Thursday, 23 October 2014

Hart Bypass returns to the Assembly

The issue of the Newport bypass has returned to the Senedd, and the
Environment Committee had a few choice words for Edwina Hart and the CBI.
(Pic : Wales Online)

It's back again....

Yesterday, the National Assembly debated the Environment Committee report into the proposed M4 bypass of Newport (Newport M4 : The Committee Strikes Back [pdf]) and the Welsh Government's response (M4 Newport – Edwina's Response [pdf]).

The Senedd's Heart to Hart

Committee Chair, Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), started by saying this project was, "the biggest decision the Welsh Government will take". The Committee haven't drawn any conclusions on merits of particular options, but serious, unanswered questions remained on whether the consultation process met strategic EU directives.

Alun said one issue "not given due attention" was the impact of electrification of the south Wales mainline and the South Wales Metro. The Committee believe these proposals weren't taken into account adequately when considering future travel patterns. He said the total costs of the bypass remain unclear, and funding sources were, "shrouded in uncertainty". He concluded that on basis of current information, the long-term value for money case is yet to be made.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) said the traffic figures from the UK Department of Transport (DfT)– which formed a foundation for the case for the bypass by projecting a 20% increase in traffic – was out of date, and that the latest figures have shown a plateau in general M4 traffic. He said the Committee couldn't get further details from DfT. Mick said it was "of some concern" that the CBI – one of the main private sector proponents of the bypass - failed to respond to six requests to give evidence when the Committee were trying to evaluate the business case.

Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) described this as an "extremely important inquiry", echoing concerns that the CBI didn't contribute to the inquiry in written or oral form. She also criticised the Minister, as she was asked several times to give evidence but turned it down. This is in light of previous criticism in chamber on the way this has been handled.

Antoinette said there were "grave concerns" over the consultation process, in particular the lack of distinction between the three options and the exclusion of the Blue Route. She said it was important that the Welsh Government were "above reproach" on this due to international significance of Gwent Levels, and there was a lack of public confidence in way the process was handled. Antoinette said the Minister hasn't been prepared to be "transparent and scrutinised properly" on this, and she doesn't believe the Minister, "has the support of the public for this project".

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) was also disappointed the Minister didn't give evidence on the route options or financing. This meant the Committee was prevented from scrutinising a scheme that has major financial and environmental impacts. He suggested there were "serious problems with statutory decision-making process", which meant the Committee were unable to scrutinise acutal costs.

Llyr believes the financial detail of scheme should be more widely known to ensure scrutiny on the basis of value for money, with the quoted costs having a massive margin of error, standing between £600million and £1billion. He said adopting the black route, "gave the impression to the people of Wales that it was a done deal" when there's a long way to go.

William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales) said the Assembly's committees perform a key role in scrutinising policy, which is made all the more difficult "when government doesn't participate on their (the Committee's) terms". William also criticised CBI, saying you can read their op-eds in the Western Mail but they were unwilling to give evidence to the Assembly itself.

He said it was "beyond question" that the M4 through Newport isn't fit for purpose, but all options need to be considered. He said it was a shame the answers came so belated from the Minister. However, he said the Blue Route is as open to debate as the Black Route and we should, "let the evidence speak for itself". Williams also stressed the need for other solutions, emphasising that people need to get people out of cars and onto integrated public transport.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) said it was an "annoying and frustrating experience" dealing with the report due to CBI's absence, which "showed disrespect to the Committee". She welcomed the future detailed environmental impact study and the fact no construction will take place until after the 2016 elections, which gives the Assembly "time to have debates on all the options".

She said every effort should be made to avoid the "disastrous impact" on the environment, but they also need clarification on how much of the borrowing will be spent on the bypass. She also said comments (from the First Minister - clip of the FMQs exchange on 30th September 2014) about traffic lights on the Blue Route were irrelevant as they would be replaced by grade separated junctions.

Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) was....surprise,surprise....disappointed the CBI didn't give evidence. He added his view that the Welsh Government ignored the environmental concerns and that any Newport bypass would have a knock-on impact on infrastructure projects in the rest of Wales – picking out improvements to the A55 and A40 in particular. Russell accused the Welsh Government of failing to look at Welsh transport infrastructure "in the round".

Former Environment Minister, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), said the Gwent Levels are unique, and that their importance and historical significance are "beyond doubt". Although he's now one of the more high profile opponents to the bypass, he said he didn't support the Blue Route either due to the possible air pollution and noise problems an urban expressway would cause. John would prefer "carrot and stick" public transport solutions.

He also raised the valid point that there's a new environment since the Scottish referendum, offering veiled criticism of the UK Government's caveat that early access to borrowing be dependent on funding a bypass.

In her response, the Minister for Economy & Transport, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said her letter addressed the Committee's concerns. She regretted not giving evidence in person, but the statutory decision-making process is "very strict" and she repeated her defence that she couldn't give evidence until after the consultation. She agreed with William Powell that this process may need "looking at".

She confirmed the Welsh Government have submitted their defence to Friends of the Earth Cymru's legal challenge and they're waiting for the court's decision. Edwina also confirmed that no detailed design work will be until after a full environmental impact assessment, and she expects more detailed financial information to be provided at any future public inquiry (which will take place in late 2016/early 2017).

Unsurprisingly, she said it would be inappropriate for her to comment further on other matters while these processes were ongoing.

Concluding the debate, Alun Ffred Jones said he was disappointed the government "always has a reason for not giving details or answering basic questions", and he was "none the wiser" after the Minister's response.

He said the Committee weren't opposed to finding a solution to the Newport problems; but it has to be the right decision after all reasonable options have been considered, and because it would have a knock-on impact to infrastructure spending. The Committee simply wanted to, "ask pertinent questions about the process and not discuss the merits of the routes".

He therefore upheld the Committee's recommendation that the Welsh Government should restart the consultation process with all of the route options included.

Total Eclipse of the Hart
The Black Route isn't quite a done deal yet.
(Pic : M4 Newport website/Me)

Some very large obstacles were placed in the way of the Environment Committee in the process of this inquiry.

Firstly, Edwina Hart and the CBI refusing to give evidence; secondly, Plaid Cymru's predetermined support for the Blue Route which threw everything off balance; and thirdly, the sudden/curt announcement from the Minister in July that the Black Route has been selected.

The Blue Route isn't quite dead yet, but you get the impression the Minister is doing her best to kill it off. It seems the only way you can get comprehensive responses from the Welsh Government nowadays is a Daily Mail headline.

Having said that, the media – maybe myself included – might have given the impression that the Black Route is (as Llyr Gruffydd pointed out) "a done deal". That's wrong. All that's happened is the principle of a complete M4 bypass of Newport that follows the black route has been agreed, but the design could change significantly between now and the start of construction, depending on the outcome of the further environmental reports and any future public inquiry.

The problems facing the Black Route continue to mount. I wouldn't at all be surprised if the environmental impact report will make grim reading and lead to serious questioning of the Welsh Government's supposed commitment to *groan* "sustainable development".

Secondly, there seems to be growing opposition amongst Labour backbenchers to the project – notably from John Griffiths and Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), who are two former ministers with responsibility for the environment. You can probably include Julie Morgan and Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) in there too, while Mick Antoniw has reservations by the sound of it.

Thirdly, as the South Wales Argus have covered, Newport Docks is going to have a whacking great big bridge built over it. I'd like to think that someone would've considered whether that proposal might have an impact on port operations. Newport Docks is Wales' most important cargo port and according to ITV Wales supports some 3,000 jobs.

Last but not least, as you might've noticed, the CBI were rightfully given a kicking from all quarters. When you consider they're often mouthing off to the press about the state of Wales, the fact they couldn't be bothered to give evidence on something they consider so vital - so important that it stands to become the single largest capital investment a Welsh Government will ever make - was nothing less than an insult to all of us. Up yours, Digby.

I certainly respect the work the Assembly's committees do, and it's not as if the CBI would ever consider snubbing a Westminster equivalent.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Building a better Wales from the bottom up

Leanne Wood's "Greenprint" idea has been developed further into
 wider reforms of how our communities and neighbourhoods tick.
(Pic : Rhondda Plaid Cymru)

Earlier this week, Plaid Cymru unveiled the latest in a series of discussion and policy papers, this time a comprehensive report (pdf), which was jointly launched by Plaid Cymru's Shadow Cabinet member for the Environment & Energy, Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) and Arfon MP, Hywel Williams.

It addresses, and provides an alternative to, the Future Generations Bill, parts of the Planning Bill and maybe even some aspects of the Williams Commission and "The Greenprint".

You could say it's Plaid Cymru's version of the "Big Society".

The Rationale

As regular readers will know, I'm not a fan of the word "sustainable" (in all its guises) and I'm going to do my best to avoid using it from here on in.

The broad aim of the policy paper is to draft new ways for our communities to work; but instead of being a top-down exercise where a central body or authority prescribes what communities should do, Plaid Cymru would much rather (in some aspects) it was the other way around, with communities taking more control over their own direction, whilst retaining a collective spirit – what Plaid have long called "decentralised socialism".

There are a number of challenges – depletion of resources & climate change, demographic change, increasing demand on public services. But there are also opportunities, like digital technologies, participatory democracy and a Basque-style collective economics, which can help meet these challenges in innovative ways.

The paper is split into three key themes : "empowering communities", alternative forms of investment and supporting infrastructure development.

The Community

Plaid advocate stronger community councils and
new forms of democratic participation.
(Pic : via

  • A National Community Development Programme (Connected Communities) which would be based off existing third sector infrastructure and help develop local social networks and co-ordinate local schemes.
  • A Strategy and Integration Unit within the Welsh Government, which would guide longer-term thinking across all government departments and would be directly responsible to the First Minister.
  • A Social Innovation Hub which would bring together people from different sectors and with different experiences to come up with innovative new ideas for public service delivery.
  • A review of at what level powers should reside in local government, including stronger community councils and the introduction of Single Transferable Vote (STV) in local elections.
  • A pilot of participatory democracy – starting with local budgets – and a digital government programme/Digital Wales fund which would encourage the use of new technologies to improve democratic engagement, promote open government and improve public service delivery (there's a related piece on this from the National Assembly blog covering the recent GovCampCymru 2014).

Communities actively supporting each other is a vital part of well-being.

These "active community" projects do work. Plaid give an example of a "time bank" in the Ely area of Cardiff (where people volunteer in exchange for time credits they can "spend" locally) which has made people feel better about themselves, enabled people to get to know each other better and given people the impression that they're actively improving their communities.

Plaid call for a shift in public sector thinking, where the public sector will work with communities instead of imposing decisions on them unilaterally, perhaps even ceding some control too.

This would require a review of what powers should reside where (something the Williams Commission largely looked over). But it would also mean changing how communities are governed, and Plaid propose a limited form of participatory democracy where decisions are made collectively instead of by representatives or officials.


Plaid would like to shift the focus of Communities First from
whole communities towards individual families.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

  • A Prevention Fund to ensure citizens don't go on to need more complicated and expensive public services.
  • Promotion of alternative forms of finance, and the creation of a Community Investment Fund to underwrite or match fund alternative investments.
  • Use public sector pension schemes to support long-term local investments (in particular housing), with a tax-relief scheme for social enterprises - if the powers are devolved (see : The Collective Entrepreneur).
  • A Welsh "Green Book" which will "put sustainable development at its core".
  • Legislative measures to improve the amount of domestic public procurement, with the aim of 75% of public contracts going to Welsh companies (currently 52%) (see : Public Procurement Reform & Plaid's "Plan C")
  • Shift the focus of the £40million Communities First programme from deprived areas to deprived families.

The second theme focused on investment in light of "shrinking public finances". Although the paper says there's a lot happening already, Plaid believe things can go further. Alternative forms of finance which were discussed include crowd-sourcing, community banking/community bonds, credit unions, social impact bonds and the third sector's Community Investment Fund.

They cite the specific example of the Llangattock hydroelectricity scheme where 100 investors raised £270,000 in a co-operative scheme to generate energy, with a return of between 5-8% per year.

Examples were also given of public sector pension schemes being used to invest in the local community. Islington Council invested £20million of its £800million pension fund in housing, while there are talks about pooling the pension funds across all of London's local authorities. The Welsh local government pension scheme controls around £9billion in assets, and Plaid believes this could be used in a similar way.

Most of the rest of the discussion was about financial incentives and alternative business models. The Basque co-operative conglomerate, Mondragon, are brought up again as a model worthy of consideration, while a co-operative investment fund is mooted as a way to tie existing co-ops together in Wales to eventually create something on the same scale.

There's backhanded praise for the Treasury's "Green Book", which is used to "provide guidance to UK Government departments on putting together a robust business case to support policy change". Plaid believe a Welsh equivalent, which would come with a Welsh Treasury, should take into account social and environmental costs and benefits.


Plaid Cymru would extend the number of developments that wouldn't require planning permission,
and would also like to see a simplified way for communities to financially benefit from developments.
(Pic :

  • Using the reformed/stronger community councils to guide the development of neighbourhood-level infrastructure.
  • Stronger standards on energy efficient and design, as well as mandatory Welsh language impact assessments for infrastructure projects.
  • Simply the planning process and extend permitted development rights (i.e. changes to homes that don't require planning permission).
  • Simplify Section 106 agreements so they're more transparent and create a new system of financial incentives/community benefit schemes.
  • Possible legislative measures to give community bodies a right to purchase disused buildings, probably part of a wider-reaching Infrastructure Bill.

Infrastructure development is often led from "the top", so it was a real challenge to come up with ways in which this could be managed from "the bottom-up". The priorities might be different. An example's given where a community with a lot of older people might prioritise things like public toilets and seating – at relatively low cost – to create "age-friendly neighbourhoods".

Housing was picked out for special focus. At the moment, new housing developments are guided by centralised population estimates, meaning large numbers of houses are often built wherever the land is available with little thought given to how those communities would be planned, or what impact such developments have on the people already living there – including the Welsh language. Survey findings showed that higher-quality developments often endure less opposition. In terms of affordability, I've long supported things like modular/pre-fabricated homes.

Bringing old buildings back into community use was one of the key tenets of the Greenprint, and it returns again. The paper cites an example of community members in Llan Ffestiniog who received assistance to reopen a local pub; while there are other, more high-profile, examples like the Saith Seren in Wrexham.

Bottoms up?

Unfortunately, Welsh politics is a bit tied up at the moment.

The announcement has been overshadowed somewhat, with the Welsh political establishment and media sent into fits of existential despair and near paralysis by an awe-inspiring trolling masterclass from the Daily Mail. The funniest thing about the whole event is that It's not even about the Welsh Government, it's about Ed Miliband.

Anyway, it's nice to be Mr Positive for a change, while the title is in no way a reference to last week's post.

I'm pleased to say this is firmly grounded on Planet Earth, and – once again – there's a lot to like and take from one of these papers. Keep 'em coming.

The biggest omission is detailed costings, and without that information this hits a very big brick wall. That information could easily be provided if Plaid are in a position in government to see this through though, which is perhaps a much harder task.

Another bump in the road could be psychology. People "coming together" is very "jolly hockey sticks", but introverted people like myself (who make up at least a third of the population) are unlikely to be as enthusiastic in the absence of an incentive.

For example, I often find people who try to pester or guilt me into doing something – on a wider level this includes (often self-appointed) "community leaders" and chuggers - incredibly annoying, patronising and draining. So traditional campaigning and community "call to arms" usually don't work with people like me.

Therefore, the widespread use and normalisation of things like "time banking" is critical, and hopefully that would be something Plaid's "Connected Communities" proposal would be able to oversee at a national level.

That's not to fault what's in it. In fact, I agree with most of it in principle and I can't think of much in there I disagree with. I've long supported direct democracy for example (Local Sovereignty II :The Community), and what Plaid propose is a good start – though I believe representative democracy is a hindrance at the lowest level.

They key to this is, as Plaid have said themselves, a "culture shift" in the Welsh public sector and I'd question if they (the public sector) are really brave enough to do some of the things recommended in this report.

Alright, it's not exactly a riveting read, and is so full of public sector buzzwords it makes me want to leave thesauruses around the Assembly estate like those little bibles. However, it's a damned side more intellectually honest than the Future Generations Bill, and the vision is significantly more coherent, practical and innovative.

....and I've only used "sustainable/sustainability" three times, one of which is a direct quote and the other two being myself complaining about it. It appears in the report around 92 times.

Monday, 20 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Verdict on the Princess of Wales Hospital (pdf)

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

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

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

Spot Checking the Spot Checks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Human Rights on the Assembly Agenda

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights in the Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth Fighting For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now for the grim bit, possibly prophetic.

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

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

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Proctalgia Fugax AM 1964-2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

They were drowned out by a cacophony of approaching sirens.

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

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

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

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