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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

See you in 2012!

It's been an eventful year for Wales, the UK, Europe and the rest of the World. 2011 has been a groundbreaking year of change for billions of people around the planet for better and for worse.

Next year promises to be just as eventful. There's the Plaid leadership election, the local elections in Wales, Scotland and parts of England (including Boris vs Ken Round 2), the build up to the London 2012 Olympics, Euro 2012 and no doubt the economy is going to dominate the headlines once again at home and abroad. There are also all the things we can't predict.

For those of you interested in my posts on independence or further devolution, in the first few months of 2012, I hope to put forward my views and ideas for Welsh broadcasting, the possible role of religion in an independent Wales, a Welsh postal service, a possible structure and role of a Welsh armed forces and reforms to local government.

For those of you bored by such posts, I apologise.

Since starting this blog in March, it's exceeded my expectations enormously and I'd like to thank each and every one of you who've visited and contributed in its brief existence. In the new year, I want to make some changes that will hopefully take things to the next level. Don't expect anything too dramatic though.

Unless something significant happens in the next fortnight or so that warrants a blog, I'm knocking off for Christmas. I think we can all do with a bit of a quiet period anyway, even if the Welsh Government are doing their best to make it an eventless 5 years (sorry, couldn't resist).

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda oddi wrth Owen!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Top 300 and GVA figures - grounds for cautious Welsh optimism?

In The Boardroom

The Western Mail published it's list of the Top 300 companies in Wales on Wednesday. Although the same faces tend to be in the list year after year it does highlight how strong the private sector in Wales really is. It can always be better of course and the Welsh and UK governments should be working tirelessly to improve our lot.

The top ten is dominated by frozen food retailer Iceland, Wales's largest company, closely followed by Cardiff-based insurer Admiral. Iceland has been subject to takeover rumours recently with ASDA and Morrisons reportedly interested but subsequently pulling out. Whether Iceland's £2.4billion turnover will be extracted from Welsh economic figures as a result remains to be seen.

GE Aircraft Engineering is now comfortably Wales's third £1billion company, while the likes of Celsa Steel, Calsonic Kansei, Dow Corning and Redrow highlight how important manufacturing still is to the Welsh economy and how little Wales relys on high-end financial services (with the exception of Admiral) – for better and for worse.

To break into the top 50 companies, the turnover needs to be pushing £100million per year and to get on the list it needs to be just over £18million. There is clearly a very strong base for growth and "small nation stars" – how can the Welsh Government help these companies take things to the next level? Should similar companies merge to provide resilience and compete on the international markets? Do we need to create more recognisable Welsh "brands" like Admiral, Gocompare and Iceland?

In addition, I've previously blogged on Wales's recent excellent export statistics – no doubt an important driver for growth in our manufacturing sector and reason for Wales to look closer to Europe where exporter nations, especially small adaptable ones, are king.

On the national balance sheet

An environmental paradise
but an economic desert.  Does
West Wales's sparsity drag the
Welsh economy back? (
First the good news. Welsh Gross Value Added (GVA) – the value of all services and goods produced in Wales over the last year – rose by 3.5% to £45.5billion (~$71billion) or £15,145 ($23,475) per capita. This means that Wales is very close to wiping out the economic "losses" incurred in the recession, being only slightly short of the pre-recession GVA (£45.6billion).

If we want to internationalise these figures, based on 2010 IMF figures, Wales's GVA per capita would rank at around 38th in the World – top table, "first world", but clearly with room for improvement.

This rise was faster than the rest of the UK and joint fastest with the East Midlands. However because of the distorting effect a major financial centre like London has, Welsh GVA remains at 74% of the UK average and actually fell relative to the rest of the UK. More depressingly, there was a huge difference between East Wales (91.4% of the UK average) and West Wales & The Valleys (62.8%).

Instead of an east-west split it could be seen as an increasingly rural-urban split in Wales, with the Valleys falling neither in rural or urban. East Wales actually outperforms many parts of the UK outside of London/South East, yet West Wales with it's lack of major urban conglomeration still suffers a negative "rural penalty" through no real fault of it's own. It's with some inevitability that rural areas have lower GVA's than urban ones. One of the main reason's Ireland's economy is stronger than Wales, in spite of it's rural nature, is that Dublin is a major global city and focal point for high-end economic development. It's a really tough problem to solve, but one way out would be to focus development on larger settlements in this area (like Aberystwyth, Carmarthen, Haverfordwest, Bangor) and continually improve transport links with east and south Wales.

On the ground

However good rises in GVA and the turnover of companies is to the national accounts, the impact of the figures above is ultimately meaningless to ordinary people on the front line.

What stands out on the Top 300 list is how many of the bigger companies have gained employees in the current year, the likes of Iceland and Admiral taking on as many as 1,000 new workers each. Further down the list however the picture is far more mixed. The private sector recovery isn't exactly in full swing in our larger and medium sized companies by the looks of it.

Economic inactivity rates in Wales, while remaining 2.2% higher than the UK average at 25.4%, are 0.9% lower than a year earlier and has consistently fallen over several years in spite of the recession. Good news? Certainly, but how long will this last?

The unemployment figures are a different story. After yet another unwelcome rise, unemployment now stands at 9.1% in Wales. However the rate at which unemployment is rising in Wales appears to be slowing, while the rest of the UK is "catching up", in particular Scotland, rising to an average of 8.3%. One possible explanation for the rise in unemployment may be the impact of school leavers in August at GCSE level as well as A-Level school leavers failing to get a place at university (for whatever reason), putting their career and education plans in limbo.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Assembly's First Bill - Local Government Byelaws

Just before the Assembly went into recess, the Welsh Government laid the first bill since the successful March referendum in front of the Senedd. The Local Government Byelaws Bill will "simplify procedures for making and enforcing local bylaws".

Byelaws are pieces of delegated legislation passed by local authorities that can "provide an effective and flexible method of addressing a variety of local problems." But I bet you already knew that, right? A local authority is defined in the Bill as a county borough council (unitary authority), national park authority, the Countryside Council for Wales or town/community council.

In some cases legislation by the Assembly and Westminster has superseded the need for byelaws, however local authorities still have the power to make byelaws in certain areas such as:
  • Taxis
  • Parks, recreation grounds, open spaces, promenades
  • Graveyards, mortuaries, crematoria and burial grounds
  • Prevention of "nuisances"
  • Public toilets
  • Swimming and bathing pools
  • Walkways and public rights of way
  • Hairdressers, barbers, acupuncture and tattooists
  • Conduct in libraries and museums
  • Car parks

The new bill proposes several changes to the procedures through which byelaws are made:
  • It removes the requirement of Welsh Ministers (Welsh Government) or UK Secretary of State approval for byelaws in certain areas (Schedule 1 Part 1 of the Bill). This list can be amended by the Welsh Ministers by adding or subtracting areas.
  • It gives local authorities the option to issue fixed penalty notices for certain byelaws (Schedule 1 Part 2) which is "more effective and efficient" than through the Magistrate's Courts.
  • It allows local authorities to seize or retain property connected with breaches of a byelaw.
  • Welsh Ministers will retain approval powers for byelaws relating to the environment and child employment and will also be able to revoke "obsolete" byelaws.
  • Local Authorities will be legally required to go through a consultation process to see if a new byelaw is an appropriate measure and publish an intention to make a new byelaw one month before the byelaw is made.

It's estimated that for byelaws that would no longer require confirmation, it would save the Welsh Government £1250 per byelaw and by avoiding the Magistrate's Court, would save £500-1000. The cost of the consultation process in creating a new byelaw is estimated to be between £2000-3000. There are currently about 4 or 5 byelaws confirmed by the Welsh Ministers each year.

OK, like many things coming out of this current Assembly it's not grand stuff. However this could be seen as - in part - a devolution of powers away from Cardiff Bay and a small reduction in local government bureaucracy.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

What do we do with Cardiff Airport?

Hat tip to Andrew Davies AM and Click on Wales.

Cardiff Airport is in a hell of a state. Passenger numbers have plummeted over the years from a peak of around 2.1million in 2007 to threatening to fall below the 1 million number this year – the lowest passenger figures for the best part of 15 years. That's a catastrophic turn in fortunes for the airport and something that should concern Welsh politicians.

Niches, needs and propensity to fly

We need to take a look at what types of services Cardiff Airport offers compared to its main rival Bristol Airport.

Cardiff Airport's passenger figures tend to see upward trends when the economy is doing well seeing big rises from 1998-2001, 2003 and 2006-2007. This reflects the flight offer - "bucket and spade" charter flights to sunshine destinations in Europe, internal flights within the UK and the odd "hub" flight, in particular services to Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle. It's very seasonal and dependant on consumer spending on holidays. Proper business destination flights seem to be few and far between.

At first glance, Bristol Airport offers largely the same type of flight on the whole, but there are several key differences. Bristol Airport has managed to attract key "low cost carriers" such as Easyjet and Ryanair which fuelled much of the growth in UK air travel the last few years. Many of these low cost services are to major European cities such as Berlin, Madrid and Rome in addition to major cities in eastern Europe. No doubt such links are useful for business and more affluent travellers.

Then there's the airports themselves. Despite ambitions of expansion, Cardiff Airport's terminal is dated compared to the airy and modern Bristol Airport - which is due to be further expanded in the future. Consumers now expect a certain level of service at airports and however well meaning Cardiff Airport's recent improvements are, I doubt they will ever offer the same level of service you can get at Bristol without a radical overhaul.

Then there's propensity to fly. When the last UK Government consulted on the future of air travel, its figures showed that Wales has lower propensity to fly (0.6) compared to the UK average (1.3) and a small catchment area confined to south Wales, with minimal passengers from west Wales and the south west of England. 65% of air passenger traffic "leaked" from Wales to the likes of Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and the London airports. Only the south west of England and north of England leaked more.

The blame game

There are many targets for blame for Cardiff Airport's decline. Firstly, there's Welsh Government for "not doing enough" or not getting its priorities in order - usually targeting the subsidy for the Anglesey-Cardiff air link, or not backing an improved road link. It's easy to blame them - and in some cases justified - but I've always got the impression they're as frustrated as everyone else.

Then there's the airport's owners Abertis. They are accused of using "sky high" fees to rake passengers and airlines. Fees like landing fees, parking fees and even fees for dropping/picking people up. Cardiff Airport's one-week parking fees for example are amongst the most expensive in the UK. Somehow Cardiff Airport is still profitable, so it's unlikely Abertis will just give it up that easily to another company, cooperative or even the Welsh Government.

The overall management and airlines strategy for the airport has also been brought into question. The failure to attract a major low cost airline has been highlighted as a possible blunder, as attracting Easyjet and Ryanair led to dramatic turnaround in performance at Bristol compared to Cardiff. There was hope that a new Welsh-based low cost carrier, "flyforbeans", would be up and running by now however it looks as though that has been postponed indefinitely for perhaps multiple reasons.

In a bit of good news, Cardiff Airport has managed to attract the Catalan low-cost airline Vueling and a service between Cardiff and Barcelona three times a week. Hopefully this could lead to more destinations in the future and close a gaping hole in Cardiff's offer.

Cardiff Airport's strengths and how to play to them

Firstly Cardiff has a longer runway than Bristol and can comfortable accommodate aircraft like the Boeing 747, which regularly use the British Airways maintenance facility at the airport. If long-haul flights can be enticed to Cardiff, then it would no doubt be a big boost, enabling travellers in Wales and the west of England to fly further without having to use Heathrow. Perhaps there is a case for a "one airport, two-sites" model for a merged Cardiff-Bristol "Severnside" Airport along these lines.

Contrary to popular belief, in my opinion, road access to Cardiff Airport isn't a particular problem and only requires modest improvement. Compared to Bristol, driving to Cardiff Airport is a breeze. The rail link via Rhoose is a welcome USP - albeit not an entirely direct service. It might be useful to have better connections with trains from the west of Wales (requiring junction improvements at Bridgend or service upgrades on the Vale of Glamorgan line). An express bus from the centre of Cardiff has often been thought of as a good idea and I agree. However in Labour's recent National Transport Plan, an express bus has now been pushed back to beyond 2015 which to me is completely inexplicable.

There's also an opportunity for the Welsh Government to throw its backing behind the airport. It's often said their hands are tied by various EU regulations on state support, but that isn't an excuse to not explore alternatives and loopholes. Manchester Airport is co-owned by 10 local authorities via Manchester Airport Group. One of the major loopholes in EU rules on state-aid is that if a government has an interest in an airport, then the rules are relaxed and options for support are opened up.

That could bring Carwyn Jones' hope for an air link to China and the Welsh Conservative manifesto commitment of an air link to North America closer to reality. There is proof that this kind of service is sustainable, as Zoom's service between Cardiff and Vancouver was by all accounts a roaring success until the airline collapsed. I don't doubt that a service to New York could be just as successful.

I think there is too much emphasis on outgoing passengers than incoming passengers. Helvetic Airlines service between Cardiff and Zurich clearly has demand from the Swiss end, but hardly any from the Welsh end, meaning the flight will now stop over at Bristol for the return journey. We might have to accept that Cardiff Airport is probably more likely to be used by incoming tourists than outgoing business travellers and passengers and adapt accordingly – working with local companies and hotels to provide excursions to castles and golf courses direct from the airport for example.

The ghost of Severnside Airport

I hinted above that a "one airport, two sites" model is a possible basis for a Severnside Airport. However was the "real" Severnside ever a goer or just a pipe dream?

The plans for a multi-billion pound airport in the Bristol Channel on an artificial island near Newport were certainly ambitious and promised as many as 13,000 jobs when first mooted. It would've been one hell of an entrance to Wales and indeed the south west of England. However it was claimed that the only way this airport would come about would be with the closure of the existing Cardiff and Bristol airports.

In the current Newport City Council Local Development Plan, the land for the airport island has been put forward as a candidate site. It would be a big statement of intent for the UK Government to drop plans for a "Boris Island" airport in the Thames estuary and instead build it at Severnside together with the phased closure of both Cardiff and Bristol airports, or even retaining Cardiff airport as a freight-only/maintenance-only airport (due to the longer runway).

An airport to the west of Heathrow might relieve some of the current pressure there, and with an appropriate upgrade to the south wales mainline, be readily accessible by public transport, negating the need for an expensive project at Heathrow.

Unfortunately there are several problems that make the Severnside project nothing more than an idealistic fantasy project. Firstly the obvious environmental concerns, secondly Bristol is unlikely to be satisfied losing "their airport" and thirdly the UK government is unlikely to put a single penny towards such a large, risky project in Wales – where the likelihood of a return is less compared to "Boris Island".

That's the trouble with Wales in the UK. Always the bridesmaid....

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Perfidious Albion and where it leaves Wales

Cameron's veto was ballsy but do we really want the UK on the fringes of Europe?

Did Cameron call it right?

Being the only EU member not to sign up to a new accord makes the UK look like a socially awkward accountant, walking like "Rain Man" around Brussels looking in vain for sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Of course this will only be how the rest of Europe sees "us".

Back home the blue-rinse brigade and Colonel Blimps will welcome Cameron back with the finest chutneys, warm beer and thousands of off-key performances of Land of Hope and Glory. "We're an island again! Huzzah!"

Cameron stuck by his word – he refused to sign up to a treaty that would transfer powers to the EU from Westminster. Despite looking over his shoulder at 80+ eurosceptic backbenchers baying for blood, I don't question Cameron's sincerity. I don't think he was ever going to sign up for this. He would probably have been looking at the beginning of the end of his tenure as Prime Minister if he handed over any economic powers to the EU.

If however the UK Government think that the EU (or should that be Sarkozy and Merkel) will let Cameron get away with this unscathed without sour grapes then they'd be wrong. Cameron took the big call and might very well have saved "the city" but he could've caused a lot more problems for the rest of us in the long term.

The EU will never bow down to the wisdom of the United Kingdom, say "you were right all along", drop all pretences of political union and adopt English as a working language - perhaps even put some Old Etonians in high positions in the EU bureaucracy to "sort them out!"

There won't be tears shed when/if the UK leaves, they won't "regret it", they won't be crying over a photo of David Cameron while half way through a tub of Häagen-Dazs. It'll be "tschüs" and a door slammed quickly in the UK's face - perhaps with relief. Come to think of it, this is probably how the respective nations of the UK would react to independence – except the "British" who will be on the third tub of chocolate chip cookie dough wiping their tears with a dusty "Wills & Kate" flag.

The UK might not be leaving the EU party yet. It's nursing a cheap can of beer in the kitchen alone with Sweden, Hungary and the Czechs popping in, smiling and asking where the sausage rolls are before leaving and closing the door behind them – more a courtesy than genuinely backing the "British" view.

Rhodri Morgan summed up in the Western Mail a key issue affecting Wales and it's future relationship with Europe.
"For Wales I always used to start from What’s best for Airbus?, not What’s best for the City?"

Would a quintessentially European company like Airbus now think twice about investing in a sidelined UK?

It's unlikely that Friday's events will really have that much on an impact and (to answer my original question) at the most fundamental level David Cameron probably made the right call for the UK. However Rhodri's quote does indirectly illustrate the wider problem - Welsh interests in the EU will never be a priority and happily put at risk to protect whatever the UK Government decides is "more important".

That "more important" bit being London's financial services sector. I'm not naïve enough to think that it doesn't underwrite the rest of the UK but isn't that thinking and policy crippling Wales (and indeed parts of England)? It looked as though the Coalition Government understood that there needed to be a rebalancing of the UK economy but now it seems as though we are locked in to another cycle of dependence on shifting other people's money around.

"Don't worry if we piss off the frogs and krauts that buy your stuff, rubber stamps your farming subsidies and Objective One funding - that lovely dole money will keep pouring out of the city and down the M4. Now shut up, do as your told, and be grateful."

Cameron the British Bulldog. The bulldog might be a fine symbol of "British spirit" but bulldogs are also inbred, live short lives compared to other dogs, suffer painful hip and breathing difficulties and are pretty dumb and aggressive.

I'd rather pick a Welsh spaniel....

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Welsh Government's reprioritised National Transport Plan

Local Government and Communities Minister Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) has unveiled the Welsh Government's reprioritisation of the National Transport Plan (NTP).

Transport has been one of the areas where, in my opinion, successive Welsh Governments can point to some success. We've seen multiple road schemes delivered after long waits, rail lines and stations reopened and a clear commitment to sustainable development.

Unfortunately I think that's coming to an end now.

I realise that transport isn't a sexy portfolio for Labour in particular. The fact it's been inexplicably lumped in with Local Government portfolio - instead of the economy - shows what Labour consider transports role to be – not an economic driver or key plank in infrastructure but as something to be "tweaked" at a "community" level to provide "opportunities".

We could've done far worse than have the capable Carl Sargeant in charge of transport, but having looked at the reprioritisation I can't help but feel let down.

Far from prioritising "key" east-west transport links, it appears as though "tweaking" has won the day. The Welsh Government may point to 40% cuts in capital expenditure but just take a look at
the Scottish Government's plans for infrastructure development and weep.

Instead of "
standing up for Wales", we're increasingly going to be looking to Westminster as the key driver of infrastructure development. The ridiculous M4 Newport bypass has already been resurrected from the grave for the umpteenth time along with that other zombie the Severn Barrage. I don't think either will happen to be blunt, despite the headlines.

Before I'm accused of bias, I don't think Ieuan Wyn Jones's original NTP was "blow your socks off" stuff either
and he didn't have to deal with the capital budget cuts. In Plaid's defence, they offered an alternative model to raise money – something the Scottish Government have taken onboard. Labour have offered nothing but excuses.

It isn't all bad news though.

  • The commitment to complete A465 duelling by 2020 remains and construction of the next stage is imminent.
  • New bypasses for Newtown, Caernarfon and Builth Wells are included in the "taken forward" programme.
  • New stations at Brackla (Bridgend) and Energlyn (Caerphilly) by 2015 plus capacity improvements in the south Wales valley rail network and between Wrexham and Chester.
  • A commitment to an hourly service between Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury and redoubling of track between Llanelli and Gowerton.

As you can probably see, the reason I'm so disappointed is that many of these things have already been announced. None of it is "new" and I'm not convinced that these schemes are seriously going to boost the economy. I'm more relieved  that these things have been kept in.

I was expecting Labour to want to stamp their own mark on the NTP and perhaps drop some, if not all, of the "north-south" improvements and deliver at least one of the "big bang" transport schemes Wales is crying out for. Schemes that would really boost the Welsh economy.

In my view these "big bangs" are:

  • Electrification of the Valley Lines (or a clear commitment/timetable with Westminster cooperation)
  • Upgrade the A48 around Newport to near-motorway standard (i.e some grade separation of junctions on the SDR) and remodel the existing M4 through Newport
  • The A4232 Cardiff Periphery Distributor completion (Cardiff Bay-Newport Road)
  • A494 Queensferry-Ewloe Upgrade

....none of them made the list, although there is some vague reference to provide more "resilience" to the M4 at Newport. Perhaps there's still time for Carwyn, Kirsty or Carl to pull a rabbit out of the hat with the £200-odd million coming courtesy of Gorgeous George's Autumn statement but I'm not holding my breath.

I mean why the hell are we going to have to wait until after 2015 for an express bus to Cardiff Airport for heaven's sake!?

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Senedd Watch - November 2011

  • Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), confirmed there will be no public money used to establish a Welsh internet domain name. Two not-for-profit companies : Nominet based in Oxford and Welsh company dotCYM are both seeking to create the new domain name.
  • Health Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), set our her five-year plan for the Welsh NHS. She also rejected accusations by Plaid Cymru that hospitals were set to be "downgraded", however, the new plan does include the centralisation of certain services. She later warned NHS managers at their conference in Cardiff to meet stricter targets without a "margin for error".
  • The First Minister - after facing criticism from Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones - has promised "substantial" new spending on capital projects, particularly in health. He did, however, admit that some projects could be "re-examined" in the face of spending cuts. Conservative leader Andrew Davies drew attention to the frustration in the small business community that not enough was being done to help win public sector contracts.
  • Carbon Monoxide – Be Alarmed, a lobbying organisation, met with Gwyn Price AM (Lab, Islwyn) to discuss the possibility of amending Welsh building regulations to ensure carbon monoxide detectors are installed in new homes.
  • The Welsh Government have been asked to justify spending £42million on consultants, IT and marketing in the current financial year. BBC Wales found the figures after the Welsh Government began producing figures for spending over £25,000.
  • A white paper outlining plans for an opt-out system of organ donation was published by the Welsh Governmentm and a consultation process - due to end in January 2012 - has begun. The plans could affect anyone over 18 who lives and dies in Wales, including those who move to and live in Wales for a certain length of time.
  • Environment Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), announced a new Flood and Coastal Erosion Strategy in the aftermath of a cliff collapse near Rhoose in the Vale of Glamorgan. The new strategy will include a prioritisation of measures at areas most at risk as well as raising awareness of coastal flooding risks.
  • The First Minister was attacked by Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones for "sitting back and allowing the economic crisis to do its worse" to "blame the Tories". He also said that many of the capital schemes listed by the Welsh Government had been completed or were already underway by the previous Welsh Government. The First Minister hit back by saying that Plaid had written the "shortest suicide note in history" in the May elections and that they didn't offer a "wealth of ideas" to protect the economy.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), accused the First Minister of being "flippant" for not listening to concerns from nurses who felt overstressed and of whom 60% considered quitting according to a Royal College of Nursing report.
  • Former transport minister Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid, Ynys Mon) criticised the current £170million Welsh rail franchise, held by Arriva Trains Wales, and has called for it to be radically overhauled when the franchise is up for renewal in 2018. He criticised overcrowding on certain services and the contract that meant Arriva was under no obligation to provide additional services.
  • Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) has called for broadcasting to be devolved to the National Assembly, to "take oversight of S4C from a disinterested Department of Culture, Media & Sport".
  • Welsh Labour have said they would oppose plans to change the electoral system for the National Assembly off the back of proposed electoral boundary changes for Westminster elections. The First Minister has appealed directly to UK Prime Minister David Cameron to keep the current voting system. Welsh Labour have been criticised by the Electoral Reform Society for their "preferred change" to 2 candidates elected by first past the post.
  • The chief constable of South Wales Police, Peter Vaughan, has said he does not back the UK Government's proposal to raise the motorway speed limit to 80mph. He also called for the devolution of policing to the Welsh Assembly.
  • Network Rail has created a new Welsh division which will bring investment decisions closer to the Welsh Government, where railways are partially devolved. The budget however will still be within the remit of the UK Department for Transport.
  • Opposition AMs criticised the Welsh Government's policy on tuition fees, with Angela Burns AM (Con, Carmarthen West & South Pembs.) claiming that the expected £3.6billion cost of the policy put "Wales's finances at risk". Both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats also questioned the sustainability of the policy, however Plaid Cymru said they support the proposals in principle.
  • The First Minister gave a lecture at Aberystwyth University on the future of devolution. He said that in the event of  Scottish independence or devo-max, Wales would require additional powers and a "radical reconsideration" of it's relationship with the rest of the UK. He added, however, that these powers shouldn't be for their own sake, and outlines three key conditions which - in his mind - should be key considerations when devolving powers.
  • The Welsh Government's draft budget, and a united opposition motion, both failed to pass the Assembly, resulting in a budget deadlock. A deal was agreed between Labour and the Liberal Democrats on November 25th which will include increased spending on poor pupil grants and a £40million capital investment programme on schools, skills and energy efficiency.
  • Unemployment in Wales rose by 14,000 to stand at 9.3%, matching it's peak during the recession and 1% higher than the UK average.
  • The Conservatives have accused the Welsh Government of being "wasteful" after "excessive" spending on refurbishing the Cathays Park office complex – around £4million per year. The Welsh Government responded by saying that it's future estate plans would lead to cumulative savings of £18million.
  • Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) and Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) both criticised the Welsh Government and Abertis for the continuing decline in passenger numbers and fortunes at Cardiff Airport. The Welsh Government responded by saying they are looking at alternative ownership models, including a partial stake, which would enable greater state assistance to be provided.
  • Local Government and Communities Minister Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside)  said that Wales is better prepared than ever for potential severe winter weather having based Welsh Government preparations on a "worse case scenario".
  • People across Wales and the football world have reacted with shock to the sudden death of Welsh national football team manager Gary Speed in an apparent suicide at the age of 42. The First Minister said that it was "devastating news and that our thoughts are with his friends and family at this time."
  • Environment Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East),  confirmed that three environment bodies in Wales will merge in 2013, despite concerns that the move might impact the economy - particularly the timber/wood industries.
  • Millions of public sector workers across the UK took part in a one day strike on November 30th due to the failure of the UK Government and trade unions to be able to reach an agreement on public sector pension reforms.

Projects announced in November include : the reinstatement of a bus link between Rogerstone railway station and Newport, a £13.5million business park at Cross Hands in Carmarthenshire, a £1.4million investment for Wales Rally GB, a £2.5million improvement scheme to Aberystwyth rail and bus stations, a £55million expansion of the Flying Start pre-school scheme and a £90million Capital Investment Package.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Has Neil McEvoy hit too close to the bone?

Plaid Cymru's leader in Cardiff Council has been suspended by the party after posting comments on Twitter and Facebook that implied that certain organisations were "complicit" in child abuse for apparantly helping mothers breach court orders regarding access to children.

It's not as if he hasn't said something along these lines before. It's there in black and white in a
Wales Home article back in July 2010. Why has it suddenly taken 18 months for McEvoy's views to make headlines?

Now I wouldn't exactly call myself a fan of Neil McEvoy - he does seem prone to foot-in-mouth incidents. The caustic nature of his remarks and subsequent suspension has overshadowed the big issue here.

On those wider issues, he's right.

The only thing he has to apologise for, is being offensive when describing illegal activity. The family court system in
EnglandandWales is shambolic and - forgive me before I burn my boxers - discriminatory against men.

There are plenty of fathers out there who are utterly useless, violent and don't deserve children. Just because
they don't want anything to do with their kids, it doesn't mean those who do want to play a productive role in bringing up their sons and daughters have to be tarred with the same brush.

Charities and the third sector shouldn't be exempt from criticism just because they do undoubted good work to protect women and children from abuse. If they break the law, they (and other charities) should be held to account. There is no "ends justify the means" defence to denying
good fathers access to their children. If it's true and Neil McEvoy can back up his claims (I presume he can or he's going to look very, very silly), then it's illegal, and the practice needs to stop.

Just because children might be let down by both parents or one parent, it doesn't mean the judicial system and the voluntary bodies there to protect them have to let them down too. It's quite right that abuse against women and children is stamped out, however men increasingly need champions for our causes as well - especially in health, family law and domestic abuse.

Politicians that are quick to line up and condemn Neil McEvoy's comments would do well to remember that.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Saving the Welsh press

(Owen: I have to say my heart isn't in it to write new blogs at the moment, but due to some of the content I have to make it clear that this was written before Sunday's news.)

I've been critical of the Western Mail in the past, but it's still the best source of detailed Welsh political and economic news. It's closure or "downgrade" would be a sad loss to Welsh civic life.

However, the print media as a whole is in decline and it's an even worse situation for (so-called) "regional" and local titles. Even the Scottish print press - which Wales has often looked enviously at - has seen significant circulation falls. News is now instant and online. Consumers no longer have the patience to make do with a single source produced once a day - and in many cases - don't want to pay for it either.

Many may point the finger at blogs, but all bloggers do is provide commentary on what the "old media" report. Blogs are no substitute for quality journalism. I don't believe bloggers are trying to muscle in on that territory, or plagiarise journalists work, just provide alternative viewpoints, analysis and - ideally - provide extra exposure for journalists stories.

In Wales the situation is typically grim. Wales has always lacked a proper "national" media unlike Scotland, and attempts to create such usually end in failure for a number of reasons. Sometimes commercial, like losing the independent ITV licence or job cuts at Media Wales. Sometimes political and cultural, like a national media that is largely Welsh medium in focus and people simply voting with their wallets.

News on Welsh NHS changes might be important to the Welsh public, but you can't beat a two page spread of Kim Kardashian's arse in the Daily Mail to turn heads. The only way you can get Welsh news high up in the "British" press is either a human tragedy, a story along the lines of "those wacky Welsh and their foreign ways" or something far more banal.

Andrew RT Davies growing a dodgy mullet, Kirsty Williams getting flesh tube earrings or a Labour backbencher grinning through the stages of putrefaction at a really bad Carwyn Jones quip and nobody noticing until the following Tuesday. That sort of thing.

What can we do about it?

Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) - who's a member of the Assembly's task and finish group on the future of the Welsh media - suggested on Wales Home a few days ago that one possible "radical" solution would be to take Media Wales into public ownership, before handing it over to a not-for-profit journalist co-op.

A not-for-profit/co-op model for Media Wales? A good idea that's definitely worthy of investigation. However, evidence submitted to the group showed that Media Wales was making a tidy profit for Trinity Mirror despite the plunging circulation. A co-op type model is usually wheeled out only when a business is commercially unsustainable or unviable. But in this case, it might be a necessity.

Some sort of state subsidy is also worthy of discussing. I'll look at that further down.

Public ownership of a newspaper? No. No. No.

I don't want to go off on a tangent, but this is a perfect illustration of the Plaid Paradox. A perfectly reasonable solution to a problem becomes overshadowed by a suggestion that sounds "radical" but in reality is ill thought through. Electable, then unelectable, at the same time.

Wales might be left-leaning, but if a certain tendency within Plaid think that we want to live like The Smurfs, they need to loosen the keffiyah, put down the bong and Zillah Eisenstein and actually take a look around.

We like buying pointless crap. We generally like choice. We're some of the worst when it comes to conspicuous consumption. We're fine with publicly owned services, but I think most of us will draw the line at a publicly owned newspaper – even if it's temporary.

Surely it's easy to understand why a suggestion that the main newspaper holding the Welsh Government to account should be owned by the Welsh Government isn't going down too well.

At least Bethan Jenkins has stood up and said something about the market failing the Welsh media and prompted some debate. Perhaps good can come out of it after all.

The state can help – but how?

I might not - personally - believe that the state should be within bargepole distance of the print media, but there are certainly ways the state can help without needing to take over newspapers.

Norway is ranked joint number 1 in the Worldwide Press Freedom Index, yet it operates a form of subsidy for its press managed by the Norwegian Media Authority. It was introduced in the 1960s after fears the Norwegian press was going through such a decline that freedom of speech and institutional accountability were at risk. Subsidy is given to newspapers that don't have the largest circulation in their respective areas, but also for press research and minority languages like Sami.

Technically the Welsh Government already does something similar to this.

Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) asked a question to Housing and Heritage Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) a few weeks ago about Golwg 360.

Golwg360 is an online Welsh language "newspaper" subsidised indirectly via the Welsh Books Council to the tune of £200,000. It's attracting approximately 1million page visits a year. Golwg 360 is owned by private company Golwg Newydd - its sister company producing the Golwg magazine.

Some ideas for strengthening the Welsh press

  • Use the Welsh Books Council as a conduit for government press support. It would be independent of government interference and could have a new remit similar to that of the Norwegian Media Authority.
  • Use subsidy (via the "beefed up" Welsh Books Council) to increase the plurality of Welsh media online and via mobile devices – including the creation of new English-language and bilingual "online newspapers".
  • Start a round of "bidding" , and grant subsidy to (for arguments sake, an initial four) bids with the best case – the criteria can be decided independently by a panel of media experts. These new outlets should be expected to be run on a commercial basis and wean themselves off the subsidy as much as possible.
  • The Welsh Government can help with publicity, but that should be the extent of their involvement. For example, giving these new "publications" preferential access to ministers, AMs and news briefings.
  • Make new media and social media a key part of the curriculum at Cardiff School of Journalism.

Specifically relating to Media Wales and other existing print media:
  • Encourage a new model of ownership for Media Wales. Options on the table should include cooperative and not-for-profit status to ensure Media Wales can survive as a stand-alone business.
  • Work with Media Wales and Trinity Mirror to massively overhaul and update their online and mobile presence. The Walesonline website is incredibly dated and difficult to navigate for example.
  • The Western Mail and Wales on Sunday should become a high-quality "broadsheets", perhaps justifying a very high quality – on a par with the Observer or The Times - weekly edition.
  • Media Wales should consider launching a national free-sheet or national tabloid perhaps based on the South Wales Echo or Daily Post "brands".
  • At least one of the bigger non-Trinity Mirror owned Welsh publications (i.e. The Western Telegraph, South Wales Evening Post, South Wales Argus) should be encouraged to "go national" – either online or in print form (see general ideas above) to encourage competition and plurality.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Gary Speed 1969-2011

I was going to post an "Independence Minutiae" blog today but that can wait due to the - to be frank - utterly devastating and shocking news that Wales football manager and Premier League legend Gary Speed has died.

I'm not going to speculate on how or why.

Utterly shocking. I'm speechless. He was only 42.


UPDATE 29/11/2011

S4C's Sgorio tribute to Gary Speed is now on Clic for the next few weeks. English subtitles are available by clicking the "S" in the player.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Labour and Lib Dems agree budget deal

As I predicted last week, Labour and the Lib Dems have broken the deadlock to agree a budget that will now surely pass the Assembly.

The deal includes:

  • An extra £20million for the "Pupil Deprivation Grant".
  • A £38.9million economic stimulus package over the next two years to be spent on capital investment in schools, skills, and an increase in funding for the Arbed energy efficiency scheme.
  • Any consequentials resulting from the UK Government's Autumn Statement will be discussed between the two leaders.

On the surface of it, it looks as though Kirsty Williams has sold herself short. It will only become interesting if we know the scale of any of those possible consequentials from the Chancellor next week. Carwyn Jones and Kirsty Williams really must be hoping for something significant.

If there are substantial sums of money involved, particularly capital investment, then it might be enough to stave off the inevitable backlash on the economy from Plaid Cymru. Ieuan Wyn Jones has an open goal here.

If the Welsh Government think this tinkering really will "ensure jobs and growth can be delivered" then we're in deeper trouble than I thought.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

At last! The sensible argument against Team GB

At least it's a Welshman that's come out and said it.......

World hurdling champion Dai Greene is quoted on BBC Wales as saying:
"I don't think the football team should be there in the first place. I hope that those big names don't overshadow those people who have trained for four years to be there for that one moment. These guys have four to five weeks off in the summer then become an Olympian. It does seem a little bit out of place.
These guys want to win Premierships, Champions League trophies and World Cup medals. They don't grow up wanting to be an Olympic champion, they want to be the best in football. The crowning glory in football isn't being Olympic champion so I don't think their sport should necessarily be involved - or at least at a professional level."

Thank you Dai.

The "threat" to national teams independent status is the eye-catching reason for opposition to Team GB, but the best reason against it is far simpler.

The Olympics are about "being the best". It's supposed to be the pinnacle for sports that don't have an important or clearly defined World Championship. It's something those pushing Team GB have conveniently forgotten.

Olympic football is a redundant sideshow that players like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey are far too good to play in. It's an under-23 competition that only South American and African countries have ever put any hard effort into trying to win in modern Olympics, and will be completely overshadowed by the European Championships. I'd be surprised if either Tottenham or Arsenal even release Bale and Ramsey, in what will be the late preparation period for the 2012-13 Premier League season.

There are several Olympic sports that the UK has never competed competitively in. Team GB have cobbled together makeshift teams for sports like basketball, handball and of course football, because they don't want to "lose face" as hosts.

If I were - for example, a German - I'd consider playing against a British handball team on the biggest sporting stage an insult.

I'd also be furious if I were a British athlete, whose silver medal has been taken off the back pages, because Team GB have drawn with Cameroon Under-23s thanks to a David Beckham assist.

Obviously from my perspective, it would be ideal if there were a Welsh Olympic team. However, I don't begrudge Welsh athletes competing under the Union flag in events like athletics or cycling. That's the way they've always done it (Commonwealth games aside) and for them it's the highlight of their career.

Let's not take anything away from them for the sake of saving Seb Coe's blushes.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Back on track - Network Rail's long overdue "devolution" to Wales

Network Rail, the company responsible for rail infrastructure in England, Scotland and Wales, has finally created a new all-Wales division. They announced the move many months ago off the back of the Department for Transport's McNulty Report, which suggested "devolution and decentralisation" to improve efficiency. This week, the First Minister formally launched their new operation near Cardiff Central station.

Why is this such an important development?

Railways have been partially devolved to the Assembly since 2005. Network Rail decisions - like those relating to station refurbishments or other major railway improvements - were still made on an EnglandandWales basis. The Assembly did have some influence over the railways, such as funding the Arriva Trains franchise and providing money to "improve services."

In all honesty, it was a bit of a dog's dinner. The Third Assembly's Enterprise & Learning Committee report into future railway infrastructure in Wales found:
  • Stations like Cardiff Central were not being prioritised in a way that acknowledged their "major role" or passenger numbers.
  • Network Rail had no idea how much they actually spent on railways in Wales - only estimates.
  • The UK Government thought it was "unacceptable" to devolve Network Rail to Wales because too many services shared infrastructure and cross-border services. Transport Scotland didn't see this as an issue in their own arrangement.
  • The majority of witnesses to the inquiry supported further devolution of the railways to the Assembly.
  • Scotland was able to spend "several hundred million pounds" on rail infrastructure because of it's block grant allocation and rail devolution, Wales "didn't have that luxury".

Now that Network Rail will make decisions in Wales, it gives the Assembly much greater clout in prioritising schemes. It also means that there is - at last - a joined up system for running Welsh railway infrastructure. Hopefully, it'll lead to many big improvements in the next few years a lot quicker than they otherwise would have on an EnglandandWales basis such as:
  • Station improvements to Cardiff Central and Queen Street Stations
  • Electrification of the south Wales main line to Swansea
  • Possible future electrification of the Valley Lines and north wales mainline
  • Capacity improvements around Cardiff & Newport
  • A rail service between Ebbw Vale and Newport
  • Reopening the Aberdare-Hirwaun line and line from Gaerwen to Llangefni (or Amlwch) to passengers
  • Redoubling of track between Llanelli and Swansea
  • More frequent services in west Wales

There is, however, a big catch. Although the decision making is now devolved, the Network Rail budget isn't, and currently, around 3% of Network Rail funding is spent on the Welsh rail network (which includes a chunk of England's) - around 2% lower than the Welsh UK population share. Scotland, however, does receive it's population share, and has used the money to carry out some significant improvements to the Scottish rail network.

Part of that "missing" 2% will be used by the UK Government to fund projects like Crossrail, Reading Station redevelopment and electrifying rail lines to Blackpool (while electification to Swansea is moving at a slow pace).

I believe that this could be because within EnglandandWales funding has been dependant on the length on the network/route miles and not on passenger numbers or national/regional population share. With Network Rail devolved, the next piece in the puzzle is to devolve the budget in line with Scotland.

Welsh railways are back on track perhaps, but not going anywhere fast just yet.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Assembly Budget Deadlock - Who will blink first?

Carwyn, Andrew, Ieuan and Kirsty -budget negotiations continue with no sign of agreement yet

He might not have a magic pot of money. He might be struggling to pass his government's budget. However Carwyn Jones checked his wallet and £38.9million fell out.

Realistically, £38.9million isn't going to go very far, and unlikely to satisfy any of the opposition parties - unless some extra slack is found from the existing budget, perhaps running up to tens of millions of pounds – if not more than that.

The Conservatives are focusing on health, Plaid Cymru have focused on the economy, while the Liberal Democrats have focused on schools. Three big issues in Welsh politics, and a big headache for Labour. Labour can only realistically choose one and it's going to leave them open to attack by the rejected two that Labour are neglecting "their" areas.

Lets start with the non-starter. I don't see any way that Labour would try (or even be seen to try) and "do a deal" with the Evil Tories©. Andrew Davies took up the mantle of the NHS with some gusto before he became Conservative leader, but even then he didn't make it clear what services he would cut to fund his plans and he flubbed it. It might leave an open goal for him in future Senedd debates but Labour should survive that.

The Conservatives simply aren't trusted with the NHS – their Achilles' Heel in Wales - especially with what's currently happening in England. What's surprised me most is that he hasn't called for a Council Tax freeze in Wales, which is how this "magic" £38.9million came down the M4 in the first place.

Plaid Cymru are targeting Labour's economic plans - arguably the best target politically. Plaid's proposals are probably going to require the most radical rethink of the budget. That's something Jane Hutt might not have time, or permission to do. If there were to be a significant change in capital spending then it might see Labour's manifesto pledges evaporate. I think there are only two things that can happen for Plaid back the budget - a watered down Build for Wales, or a coalition once Plaid have elected a new leader.

I don't see either happening, however Gareth Hughes's hunch is that Labour can do a deal with Plaid.

The Welsh Government's move to set up two business funds worth a combined £55million could be seen as an attempt to deal with some issues raised by Plaid - perhaps even placate them - even if it's just a short-term fix.

Plaid will have to spell out in detail what they would cut and what they would do budget-wise. If they can do that with some credibility, then they'll be on to a winner. If, however, they just harangue the Welsh Government from the sidelines, then to the sidelines they shall remain. Unfortunately I can only see the latter, but perhaps I'm doing them a discourtesy.

My hunch is that the party most likely to reach a deal with Labour are the Liberal Democrats. That £38.9million would go some way to achieving their "pupil premium" manifesto pledge, even if only a small slice of it is used as a pilot scheme. They won't need to go into coalition with Labour, but it might make it more likely. Labour won't want a repeat of this every year until 2016, and a coalition would provide a very convenient opportunity for a cabinet reshuffle.

If Labour did that though, then it might hand a huge advantage to Plaid, who are probably going to come out of this process as "winners" one way or another. Education might very well have been a key issue during the election, but with the ongoing depressing economic news it's the economy - which Plaid have visibly pummelled Labour on at late - that's going to be centre stage.

Once Labour's centralisation plans for the NHS come into play, then the Tories, many of whom represent rural constituencies likely to be affected by this, will be able to get stuck in too.

Brinkmanship? Or grown up multi-party democracy with a minority government? You can make your own mind up.

However I'm fairly confident there'll be a budget passed on December 6th and it's likely to be Kirsty Williams smiling at the end of it.

We've been in this situation before. Dim problem.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Cardiff's illiberal approach to combating alcohol-related crime

LOL!..........sorry.......FOR SHAME!
Cardiff's saturation zones policy doesn't extend to transvestites.
(Pic: Maciej Dacowicz via

Cardiff Council and South Wales Police (SWP) are taking strong measures to curb alcohol-related crime in and around Cardiff city centre.

Cardiff Council and SWP are using "saturation zones" in certain streets to limit the numbers of alcohol licences permitted. The idea is that if the number of venues selling alcohol is capped, then alcohol-related crime would fall. In the last week or two a businessman planning to bring several derelict buildings into use on St Mary Street as nightclubs (suggesting 200 jobs would be created) has had his application thrown into doubt because it contravened this "saturation zone" policy.

In addition, SWP are pushing for venues in Cardiff city centre to scan the fingerprints and take the photo /scan driving licence of patrons to create a database that could be used to identify troublemakers. SWP are also are pushing for participation in the scheme to eventually become a mandatory licencing requirement.

Saturation Zones

In practically every single town or city in the UK, there will be a street (or streets) which become notorious for fights or assorted rowdiness. "Saturation" of takeaways and pubs/clubs right next door to each other is undoubtedly a factor in alcohol-related disorder - I don't dispute that.

According to the Home Office crime maps these are the numbers of recorded crimes on each of Cardiff city centre's main "drinking" streets in September 2011:
  • St Mary Street -60
  • Caroline Street -56
  • Greyfriars Road/Crockherbtown -92
  • Mill Lane -41

So an average of around 62 recorded crimes a month per street. Many won't be alcohol-related (like thefts) and the bulk of which I'm guessing will be on Friday and Saturday nights, peaking during "events" in the city centre. I'll leave you to make your own minds up if these are manageable figures for the police or not.

I don't believe it's good planning policy to prejudice applications based on their use or set quotas for streets. All that will happen in the trouble will be spread over a wider area - especially if particular venues are problem ones and simply relocate to another part of the city.

I'm sure we've all seen the notorious photos by Polish photographer Maciej Dakowicz of Cardiff city centre at night. However embarrassing it is for the city, or Cardiff Council's vain attempt to create some sort of "highbrow/cosmopolitan" night economy, the hard fact is that the Welsh, English and Scottish can't handle their drink. Swapping Walkabout for few upmarket wine bars won't change the scenes of drunken debauchery which we have a sense of humour about find horrifying.


I'm staggered that the Liberal Democrats or Plaid Cymru (the ruling Cardiff Council coalition) would support this considering both parties previous opposition to ID Cards and the DNA register. In fairness it's a Lib Dem Councillor (Ed Bridges) who's raised the issue. Considering he's also chair of the licensing committee, it seems unlikely that SWP will get their way.

I don't believe that this is a massive erosion of civil liberties, but I do think it's a presumption of guilt towards anyone who goes into a venue in Cardiff. Saturation Zones or fingerprinting wouldn't prevent crimes like the brutal attack on a 19-year old in Cardiff the other week.

I don't understand why licensees would willingly sign up to this.

There's a saying "don't go into a pub with a flat roof". Another saying that could join it is "don't go into a nightclub with a fingerprint scanner".

It's a big neon sign saying "Criminals R Us" or more morbidly "poor fire safety".

Pubs and clubs in Bridgend and Porthcawl have a system where they are linked by walkie talkie (Nite Net) and can notify each other (and the police) instantly of any potential troublemakers/trouble making. It also means that troublemakers can be barred across town centres with every venue knowing who they are. Monthly meetings are held by participating clubs and pubs with the police to coordinate the scheme and raise issues.

Although there would clearly be logistical challenges doing this in Cardiff (or Swansea's Wind Street), is this just too "low tech" and too "common sense" for Cardiff Council and SWP?

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Welsh Government's white paper on organ donation

Wales currently has high rates of organ donation, but 51
people still died waiting for a transplant in the last year.
(Pic : The Guardian)
It's been a rough week for them, so I think it's time I cut the Welsh Government some slack and focus on one of their boldest (and potentially controversial) moves - probably in the history of devolved government in Wales.

The Welsh Government published a white paper on Tuesday outlining their plans for a new law on organ donation. They are seeking views in a consultation that will end on January 31st 2012.


51 people died waiting for an organ transplant in Wales for 2010/11. Although record numbers of people in Wales donated organs last year (83), the Welsh Government hopes that a presumed consent law would boost organ donation rates by as much as 25% and reduce unnecessary suffering.

In a rare bit of good news in the Western Mail, Wales currently has the highest organ donation rate of the home nations and one of the highest organ donation rates in Europe (behind the likes of Spain). However donation rates for hearts in particular have fallen consistently over the last 20 years.

What's proposed?

A "soft opt out system" – whereby consent for organ donation would be presumed upon death unless the person opted out of the organ donation register when alive.

Doctors would still look at the organ donor register (options listed below) to see if the deceased has wished to donate their organs, and would still seek the family views. The wishes of the deceased would be the overriding consideration. Consulting the family would make the families and medical professionals aware of unregistered objections and possible problems with transplanted organs (i.e lifestyle/behaviour issues).

The law would apply to:
  • Anyone over 18 who lives and dies in Wales.
  • Anyone over 18 who has lived in Wales for a certain length of time (the length of which is to be consulted).

The law would not apply to:
  • Anyone under 18.
  • Anyone over 18 who lives in Wales but dies elsewhere.
  • Anyone over 18 who doesn't have the capacity to understand the donation law or make a decision
  • Tourists and other visitors (anyone who doesn't ordinarily live in Wales).
  • Unidentified bodies

There are four proposed options for the new organ donor register:
  1. Separate registers for objectors and non-objectors
  2. A register only of those who have not objected
  3. A register of only whose who have objected
  4. No register, but an objection listed via the person's GP

A person would be able to opt out: "any and all methods put in place to enable an individual to make a confidential objection to donation in an easy and accessible manner". It would also "enable an individual to opt-out of donating all organs and tissues, or to opt-out of donating some organs or tissues."

Myths and rumours

It's time a few myths and rumours were scotched now. There won't be:

  • State ownership of the body – relatives would still be consulted as currently.
  • Organ harvesting – the transplantation procedures would remain exactly the same, donated organs would go to those who need them not automatically taken from every single dead person in Wales.
  • Sale of organs by the NHS – to suggest such is undeniably crass but I've already heard it/read it. Lesley Griffiths should stamp this ugly one out right now.
  • Donation to science – donated organs/tissues would only be used in transplant not stored for dissection, teaching or research. The dead won't end up in a Gunter von Hagens exhibition. The new law wouldn't change the procedures for donating bodies/organs/tissues to science either.

What are the arguments against?

There's clearly a liberty issue here – should the state have rights over the body after death? The good work to boost organ donation rates in Wales might be undermined if the system loses public confidence or makes people uncomfortable.

There are also moral and ethical questions – should organ donation be purely a gift? Would presumed consent violate religious beliefs about what should be done after death?

In my personal opinion because of the "soft opt-out" system proposed, controversy will be limited as long as the system for "opting-out" is well publicised and transparent.

If the Welsh Government had gone for a "hard opt-out" system – where consent would be presumed without consulting with relatives (unless the deceased had opted out) – then even liberal-minded people like myself would likely oppose the new law and it would be even more controversial.

No other pitfalls in sight?

On paper there shouldn't be any major constitutional or legal issues arising from this, though Alan Trench at Devolution Matters explores it in a bit more detail. Things are clearly a lot more complicated than appear.

Only xenotransplantation (transplantation between different species) is a reserved matter to Westminster if you go by the Scotland Act.

Transplantation requires consent as stipulated in the Human Tissues Act 2004, and under the proposed "soft" opt out system consent would still be sought.

Also, there's no sign that presumed consent would violate the Human Rights Act 1998 or the European Convention of Human Rights. Considering presumed consent is already used in several mainland European nations already, this was a given.

The only issues I can see arising are religious and ethical listed earlier, but the white paper does indicate that the Welsh Government would take personal/religious beliefs into account and are actively seeking such views for the consultation.

For students of politics, medicine or law, the Senedd debates in plenary and committee on this one could be worth watching....

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Carwyn clobbered on the economy

Well it was gloves off in the Senedd at First Minister's Questions yesterday.

Carwyn Jones found himself and his government's record under attack from three directions - probably with an eye on budget negotiations - but suffered a particularly harsh attack from Ieuan Wyn Jones over Labour's handling of the Welsh economy.

Labour have pointed to several examples of their commitment to capital spending, but as IWJ quite rightly pointed out, a large chunk of these projects have been completed or were announced by the previous Welsh Government. There's been little action on the economy and nothing but doom, gloom and finger pointing.

The First Minister correctly said that the Welsh Government doesn't have a bottomless pit of cash. He doesn't have a magic wand to fix all of our economic problems either. It's Labour's lack of ambition, vision and increasingly action that's going to come back and haunt him and the party.

May's election was a good one to lose on many levels. It's going to be Labour ministers making the cuts in Wales and it's increasingly going to be Labour ministers taking the blame for the stagnant Welsh economy. People are beginning to recognise Carwyn Jones, Edwina Hart, Lesley Griffiths, Leighton Andrews and Carl Sargeant and are starting to form opinions about them. It won't be long until some of Labour's election manifesto promises - such as an extra 500 PCSO's - seem lacklustre.

But hey that's what we voted for, right?

New schools and hospitals are not "infrastructure investments". They might be to Labour (and Plaid) but it's improved transport, energy infrastructure, research & development and business development that leads to economic growth. Labour (and again to a certain extent Plaid) are not making any distinction between social/public service investments and the things the economy – especially the private sector – need to restore confidence, provide jobs and wean Wales off seeing the public sector as the fallback position in good and bad times.

It should be done in downturns to temporarily boost the economy. But the Welsh Government needs to create the right conditions to enable growth, not be the growth.

Carwyn Jones accused Plaid of not having any big economic ideas of their own. But they did – Build for Wales – pounced upon by opposition parties as unworkable. It might very well have been, but at least they made the effort.

The Liberal Democrats have supported a Welsh Stock Exchange since the idea was mooted, in addition to business rate reforms. The Conservatives always have ideas on the economy – often stupidly ignored because of political tribalism.

Ieuan Wyn Jones was an imperfect Economy Minister, but in government he put infrastructure (especially transport) and a more self-sufficient Welsh private sector (loans replacing grants) at the heart of economic policy. IWJ "got it", but his crime was being too slow.

Andrew Davies, IWJ and Kirsty Williams might not be in coalition, but with convincing three-pronged attacks they can certainly cause headaches for the Welsh Government and we saw a glimpse of what the next five years are going to be like on Tuesday.

Labour 0 – Opposition 3

Man of the Match - Ieuan Wyn Jones

If this Welsh Government don't make bold and wide-ranging attempts to turn around the Welsh economy – likely to be the primary concern of the electorate for the next decade - then Carwyn Jones, still one of the good guys in politics despite Tuesday's outbursts, might be in deep trouble.

Things just got a whole lot more uncomfortable for Labour. Perhaps that's what we've been crying out for in Wales.