the Welsh Assembly took the brave decision of imposing a 5p charge for every plastic carrier bag in a Welsh store. Everybody moaned. Shops complained that they didn’t understand how the scheme would work. Somebody dreamt up a problem about VAT. Libertarians banged on about the public right for shoppers to have as many carrier bags as they wanted. But the assembly rightly ploughed on, and since October 2011, if you want a carrier bag in Wales you have to pay for it – and the money raised goes to charities.

The reasoning was simple. The average person was getting through 127 plastic bags a year. That’s roughly eight billion bags per annum. Fewer than one in 20 were reused or recycled. Plastic takes at least 500 years to degrade, and 15 per cent of all the animals found dead in England and Wales were entangled in a plastic bag. Rivers, beaches and mountains are littered with ugliness. The bags might be convenient, but they are an environmental nuisance.

The result? Well, last year’s figures for England have shown a significant 7.5 per cent rise in the number of plastic bags and 8.1 per cent increase in Northern Ireland, while in Wales there has been a massive 22 per cent drop. I now always have a couple of reusable bags with me when I go to the shops at home and even in England I take a bag with me (and I’ve stopped worrying about having a Morrison bag in Tesco and vice versa).

Keep your distance, Tony

This will be Tony Hall’s last week of freedom as he is due to start life as the new Director-General of the BBC on Tuesday 2 April. I like Tony (below). He’s done a great job at the Royal Opera House and was a thoroughly decent head-prefect-like director of news at the BBC when I was its head of European affairs. One thing bewilders me, though. He is a member of the House of Lords, and while it’s odd enough for the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, to be a lord and take the Conservative party whip, it surely cannot be right for the DG and Editor-in-Chief to sit in Parliament. Yes, Tony is a cross-bencher, but true BBC independence must surely mean standing aside from the legislature. So I hope Tony will be applying for a leave of absence, just to keep that essential distance between the BBC and politicians.

Order, order in the House

It has been a week of parliamentary shenanigans on so many different fronts that it’s difficult to know where to start. Standing Order 24 debates are normally used by the Opposition to hold the Government to account on a specific tricky issue – think the invasion of Grenada, the deployment of troops in Afghanistan or the Westland debacle in 1986.

Normally you apply one day and get the debate the next. But on Monday, for the first time ever, the PM called for an urgent debate and we proceeded with it immediately, meaning that there was not even a printed version of the motion that we were supposedly debating. In another breach with tradition, the collective responsibility of the Government was also ditched as both the PM and his deputy spoke to different purposes in that debate.

Tuesday was no better as it was devoted to emergency all-in-one-day legislation, even though there was no real reason why the matter could not be dealt with in the normal way.

No bed-in for peace in Parliament

I don’t suppose David Cameron was in a particularly good mood when he arrived, rather “on time”, for the enthronement of the new Archbishop in Canterbury on Thursday. After storming off to his bedroom a week ago, declaring that there was an unbridgeable gap between him and Ed Miliband on press reform, he was forced back to the table by the threat of an imminent defeat in the Commons on Monday.

If that was not humiliation enough, he then left the negotiations to his amanuensis, Oliver Letwin, who gave way on every single issue that Cameron had declared a red line only three days earlier. So Tory MPs were openly contemptuous of the Prime Minister in the tearoom on Monday, pointing out that it’s a pretty rum state of affairs when the law is being written in the Leader of the Opposition’s office while the PM is in bed rather than in Downing Street with the PM at the helm.

One Tory, Tracey Crouch, tweeted: “I hate going to bed a loyalist and waking up a rebel #pressregulation”, and duly voted against her leader later that day. Another asked me whether I had heard the rumours that Cameron had just been appointed to the Lords as the Grand Old Duke of York. And Sir Peter Tapsell told a group of Tories: “I’ve never known a Prime Minister be so adept at getting out of scrapes,” before adding after a lengthy pause, “but then I’ve never known a Prime Minister get into so many scrapes.”

All of this makes it understandable that Cameron was in a bit of a frump when he took his place next to Ed Miliband in Canterbury. I’m told Ed tried to put him at his ease with a bit of gentle chit chat. “Have you got any tips,” he asked, “for this Jewish atheist?” Cameron apparently scowled. There was no hiding later on, though, when it came to sharing the peace.

Twitter: @ChrisBryantMP

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