Thursday, 31 July 2014

WAG Watch - July 2014

  • The Welsh Government introduced the Gender-based Violence, Domestic Abuse & Sexual Violence Bill, which will establish a specialist government adviser and place duties on Welsh and local governments to develop strategies to tackle such violence. Local Government & Communities Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said the law and accompanying public information campaign will “help empower people with information to act in the right way.”
  • The Permanent Secretary determined that Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), breached the Ministerial Code by lobbying Natural Resources Wales – a body under his ministerial remit - in relation to a motorsports park development in his constituency. The First Minister decided against dismissal, with the minister apologising to the National Assembly on July 1st.
    • Alun Davies was subsequently fired from the cabinet on July 8th for attempting to obtain private financial information about five opposition AMs relating to Common Agricultural Policy subsidies. He later sent a written apology to the five AMs and apologised to civil servants for “putting them in an awkward position”.
    • Opposition parties reacted angrily, with two of the targets – Andrew Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) and Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) demanding a Standards Commissioner investigation and calling into question the First Minister's judgement respectively. Plaid Cymru said the minister had, “played fast and loose with the public trust”.
    • As a result of the sacking, the Natural Resources and Food ministerial portfolio was divided between Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) and Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East). Rebecca Evans AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) was promoted to Deputy Minister for Agriculture & Fisheries. Farming leaders described the arrangement as “confusing”.
  • Welsh Lib Dems called for a “Youth Assembly” to replace youth parliamentary organisation Funky Dragon, which is to lose its Welsh Government funding. Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem, North Wales) said he was “worried young people might be ignored and side-lined in future decisions affecting them.”
  • There were renewed calls for a specialist eating disorder unit for children and young adults, after a BBC Wales investigation showed a 75% increase in cases over the last decade. The Welsh Government have committed an extra £250,000 per year towards eating disorders, but Welsh patients were still seeking treatment in England.
  • Independent research carried out on behalf of Plaid Cymru suggested their proposed 20p per litre “pop tax” on sugary drinks would reduce the number of obese and overweight people in Wales by up to 21,000. However, it would likely hit those on lower incomes hardest. Welsh Labour reject the idea, believing the tax would only fund extra doctors if sugary drink consumption increased.  It comes as figures showed 10% of children starting school in Wales are obese and 26% of all children had a Body Mass Index (BMI) above 25.
  • The Welsh Government announced the target measure of pupils achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE will be replaced by a wider capped score covering nine subjects by 2017. The Welsh Conservatives said this would make it harder to compare performances with the rest of the UK, and believed it was done because current targets are set to be missed.
  • A joint report from the Wales Audit Office (WAO) and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales found that Betsi Cadwaladr Local Health Board wasn't “fully fit for purpose”, despite actions undertaken following a highly critical 2013 WAO report which revealed serious management failures.
  • The Well-being of Future Generations Bill was introduced to the National Assembly on July 7th, which will establish a Sustainability Commissioner and make it a legal requirement to consider the needs of future generations in public policy. Opposition parties supported the principle of a sustainable development law, but criticised the Bill's “catch all aims”.
  • The First Minister outlined the Welsh Government's official response to the Williams Commission, which could see mergers of Wales' 22 local authorities to 10-12. He said the devolution settlement had made improving services like health and education “more complex”, saying mergers would “protect and improve local services”.
  • The Housing Bill was approved by the National Assembly on July 8th by 41 votes to 12. The Housing Act 2014 will place duties on local authorities to address homelessness and gypsy & traveller sites, as well as introducing a new licensing system for the rental sector.
  • Carmarthenshire Council voted to “note” a critical WAO report into unlawful libel indemnities, which will remain suspended indefinitely. It comes as Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths – as well as the First Minister – clarified Welsh Government guidance as prohibiting the use of indemnities to allow council officers to undertake libel suits.
  • The UK Supreme Court ruled that the Agricultural Sector Bill – introduced to replace the defunct Agricultural Wages Board - fell within the competence of the National Assembly. The First Minister said the ruling was “significant”, while Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) and Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) criticised “sloppy law-making” despite the verdict.
  • Around 70,000 Welsh public sector workers held a one day strike on 10th July - which affected local councils, job centres, fire services and schools - in protest at pay and pensions restraint. An estimated 1million took part across the UK.
  • Children's Commissioner, Keith Towler, said children in care were being still denied access to advocacy services, despite the Waterhouse child abuse inquiry recommending an independent voice for such children in 2000. The Welsh Government rejected the comments, saying they remained committed to children's rights.
  • Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) became the latest senior Assembly Member to announce they were standing down at the 2016 election. After 40 years in public life as a councillor and then an AM, she said it was, “absolutely right - right for me, right for the party”.
    • Former Deputy Minister for Housing & Regeneration, Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East), also announced she would stand down in 2016. She said that with increasing devolved powers “it was time for a new generation of Plaid Cymru politicians with a fresh outlook”.
  • Clwyd West MP David Jones was replaced as Welsh Secretary by Conservative MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, Stephen Crabb, in a UK cabinet reshuffle on 14/15 July. The new appointee said he would “build upon the excellent work” of his predecessor.
  • Several business organisations wrote to the Welsh Government demanding “no delay” to a decision on a possible £1billion M4 bypass of Newport, believing the current M4 is outdated, unreliable and negatively impacts trade and investment into south Wales. On July 16th, Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) announced the “Black Route” would be given the go ahead.
    • Plaid Cymru subsequently withdrew from future budget negotiations based on the “environmentally and financially reckless decision” to give the go-ahead.
    • The National Assembly's Environment and Sustainability report into the decision-making process expressed “grave concerns” about the choice of routes, as well as the financial and environmental implications. They believed that unless they received satisfactory answers from the minister, the public consultation should be restarted.
  • The First Minister launched the Welsh Government's legislative programme for 2014-15. 10 Bills are proposed covering : planning, tax collection (as a result of the Wales Bill), heritage, environment, local government reform, public health and social service regulation. The Welsh Government also announced legislative measures would be brought in to ban smoking in cars when children are present.
  • Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) introduced the backbench Financial Education & Inclusion Bill on July 16th , which will put financial education on the basic school curriculum for 7-16 year olds and place duties on local authorities to direct vulnerable people towards financial assistance.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 6,000 in the three months to May 2014 to stand at 6.6% - lower than many other parts of the UK. The announcement coincided with the 10,000th job secured through Jobs Growth Wales.
  • Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), announced the target of 36,000 disadvantaged youngsters receiving its Flying Start childcare services by 2016 was close to being met, with 31,000 enrolled this year – jumping a third compared to 2013.
  • Wales experienced the best foreign direct investment (FDI) performance since 1990, creating and safeguarding up to 10,500 jobs from 79 projects, representing 8% of the UK total in 2013-14. Despite this, the Welsh Conservatives said it fell short of the levels experienced when the Welsh Development Agency existed.
  • A Public Accounts Committee report into the Cardiff-Anglesey air link found “significant value for money concerns” after passenger numbers fell by 43% since launch in 2008. They recommended better marketing of the service, and improved recording of passenger usage by overall number and employment sector. Committee member Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) criticised the inquiry as “simplistic and superficial”.
  • Culture & Environment Minister John Griffiths said it would be “entirely fitting” for Wales to bid to host the Commonwealth Games, but said there was a lot to consider before any bid can be made. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central) supported a bid, saying it would “lead to many positive spin-offs for Wales”. The First Minister later made no guarantee Wales would make a bid, or that the event would be held in Cardiff.
  • The Assembly's Finance Committee recommended – in their inquiry on the future devolution of tax and borrowing powers - that the Welsh Government adhere to OECD guidelines, provided detailed budgeting and that the Assembly grants approval of borrowing. Chair Jocelyn Davies AM said it was “critical that there is a robust and in-depth process of scrutinising....spending plans”.
  • The Welsh Government's Advisory Panel of Substance Misuse recommended a minimum price for alcohol which would “protect vulnerable people, boost public health and improve community life”. The measure is expected to be included in the proposed Public Health Bill, due to be introduced in 2015.
  • A Business & Enterprise Committee inquiry into EU programmes recommended a full EU strategy be developed, and that specialist support be provided to key economic sectors. It was also revealed that Wales submitted no bids for transport funding under the EU's TEN-T programme.
  • The Assembly's Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry into local libraries recommended improvements in data collection, and more Welsh Government support to enable libraries to access all forms of finance. There were more than 14.7million visits to Welsh libraries in 2011-12.
  • Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), said cross-border transfers for heart surgery patients would continue until at least 2015 in order to cut waiting times. It comes as an NHS Wales report showed heart disease cases were falling, but death rates in deprived areas of Wales remained up to a third higher than less deprived areas.

Projects announced in July include : A £10million grant scheme to provide childcare and play opportunities to families in poverty; an announcement that all NHS Wales staff will be paid a minimum £7.65 per hour “living wage”; a six-year £953million joint Wales-EU Rural Development Programme; a 10-year Business Skills Gateway to address skills shortages; plans for a comprehensive £100million redevelopment of Cardiff Central station starting in 2020 and a joint Wales-UK pilot of a “National Citizen Service” for young people.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Aristocrats of Question Time

"Yes, you madam. The one that looks like a rhino on the brink of a coronary episode."
(Pic : via Youtube)

"Good evening and welcome to tonight's edition of Question Time. We've crossed the Severn Bridge into Mordor, and we're in....How do I pronounce this? Nuo...Nee..." A young women, working for nothing in hope of landing a sitcom pilot on BBC3, whispers in the host's ear...."I've been told by my assistant with the lovely bottom that it's pronounced 'New Port'.

"At the next election, you'll be given the burden of choosing who will scrutinise public service delivery and spend hundreds of billions of pounds on your behalf," he says. "We'll make that choice easier by giving you the impression no one deserves that responsibility. We're joined tonight by :

"....Some over-privileged tosspot, who got a job with Daddy's friend the MP straight out of Cambridge and has never set foot inside an ASDA or queued at a post office....

"....A woman with zero personality, who used to work as a middle manager in a council social services department – so tells people what to do by instinct, not because she's earned that right....

"....Armitage Shanks – former scat star, convicted heroin dealer and guest panelist on ITV2's 'WHAT'S THAT SMELL!?!!!?' - which makes him perfectly qualified to discuss parliamentary propriety and the situation in the Middle East."

After the applause dies down, the host indicates to his right, away from the desk, "As we're in Wales, we also have Elfyn Llwyd from Played Cumroo to give us a Welsh perspective. How are you, Elfyn?"

"Stalking bankers bonuses!" Elfyn struggles with all the determination of Harry Houdini to escape his harness, but he's dragged behind the gaudy stage background by two skin-headed heavies borrowed from Jeremy Kyle.

"See you in a few months,"
says the host, who turns to the others. "Isn't he quaint?" he whispers under his breath,"We call the other one 'Uncle Fester'."

The host arranged his notes, "Our first question is on pensions reform." He randomly points into the audience, "The man or woman towards the front wearing clothes."

The being clears its throat, "What does the panel think about pensions reform?"

 "I used to be a tax accountant and pensions adviser," the over-privileged tosspot says, "so I'll start by saying that we're dealing with decades of over-promises and under-investment. Many people feel they're left out because of...."

The opposition woman intervenes off-mic...."Nonsense!"

The host allows the opposition representative to rudely interrupt, "I.....*completely*.... disagree which what the opposition panellist said. We've suffered from decades of under-investment and over-promises, where many hard-working ordinary people feel they're left out...."

The host cuts her off, pointing to a mumbling coming from the audience. It's an angry-looking woman with clapping bingo wings - "Yes, you madam. The one who looks like a rhino on the brink of a coronary episode."

"I was waiting for a BUS the other day and it's....it's.....it's...disgraceful that our boys are over here while money falls out of my purse because it's moved abroad!"
She points to the government-appointed knobend, her face imploding in on itself in unfocused rage. "What would an out of touch tax accountant like you knows abouts pension reform!? Why don't you JUST ADMIT IT!?" * Applause *

"You made some interesting points," the host says, "Let's ask the person who used to smear poo on his face for a living what he thinks about pensions reform. Armitage?"

"We need to get real. We shouldn't just privatise pensions, we should privatise pensioners. As an insider, I can tell you GILF is a growth industry, but we're held back by political correctness. We should start a common sense national debate on whether Granny can take 10-inches for Blighty in any orifice that's available." *Silence....then applause * Armitage savours his own vintage from the glass in front of him.

"We now have a question on Europe. Yes, the gentleman in the Tam o' Shanter and saltire shirt who's right in front of the cameras...."

"I'm prood to be BRETISH!" * Applause *

"
Well I'm not," Armitage says, to gasps from the audience. TV loves nothing but controversy. "We've spinelessly given away all of this proud country to Europe. Literally given it away. It's not the United Kingdom anymore; it's literally EuroTerritory 5. When will Britain literally tell the world what to do again? How do we literally make Britain great? If you don't believe the answer to that is agreeing with everything I say, you're a gutless wonder who deserves to be treated with nothing but the utmost contempt." *Rapturous Applause*

"What are the answers to your own questions?" the host asks with a sly grin.

"I don't have a clue, but if I go on telly enough times and repeat it often enough, surely something will happen. Can't stand Europe, me. That's what the sea's for, innit! Did we sacrifice all those men on the Normandy beaches for a peaceful, economically interdependent and conflict-free Western Europe for nothing?"

"Where's your fifth wife from?" the government tosspot asks.

"Mönchengladbach, but that's besides the point. Europe is undemocratic...."


"Didn't you stand for the democratically-elected EU Parliament? And wasn't that your Alfa Romeo with the dodgy tyres I saw parked across three disabled spaces outsi...." the former social-worker is shouted down, as flecks of urine - and something more unpleasant - splatter out of Armitage's mouth.

"Nobody in this audience wants to hear the same old hypocrisy from the same old corrupt parties and bent politicians! We need someone to stand up for the hard of thinking in society! We need a revolution! Sod the lot of you!" * Rapturous Applause *

* Applause *

"Have you considered standing for Westminster, Armitage?"

"Now that you mention it, I'm always standing - but I never win."


"We're doing our best," the host says, looking around the audience. "The gentleman about three seats in, second row from the back on the left hand side with the long, greasy hair, wearing the green gilet with the holes in it."

"The question I would like to ask the panel is....what would you do if there were these mini black holes, and they was, like, all over the place causing the temperature of the planet to rise to 1000C for a split second and, like, afterwards all dogs were the size of cats and all cats were the size of dogs?" * Applause *

"It's a very serious issue that requires further discussion, but mini black holes are a legacy left from the previous administration's wasteful spending," says the government panelist.

"We deserve a full and frank public debate on this very important issue, and it's not helped by the austerity my party is committed to continuing despite our public opposition to it," says the opposition panelist

Armitage thinks for a moment. Potatos could be grown in his brow furrows. "Look at this grin," he points to his gurning mouth. "It's clearly a mouth that's dealt with a lot of effluent down the years. So, I'd rip my own face off and eat it." * Applause *

"I've often wondered if having more people who know what they're talking about on these panels  - instead of comedians and journalists - would provide us with proper answers," the host points towards another victim of the education system. "Yes, the lady at the back with the massive hole in her....oh, sorry, mouth. I mean mouth."

"Mary Berry is a Romulan agent." * Applause *

"I'd like to remind everyone that next week's episode comes from from The Mung Theatre in Yorkshire's magnificent Windybutt Vale. Our panelists will include the Minister for Departmental Requisitions, Shadow Secretary for Parliamentary Undercrackers, a Liberal Democrat – we're thundering across the countryside on horseback to flush one out – and someone recently described as 'The left-wing Pub Landlord', satirist and stand-up comedian, Owen Jones."

The host continues selecting victims, "The gentleman who has no chance to survive make your time for great justice....."

"Doctorsandnurses in the NHS?"


"Doctorsandnurses, doctorsandnurses, doctorsandnurses. Labour."
* Applause *

"Doctorsandnurses, doctorsandnurses, doctorsandnurses. Tories." * Applause *

The government panelist gets all indignant, "....let me finish my point!.....Let me finish!....Right, I'm finished."

"Armitage," the host says,"I believe you had some recent personal experience of the National Health Service?

"That's right, Jeff...."

"My name's not Jeff."

"That's right, Bernard. My little fella took a bit of a bump on the head at home." The audience let fly with their motherly sighs. Unlike any other politician in the known world, Armitage is just like them - a real, completely infallible human being made of flesh and blood. He's not a caricature or media-created golem at all.

"Can't take your eyes off them for a second, can you,"
the host says. "You've got to watch these slippery surfaces...."

Armitage's rubbery face scrunches up again, "Well that's the thing. It wasn't slippery *enough*."

"I'm sorry, I don't follow."

"Well I was going in at a rather acrobatic angle, and there wasn't enough letch water...."


"I though you said this was about your little fella?"

"Yup. Snapped me banjo string. Brave little fella. The sheets looked like an elephant's maxipad. Didn't stop me though."

The opposition panelist rolls her eyes as the audience gasps, "I don't see what relevance this has to anything we're dis...."

Armitage cuts her off, "....You want to know what's relevant!? Politics is no longer about policy. Thanks to people like me, you, the audience and Katie Hopkins it's about who can shout the loudest and who can be the biggest dick in the room. And as all of you who've seen 'Deutsche Arschspiel VIII' will know...."

Armitage climbs atop the desk, holding a CD player that blares out the rousing oom-pah intro to the national anthem of Marbella - The Birdie Song. His hips start swinging. The collective IQ of the studio descends with his flies. He's not in. He's definitely out and shaking it in everyone's faces.

"....that's meeeee!"


The host takes a discreet peek over his half-moons, his face a mix of horror and quiet admiration, "Could you tell us more about your Prince Albert?"

"Validate me, public!" Armitage says - the audience transfixed into hypnosis by the faint glint of steel that comes with each whir of his meaty helicopter roter - "Validate me!" They lap it up, while Twitter is filling with tw@s.

Seeing that herself and her party are losing their grip on public opinion, the opposition panelist shuffles awkwardly in her seat as her hands disappear below the desk. "Look," she says, dragging an arm out, triumphantly hoisting a bloodied Prince Charles aloft, "I'm on the blob!"

"Now that's just disgusting!" Armitage glowers towards her as the song draws to a close, "You really know how to lower the tone of a serious debate on serious issues!" He turns to the audience, "We don't need no EU directives on zip safety, do we!?"

"No!" the audience shouts.

"I say bollocks to voting!" he points to the panel. "And bollocks to Brussels!" Armitage spins around theatrically, doing a few in-time pelvic thrusts with the final clap-clap-clap-clap before zipping himself up.

Unfortunately, there was an unexpected item in the bagging area, and his majority was reduced from 9 inches to 3. The stunned silence is broken only by blood-curdling screams.

"Well," the host says, quite unsure how to proceed. "Inform, educate, entertain. We attempt all three, but fall short in each case. As always, we end with a joke without a punchline." * Jazz Hands * "Something, something, The Aristocrats. Goodnight."

* Applause *



Saturday, 26 July 2014

Does Wales make the most of EU opportunities?


                            

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

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

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

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

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

EU Programmes – What are they?


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

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

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

Welsh engagement with EU programmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


International Mobility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Co-operation

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

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

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

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

Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T)

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

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

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

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

The Answer : "Wales could do more"

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 24 July 2014

Inspiring Wales into Sport

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming Barriers


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

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

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

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

What do Plaid Cymru put forward?

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

Inspiring Ideas?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Bethan's Law : "FinEdBill" introduced

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

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

Why do we need "FinEdBill"?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the Financial Education & Inclusion Bill propose?

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

Financial Education

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

Financial Inclusion

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

Financial Management Advice

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

Costs and Benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion : Bang for the buck?

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

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

Time for the objectivity hat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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