Saturday, 31 January 2015

WAG Watch - January 2015

  • Fresh calls were made to scrap Severn Bridge tolls after fares rose in line with the Retail Price Index to become one of the world's most expensive road tolls. The bridges will return to public ownership in 2018, though Plaid Cymru warned that contract clauses could see the UK Government claw back maintenance costs until 2027.
  • Plaid Cymru's education spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales), said schools needed extra support to use the “world class” online Hwb+ learning portal, after figures released to the party showed only a third of schools were regularly using the service.
  • The Liberal Democrats accused Plaid Cymru of “astonishing hypocrisy” for campaigning in favour of a widespread introduction of a public sector £7.85 per hour “living wage”, whilst nearly 4,000 workers at three Plaid-controlled local authorities were paid below this.
  • Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP (both Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) called a proposed £446,000 severance agreement with chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council, Mark James, a “disgrace”. The local co-ruling Labour party said they would reject the proposal – one of a mooted ten options. It comes months after the acrimonious exit of disgraced former chief executive of Pembrokeshire, Bryn Parry-Jones.
    • The Welsh Liberal Democrats said if they form a government after the 2016 Welsh Assembly election, they would introduce legislation putting a £95,000 cap on “golden goodbyes”, mirroring similar Westminster legislation.
    • On January 28th it was revealed by Pembrokeshire councillor, Jacob Williams, that the cost of Bryn Parry-Jones' exit amounted to over £150,000 in legal fees.
  • A Wales Audit Office report revealed Wales was being hit harder by housing benefit reforms (aka. “Bedroom Tax”) than other parts of the UK, with rental debts rising by a quarter. The UK Department of Work & Pensions said they made up to £15million in discretionary payments available.
  • A report from the Welsh Institute for Social and Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) concluded that the flagship Foundation Phase is failing to meet its original aim of reducing education inequality between deprived and well-off pupils. However, other findings in the report suggest the scheme has been welcomed by teachers, staff and parents and is having a “positive impact” on some aspects of learning.
  • Politicians, journalists and members of the public attended an evening vigil outside the Senedd on January 11th to mark the deaths of 17 people in an Islamist terror attack in Paris targeted at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish community. Dr Saleem Kidwai, chair of the Muslim Council of Wales, condemned the attacks without reservation saying, “truth wins over falsehood and light over darkness”.
    • Both Welsh and UK governments were criticised for lowering flags to mark the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on 23rd January, due to the country's appalling record on human rights and political repression. Simon Thomas AM described the act as “sickening” and a “gutless disgrace”. The First Minister said he “in no way condones” human rights abuses, and the Welsh Government would review their flag policy.
  • Estyn reported that progress in improving literacy and numeracy standards under the Literacy & Numeracy Framework, introduced in 2013, was “modest”. They said this was due to insufficient guidance and resources from the Welsh Government.
  • Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), announced the spending outline for £123million allocated to Wales via the UK Government's Autumn Statement. Amongst the proposals, £70million will go towards health, while £35million will be used towards business rate relief.
  • BBC Wales revealed £120million has been spent by the Welsh Government developing a property portfolio of industrial and commercial sites, including £52million on Cardiff Airport. Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said the Welsh Government, “should create planning permission and infrastructure improvements, but should not actually own and develop the land”.
  • The latest figures on cancer survival showed a 25% drop in cancer deaths in under-75s and 20% increase in five-year survival rates despite an 18,000 increase in diagnoses. Deputy Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), said the report “sets out the challenges” to improve the number of people treated within 62 days.
  • The National Assembly approved a non-binding motion calling for the Welsh Government to no longer award procurement contracts or grants to companies with no women board members. Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said the government couldn't support the motion, as barring awards on these grounds would be illegal. However, the sentiment was supported.
  • 19% of people waited longer than four hours at Welsh A&E departments in December 2014 (target 5%) - the worst treatment time in Wales since October 2009. The Welsh Government said A&Es had experienced their busiest December in five years, with an extra £40million allocated to alleviate winter pressures. The Welsh Conservatives said there was “nowhere for Labour to hide”, while RCN Wales director, Tina Donnelly, called for 1,000 extra acute care nurses.
    • On January 28th it was revealed ambulance response times for December 2014 were "the worst on record”, with only 42.6% of ambulances responding to life-threatening calls within 8 minutes, compared to a target of 65%. In some parts of Wales, like Rhondda Cynon Taf, it was below 35%.
  • The Welsh Government released information on job creation at Welsh enterprise zones following an Information Commissioner ruling in December 2014. More than 2,000 jobs had been created and 3,000 safeguarded at a cost of £70million, but most were in Deeside, Cardiff and Anglesey. Only 94 jobs were created or protected at St Athan and just 8 in Snowdonia. Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said the cost-per-job - even in some of the better-performing zones - was up to four times higher than anticipated.
  • A senior Welsh Government civil servant told the Public Accounts Committee that an extra Cardiff-Norwich leg could be provided, on a commercial basis, in the down-time between subsidised Cardiff-Anglesey flights. A new contract with LinksAir is set to run until 2018, but the service has been criticised for not providing value for money.
  • Welsh unemployment fell to a rate of 7% in the three months to November 2014, with 103,000 people out of work. The Welsh Government said the raw unemployment and job-seekers allowance claimant counts were both lower than the same time the previous year.
  • The National Assembly approved a cross-party motion by 29 votes to 21 calling for radical improvements to services for autistic children and adults, and for parties to commit to introducing an Autism Act in their 2016 manifestos. There was criticism of lengthy waits for diagnoses and a lack of ring-fencing of funds by local authorities.
  • Welsh Labour said they will consider introducing legislation to end the “Right to Buy” for social housing tenants, if they form a government after the 2016 Welsh Assembly election, in order to protect dwindling social housing stocks. Shadow Housing Minister, Mark Isherwood (Con, North Wales), said Welsh Labour, “is returning to its outdated socialist dogma of the 1980s”.
  • Plaid Cymru amendments to introduce a “smacking ban” to the Domestic Violence Bill were rejected by the Communities & Local Government Committee at Stage 2. Committee Chair – and supporter of the amendment – Christine Chapman AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) said she was “disappointed” but hoped an amendment would be proposed at Stage 3, calling on AMs to be given a free vote.
  • In a response to calls for a cross-party agreement on the future of devolution, the Assembly Commission recommended, amongst other things, that the number of AMs increase from 60 to between 80-100, estimating the cost would range from between £9million and £17million. The Welsh Conservatives believed the overall number of politicians would need to decreased elsewhere before an Assembly expansion.
  • Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), introduced the first of a proposed two Local Government Bills to the National Assembly on January 27th. The Bill outlines the arrangements for local authorities to merge voluntarily by April 2018. At the same time, he rejected three mooted voluntary mergers, saying he wasn't persuaded by the vision.
  • The National Assembly unanimously approved the Higher Education Bill on January 27th. The Higher Education Act will provide a new regulatory framework for higher education in Wales and ensure “fair access” for Welsh learners.
  • Cardiff University's Prof. Sally Holland was appointed the new Children's Commissioner for Wales, succeeding Keith Towler, who leaves the post after seven years. There had been criticism for the delay in appointing a new commissioner, but the Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister described Prof. Holland as a “strong ambassador” for children's rights.
  • A survey on Welsh language use showed the percentage of fluent Welsh-speakers had fallen over the last ten years from 58% of all Welsh-speakers to 46%. However, use of Welsh socially and in work had risen slightly – though there remained a tendency for Welsh-speakers to use English online and when dealing with authorities.
  • The Welsh Government launched the “traffic light ranking” replacement for school banding on January 29th. 238 schools were ranked the highest grade of “green”, while 81 schools were ranked “red”. Education Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), said the new system meant, “there is no hiding place for schools that don't deliver for the most disadvantaged pupils”.

Projects announced in January include : £3million for improvements to Welsh NHS IT systems; a £230million European Investment Bank loan to Dwr Cymru to invest in its supply network, £3.6million to Welsh language projects; concessionary rail fares for free bus pass holders; £4.6million towards 21 coastal community projects; an £80million EU package to improve economic ties between Wales and the Republic of Ireland; an extra £11million to purchase 17 new ambulances and deal with winter pressures in the NHS and a £20million fund to bring derelict homes back into use.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

The "anti-austerity alliance" might seem a good idea now, but Plaid seem to have forgotten
the election next year, where such an alliance can't be on such friendly terms for their own sake.
(Pic : The Guardian)
I'm not going full tilt into my House of Commons election coverage until the second half of March, but it's worth looking at an issue that's arisen, also covered by Syniadau, Hogyn o Rachub, Jac o the North (in a backhanded way last year) and Ifan Morgan Jones over at Golwg360.

The quote I used for the title is from Macbeth, and often interpreted as meaning something that appears to be good will become bad, and likewise in reverse. It's an important warning Plaid Cymru ought to heed as they continue to struggle ideologically between "fair" pan-UK collectivism and "foul" civic nationalism.

It's long been a Plaid Cymru tactic to reach out and "build alliances", perhaps stemming from the Plaid-Green pact which saw Cynog Dafis elected MP for Ceredigion in 1992.

At one level it's pragmatic. Sharing resources, contacts and expertise makes it easier to conduct important cross-party campaigns on social issues like the "bedroom tax". It's also led to a relatively successful spell in government and some deals at Assembly level.

In less-favourable terms, it's meant Plaid have bent over backwards to accommodate viewpoints which don't fit with the long-term aims of their party. They even extend olive branches to organisations which have, to an extent, been openly hostile to them : trade unions, some third sector organisations, even other political parties like the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour. If they do it too often it's worth asking questions.

With regard the forthcoming election, it appears as though Plaid's line of thinking has been dominated by a "fair" romantic vision; a vision of of three women party leaders walking arm-in-arm down Whitehall, forming a bulwark against Con-Lab-Lib austerity, massed ranks following behind. A sort of left-feminist revolution.

It's a powerful statement, but it's worth asking what have Plaid got from "building alliances" in the past?

Well, they eventually lost Ceredigion. After they decided to cosy up to the Welsh branch of Labour they got their fingers burned and endured some of their worst performances in Assembly elections. In 2012 they were booted out of Cardiff Council alongside the Lib Dems, in 2013 they were locked out of a ruling coalition on Anglesey when they expected to be invited to form one, while the not-quite-official endorsement from senior Greens didn't help them much in last year's European elections.

This makes Plaid Cymru's recent endorsement of the EnglandandWales Green Party all the stranger. It's at best baffling, at worst moronic, and it's going to bite them very hard on the backside; not now, but in 2016. That's when their "fair" anti-austerity alliance will turn "foul".

Firstly, by telling voters "in England" to vote Green, they've managed to anger supporters of their Cornish sister party, Mebyon Kernow (two areas where the Greens are expected to do well are Devon and Cornwall). Perhaps they felt Dick Cole, in name and form, might ruin the procession of sisterhood down Whitehall or, more likely, they've forgotten about them because they have better friends now.

Secondly, Natalie Bennett isn't going to win her London seat as she's standing against a parachuted Labour donkey taking over from Frank Dobson. The Greens won't win any Welsh seats this May, and they'll be doing well to keep Caroline Lucas in Westminster. That's first-past-the-post for you, but there's no need for Plaid to offer free endorsements.

Thirdly, the majority of the people walking behind Nicola and Leanne will be Scottish nationalists. As Plaid Cymru should well know, the UK's (unwritten) constitution doesn't say anything about handing out goodies to parties affiliated with more successful ones.

If Plaid want extra powers and fair funding, they need to win the argument in Wales. That means – I know it'll cause heart palpitations amongst Plaid members, but here goes - taking control of the National Assembly for yourselves. You know, repeating what the SNP have done. Becoming a threat. Winning elections on your own.

That leads me onto the fourth, and most important, point. Fighting Elections Rule #1 – Never tell people to vote for a party other than your own. Ever.

Plaid Cymru seem to have forgotten that Greens are standing in Wales, have stronger environmentalist credentials than themselves and a growing online presence (helped along by over-eager Plaid activists, with nothing coming from the Greens the other way).

They also have significantly greater visibility across the whole UK, including pictures and print which make their way into Welsh homes. After all, Natalie Bennett is a journalist by profession, so surely that's going to come with useful contacts? If they wanted to they could blow Plaid out of the water.

Plaid have also forgotten that the Greens are standing in next year's National Assembly elections. Current polling (via Elections in Wales) suggests the Greens will take between one and three list seats in regions that will make the position of some sitting, and prospective, Plaid AMs very uncomfortable indeed.

In terms of strategy, it's a bit like a Tory grandee like Ken Clarke or Norman Tebbit telling people in Wales to vote UKIP.

Plaid have built up the Greens – a party which (until the publicity surge at UK level) were ineffectual and would've struggled to make an impact in next year's Assembly elections - into a threat to their own-bloody-seats!

It's still a long way away, but there's now a very realistic chance that Plaid could fall to 8-9 seats in 2016. That will impact their backroom functions and put more strain on whoever's left. It means the resource-intensive campaign on Ynys M
ôn in 2013 – the justification for which being that losing the election would've cost them a member of staff  – would've been a waste of time, money and effort.

So it's all smiles, solidarity and locked arms going into May, but at some point in the next twelve months, Plaid Cymru are going to have to take a dagger to their new butties. Unfortunately, the core beliefs of both parties are so similar (nuclear energy and nationalism aside) it's going to be a difficult thing to do without suffering some blow back.

Come 2016, if the Greens in Wales can convince around a fifth of Labour voters to give them their list vote - factoring in those who will switch anyway and the rise of UKIP - oh lawdy are Plaid in for a rough ride!

So forget Westminster; Plaid are love bombing themselves out of the Assembly – the only place they've ever made an impact. If it wasn't so brain dead it would be funny.

(UPDATE 01/02/2015 : Green Party rejects Plaid Cymru call for votes in Wales - via BBC Wales.)

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Local Government Bill : Council mergers edge closer (sort of)

We still have no idea what form local government reorganisation will take. The latest law introduced
to the Assembly will, however, give councils the opportunity to take the initiative themselves
....unless they've already taken the initiative themselves, of course.
(Pic : Wales Online)

A little over a year to the day since the Williams Commission reported on local government and public service reforms, Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), introduced the Local Government Bill to the National Assembly on Tuesday (27th January), with the aim of outlining the process for voluntary mergers between local authorities.

Bill (pdf), explanatory memorandum (pdf).

Back in December, the Minister expressed his disappointment that only six local authorities came forward with voluntary merger proposals : Conwy & Denbighshire, Bridgend & Vale of Glamorgan (Case for Bridgend-Vale merger outlined) and Blaenau Gwent & Torfaen.

True to form and with baffling timing (more from Y Cneifiwr), on Tuesday he rejected all three proposals, believing none of them matched the vision set out by Williams or the Welsh Government. As a result, Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) described it as a "Bill without a cause" yesterday.

It suggests Leighton is going to "persuade" local authorities to either follow the Williams Commission recommendations to the letter, or something radically different which we don't know about yet.

That means, locally-speaking, a Bridgend-NPT merger is back on the table, even though an overwhelming majority of Bridgend councillors voted in favour of a Vale merger.

What's included in the Bill?

Voluntary mergers

The Bill :
  • Sets a deadline of November 30th 2015 for local authorities to make an application to the Welsh Government to commence merger procedures. A full public consultation will also be required before making an application. The aim is for the new local authorities to be in place by April 1st 2018.
  • Gives Welsh Ministers the power to issue guidance on merger applications and make regulations relating to mergers themselves – this includes setting the name of the new authority.
  • Sets out transitional "shadow authority" arrangements, which will come into force on a specific date. Shadow authorities will be made up of all of the councillors in merging local authorities. The powers and budgets will be outlined in regulations.
  • Includes the power for the Welsh Government to make regulations regarding electoral arrangements, specifically including powers to :
    • suspend local elections (both local authority and community council) for a set date
    • suspend by-elections for vacancies during the "shadow authority"/transitional period
    • set the date for the first local election to the new authority
    • grant the new local authority the option to hold a referendum on directly-elected mayors

Transition Committees
  • Each new local authority will be required to establish a "transition committee". These must be made up of equal numbers of councillors from each of the merging local authorities (a minimum of 5 from each) and will need to be politically-balanced.
  • Transition Committees will be responsible for :
    • Setting out the transfer of staff, property, liabilities and functions to the new authority.
    • Ensuring the new local authority is ready to function as soon as it becomes active.
    • Any other functions set out by Welsh Ministers.
  • The merging authorities will meet the costs and resource requirements of the transition committees, in proportions which they either agree between themselves or which will be set out by Welsh Ministers.

Electoral arrangements in the new local authorities
  • The Welsh Ministers will direct the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission (LDBC) to undertake an "initial review" of local election arrangements in the new local authorities, and will set a deadline for when the review will be published.
  • This review will include recommendations on :
    • the boundaries of communities
    • the constitution and electoral arrangements for community councils (if impacted by changes to local authorities)
    • the number of councillors in the new local authority or new community councils
    • electoral ward divisions, the number of councillors per ward and the name of wards (both local authority and community)
  • The LDBC must have consideration to :
    • ensuring "effective and convenient local government"
    • ensuring the ratio of electors to elected representatives is consistent across a new local authority
    • setting ward boundaries that are easily recognisable and which avoid "breaking local ties"
  • The Bill gives Welsh Ministers the power to implement any LDBC recommendations, with or without modification.
  • The Bill also gives Welsh Ministers the power to amend the Local Democracy Act 2013 in order to reset the review period for local government boundaries (it's currently every 10 years from September 2013).

Remuneration in the new local authorities
  • The Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales may be directed by Welsh Ministers to "perform relevant functions" for the "shadow authorities" as well as during the first full financial year of the new local authority – as set out in the Local Government Measure 2011, which will be amended accordingly.
  • The transition committee must publish a pay policy statement for the new local authority (as set out in the Localism Act 2011) within 42 days of the "shadow authority" being established. The shadow authority will then have to approve or amend the statement.
  • No chief officer (I presume they mean chief executive) may be appointed for the new local authority until a pay policy statement is approved.

Limits on functions of transitional authorities
  • Unless fully explained to the transition committee, the transitional authority cannot :
    • make any land or capital acquisition or land disposal (worth more than £150,000 [land] or £500,000 [capital])
    • enter into any contract or agreement
    • give any grant, loan or financial assistance (exceeding £150,000)
  • The transition committee must give its opinions on the appropriateness of any of the above. Any action that hasn't been properly reported to the transition committee is void, unenforceable or repayable.
  • All of the above will also need written consent from the shadow authority.

The Costs

As usual, I'll only cover the Welsh Government's preferred options.

Ensuring the LDBC can undertake its review of local government boundaries in time for the creation of the new local authorities in April 2018 will cost an extra £881,000 between 2015-16 and 2020-21. This is on top of the LGBC's current £3.12million funding.

The equivalent cost to the Independent Remuneration Panel to carry out its work in relation to the provisions of the Bill is £40,000 spread over two years.

The total costs across Welsh local government of establishing transition committees will be between £1.88million and £2million for 2016-17 to 2019-20, depending on the type of merger proposed.

Welsh Government guidance, and the costs of recruiting an additional member to the Independent Remuneration Panel, will be £149,000 between 2016-17 and 2019-20. Voluntary merger regulations will cost the Welsh Government £28,000-£56,000, based on a presumption there would be one or two voluntary mergers.

The LDBC is already recommending a reduction in the number of local councillors across four local authorities (Conwy, Denbighshire, Powys and Ceredigion). If this goes ahead as planned (regardless of whether they merge or not), this will save £780,000. Carmarthenshire is set to gain an extra councillor at a cost of £13,000 per year.

Total costs to the Welsh Government are estimated to be £1.12million over 6 years until 2020-21, while total costs to local government (net of savings from the proposed reduction in councillors) is £1.22million.

So the total cost of the Bill, if enacted, is £2.34million.

Method and Madness

You'll get no argument from me on the process outlined in the Bill.
The problems are political.
(Pic : WLGA)
The Bill itself is clear and methodical. This is, arguably, the best way to approach mergers in a way which minimises disruption and ensures a smooth transfer; so I can't find much fault.

I suppose it's been done this way in order to encourage as many local authorities as possible to come forward with their own merger proposals. There are clear advantages in them doing so, such as having greater control over the process as well as a delay in local elections.

The problem is that since the publication of the Williams report, the process of public service reform has been a slow motion car crash. There's a distinct lack of leadership from the top and no clear political agreement (remember that Easter deadline? Clearly Carwyn meant Easter 2015).

Here's an exchange between Carwyn Jones and Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), at Tuesday's First Minister's Questions :

In short, it's all over the place in Cardiff Bay (Williams Commission : The Fallout).

That's mainly Labour's fault because they haven't given any firm commitment to a particular model of reorganisation, meaning we currently have no idea what the future local government map will look like in order to have something to work towards. All we know is the Williams Commission recommendations are the Welsh Government's preferred option, and that means somewhere between 10-12 local authorities.

The other parties haven't been forthcoming either.

We have no idea what the Tories want to do other than save money, while all we've had from Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems is support for a principle of local government reform, but nothing else other than murmurings about proportional representation in local elections. In fairness, the Lib Dems have a reason to be shirty as they were unfairly shut out of the Williams Commission itself. Plaid and the Tories have dithered as much as Labour.

Having said all that, Leighton Andrews will publish a white paper on reorganisation next week which might give us a better idea what his intentions are. I haven't decided whether I'll cover it or not though, it depends what's included.

Meanwhile, local authorities themselves – as well as the WLGA – have been lukewarm towards the idea and are plugging alternatives (And then there were four?). A lot of little empires are going to be broken up, so many local councils are sulking in the corner with their arms folded.

That's reflected in the expected low number of voluntary mergers. The explanatory memorandum suggests there'll only be one or two, which makes you wonder if this Bill is worth it, and whether the Welsh Government should just bite the bullet and force the mergers through – maybe down to as few as six local authorities, as suggested by BBC Wales' Nick Servini.

The timings are incredibly tight in the Assembly, and this is acknowledged in the explanatory memorandum. It's expected the Bill will receive Bet Windsor's scribble this November. By Assembly standards that's not a long time for the law to go through the proper scrutiny process as it'll be interrupted by recesses, a large number of other laws going through the Assembly and what are likely to be the final committee inquiries of the term.

By the looks of it, local authorities are going to have to start the voluntary merger process soon if they're going to meet the Bill's November 30th deadline.

For those local authorities which don't merge voluntarily, depending on who's in charge, a second Local Government Bill would be introduced early in the Fifth Assembly. New local authorities created by compulsory mergers would come into being from 2019-2020, but presumably the local authorities involved would lose control over the merger process.

What's been overlooked here is the impact on community councils. It looks as though there could be a minor reorganisation on the cards for them too. Although any changes to community councils, as outlined in the Bill, are dependent on the impact of local authority reform, I would support a rationalisation of community councils as there are far too many, and they often struggle to find people to run for office.

For example, it would make sense to have a single community council covering the whole Bridgend urban area, as opposed to : Bridgend Town, Brackla, Coity Higher, Merthyr Mawr and Laleston. The Welsh Government's intentions at community level haven't been made clear though.

So overall, the process outlined in the Bill is relatively uncontroversial. The policy and political situation, however, leaves many holes and unanswered questions, meaning this Bill is likely to be in for a rough ride. Some sort of cross-party political agreement at Assembly level and with the WLGA will have to be done within the next couple of months - Carwyn Jones said on Tuesday by "this summer" - or the whole thing is at risk of spiralling out of control.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Assembly Commission steps up to the oche

Has the National Assembly just made itself a bigger target for anti-politics darts?
(Pic : via

Last week, the Assembly Commission published its response (pdf) to calls from Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.), for a cross-party agreement on future devolution arrangements for Wales to be in place by March 1st.

The headline Commission proposal
(covered by BBC Wales, Western Mail and South Wales Argus) is an expansion of the National Assembly to somewhere ranging from 80 to 100 members.

The Commission's Reasoning

The Assembly is too small by all national and sub-national benchmarks – The paper says a 100 AM Assembly would be in line with the European norm for a nation of Wales' size, while 80 AMs would still provide constraints. Even if the Northern Ireland presses ahead with plans to reduce the size of Stormont to 90 MLAs, they would still have greater per-head representation than Wales.

Assembly Committees are at the minimum size to enable effective scrutiny – The Commission say the ideal number of AMs to properly reflect party balance is 12 per committee. Due to the limited number of backbenchers, the biggest subject committees (what Westminster calls Select Committees) have a membership of 10 AMs, with other committees having between 4 and 8 members. The number and size of committees has been "cut back to the bone", and the Commission find it hard to see how this can be reduced further without seriously impacting the ability to scrutinise legislation, budgets and policy.

AMs are juggling too many roles – The paper lists 109 different roles for the 60 AMs, ranging from ministerial positions, officer posts (committee chairs, presiding officers, party whips, business managers, Assembly Commissioners etc.) and being a committee member itself. This is before including their role of representing a constituency or region. This means a large number of AMs can't give a particular role their undivided attention. 80 AMs would improve the situation slightly, but 100 AMs is described as "the ideal position".

The Commission estimate that expanding the Assembly to 80 AMs would cost £7-9million, 90 AMs would cost £11-13million and 100 AMs would cost £14-17million. As the Assembly's running costs would only rise from 0.3% to around 0.4% of the ~£15billion block grant, the Commission believe the costs are justified as :
"....a reasonable price to pay for effective democratic representation, and would be offset by the benefits of more effective policy, legislative and financial scrutiny."

Other recommendations include :
  • Giving the Assembly Commission the power to promote public awareness of devolution, the Assembly's electoral system and to encourage political engagement at all levels.
  • The Assembly should be made "permanent" (can't be disbanded by the UK Parliament).
  • The removal of several roles of the Welsh Secretary and UK Parliament in devolved affairs, which the Commission believes are outdated.
  • Power over the number of members, electoral system to the Assembly and all other matters relating to the electoral system within Wales (such as lowering the voting age) should be devolved.

"What's that smell?"

The problem the Assembly Commission face is we didn't vote "yes" to the above either.
(Pic : The Independent)
On all grounds of reason and logic, the case for expanding the Assembly is as clear as crystal, and I support an 80-member Assembly. Unfortunately, modern politics isn't about reason, as the reaction of the public always has to be at the forefront of decision-makers' minds.

We should've had 80 AMs from 2007 – when it was agreed the Assembly would get legislative powers – but it wasn't implemented (as set out in the Richard Commission). Labour didn't want it as it came with a caveat of increased proportional representation. AMs are now living with the consequences of Peter Hain's legacy.

The argument comparing the Assembly with other institutions doesn't stand up very well. Scotland and Northern Ireland have criminal justice powers, which take up a hefty amount of legislative time. Meanwhile, many sub-national governments in Europe – like Flanders, Basque County and even the Faroe Islands and Isle of Man – have powers above and beyond those offered to Wales via the Silk Commission. New York City, for example, has what we would call "Devo-Max", yet it only has 51 councillors, and up to 40 committees and sub-committees.

The Commission have also sacrificed "quality" for the sake of "quantity". Imagine an Assembly with 10-15 Gwyn Prices and Mohammad Ashgars because that's what we would end up with.

At the risk of repeating myself from last time, they're going to have to consider alternatives whether they like it or not. They could :
  • Argue for a reduction in the size of the Welsh Government to ~8 members (to free up backbenchers).
  • Scrap/merge some committees. Do we need a Finance and a Public Accounts Committee? Scrutiny of the First Minister is the job of FMQs, isn't it? There's no equivalent in Scotland either.
  • Create separate Westminster-style Select and Public Bill Committees (the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee are holding an inquiry into Welsh law-making and this has been proposed by some witnesses).
  • Rethink how AMs are briefed before committee meetings, including the mooted option of expert advisers.
  • Greater use of short/one-day committee inquiries.
  • Greater use of plenary sessions to scrutinise policy rather than committees (perhaps by scrapping some opposition debates, which tend to be repetitive).
  • Here's a radical suggestion; devolve more power down to a local level – perhaps an elected regional tier of government – so scrutiny burdens on AMs decrease.

The only way I see an Assembly of 80, even 100+, AMs being palatable to the general public is if it's accompanied by a massive reduction in the number of politicians elsewhere : local councillors (perhaps down to 500-600) and MPs (perhaps 30, then 20 once a legal jurisdiction is established/criminal justice devolved). So not for the first time I'm in agreement with the Welsh Conservatives for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons.

I don't want to sound haughty, but I understand how hard AMs work as I routinely see a fair chunk of legislative paperwork they get through over the course of doing this blog. Having said that, someone with a reasonable level of intelligence and conscientiousness should be able to handle the workload as long as they have the right support staff.

99% of the public don't see any of this, and think AMs meet for a few days a week as a toy town Westminster to hold inconsequential debates, then spend Mondays and Fridays in their taxpayer-funded offices – when they're not on "holiday" (recess), of course.

If the Assembly Commission go out and say they're going to spend between £9-17million on an extra 20-40 full-time politicians (with all the associated baggage that comes with that), they shouldn't be surprised if they get a curt four-letter response from the public.

Add this to the recent proposals for changes to AMs' pay and it has the potential of being a PR equivalent of a collision between a sewage tanker and a lorry full of durians - with AMs caught in the headlights of both.

Meanwhile, Rachel Banner and UKIP will be looking on, rubbing their hands. As I said, modern politics isn't about reason.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Consult At Your Convenience

Do you often need to spend a penny in Bridgend county?
Then it's worth spending 5 minutes on this public consultation.
(Pic : via Geograph. © Copyright Jaggery and licensed
for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.)

Bridgend Council (BCBC) recently launched a consultation on the future of 13 council-owned and operated public toilets. There's an online survey available here, and responses have to be in by March 9th. Subject to cabinet approval, any changes could come into effect as early as April 1st.

The reason why BCBC look set to act quickly could be that they're trying to change public toilet provision before the Public Health Bill is introduced in the National Assembly (Booze, Bans & Bogs), as the Bill is likely to include new legal requirements.

Eight of the toilets are staffed during opening hours and five are cleaned/visited "on a routine basis". The consultation document (doc) says there's also a star rating system, but due to formatting errors I couldn't see the ratings.

34% of respondents to an online budget simulator/survey (Bridgend's Cabinet Expansion & Cuts Consultation) recommended BCBC review public toilets. That includes myself; but I only agreed because I assumed the scheme to give £500 grants to local businesses which open their toilets to the public
("comfort scheme") was ongoing. In fact it stopped in April 2014 when Welsh Government funding ended.

It's unclear how much BCBC currently spend on public toilets, but judging by the figures mentioned in the budget consultation, I'll assume BCBC are aiming to save up to £50,000 a year.

Location of council-run public toilets in Bridgend County.
(Pic : adapted via Google Earth, click to enlarge)

There's one huge problem with this consultation - BCBC give absolutely no idea what their public toilet strategy is. They ask questions about how frequently you use Bridgend's public toilets, preferred opening hours and opinions on the "comfort scheme" - that's fair enough.Until there's a clear idea of what BCBC would prefer to do though, all that's left is speculation.

The line of questioning implies BCBC are either looking at closures of lesser-used toilets or reduced service levels – whether that means less regular cleaning, shorter opening hours or a reduction in staff. This would presumably be offset by a reintroduction of the "comfort scheme".

Another option is that BCBC could choose to go down the same route as Carmarthenshire (more from Carmarthen Planning and Y Cneifiwr), where the local authority transferred control of public toilets to community and town councils. The process is an ongoing farce as transfer of control didn't come with a transfer of funding.

As you would expect, Carmarthenshire Council are approaching it in their usual open and transparent manner, as the Carmarthenshire bloggers will testify. It's a shame Bridgend appear to be copying them to a certain degree.

This consultation should've started a local debate on why we need local authority public toilets and where they should be. Below, I've included a National Assembly short debate (dated 13.11.13) from Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) on the subject.

Most major supermarkets and transport hubs provide free public toilets, and they're often better used and maintained than some council facilities – so do we even need local authority toilets anymore?

What about the elderly? At Christmas, my grandparents hailed the cleanliness and upkeep of Porthcawl's public toilets - as you do - but it underlines how something most of us may take for granted will be seen as an essential service to others.

What of rural areas and tourists? Their use will be seasonal, but there's no alternative other than bushes. In September 2014, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), Cllr. Ken Watts (Con, Newton) and town councillor Graham Walters (Ind, Newton) joined calls to provide completely new public toilets at Porthcawl's Newton beach. It's unlikely that project would be led by Bridgend Council now.

Should we have fewer, more modern, public toilets with proper facilities for baby changing, menstruation and the disabled?

Should people pay to use local authority toilets?

Should BCBC introduce mainland European-style free-standing urinals?

How should any revamped "comfort scheme" be signed and advertised?

These are all questions BCBC could've asked the public but didn't. It's often what public bodies leave out of consultations like this which worries me; if they don't give you the full picture, they usually have a nasty surprise coming....