Sunday, 31 August 2014

WAG Watch - August 2014


  • Friends of the Earth Cymru launched a legal challenge against the Welsh Government's decision to approve an M4 bypass of Newport at the expense of an alternative “Blue Route”. Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said she “expected a challenge” as part of the “reality of the world we work in”. She later said that, “As far as I'm concerned we will be going ahead”.
  • Unison are due to ballot NHS Wales staff members on industrial action after they were offered a £160 lump sum in lieu of a 1% pay rise by the Welsh Government. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), said the offer was “fair”, with the lowest-paid NHS staff being paid a £7.65 per hour “living wage” from September 2014.
  • The First Minister attended a commemorative service in Glasgow on 4th August to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of British Empire involvement in the First World War. He said the war, “had monumental consequences that rippled throughout our history”.
  • Jonathan Edwards MP (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) launched Plaid Cymru's “Get Wales on Track” campaign for Wales to receive a devolved proportion of the budget for the High Speed 2 project in England - estimated to be between £2-4billion.
  • The National Assembly's Health Committee wrote to the Welsh Government recommending an regulator to oversee NHS complaints due to a defensive culture within the health service and worries that staff “feared victimisation” for raising concerns. Committee chair, David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said, Those making complaints....should feel able to do so without fear that their careers or care could be adversely affected as a consequence."
  • The Wales Audit Office will investigate National Dance Company accounts after a confidential internal report revealed concerns over how their £850,000 per year funding from the Arts Council of Wales was being spent, with criticism aimed at board level decision-making.
  • An Ofcom report said that Wales was "catching up" to the rest of the UK in terms of superfast broadband, with 58% of Wales covered compared to 78% of the UK (on average). However, only three quarters of small and medium enterprises were online, with criticism of unreliable internet connections.
  • A BBC Wales investigation revealed a combined £300,000 had been spent by the Welsh and UK governments as a result of three Welsh laws being referred to the UK Supreme Court. Two of those cases were won by the Welsh Government, who said it was "evidence that the current devolution settlement urgently needs reform".
  • Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) warned consumers to look out for counterfeit alcohol after a Freedom of Information request revealed tens of thousands of pounds of counterfeit alcohol was being recovered and seized by trading standards officers. He said, "counterfeit tobacco and alcohol an have a serious impact on bone fide businesses which follow the rules."
  • Unemployment continued to fall in Wales. In the three months to June 2014 it fell by 3,000, with the unemployment rate at 6.7%.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) called for a rescheduling of First Ministers Questions to broaden its appeal, saying "transparency and scrutiny are questionable at the least". The Assembly's Business Committee had undertaken a review of Assembly procedures, while Welsh Labour said the Conservative leader's criticisms "said more about their (Tories) lack of ability to be an effective opposition."
  • The A-Level A*-E pass rate fell slightly compared to 2013 from 97.6% to 97.5%, however the number of A*& A grades rose from 22.9% to 23.3%. Girls continued to outperformed boys except at A* grade, and the pass rates remained lower than the England, Wales and Northern Ireland average. (98* A*-E grades, 26% A*& A grades)
  • The All-Wales Medicines Strategy Group approved the use of a cannabis-based treatment for multiple sclerosis, Sativex. As a result, Wales will become the first part of the UK to do so. The Health Minister said he hopes the drug will "help ease the suffering of some of those who have to live with....MS".
  • A group of 70 businesses criticised the First Minister after a letter sent to him pushing for an extension to small business rate relief hadn't been replied to. Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) said Welsh Ministers had the power to boost high street footfall, but "have announced almost nothing".
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats pledged to scrap Severn Bridge tolls once its current debt had been paid off if they were returned to power in Westminster in 2015. They estimate the annual cost would be £15million, but would boost the south Wales economy by £107million.
  • The latest gender pay gap figures revealed that while the Welsh gap was smaller than the UK average, there was still a £3,771 per year gap between male and female executives. The Chartered Institute of Management said the pay gap "cannot be justified".
  • A joint poll by Cardiff and Edinburgh universities revealed that Welsh people were more likely to adopt a conciliatory approach to Scotland regardless of the outcome of September's independence referendum. 48% of Welsh respondents supported a cut to the Scottish budget if they vote no compared to 56% of English.
  • The gap in the number of pupils receiving at least 5 A*-C grades at GCSE between Wales and England/Northern Ireland closed by 0.2% in 2014. The overall A*-C pass rate of 66.6% was the highest achieved in post-devolution Wales, with improved performance at higher grades. Like A-Levels, girls continue to outperform boys.
  • Student leaders expressed shock at a Welsh Government decision to cut student hardship funds. The Welsh Government blamed UK Government cuts and said higher tuition fees meant universities could now fund similar schemes themselves.
  • Plaid Cymru and leading tourism bodies called for a boost to the Welsh Government's £7million Visit Wales budget, as it stands compared to £47million for the Scottish equivalent and is only £1million more than Jersey's. The Welsh Government said the £7million was “misleading” and the real figure was closer to £20million.

Projects announced in August include : £1.25million towards the creation of Welsh language centres to promote its use in social settings; a provisional five-year deal to bring MotoGP to a proposed motor sports park in Blaenau Gwent; a boost in funding for palliative care hospices and a £4million investment in the ambulance fleet to improve patient comfort and service reliability.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Life, Ethics & Independence XI - Breast-feeding


(Owen: I received a late birthday present earlier this week - chicken pox! That's not only embarrassing for someone my age, but I'm sure most of you know it can be dangerous in adults. I currently look like the surface of the moon, and if this week's blogs weren't already written and only required editing I would've taken a break sooner. So after tomorrow I'll be resting for between a week and a fortnight. I wonder what other delights 2014 has in store?  There are still four more months left to absolutely break me....)

It might not be an urgent matter, but in terms of the devolution
settlement, breast-feeding underlines serious inadequacies.
(Pic : via Wikipedia)
As a man of the world, I've noticed women have these things called "breasts".

Some men have them too. They come in different shapes and sizes, but have important functions beyond crushing cans, acting as a natural airbag or being used to sell newspapers and magazines.

After painstaking and extensive research into breasts, I'm probably the only person around who can fill a bra to bursting point with an argument for independence or further Assembly powers, and also underlining why boobs are an argument that the Welsh devolution settlement isn't currently fit for purpose.

Why is breast-feeding important?

Early human milk is packed with antibodies which help
protect a baby's immune system and also benefits the mother.
(Pic : Stanford University)
In the early days post-birth, breast milk contains antibodies and other ingredients that cleanse the newborn baby's digestive system and boosts their immune system. After a few days, the milk thickens and becomes fattier. There's no firm evidence for how long a mother should breast-feed, but the consensus appears to be for somewhere up to 6 months.

There are several specific benefits to breast-feeding for both mother and child :
  • Health benefits for the child – Breast-fed babies are at less risk of developing obesity (here), gastrointestinal problems (here), allergies (here), have reduced cholesterol and blood pressure levels (here), have been shown to have improved brain development (here) and improved mental health in childhood and adolescence (here).
  • Health benefits for the mother – Breast-feeding lowers the risk of developing breast (here) and ovarian cancer (here), diabetes (here), heart disease (here) though it's still unclear if it plays a role in post-birth weight loss as it uses fat from around the whole body (here). It also releases hormones which are relaxing (here) and improves the mother-child bond.
  • It's free, quick, already warm and always available. It can be pumped too and either stored or used in a bottle ("expressing").

There are downsides too:
  • Some diseases, medicines/chemicals and viruses (like HIV) can be spread to the baby through breast milk.
  • It's hard to tell how much milk the baby is drinking (unless it's pumped and bottled), and breast-fed babies need to be fed more often than formula-fed babies.
  • It can cause irritation for the mother, and the mother also needs to watch their own diet more carefully than they otherwise would.
  • Some women can't breast-feed, whether due to their own medical problems or those of their child.
Baby formulas have come a long way and don't have anything inherently bad about them, but in terms of the health benefits, antibodies etc. they don't come close to breast milk. Many international health bodies – including the World Health Organisation – all recommend breast-feeding for the health of both mother and child.

There are two main public policy issues regarding breast-feeding : doing it in public, and guilt/shaming as to whether mothers breast-feed or not.

Breast vs Bottle : Shame & The Power of Disgust


Public breast-feeding still draws a negative reaction - prompting public information
campaigns like that above - perhaps due in part to the excessive sexualisation of breasts.
(Pic : whattoexpect.com)
Sadly, it appears discrimination against breast-feeding mothers is alive and kicking in 2014.

After a young mother in Rugeley, Staffordshire was called a "tramp" for breast-feeding in public, a
sympathy protest attracted 100+ people in Swansea back in March, along with others held in England and Scotland. In June, a breast-feeding mother from Cardiff was asked to move from her table at the Global Buffet.

Babies have no concept of "waiting to be fed", so mothers have no option but to either to feed them there and then – regardless of where they are - or put up with wailing and crying until they can get privacy.

If mothers don't have the confidence to breast-feed in public, they might feel shamed into feeding somewhere private but possibly unhygienic - like a public toilet cubicle or baby changing room.

Breast-feeding is a bodily function, and all bodily functions/body fluids have a taboo about them. That's with good reason as we're evolutionary preconditioned to consider them "disgusting" as they're usually waste products, smell/look unpleasant and in some cases spread diseases.

Breast milk is one of the body fluids that's none of those things, so any "disgust" towards breast-feeding/breast milk itself is irrational. Disgust is, however, a very powerful emotion and is used surprisingly often in politics and society to get us to act or think a certain way.

People might not consider breast-feeding a disgusting concept, but they probably do think that way about exposed breasts. Breasts have been conditioned (through the likes of Page 3) into not being seen as a functional part of female human anatomy but an erogenous zone - perhaps even exclusively for male pleasure.

I suppose technically-speaking the function is the very reason breasts are considered sexual in the first place. Pretend to be civilised and blame the patriarchy all you want, but it all comes down to the biology of reproductive fitness and sexual selection. At the end of the day, we're all apes and subject to the laws of the jungle. That doesn't mean any of that's "right", of course. Women aren't solar-powered.

But it does mean that amongst the conservative and easily-disgusted, public breast-feeding is "dirty" as breasts are associated with sex (a private thing) and a body fluid is also in play. That doesn't mean anyone has a right or moral obligation to stop mothers doing it.

Breast vs Bottle : Guilt

There's nothing inherently wrong with baby formulas, so are
some mothers being made to feel guilty for not breast-feeding?
(Pic : womenworld.org)

With an awful lot of opinion pieces telling you how to be a parent, some mothers might feel guilty for not breast-feeding, preferring to use formula instead even when there's no medical reason preventing them from breast-feeding.

Research from Ohio State University suggests that while breast-feeding is definitely beneficial, once things like socio-economic factors and cultural biases are taken out of consideration there's no real difference between breast and bottle feeding over the longer-term.

So breast-feeding is more a "leg-up" for the child than something that's medically essential.

In addition, a British Medical Journal survey of Scottish parents concluded that "idealistic" aims – like that of the WHO for babies to be exclusively breast-fed for 6 months – might be "unhelpful", and a more tailored approach suited to individual mothers and their circumstances might be better. Further research needs to be done, however.

It boils down to pressurising mothers into doing something they don't want to do, and not giving them a choice either way.

The Politics of Boobs

Welsh mothers are more likely to breast-feed if they come from more privileged
socio-economic groups and are also more likely to stop breast-feeding earlier.
(Pic : Breastfeeding Welcome Scheme)

Breast-feeding is an under-reported part of public health and social justice policy. It has, however, been raised several times over the course of the National Assembly's existence.

According to Office of National Statistics Infant Feeding Survey, in 2010 breast-feeding rates in Wales were the third lowest of the Home Nations (71%), and significantly lower than the UK average (81%) (table 2.1). Older mothers in Wales aged over 30 are also – surprisingly – much more likely to breast-feed (81%) than mothers under 20 (50%) (table 2.4). Welsh mothers also give up breast-feeding at a much faster rate that the UK average (table 2.15).

More importantly from a social justice perspective, Welsh breast-feeding rates were highest amongst mothers from managerial and professional backgrounds (85%) (table2.6) than those who've never worked (47%). This is also evident when the index of multiple deprivation comes into play, with the most deprived areas (60%) in Wales having lower breast-feeding rates than the less deprived areas (85%) (table 2.8).

So this is a class and education issue as much as one of health, and it might mean children from wealthier/more-privileged backgrounds are getting a "leg up" earlier on in life through something as innocuous as breast-feeding.

In terms of current Welsh Government policy, the Breastfeeding Welcome Scheme has been set up to recommend establishments (cafes, shops etc.) that are friendly towards or encourage breast-feeding. The registry listings by local health board area are available here. I'm pleased to say that Bridgend and Porthcawl are well represented on the list (pdf).

The Welsh Government also offers advice to employers as to their responsibilities towards breast-feeding employees and how they can help them.

The Law & Breast-feeding

Public breast-feeding is a supposedly protected right, but is
EnglandandWales law too ambivalent?
(Pic : Leicester Mercury)
EnglandandWales law is clear. Public breast-feeding is not only completely legal but a protected right.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 originally protected public breast-feeding by making it illegal to deny any woman "goods, facilities or services" to the same level as a man.

This has been updated, with Section 17 of the Equalities Act 2010 explicitly stating that businesses, school & colleges, organisations and other public services are committing sex discrimination if they treat breast-feeding mothers "unfavourably". It doesn't extend to breast-feeding employees as far as I can tell, though as mentioned before, employers do have to take it into consideration.

Breast-feeding doesn't qualify as indecent exposure either, the definition of which is public exposure of genitalia "with an intent to cause alarm or distress". Breasts aren't genitalia, and indecent exposure only applies to men. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 clearly states "his genitalia".

So there's nothing in the eyes of the law anyone can say or do to stop a mother breast-feeding wherever or whenever they want. There are still issues though that aren't adequately cleared up and underline serious inadequacies in the Welsh devolution settlement.

Expressing independence (....or further powers)

Breast-feeding policy will help set out what sort of
Wales/Welsh society we want to live in in future.
(Pic : Press Association via theconversation.com)
I suppose this is what you were waiting for. Some of you might wonder why am I posting this under "independence" and "constitution" when the law - as it is - is clear cut?

Firstly, the current laws and rights are spread over several different pieces of legislation – it's time that was tidied up. Secondly, there doesn't appear to be anything specifically granting women the right to breast-feed in public - it's only implied, and prevents businesses from discriminating against women who are breast-feeding.

During the Third Assembly, former Plaid Cymru AM Nerys Evans proposed a Legislative Competence Order (LCO) to devolve powers relating to promotion of breast-feeding, including powers to make it an offence to prevent a mother breast-feeding in public. As it was a Member's LCO that didn't see the light of day, the powers were never explicitly devolved to Wales so were never included in Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 (which lists what the Assembly can or can't do).

In Scotland, the Scottish Government introduced the Breastfeeding Act 2005 which did everything Nerys wanted to. It made it an offence (punishable by up to a £2,500 fine) to prevent a mother breast-feeding in a public place or licenced premises, and placed a duty on the Scottish Government to promote breast-feeding.

So Wales can't change the law in the same way Scotland has to guarantee mothers the right to breast-feed, or place duties on the Welsh Government to promote breast-feeding in an appropriate way.

I doubt there would be anything to stop the Welsh Government/AMs introducing a Scottish-style Breast-feeding Act if they wanted. It would just be at risk of another trip to the Supreme Court as the powers probably aren't devolved.

You'll probably agree this is a public health matter (which is devolved). Unsurprisingly though; equalities, civil liberties, employment rights (breast-feeding at work?) and human rights aren't devolved matters - while this also sucks at the teet of the criminal justice system. To update the law on public breast-feeding in Wales, criminal justice and the legal jurisdiction will have to be devolved at a minimum....or there's always independence.

So Wales could soon have powers over tax but not tits.

As for precisely what sort of things could be done with full powers over this :
  • Mothers could be given a right to breast-feed anywhere and at any time in public they choose, preventing them from doing so should be liable to prosecution (as per Scotland).
  • There could be expanded rights with regard breast-feeding in the workplace, outlining the responsibilities of employers (perhaps for up to 6 months, similar to what happens in the Netherlands).
  • Place responsibilities on the Welsh Government to monitor breast-feeding levels and promote all forms of infant feeding in a non-judgemental, objective way, clearly outlining the benefits and drawbacks of all forms of feeding.

I'd much rather live in a Wales where women are given a choice on such things - and properly informed to make the choice that suits them - without being judged, disadvantaged or shamed. Despite devolution we're still not able to do that.



Thursday, 21 August 2014

Apocalypse Nawr

"Look at this shit we're in, man. This is how
democracy ends, not with a bang but with a whimper."
I lie staring up at the ceiling fan; the smell of cheese, chips and muff coming through the window.

Bridgend. I'm still only in Bridgend. Every time I think I'm gonna wake up back in the jungle, I'd wake up and there'd be nothing. I'm here a week now waiting for a mission, getting softer. Every minute I stay in this room I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.

Two officers arrived to escort me to a high-level briefing.

"In this war things get confused; power, ideals, the old morality, practical political necessity," the Colonel says."There's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. Good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Mark James has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.

"Your mission is to proceed up the Towy River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel James' path at Jail Hill, follow it, and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by any means necessary and terminate his command.

"He's out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.

"You understand Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist."

At first I thought they handed me the wrong dossier. I couldn't believe they wanted this man gone. CBE, non-executive director of the Welsh Government, a proper committee man. I bet he even has a blazer with a badge on the breast pocket. Like I said, he had an impressive career. Maybe too impressive.

We make our way to an under siege shoreline called Bu Ri Pờt. Roflcopters overhead drown out our conversation with the CO.

"Sir, you're supposed to escort us into the Towy!" I shout.

"We'll see what we can do about that," he said. He puts his hand on another shell-shocked blogger reassuringly, "Cheer up, son!" He moves to my crew, "We do a lot of blogging around here. I like to finish operations early, fly down to Starbucks...."

I show him the map, "Sir, there are two places we can get into the river. Here and here."

"That village you're pointing too is kind of hairy. Got some heavy legal ordnance. I lost a few council motions in there now and again....What's the name of that goddamn village? Fei Ri Siđê? We'll pick your boat up and put it down like a baby."

A pilot says, "But sir, it's Charlie's point!"

"Charlie don't blog!"


We made the assault in daylight. When the medivac landed to take away casualties, a swivel-eyed elderly woman was running towards it. "She's got the standing orders! She's got the standing orders!"

The medivac explodes. "Savages!" the CO shouts. "Holy Christ, she's an 'Independent'. Get over there. Out the right skid right up her ass!"

We made it to the beachhead, but were still coming under fire from legal threats and amendments to motions. "Don't you think it's a little risky to blog?" I ask.

"If I say it's safe to blog this county, Captain, then it's safe to blog this county!" The CO calls in a precision-F strike strike, "Blog it to the stone age, son."

After the smoke and fire had fizzled out, the CO turns to me, "You smell that? Do you smell that?"

"What?"

"Raw sewage, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of raw sewage in the morning. You know, one time they built a load of houses that overfilled the sewerage system. When it was all over, I walked up. The smell, you know that human excrement and used tampon smell, the whole cockle beds. Smelled like....victory.

"Someday this war's gonna end."


As we glided up the river, I studied one of James' letters.
"I'm afraid that you would have been worried for not hearing from me. But my situation has become a difficult one. Someone has been really, really mean on the internet. We spent months uncovering and accumulating evidence. When absolute proof was completed, we acted like soldiers. The charges of unlawful spending are unjustified. It was a long-running campaign of harassment and defamation. In a war, there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action, for what is often called ruthless may, in many circumstances, be only clarity; seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it directly, quickly, aware.… looking at it. As for the charges, I'm unconcerned. I'm beyond their timid, lying morality. And so I'm beyond caring."

White Bridge was the last outpost on the Towy River. Beyond it there was only James. I used to think if I died in an evil place, my soul wouldn't be able to make it to heaven. But now I don't care where it goes as long as it ain't here.

James was close. He was real close. I couldn't see him yet, but I could feel him, as if the boat were being sucked up river and the water was flowing back into the jungle. Suddenly the air filled with arrows and primitive spears.

This was Madge Country. Hundreds of natives stood on the banks near the fortified encampment, their biceps bulging from bowling and the power of faith. Entire boxes of papers are burned, filling the air with acrid smoke. A man approaches with a camera around his neck.

"Who are you?" I ask.

"A journalist", he said. "Carmarthen Journal. I've covered the war since '08." He points to the natives, "They think you've come to take him away."

"Take who away?"

"Him! Colonel James! These are all his children, man, as far as you can see. Hell, man, out here we are all his children."


"Can we talk to Colonel James?"

"You don't talk to the Colonel, you listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet-warrior in a classical sense. He'll just walk right by you and he won't even notice you. Then suddenly he'll grab you and he'll throw you in a corner and he'll say 'Do you know that 'lie' is the middle word in 'libel'? I'm a little man, he's a great man."

"He's gone crazy."

"Wrong! Wrong! If you could have heard the man just two days ago, if you could've heard him then. God. You were gonna call him crazy?"

"I'll wait for him."

"He's gone into the jungle with his people. He feels comfortable with his people. He forgets himself with his people. He forgets himself."

Everything I saw told me that James had gone insane. If I was still alive, it was because he wanted me that way. I saw a sign sprayed on a wall; "OUR MOTTO : APOCALYPSE NAWR, BEST COUNCIL EVER!"

I had my hands tied behind my back and was led down a corridor. I was taken into a dark room, the only glints of light highlighting James' face as he washed it.

"Have you ever considered any real freedoms?" he said. "Freedoms from the opinions of others, even the opinions of yourself. Did they say why they wanted to terminate my command?"

"It's a classified mission, sir. They told me you had gone totally insane and your methods were unsound."

"Are my methods unsound?"

"I don't see any methods at all, sir."

"You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill."

"Not grocery clerks, sir. The Welsh Government and Wales Audit Office."

I was soon put in a holding cell. The journalist was growing frustrated. "Why? Why would you do this?" he asked. "Feeling pretty good, huh? Why? Do you know that the man really likes you? But he's got something in mind for you. Aren't you curious about that? I'm curious. I'm very curious. Are you curious?

"I mean, what are they gonna say when he's gone? 'Cause he ends when it ends; when it ends, he ends! What are they gonna say about him? He was a kind man? He was a wise man? He has plans? He has wisdom? Bullshit, man! Am I gonna be the one that's gonna set them straight?"

He's been setting them straight for years. He prints what he's told after all. I was knocked unconscious and laid on the floor of the council chamber.

"We are the hollow men and the stuffed men together filled with straw,"
James said. "Alas dried voices, when whisper together quiet and meaningless wind in dried rats' feet over broken glass our dry cellar. Sustainable development."

"Do you know what the man's saying?" The journalist asked. "Do you? What are you gonna do when you go from here to Venus? That's dialectic physics, okay? Dialectic logic is, there's only love and hate. You either love somebody, or you hate them."

"Mutt! You mutt!" James threw a banana at the journalist.

"Look at this shit we're in, man," the journalist says. "This is the way democracy ends, not with a bang but with a whimper."

On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him, I'd know what to do. But it didn't happen. I was in there with him for days, but he knew I wasn't going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did. If the generals could see what I saw, would they still want me to complete my mission? More than ever, probably. And what would his people back home want if they ever learned just how far from them he'd really gone? He broke from them and then he broke from himself. I'd never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.

"I've seen horrors. Horrors that you've seen," James said. "But you have no right to call me a dictator.  You had a right to do that. But you have no right to judge me anymore.

"I worry my children might not understand what I've tried to be. I would want someone to go to my home and tell them everything – everything I did, everything you saw – because there's nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, you will do this for me. I'm trying to take someone's home after a court ruling because they were nasty to me on the internet."

I was soon back on the boat. They were gonna make me a major for this. Everybody wanted me to do it. Him most of all. I felt like he was waiting for someone to take his pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier on the wrong side.

I remember what James said, "We spend hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers money, but the law won't allow an ordinary citizen to question the use of that money because it's deemed obscene."


Back in Bridgend with cheese, chips, muff and the ceiling fan. There's a knock at the door. More officers arrive to hand the dirty work down to someone else.

"....Your mission is to proceed up the Cleddau River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Parry-Jones' path at...

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

"Thank you for flying Ieuan Air...."

Poor value for money? Or vital transport link?
The Anglesey-Cardiff "Ieuan Air" service has its critics.
(Pic : Wales Online)


The direct air service between Cardiff and Anglesey has been a political football since it was first introduced. Some consider it a vital public service air link; others consider it a complete waste of money.

The National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee undertook a short inquiry into its future role, as well as evaluating its current commercial performance due to the high levels of public subsidy it receives and falls in passenger numbers (pdf).

The Committee's summarised recommendations were that :
  • Data collection should be improved - preferably using an independent source - to avoid discrepancies between what the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and airline operators report.
  • The Welsh Government should undertake research on who uses the air-link and why, as well as research into the long-term passenger number trends.
  • Any future tender for the air-link should include comprehensive marketing plans, and the Welsh Government should try to attract as many bidders as possible in order to maximise the benefits and opportunities of the air-link.

Background & Current Performance

£9million has been spent on the air link since 2007, including
£1.5million on terminal facilities at RAF Valley.
(Pic : anglesey-today.com)
The Anglesey-Cardiff air-link was established in May 2007 (before Ieuan Wyn Jones even became a government minister), and is currently operated by two companies. The marketing and ticket booking services are provided by Manx company, Citywing, while the air service itself is provided by Links Air, based on Humberside. The current contract to provide the service runs until December 2014. The service runs twice a day in both directions during weekdays.

The Welsh Government subsidises the service under the EU's Public Service Obligation (PSO) rules, which allows governments to subsidise services that are key to economic development but are otherwise commercial unviable. The subsidy currently amounts to £1.2million per year.

The Ministry of Defence are also involved as they run the RAF Valley terminus of the flight. Anglesey Council and a company called Europa also fund/run the terminal services at the airbase.

The total cost of the air service from May 2007 to March 2013 was just over £9million. This sum includes the £1.5million to build the passenger terminal at RAF Valley and various grants to Anglesey Council.

65,703 passengers used the service over the same time period, and
the subsidy per passenger is £86. Although passenger numbers exceeded expectations in the first two years, they've since declined by 12.5% between 2011-2013.

There were differences between the passenger numbers reported by the CAA and those provided by the Welsh Government (via the service operator) – the latter's numbers being higher than the CAA's. However, since 2012 these discrepancies have become smaller and didn't cause the Committee any great concern.

As for the reasons why passenger numbers are falling, the University of South Wales' Martin Evans said that passengers were "price sensitive" and even the slightest increase in fares put them off. The Welsh Government, however, pointed towards figures that showed an increase in the number of advanced bookings and overall passenger numbers.

The Welsh Government have commissioned ARUP to review the marketing of the air service, fares strategy and support to maximise passenger numbers. The contract currently grants the operators £20-25,000 per year to market the service. The Committee believe more needs to be done - such as advertising connecting bus services - and all of that should be part of the tendering process.

In terms of the type of passenger, it was said between half and two-thirds of passengers were business passengers, but there was no data on how many of these were public sector workers. The Committee were concerned because public sector journeys would ultimately be paid for entirely by taxpayers, weakening the subsidy's value for money case.

With regard value for money, there hasn't been an evaluation of the benefits of the air service since 2008, and without this information it might be more difficult for the Welsh Government to justify further subsidy. Some of this will be explored further in the ARUP review, which will give a better idea of who uses the service and why, but it was argued it might be difficult to tie economic data to the service.

The Contract

Following the 2011 Cork air crash, there've been concerns raised
at EU level about "virtual airline" arrangements for air services.
(Pic : RTE)

There's a slightly complicated back story as to how the current operators got the franchise.

When the contract was up for re-tender in 2010, the only bidder was Highland Airways. But because the Welsh Government had concerns over the financial stability of the company, they rejected Highland Airways offer and put out an "emergency tender" which was awarded to Manx2.

However, because Manx2 were a "virtual airline" (they outsource all operational roles), this fell foul of EU PSO rules, meaning another company had to be on board at the same time – hence why there are two companies involved in running the air link.

As for the relevance of this, an accident at Cork Airport in February 2011 – which killed 6 people – involved an aircraft operated by the same company Manx2 used to provide the Anglesey-Cardiff link (FLM). The company has since had its aviation accreditation withdrawn, and this dual-company arrangement has been flagged up to the European Commission as a concern which should be taken into consideration when awarding any new Anglesey-Cardiff contract in December.

The Committee also had concerns about the timing of the tender and contract award, which is supposed to go out (quite literally) now if it's going to be awarded in December. The Committee were worried that the timescales are too tight and there's little room for contingencies.

The Future of the Air-Link

Due to MOD restrictions, the air link can only operate 5 days a week.
(Pic : Royal Air Force)
The Welsh Government haven't given a clear commitment on whether the service will be re-tendered or not. However, the Committee come up with several potential options for any future services.
  • Increasing the size of the aircraft – The current aircraft has 18 seats, but previous tenders included 29-50 seater aircraft. The size of the aircraft was reduced by the Welsh Government due to concerns over air passenger duty and because RAF Valley doesn't meet UK guidelines for passenger aircraft bigger than 18 seats. Increasing the size of the aircraft would mean fewer passengers would be turned away and, if marketed correctly, could boost incomes and make it more commercially viable.
  • More stops? – This might mean adding an extra stop or two (Harwarden in Flintshire and Caernarfon airport were mooted). Harwarden was ruled out due to competition from rail, while Caernarfon would need lots of work to bring it up to spec. A third stop could also put off passengers as it would increase journey times.
  • 7 day a week service – At the moment only a 5 day service is possible due to military restrictions, and any moves to change this will need to be discussed with the RAF.
  • Changes to state aid rules – PSO rules were recently changed which mean there are fewer constraints on what the Welsh Government can or can't do. An example was given where the Cardiff-Anglesey aircraft could be used to make commercial flights from Cardiff-Paris in the downtime between Anglesey flights.

A bit of afters

The inquiry has been criticised for being "too simplistic", and it failed to
draw comparisons with other PSO services in the UK and rest of Europe.
(Pic : via Wikipedia)
As you might've heard, Committee member Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East)  got a bit shirty, describing the inquiry as "superficial and simplistic". The Committee only called four witnesses - who all gave evidence on a single day – and received just five pieces of written evidence, three of which were from the same person. That's not unusual for a "short inquiry".

I've read my fair share of committee reports over the last three years or so. The lack of any comparison with other PSO services in the UK (like those in the Scottish Highlands & Islands) was a glaring omission. Mike Hedges was right. I don't think it would've really changed the overall conclusions, but without those comparisons it's hard to say whether the air link is truly under-performing or not.

The Lib Dems have long called for the service to be scrapped, and chimed in again this time, describing the air link as "wasteful and polluting".

The air link currently reduces the NW Wales-Cardiff journey time from 4-5 hours (by car or train) to around 90 minutes. If the service were well-used it could be considered an absolute bargain. The £1.2million per year saved by scrapping the service would do diddly squat to improve north-south transport links, and the Lib Dems have consistently failed to say what they would do with such an enormous bounty. The cost of doubling the Wrexham-Chester railway line is £44million alone.

If money were no object, ideally we would build a floating runway in the Menai Straits off Bangor. That would be the optimum place for a NW Wales-Cardiff air link, and being right next to Snowdonia should provide a steady stream of tourist traffic too. However, like it or not, RAF Valley – despite being poorly located – is the only suitable facility.

It looks as though the air link has an uncertain future, and criticisms about its performance stand up. There's just a danger that through this inquiry we only know the price of it whilst ignoring its value.


Saturday, 16 August 2014

Life, Ethics & Independence X - Hunting

Hunting was once a necessity but has since become a hobby (except for farmers)
that stirs strong emotions and strong debate.
(Pic : Wales Online)

Hunting in Wales

Hunting has been going on in Wales for millennia, and if it didn't none of us would be here. Although  hunting would've once been used for food or to control pests, in GB & Ireland it became a "sport" for the landed gentry that not only provided status symbols for the dinner table but practice for warfare – for example, the use of a bow and arrow on horseback, or tracking skills.

With the advent of the gun, and the widespread use of animal husbandry, hunting has almost exclusively became a leisure activity rather than a necessary skill. Though some people no doubt still hunt for food, fur or for pest control.

There are several different types of hunting :
  • Game hunting/Shooting – Shooting wild birds like duck, geese, pheasants, grouse, wood pigeons etc. as well as mammals like rabbits and hares.
  • Deer hunting & stalking – There are several native species of deer in Wales, and they're usually killed from long distances with high-powered rifles. Deer stalking is basically the same thing but done with more stealth.
  • Organised fox hunts – A continuation of medieval tradition of hunting, where large numbers of horseback riders and a pack of dogs flush out and kill a fox. The practice of using dogs to kill foxes was made illegal in 2004.
  • Drag/trail hunting – Similar to fox-hunting except instead of an animal, the hunting party follows a path laid out by using a collection of artificial scents to simulate a traditional foxhunt. Drag hunting with dogs is still permitted despite the Hunting Act.
In other countries – like the United States, New Zealand and parts of Africa – hunting is closely intertwined with their cultures, with an idealised archetype of the rugged "frontiersman/frontierswoman" stalking big game or trying to carve out a living in an untamed wilderness.

Hunting isn't really seen in the same way in Wales, and fishing – which isn't really considered in the same category as hunting – is often much more popular. However, sport shooting is worth £75million to the Welsh economy according to research from Public and Corporate Economic Consultants.

Hunting Issues

One of the main debates around hunting is whether some methods are
inhumane or cruel to the prey, going against the spirit of a "fair chase".
(Pic : ehow.com)
Hunting and Animal Cruelty – The killing of animals, whether necessary or not, is always going to provoke strong reactions amongst animal welfare and animal rights groups and supporters. Some hunting traps might cause unnecessary suffering to animals, while the use of guns might not always result in a "clean kill". Tradition fox hunting usually left the killing to the dogs, which would be incredibly painful for the fox.

Hunting and Farming – It's been argued that many wild animals in the British Isles aren't significant agricultural pests. However, a 2013 poll from sheep farmers showed three quarters of them said there had been an increase in fox attacks since the Hunting Act. Considering animals like sheep are barely profitable, even the loss of a single lamb or sheep will have an impact. However, it's not only wild animals that attack farm animals. Farmers are allowed to kill any dog that worries livestock.

Hunting and Conservation
– The idea that killing animals can actually save them sounds like an oxymoron, but there's a twisted logic to it. Someone wealthy paying £X to kill a wild animal probably raises enough money to ensure the conservation of 10 other wild animals.

Does hunting wild animals (in small numbers) contribute to the
conservation efforts of a larger number of animals?
(Pic : africageographic.com)
Also, in cases where certain dominant predator species are over-breeding in an ecosystem, managed hunting could reduce them to a number that protects species lower down the food chain (maintaining the carrying capacity). And, of course, sometimes "hunted" animals aren't even killed. Some are tranquilised for research reasons (i.e. to take blood or tissue samples) - what's known as a "green hunting".

Hunting for Food or Clothes – Is it more morally acceptable to hunt an animal if you're going to "use" it? Does "using" an animal make hunting and trapping a basic right rather than a restricted pasttime – as it is in parts of the United States? In polar regions – like Greenland - some traditional subsistence hunting for things like polar bears and narwhals is being restricted, despite the destruction of the animal's habitats being down to climate change brought on by the industrialised world.

Poe's Law?
(Pic : avclub.com)

Hunting for Sport/Recreation – What about killing animals "for fun"? Is there a difference between European royalty being driven up to a herd of elephants in a 4x4 and shooting one, and the principle of the "fair chase" – one person, one weapon, no aides, just pure tracking and stealth ability? You can argue "fair chase" hunting doesn't put a human at a massive advantage over the prey, while having packs of dogs and tens of people on horseback is overkill.


The Current Law

Traditional fox hunting with dogs was outlawed in 2004 - now replaced with
drag hunting, as pictured - but game licences were phased out in 2007.
(Pic : BBC)
Game licences were phased out in EnglandandWales in 2007, but are still used in Scotland.

The Game Act 1831 and Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 specify at what times of year people can hunt for game and larger animals like deer (open season). It's usually autumn to late winter for most species, with the spring and summer kept off limits to protect populations and allow breeding.

Hunting for animals out of season is considered "poaching", punishable by a fine of up to £5,000. Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act it's also illegal to possess or collect wild bird eggs. The Act also includes a list of birds (Schedule 1) and animals which are protected (Schedule 5) and cannot be killed by certain methods (Schedule 6).

Under the 1831 Act, gamekeepers need to be appointed to look after the stock of game and manage the countryside appropriately.

The most contentious legislation in recent time is, of course, the ban on the use of dogs in fox hunting and hare coursing - which was outlawed by the Hunting Act 2004. Scotland brought in a ban on two years earlier with the Protection of Wild Mammals Act 2002. Breaking this law is punishable by a fine of up to £5,000.

Dogs can still be used in hunts to flush out animals like foxes, it just means the prey itself has to be killed humanely. That, to me, sounds like a perfectly reasonable compromise. There was talk of the Coalition government relaxing the ban, but it looks unlikely.

However, because traditional fox hunting tends to support a small "team" – equestrians, dog handlers, wardens etc. - the ban has been portrayed by groups such as the Countryside Alliance as a battle between "urban bleeding hearts" and "good, honest country folk", and as much an attack on a lifestyle – possibly with class-envy undertones – than ever really being about animal welfare.

Hunting & Independence

Domestic dogs are often as big a threat to livestock - an example
from Carmarthenshire above -  as wild animals like foxes. Does the law need
to be cleared up  to acknowledge "farmer's rights" on hunting pests?
(Pic : Big Cats GB)
Hunting powers are a muddled picture under devolution. Fishing and fisheries are devolved - but often aren't counted as hunting - while hunting with dogs is explicitly non-devolved in Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Hunting in general though appears to be closely aligned to the criminal justice system, which isn't devolved in Wales.

Because hunting is effectively devolved to Scotland already this wasn't included in Scotland's Future. But hunting would be a completely new power if devolved to Wales or through independence.

I'm planning on doing a "Vice Nation" series similar to this one (i.e. single posts spread over a wider time period) to look at issues related to this, like gun ownership, starting next year (if I'm still going).

So what could an independent Wales do?
  • Reintroduce game/hunting licenses. This is an obvious one. It would be an added layer of bureaucracy but it would allow the Welsh Government, and other relative authorities, to manage and monitor hunting a lot better than at present. It could even be taxed to raise funds for conservation efforts.
  • Consideration for some sort of "hunting call-out" for farmers - which had been called for – where farmers who've experienced an upsurge in animal loses to pests can call out a hunting party to track down an animal with dogs and kill them humanely.
  • Debate a lifting of the ban on hunting with dogs - I would be against this, but if hunting were devolved it would be down to the Assembly to debate it. I'd guess that only a few of the Conservatives would support lifting the ban, possibly AMs from other parties that represent rural constituencies too.
  • Professionalise drag hunting – turn it into a type of equestrian "sport", so people who would've considered "proper" hunts have an alternative that can be taken seriously.
  • Farmer's Rights – Clarify what farmers can and can't do with vermin and pests on their land. Perhaps the owners of animals like dogs which attack farm animals should be liable to a harsh fine and compensation payments in addition to potentially losing their dog.
  • Make "Leave No Trace" legally enforceable – Perhaps some aspects of this unofficial ethical code for behaviour outdoors should be brought under criminal law with punishments for violations. Hunting "unethically" would obviously be included.
  • Promote sport shooting that doesn't involve killing animals – via gun clubs etc.
  • Continue to clamp down on the illegal trade in endangered animals - perhaps by introducing much harsher penalties. This will be worth coming to in another post in future.

Arguing over whether people have a "right" to hunt or not is semantics. It's such an ingrained and primal part of human existence it can never be controlled. I suppose most of this will come down to personal views and setting proper boundaries.

My own opinion on hunting probably lines up with the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF), whose stance is quoted as being :
"…the organization itself takes no position either pro or con, on hunting…WWF recognizes that responsibly conducted hunting can be an appropriate wildlife management tool, particularly for abundant game that is maintained on a sustainable basis…WWF opposes hunting which might adversely affect the survival of threatened or endangered species…"

Other than that, I would only add that hunting should be carried out humanely and fairly.


It's not something I would ever consider doing myself unless I had to, but I see no real controversy in the "one person in the wilderness with a gun/sustainable/fair chase" type of hunting. At the same time I see no contradiction in opposing the recreational slaughter of animals like traditional fox hunting, badger baiting or trophy hunting – which I find completely abhorrent.

Like all naturalistic things there's a great need to balance what's taken with what's given back. If we expect to be able to use our natural law rights to take animals at a whim, we should – in kind – treat their habitats and bodies with respect.


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