Friday, 31 May 2013

Senedd Watch - May 2013

  • The Welsh Government introduced the Further & Higher Education (Governance and Information) Bill. The Bill grants further education colleges powers to merge, dissolve themselves and change their governance arrangements. If passed, Welsh Ministers will also be supplied data relevant to student finance from HMRC.
  • During a Welsh Conservative debate, Shadow Health Spokesman, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), suggested issuing fines for missed NHS appointments. Although Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) agreed the public needed to take more responsibility, other AMs attacked the suggestion as “simplistic”.
  • The Assembly's Standards Committee published a report into lobbying at the National Assembly. They recommended a new code of conduct for AMs' work with lobbyists, rejecting a lobbyist register. They also recommended new rules for Cross-Party Groups to improve transparency and record-keeping.
  • The Standards Committee also recommended a series of changes to sanctions used against AMs - including withdrawal of privileges and suspension without pay - following a review into standards procedures.
  • The Welsh Government suspended a proposed Control of Dogs Bill, opting to work with the UK Government to develop joint legislation. Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), said a Welsh-only bill could be revived if no agreement was reached. Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) – who campaigned for a Welsh law – expressed disappointment at the decision.
  • The delayed Anglesey local council election on May 2nd produced an inconclusive result. Plaid Cymru became the single largest group, winning 12 seats (out of 30), topping the poll with 32% of the vote. However, four Independent groups claimed the most seats between them, winning 14. A coalition deal between Independents and Labour was announced on May 9th. Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), announced Welsh Government intervention in the local authority would end on May 31st.
  • UKIP MEP for Wales, John Bufton - who is standing down in 2014 - claimed his party were capable of winning National Assembly seats following a good showing in English local authority elections. UKIP won 7% of the popular vote in Anglesey, pushing the Welsh Conservatives into last place.
  • Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams said Wales misses out on up to £21million in research and development funding annually from the UK's seven research councils. He suggested Wales establish its own research council to work to Welsh priorities.
  • The National Assembly passed a motion demanding action following Prof. Siobhan McClelland's report into ambulance services – which have failed to meet response targets - highlighting critical problems within the Wales Ambulance Service Trust. Before the debate, the Health Minister announced £9.5million of ambulance fleet upgrades.
  • Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) announced a £76.5million capital investment package on May 7th, including : £30million towards improving housing supply for counteract any threat from the UK Government's “bedroom tax”, a £25million investment in schools, £10million towards flood protection and £11.5million towards a new railway station for Ebbw Vale.
  • The Queen's Speech outlined proposed legislation to reform Assembly elections, including five year terms, the lifting of a ban on jointly standing in constituencies and regions, and banning AMs from being MPs at the same time. Labour criticised the proposals as a “lucky losers bill” as it would perceivably benefit opposition parties.
  • Communities and Tackling Poverty Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) told the Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee that the UK Government's universal credit threatened entitlements due to eligibility changes. He described it as “a potential car crash”. Plaid Cymru said the Welsh Government's anti-poverty plans were in “disarray” , as it was unclear what the Welsh Government intended to do in response. On May 14th, the minister announced an extra £19million towards the “Flying Start” childcare scheme, which runs 140 projects.
  • Ken Skates AM (Lab, Clwyd South) suggested the National Eisteddfod could be hosted in an English city as part of the festival's “modernisation” process, taking advantage of ex-pat communities.
  • Plaid Cymru Economy Spokesperson and former Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones AM, became the second senior Plaid politician to announce they were standing down in 2016, having represented Arfon since 2003.
  • Darren Millar AM called on the Welsh Government to scrap plans to reduce the number of A&E departments in south Wales after “unprecedented” demand for emergency services, calling the proposal – The South Wales Programme - “unacceptable”. The First Minister said, “talk of a the time to change things. Doing nothing's not an option.”
  • The South Wales Programme was unveiled by five local health boards in south Wales and Powys on May 22nd. The preferred option for hospital reorganisation – out of four - would see Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant lose its specialist A&E, children's and maternity services. The plans are open to public consultation until July 2013.
  • The UK Government published a draft Bill for an “in-out referendum” on UK membership of the European Union, to be held by the end of 2017. Senior Welsh Conservative MPs and AMs – including Darren Millar AM and Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembrokeshire) - said they would vote no if the referendum were held at present. The First Minister said the European debate “hijacked” the Queen's Speech, warning that “Welsh farming would end” if £350million of EU funds disappeared.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 6,000 in the three months to March 2013 to stand at 8.2%, compared to the UK average of 7.8%.
  • The Welsh Government dropped plans to relax film industry rules regarding smoking indoors, following evidence provided to an Assembly Task and Finish Group. Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) welcomed the decision, however the Welsh Conservatives claimed it could harm the creative industries in Wales, saying the Welsh Government had, “caved in to political pressure.”
  • Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) demanded - on behalf of local campaigners - that the Welsh Government block plans for an open-cast mine near Blaenavon, which were provisionally approved by the Welsh Government. Campaigners believe the proposed mine violates the 500 metre exclusion zone in the controversial Mineral Technical Advice Note (MTAN) guidance.
  • The Assembly approved a motion without amendment by Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) calling on the Welsh Government to raise awareness of risks associated with high-caffeine “energy drinks” being available to children.
  • Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) expressed concerns that Welsh democracy was “damaged” by a perceived Anglo-centric focus by the media, reducing coverage on Welsh matters. In the first of a series of conferences, media experts and professionals criticised AMs' lack of engagement during Senedd debates.
  • The Social Services & Well-being Bill was criticised by the Welsh Local Government Association, who believe claims it would be “cost neutral” don't hold up to closer scrutiny. Similar concerns were expressed by the NHS Confederation. Deputy Minister for Children & Social Services, Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath) said “transitional funding” would be available, but disagreed that there would be any additional costs.
  • Housing and Regeneration Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), published a White Paper on rent legislation, proposing two simple types of tenancy arrangements, and measures aimed at helping landlords combat anti-social behaviour as well as protect domestic violence victims. Shelter Cymru described it as a “step forward”, however the Residential Landlords Association were concerned that the costs of legislation could be better used building houses.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) announced that parents of regularly truant children will be fined £120 from September 2013. Opposition politicians called the move “lazy” and a “retrograde step”. Teaching unions were also worried it could undermine successful attempts at reducing truancy.
  • The Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee criticised the Welsh Government's handling of changes to council tax benefits in December 2012, saying that there was confusion between the political process and legislative process, as well as a lack of communication between Cardiff and Westminster. The Assembly was recalled from Christmas recess to debate new regulations as a result of the problems.
  • Leighton Andrews said he would explore joint regulation of exams with Northern Ireland after English Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said differences between the devolved nations and England made separate exam systems inevitable. Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) called for an independent Welsh exam regulator to be established “as soon as possible” to “restore confidence” in the Welsh exams system.
  • First Minister Carwyn Jones announced that Cardiff University will lead a consortium of organisations and groups that will form a Public Policy Institute, which was originally put out to tender in August 2012 as a 2011 Welsh Labour manifesto commitment.
  • The Assembly's Enterprise and Business Committee published their integrated transport inquiry report, calling for the devolution of certain rail, bus regulatory and infrastructure powers, an integrated ticketing system and the possible creation of Passenger Transport Executives to run public transport.
  • The Welsh Government announced that a non-emergency “111” service for the NHS would be launched in Wales, despite concerns about an equivalent service in England, which has currently failed to cope with demand.
  • Referral targets for urgent cancer treatment were missed, despite a pledge from the First Minister that they would be met by March 2013. 84% of urgent cancer patients saw a specialist within 62 days, despite a target of 95%. The Welsh Government blamed severe weather, and said the overall trend had improved. Targets for ambulance response times were also missed, but with an improvement on previous months.
  • Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, called for new trains to be provided following rail electrification, rather than “hand-me-down” rolling stock. The Welsh Government said they'll work to, “ensure the best deal for Wales.”

Projects announced in May include : £1.6million in European funding towards a seabed tidal energy scheme in Pembrokeshire, £160million from the Welsh Government towards a £400million affordable housing building programme of 7,500 units by 2016, a re-routing of the proposed Caernarfon bypass (which could save up to £10million), £1.5million towards wildlife protection, a £10million Property Development Fund and a £40million 3-16 y.o. “super school” in Neath Port Talbot.


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