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Sunday, 13 December 2015

2015 Ends, Election Countdown Begins

(Pic : Wales Online)
Time for my usual end of year break. Having blogged for what feels like non-stop for 12 months it's come at the right time.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Welsh Budget 2016-17

It's the most wonderful time of the year : numbers, graphs and spin galore.

(Pic : Welsh Government)
The budget process for 2016-17 has been delayed by a few months due to George Osborne's personal definition of "autumn", but a draft Welsh budget – the last of the Fourth Assembly – was tabled yesterday by Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan).

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Assembly Calls for Steel Industry Support

(Pic : South Wales Argus)
The latest topical Members' Debate in the Senedd takes place amidst growing concerns about a slow down in the global steel market and the influx of cheap, low-grade steel from China.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

AMs Criticise Rugby Rail Scrum

A short inquiry was held into serious problems getting away from recent
Rugby World Cup matches in Cardiff - with some queues lasting four hours.
(Pic : ITV Wales)

Earlier today, the National Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee published a report into their short, one-day inquiry on serious crowd congestion problems and delays at Cardiff Central station during the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The report itself (pdf) is so succinct I'm able to post something the same day it was published – it almost feels like a day off! If you're interested in this for professional reasons or whatever then you can watch the entire evidence session here.

The Committee made 9 recommendations, in summary :
  • There should be a review of travel plans for major events in Cardiff, which should include a single command structure, better queue management and an assessment on what's an acceptable time for passengers to wait.
  • Greater efforts need to be made to ensure fans are aware of all the options available for travel.
  • Coach travel should play a bigger role in transport while capacity constraints remain at Cardiff Central, and developers of Central Square should ensure the impact of construction on major events is limited.
  • The Welsh Government and Network Rail need to ensure capacity problems at the station are dealt with by 2024, and that re-signalling (which will allow the new platform 8 to come into use) is completed as quickly as possible.
  • Rail operators and event planning authorities need to discuss whether rail freight operations should be rescheduled during major events in Cardiff.
Background & Facts

Cardiff's Millennium Stadium hosted eight games during the tournament, but the first three games resulted in numerous complaints from fans about delays getting home, particularly those travelling by rail. Queues outside Cardiff Central lasted for up to four hours.

The committee took evidence from World Cup organisers, Cardiff Bus, Network Rail, South Wales Police and the two main train operating companies – Arriva Trains Wales and Great Western.

The stadium attracted 565,000 supporters during the tournament, while a fan zone at the Cardiff Arms Park accommodated 160,000 supporters.

Although the attendance patterns were said to be similar to the Six Nations or Autumn Internationals, just 25% of tickets to games in Cardiff involving Wales were sold to people living in Wales, while just 5% of tickets were sold in Wales for the other six games.

This meant most people were travelling eastwards after the games, while the close proximity of Central Station to the stadium meant there was little opportunity for crowds to disperse afterwards.

Key Conclusions



The situation was resolved for the final five games, but AMs remain concerned
over Cardiff Central's ability to cope with major events due to poor infrastructure
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Despite the queue problems, there were very few incidents of public disorder and everyone was eventually able to travel home. Also, the overwhelming majority of supporters in Cardiff were said to have had a positive experience.

New procedures were put in place for the third game, with extra coaches being made available, but this was said to have had a limited impact due to the fact spectators found it difficult to find the coaches.

This led to further changes for subsequent games, which saw an overhaul of the queueing system, faster/smarter train loading and full use of coaches.

The Committee believe there was a sense of complacency amongst those responsible for planning major events, but this was quickly turned around for the final five games. They were concerned, however, that Cardiff Council believed their event plan "had worked". They also heard evidence that communication of travel options needed to be improved, particularly when it came to queueing arrangements and train times.

One of the biggest concerns was the ageing infrastructure at the station. The Committee believe Cardiff Central "does not meet the needs and expectations of travellers" as a major gateway into Wales and is unable to cope with the demands placed upon it.

There are long-term proposals to redevelop the station at a cost of £200-300million, but competition for rail infrastructure investments is said to be "fierce" and political support will be needed to ensure the station is redeveloped.

The Committee questioned whether a principle that non-event related services should avoid being changed due to major events - like freight services and other passenger services - was due for a review. As long as such changes were communicated properly and in good time, the Committee believe the impact would be minimal.

A Timely Lesson Ahead of 2017

You might as well throw a dart at a board to determine when Cardiff Central will be redeveloped.
(Pic : Wales Online)

Having a major international stadium slap bang in the middle of a city is a blessing and a curse; I'd say it's mainly a blessing though greater disruption than would otherwise be experienced at an out-of-town site is inevitable.

In May 2017, the Principality Stadium – as it'll be known then – will host the UEFA Champions League Final, which will arguably be the biggest single event hosted in Cardiff since the stadium was built.

It'll be a major test for event planners and transport companies, and the first three RWC games showed that – as the Committee said themselves – there was a sense of complacency. Wales rugby internationals attract local crowds who will mainly travel north and west; this was completely different, particularly as many Irish ex-pats and visitors travelled from London and Bristol.

Seeing as there'll be no Welsh involvement in the Champions League Final, it's highly likely that – charter services to and from Cardiff Airport aside - the crowds will follow the same pattern, flying in to Heathrow and Bristol in the main (barring English involvement....like The Arsenal)

The good news is that organisers learned their lesson quickly and the situation improved. The bad news is that I find it highly unlikely that Cardiff Central will be redeveloped any time soon due to the rising cost of present rail infrastructure projects (Network Rail - Taking the Welsh Government for a ride?) and the financial black hole that is High Speed 2.

Cardiff Central serves local needs well enough, but it's in no way a station fit for a capital city – some of London's suburbs and dormitory cities, like Reading, have better ones.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Senedd Watch - November 2015



  • Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, backed calls by the Assembly's Communities & Local Government Committee to protect historical place names in the Historic Environment Bill, following several high-profile name changes to listed buildings from Welsh to English. Deputy Minister for Culture, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), said he “wouldn't shut the door” on statutory regulation, but it would “probably not be workable, or enforceable either”.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Returning Your Deposits

(Pic : buzzfeed.com)


Yesterday, the Conservatives held a debate on something that blights all communities, and likely to be a perennial issue on the doorstep : littering, fly-tipping, graffiti and dog shit.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Groundhog Day : Auditing the Welsh Media


(Pic : BBC Wales)
Last week, the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA) published a thorough review of the state of the media in Wales....and it makes typically grim reading.

The IWA's online organ, Click on Wales, released drafts of the report's sections throughout October, but the full and final report is now available at around 150 pages long (pdf). It's an incredibly useful analysis, but not anything we haven't heard before.

The state, and decline, of the Welsh media has been discussed on and off for the best part of a decade – such discussions being even more important this year in the context of negotiations on the BBC's Charter renewal. This site's no exception :

As you would expect me to do, I'm going to summarise what the audit found. Overall, it's an incredibly useful analysis, but not anything we haven't heard before.

Television & Public Service Broadcasting (PSB)




  • Digital terrestrial television reach in Wales (97.8%) is marginally below the UK average (98.5%). Virgin Media's cable services only reach 23% of Wales and hasn't changed since 2004, this is well below the UK average of 44%.
  • Wales has the highest proportion of HD-ready televisions and take-up of HD services of the Home Nations (Wales = 76%; UK average = 73%).
  • Made in Cardiff – currently Wales' only local TV station – has a weekly reach of 196,000 viewers.
  • Overall viewing minutes have fallen consistently across the UK – particularly amongst children and the under-35s - but Welsh viewers spend longer watching PSB than any other part of the UK.
  • Over a third of viewers in Wales used "catch-up" services in 2014. BBC iPlayer, Sky, ITV Player and 4OD are the most popular services. Netflix has grown significantly in popularity since 2012. A majority of catch-up services are viewed on television, but increasingly on tablet computers too, while there's a decline in PC/desktop views.
  • BBC Wales, ITV Wales and S4C spent a combined £215.35million on PSB services in 2014-15, a decline of £19.25million (8.2%) on 2008.
  • Since 2008, there've been 545 fewer TV hours produced (all BBC and ITV; S4C saw an increase) and 1,187 fewer hours of radio programming since 2008.
  • BBC and ITV produced 17.5 hours of English language output per week in 2015, compared to 24.5 hours in 1990 – a 48% reduction. ITV Wales now only produces 5.5 hours, compared to 15.5 in 1990.
  • 63% of BBC's English language output was current affairs, news or politics. Just 2.8% was comedy, drama and the arts.
  • S4C's funding fell from £104.4million a year in 2010 to £85.7million in 2014-15 – a reduction of 18.4%. They spend, on average, about £31,000 per hour, though drama productions can cost up to £140,000 per hour.
  • In 2014, 3.2% of PSB network production spend was in Wales, compared to a population share of 4.9%. 65.4% was spent in London and Southern England.
  • BBC Wales and independent producers provided £60.3million worth of UK network shows in 2014-15, primarily dramas.

Radio



  • Average listening hours per week in Wales fell from 24.4 hours in 2007 to 22.4 hours in 2014 – however weekly listening hours are the highest of the Home Nations. Radio also had a bigger reach at 94.5% of the adult population, compared to 89.4% across the UK.
  • Wales has the highest share of BBC Network listeners in the Home Nations at 49% of listeners.
  • Reach figures for BBC Radio Wales and Radio Cymru have shown steady declines, from 435k and 155k respectively in 2008-09 to 418k and 119k respectively in 2014-15.
  • Ownership of digital radios (DAB) is also highest in Wales amongst the Home Nations at 47% (UK = 43%). This brings Wales very close to the 50% threshold set by the UK Government whereby they would consider a digital radio switchover.
  • BBC Radio Wales and Radio Cymru spent a combined £20.6million on programming in 2014/15 and cost per hour was near enough the same for each (£1.5k-1.6k).
  • Commercial radio has the lowest listening share in Wales amongst the Home Nations at 39%, compared to the UK average of 43%. Wales also generated the lowest commercial radio revenues of the Home Nations at £14.9million.
  • Only three companies control commercial stations in Wales – Global Radio, UTV and Town & Country Broadcasting. Digital switchover may mean commercial stations are "released entirely" from their local obligations.

Internet & Broadband



  • 78% of premises in Wales have taken up broadband services, compared to 42% in 2006.
  • 79% of Welsh households have access to super fast broadband – more than Scotland (73%) and Northern Ireland (77%).
  • 3G mobile broadband outdoor services reach 97.9% of Welsh households. However, outdoor 4G services currently only reach 62.8%, compared to the UK average of 89.5%.

Press & Online Media



  • Welsh newspapers have seen massive declines in daily circulations since 2008, ranging from falls of more than 50% for the Western Mail, South Wales Argus and South Wales Echo to just a 6.3% fall for the south Wales version of Metro.
  • These numbers are, generally, in line with declines in newspaper sales elsewhere, with some UK papers suffering even steeper declines.
  • Online there's said to be a "more level playing field" between Trinity Mirror and BBC, with Wales Online and Daily Post websites being competitive with BBC Wales Online services in terms of unique browsers. Use of Wales Online has grown by 586% since 2006.
  • 59% of adults access BBC online services, and online services are significantly more popular amongst those aged 16-24.
  • 27% of people said Facebook was now their main source of local news.
  • BBC Wales spent a total of £2.541million on their online services (£399,000 was spent on Welsh language services/BBC Cymru Fyw).
  • S4C Clic viewing sessions had increased by 232% since 2013-14, with an additional 500,000 downloads of S4C mobile apps.
  • With Trinity Mirror agreeing a takeover of Local World, most of the major national, regional and local newspapers in Wales are owned by just two companies - Trinity Mirror and Newsquest.
  • The number of journalists in south Wales has fallen from over 700 in 1999 to 108 in 2013.
  • There are said to be 46 "hyperlocal" websites active in Wales, and research has suggested around half of hyperlocal site owners in the UK have had some form of journalistic training – though most were self-funded and only 13% generated more than £500 a month income.
  • £1.85million in grants were made available to Welsh language publications in 2013-14, compared to £748,000 for English language publications. 50 papurau bro receive grants of up to £1,900 a year from the Welsh Government.
  • S4C launched a £1million digital fund in 2012 to create interactive media and other apps.

Key Recommendations



  • The Welsh Government should establish an independent media panel to monitor media trends and commission studies, working with relevant academic departments.
  • Investment in BBC Wales' English language services should increase by £30million a year, ideally via an increase in the licence fee. This must include programming other than news and current affairs.
  • S4C's funding and editorial independence must be maintained to avoid slipping into a "cycle of decline". Collaboration between BBC and S4C should be maintained, however.
  • BBC 2 Wales and S4C should be broadcast in high-definition.
  • The effectiveness of DAB coverage should be assessed before any decision is taken on a digital radio switchover.
  • Radio regulation should be devolved to the Welsh Ofcom advisory commission.
  • The abandonment of local radio obligations should be reconsidered.
  • BBC Radio 1 and 2 should provide an opt-out news service for Wales.
  • The UK Government should support BBC establishing an interactive online service for Wales.
  • Responsibility for broadcasting should be shared between the UK Government and devolved administrations.
  • BBC Audience Councils should be replaced with National Broadcasting Trusts, which would help shape the delivery of a national service licence.
  • All PSB broadcasters should lay their annual reports in front of the National Assembly.
  • The Welsh Government and Ofcom should commission a joint study into the future of local media in Wales, embracing community radio, papurau bro, hyper-local news websites and local newspapers.
  • The Welsh Government should create a "challenge fund" administered by the Arts Council for Wales and Wales Books Council to help develop new local news services.


What the audit missed




Magazines - Including (ironically), the IWA's own Agenda, Planet as well as others like Cambria, Barn, Golwg and New Welsh Review. It does mention "publications", particularly with regard papurau bro, but there was little evidence provided on the impact of grant funding cuts on English language magazines or their long-term prospects.

Films & Music - The Welsh film production industry only gets passing mentions, along with music. You would've expected music to have been in there considering recent rows between Radio Cymru and Welsh language musicians. Although this certainly crosses into "the arts", it seems the definition of "media" has been set rather narrowly.

"Citizen Journalism"/The Blogosphere – It's admittedly a grey area, reportedly written off by Culture Minister Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) as "opinion-driven" during the suit-and-sandwich conference because, as we all know, there's little political bias in the mainstream media.

There was a throwaway line about the number of blogs increasing but being "about lifestyle rather than news" - thanks a bunch. I can only speak for myself, and I might get 2% of the South Wales Evening Post's unique browsers on a good day; but I don't know whether being left out is an insult or compliment (sites like Carmarthenshire Planning certainly do count as hyperlocals).

It doesn't really matter because in the absence of public funding, political backing, advertising or publicity it's clear the blogosphere is (relatively) successful and performs a unique function. The Welsh blogosphere's still languishing in the shadows of Scotland's fifth estate; it would take me 20-30 years to match what Wings Over Scotland gets in site metrics in a single year. There's also a high turnover; Green Dragon being the latest political blog to leave the stage. I'm probably not going to be too far behind.

Gaming – The Welsh games industry has grown over the last few years from being practically non-existent to including some breakout companies. It's also one of the most popular mediums around, and as big as, if not bigger, than the film and television industries at present. I'm surprised the IWA and politicians haven't cottoned on to that yet. What do they think people, particularly those under the age of 35, are doing if they're not watching television, listening to the radio or reading newspapers? (See also : More than just a game).

A Warning on Funding


Time for some mathematical gymnastics to serve as a warning on how to interpret the funding figures in the report and how that fits from a "value for money" perspective. The easiest way to do that is to compare the ratio of amount of money spent versus the audience.

Based on the figures provided for BBC's English language web services, for every £1 they spend, they get 85.5 unique browsers. BBC Cymru Fyw gets 11.5 unique browsers for every £1 spent.

For every £1 I spend directly on Oggy Bloggy Ogwr - without a publicly-funded newsroom, television and radio network to back me up and whilst only posting a few times a week - I get 5,272 unique browsers.

Oggy Bloggy Ogwr is, therefore, 62 times greater value for money than BBC Wales Online and 458 times greater value for money than BBC Cymru Fyw. *Jazz hands*


Not bad for opinion-driven non-media. 

Technically speaking, if I put more money into this site its "value for money" would mathematically decrease because the audience is naturally limited and no amount of extra money would change that. Hence that's why complicated political and investigative stories tend to cost a lot of money and get poor returns for broadcasters and publishers, which leads to a downward spiral in coverage.

It also, theoretically, means the "true value" of non-current affairs, non-mainstream television (i.e children's), radio programmes as well as blogs and hyperlocals is likely to be significant in terms of what they bring to the table - perhaps more so than was reflected in the report and in general discussions on the Welsh media.

It's therefore not entirely a funding issue because it doesn't buy you viewers or readers. It's an audience issue and comes down to the quality of the product and how efficiently it's produced.

When you compare what Wales gets from our broadcasters and publishers compared to what the Republic of Ireland gets – utilising similar sums of money and with a similar set up - we're clearly doing something wrong here.


Conclusions


It's an incredibly useful analysis, but not anything we haven't heard before.

Individual AMs have made their own concerns known down the years, but it'll take the closure of one of the major Welsh newspapers – probably The Western Mail – or the subsuming of S4C into BBC Wales to actually force the Welsh Government into action. Calls for challenge funds and independent panels (yet another bloody committee) will fall on deaf ears as ministers can, justifiably, say it's not their problem as broadcasting is a non-devolved issue.

We can never, realistically, expect the UK Government to do anything constructive either; as long as UK-wide network shows continue to be watched or made in Wales, as far as they'll be concerned that's job done. A market failure – and that's essentially what this report implies very strongly – is just something that happens.

So it's worth saying again that it's an incredibly useful analysis, but not anything we haven't heard before.

Television and newspapers will remain important for the time being. However, the only rays of hope for the future, it seems, are online – even though Wales Online is close to becoming a parody of itself, and doesn't generate anything close to the same revenues as Media Wales' print productions – and community radio, which is holding up particularly well and isn't getting the attention it deserves in this debate.

I'm concerned there's too much hand-wringing over Wales being seen at the UK level in network shows when major broadcasters and newspaper publishers can't even harness a captive audience at a Welsh level. The success of Y Gwyll/Hinterland has happened by accident because melodramas about troubled detectives with names like Smegm
ä Smegmässon are in vogue at the moment (to saturation point). That won't last forever, neither will network shows like Casualty and Doctor Who.

Nobody has really explained what they want either. Do they really expect a Welsh political story affecting less than 5% of the UK's population to be given equal treatment to an English one affecting 85% on network news? News bulletins would end up three or four hours long.

There are only two reasons you'll see Wales on the front pages or in the main news bulletins: human tragedy and sport. The murders of April Jones and Tracey Woodford, as well as the Welsh national rugby and football teams, have probably got more coverage and column inches in the UK media than the Welsh Government and Assembly have in 10 years. A BBC network radio news opt-out - recommended in the report - or "Welsh Six" on TV might go some way towards addressing that.

As cynical as it sounds, maybe we just have to come to terms with the fact very little of interest happens in Wales. That's reflected in our politics, our economy and the small-c conservatism that forms the fabric of Welsh society. That's very well represented in our media – including this blog.

So to conclude, the report is an incredibly useful analysis, but not anything we haven't heard before.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Seeing through the Senedd

You can see through it, but how much can you see on the other side?
(Pic : tripadvisor.co.uk)

The ongoing discussion and debate over of transparency and openness within both the Welsh Government and National Assembly shows no signs of abating.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Election 2016 : Six Months To Go

The most exciting thing to happen at the Senedd since....
(Pic : Wales Online)
The thoughts of sitting and prospective AMs will start turning towards the 2016 National Assembly election with only six months remaining until polling day - as indicted by the countdown clock I've added to the top right.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Senedd debates draft Wales Bill

Following the stronger words said on the draft Wales Bill over the last
fortnight it was rightly time for more measured discussion on the issues it raises.
(Pic : BBC Wales)


Yesterday, following the suspension of standing orders, the National Assembly held an extraordinary debate on the controversial draft Wales Bill.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Senedd Watch - October 2015


  • A ban on smoking in cars whilst in the presence of under-18s came into force on October 1st in Wales. Those who break the law will be liable to a £50 fine. Pro-smoking campaigners said the ban is unenforceable, though police forces said they would take an “educational and non-confrontational approach”.
  • A new colour-coded system for 999 medical emergencies was introduced on October 1st . Ambulance response time targets for all but the most life-threatening (Red) 999 calls will be replaced with outcome-based targets. Opposition parties accused the Welsh Government of manipulating targets to mask poor response times, but the Wales Ambulance Trust argued the changes make it “one of the most progressive in the world”.
  • Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP, said the chances of an agreement on further powers for the National Assembly were “very, very low”. It follows the publication of an academic report which suggests the proposed reserved powers model was “convoluted” and could result in law-making powers being withdrawn from the Assembly.
    • The UK Government unveiled the draft Wales Bill on October 20th, which includes new powers over Assembly electoral arrangements, energy, speed limits and sewerage services, as well as a reserved powers model. A row between the UK and Welsh Governments ensued over possible “veto” powers by English Ministers over Welsh laws.
  • An official who regulates bus and heavy goods traffic in Wales, Nick Jones, attacked UK Government policy on traffic commissioners, suggesting Wales was being treated “as a district of the English Midlands” and was subsidising English services. Traffic commissioner functions are non-devolved, though partial devolution has been sought since 2002.
  • A TUC report called for money to be directed towards job creation in the south Wales valleys following new EU rules which will allow public funding to be reserved for disadvantaged groups such as the long-term unemployed. Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) said, “We've got new powers and opportunities....to influence who....gets contracts for the public sector and get people into those jobs" promising to set up a task force to look into the proposal further.
  • The Stage 4 debate on the Local Government Bill – which outlines the process for voluntary local authority mergers – was postponed on October 6th, due to a likelihood the Assembly would vote against it. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) accused the Welsh Government of arrogance for not seeking a consensus beforehand.
    • Following a deal between Labour and Plaid Cymru - which will prevent mergers happening before the 2016 Assembly election - the Bill passed by 26 votes to 17 with 9 abstentions on October 20th. Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy) accused Plaid of hypocrisy for criticising Labour (at the SNP annual conference) then doing a deal with them, while the Lib Dems said the agreement achieved nothing.
  • An Oxfam Cymru report stated Wales should accommodate 724 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 to meet its obligations. It comes as Community & Tackling Poverty Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), updated the National Assembly on actions taken in Wales, in which she called for more information and clarity from the UK Government, adding that all 22 local authorities were willing to accept refugees.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) told the Conservative party conference in Manchester that he led an “anti-establishment party” and that next May's election was a choice between himself and Carwyn Jones for First Minister. He described the election as a “referendum on the Welsh NHS”.
    • The Welsh Conservatives would scrap tuition fee subsidies if they won the 2016 Assembly election, claiming it would save £3.6billion over the course of the Fifth Assembly. Currently, tuition fees for Welsh students are capped wherever the study, but the Leader of the Opposition said the money should be redirected to the NHS and further education colleges.
  • Plaid Cymru health spokesperson, Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion), announced her party would scrap local health boards, replacing them with a single national body to run hospital services – as well as abolish social care charges for the elderly and dementia patients - if they win the 2016 election. They also proposed fully integrating health and social care. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), accused Plaid of wanting to “break up the NHS”.
  • A review of Welsh law-making by the Assembly's Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee recommended introducing a compulsory Report Stage, greater support for Members Bills, consolidation of Welsh law and more comprehensive public engagement. Committee Chair, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) said, “Clear, consolidated laws based on sound, well-thought-out policy are essential."
  • Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) criticised the Welsh Government for spending £19.8million on preparatory work for the M4 Newport bypass, calling for Labour to review the plans in their 2016 manifesto. Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), defended the spending saying, “Roads will always be controversial, but 20 years after you've built them.... they're the norm.”
    • On 13th October it was revealed Jenny Rathbone had been sacked as chair of an EU funding committee for her comments. She criticised an “unhealthy culture” within the Welsh Government and Assembly which doesn't allow independent thought.
    • Welsh Labour accused Jenny Rathbone of not following the proper channels for raising policy issues, while the First Minister defended his decision in the Senedd chamber, saying the committee chair “should act in the spirit of collective responsibility” as it was a government appointment.
    • The Leader of the Opposition questioned Public Account Committee decisions – of which Jenny Rathbone is a member - as members of the Welsh Government are barred from being members of Assembly committees. He wrote to Llywydd, Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West), saying, “The comments made by the First Minister in the chamber ….are deeply damaging and bring into question the legitimacy and democratic nature of the Assembly committees.”
  • A Welsh Health Survey study revealed only 1% of e-cigarette users were previous non-smokers. The Welsh Liberal Democrats believed the findings undermine the Welsh Government's case for a ban on using e-cigs in public, as set out in the Public Health Bill.
  • Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) warned that key Valley Lines rail routes could miss out on electrification after being left out of the Welsh Government's National Transport Finance Plan. She said, “Whilst the National Transport Plan covers the next five years, these schemes don't even appear in the column identified for '2020 and beyond'”.
  • The Assembly approved a cross-party motion condemning the UK Government's Trade Union Bill as an “unnecessary attack on the rights of working people”. Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews, said the Bill extended its scope into devolved areas and the Welsh Government will consider not laying a legislative consent motion (LCM) in front of the Assembly – effectively attempting to block the law from applying in Wales.
  • The National Assembly unanimously agreed regulations to introduce compulsory micro-chipping for newborn puppies. Deputy Minister for Farming & Food, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Mid & West Wales) said, “The ability to trace all dogs back to their owners should encourage more responsible ownership, breeding and help in the control of dangerous and nuisance dogs by creating a link between a dog and its owner.” The regulations will come into force on April 6th 2016.
  • LinksAir, operators of the subsidised Anglesey-Cardiff air link, had their safety licence revoked by the Civil Aviation Authority. The Welsh Government announced Danish operator North Flying will take over the contract. Shadow Business Minister, William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) said, “communities will rightly ask questions and Labour ministers must provide swift assurances.”
  • Deputy Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), confirmed that the troubled Betsi Cadwaladr Local Health Board will remain in special measures for two years. The board was placed into special measures for 100 days following the Tawel Fan scandal, but the Deputy Minister said an extension was needed, “in order to tackle more fundamental challenges, particularly to improve mental health services in north Wales”.
  • At Plaid Cymru's annual conference in Aberystwyth, Leanne Wood asked Labour voters to “take a second look” at her party, saying Plaid will lead on “those issues that matter most”. She said Labour had taken people for granted and “rewarded long-term loyalty with inaction, incompetence and indifference.”
  • Andrew Davies AM called for Cardiff's taxi drivers to embrace controversial mobile taxi app, Uber, which was considering starting services in the city. He said, “As Conservatives we have a duty to level the playing field and to encourage competition between suppliers – not thwart it.” Unions representing taxi drivers have expressed concerns over safety and fare parity.
  • An independent review of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty said these areas needed to do more to foster vibrant communities and provide jobs. Studies estimate they're worth £500million to the Welsh economy and employ 30,000 people. Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) was appointed chair of a task force to explore the issues further.

Projects announced in October include : A £24million replacement for the flood-prone A487 Dyfi Bridge in Machynlleth; an £11million scheme to fund childcare to enable parents to return to work; £3.8million for workplace IT, construction and accounting skills; a consultation on indicators for a national well-being index; a Chinese-backed investment worth £2billion in two biomass power and food production plants in Holyhead and Port Talbot and the final go ahead for the Newtown bypass.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Draft Wales Bill (Number Two)


(Pic : ITV Wales)
Yesterday, the Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.) introduced the draft Wales Bill to the UK Parliament on behalf of the UK Government – you can read it here (pdf).

Monday, 19 October 2015

Cesspool on the Taff?

Pollution in Cardiff Bay isn't just confined to the air and the water.
(Pic : Wales Online)

To paraphrase a famous episode of The Simpsons, what we now call Cardiff Bay used to be a stagnant swamp, and very little has changed. It stank then, and it stinks now.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

AMs take swipe at Trade Union Bill

The post-devolution "partnership working" between unions, employers and employees
in Wales looks set to be threatened by the UK Government's draconian Trade Union Bill.
(Pic : Wales Online)

Shwmae. Yesterday, the Assembly held another backbench members debate, this time related to one of the most controversial laws introduced for a long time in the UK Parliament.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

A Comprehensive Review of Welsh Law-Making

We voted to give AMs law-making powers in 2011, so how has the process been handled since?
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)

Making new laws is the National Assembly's most important function, though it's a role that – apart from a few high-profile cases like the Human Transplantation Act 2013 – draws little in the way of media coverage or scrutiny.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Minister updates Senedd on refugee response

(Pic : Al-Jazeera)
The Syrian refugee crisis has slipped off the front pages in the last fortnight due to Russian military intervention in the conflict, the latest catastrophic brain fart from the US Air Force and party conference season.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Armed Forces School Visits Debated

(Pic : Education Business Partnership West Berkshire)

In June, the Assembly's Petitions Committee published a report (pdf) into armed forces recruitment, following a petition from Cymdeithas y Cymod – which garnered more than 1,000 signatures – calling for the military to be banned from visiting schools for recruitment purposes.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Local Government Bill edges towards statute book

As the law outlining how councils can voluntarily merger reaches its
conclusion, opposition AMs tabled important amendments.
(Pic : Wales Online)

The Local Government Bill outlines how the 22 local authorities can merge voluntarily in light of the new proposed map for local government which has been formed as part of the fallout from the Williams Commission (Back to the Future). On Tuesday (29th September), the Bill was debated at Stage 3, where amendments can be added by AMs.

Any voluntarily-merged authorities will come into being by May 2018, but a second local government law on compulsory mergers will be introduced after the National Assembly election next year, which makes you question if this Bill is really all that necessary.

Anyway, the content of the Bill isn't particularly exciting in itself, but there were a number of amendments tabled by AMs which could (have) add(ed) significant meat to the Bill.

You can read a full list of amendments here (pdf), but I'm going to focus on some of the more significant ones and what AMs and the Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), had to say.

Local Referendums on Council Mergers
  • Amendments 14, 26 and 27 – all introduced by Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy).
  • Proposes that voluntary local authority mergers be approved by a majority of voters in each merging authority.
  • Proposes the question on ballot papers : "Are you in favour of the proposed merger between [ ] and [ ]?".

Janet argued that any changes need to be driven by local people and communities in a way which strengthens the democratic process. Council mergers would have a "profound effect" on all residents involved and it's right they have a say, with Labour placing "proud counties" under threat without consultation. Referendums would mean mergers will have to be justified accordingly.

Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) said his party accepts the point on extra consultation including in amendment 14, but rejects the case for referendums, as we shouldn't allow local considerations to interfere with process at a national level – saying there was no referendum or much in the way of consultation when the Conservatives reorganised local government in 1994-1996. He said referendums were a way of "hiding lack of vision".

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said referendums were the wrong way to approach it, though the Lib Dems would support amendment 14. There was a need to draw a line between national leadership and local determination, and the Assembly was best placed to determine the shape of local services. Peter criticised the Bill as "no longer necessary", adding that the Lib Dems wouldn't support the Bill at all unless their amendments were accepted.

The Minister said the amendments were unnecessary, again raising the point that there were no referendums for previous local government reorganisations in the 1970s and 1990s. Authorities must undertake "full and comprehensive" public consultation as set out in the Bill, so it was already delivering key points of amendment 14. He urged AMs to vote down the referendum amendments as there wasn't enough detail on the campaign periods, spending limits or costings for referendums – which Leighton estimated would cost between £100,000-£400,000 per local authority.

Amendment 14 tied in the vote 27-27, with the Deputy Presiding Officer used his casting vote against the amendment – as is convention. Amendment 26 was rejected by 13 votes to 41 meaning Amendment 27 was rejected too.

The Election Cycle

  • Amendment 17 – introduced by Janet Finch-Saunders AM
  • Proposes that elections cannot be cancelled/postponed under the Bill if it results in councillors serving terms greater than 5 years in length.


One of the carrots dangled in front of local authorities to encourage them to merge voluntarily is that councillors will have their terms extended until the first elections of the combined local authority – meaning councillors will be able to pick up their allowances and salaries for longer than they otherwise would.

Janet told the Assembly it was crucial that councillors aren't serving more time than they were democratically elected to do. Extending terms without facing re-election was "an affront to democracy, public accountability and transparency".

The Minister said that the amendment would create uncertainty and distraction in the lead up to a voluntary merger. He said cancelling elections was "not something we would do lightly", but it would otherwise mean bringing forward the merged authority to May 2017 – which was unachievable given the timetables involved. He asked who would want to stand for election for an authority that has less than a year left?

There were 18 votes in favour, 27 votes against and 9 (Plaid Cymru) abstentions, so the amendment was rejected.

The Electoral System for Local Authorities
  • Amendments 5, 13, 28, 30 and 31 – all introduced by Peter Black AM
  • Proposes the electoral system for local government be changed to Single Transferable Vote, where voters rank candidates in order of preference.

These are probably the most important ones, or the amendments I was most interested in.

Peter Black AM said Leighton Andrews understands STV as he fought an election in Gillingham in support of introducing it, adding that it produces a fair outcome for election. Creating larger authorities with fewer councillors should mean ensuring elections reflect how people vote. It would lead to a more transparent, more accountable local authority that's representative of its communities.

Simon Thomas AM offered Plaid Cymru's support to the amendments, saying STV had been introduced with little difficulty in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and at local elections in Scotland. He said it was a far more effective way of "opening up the electoral process" by ending unopposed elections, adding that one thing that stops people standing against incumbent councillors in rural areas was a "personal element" which is interpreted as a grudge. Simon said STV would challenge all parties, but they have to decide what's best for the whole nation, and ensure every vote counts.

In response, the Minister said Labour were elected on a platform of opposing any change to the local government election system, and the rejection of the Alternative Vote in a 2011 referendum reflects that voters don't want to change the system either.

14 AMs voted in favour of Amendment 5, 40 voted against, so all the amendments were rejected.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Senedd Watch - September 2015


  • UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, backed calls to scrap Severn Bridge tolls in 2018, saying they penalised "those coming in....on one of the most direct routes from England". He suggested it would be paid for by building a cheaper Newport bypass. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) accused him of being "financially illiterate" for confusing where responsibilities for bridge maintenance and bypass budgets lie.
    • Nigel Farage later told BBC Wales that UKIP's Welsh branch will “help pick” candidates at the 2016 National Assembly election, after reports emerged that senior personalities – such as disgraced former MP Neil Hamilton and centrally-appointed Wales election coordinator Mark Reckless – were considering seeking Assembly seats.
  • The UK Government accepted a recommendation from the Electoral Commission to change the wording and answer of the future EU membership referendum to "remain" or "leave" instead of "yes" or "no". It follows claims the original question was biased.
  • The First Minister called for the UK Government to "show leadership" after a refugee crisis in eastern and central Europe intensified. He said "Wales stands ready to play its part", saying Labour would accept 10,000 refugees in the UK. This follows criticism from Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central), that the Welsh Government hadn't "stepped up to the mark".
    • The Prime Minister said the UK would take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees from camps surrounding Syria between now and 2020. The Welsh Refugee Council said Wales could accommodate up to 1,600 refugees – 8% of the proposed UK total.
    • An all-Wales summit on the crisis was held on September 17th. A task force of relevant agencies was established, with Wales "preparing the ground" for a response. In the National Assembly a few day earlier, the First Minister described the UK Government's response as "laggardly".
    • The WLGA said local authorities were "willing to play their part", but the cost of housing refugees should not be met from existing council budgets. Wales was home to over 2,300 asylum-seekers at the end of June 2015, or 7.6% of the UK total.
  • A review of the 5p single-use carrier bag charge, introduced in 2011, showed use of the bags fell by 71%, with the levy raising between £17-22million for good causes. Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) said, "I am pleased that almost four years on from the introduction of the charge in Wales consumer habits appear to be changing.”
  • New Year 10 pupils were the first to start Wales-only GCSEs in English, Maths and Welsh as part of a overhaul of qualifications. Teaching unions expressed worries about overcrowded timetables, while Shadow Education Minister, Angela Burns (Con, Carms. W & S. Pembs.) said, “Our over-riding concern with these new qualifications is that they will lack credibility and may not be recognisable around the world.”
  • Plaid Cymru launched a policy consultation - A Road Map for Wales - ahead of the 2016 National Assembly election, saying Labour had “wasted 16 years of devolution”, pointing towards failings in health and education. Labour hit back by saying they were “tired attacks”.
  • A Bevan Foundation forecast on the state of Wales in 2020 suggested the unskilled workforce would rise and would result in increased competition for unskilled jobs. Also, people working in the public sector and on benefits will be worse off and there would be rising demand for treatments for long-term health conditions on the NHS.
  • A leaked letter revealed the UK Government believe two commercial loans provided to Cardiff Airport by the Welsh Government, worth a combined £23million, could have breached EU state aid rules. The Welsh Government denied the accusation, saying the leak was “politically motivated” adding that the report used to support the state aid accusation was out of date.
  • Veteran left-wing MP, Jeremy Corbyn, was elected leader of the UK Labour party and Leader of the Opposition on September 12th with almost 60% of the vote in the first round. Welsh Labour figures called for the party to unite behind the new leader, while the First Minister described the result as “impressive”. Llanelli MP, Nia Griffith, was appointed Shadow Welsh Secretary, replacing Owen Smith, who was reassigned as Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary.
    • Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said Carwyn Jones and Jeremy Corbyn were “the two most dangerous men for Wales' future” posing “the greatest risk to economic growth that our country has ever seen”. Labour dismissed it as a “laughable rant”.
  • A Welsh Institute of Health and Social Care report into end-of-life care for children criticised standards, saying services needed “strategic attention” and that lessons had not been learned from previous reports. Around 1,000 children require palliative care in Wales each year.
  • BBC Wales revealed that 54 insolvent companies awarded grants by the Welsh Government owed £11million. Economist Gerald Holtham said the Welsh Government should issues loans instead of grants, while the Federation of Small Businesses criticised grants as a way to create short-term jobs.
  • Chinese vice-premier, Liu Yangdong, visited Wales as part of a UK tour. The Welsh and Chinese governments signed a memorandum of understanding on cultural issues. The First Minister said, “Strengthening links with China, one of the world's most powerful economies, has been a long-standing aim of the Welsh Government”.
  • At the Lib Dem annual conference in Bournemouth, key figures in the Welsh branch acknowledged the “huge challenge” facing their party in the 2016 National Assembly election, saying they would "re-establish and re-define the Liberal narrative" to make it clear what their party stands for after humiliating results at the 2015 UK House of Commons election.
  • A report published by Save the Children found 67% of youngsters from poorer backgrounds were likely to score below average in vocabulary tests at age 5 compared to 34% amongst those with no experience of poverty. The Welsh Government said, "Raising literacy is a major....priority and we have introduced a range of policies, including our Literacy and Numeracy Framework and annual reading tests to help achieve this”.
  • Legal & General announced a £400million investment in property developments within Cardiff's Central Square, which should enable projects to be brought forward. It was described as the largest property deal in Welsh history, with a predicted 10,000 jobs set to be created.
  • Friends of the Earth Cymru research discovered that more than £1million of the Assembly Members' pension fund had been invested in tobacco, gambling and fossil fuel companies. FoE Cymru director, Gareth Clubb, said it was “morally indefensible” and “hypocritical” after the Assembly had passed legislation to protect future generations.
  • Leading academics warned that plans to create a reserved powers model for Welsh devolution were “not thought through” after the UK Government proposed reserving both civil and criminal law. The Wales Governance Centre described current proposals as “unclear, highly-complex and unstable”.
  • The Welsh Conservatives criticised an estimated £100million of redundancy payments to council employees since 2012. Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy) said, “taxpayers will be furious to learn that their bumper council tax bills are being used to fund golden handshakes for council staff.” The WLGA hit back by accusing the Conservatives of victim-blaming.
  • The Local Government Bill – which outlines the process for voluntary mergers between local authorities by 2018 – passed Stage 3 on September 29th. Amendments from opposition parties on ensuring promotion of economic development and the Welsh language, local referendums on mergers and the introduction of single transferable vote were rejected.
    • Before the debate, the Welsh Lib Dems criticised the Williams Commission process, describing its £130,000 cost as a “colossal waste of money” after the findings were widely ignored by the Welsh Government.
  • There was criticism from opposition politicians and Welsh civil society following a Welsh Government announcement that they would stop publishing ministerial decision reports, which outline evidence used by Welsh Ministers to make decisions. Leading Cardiff Bay lobbyist, Daran Hill, described it as “an information shut down”, while the First Minister was likened to controversial FIFA President Sepp Blatter in the National Assembly.

Projects announced in September include : The launch of (another) public consultation on proposals for a £1billion M4 bypass of Newport; an extra £17million to attract top scientists to Welsh universities; £6.7million to purchase 44 new ambulances; plans for £200million of road improvements on Deeside; a £115million innovation fund over the next seven years and a £16million brain injury rehabilitation unit in Cardiff.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Coming Constitutional Crisis

Just when you thought the issue of Wales' law-making powers had been settled....
(Pic : The Guardian)
The next Wales Bill is due to be introduced this autumn and will, as announced earlier this year (A St Davids Day Deposit), include additional powers for the National Assembly.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Hear No Evil, See No Evil....


(Pic : thezooom.com)

A significant story broke today - courtesy of ITV Wales and Friends of the Earth Cymru - that the trust that manages pensions for Assembly Members have been investing in what many would consider ethically dubious companies.

UPDATE : 23/09/15 - The director of FoE Cymru, Gareth Clubb, has provided more details on his blog, Naturiaethwr (rough English translation via Google Translate).

This shouldn't come as any shock. After the hoo hah over the pay rise, I suspected this would be the next port of call and had a proverbial deck chair and popcorn ready for it. I'm just surprised it's taken this long and you've got to tip your hat at Friends of the Earth Cymru for their top notch ferreting.

Anyway, according to the UK Government Actuary's Department (pdf), the market value of the pension fund's assets was just under £25.5million in March 2015. Since the rules were changed (pdf), AMs contribute 11% of their salary, while the Assembly Commission – as employer – contributes an equivalent of 16.6% to the fund (it used to be a whopping 23.8%). So for each AM, you're looking at a combined contribution of at least ~£14,900 a year (more for ministers and office holders).

Safe to say that money isn't being invested in Rainbow Wuzzle Dreams Inc and Oochie Snuggle Bums plc.

It's worth, first of all, separating the issue surrounding the investments from the conduct of individual Assembly Members.

Almost all pension funds are managed by trusts or specialists, and members won't have any input into where their money goes unless they want to micromanage it themselves – which can be tricky and bewildering for amateurs, and AMs don't have time (if you were unkind, you could say skills either) to play Gordon Gekko.

AMs wouldn't have had much idea where the fund was investing and they have very strong plausible deniability. I'm sure few AMs would've willingly invested in these companies if the decision were theirs alone.

But – as it typical with these stories - AMs haven't helped themselves.

At some point in the last 16 years, AMs past and present will have spoken out publicly against many of the industries and companies their own pension fund was investing in. Now that doesn't look bad at all, does it? It's at least a 7.4 on the Nathan Gill scale.

It seems none of them thought it would be a good idea to check where their own money was going before making various statements on the public record.

For example, Plaid Cymru are one of the most ardently anti-GM parties in the UK, and the Welsh Government is highly sceptical of the technology, yet it's reported AMs pensions were invested in anti-GM nemesis Monsanto.

Earlier this year, the Assembly voted in favour of a fracking moratorium, but upon retirement from the Assembly, AMs will benefit from investments in companies involved with fracking. Up to £800,000 has been invested in fossil fuel companies generally....from legislators that brought you the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015.

That's not the worst of it either. AMs were pretty strident in their support for Burberry workers when the company closed its Rhondda factory in 2007. Their pension fund has, predictably, invested up to £90,000 in Burberry.

Then there are investments in tobacco companies. This Welsh Government are one of the most vehemently anti-smoking administrations in the UK and are pursuing a clampdown on e-cigarettes – yet it's reported £180,000 has been invested in big tobacco. Meanwhile, an indeterminate sum has been invested in the gambling industry.

Up to £10million of the fund's investments are unattributable. For all we/they know it could've gone towards arms manufacturers, payday loan companies or the big financial service companies many AMs have long criticised since their role in the recession.

Looking at it cold-hearted and rationally, for a pension fund these are sound investments. As the Chair of the Trustees – William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) - is quoted as saying :
"The Trustees have a legal duty to act in the best (financial) interests of Scheme beneficiaries, while the Pensions Regulator, the Government body, responsible for regulating work-based pension schemes in the UK has stated that trustees have a ‘fiduciary duty to choose investments that are in the best financial interests of the scheme members – for example, you must not let your ethical or political convictions get in the way of achieving the best returns for the scheme.'"

In short, as a pension fund you're obligated to get the best returns for members regardless of where those investments go; it's their retirement income after all.

The tobacco industry makes colossal sums of money every year and massive profits – there'll be more on this from me next month. If you want to make money for a pension fund they'll be amongst the first ports of call. Similarly, natural resources will result in big returns  – and are obviously geared towards fossil fuels and mineral extraction.

There's nothing wrong or illegal about any of this, but it's incredibly embarrassing.

As Caebrwyn eloquently covered earlier with regard the Dyfed Pension Fund, the wider issue is whether public sector pension funds have just as much a moral obligation to invest ethically, as they do a financial obligation to ensure its members have a good income upon retirement. That's a very tricky balancing act.


Once you get beyond a certain level, most free market capitalism becomes essentially unethical anyway, and
you can probably count the number of massively-successful ethical companies on the fingers of one hand.
This isn't what I would call hypocrisy as AMs wouldn't have had much of an idea where the money was going, but no AM can claim to be holier than thou on this. The best they can do is damage limitation or stop digging the hole they're in any deeper.

It's telling that it's only after the destination of investments have been publicly revealed (the first time since the Assembly was established AFAIK) that AMs are scrambling to distance themselves from it or calling for clarity.

It was their money. Where did they, honestly, think it was going?



Monday, 21 September 2015

State of the Nation's Health

(Pic : Wales Online)

As reported from Wales Online towards the end of last week, the latest National Health Survey results, for 2014, were published by the Welsh Government. It comes as the Assembly scrutinises the Public Health Bill (Tattoos, Bans & Bogs).