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Monday, 29 February 2016

Senedd/Election Watch - February 2016

  • A UCL-Wales Governance Centre report on the draft Wales Bill recommended AMs reject it, describing current proposals as “constricting, clunky, inequitable and short-sighted”. There was also criticism of “blurry forms of executive veto”. Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.), accused critics of being “ill-informed or just plain wrong”.
    • On February 28th, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee recommended a “pause” on the legislation to enable a lasting devolution settlement to be created. Chair, David Davies MP (Con, Monmouth) said, “Over the course of the inquiry, the committee has heard evidence that raises doubts about the draft Bill’s ability to provide the lasting settlement it seeks to create.”
    • On February 29th, the Welsh Secretary said "significant changes" would be made to the Wales Bill, including the removal of "necessity tests" and the establishment of a working group to determine if Wales needs its own distinct legal arrangements. The publication of a final version of the Bill will be delayed until May 2016.
  • The National Assembly unanimously approved the Environment Bill on February 2nd. The Environment Act will set statutory targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, extend the single use carrier bag charge to “bags for life” and make separation of recyclable waste mandatory in the public and private sectors.
  • A review of the National Assembly's petitions system recommended the threshold for consideration be raised from 10 signatures to 50, that only Welsh residents and organisations can submit a petition and that a signature threshold be set to trigger an Assembly plenary debate on a petition. It also called for Petitions Committee meeting flexibility to allow them to meet outside Cardiff.
  • A survey conducted by the Children's Commissioner found bullying was a top priority for action by 7-18 year olds; amongst those aged 3-7 it was safe places to play. Commissioner Sally Holland said, “The consultation included many groups who often don't get a chance to take part in large surveys like this....Wales will be stronger if all of its citizens get the chance to play their part.”
  • The Assembly passed the Historic Environment Bill by 32 votes with 22 abstentions on February 9th. The Historic Environment Act will provide greater protection to historic monuments, create a statutory register of historic parks and gardens, make it easier for developers to bring listed buildings back into alternative use and create a statutory list of historic place names.
  • £31million of cuts to higher education in Wales were reversed by Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) as the draft budget for 2016-17 was approved by the Assembly. The news was welcomed by Universities Wales, who praised the minister's “understanding”.
  • The Assembly unanimously passed Kirsty Williams AM's (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) Nurse Staffing Levels Bill on February 10th. The Nurse Staffing Levels Act will place a legal duty on the Welsh NHS to ensure there are safe numbers of nurses on hospital wards.
  • The UK Ministry of Justice announced the closure of ten magistrates and civil courts in Wales , which was criticised by Labour and Plaid Cymru MPs, who raised concerns about access to justice, particularly by public transport.
  • A campaign was launched in Cardiff to create a directly-elected mayor. In order to trigger a referendum, 25,000 electors in the city will need to sign a petition. The cross-party campaign has the backing of some Labour councillors and Conservatives, and if the threshold is reached, a referendum could be held in autumn 2016.
  • A major report by the OECD comparing the health services of the UK found the Welsh NHS was “performing no better or worse” that the rest of the UK, but criticised lack of innovation, weak leadership from the centre and poor performance monitoring. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) said, “The OECD's report....puts to rest the claims that a particular heath service in one part of the UK is better than the others.”
  • An Enterprise & Business Committee inquiry into the maritime economy recommended a “whole government” approach to take advantage of renewables, and criticised a lack of EU engagement by the Welsh Government. Chair, William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) said, “Marine renewable energy is an ever-more significant part of the maritime sector, and we believe....Wales has an opportunity to be a world-leader.”
  • A Sport Wales survey revealed 1 million adults in Wales wanted to do more sport and there had been big increases in numbers regularly participating. It also found there were falls in volunteer numbers and gaps in participation – particularly between men and women and non-disabled and disabled.
  • The Electoral Reform Society called for a “revitalisation” of Welsh politics, putting forward proposals for votes at 16, a citizens' committee to scrutinise ministers and the use of proportional representation in local government elections.
  • On February 20th, the Prime Minister announced a deal on a renegotiated UK membership of the European Union had been agreed with the EU Commission and EU Council. Measures include restrictions on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits and child benefit, excluding the UK from “ever closer union” and protections for London's financial service sector. The referendum will take place on 23rd June 2016.
    • Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), declared his support for the UK leaving the EU saying, “It is my belief that our future will be best served as part of a looser, economic relationship with the European Union.”
  • The Business & Enterprise Committee expressed “considerable frustration” over the impact of the Active Travel Act 2013, praising the ambition of the law, but criticising lack of funding and leadership. The Welsh Government said they were spending £14million on walking and cycling infrastructure annually.
  • Aston Martin announced they would construct a new luxury car at St Athan, Vale of Glamorgan, creating up to 750 jobs. The First Minister said, “We will work nurture a prosperous and rewarding future for this iconic company and its skilled workforce in Wales.” While the Welsh Secretary said it was an “enormous boost” for the Welsh automotive sector.
  • Revised proposals for Westminster constituency changes recommended the number of Welsh MPs be reduced from 40 to 29 by 2020. Shadow Welsh Secretary, Nia Griffith MP (Lab, Llanelli) said, “If the Conservatives were serious about cutting the cost of politics they would cut the number of unelected peers in the House of Lords.”

Projects announced in February include : A £500,000 grant to prevent flooding on sections of the A55; a 10% expansion in nurse training places; £21million in repayable finance for small and medium businesses; a proposed city deal bid for Swansea/south west Wales, potentially creating up to 33,000 jobs over 30 years and a online survey hoping to gather information from 260,000 people to determine the future needs of the NHS.

  • The Welsh Lib Dems unveiled proposals for the environment, committing to zero carbon emissions, meeting 100% of electricity demand from renewables and increasing cycling rates to 25% - all by 2050.
  • The Welsh Conservatives and Green Party in Wales both pledged to introduce an Autism Act in the Fifth Assembly. Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) – who chairs the cross-party autism group – said an Act,would play a pivotal role in ensuring people with this condition are confident that they will receive the support they need."
  • Plaid Cymru would introduce a Welsh Representation of the People Act which would lower the voting age to 16, trigger mandatory Assembly debates when petitions receive 10,000+ signatures and introduce electronic voting.
  • UKIP announced party members would rank regional list candidates after a series of disputes over "parachuting" candidates from England. Leader in Wales, Nathan Gill MEP, said "I think it's up to the members to decide for themselves who they want to represent UKIP in Wales."
    • Six 2015 Westminster candidates called for Nathan Gill to resign, criticising a lack of organisation and his handling of the candidate selection process. Cllr. Kevin Mahoney – widely expected to be a top candidate in South Wales Central, but critic of the process – was removed from the shortlist of candidates on February 6th.
  • The First Minister defended Labour's record on health at a NHS Confederation conference. He said the UK Government were determined to “run Wales down”. Opposition parties accused him of being “in denial” and of trying to “defend the indefensible”.
  • The Welsh Conservatives pledged to cut ministers' pay by 10%, and use the money to support youth engagement. They also offered reforms to Assembly proceedings - proposing shorter recesses and more topical questions.
  • Plaid Cymru would bid to host the Commonwealth Games in either 2026 or 2030 as well as men's and women's legs of a cycling Grand Tour. It would, “prove that we can not only produce world-class athletes but also act as a world-class host for some of the greatest championships and tournaments on earth”.
  • At the Welsh Lib Dem spring conference in Cardiff, party members approved a motion denying parents the right to withdraw children from sex education lessons. UK leader, Tim Farron, called for urgent action on the Swansea tidal lagoon and for voters to challenge Labour's “sense of entitlement to rule”. Kirsty Williams added that predictions of an electoral “wipe-out” in May were wrong.
  • The Greens launched their manifesto for older people, proposing that councils provide adequate seating and public toilets, increased spending on education for older learners and increased investment in energy efficiency schemes to combat fuel poverty.
  • Informal discussions were held between Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems and Greens over a possible “electoral pact”, where two parties would withdraw candidates in seats where the third party could win. The talks subsequently ended without agreement and were ridiculed by Labour and Conservatives as a “stitch-up”.
  • Plaid Cymru would write-off up to £6,000 of student debts for graduates who study in Wales and remain in Wales after graduation. They claim the current system subsidises English universities and is “unsustainable”.
  • Labour pledged to create 100,000 apprenticeships “in areas of greatest need”, provide free childcare for working parents and cut taxes for small businesses as part of their six key pledges. The Conservatives accused them of “fantasy economics”.
  • Plaid Cymru launched its Assembly election campaign in Cardiff on February 17th. Leanne Wood promised “a well, well-educated, wealthier Wales” with improved NHS waiting times, free care for the elderly and a “fairer, more prosperous nation”.
  • The Conservatives would scrap tuition fee subsidies and instead pay half of student rent bills as part of proposals for student finance. They estimate it would cost £75million. Andrew Davies said, “Accommodation costs often swallow up maintenance loans, meaning students....often struggle with everyday living costs associated with university life.”
  • At their spring conference in Llandudno, the First Minister told Labour delegates the Assembly election was a “straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives”. He claimed the momentum in schools, the economy and health would be put at risk by changing government, warning voters not to elect a “rag tag coalition”.
  • Plaid Cymru launched its national manifesto for Police & Crime Commissioners, calling for the abolition of the role, devolution of criminal justice and stronger neighbourhood policing teams, with greater support for victims of crime.
  • Nathan Gill told delegates at UKIP's spring conference in Llandudno that powers over farming, fishing and business would transfer to Wales in the event of an EU withdrawal. UKIP also unveiled key policies for the Assembly election, including : the reintroduction of grammar schools, no income tax devolution without a referendum and directly-elected local health boards.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Fourth Assembly In Focus : Economic Profile 2016

In about ten weeks weeks time, those of us who will bother to vote will elect a new Assembly and a "new" Welsh Government. My 2016 election coverage starts today with a mini series over three weekends focusing on three key areas of devolved public policy and how they've changed over the last five years : the economy, health and education.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Locals Know Best?

(Pic :
Yesterday, the Welsh Conservatives held a debate on the issue of local accountability amidst proposals for local government reform, as well as the campaign to trigger a referendum to introduce a directly-elected mayor in Cardiff (A Mayor for Cardiff?).

Monday, 22 February 2016

EU Referendum : The Deal

(Pic : Reuters via BBC)

As you're probably all more than aware, last Saturday the Prime Minister, EU Commission and heads of government of other EU member states (EU Council) reached agreement on a renegotiated UK membership of the EU – you can read the text of the agreement here (pdf).

Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Main Event

Earlier this week, Plaid Cymru took the unusual step of splitting their weekly debate allocation into two equally important and interesting ones – the first dealing with the Wales & Borders franchise, the second with major sporting events.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Senedd Spanks The Banks

The World's Local Bank?
(Pic : Wales Online)
In what looks set to be the penultimate topical members debate of the Fourth Assembly, yesterday AMs discussed bank closures. I'll come back to another interesting and topical debate later this week.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Assembly petitions reforms outlined

As attentions turn to the Fifth Assembly, a Petitions Committee review
has recommended a number of improvements to the petitions system.
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)

(Told you so.)

The National Assembly's e-petitions system, launched in 2007, has become one of the main ways the public and organisations influence decisions made on our behalf.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

British military might deployed to defeat Weather

"Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happ...."
(Pic : via Vimeo)

At least 30 people have been killed by wind and rain on British soil in the past five years. That stands compared to 2 deaths related to terrorism and 0 deaths resulting from the military actions of a foreign power.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Great Cardiff Airport Swindle?

Were the Welsh Government diddled when they nationalised Cardiff Airport in 2013?
(Pic : Wales Online)

As others have said, the Welsh Government's reputation when it comes to spending public money has taken a big hit over the last few days, and brings what I said in Wales reacts to steel job cuts all the more into focus: