Saturday, 26 July 2014

Does Wales make the most of EU opportunities?


                            

It's been a while. There've been many changes. Nick Ramsey has no doubt been stumbling through the Ty Hywel corridors to Every Rose Has Its Thorn.

However, I couldn't resist returning to the rock stars of the Assembly Committee world – Business & Enterprise – and their inquiry report into EU funding opportunities from 2014-2020, which was launched at Cardiff's Chapter Arts Centre last week (pdf).

A lot of this work overlaps with the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee inquiry into the Welsh role in EU decision-making.While that inquiry focused on the political and constitutional situation, this one was more focused on the economic, cultural and financial side of things.

The one thing you can take from both inquiries is the need for a clear strategy on Welsh involvement with the EU. It's a point raised before, but Scotland and the Republic of Ireland have a "more joined up approach" than we do. Meanwhile, concerns that EU funds in Wales have been misused, or Wales being constantly "left off the map", mean a revision of the Welsh Government's EU strategy is long overdue – something Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) is considering.

There were 16 recommendations in total, summarised as :
  • Ensuring any future EU strategy (Wales in Europe : What role do we play?) sets clear objectives and maximises Welsh involvement in EU programmes.
  • Developing tailored support; including the creation of an EU Funding Champion, a central contact point for EU funds and specialist support for the youth, transport and education sectors.
  • Addressing gaps in Welsh representation in Brussels (also raised in the Welsh EU role inquiry)
  • Setting clear objectives for Welsh universities to promote both studying abroad and  language courses as well as creating an alumnus of international students.
  • Local Government should develop their own action plans to make best use of EU funds.
  • Champion the Welsh creative sector in Europe, ensuring they're not disadvantaged in applying for EU funding because of the UK's strong TV industry.
  • Develop a closer working relationship with DG Move and TEN-T executives in Brussels - as well as the Irish – to ensure Wales gets the most out of pan-EU transport programmes.

EU Programmes – What are they?


When discussing "EU Programmes" in Wales, you'll automatically think "Objective One" (Structural Funds) or the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). There are, however, EU schemes that cover other activities and sectors worth up to €42billion. The inquiry focused on how Wales engages with these programmes and what can be done to ensure we get the most out of them.

These programmes include :
  • Erasmus+ (€14.7bn)
  • Connecting Europe/Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) (€15bn)
  • Regional Cooperation (INTERREG) (€8.7bn)
  • Creative Europe (€1.46bn)
  • Competitiveness of Small & Medium Sized Companies (COSME) (€2.03bn)

There's also the Horizon 2020 scheme which covers science and technology, but this wasn't within the inquiry's remit.

Welsh engagement with EU programmes

The EU Commission's Creative Europe programme helped fund Y Gwyll, but there were
concerns that the strength of the UK's media sector may disadvantage Wales.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Although Wales engages with many of these programmes – like INTERREG, Creative Europe and some of the education programmes - a recurring theme is that the high priority and narrow focus given to structural funds (Objective One and CAP) has limited Welsh involvement elsewhere.

There are specialist European officers in local government and higher education – often with a presence in Brussels – but there's nothing similar for the youth, private and voluntary sectors. The benefits from participating in these programmes are potentially huge and such groups may be missing out unnecessarily.

In the Welsh Government's evidence they say some programmes are easier to work with and win funding from than others, so they often had to target their resources carefully. They intend to review how they interact with the EU, but with no set timetable. This led to the Committee supporting previous calls for a full EU Strategy, citing the Irish and Danish governments own successful strategies.

It was said Wales isn't "as switched on" as other countries, with an example given of one academic who was working with the INTERREG programme having no contact whatsoever with the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO). There was also a lack of proper communication with businesses, with calls for a "clear contact point" based outside Wales for foreign companies looking to work with Welsh partners.

There was a specific focus on the creative industries sector, and the EU programme Creative Europe. The EU Commission's media programme "provides support for film productions from pre-production through to distribution, primarily in the form of direct grants to companies and organisations". This scheme provided support towards the production of Y Gwyll/Hinterland.

Media Antenna Wales – part of the Welsh Government's creative industries team – provides support to companies and producers seeking to work with Creative Europe, often helping them negotiate the bureaucracy and form-filling that comes with EU programmes. This level of specialist support was praised and said to be something to emulate in other sectors.

There was, however, a worry that because the UK has a "strong audio-visual industry" overall, Welsh creative companies would be overlooked or disadvantaged when applying for EU funds. Better Together?


International Mobility

Although Wales attracts its fair share of Erasmus funding and
participation, twice as many students are incoming as outgoing.
(Pic : BBC)
Erasmus, now reformed into Erasmus+, is a general exchange programme aimed at all aspects of the university sector. The British Council is in charge of this at a UK level and says Wales is "attracting its share of the budget in relation to population size" (€11million between 2006-07 and 2012-13).

The benefits of participating in Erasmus are said to include : greater employability, improved self-esteem and there was evidence that academic performance improves too. There's also a knock-on impact to universities themselves, as Erasmus can leave a good impression on students studying here and could be adapted to provide a trade boost that runs into the tens of millions of pounds.

One big barrier is that there are twice as many incoming students to Wales as there are outgoing. Lower Welsh take-up rates are said to be down to numerous factors like : language barriers, lack of engagement by academics, lack of awareness, financial problems and lack of confidence. Also, participation was markedly lower from "new universities".

Cardiff University's Prof. Colin Riordan set a target of 17% of graduating students spending some study time abroad by 2017, having set up a £1.6million bursary fund to help achieve it. At the moment the rate is 12%.

Despite his ambition being praised, these levels of participation fall far short of Germany, which has a 50% target. Prof. Riordan said levels of engagement on this matter with the Welsh Government were "low" and that it wasn't afforded a high level of status.

Colegau Cymru suggested the creation of a "one-stop shop" within the Welsh Government for lifelong learning programmes, while Swansea University suggested the Welsh Government could do more to help universities and colleges access EU funding programmes.

There was also confusion over youth volunteering and youth work. The British Council no longer want to work with devolved bodies on this (in Wales' case Connect Cymru), but said that was because they're changing how they're working with them as there was little evidence of the benefits and effectiveness of youth work and youth volunteering programmes.

International Co-operation

A lot of the Welsh participation in INTERREG is wrapped up in the Ireland-Wales programme.
(Pic : EU Commission)
There were 89 INTERREG projects in Wales during the 2007-13 funding period, attracting €41.5million in EU funding. Most of this went towards Irish-Welsh co-operation.

Colegau Cymru said there are specific challenges here, as in order to get funding, projects need to be managed not only across institutions but across borders around the EU. Milford Haven Port Authority also said there hadn't been enough engagement with the private sector.

Local councils say that while they've participated in programmes like INTERREG, much of their focus has been on structural funding (Objective One, European Social Fund) and rural development. They pointed towards the lack of Welsh Government advice and contacts, with Conwy Council adding – in rather parochial terms – that "their only priority is their own local area".

The Committee underlined the lack of a joined-up approach, but also a lack of ambition by local councils, which is "in marked contrast to the further education sector". They called on the WLGA to display leadership.

Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T)

Wales - left off an EU map....again.
And the Welsh Government hasn't helped matters either.
(Pic : ITV Wales)
TENT-T is described as a "set of strategically significant road, rail, air, water transport networks" identified by the EU as particularly important to the internal market.

Wales isn't currently on any of the core network corridors, though Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) said Welsh experts were sent as part of the UK team when drafting the maps. Milford Haven and the north Wales coast mainline were subsequently added at the request of the UK Government.

Milford Haven Port Authority say there's a significant amount of money that could be available to Wales to develop freight facilities, but too much focus has been on passengers. Holyhead was also excluded from TEN-T as a core port, despite its pretty important role in linking Great Britain to Ireland – though it falls short of Liverpool in terms of tonnage.The Committee say that the negotiating process between Cardiff, London and Brussels was "confused and opaque".

Also, in an astonishing admission, Wales didn't make any applications to, and secured no funding from, the TEN-T programme as of January 2014. Edwina Hart has confirmed, however, that a business case for improvements to the Crewe-Holyhead railway through TEN-T is underway.

The Answer : "Wales could do more"

To repeat myself, there's a clear need for some sort of high level strategy – as much as I loathe such things – and many of the Committee's recommendations make sense. EU programmes also have to be put in a much wider context than structural and agricultural funds as they have important cultural and educational aspects as well.

The lack of proper engagement with TEN-T, however, is a hidden national disgrace and signifies incredible laziness on the part of the Welsh Government. Even a slither of TEN-T funding could've gone a long way towards bringing forward projects like rail electrification or upgrading parts of the A55. I suppose they deserve credit for getting the ball rolling on the north Wales mainline at least.

I suppose in a way this is a complement or follow-up to my 2012 post -"What Wales gets from the European Union".

The answer is, quite clearly, "a lot". If the Welsh Government properly organised itself and started to put the work in the answer would be "even more" - and not just in monetary terms.


Thursday, 24 July 2014

Inspiring Wales into Sport

With the 2014 Commonwealth Games now underway, it's worth looking at the
latest Plaid Cymru policy discussion paper - this time focusing on sports development.
(Pic : Wales Online)

It's seems you can't escape the sporting summer. A successful World Cup is now followed by the Commonwealth Games, with Team Wales
(if there's enough of them left!) hoping to win 20+ medals.

Sport has also snuck its way into public policy debates, with ongoing concerns about rising obesity, impact of austerity on the costs associated with (and availability of) sporting activities, attempts to measure the legacy of the 2012 London Olympics and early hints that Wales might bid to host the Commonwealth Games in the 2020s (Could Wales host a Commonwealth Games?).

Back in June, Plaid Cymru offered their own ideas on sport in their Inspire Wales discussion paper (pdf).

This comes only months after the National Assembly's Communities & Local Government Committee inquiry into sports participation (Off the Bench – Boosting sports participation in Wales), and if you want to go further back, the recommendation from Tanni Grey-Thompson that PE should become a core subject in the National Curriculum.

Overcoming Barriers


The reasons why people do and don't take up sport and physical activity have been well worn now, so I'm only going to cover the current problems briefly, most of which were examined in detail by the Assembly inquiry.

Gender barriers
– Boys are more likely to participate in sport and be "hooked on sport" than girls, though both sexes believe PE is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. There are big drop-off rates amongst girls in older age groups for reasons like body image and lack of confidence – many girls say they would do more sport if they were "better at it". Amongst adults, more men (46%) are hooked on sport than women (32%), and women are more likely than men to do no physical activity. There were also concerns raised during the committee inquiry about LGBTs, who feel sports clubs are "unwelcoming".

Socio-economic barriers – There's an 11% gap in sport participation between schools in wealthier areas and schools in more deprived areas. Sport Wales say things like cost of club membership, equipment and the price of using facilities are likely to put people in deprived areas off sport. Sports participation levels increase with household income – 89% for £52,000+ and just 54% for between £5,200-10,399. Although people from ethnic minorities are as likely as whites to be "hooked on sport", the low number of ethnic minority coaches and PE teachers was raised as a concern during the inquiry. There's evidence too that Welsh-speakers (46%) are more likely to participate or volunteer in sport than non-Welsh speakers (36%) for unknown reasons (but I suspect it'll be down to background not language).

Access barriers - Disabled children are less likely to participate in sport than able-bodied children, and that continues into adulthood, said to be down to cost, lack of facilities, attitudes and lack of transport amongst other things. The impact of local government budget cuts mean that there's the threat facilities will become increasingly unaffordable to the public at large.

What do Plaid Cymru put forward?

Some of the ideas include opening school sports facilities to the public, a "Wellbeing
Oyster Card"
and ensuring school pupils get a minimum 2 hours of PE per week.
(Pic : ukminifootball.co.uk)
The paper puts forward several policy ideas :
  • Research into why adults and children take up sports, but also the reasons why they drop-out. The lack of this sort of (vital) information was flagged up as a concern during the committee inquiry.
  • Explore the possibility of placing a statutory duty on local authorities to deliver sport and leisure facilities, possibly extending to a requirement for schools to open their sports facilities to the public.
  • Creating a regional structure for sport development similar to Ireland's Local Sports Partnerships, or the model used in the Nordic countries. These organisations oversee the development of sport clubs, help plan sports facilities at a local level and offer training and support to volunteers - all helping to link national governing bodies to the grass roots. It would also help smaller sports clubs start from scratch, with the policy aim being to create "sports programmes in which whole families can take part in together".
  • A "Well-being Oyster Card" to enable use of local authority facilities across the whole of Wales, plus giving people a "right to access" leisure facilities for disabled and non-disabled people.
  • Ensuring a minimum of 2 hours of "high quality" PE per week per pupil in the National Curriculum - with consultation with pupils as to the format. The current average is schools is 1hr 41minutes.
  • An "Inspire Wales" programme where elite athletes would visit schools, leisure facilities etc. to encourage people to take up sport by discussing their own experiences. This is similar to the Canadian ESTEEM Team programme.

Inspiring Ideas?

The idea of 2 hours of "high quality" PE per pupil, per week is
very realistic - but is it ambitious enough?
(Pic : South Wales Argus)
Once again I'm impressed by one of these Plaid Cymru policy papers. There's a lot to like. Though there are a few points that need a bit more work.

Regional bodies might be the most boring part of this, but it is important. Ideally there would be a bit of joined-up thinking. Instead of sports – especially at the grassroots - being managed by central governing bodies, they would be structured around/affiliated to local authority athletic unions.


That sounds similar to what Plaid propose, and it would mean smaller, amateur clubs wouldn't have to jump through so many hoops, or deal with so many organisations, as there would (presumably) be one point of contact. It might make it easier to arrange local competitions too in a wider variety of sports (if there's enough interest).

I'm not sure what good an extra 19 minutes of PE a week, on average, will do. The Chief Medical Officer's recommendation for school-age children is between one and several hours (of "physical activity") a day, while the 5x60 scheme implies 5 hours a week. 2 hours is realistic, but it might not be ambitious enough unless every single child did sport outside of school hours.

The more important idea here is asking pupils what they would like to do. When I were't lad I doubt I was the only person who would deliberately try and get out certain PE activities but looked forward to others.

Plaid's proposal for a "right of access" will require more investment in
things like cycling routes. Should there be a ring-fenced budget?
(Pic : Road Safety Wales)
We also need to make sure that "physical activity" doesn't come to exclusively mean organised sport. I suppose the paper makes that point by putting forward what sounds like a proposal to create a Nordic-style "right of access".

Well, we need those facilities in the first place. Nobody seems to have a clue how much is going to be spent as a result of the Active Travel Act 2013, for example. It might be worth considering ring-fencing a sum to develop these open access areas, and provide the complementary measures to encourage walking and cycling to school and work; perhaps some sort of "walk/cycle miles" scheme in schools like "air miles" – which is used in New Zealand.

The "Well-being Oyster Card" is one of the more attention-grabbing ideas. The reason the Oyster Card works isn't just down to "turn up and go" convenience but flat fares - you know what you're going to pay across London regardless of trip.


The idea for a "Wellbeing Oyster Card" is attention-grabbing, but
would it require an equivalent of flat fares across Wales first?
(Pic : Centaman Entrance Control)
I'd imagine being able to use a single card to access local authority facilities across Wales – especially swimming pools - will be incredibly popular. But the difference in prices between council-run, outsourced and completely private facilities will make this tricky to implement. It's definitely an idea worthy of further work, and ideally would be extended to cover things like private gyms.

There's a lot of support already for opening school leisure facilities. It's common sense and is already being implemented in parts of Wales. Many new schools are designed with community facilities built in (i.e. Archbishop McGrath and Coleg Cymunedol y Dderwen in Bridgend; Aberdare High School under construction in Rhondda Cynon Taf; Rhosnesni High School in Wrexham). The trouble is opening sports facilities at older school sites might not be practical.

Getting sporting stars to visit schools as role models could have mixed results. The paper cites research from Scotland (Sporting Success Role Models - pdf) which says "no impacts have been robustly demonstrated" as to whether sporting role models encourage others to take part - ditto the fact that the positive effect of major sporting events is usually short-term.

The principle that former professional athletes (or, for example, those whose careers are cut short by injury) should be encouraged into coaching – maybe rotating around clubs in a particular region – is a common sense idea too. However, there's a risk that current elite sport stars will be too busy to coach as well as train, while former sport starts might not be well-known to younger generations to really make an impact.

So, on the whole, once again there's some good stuff from the "thinkers" in Plaid and plenty for the rest of us to consider.


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Bethan's Law : "FinEdBill" introduced

Last week, Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) introduced the fourth backbench Member's Bill of this Assembly term - the Financial Education & Inclusion Bill.

Bill here (pdf), explanatory memorandum here (pdf), Member's Research service summary here.

Why do we need "FinEdBill"?

With patchy provision across Wales, this law intends to put financial education
on the basic curriculum - ensuring every child will learn how to manage their money.
(Pic : Education Scotland)
It's worth a recap :

Patchy teaching of financial education in schools – Bethan's office undertook a Freedom of Information survey which revealed that levels of financial education varied in Welsh schools from 270 hours to just 6 hours. There was also preliminary evidence that deprived local authorities provided less financial education than well-off areas. Estyn's Money Matters report from 2011 backs this up, indicating a possible "postcode lottery" in the teaching of money management.

Despite financial education being included as part of the Welsh Government's Literacy and Numeracy framework and within maths and PSE lessons, Bethan says provision of financial education is "dependent upon individual teachers’ enthusiasm". The basic school curriculum is set in law via the Education Act 2002. It's proposed to add financial education to that to ensure it's taught to a minimum level across the country as it's "overlooked and not prioritised amidst other competing priorities".

Increasing personal debt and money management problems – Since the recession and subsequent welfare reforms, bodies that work with people in financial difficulties like Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) has been inundated with cases. The explanatory memorandum quotes a Samaritans Wales report which says there were more than 160,000 calls in 2013-14 - partly blamed on financial problem - while a Public Policy Institute Wales report said 400,000 people in Wales (16% of the population) were over-indebted. All of this is going to create social and economic pressures, so the need for good financial education to ensure future generations avoid these problems is great.

The introduction of Universal Credit means many welfare payments are combined into a single payment. In principle I don't have a problem with that; I like the idea of a "Citizen's Income". But housing benefit – which used to be paid directly to landlords – is now wrapped up in the Universal Credit, making money management skills and advice available to some of the poorest in society more valuable and important than ever.

Ensuring people in financial problems get the help they need - The explanatory memorandum quotes the National Survey 2012-13 (pdf) which found only 42% of under-65s were able keep up with their bills without difficulty, while 33% of respondents said keeping up with bills and credit card payments were sometimes a struggle. Despite this, only 4% accessed some sort of advice service.

Local authorities – like schools – provide a patchy service in terms of pointing people towards the right help. The Bill places duties on them to ensure people can access the right help and - equally as important - access online help (like the Money Advice Service) on public computers for free.

What does the Financial Education & Inclusion Bill propose?

The Bill (in its current form) will - amongst other things - ensure local
authorities provide public access to online financial advice services for free.
(Pic : BDP)
The Bill itself is mercifully short at 6 pages, but it outlines numerous measures, most of which haven't changed much from the public consultation.

Financial Education

The Bill :
  • Defines
    • "financial education" as learning about financial management (using financial services and debt)
    • "financial services" as savings, credit, mortgages, insurance and money transfers
    • "financial inclusion" as accessing "financial services" or "financial education" (as defined above) at a reasonable cost.
  • Amends the Education Act 2002 to put financial education on the basic state school curriculum for Key Stages 2, 3 & 4 (ages 7-16) - subject to guidance.
  • Places a duty on Welsh Ministers to :
    • Consult with "persons who have relative expertise" (i.e debt charities, financial experts) before drafting the financial education component of the National Curriculum.
    • Report annually to the National Assembly on the progress of financial education in schools.
  • Amends the Social Services & Wellbeing Act 2014 to place a duty on local authorities to ensure looked-after children receive "financial education" from age 7.
  • Grants Welsh Ministers the powers to issue guidance on financial education or inclusion.

Financial Inclusion

The Bill :
  • Places a duty on local authorities to :
    • Prepare and publish a financial inclusion strategy – in consultation with relevant outside organisations.
    • Publish a report every financial year into their progress and implementation of said strategy.
    • Revise their financial inclusion strategies at least once every five years.
  • Outlines that each financial inclusion strategy must set out how the local authority will:
    • Promote financial inclusion for residents.
    • Encourage residents to gain the right financial management and literacy skills (i.e. dealing with cold-calling, gambling and using credit unions).
    • Make it easier for residents to access online financial education materials for free (i.e. library computers)
    • Collaborate with outside organisations to improve financial inclusion.

Financial Management Advice

The Bill places a duty on local authorities to :
  • Arrange to provide looked-after children who are aged 16-18 and who have left or are about to leave care with financial management advice.
  • Provide information on where to receive financial advice on their websites.
  • Ensure that further education colleges and universities in their area provide financial management advice.
If the Bill passes through the Assembly on time, it'll become law in the first half of 2015.

Costs and Benefits

It's surprisingly expensive for such a short Bill - mostly as a result of the curriculum changes.
  But the potential (stress potential) benefits are significant if it's pulled off.
(Pic : ukedchat.co.uk)
You would've expected Bethan and her team to have done their sums (for obvious reasons) – and they did - though they had apparent problems getting relevant information from the Welsh Government and it's mostly based off work done in Westminster.

The eventual costs of putting financial education on the curriculum are said to be partly dependent on the outcome of the ongoing Donaldson review. Based on Scottish and English examples, it's estimated the direct cost to the Welsh Government will be around £175,000. In terms of implementing it in schools (via local authorities), there's estimated to be a £1.1million one-off upfront cost, with an ongoing £3.4million per year. Monitoring it would cost up to £880,000 per year (though it's a high estimate). The total cost to local authorities/ local education authorities ranges from between £4-4.8million per year for four years (with the first year [of five] being used to implement it).

There are two options with regard the annual National Assembly report on financial education. If Estyn does it as part of its inspection regime it'll cost £160,000 - this is the preferred option. If there's a general office-based "thematic report" that falls to £40,000. The cost of the local authority strategies and reports will be around £32,000 per year, while pointing people towards advice and providing information to students is estimated to be a combined ~£12,000 per year.

The total cost of all the measures is estimated to be between £17.9-£18.5million over five years.

So those six sheets of paper run at around £3million per page, but when you consider how many people this might reach then it works out as literally a few pounds per year per person, with Bethan describing it as "preventative spending". Some of the money (i.e teacher training resulting from curriculum changes) is already being spent, so there's a chance this will be cheaper to implement than the provisional figures suggest.

In terms of the potential benefits, figures from a report (pdf) from the Centre of Economic and Business Research (CEBR) suggest that effective financial education could be worth a proportional £162million to Wales (UK £3.5billion). Scottish Government research from 2009 suggests pupils who receive improved financial education are £32,000 better off in middle-age than those who don't. Other quoted Welsh Government figures suggest that for every £1 spent on debt advice, the state saves £2.98.

Because parts of this law are aimed at children, it was also considered whether it complies with the UN Convention on the Rights of Children (UNCRC). In many circumstances it enhances current provisions.

Conclusion : Bang for the buck?

The main arguments against this are likely to boil down to the underlying need for legislation.
....and the only "world first" is it'll be the first time Bethan Jenkins will be desperate for the Queen's autograph.
(Pic : ITV Wales)
Unlike some "aspirational" laws that have come from the Welsh Government, this one highlights a collection of clearly identified problems and aims to correct them – which is what laws are supposed to do.

Not wanting to repeat myself from last time (again), but everything outlined in the Bill is practical, achievable and has in-built flexibility. It could result in people getting the help they need as well as ensuring future generations leave school knowing that money doesn't grow on trees. It's very – excuse the pun – "bang for the buck".

Time for the objectivity hat.

Both Bethan and Plaid have every reason to be proud of this - even if they might be disappointed it isn't a wide-ranging as they would've liked it to be. That might explain some of the flowery arguments used in relation to the impact this law might have on economic development, or slightly shaky claims of legal "world firsts" (France, Estonia, Germany, Finland, Costa Rica).

Plus, because the Bill's so concise, a very "tight" argument has had to be made in the supporting documents. As a result, I suspect as it goes through committee any slip up will be used to chip away at the proposals. So everyone involved will need to be careful they don't talk themselves into a corner by making grandiose claims that could be difficult to back up.

It's a good enough law for what it is, they've gone about everything the right way, so there's no need to dwell on what it could never be.
There's no guarantee this will work as intended - you can provide the best financial education in the world yet it still comes down to individual behaviour - but it's on the right track.

It's hard for anyone to disagree with the sentiments; but if this Bill's going to run into any trouble it'll probably boil down to the upfront costs involved (which could, ironically, divert funds from other financial inclusion/education schemes) and the argument over whether this requires primary legislation.

The basic school curriculum is set in legislation – the Education Act 2002. So if you want to absolutely 100% guarantee that financial education is taught in schools, it has to be on statute.There's a risk that if it's left to another Welsh Government-led national strategy, the current patchy provision would continue and let kids down.

Although there've been discussions between Bethan Jenkins and Prof. Graham Donaldson, if the Donaldson review reports back saying every school should provide a minimum level of financial education as part of a revamped National Curriculum, the Welsh Government will have all the excuse they need to gut the Bill, as everything so far hints towards Labour supporting the underlying sentiments but not the law itself. Ultimately, no Bill can pass without some support from the government benches.

I suspect (as said last time) that attitude is because it flags up serious failings in Labour's much-beloved "strategies", which clearly aren't working if there are such big variations between schools. Also, an annual report means this willl be subject to full Assembly scrutiny, instead of being discussed between ministers and the civil service behind closed doors. In short, it would increasingly be out of their control.

We're talking about basic life skills here, so it's important enough to be on the basic curriculum. As I quite clearly explain that requires a change to the law.

It'll be interesting to see how this one develops, but I suspect those 6 sheets of A4 will feel more like Finnegans Wake come September.

Monday, 21 July 2014

M4 Newport - The Committee Strikes Back

It's the committee report AMs couldn't wait to read, containing heavy
criticism of the Welsh Government's decision on the M4 around Newport.
(Pic : transportxtra.com)

The saga from the start :

It's led to rows, hypocrisy, (minor) backbench rebellions, and has turned out to be one of the more controversial committee inquiries in the Assembly's short history.

Towards the end of last week, the National Assembly's Environment and Sustainability Committee published their eagerly-anticipated report into the decision-making process which led to the announcement, on July 16th , that the £1billion M4 "Black Route" around Newport will be given the go-ahead.

The report itself (pdf) is short and to the point compared to other Assembly committee reports, and well worth a look regardless of your opinion on the M4 bypass scheme itself.

From the outset, the Committee say they were disappointed that neither the minister in charge, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), or the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) – one of the biggest cheerleaders for the bypass – appeared before them to give oral evidence.

The Committee have "grave concerns" about the consultation process which led to the Black Route being selected, but they stress that they make no observations on the "merits of any particular route". They believe that had the minister properly engaged with them, many of those concerns would've been addressed.

The Committee subsequently made a single recommendation; that Edwina Hart answers all of the questions and concerns raised in their letter to her on June 5th (pdf).

They go on to say that if the minister can't answer their questions to their satisfaction, then consideration should be given to restarting the public consultation process to ensure that all concerns (below) are taken into account and that all alternatives to the Black Route are considered.


The Committee's Concerns

                          

The route selection process
– It's questioned whether the process of choosing a route met the EU's Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) directive. In the first consultation (2011-12
M4CEM), a completely new motorway wasn't included as an option. Then, it was included as an option in the second consultation carried out in 2013-14. This suggests the SEA process hasn't been followed correctly, as the sudden change in heart on the need for a bypass would contradict the environmental reports issued alongside each consultation.

The choice between purple, red and black routes (2013 consultation) – The choices on offer with regard a route for an M4 bypass were too similar to each other to "allow a meaningful comparison as required by the SEA directive". It also hasn't been made clear whether the Blue Route has been fully assessed by the Welsh Government to SEA standards.

The environmental report – Natural Resources Wales (NRW) say some of the concerns they raised weren't included in the final environment report. NRW flatly disagree with many of the conclusions in said report, which underplayed the impact on biodiversity, and provided incomplete assessments of  greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, landscape and townscape impacts.

Consideration of public transport (or lack of) – Possible public transport options and the South Wales Metro scheme haven't been given full consideration. They should've been weighted directly alongside the M4 proposals as they could have a big impact on the underlying case for a bypass.

Validity of traffic forecasts – Traffic forecasts on the M4 are produced using the UK's Department for Transport (DfT) forecasting methodology. However, in the past this methodology has – according to leading academics – predicted big growths in traffic volumes and car ownership when levels have actually remained flat. There should've been a more flexible traffic prediction methodology based around varying scenarios, but it's not something the Welsh Government can do themselves as DfT are very protective of their forecasting models. If traffic growth doesn't match the DfT's unreliable forecasts then the M4 bypass will be a waste of money. So the case for a bypass is partly reliant on traffic increasing. That's very "unsustainable".

Costs – It's unclear if environmental mitigation measures, or the future of the A4810 Steelworks Road, have been factored in to the estimated costs of the Black Route. Also, the proposed capital borrowing limit as set out in the Wales Bill (£500million) is only half the estimated total cost of the scheme. Therefore, there's a lack of clarity on how future borrowing powers would be used, and the impact the bypass would have on finances available for transport projects like the Metro. The Committee say it's "difficult to conclude....that a convincing case for the long-term value for money of this investment has been made".

Executive Decisions demand Executive Answers

There's no obligation on ministers to follow through on any recommendations made by an Assembly committee - it's just a good idea to do so. If Edwina Hart wants to ignore this she can, though it would probably make it more difficult for the Welsh Government to win any legal challenge (if it goes that far), as it looks like the Welsh Government haven't gone about this in a professional way and are washing their hands with democratic scrutiny.

Without question, something has to be done to the roads in and around Newport. I'm not blinkered enough to think the solution lies in public transport and "active travel" alone.
 

But you get the impression the Welsh Government wanted a new M4 from the start, they just realised they couldn't afford it. As soon as borrowing powers came into the picture – fuelled by the enthusiasm from Whitehall to give Wales "fiscal responsibility" – the Welsh Government decided to press forward with this while they still had a window of opportunity.

So we ended up with a public consultation that was effectively based around three minor variations of a single option and what appear to be "sexed-up dossiers".

Edwina Hart has done the position of economy minister proud so far, so it would be a real shame if she ends up pushing through something she may later come to regret. Maybe a bypass really is the right option, but it has to be handled conscientiously. That clearly hasn't happened.

This is one of the single largest capital investments in Welsh history, standing at the equivalent of about 65% of the Welsh Government's total annual capital budget. It's serious stuff that deserves proper answers from the minister before anyone can think of getting the project underway.


Sunday, 20 July 2014

End of Year Report 2014

As the legislative year comes to a close, it's time to take yet another
look at the performance of the Welsh Government and opposition.
(Pic : cityofcardiff.com)

Carwyn Jones (Lab, Bridgend)
First Minister & Minister for the Welsh Language

C+ overall; D Welsh language (C for effort)

Until the torrid last fortnight, the First Minister had rarely been seriously challenged in the Senedd - except on specific issues in Bridgend which could have been embarrassing, as well as stalled work on the Williams Commission. You can argue there should've been a full cabinet reshuffle this month as the splitting of Alun Davies' old portfolio is clunky - though it's been said a full reshuffle before 2016 is likely.

I believe the heart's there when it comes to the Welsh language. It's just Y Gynhadledd Fawr didn't tell us anything we didn't already know. Despite all that's been said there's been very little evidence of action, leading to the (rather ineffectual) protests from Cymdeithas yr Iaith. Welsh language campaigners have always been an awkward squad, but Carwyn's lucky it's not the 1960s anymore. I'm sure his recent Twitter "spat" underlines to him how much of an uphill battle he's got here.

You can argue that May's results were disappointing for Labour, who seemed confident they would take two seats without putting any work in. UKIP's surge caught them off guard and it's also reflected in recent polling which suggests Labour could lose seats in 2016.
They neglect the fact that a lot of people aren't happy with what they're doing in Wales and, yes, they're just as likely to lose votes to UKIP too.

The opposition are were being held at bay, the economy is showing signs of recovery, the Welsh NHS is still the Welsh NHS we all know and are concerned about, while his calls for a UK constitutional convention continue to fall on deaf ears - presumably dependent on September's outcome. Steady as he goes.

Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney)
Minister for Education

C+

There've been three big problems Huw Lewis has had to deal with with year, two of which he inherited. The first being the poor PISA results, which resulted in the extensive OECD investigation. The second was a significant increase in the amount spent to fund Welsh tuition fee policies. Somehow, Huw managed to kick a review of higher education funding into touch and we won't see the results of the Diamond Review until September 2016.

His response to January's GCSE marking row showed a willingness to act quickly under pressure and to accept criticism gracefully. His decision to create a separate law on special education needs also showed he was prepared to listen to committees and AMs. He has a lot on his plate, obviously, but I'd argue that he's coping with it relatively well. Education's still a results game, though.

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

B

It's hard for Edwina Hart to take all the credit, but she's certainly playing a role in the fleeting semblance of an economic recovery taking place in Wales, with unemployment now below the UK average. The main developments in her portfolio this year have been the early groundwork laid for the South Wales Metro scheme – which is about 10 years overdue – and the creation of city regions. Another major coup was managing to get Pinewood Studios to set up a base in Wales.

She's a worker, not a shirker, but it remains to be seen if other flagship policies like her version of enterprise zones are going to bear fruit. Also – even speaking as a rather private person myself, and especially after Wednesday's announcement – I believe she needs to do more to keep the rest of the Assembly informed of what she's up to outside the chamber. She's a poor communicator, but good at her job.

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

C+

Quite a bit of work's been done to increase procurement from Welsh-based companies. Though it's disappointing that, in an election year, more hasn't been done/said regarding the future of EU funds in Wales, which even senior Labour figures are beginning to feel haven't been used wisely. I don't think Jane has been forceful enough on the "lockstep provisions" in the Wales Bill either, which has now simply become something to bash the opposition with.

These remain straightened times for the Welsh budget, and Jane Hutt is continuing to do a reasonable enough job without pulling any rabbits out of hats. She did, however, dish out a tough deal to Welsh local government and further education colleges in the 2014-15 budget which seemed harsh in some respects.

Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)
Minister for Health & Social Services

D (C for effort)

Another year where the Welsh NHS stumbles from problem to problem.

It's clear Mark's made an impact, but not to such an extent that the issues plaguing health services have been turned around. We're still waiting for progress in ambulance response times, mortality rates and the future of certain specialist services. Considering his background, I would've expected him to have understood the need for evidence-based laws too, which is a shame.

He's so far resisted Welsh Conservative calls for a "Keogh-style inquiry". I'd agree that a full blown public inquiry is unnecessary because action is more important than another bloody panel or committee - but we're one big tragedy or scandal away from it.

Even if Mark remains the best-suited person for the job, his response (or lack of) to concerns from families affected by problems in Abertawe Bro Morgannwg health board, and campaigners from Pembrokeshire, verged on a high-handed arrogance which is – unfortunately – becoming typical behaviour from Welsh ministers.

Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham)
Minister for Local Government & Leader of the House

C+

In terms of local government, this year's been dominated by the budget cuts and the Williams Commission, both of which Lesley seemed to play second fiddle to the First Minister and Jane Hutt in terms of being the public face. Ultimately, it'll be her responsibility to implement those recommendations and manage angry council chiefs – which will be a challenge in itself.

I welcome the ongoing commitments made to increase transparency in local government - things like webcasts and social media use in council chambers. There was also a major report into improving the diversity of local government, though it remains to be seen if anything will actually happen as a result. The Welsh Government's reasonable track record in dealing with community safety continues with the pledge for 500 extra PCSOs met and sustained, albeit being an underwhelming pledge in itself.

Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside)
Minister for Housing & Regeneration

B-

Carl's dished out quite a bit of regeneration funding, including (the slightly controversial) Vibrant and Viable Places. The Welsh Government clearly want results this time round and don't want to hand out grants and funds for the sake of it.

He's also overseen the passage of the comprehensive Housing Act. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but he's shown a clear commitment to reducing homelessness and an unyielding commitment to addressing domestic abuse – the new Bill being very much his baby, I suppose.

His management of the planning system is likely to become a thorn in his side, as controversy continues over Local Development Plans and opencast mining. The forthcoming Planning Bill looks set to centralise decision-making in light of planning still being – in many respects – only part-devolved. It's right to question whether Welsh priorities are relevant here or are being thrown aside as part of EnglandandWales?

Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly)
Minister for Communities & Tackling Poverty

C

A minister struggling to find a purpose, though that's not entirely his fault. He's done some good work on credit unions, which seem to become bigger year by year. However, cuts to Funky Dragon risk undermining the National Assembly's engagement with youth at large.

The Well-being of Future Generations Bill – which really should've been up there as one of the most important pieces of legislation in the Assembly's history – turned out to be a woolly disappointment. I was also surprised at his negative attitude to the "FinEdBill" which would, in part, complement his brief and what he's trying to do.

Presumably, policing will eventually fall under this portfolio (if it's devolved on time) and that will increase the visibility and importance of this cabinet position. Until then, although he means well he can't really do much and a lot of his ministerial functions seem to cross over with local government. It's a confused portfolio that needs a firmer sense of purpose more in chime with devolved powers as all the big levers are reserved to Westminster.

John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East)
Minister for Culture

C

This portfolio has certainly been the Welsh Government's blind spot due to the challenging environment caused by harsh cuts to local authority budgets and wider austerity – where the arts, sport and culture are almost always the first up on the chopping board; a situation that's continued unabated.

He's clearly getting out and about and seems to be balancing many plates with skill. John also seems keen to listen to the rest of the Assembly. But you get the impression he's under pressure to try and deliver things he knows he won't be able to deliver, so he sits on the fence too often. He was perhaps always more comfortable with the environment brief and that's probably why it was given back to him.

Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent)
(Former) Minister for Food & Natural Resources

F

A mixed record - that displayed both his strengths and weaknesses - has been tarnished by a few moments of rank stupidity.

Theodore Huckle QC
Counsel General

B

He's been a busy guy it's fair to say, and now has two Supreme Court "victories" under his belt with the third case on the way. AMs are starting to make better use of their opportunity to question him in plenary, though Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) remains the most likely person to put him on the spot.

After the big UK reshuffle, he's outlasted his Whitehall "adversary" Dominic Grieve QC, though that could be because the Prime Minister was getting fed up with losing court cases to the Welsh Government. It remains to be seen whether new Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, will be more forceful in future encounters. Until we have a reserved powers model, further call-ins of Welsh laws are inevitable.

Junior Ministers

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

B-

The Social Services and Wellbeing Act 2014 is the most challenging and complex law since devolution, and the proposed bill on Social Service Regulation promised to be another one. It's led to the creation of a new National Adoption Service and guarantees minimum rights for carers – Wales' unsung heroes. Gwenda's also overseen the transfer of care for the elderly from hospital to the community – but this hasn't been done urgently enough, leading to negative story lines and serious failures in hospital care. Another solid, but very testing year.

Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth)
Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty

C+

He suffers from the same problem as his reporting minister Jeff Cuthbert. It's a small department with a small budget but an important remit. It's hard to tell what Vaughan actually does, but it appears to boil down to the micromanagement of schemes like Flying Start – though he appears to be making very good progress there.

He's shown inside and outside the Senedd chamber that he's a very capable and confident public speaker – something of a rarity in Welsh politics - but he needs a bit more time in the ministerial incubator. He'll almost certainly be bumped up to a more senior cabinet position prior to 2016 in order to properly challenge him, as you get the impression he isn't being so at the moment.

Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South)
Deputy Minister for Skills

B+


A quiet success story, overseeing a significant increase in the number of apprenticeships and successful job applicants through Jobs Growth Wales, playing a big part in reducing overall unemployment levels – albeit with youth unemployment still remaining relatively high.There was recent criticism that Jobs Growth Wales isn't reaching those most in need of a job or training – but all in all he's performing well, added to by the recent announcement of a new 10 year plan to address skills shortages in the private sector.

It's good to focus on vocational skills and apprenticeships but the Welsh Government should start thinking about graduates and postgraduates. Cuts to Young Enterprise could be a backwards step and he seems too fond on using Assemblese. He definitely looks the more likely of the "newbies" to make the step up to a full ministerial post at the moment.

Opposition Leaders

Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central)

C+

I'm sure many people will disagree, but compared to previous years this has been a good one for the Leader of the Opposition. He had a very strong end to the Assembly year, and came into his own during the recent debate on safe standing.

I don't question for a moment his sincerity on the NHS. It's just after seeing what's happening in England, it's not as if the Conservatives can be trusted to run the NHS properly either. The failings are almost identical just with different numbers involved. The Welsh Tory housing proposals seemed, in some respects, odd and based off poor maths. While a campaign against junk mail seemed whimsical. He's also perhaps way too easy to wind up compared to the more calm disposition of the First Minister.

Back in February it looked like he was a goner after the sudden sacking of four shadow cabinet members (subsequently reinstated) over the "lockstep" row. He was criticised for both the sackings and the manner by which he did it, but as I said at the time he was left with no other choice.

He's been half-vindicated by recent developments with regard Scotland (they won't have a "lockstep"), further added to by David Jones' exit from UK cabinet. If that had rumbled on another year I would've been surprised to see him lead the Welsh Tories into the 2016 elections, but his position is arguably stronger than ever now.

Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central)

B- personally; C party

July 2013 : "My gut instinct tells me the coming year will be tough, but manageable".

I was probably right. Plaid had made little progress in the polls until recently but, to be fair, they haven't gone backwards either. They also managed to get another set of budget concessions though (alongside the Lib Dems), a convincing by-election win on Anglesey and are producing a steady stream of good policy ideas and proposed laws. Leanne also made the right decision to streamline her "cabinet".

You don't last in frontline politics for 40 years unless you've got something between your ears, so Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) was correct, just his usual self. The attack on UKIP at the party's spring conference was miscalculated, and in hindsight there's irony in that UKIP's strong performance saved Jill Evans' seat – to a great deal of relief, I'd imagine.

Plaid are now part of the same "establishment elite" anti-politics voters turning to UKIP are railing against, exemplified to a certain extent by the classic groupthink in relation to Michael Haggett. They can't keep counting on their increasingly demographically-squeezed heartland vote to sweep them home either, while they're always outnumbered in the south and north east.

Next year looks promising in terms of target seats, but if Plaid want to seriously challenge in 2016, they need to stop looking in the mirror - basking in their inflated self-esteem as a party - and see May's result as a much needed kick up the arse before the electorate kicks it for them. Pride comes before a fall and all that.

Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)

B personally; D party

Kirsty Williams has consistently proven to be a capable stateswoman, arguably being the most effective opposition leader in terms of picking apart the Welsh Government. She also won a ballot and will introduce a law on minimum nursing levels in hospitals – and I'll come back to that when the Bill's introduced.

Unfortunately, her party's prospects aren't looking good due to the metastasis of the very deadly cleggoma and secondary infection of dannyalexanderitis. I suppose the most galling aspect of that is that Lib Dem AMs haven't really put a foot wrong and have usually been pretty good at holding ministers to account.

You can't really read much from the European elections as the Lib Dems have always performed poorly, but it's not looking good for them in 2015 or 2016. It would be a shame if Kirsty is left a party of one – losing very capable AMs in the process - as the Welsh electorate sends the clowns in to Cardiff Bay.

Special Mention : The latest Standards Commissioner report (pdf) showed that there were no admissible complaints about AMs in the year April 2013- March 2014. I don't know if they deserve a gold sticker or a trip to Folly Farm or something....



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