Sunday, 30 November 2014

Senedd Watch - November 2014

  • Former Labour peer, Joel Barnett - creator of the (controversial) Barnett Formula, which determines public expenditure levels in the devolved administrations – died age 91 on November 1st. He was described as an “extraordinary individual” who did “his best to ensure the best for the people of this country”.
  • Education Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), launched a campaign to raise awareness of changes to GCSEs and A-Levels in Wales, due to come into force from September 2015. Wales-only GCSEs – including the introduction of new GCSEs in English language and two new GCSEs in mathematics - have been criticised by independent schools as “lacking credibility”.
    • The Education Minister later told BBC Wales that teacher training in Wales was “chaotic”, and teachers need to “step up to the challenge” of changes to their professional development as a result of a critical OECD report into the Welsh education system.
  • A survey revealed that a quarter of Welsh workers (261,000) were being paid below the £7.85 per hour “living wage”. The Wales TUC said low pay “blighted” workers, while the CBI and UK Government supported the principle of a living wage, but not at the expense of job creation.
  • The First Minister told the National Assembly that a “veto” from the devolved nations on an exit from the European Union in a proposed 2017 referendum was “worth considering”. It comes as the incoming Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, suggested a referendum vote should produce the same result in all home nations to be valid – a call rejected by the UK Government.
  • A deal to sell the Murco oil refinery in Pembrokeshire to a Swiss company collapsed, resulting in a possible 400 job losses. Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said the Welsh Government “did everything we could to support....the deal”. Plaid Cymru's Jill Evans MEP called for the use of the EU's Globalisation Adjustment Fund to help workers.
    • On November 12th, the Minister announced a £3.5million package of support for Murco workers, and said dualling of the A40 road will be examined. A nearby refinery run by Valero also announced they would take on Murco apprentices.
  • A petition with almost 100,000 signatures calling for a cancer drugs fund – backed by the Welsh Conservatives - was presented to the National Assembly. The Welsh Government simultaneously announced changes to its policy on “orphan drugs” for rare diseases which will create a “fairer and more transparent” system for applying and receiving the drugs.
  • A Public Accounts Committee inquiry into Senior Management Pay recommended a more consistent approach to the issue, with a clear definition of what a senior post is and better publication of senior rates of pay in the Welsh public sector.
  • The First Minister launched a four-week consultation on new Welsh language standards for public bodies as a result of the Welsh Language Measure 2011. It comes as retailer Lidl were slammed for a policy of staff speaking in English only, resulting in criticism from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg and the Welsh Language Commissioner.
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats proposed a “recall” system for Assembly Members which will trigger a by-election if 20% of the electorate in a constituency (or each constituency in a region) sign a petition in favour of a recall and vote yes in a referendum. Leader, Kirsty Williams, said it would “give people proper powers to hold politicians to account.”
  • Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) launched an 8-week consultation on the future of Community Health Councils (CHCs), including proposals to strengthen their role and to enable them to hold local health boards to account properly – one of the main criticisms of the Trusted to Care report.
  • A complaint was made to the Wales Audit Office that land along the proposed Newport M4 bypass is owned by the Welsh Government, which could have influenced its decision to choose the controversial “Black Route”. Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), said it “gives the impression of a preemptive strike by the Welsh Government in order to lead conversation around which route to take”.
    • Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said £11million in preparatory spending on the M4 Newport bypass should be suspended, describing the project as a “£1billion blunder” and calling for more investment in road schemes across Wales. Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) called for investment in new trains instead of the bypass.
  • A report for the Public Policy Institute of Wales revealed that bus companies were making up to £22million profit from Welsh Government subsidies, despite services being withdrawn. The Welsh Government said they would introduce Quality Partnerships across Wales in 2015 and negotiate directly with bus operators for routes of “national significance”.
  • The £2.4million Ynni'r Fro community energy scheme was criticised as a “waste of money” after it was revealed just one of its 102 projects was generating energy. It's hoped 22 projects would be completed by March 2015. Consultants said it was too early to judge the success of the scheme as the requirement for various permissions was often bureaucratic.
  • Office for National Statistics figures showed that crime in Wales had risen by as much as 17% since 2010, mostly due to a rise in violent crimes. However, crime levels remain half those of 1995. The reliability of crime figures in EnglandandWales has been questioned by Westminster's Public Administration Select Committee.
  • The National Assembly's Communities & Local Government Committee recommended the Gender-related and Domestic Violence Bill required “significant” changes, including amendments to emphasise women victims and calls for further clarifications on funding.
  • The Children, Young People & Education Committee concluded that Bethan Jenkins AM's (Plaid, South Wales West) Financial Education & Inclusion Bill was “unnecessary”. They instead proposed the Welsh Government ensure financial literacy provisions are improved in schools. Bethan Jenkins withdrew the Bill on November 26th to work with the Welsh Government to improve existing and future financial education measures.
  • The First Minister told the National Assembly that the future of Cardiff Airport – purchased by the Welsh Government in 2013 – was dependent on long-haul flights. The Welsh Conservatives said there were “substantial negatives” at the airport. On 19th November, the Welsh Government announced a £3.5million package to attract new airlines, after the withdrawal of services from Germanwings.
  • The National Assembly approved a Welsh Liberal Democrat motion by 28 votes to 19 calling for a minister to be given responsibility for transgender affairs, and for the Welsh Government to formulate an action plan to tackle prejudice against the estimated 31,000 (sic) transgender people living in Wales.
  • A deal between the Welsh and UK Governments for rail electrification was agreed on November 21st. The UK Government agreed to fund electrification to Swansea by 2018 and provide £125million towards Valley Lines electrification, with the rest of the funding coming from reduced costs and increased revenues. The Welsh rail franchise will also be devolved.
  • A Business & Enterprise Committee inquiry into tourism recommended a number of measures including a better online presence for Visit Wales, full assessments of the impact of major events and a stronger “brand”. Committee Chair, William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East), said “more must be maximise Wales' huge tourism potential”.
  • Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), said the number of local authorities in Wales could be reduced to as few as six as he launched an independent review into local government spending. He said he expected local authorities to reduce spending on back room functions and focus on front line services. A deadline for expression of interest in voluntary mergers expired on November 28th, with only six authorities giving preferred partners.
    • Former Welsh Government economics adviser, Gerald Holtham, told BBC Wales that harmonisation of council tax rates will need to be considered before proposed council mergers. He proposed an indexed charge based on property prices which could save £20million in council tax benefit.
  • The Independent Remuneration Board for Assembly Members recommended an 18% (£10,000) rise in AMs salaries to £64,000 from 2016 to reflect new responsibilities and improve the calibre of candidates seeking election. Political parties gave a guarded reaction to the proposals, while public sector unions Unison and Unite called for AMs to reject the proposal.
  • The National Assembly approved a motion to create a special Assembly committee to look into the issue of physical punishment of children, and possible future legislative measures in the area. Plaid Cymru criticised the move, as they believe legislative measures could be taken immediately.
  • The National Assembly's Children & Young People's Committee inquiry into child and adolescent mental health severely criticised levels of funding, access to treatment and some aspects of treatment itself. Demand for the service has doubled since 2010, and the Health Minister is leading a “root and branch” review of the service.
  • The 2014 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD) was released on November 26th, showing that the St James's area of Caerphilly was now the most relatively deprived community of Wales. Communities and Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said the Welsh Government were “continuing to invest in our most disadvantaged communities to help improve people's life chances.”
  • A third of children do not receive free school breakfast through a Welsh Government scheme, with only 8 out of 10 schools offering them despite it being available to all schools. Shadow Education Minister, Angela Burns (Con, Carms W & S. Pembs.), said parents who could afford to do so should make a contribution to ensure free breakfasts were provided to all.
  • The Environment & Sustainability Committee Stage 1 report on the Future Generations Bill called for more clarity on its sustainable development goals and stated that duties placed on public bodies were too weak to have any effect. Committee Chair, Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), said that while there was support for the intent of the Bill, “significant improvements were needed in order for the Bill to have a meaningful impact”.

Projects announced in November include : £3.5million and £10million packages to improve training of GPs and primary care staff; the launch of the National Adoption Service; an extension of the North-South air link until 2018; £500million for the 21
st Century Schools programme via the non-profit distributing model, and a pilot for community cultural schemes in seven deprived areas.


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