Sunday, 14 December 2014

Annus horribilis

I'm not very festive at the best of times, but this year Christmas can go f**k itself.
(Pic : Bargain Bin Blasphemy Tumblr)
It's not often I quote Bet Windsor directly, but 2014 has been a personal "annus horribilis" - so I think I've earned the right to brood.

Firstly, I somehow managed get a BBC interview but didn't even make the final edit. That's all well and good; nice experience and all that. Though it's telling me there's a "credibility glass ceiling" that a blogger can never break and I can start thinking about winding things down.

A few weeks later came the overshadowing tragedy. But what you didn't know is that while I was watching my mother die – she deteriorated so quickly I barely recognised her - I was dealing with an incredibly painful and recurrent tooth abscess that took more than a month to get fixed.

Days after starting the slow trudge towards middle age, I managed to catch chicken pox having never caught it when it made the rounds in school. My fever got so bad at one point I was on the brink of a trip to hospital myself. It looks like I've been left with a few semi-permanent scars for my trouble. On my face.

Indirectly, Jacqui Thompson's appeal loss will affect every single blogger in Wales as it appears we've not only started to draw the attention of short-tempered autocrats who want to crush dissent, but also the police and other bloggers issuing veiled threats under the guise of "investigative journalism".

With the Scots bottling it, and the Assembly descending into yet another round of constitutional naval-gazing, I don't have many fond memories of 2014 at all. At least The Arsenal won the cup, I suppose.

On to next year. The Westminster elections will dominate the first half of 2015. As you might expect I'm not going to devote too much time and resources to it because the results are likely to be highly predictable in Wales. It'll be a good practice run, and gives me a chance to try out a few ideas with the  2016 Assembly election in mind.

As it's the last full calendar year before that election, several major Welsh laws are due to be introduced, including what's likely to be a highly-controversial Public Health Bill, a law on special educational needs, a Heritage Bill, a Rent Bill, as well as legislative measures relating to the taxation powers coming as a result of the Wales Bill (due to become the Wales Act early next year).

Because of the Westminster elections, I'm only going to have one big series of posts relating to independence in 2015. I would've done it this year, but didn't for obvious reasons, and I intend to turn all of August over to it. It's one of the most important - perhaps the most important issue - and one of the main reasons nationalists are nationalists in the first place : foreign policy.

I also hope to start my "Vice Nation" series of posts in February – beginning with alcohol - but these will be spread out like the Life, Ethics & Independence series.

2014's Top 10 Posts*
  1. The Sliding Scale of Nationalism
  2. Porthcawl regeneration hopes buried under sludge?
  3. Draft law targets "Popeyes" in Wales
  4. Carmarthenshire Goes Rogue
  5. The Aberconwy Funnel-Bebb Spider
  6. Apocalypse Nawr
  7. Life, Ethics & Independence XI – Breast-feeding
  8. Independence Minutiae : Ordnance Survey
  9. Case for Bridgend-Vale merger outlined
  10. The NATO Legacy
*Excluding posts relating to my mother's health. My thanks again to those of you who were kind enough to e-mail me, or leave on here, goodwill messages during a very difficult time.

Honourable mentions :

Right, that's a mentally and physically exhausting year – blogging and otherwise - over with. Good riddance. I'll be back around 3rd/4th January.

I'll say "Merry Christmas", but I already know chances are you're going to have a merrier one than me.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

What's all this then?

You probably didn't know, but the devolution of policing
was discussed at length in the National Assembly last week.
(Pic : BBC Cymru Fyw)
This is one of those rare occasions where I'm spoiled for choice in terms of what to cover from the National Assembly. It's just a shame everything was crammed into the last fortnight when my head is already on a break.

There was a pretty good Plaid Cymru-sponsored debate on TTIP (watch here – more from Plaid Monmouth), the introduction of slightly controversial new regulations on "puppy farming", the announcement that a not-for-profit company might be created to run the Wales & Borders rail franchise.

Then there's yesterday's cross-party debate on euthanasia (one of the best I can remember, and it's regretful I'm not covering it, watch here) - though the Assembly eventually rejected the motion.

It underlines weaknesses in the Welsh media in that only one of the things listed above actually got much coverage – and that's the trains. Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) was pretty much left to publicise the euthanasia debate by himself.

I'm a bit late coming to this because I was trying to decide which one to blog about, but I've finally decided to focus on last week's debate on the devolution of policing.

Police Work

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East), started by saying that South Wales PCC, Alun Michael, and the First Minister have both expressed support for devolution of policing in light of the Silk Commission, with "many of the levers that affect crime levels" devolved – like community safety. Mike believes devolving policing would allow a more joined-up approach between local services and the Welsh Government. He did, however, believe that national security issues and National Crime Agency should remain non-devolved as these often need to be led "at a British level" and sometimes on a pan-European level.

In response to a question from Simon Thomas AM, Mike said he wouldn't favour a Scottish-style all-Wales police force but (inexplicably) would support two police forces (as opposed to four currently). He said it was "anomalous" that policing hadn't been devolved to Wales when it has to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and this was out of step with countries with a federal system, where policing is controlled at a state level in the US and Germany whilst retaining a "national" police force.

The Welsh Conservatives don't support devolution of policing, full stop. Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), said devolving policing would be "irresponsible", saying that the cost could be as high as £57million. He said the creation of PCCs was "an act of real devolution" – prompting laughter from the rest of the chamber. He then pointed out the issues surrounding cross-border crime and cross-border co-operation between Wales and England, quoting Labour and Conservative politicians who oppose devolution of policing after expressing strategic concerns.

Later on, former police officer Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) said it was a "source of annoyance" that people without policing experience propose reorganisations. He didn't believe there was any demand for devolution of policing, and PCCs have "delivered real community policing". Byron believes devolution of policing might be "divisive" and open up issues like regional pay. He said there was no similarity between emergency services – after justification for policing devolution based on the fact it was the only non-devolved emergency service – other than "999".

Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East), said devolution of policing was a "fundamental step forward on our devolution journey", and she was encouraged by the "positive response" from the Welsh Government. She highlighted the issue of domestic violence, where the lack of any control over policing has left the Domestic Violence Bill without any teeth. Jocelyn also highlighted the National Assembly's rejection of PCCs, with Westminster forced it through in EnglandandWales anyway.

Ann Jones AM (Lab, Vale of Clwyd) was unconvinced that policing could be devolved without devolving the criminal justice system, believing they are "intrinsically linked". She also said that devolving powers simply because Scotland has them was "a very weak argument".

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) said policing is a major public service and should work alongside other public services, many of which are devolved. She also said it was "absolutely right" to scrap PCCs due to the lack of public support (emphasising low turnout figures at the PCC elections). Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) countered this by saying the Assembly elections often have low turnouts too.

Speaking on behalf of the Welsh Government, the First Minister said there was a "template" for devolution of policing based on Scotland, and having a "porous border" doesn't stop Wales "delivering services our own way" or preventing Wales co-operating with the rest of the UK. He emphasised the point raised earlier about PCCs being "imposed" on Wales when they haven't been on Scotland or Northern Ireland, and this "must never happen again".

Turning to Ann Jones, he said he believes policing can be devolved without the criminal justice system as police "bring people to the door of the criminal justice system, while the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) escorts them through it." Control and funding of the police doesn't, therefore, affect the criminal justice system, but devolving something like probation could require sentencing powers to control numbers going through the system.

Carwyn said Silk II can't be "cherry-picked" by Westminster, which he said is something they wouldn't dream of doing in Scotland, adding that Wales was "being treated in a more discriminatory way than Scotland", demanding Westminster "treat Wales with the same respect".

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) finished the debate saying that while some functions should still be controlled UK-wide, a strong case has been made for devolving policing to Wales and that the Welsh Government already funds some policing functions which are beyond its remit – like Tarian – and funds up to 50% of policing costs from its own budget. He said devolving policing would be "a sensible recognition of the reality of policing in Wales".

The motion was approved by 34 votes to 10 with 2 abstentions (Ann Jones & Lynne Neagle).

Detective Work
Policing might well stand apart from the criminal justice system, but
ambulances, for example, are no less separate from the health service.
(Pic : Voice of America)
At present policing is partially devolved. We have directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners who raise funds through council tax precepts, which are controlled locally. As said during the debate, the Welsh Government also has a community safety remit, best exemplified by Welsh Labour's previous election promise to hire an extra 500 PCSOs – a commitment they've kept, to be fair, however unambitious it might be.

It's a lot easier to devolve policing because it doesn't, in itself, require a Welsh legal jurisdiction. So the First Minister is right to say that policing is insulated from the criminal justice system. Police collect evidence, detain suspects and enforce laws; but they have no role in actually changing the law or what happens to suspects once they go to court.

However, using the First Minister's own analogy, ambulances bring patients to the door of the NHS, and doctors escort them into hospital. So wanting control of policing without control of the criminal justice system is a lot like wanting control of the ambulance service without wanting control of the NHS - which would be a very confusing arrangement.

Unfortunately, creating a Welsh legal jurisdiction and criminal justice system would require a lot of work (Creating a Welsh legal jurisdiction) – and it's not due to be considered as outlined in Silk II until the 2020s.

Devolving policing on its own – with or without the probation and criminal justice systems – is a bit lazy. It's "cherry-picking" powers by itself, as policing is what the public associate most with criminal justice (and therefore it's politically beneficial to be seen to control) but it's actually a small part of a bigger machine.

What I don't get about about Welsh Labour/the Welsh Government is that they don't seem to understand that if you want to control an area of public policy, you often have to accept related powers over something you don't want in order for it to function properly.

Wales could find itself in a position where we'll control policing but won't have any powers to change criminal law itself or deal with the rehabilitation of offenders - which is useless, as the police will be enforcing laws we don't make. It would make more sense to delay the devolution of policing until work starts on devolving the criminal justice system as a whole.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


The future of Local Government
This is Media Wales. You give us three anonymous sources, and we'll give you a stroke.

"Three council officers - their careers dead - another critically injured. Leaders blame BCBC and the Welsh Government, but Carwyn Jones said this earlier today :

"'What we know, is every council officer accepts inherent risks with the job. Ask any officer and they'll tell you - if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.'"

"Officers identified the culprit as Clarence Bloggiter. Today he walks free, while PR specialists fight to save the career of the critically-injured officer. Good luck, Bryn!"

A car pulls up outside a chaotic Council HQ. Angry council taxpayers fill the lobby, while hard-working public servants take their tea break and discuss biscuits. A man approaches the main desk, staffed by a gruff desk chief, "Hi, Mark James. Transferring in from Wild West."

"We work for a living around here, James," the chief says, pointing a thumb towards the locker room.

Council officers jostle, trying to get updates, "His job's still listed as critical."

"Welcome to hell," one officer says to the new guy. "What brings you to this paradise?"

"BCBC's moving loads of new guys here."

"BCBC! What a bunch of morons!" Another officer shouts. "The Welsh Government are going to merge this authority into the ground. I'll tell you what we should do. We should strike!"

The locker room falls silent as the desk chief enters, followed by an orderly carrying a cardboard box. The desk chief removes a label from a, soon to be empty, locker : PARRY-JONES.

"You can make donations to the family," the chief explains, "Waitrose vouchers, gold watches, a position on a well-remunerated committee, via the usual channels.

"And I'll hear no more talk about strikes!" he shouts. "We're not plumbers, we're council officers. Nobody would notice."

James returns to the lobby to receive his first assignment, as a woman uses PowerPoint with extreme prejudice.

"Gravell," the desk chief shouts, "when you've finished sending everyone to sleep, this guy Mark James is going to be your new partner."

"Glad to know you, James."

Elsewhere, BCBC department heads gather, as Old Mel Nott is understood to be giving the green light to an important project.

"Jones is showing off the ED series," Kevin Madge tells his colleague, Calum.

"Tough break, Kev," Calum says.

"Don't worry. When the project ran into delays Old Mel ordered a back up plan,"
Kev says with a wink.

"Don't mess with Jones," Calum warns, "I hear he's a real shark".

As everyone gathers and is seated, Old Mel gets started. "I've had this dream for more than a decade. It's called Bridgenorteathbotshire Vale. In six months we begin construction where Old Bridgend now stands. I think it's time we gave something back.


"There's a cancer in local government. That local government. It must be cut out before we administratively redundantise 10,000 workers so we can breath new life into this county. Carwyn...."

Carwyn begins his presentation, "What we know, is we have a contract to run local government. But at Sustainable Concepts, we believe we need a 24-hour-a-day council officer. An officer that doesn't need to eat or sleep.

"Fellow executives, it's my pleasure to introduce the future of local government. Leighton Andrews' head, tucked up inside this enforcement droid, will seek out and aggressively merge local authorities."

"We need a 24-hour-a-day council officer...."
The droid enters through double doors, making a clunking noise.

"We'll need a test subject." Jones points to a board member. "Yes, Mr McCarthy.Why don't you wave this Blaenau Gwent flag in a threatening manner?"

The droid pivots towards McCarthy, "Please put down your weapon!"

McCarthy throws the flag away. "You now have 20 seconds to comply!" The technicians and Jones are worried. "You now have 10 seconds to comply!" McCarthy tries desperately to get out of the way but not before he's turned to Swiss cheese.

"Carwyn," Old Mel turns to him with a face like a slapped arse. "I'm very disappointed in you."

"Not as disappointed as Leighton is. It's just a glitch."

"You call this a glitch!"

"Um....uh....Middlesbrough had a RoboCop, why can't we have a RoboChief?" Kevin Madge is quick to intervene to Jones' chagrin. "All we need's a volunteer."

Where steel, and libel, are made.
Gravell and James are drinking coffee when a report comes over the radio, "All units, suspected bloggers in Port Talbot steelworks."

Without backup, they pull up, ready to collect evidence about the seedy underworld of the criminal citizen journalist. After they split to cover more ground, James comes across a gaggle of bloggers, "Don't move! Dead or alive you're coming with me! Gravell, I've got a situation here," but she doesn't answer. More bloggers appear, including Clarence Bloggiter himself.

"Well what have we here?" Bloggiter says, "You a good officer, hotshot? Sure you are, you've got to be some great officer. Coming in here all by yourself with no assistance from the local authority at all. I guess we're all going to have our day in court? You probably don't think I'm a very nice person?"

"Butt, I think you're slime."

"See, I've got this problem," Bloggiter explains. "Council officers don't like me, so I don't like council officers. Ni-ni-ni-ni-ni-ni-ni-ni.....BENT!"

James' body is ripped apart piece by piece by armour-piercing slander. He collapses in a pool of his own hubris. "Okay, fun's over...." Bloggiter decides to show mercy by using the most libellous word in the English language,"....SLUSHFUND!"

Not much is left to Gravell to find, and there's only so much medical science can do, "His ego's going into shock!" He relives the trauma of people saying nasty things on the internet as everything goes dark.

"Madam, you have suffered an emotional shock; I will notify a Christian bowling alley."
"We get the best-a both worlds, see. The fastest press releases possible today, grievance-assisted memory and a lifetime of in-the-office programming.

"It's my great pleasure to present to you....RoboChief".

Kev takes off the bubblewrap, as RoboChief rises to applause. "Go, Robo," Calum adds.

"What are your prime directives?" Kev asks.

"Serve the Libel Notices. Protect the Council. Uphold the Constitution."

The new hero of local government enters the lobby. "Take my Porsche," the desk chief says, throwing a set of keys which RoboChief catches in midair.

RoboChief's first call is to the Llanelli Scarlets shop, where a neer-do-well was threatening staff, demanding to know where the taxpayers' money is. RoboChief snapped their pen in two and walked out.

Next, a heavily-pregnant 15 year old is stalked by evangelicals, who question whether she needed an exorcism. Robochief was quickly on the scene, and instead of shooting the harassers in the nethers, throws them a winning lottery ticket, turning to the girl and saying, "Madam, you have suffered an emotional shock; I will notify a Christian bowling alley."

Last but not least on this demanding first night, RoboChief was called to a council chamber.

"That ginger woman keeps asking questions, but the councillors want to leave for their afternoon nap." RoboChief bursts through the wall, grabbing the councillor by the arms, saying, "Demanding answers to difficult questions is not on the agenda." He sends the councillor through a window with a right hook.

Safe to say Kev was earning plaudits. Carwyn was less impressed at his plans being upstaged, "I remember calling the old man funny names when I was a councillor : ironbutt, boner. Once, I even called him 'asshole'. But there was always respect. I'm number two around here. You've insulted me, and you've insulted BCBC with that bastard creation!

"I had a £50 bet with Leighton that we could create fewer than six local authorities! Who cares whether it works or not!" He points a finger in Kev's face, "You better prey....that monster you created doesn't screw up."

RoboChief, resting in his chair as ordered by technicians - little people scurrying around him, just how he likes it - starts to twitch restlessly. Although his memory has always been selective, he has flashes to the incident that gave him all this power.

He also has flashbacks to a dream he once held dear. An empty farmhouse in his old district, removal vans driving off as he walks through its empty halls and rooms. A son turns to him and says, "Can you do that, Dad?"

RoboChief awakens, to the shock of the technicians. He marches off, feeling something but not remembering. He passes Gravell in a corridor.

"Hello....I haven't really had a chance to introduce myself. I'm Gravell. Do you have a name?"

"How can I help you, Officer Gravell."

"That's not what I meant.'s you," RoboChief is caught off-guard. "You really don't remember me, do you?"
"I have to go," RoboChief responds as he marches past. "Somewhere there is a sustained campaign of harassment happening."

Meanwhile, Kev is at home playing Scrabble with Pam and Linda. "There's summing 'bout-a way it sounds", he says. "Council Leader. It just turns...."

The door bursts open, Clarence Bloggiter entering. "Bitches, leave!" he orders, as Pam and Linda scuttle out. He puts a DVD on, Carwyn Jones' face appearing on every screen.

"Orrite, butt. Carwyn here. I guess you're on your knees right now, begging for your job."

Clarence puts a motion of no confidence on the table, with the required number of signatures.

"Not so cocky now, are you?" Carwyn mocks. "You know what the tragedy is here? We could've been friends. But you went over my head with the Wales Audit Office thing, and that hurt. Every game has a winner, and a loser.

"'ang on a minute now, right," Kev mutters. Clarence throws him tomorrow's Western Mail : Leighton Andrews killer robot calmly announces return of Dyfed.

"I'm merging you out, Kev."

After interrogating known associates, RoboChief tracks Clarence down to a crisp factory, where they were manufacturing pure rock salt and vinegar. "Clarence Bloggiter," RoboChief says, as he throws the suspect through sheets of glass, "I am issuing you with a cease and desist order."

"Hey wait a minute!", Clarence pleas. "I'm protected, man. I've got protection! I'm a journalist!"

"Anything you say may be used against you," RoboChief throws him through another window, shattering transparency.

"I work for Carwyn Jones......Carwyn Jooooooones!" RoboChief smashes another pane of glass with Clarence's body. "You work for BCBC....BCBC runs the knobs...." RoboChief grips Clarence's throat so tight he struggles to speak out. "You're....a....knob."

"Yes," RoboChief says, as his prime directive to uphold the constitution flashes up, "I am a knob."


It was a difficult final showdown for RoboChief, but he successfully defended the council's honour, as some bloggers went off course and crashed into a paywall.

In the BCBC boardroom, Carwyn is wrapping up another speech, "The council strike could work for us. We could have mergers in place soon and expect immediate public support. We'll meet each challenge with the same aggressive attitude...."

RoboChief bursts into the boardroom, staring Carwyn down.

"Can we help you, officer?" Old Mel asks.

"Carwyn Jones is wanted for slander."

"That's absurd!" Carwyn shouts. "That thing's a violent mechanical psychopath!"

RoboChief brings up a secret video recording of Carwyn, "I had to sack Kevin Madge because he made a mistake, now it's time to erase that mistake....I had to sack Kevin Madge because he made a mistake, now it's time to erase that mistake."

Carwyn nervously looks around the room knowing the game's up, as board members look at him with contempt.

"That mistake being me," RoboChief says. "It really hurt my feelings. I'm not a mistake, I'm an CBE."

Carwyn makes a gun with his fingers and holds them to Old Mel's head, "We will discuss mergers very calmly or I'll give you a local authority stretching from Caernarfon to Barry!"

RoboChief picks up a sheet of paper from the boardroom table. He scans it, and walks over to Carwyn, "That is not on the agenda." He sends Carwyn through the window, his arms flailing as he heads towards the ground. RoboChief spins a pen around his fingers and sticks it in his pocket.

"Nice work, son", Old Mel says. "What's your name?"


A board member takes a cartridge out of RoboChief's adapted N64 and blows on it. The slurring continues after they reinsert it. "Shall I try turning it off and back on again?"

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Independence Minutiae : Weather Forecasting

A typical breezy summer's day; but what about when the weather turns really nasty?
(Pic : The Independent)

Weather forecasting in Wales can often be reduced to looking out of the window and trying to determine precisely how wet it'll be today.

That doesn't detract from the fact it's still a very high-skilled process utilising the cutting edge of computing. Meteorologists are often required to have a strong background in mathematics and physics in order to, effectively, "predict the future" using complex modelling systems.

Weather forecasting might seem trivial in the context of grand constitutional change and nation building, but it's incredibly important when you think about it, forming the backbone of public protection and defence.

It's therefore essential that, in the context of independence, you get the "forecast" right. Heh.

Why is weather forecasting important?

Weather forecasts affect everyday life in many ways
and are perhaps taken for granted.
(Pic : Daily Post)
  • Transport – It determines variable speed limits of roads, whether to close the Severn Crossings and Britannia Bridge, shipping conditions, whether your train or bus will arrive on time and whether it's safe for planes to land.
  • Culture & Sport – You need to know what the weather's going to be like if you're planning any significant outdoor event, and knowing beforehand will allow adjustments for crowd safety at things like concerts and sports matches – up to and including calling them off.
  • Long-term climate projections – This is absolutely vital in order to get a clearer picture of future trends in Wales and the rest of the world so we can be better prepared.
  • Agriculture, off-shore workers & utilities – It's essential for farmers to have accurate forecasts for temperature and rainfall, while electricity companies need to have advanced notice of high winds and/or freezing temperatures and water companies need to be aware of droughts.
  • Civil defence and government – Knowing when and where to grit roads during icy and snowy conditions, whether schools should close, how much grit councils should store (they were caught out a few years ago) and what preparations need to be made, and where, during the threat of severe flooding.
  • Weather warnings – Letting the public at large know there's something serious on the way (what the Met Office term "significant weather") and to take appropriate precautions.
  • Insurance – Having advanced warning of severe weather can help insurance companies prepare, and long-term climate projections can help determine which areas are most vulnerable to weather-related damage.
The Met Office
The Met Office remains one of the preeminent meteorological agencies in the world.
(Pic :
Headquartered in Exeter since 2003, the Met Office has a similar status to the Ordnance Survey in being an executive agency/trading fund of the UK Government. It employs around 1,900 people.

The Met Office has three staffed offices in Wales – Cardiff, Aberporth in Ceredigion and Valley on Anglesey. They also have ~40 weather stations around Wales. Some are automated, others need to have their readings taken manually.

In terms of function and role, the Met Office :
  • Provides weather forecasts for the public, and the National Severe Weather Warning Service.
  • Provides specialist weather forecasts for the transport industry, including air and shipping.
  • Assists the NHS is determining levels of demand during severe weather (i.e. heatwaves and sustained cold temperatures).
  • Provide specialist weather forecasts for military operations around the world.
  • Monitor and research the long-term climate and climate change.
Weather presenters are usually directly employed or (at a minimum) extensively trained by the Met Office, not broadcasters. So the likes of Behnaz Akghar and Derek Brockway are a lot more than friendly faces, and the levels of knowledge and training required shouldn't be underestimated.

The contract between the BBC and Met Office for weather forecasts was renewed for five years in 2010, despite criticism over the accuracy of its forecasts, in particular predictions of a "mild winter" in 2010 that turned out to be one of the coldest in recent memory.

S4C buys its weather forecasts from commercial company, Weather Central, via Tinopolis; though S4C weather presenters are still trained by the BBC/Met Office.

According to their latest annual report (pdf), the accuracy levels for forecasts are very high indeed and hit expectations and targets in 16 of 18 indicators in 2013-14. They generally aim to get temperature forecasts to within 2C, though there appear to be no targets for rainfall accuracy.

In terms of finances, total revenues in 2013-14 were just over £208million. Of that, £175.4million came from government, which includes funding for the public weather service, the Ministry of Defence, and presumably contracts with public broadcasters like the BBC. Once costs are taken into consideration, the Met Office was running with an £11.2million operating profit in 2013-14.

The Met Office does sometimes make significant capital investments too, such as a recent £97million supercomputer and investments in various satellites. Like Ordnance Survey, the Met Office has also been long been rumoured to be up for privatisation.

The Met Office currently uses its own Unified Model for both forecasting the weather – often with a turnaround of 36-48 hours - and predicting climatic conditions over a longer period. The Met Office licence this model's source code out for research, forecasting and collaboration purposes and similar Unified Models are used in Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, South Africa and Norway.

The Met Office is one of the pre-eminent meteorological services in the world, and in Scotland's Future (pdf p391) it was proposed Scotland would continue to use Met Office services following negotiations where the level of contributions would be decided. Based on the current figures that would be – in Wales' case – around £8.8million (presumably from environment, broadcasting and defence budgets).

A Met Cymru?

Should there be a Met Cymru based on Met Eireann?
(Pic : Dublin People)
There would be advantages and disadvantages to creating a Welsh meteorological service, what I'm going to dub "Met Cymru".

In terms of advantages, Wales wouldn't be reliant on a single source of information and would be able to fully collaborate in things like the EU's Meteoalarm system, or even use the pan-European HIRLAM forecasting model - which is also used by the Republic of Ireland's Met Éireann and the Nordic Countries.

Also, a Met Cymru would be better placed to create, for example, a simplified and innovative warning system for severe weather and flooding – which would become ever more important with more extreme weather events resulting from climate change.

There've been problems in the past with the Met Office (or, more accurately, major broadcasters) not treating severe weather events in peripheral parts of the UK seriously or urgently enough. 100mph winds get different levels of coverage in different areas. A Met Cymru could issue warnings sooner (instead of waiting for confirmation from the Met Office) and bilingually – possibly preventing injury, loss of livestock and property, even deaths.

Having a meteorological service based in Wales would also no doubt be a boost to the university sector in terms of climate research and would also provide dozens of highly-skilled jobs.

In terms of disadvantages, although, presumably, it would take control of current weather stations in Wales, setting up a Welsh meteorological agency is likely to have a significant upfront capital requirements.

Then there would be questions regarding : Where it would be based? How would it be run (presumably via a government-appointed director and management board)? Who would it be accountable to (presumably the Minister for Natural Resources or equivalent)?

With progressive climate change we might also have to increasingly link weather forecasting services to (civil) defence and environmental managements services. That makes a case for a Met Cymru to be a sub-department of Natural Resources Wales (or even the Welsh military) rather than a stand-alone executive agency.

Based on Met Éireann and Met Office figures, you would presume a Met Cymru would cost around £10-15million a year to run and would employ or train around 100 people.

The exact costs are dependent on how services would be configured, but commercial revenue could be raised through Eurocontrol air traffic control subsidies (a big money-spinner for Met Éireann because they cover a large chunk of the Atlantic, but would be less so for Wales), business services (especially to utilities companies, even more relevant with renewable energy) and consultancy services to do with climate.

There's also the option of simply contracting out weather services to a commercial company like Weather Central (following S4C's example).

The Outlook

Well, there you go. Two and a half options – the half being to privatise weather services, but that's not an entirely realistic proposition. So Met Office or Met Cymru?

Retaining Met Office services would be sensible vis-a-vis Ordnance Survey. We know what we're getting from them, they're a world leading meteorological organisation and we pretty much know what we would have to pay in service fees. The real threat is that the Met Office could be hived off and privatised, meaning some of their expensive academic and research work goes downhill and/or fees will rise, and we'll be stuck with it.

A Met Cymru presents some opportunities – especially tailoring weather services to Welsh needs and allowing us to fully participate in global and European research – but it would also require a significant initial outlay from the environment and defence budgets to get it off the ground. It would certainly be a prestigious addition to the Welsh public and university sector, but not without cost.

So at the start I'd probably go along with Scotland's Future and keep the Met Office; but in the longer-term a Met Cymru – even if it's only a research organisation – should be considered.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Kirsty's Law to set minimum nursing levels?

Wednesday saw the introduction of the fifth Member's Bill this Assembly term on behalf of Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) – the Safe Nurse Staffing Levels Bill.

The Bill's available here (pdf), explanatory memorandum here (pdf).

The need for a Bill

Few local health boards currently meet the recommended minimum ratios
of registered nurses to patients and support workers.
(Pic : NHS Wales)
Safe staffing levels – defined as the minimum number of staff needed to provide a safe service – have been raised in numerous critical reports of the Welsh NHS. This is especially important with regard nurses on hospital wards and in situations where close one-to-one care is important, like care for the elderly.

The number of qualified nurses are falling - the result of recruitment freezes and an ageing workforce which will soon start to retire in greater numbers.

Research published in The Lancet showed that for every extra patient a nurse has to treat, the chances of a patient dying within 30 days of admission rise by 7%. It's the same with a lower ratio of qualified registered nurses (i.e those with a nursing degree) to health care support workers.

Increasing pressures on the workforce also reduce job satisfaction amongst staff and put, ironically, the long-term health of nurses themselves at risk.

In 2012, the Chief Nursing Officer laid down minimum nurse-to-patient ratios of 1:7 during daytime and 1:11 during nights, with a mix of 60:40 of registered nurses to support workers.

A year later, although most local health boards (LHBs) were meeting or narrowly exceeding the daytime ratio, most had 1 nurse to every 13-14 patients at night. Meanwhile, the registered to non-registered nursing staff ratios varied wildly depending on local health board and the hospital ward.

Some US and Australian states now have mandated minimum nursing requirements. In Victoria state, mandated minimum staffing ratios brought 5,000 nurses out of retirement and many now wouldn't consider working if the staffing ratios were abolished. California's similar law also works along the same lines.

What does the Safe Nurse Staffing Levels Bill propose?

As you can tell for yourselves, the Bill itself is very short. The main thrust of the proposed legislation is a series of amendments to the NHS Wales Act 2006.

The Bill :
  • Places a duty on health authorities (Welsh Government, LHBs, NHS Trusts) to have regard for, and take all reasonable steps to ensure, the levels of staffing needed to provide safe nursing care, and to comply with minimum registered nurse:patient and minimum registered nurse:support worker ratios.
  • Places a duty on the Welsh Government to issue guidance on safe staffing ratios. The ratios themselves aren't included in the Bill to ensure flexibility, and must be adjusted to ensure local needs. Protections will be included for student nursing staff, professional development, training, leave etc.
  • Places a duty on health bodies to to publish nursing numbers and their skill levels, as set out by guidance; and also places a duty on them to publish an annual report outlining how they are complying with the provisions of the Act.
  • Places a duty on the Welsh Government to review the effectiveness of the Act within a year of the Act coming into force, and no later than ever two years after that. The report must include data relating to safe nursing levels, which includes things like : mortality rates, hospital acquired infections, falls, bed sores, patient satisfaction levels, nurses' overtime and sickness, use of agency staff etc.

How much would the Safe Nurse Staffing Levels Act cost?

In short, an additional £83,000 over 5 years.

Kirsty and her team came to that conclusion based on the costs of reviewing the effectiveness of the legislation (£37,500 over 5 years) and the annual report requirement (just over £45,300 over 5 years).

Nursing acute patients itself costs around £275million per year; so although the costs of the Bill itself are small, it's likely to direct spending of a much bigger budget.

Kirsty's Law : Likely to struggle?

Politics might be a bigger stumbling block here than principle.
(Pic : Wales Online)
It's quite obvious from the outset that the Welsh Government aren't fans of this law, though they'll no doubt say they support the principle of having the right number of nurses, with the Health Minister himself saying on Wednesday that the government will "work constructively" on the Bill.

This looks as though it's trapped in a similar situation to the (withdrawn) Financial Education & Inclusion Bill : if there's little to no government support, Labour AMs will be whipped (or threatened to be whipped) into voting the Bill down and some sort of off-the-statute-book compromise will be made. That's a government's prerogative I suppose, but it's no good for opposition legislation however well-intentioned that legislation might be.

Having said that, it's clear Kirsty Williams and the Lib Dems have a better working relationship with the Welsh Government than Plaid or the Conservatives. The NHS is, however, seen as something of a Labour golden goose and I suspect they won't take kindly to anyone threatening their party's God-given right to exclusive tinkering privileges with the health service.

I suspect that one of the main arguments the Welsh Government will use against this law is that having a minimum staffing level could set a floor for, rather than increase, the number of nurses. Though the Bill specifically says that any Welsh Government guidance must ensure the ratios "are not regarded as an upper-limit in practice", how that would be done is a different question.

Then there's questions over whether there's a need for legislation on this (there probably is based on the information provided by Kirsty), and a point raised during the debate on why nursing in particular should be picked for this when health care is multi-disciplinary.

Too few cleaners and caretakers will play as big a role in hospital infections, for example, while pretty much every single politician ignores the contribution scientific (i.e. clinical & biomedical scientists) and diagnostic staff (i.e. radiologists) make to patient care because they're not seen by the public (you'll never see a lab technician or speech and language therapist on Casualty), they don't have an RCN or BMA to lobby for them in the Senedd and are therefore "politically unsexy".

But I'm willing to bet a large chunk of the problems in the Welsh NHS in terms of waiting times are down to understaffing and underinvestment in allied health professionals.

Doctors are, first and foremost, scientists who can't practice medicine without someone to do scientific tests for them, while nurses are not much use on their own. Therefore everyone should be careful to ensure the NHS isn't reduced to a infant school view of the world where hospitals are full of doctorsandnurses.