Monday, 20 October 2014

Hospital Spot Checks : No major concerns, but....

In the aftermath of the damning Trusted to Care report, a series of spot
checks of Welsh hospitals revealed some improvements, but big concerns too.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
As a result of the Andrews report into standards of care at Abertawe Bro Morgannwg Local Health Board (Abertawe Bro Morgannwg : Trusted to Care?), Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), ordered a series of unannounced "spot checks" at all Welsh general hospitals, which took place over June and July this year.

Last week, the team tasked with the checks – part overseen by Prof. Andrews herself - reported back (pdf), and it's been widely covered by some major news outlets in Wales – BBC Wales, South Wales Evening Post, Western Mail.

I thought it was worth looking at the national report in a bit more detail, though individual hospitals were also issued with their own reports.

Individual reports for Abertawe Bro Morgannwg LHB :
  • Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend (pdf)
  • Morriston Hospital, Swansea (pdf)
  • Neath Port Talbot Hospital (pdf)
  • Singleton Hospital, Swansea (pdf)

The Good News
  • There were no significant concerns about the use of sedation, and the report says there were "many examples of good practice".
  • Whenever anti-psychotics were issued, they were usually in low doses and used "appropriately".
  • Relatives have been invited onto wards to calm confused patients, and in some cases nurses were providing one-to-one care for those patients with high levels of need. The report suggested possible alternatives to calm confused patients, like hot drinks before bedtime.
  • Fundamental toilet needs were being met, with patients often walked to a toilet to promote privacy and dignity instead of using bedpans.
  • Hydration was actively promoted by staff at all grades, who made use of fluid balance charts and the Bristol Stool Scale (for those unfamiliar with it or with weak stomachs, I'll leave the latter to your imagination).
  • Drinks were often provided within easy reach, and clear instructions were provided to patients.

The Bad News
  • There was a "lack of adherence to professional standards" on medicines management, including failing to watch patients take medicines, failing to check ID or in a few cases medicines simply being left for the patient to take themselves.
  • Medicines charts were poorly managed and in some cases allergy notices weren't completed.
  • There was poor management of patient's own medicines, with inadequate storage being a major problem.
  • There were loads of minor problems relating to medicines storage elsewhere (i.e poor temperature controls, no locks, lack of training on automated dispensing systems, failure to monitor temperatures).
  • Urinal bottles were often left on bedside tables and windowsills.
  • The "All Wales Continence Bundle" (eh!?) isn't used by staff due to the amount of paperwork required and duplication.
  • Staffing levels often meant it was difficult for them to respond to toilet needs in a timely manner on wards with large numbers of highly-dependent patients.
  • There were examples of poor oral hygiene in patients.

The Verdict on the Princess of Wales Hospital (pdf)

The Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend has come under heavy
scrutiny before and since Trusted to Care.
(Pic : Wales Online)
This was one of the main hospitals under the spotlight, so it's worth taking a closer look at what the spot checks found in Bridgend. The team visited four wards at different times of the day : Ward 5 (Respiratory), Ward 6 (Gastroenterology), Ward 19 (Elderly Care) and the Acute Medical Unit.

Good
  • No major concerns about sedation, toilet needs or hydration on Wards 5, 6, 19
  • Toilet facilities on Ward 5 were described as "extremely clean".
  • Ward 19 used reminders about proper hydration, toilet needs and medicines administration as computer screen savers.
  • No concerns at all about sedation, toilet needs, hydration or medicines administration in the Acute Medical Unit. The team didn't propose any improvements as a result, and highlighted a number of examples of good practice here that other wards could learn from.

Bad
  • Ward 5 used what's described as an unlocked "DIY Box" to carry and store medicines. Other drug cupboards were unlocked.
  • On Ward 6 there was evidence of drugs being given out but not signed for (which was immediately corrected). There were also problems with security of medicines and the ward was too hot (29C - though it was during the summer).
  • Ward 6 documentation was described as "untidy" and "incomplete".
  • ID checks when administering medication on Ward 19 were poor. There was also incomplete documentation and the locks on drug lockers were broken.

Spot Checking the Spot Checks

Well, AMs are always complaining they don't get
enough coverage in the UK media....
(Pic : scoopnest.com)
Although today's Daily Mail headline (above) will have put the cat amongst the pigeons, all of us who've followed Welsh politics and our domestic press closely will realise it's a recycling of old stories, neatly re-packaged for an English audience with next May in mind.

The Welsh Government have issued a rebuttal which flagged up a number of inaccuracies, but this is the Daily Mail we're talking about. The damage has been done. It's not as if they'll roll over like the Western Mail or BBC Wales would.

I don't think the results of the spot checks paint as rosy a picture as the (Welsh) headlines are suggesting or the Welsh Government will inevitably claim. I still get comments on old posts, and occasional emails, flagging up concerns at the Princess of Wales Hospital - but the situation clearly isn't as bad as it was.

The Welsh Conservatives and AMBU Support Group are again calling for a full public inquiry - recently joined by the British Medical Association (BMA) - and I don't expect those calls to go away just because of this one review. The First Minister has, unsurprisingly, dismissed those calls.

Carwyn won't be able to do that forever. Although I still believe a full inquiry is unnecessary at present, as I said in my post on the original report , we're only one big tragedy or scandal away from it.

If the contents of the report are correct, then we're halfway towards a full resolution of the problems highlighted in Trusted to Care, which means there's still a lot of work to do, especially on medicines management and the NHS complaints system. Considering the former's one of the main functions of a health service, it's disappointing lessons there haven't been learnt quickly enough. The evidence presented in the spot check report hints that medicines management is too bureaucratic.

The spot checks should be a continuing process. We'll only know what the situation's really like through winter when demands and pressures on staff will peak.



Saturday, 18 October 2014

Human Rights on the Assembly Agenda

Earlier this week, the National Assembly debated the
high-minded issue of human rights in Wales.
(Pic : Amnesty International)

Human rights is an area that's strictly non-devolved, but the Welsh Government and Assembly have a duty to monitor it in relation to devolved areas (like access to health services or discrimination against minorities). There are also Cross-Party Groups on Human Rights and People Trafficking.

On Tuesday, the National Assembly debated the 2014 report (pdf) from the Equalities & Human Rights Commission in Wales (EHRC).

The report's broad findings were that :
  • Public sector equality duties are working well in Wales and have been "a catalyst for change".
  • Progress has been made on tackling domestic violence, religion in the workplace and mental health in the workplace - though more can be done.
  • More work has been carried out on the links between inequality and poverty.
  • The EHRC has provided evidence to the Welsh Government, in particular on the equalities impact of the budget, hate crime and women in public life.
  • The EHRC has also proposed strengthening its relationship with the Welsh Government which could lead to a permanent presence in Wales. They also submitted evidence to the Silk Commission, which proposed the National Assembly have further powers over human rights duties in relation to devolved areas and full legislative control over public sector equalities duties.

It's very rarely that the National Assembly debates something that could/should be considered the remit of an independent nation state, so it's worth covering for that alone.

Human Rights in the Assembly


Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) praised the work of the EHRC in Wales, which she says has proven to be "effective and successful" and the Welsh Government have a "positive and productive relationship" with the organisation. She says the EHRC's equalities network is "highly regarded by public sector equalities and human rights practitioners", and the government and Assembly can't overlook the links between inequalities and poverty.

Lesley said the Welsh Government support calls for the further devolution of equalities powers, and possibly beyond those recommended as part of the Silk Commission.



Mohammad Ashgar AM (Con, South Wales East), wanted to address one specific area – modern slavery. He highlighted recent legal cases of slave workers on Welsh farms, describing it as "the tip of the iceberg" and hoping the Assembly will support the Modern Slavery Bill. He also said forced marriages are often "undetected and unreported" in Wales.

Mohammad also raised the issue of female genital mutilation (aka. FGM – Life, Ethics & Independence III : Circumcision), and  65,000 girls and women in the UK are at risk of having the "procedure". He said it was an "appalling figure" and pleaded for something to be done on this during the Assembly term.



Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) said those who support human rights are "in a position of having to constantly defend that very concept", especially since the Conservative threat to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). He defended the ECHR as providing security against miscarriages of justice, saying we now take many of the rights guaranteed under the convention for granted.

He also criticised the previous Labour UK Government's record on immigrants, where children were often interred alongside adults in secure units. Lindsay defended the ECHR's value, as it was there to "protect the vulnerable from the abuses of the state". He said he was proud that Wales was debating how to promote human rights and equality instead of whether governments should promote those things.



Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) wanted to emphasise the link between poverty and educational attainment, which was the guiding principle behind his party's Pupil Deprivation Grant. He said pupils who receive free school meals were up to two and a half times less likely to get 5 GCSE grade A*-C than other pupils.

He joined Lindsay Whittle in condemning the proposal to withdraw from the European Convention, and cited an example where The Sun went to court after their privacy was infringed despite opposing the Human Rights Act. Peter suggested that those who oppose human rights legislation simply don't understand what's covered, pointing out what he described as "a number of factual inaccuracies" in the Conservative party proposal which were brought up by former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) said the Human Rights Act was a "jewel in the crown" of the last Labour Westminster administration. He said the threat of withdrawing from the convention was one of "the gravest threats to the reputation of the UK and its international standing". He accused the Conservatives of trying to bat off UKIP, saying, "You cannot cherry-pick with human rights" and that decisions will sometimes go for or against "us" (by which he means the UK, presumably) – citing two examples - the use of torture in Northern Ireland and thalidomide victims.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) focused on opportunities for women. She bemoaned the lack of progress, focusing on drops in women in senior positions in organisations like the NHS, fewer women council leaders and fewer women elected representatives. Julie did point out the gender balance of the Welsh Government as a positive and the fact that the Assembly has more women representatives than most other legislatures. She suggested that the Assembly consider different ways of working in "a fresh, radical way".



Former Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister, Jeff Cuthbert AM (Lab, Caerphilly), will have overseen many of the things covered in the report.

He raised an important point about community cohesion, which is especially important as it's been revealed over the last few months that Muslims from the Cardiff area have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS. He said the joint faith committee set up by the Welsh Government have a vital role to play here to "spread the message of peace, tolerance and co-existence".

I response to the issues raised in the debate, Lesley Griffiths said she welcomed the Modern Slavery Bill and said Wales was "way ahead of every country in the UK" on this. She said the proposed Gender-based Violence Bill covers FGM and in her previous role she wrote to school headteachers to raise this issue.

She said she will continue to have a proactive role in increasing representation of under-represented groups, including women, and highlighted a number of schemes and events aimed at doing just that.

Lesley described the Conservative's proposed withdrawal from the European Convention as a "huge backward step" and said the Welsh Government will do "everything in their power to challenge this" if the Conservatives are re-elected to office next May.

The Assembly approved an amended motion by 41 votes to 11 that :
  • Welcomed the Modern Slavery Bill.
  • Welcomed that forced marriage is now a criminal offence.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure schools have trained staff who can recognise signs of domestic abuse.
  • Calls for greater action from the Welsh Government to stop FGM.
  • Regrets the little progress that's been made in increasing women's representation in public life.
  • Believes continued membership of the European Convention on Human Rights is in Wales' interest, and welcomes the role it's played in "protecting and promoting equality".

Worth Fighting For

It might not be important in day-to-day matters, but issues like this could,
in the future, win the independence argument amongst the intelligentia.
....and it's being handed to nationalists on a plate by right-wing Unionists.
(Pic : The Telegraph)
Human rights, personal freedoms, privacy laws, the ECHR, foreign affairs, ISIS, gender equality....

As I said at the beginning, it's very rarely we have Assembly debates on so many "high end" issues that are, in the main, non-devolved and form the basis for democracy, our personal freedoms and liberties.

It's clear that the Welsh Government and National Assembly take their own responsibilities here very seriously (perhaps too seriously), and we now have things like a Human Trafficking Co-ordinator. The number of cases annually are, however, very small and there's a danger Wales is going to replicate that episode of The Simpsons with the "Bear Patrol".

"Human trafficking" has a stereotyped image of young women being shackled and brought here - from Eastern Europe and further afield - to be forced into prostitution and/or sexual slavery. That happens of course, but the growing problem is – as highlighted by the BBC earlier this week, and an ongoing court case in Wales –  men being trafficked and used as slave labour and/or trapped in indentured servitude.

On the issue of women's representation, I've brought that up before (How do you get more women into politics?). While there's a need for gender balance, as I said last time, quotas don't work. If I'm electing someone, or looking to appoint someone to a senior position, I want them to be the best possible candidate. That judgement should always be based on what they say and do, not what genitalia they have.

Women are disadvantaged here because of prevailing stereotypes and perceptions. Laws and quotas won't fix that, and might reinforce the perception and stereotypes that women can only achieve high office through tokenism and not their own qualities and strengths. Mentoring and building confidence so women come forward under their own steam is the best course of action here, and the Llywydd, Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West), has taken that on as a personal mission.

Another key area here was domestic violence. Relationship education was dropped from the Gender-based Violence Bill, but it should really be in there. It's unfortunate that the Welsh Government have caved to pressure from the Third Sector (as expected) to shift the emphasis wholly or mainly back to women, but as long as they don't completely gut the gender neutrality of the Bill itself there shouldn't be a problem.

Now for the grim bit, possibly prophetic.

Remember what I said when I brought up capital punishment last year. If the UK withdraws from the ECHR (I don't think it's likely, tbh), there's a real possibility that not long afterwards there'll be talk of a return of the death penalty in the UK.

It's always nice to see Conservative and Labour AMs continue to make such a strong case for Welsh independence.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Proctalgia Fugax AM 1964-2014

Proctalgia in happier times.
(Picture may or may not be Proctalgia Fugax)
The publicity-phobic Lib Dem Assembly Member for Ŷ, Proctalgia Fugax, has passed away following a suspected strangulated anus. She was 50.

In their statement, the Welsh Liberal Democrats said they were saddened by the loss of their dear colleague, but confidential sources told Oggy Bloggy Ogwr she was a pain in the arse.

Proctalgia leaves behind a husband broken by years of her incessant giggling at salad, an estranged son - who also appears in photos as her great-grandfather - and what's believed to be Wales' largest collection of gonks. At least seven applications to fill her seat were submitted within 15 minutes of rigor mortis.

Anal strangulation affects approximately 1 in 3 billion people, and is primarily caused by misadventure.

"We knew she had a problem taking her work home with her," an anonymous Welsh Lib Dem source said. "It started with stationary, and I'm sure everyone noticed her increasingly crab-like gait when she entered the Senedd chamber. Then it moved on to small pieces of office furniture, prompting a high-level investigation because the Assembly Commission were running up a suspiciously large tab at Staples.

"When we found out she disguised herself as the Cardiff Bay tunnel, we had no option but to give her a private formal reprimand. It turns out she was shortlisted to host the 2015 Welsh Lib Dem conference and was trying to see if she could accommodate a comprehensive park and ride system.

"You can't imagine that level of indignity, can you? You can't picture bus loads of Lib Dems, speeding towards their doom like at the start of the video for Dire Straights' 'Money for Nothing', singing in a falsetto 'I want my STV!'"

They puff their chest out and stick their chin in the air, "We're a party of government now."

Flags were lowered to half-mast on the Assembly estate, as shocked colleagues made their way in to work.

Their mood brightened when they saw that Smiling Starfish – a Cwm Gwyntog based charity dedicated to all things lower bowel – were begging AMs to sign a massive bit of cardboard and have a photo taken.


The co-founders are two very nice and unassuming people; Louise Schtuls - who lost her brother in a bumming accident - and retired colorectal surgeon Mr. Phil McCrachan. They're about to be dumped on from a great height. That's because simultaneously, the Welsh Government and local health boards were meeting for private discussions about 99% cuts to the NHS proctology budget.

Without the money to actually do anything, Smiling Starfish have taken the next best course of action : "raising awareness".


"We're growing very worried about the increasing popularity of so-called 'reverse chipmunking' amongst the youth," Phil said. "We believe the relentless focus on it in the media might've contributed to the sad news about Proctalgia. They think it's fashionable because they've seen celebrities like Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea do it.

"They won't think it's so trendy when they're walking down a street, and a satellite begins a geostationary orbit of their rear end, trying to map surface features and look for signs of life."


One of the first AMs to come over was former cymronaut, Sillius Soddus (Con, Aberchddll Left No Right A Bit). He said, "I fully endorse this event and-slash-or campaign. Hopefully, for just a minute or two, instead of coming across as a soul-crushed automaton rendered gormless by a 60-hour working week...." he makes a Gareth Bale-style heart symbol with his hands and smiles, "....I care!"

To reach the internet generation, Smiling Starfish's campaign has encouraged young people to video themselves cupping their farts in glasses and pouring them over their head in order to get more Facebook likes. Five people - who really should've been exposed at birth - managed to critically injure themselves doing this.

It's unfortunate that the only place cynical enough to criticise (and send death threats to) people doing silly things to raise awareness of, and funds for treating, life-threatening diseases happens to be the internet too.

A senior anonymous Welsh Government source, which may or may not have been Mark Drakeford speaking through a balaclava, announced the launch of Safer Exits – a £425,000 Welsh Government initiative designed to facilitate teaching at-risk schoolchildren the importance of sustainable ano-rectal care.

"As a Welsh Government, we've been telling Assembly Members 'up my arse and turn left' in response to their questions for fifteen years, we just put in more polite terms. I never thought they'd take it literally....I swear that a bus load of Lib Dems tried to run me over the other day.

"I don't mean to speak ill of the dead, but when it reached the point of rush hour traffic getting involved, you're on the road to rectal ruin. That's the sort of thing we are attempting to raise awareness of through Safer Exits.

"We're also actively considering legislation to ban breaking wind in public, or 'Ban the Bum' as the Western Mail are calling it. We have no scientific evidence to support this position. But just as we all have working digestive systems, we have noses too.

"The public are dogs that need to be brought to heel. We'll display our contempt for them by teaching them - in ways that won't worry their pretty little heads - how to use air more sustainably, to our satisfaction."

Part of the hard-hitting public information campaign
launched by the Welsh Government's Safer Exits scheme.

I asked parents outside Pen Ôl Community Primary School in Smiling Starfish's backyard of Cwm Gwyntog what they thought.

"Don't blame-a parents!" a mother said. "Can't watch 'em all-a time, can I!? As soon as they put summing in their 'and it goes straight up the arse. Someone responsible should learn 'em that it's not right....LIAM!" She's distracted by something in the distance, "STOP NICKING THAT CAR! I F**KING TOLD YOU NOW ALREADY NOW TODAY NOW!"

The reaction from opposition parties was swift. Plaid Cymru released a statement on their website :
Plaid Cymru The Party of Wales is committed to nothing less than a radical transformation of colonic health and well-being, after decades of being let down by London Westminster parties and a failing Welsh Labour government.

The Party of Wales believes that the most intimate decisions made on behalf of the people of Wales should be made as close to the people of Wales as possible. In Wales.

Plaid Cymru The Party of Wales believes Welsh anuses deserve to be the most sovereignly self-governing and home-rulingly interdependent in Europe. The Party of Wales is once again leading the way with the launch of our groundbreaking discussion paper Plugging the Hole : The Future Of Our Marmite Motorway.

The Party of Wales is today pressing for an urgent amendment to the Wales Bill. It demands the immediate devolution of the sigmoid colon and rectum, and sets in motion future sovereignty over the rest of the large intestine and appendix once a fair funding formula is in place, and at a pace all of the people of Wales will decide themselves (subject to final approval from the Plaid Cymru NEC, Assembly and Westminster groups).

Communication Terminated. #Ymlaen
The Welsh Conservatives repeated calls for a ring-fenced £6million "Bum Fund" to provide extra resources in these financially-straightened times.

They say they'll pay for it by turning off all lights at the Senedd; staff and AMs tattooing notes on their skin instead of using paper; and requiring all Assembly workers and visitors to bring their own packed lunches, which will be inspected upon arrival. Anything that looks remotely appetising will be confiscated and replaced with a packet of crushed Ryvita and uncooked rice.

Leader of the Opposition, Andrew RT Davies, said tactfully, "THIS IS YET ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF LAZY LABOUR SITTING ON THEIR BACKSIDES AS THE NATION'S BACKSIDES GO TO RUIN! THIS FAILING WELSH GOVERNMENT ARE LIKE A PACK OF FERAL SOCIALIST MUTTS TEARING CHUNKS OUT OF A RINGY MEATY TREAT!

"LET'S DELIVER A FIST TO WASTE! IT'S TIME TO TOSS THEIR FANCY SALADS!

"ONLY THE WELSH CONSERVATIVES DEMAND MORE ANAL CASH!"

 Serious Business Party activists across Wales have been out and
about, targeting everybody and politicising a tragedy to suit their own ends.

A Serious Business Party space monkey explained their policy is an immediate in-out referendum on public health care, replacing it with sustainable death.

They say their no-nonsense, common sense message is gaining traction on the doorstep, as they attempt to win an uncontested seat on Llananwsegr Community Council by tasering people in the head until their mouths foam.

"Let's get real, living is over-rated", they said. "We're very concerned about over-population, it's just not the PC thing amongst the metropolitan elite to say. We should celebrate a non-birthday for each abortion and disease – doubly so if it involves turning an everyday rectum into the Tardis."

They were drowned out by a cacophony of approaching sirens.

There were dramatic late developments. Following a hastily-arranged meeting with the Health Minister, Smiling Starfish entered into a Third Sector partnership agreement, which means the Welsh Government will wash their hands of any and all responsibilities. Lou Schtuls was subsequently appointed the first Safer Exits Senior Project Liason Co-ordinator.

"My new role involves targetting secondary school pupils," she explained. "I have to stand in front of the class, and say, 'Hi, I'm Lou Schtuls, and today I'll be raising awareness of the dangers of reverse chipmunking, fart attacks and pegging. Can someone tell me what a rusty trombone is?'

"Every time I close my eyes, I see some acne-ridden 14 year old with a 'Tintin' haircut sitting at the back of the class with his chimp-like friends, gurning their way through one of my meticulously-planned lessons.

"If it wasn't for the Welsh Government - plus the steadfast support and concerned facial expressions of AMs - they would end up finding out about the dreaded pink sock from the internet!"




Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Bridgend's Cabinet Expansion & Cuts Consultation

Bridgend Council's Politburo is set to gain a new member.
(Pic : gorby.ru)
Bridgend Council's cabinet currently consists of five full members and a deputy – reportedly the smallest local authority cabinet in Wales :
  • Cllr. Mel Nott (Lab, Sarn) – Council Leader
  • Cllr. David Sage (Lab, Brackla) – Deputy Leader
  • Cllr. Mike Gregory (Lab, Felindre) – Resources
  • Cllr. Huw David (Lab, Cefn Cribwr) – Children & Young People
  • Cllr. Llewellyn Morgan (Lab, Ynysawdre) – Wellbeing
  • Cllr. Phil White (Lab, Caerau) - Communities

Huw David aside, their average age must be in the late 60s, and it's public knowledge that some of them have long-standing health problems (nothing serious I hope), which has led to them missing meetings (though it happens rarely).

There's a clear need for fresh blood, and they remind me of Soviet leaders wrapped up to keep out the elements, watching the military parade past Red Square (ironically, this BCBC administration really do have a "thing" for military parades).

As the Glamorgan Gazette reported back in September, BCBC intend to appoint a sixth full cabinet member, who would be responsible for supporting current cabinet members in the delivery of the "Strategic Change Programme" (doc). The proposal will be put to full council tomorrow (pdf - Item 9).

As you might expect, the proposal hasn't been greeted enthusiastically by either the public or the likes of former Bridgend Council leader, Jeff Jones. Jeff believes the "strategic" role of the new post should be performed either by Mel Nott (as leader) or the Chief Executive, Darren Mepham.

I'm inclined to agree with him.

Despite that, it's claimed funding for the post (which will presumably come with the £29,000 bump in salary on top of the £13,300 basic allowance) is already in place. Also, the position will be reviewed next May, so it looks like it'll be a short-term appointment (for now).

No names have been mentioned yet, but if you want me to pull names out of the air - based on their professional & political experience and what the cabinet might be looking for - I'd imagine the shortlist will include : Cllrs. Mal Reeves (Lab, Maesteg East), Charles Smith (Lab, Llangewydd & Brynhyfryd), Cherie Jones (Lab, Litchard) and Martyn Jones (Lab, Bettws). A return of Cllr. John Spanswick (Lab, Brackla) shouldn't be ruled out either, but he previously stood down from cabinet due to work commitments.

I don't think whoever's offered the job need take it on so enthusiastically, especially when you consider what the new cabinet role will involve. "Strategic Change" is code for managing departmental reforms, which is in turn code for cutbacks.

At its most basic level, the new cabinet position is "Cabinet Member for Cuts", and will entail wiping the proverbial backsides of the current cabinet members and taking all the resulting flak.

Good luck!

UPDATE : 17/10/14 - One of my shortlisted candidates, Cllr. Charles Smith - an economics lecturer - has subsequently been appointed Cabinet Member for Strategic Change.


Cuts Consultation Launched

Bridgend Council have launched a consultation asking the
public where the axe should fall.
(Pic : Bridgend County Borough Council)

There's been a sharp increase in the amount of money BCBC need to save over the next four years as a result of the Welsh Government's recent 3.4% cut to their settlement. The current budget has been planned on a presumed £36million in savings until 2019, but now that figure's closer to £50million.

Although the budget won't be finalised until next spring, and cuts to the settlement weren't as bad as first feared, it promises to be a bloodbath.

I wouldn't be surprised if we start to see library closures (those based outside the main settlements must be looking vulnerable), serious cuts to things like adult learning and adult social care, as well as the start of mass council redundancies. However, aside from the Garw Valley, I doubt we'll see changes to schools to the same extent as those proposed in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Neath Port Talbot.

BCBC have launched a public consultation so county residents can give their views on where to cut £14.33million.

The consultation will include sit down meetings held around the county (details of where you can book your place are here), but it also includes an online survey and "budget simulator". It takes around 15 minutes to complete and is available here.

Last week's Gazette story on this was full of vox pops calling for a reduction in councillors and executives. Although I have sympathy with that view, you could get rid of every single councillor and reduce the number of senior managers to a skeleton crew and it would only save a few hundred thousand pounds. The cuts need to be made in the millions.

If you feel passionately that certain local services should be protected, then I strongly suggest you let BCBC know and take part in the consultation.
Responses need to be in by November 17th.

I suppose you'll want to know what I suggested after playing around with the simulator :

Cuts

  • Children (excluding schools) : - £1.22million (-3%)
  • Corporate functions : -£3.79million (-10.1%)
  • Schools budget : Frozen, no change
  • Adult social care : - £1.73million (-4.3%)
  • Sport & Wellbeing : - £317,000 (-10.4%)
  • Communities : -£2.04million (-7.8%)
  • Resources : -£2.28million (-13.6%)
  • Legal & Regulatory Services : -£484,000 (-7.6%)

Savings

  • Review of public toilets : +£50,000
  • Review and rationalisation of school crossing patrols : +£120,000
  • Review of home school transport : +£550,000

Revenue

  • Introduce parking charge for blue badge holders : +£165,000
  • Percentage charge for credit card transactions : +£28,000
  • Reduce subsidy for primary school meals (5p per meal) : +£60,000
  • Introduce a charge for pest control services : +£25,000
  • Council Tax increase by 4% : +£2.35million

Grim stuff, eh?

Although it's a blunt instrument, it proves that even the council itself (admin etc.) takes the biggest brunt of any cuts - as I've done here - they'll still need to charge more for services or increase council tax. Other options include stricter eligibility criteria for adult care (which could've saved £2.55million) or hiving off library and cultural services to a not-for-profit (saving around £365,000).

"Budget simulator"
might sound like an incredibly boring computer game, but you quickly realise this is going to happen for real, and ordinary people in Bridgend county - our neighbours, relatives and friends - will feel the effects.

Two Major Collaborations On The Way?

Plans to run a joint CCTV service between Bridgend & Vale of Glamorgan are at an advanced
stage, while plans continue towards sharing certain services between Bridgend, Vale and Cardiff.
(Pic : i-comply.co.uk)
As the title hints, two major collaboration projects involving Bridgend and neighbouring local authorities are at different stages of development.

Firstly, Bridgend and Vale of Glamorgan running a joint CCTV service (pdf - Item 11), which was first proposed at the tail end of 2013. Negotiations and administration has advanced to such a stage that a detailed breakdown of the costs can now be provided.

As I understand it, BCBC will be contributing 37% of the total start-up costs (total costs being just over £180,000) – and £100,000 of that is related to a high estimate of possible redundancies. The operating budget for the service will be around £236,000, and it'll save £30,000 per year for the next two years.

Secondly, there's a proposal for joint regulatory services for Bridgend, Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff covering licensing, environmental health and trading standards . Around £250,000 per year in Welsh Government grant funding has been provided towards this.

In an update to the full council
(pdf - Item 8), it's said trade unions have been briefed and all the joint administrative arrangements are ready to be put in place.

One big sticking point so far has been the decision on which local authority will host the service. It would be cheapest to host it in Bridgend (£6.9million per year costs, compared to £7.2million in Cardiff). Vale of Glamorgan is put forward as the "most balanced" choice to host it as it would affect Cardiff-based workers the least (as they make up the greatest numbers).

If everything stays on timetable the new joint service will be up and running in September 2015, and it could save Bridgend alone some £350,000 in operating costs and some £1.4million across the three councils over the next three years. However, trade unions and other interested parties have raised concerns about job transfers due to the complexity of the arrangements and the impact the collaboration might have on the professional standing of officers.

BCBC already collaborates with the Vale on civil parking enforcement (more here) and it appears to be working well so far.

Yet again though, BCBC is showing a preference to work with the Vale of Glamorgan (I'd imagine the Vale would rather merge with Bridgend over Cardiff as it would be a bit more balanced), while the Welsh Government and Williams Commission press for a merger with Neath Port Talbot.

I'm not sure if all these collaborations with the Vale are going to cause problems when the merger process begins to ramp up over the next year or so.

Live Broadcasts Delay : BCBC Explain

The council chamber isn't quite modern enough it seems.
(Pic : Ysgol Gyfun Llangynwyd)
In my last visit to Bridgend on this blog, I said there had been a serious delay to the broadcast of council meetings.

I also said that as I didn't own tin foil head wear, I presumed there was a technical explanation. That's indeed the case, and the precise reasons for the delay were revealed at last week's cabinet meeting (pdf - Item 15).

BCBC also confirmed in a Twitter conversation with @Bridgend and myself earlier that further announcements on this are due soon (presumably what I'm going to cover now).

Although the council chamber was upgraded in 2006 and is considered one of the most modern in Wales, BCBC say the audio-visual and IT systems are fine for basic meetings, but after testing them, they wouldn't be up to the standard required for public broadcasts.

To fully meet requirements, they need to install three cameras, provide the Chair with a way to see what's going on (via a computer) and improve display facilities (BCBC has an electronic voting system, for instance).

BCBC have therefore waived usual contractor rules and appointed the current company responsible for maintaining the systems to complete the required works by November 30th. The cost will be at least £1,000 and will come from a Welsh Government grant.

It's disappointing that it's taken this long to do something this simple, but my guess is broadcast of council meetings will start early in 2015.

UPDATE 22/10/14 :
Cllr. Ross Thomas (Lab, Maesteg West), has said in the comments section that webcasting is due to be delivered by March 2015.




Monday, 13 October 2014

Anything to declare?

"Financial interests" and "politicians" in the same sentence is always combustible,
though proposed changes to National Assembly rules will dampen the fires a bit.
Last week, the National Assembly's Standards Committee and Standards Commissioner, Gerard Elias QC, reported back on possible changes to how, when and why Assembly Members report their personal and financial interests (pdf).

A consultation with AMs began in January 2014, and a preliminary report was prepared by the Standards Commissioner in July 2014.

It's said five (of ten) categories of financial/personal interests were of particular concern:
  • Remuneration, Employment, Office, Profession etc.
  • Remuneration for other material benefit
  • Financial Sponsorships
  • Shareholdings
  • Public Bodies

The Committee made 15 recommendations in total, which would mostly result in changes to the National Assembly's Standing Order 2 (pdf, latest version). All changes will need to be approved by the Assembly before coming into force.

Employment status of dependent children

At the moment, AMs need to declare the employment status/job of partners, as well as children aged 16-19 (where applicable). The Standards Commissioner considers the requirement relating to children as "intrusive" as it would drag the personal life of AMs' children into the public domain. Currently, the National Assembly is the only legislature in the UK that requires this information to be formally declared.

There are obvious exceptions to this – like an AM employing their own child, and that's dealt with under a separate set of Standing Orders – but the Committee believes AMs should instead make an oral declaration of a "family interest" of this kind where relevant.

The Committee therefore recommended that the requirement to register the employment status of a dependent child aged over-16 be removed.

Receipt of public funds

A separate registration category for "receipt of public funds" was considered, but rejected as it would be a duplication. The Committee agreed that receipt of public funds (grants etc.) should be registered by AMs, but that clear guidance was needed on what would count as "public funds".

They also agreed that pensions should no longer be considered a registrable form of remuneration.

Assembly Contracts

AMs need to register an interest where any company they, or their immediate family, receive money from (including, presumably, things like shareholder dividends) are tendering for, or has won, a contract to provide services to the National Assembly.

The Committee believe this was unfair, as AMs might not always have knowledge of what companies are bidding for what. So the rules will be changed so AMs only have to register an interest when they know for absolute certainty that a company they're involved with has won a contract or is tendering for one.

Shareholdings

There's a general duty on AMs to register shareholdings they, or their family, hold that are worth more than 1% of the total shares issued by a company. There's a recommendation that share options (shares offered to employees in lieu of/in addition to pay) are included as registrable.

The big concern here relates to so-called "blind trusts" where the beneficiaries have no idea what investments are made or where as control is handed over to independent experts. This is an obvious advantage to politicians, who can gain financially from these schemes without attracting scrutiny, as any decisions would be independent of their political careers or unaffected by their political decisions. The recommendation is that AMs declare any "blind trusts" they hold.

Membership of an Assembly-funded body

The issue here was about clarity, specifically what "membership" means. Not declaring memberships of this sort is a potential criminal offence, so some AMs are registering memberships of organisations like the WRU and National Trust to be on the safe side.

The Commissioner believed it was more appropriate to focus on memberships of organisations where the AM's presence would, in itself, "put them in a position to promote a cause" – this includes being a patron of a charity, memberships of governing bodies, trustee positions and any sort of paid executive or administrative role.

The Committee recommended that Standing Orders be changed to narrowly-define what "membership" means, and require AMs to register "where they knew or ought to have known" about Assembly funding.

Financial Sponsorship

The Electoral Commission already requires elected representatives to declare sponsorship or financial donations, so requiring AMs to register again with the National Assembly was "double declaration" and a needless duplication. The Committee recommended that this "double declaration" be removed, and it's suggested they work with the Wales Office, Electoral Commission and Assembly Commission to get this underway – but it might take some time.

Oral declarations

There are rules already in place setting out when AMs need to make an oral declaration in Assembly proceedings if they, or their family, have a financial interest or would be set to gain financially by any decisions made in the meeting.

The Commissioner proposed changing the wording to ensure AMs declare an interest if they would benefit financially from any decision "to a greater extent than the electorate generally". An example's given where an AM who's a landlord might benefit from decisions made with regard rent regulations.

Dealing with breaches

It's a criminal offence for an AM to take part in Assembly proceedings without declaring personal or financial interests as outlined by Standing Orders – this includes both accidental/delayed omissions and deliberate omissions.

The Commissioner believes relations between AMs and the Assembly Commission would sour if 
"accidental"/"trivial" cases were referred to the the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) straight away, as set out in Standing Orders.

It was recommended, therefore, where there's a breach of Standing Order 2, the case first be referred directly to the Standards Commissioner, who would then decide – as an independent adjudicator – whether a case needs to be either referred to the DPP, be subject to code of conduct investigations or dealt with informally.

EXCLUSIVE : FINANCIAL INTERESTS ASSEMBLY MEMBERZZZ

You would've thought having "financial interests" and "Assembly Members" in the same sentence would've got the Western Mail salivating, but this was too boring even for them, and only warranted around 100 words from BBC Wales.

This is an important post, just to underline how strict the rules are so people don't get the impression AMs are routinely "on the take". It takes some accounting gymnastics and whopping big lies to get away with it.

I know you all loves a bit of intrigue and scandal, but the reality is that AMs are well-behaved and understand what they should or shouldn't do here. I can't remember any cases where an AM has come a cropper of these particular rules, and I don't believe there's a threat of that happening either.

Most of the recommendations here seem largely about making things clearer, adding the requirement about declaring receipt of public funds, and you could even say the rules have been relaxed a little bit or simplified. Why would we need to know if an AM's son or daughter is flipping burgers, for example?

It's worth pointing out that the consultation with AMs began before the Alun Davies sacking, and it's just very timely that it covers declaration of financial interests.

I don't believe this vindicates Alun at all (as touched on by National Left).

Although it's absolutely right AMs declare all financial and personal interests, it was the manner by which Alun handled it – some tu quoque political posturing which dragged in the civil service (after being warned not to) - that turned what was a perfectly legitimate point into a scandal.

"Keep cooly cool, boy".

­