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Sunday, 30 April 2017

Senedd Watch - April 2017

  • A British Heart Foundation report claimed 1 million Welsh adults were “physically inactive”, with women 40% more likely to be inactive than men. Physical inactivity is categorised as doing less than the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.
  • A controversial £39million timber deal agreed by Natural Resources Wales - which was criticised by the Wales Audit Office for its “irregularity” and lack of transparency - was scrapped when the company involved failed to build a timber mill.
    • River conservation trusts condemned the services of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) after claiming pollution spill-off from farms was “out of control” and the body didn't have the front line staff required to investigate complaints . NRW said it faced “challenges” over pollution but was aiming to “work smarter”.
  • Figures revealed a 16% jump in the number of junior doctors training as GPs, with 84% of training places filled compared to 68% in 2016. It follows a major recruitment campaign. Health Secretary, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), declared the campaign a “success” and said the “figures speak for themselves”.
  • South Wales East AM, Mark Reckless, left UKIP to join the Conservative group on April 6th. He confirmed he'll sit as a Conservative AM but won't be a member of the party. The defection makes the Conservatives the largest opposition group in the National Assembly.
    • Caroline Jones AM (UKIP, South Wales West) called for him to resign, while UKIP Assembly group leader, Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP, Mid & West Wales), said Mark “betrayed the trust” of party members and has “no mandate”.
    • A Conservative source told BBC Wales that accepting Mark Reckless into their group without being a member was contrary to party rules, meaning AMs had put themselves at risk of de-selection after they voted to suspend their constitution.
  • A report by the Communities Committee into refugees and asylum seekers recommended improved housing complaints procedures, more English lessons and more support for unaccompanied child refugees. There are estimated to be between 6,000-10,000 refugees living in Wales.
  • The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) warned of “democracy deserts” after 92 local council seats went unopposed to single candidates - a similar number to 2012. Gwynedd alone had 21 uncontested seats. The ERS are campaigning for single transferable vote to be introduced in local elections and also criticised the lack of diversity amongst local election candidates.
  • The National Union of Teachers (NUT) called for the Welsh Government to delay the implementation of a new National Curriculum, with up to 40% of full-time teachers unaware of the Donaldson Review's recommendations.
  • Fines totalling more than £600,000 were waived for three local authorities – Newport, Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen – after they missed Welsh Government recycling targets for 2015-16. Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) said the Welsh Government had “lost credibility” after failing to follow through with fines for two years in a row.
  • Figures revealed to BBC Wales showed there were 123 women treated for female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2016. Most of the cases were recorded in south Wales, but Welsh Women's Aid said the numbers were “only the tip of the iceberg” with an estimated 2,000 women living with FGM.
  • Youth organisations called for “urgent help” after it was revealed up to 30% faced closure due to lack of funding. The Welsh Government have commissioned a review of youth services, but more than 100 groups have disappeared over the last four years.
  • Qatar Airways announced they would launch flights between Doha and Cardiff Airport in 2018. Passengers will then be able fly to China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and south east Asia via connecting flights, potentially adding an additional 1 million passengers a year flying to and from Cardiff. The First Minister said,it is more important than ever before to sell Wales to the world."
  • The Unite union announced a ballot on industrial action would take place at the Ford engine plant in Bridgend in May, following ongoing concerns about the future of the plant beyond 2021. Ford's management said the ballot was “premature” and talks would continue.
  • The Wales Audit Office said there were “serious shortcomings” in the award of £9.3million in public funds to the company behind the proposed Circuit of Wales development in Blaenau Gwent. Their report criticised the lack of investigation into the background of the companies involved and the Welsh Government “did not explain (to our satisfaction)” why the money was awarded.
  • Economy & Infrastructure Secretary, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), shortlisted 12 locations for new railway stations from 46 as part of a new transport plan. They will go forward for further scrutiny and include locations in Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham, Newport, St Clears and Llangefni.
  • The Assembly Commission launched a public consultation on creating a Youth Parliament for Wales. It follows the closure of Funky Dragon in 2014. The Llywydd, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion), said “We must provide support for them (young people) to discuss issues they care about....we must listen.”

Projects announced in April include: £400,000 to cut smoking rates; an increase in savings people entering residential care can keep to £30,000 (from £25,000); a £24million EU-backed grant scheme to boost rural tourism; a £13million dementia research centre at Cardiff University and a three-year trial of HIV preventative drug, PrEP.

  • UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced a UK General Election will take place on June 8th, citing “political game-playing” by opposition parties in Westminster ahead of Brexit negotiations.
  • On April 19th, The UK House of Commons voted to hold an election - as stipulated in the the Fixed Term Parliaments Act - by 522 votes to 13. All 40 sitting Welsh MPs will defend their seats.
  • The First Minister criticised the decision to call an election during a local election campaign as “odd” and “not in the national interest”, saying the economy and Brexit should be prioritised – later challenging the Prime Minister to a debate. There was more enthusiasm from the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru, both of whom welcomed the announcement.
  • UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, refused to rule out including tax increases or scrapping the triple lock on state pensions in the forthcoming Conservative manifesto. The Prime Minister also pledged to maintain overseas aid budgets at 0.7% of GDP.
  • At a rally in Cardiff, UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called for voters to join him on a journey of “hope and excitement”. He criticised cuts to the Welsh budget, and said he would maintain the “triple lock” on state pensions and seek to close tax loopholes for big companies. Labour also announced they would make the national days of the Home Nations bank holidays.
  • UK Lib Dems leader, Tim Farron, ruled out forming a coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour after the election, saying voting for the Lib Dems was the only way to prevent a “Hard Brexit”, saying they would hold a second referendum once any deal with the EU is finalised.
  • Plaid Cymru launched their election campaign on April 25th in Bangor, saying their party offered a “ray of hope” as an emboldened Conservative government was a threat to public services.
    • Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) ruled out standing for the Rhondda seat after “much consideration” and media speculation. She said she was sure the party will put up a strong candidate and winning the seat from Labour's Chris Bryant was “do-able”.
    • Former Plaid Cymru leader and Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, was selected to fight Ynys Môn for the party. Polling suggests the seat, currently held by Labour's Albert Owen, is considered a three-way marginal between Plaid, Labour and the Conservatives.
  • The Prime Minister told activists at a campaign event in Bridgend she wanted to open new markets to Welsh businesses post-Brexit with the “best possible trading deal”. The First Minister criticised the visit to his Assembly constituency as “a stunt” and warned voters to “see the Tories for what they are.”
  • Jeremy Corbyn called for people to register to vote saying the young in particular were “being held back”. He said a “fairer Britain” should bend over backwards to help people who are struggling to reach their potential.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Locals 2017: Party Expectations

(Pic : Wales Online)

What should the parties (and Independents) realistically expect in May?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Reckless Abandon?

The last day of term in the Senedd always seems to throw up curve balls, and just before AMs broke for Easter recess came the news – after a day of rumours and counter-rumours – that Mark Reckless had left UKIP to join the Conservative group.

Monday, 10 April 2017

A Welcoming Wales?: Realities of Refugees Lives

(Pic : Wales Online)

Europe is currently going through its worst migration crisis since the end of the Second World War, and Wales is doing its part to shelter those fleeing the Syria in particular.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Locals 2017: Councils to Watch

Before I turn to what individual parties should expect in the local elections in May, it's worth looking at councils  likely to provide hotly-contested polls (in alphabetical order).

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Automation: Resistance is Futile?

Continuing the running theme of the backbench members debates this term - the "Fourth Industrial Revolution" - AMs turned to automation, something that was once science fiction but fast becoming science fact.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

FMQs: Sport Wales, Gibraltar & Banks

This afternoon saw the final FMQs before an extended Easter recess, which will no doubt be taken up by local election campaigning.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Locals 2017: The State of Play

The smiles didn't last very long in Cardiff, did they?
It's unquestionable that Labour had an excellent result in 2012.
How have things gone since then?
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Before delving into the prospects for the parties and key contests etc. it's worth looking at the current state of local government in Wales and what conclusions we can draw.

See also:

The Present Map of Local Government

If you were to look objectively at the map you could draw a few conclusions:

Labour dominate (but don't have it all their own way) – Labour dominate the south, do sod all in the bit between the A465 and A55, then have a scattering of influence across the northern coast. Even their most optimistic expectations were exceeded in 2012, but most of their growth came in places where the party were already strong: the south Wales valleys and north east.

To hold on to their southern heartlands with such an iron grip is impressive, predictable and depressing in equal measure – aided no doubt by the electoral system. But the fact that a party with such political dominance can't make headway in places like Powys, Pembrokeshire and Gwynedd does suggest the "Three Wales Model" is a psychological barrier to a truly national polity, hurting Labour as much as the other parties and Welsh politics as a whole.

Independents: The "Second Party" of Local Government
– I'm not sure how things are elsewhere in the UK, but Independent candidates are a popular choice at local elections, to the extent they control three authorities and are part of ruling coalitions in a further seven. Some counties – like Pembrokeshire, Anglesey and Powys – have a long-standing tradition of voting for Independents, while others – like Wrexham and Vale of Glamorgan – end up with large independent blocks due to a failure of party politics at a local level leading either to defections or "hyper-local" parties and groups forming (like the Llantwit Major Independents and Porthcawl First).

It seems to be a mainly rural phenomenon, and it wouldn't surprise me if there's a correlation between low population densities and voting for Independents. As for why Independents do better in local elections than national ones: perhaps smaller wards distant from centres of power lend themselves to voters backing "truly local candidates"; maybe there's a belief amongst many people that party politics should stay out of local government; there's a failure of party politics on the ground (lack of canvassing/intelligence gathering, lack of candidates, poor performance by dominant parties).

Plaid Cymru still struggle outside Y Fro Gymraeg – Try as they might Plaid still can't shake off the "Party for Welsh-speakers" tag. Whenever they come close to doing so, there'll be some incident to drag them firmly back into that box – the Llangennech school row being 2017's. It'll go down well in Ceredigion, Angelsey and Gwynedd, will probably win them control of Carmarthenshire and shore up the vote in Pontcanna. Will it win them any votes in Rhondda or Merthyr or Blaenau Gwent? Places they need to take from Labour? Of course not.

It always seems Plaid are too keen to reinforce the vote they've already got instead of trying to break new ground and that looks like it's going to be the strategy again this year. The electoral system doesn't help them in the south, but they should be trying to put up as many candidates as possible to give people a choice and say "We are here". It could even be a condition of membership that members put themselves forward for, at the very least, town and community council seats.

Like him or loathe him, this is what Plaid need to learn from Neil McEvoy in spirit if not in practice: campaign on local issues not trendy "grand causes", don't bang on about institutions nobody outside the Welsh-speaking middle class care about (i.e. S4C, Welsh language standards), don't be afraid to call Labour out (but do it smartly). The only thing Neil isn't doing is tying things – no matter how minor - to the national cause. Many of the powers to deal effectively with drug-related litter, for example, are likely to only come via independence.

Very little influence for the Conservatives and Lib Dems – The last local elections took place during the middle of the previous Coalition Westminster government and amidst the Lib Dem's infamous u-turn on tuition fee caps. Both parties were going to get punished, but the Lib Dems came off worse, losing control (or joint control) of Swansea, Cardiff and Wrexham. That left them forming an unlikely ruling coalition with the Tories in Monmouthshire, where the Conservatives performed particularly poorly themselves – Tories losing Monmouthshire is like Labour losing control of Neath Port Talbot.

You could even say both parties, despite having a reasonable number of councillors between them, are a near irrelevance in local politics. Again, victims of the electoral system to an extent.

Will that change? That's for another post. What's becoming clear though is that this election will either seal the fate of the Lib Dems as a "dead on their feet party" in Wales, or start their revival. As I said after last year's Assembly election, as long as they pick their targets carefully they'll make progress – but the dream of them taking large numbers of seats in the likes of Bridgend, Ceredigion, RCT etc. are long over.

How have things changed since 2012?

I'm going to go into a more detailed look at the expectations each of the parties will have another time, but it's still worth looking at how things are at the moment and how they've changed over the last five years.

I should point out I've used total votes cast to calculate the vote share – that means counting every vote in every ward under the multiple member system (i.e. if Plaid put up three candidates in a ward, I count the combined vote received for all three). Personally, I think it's more accurate.

Click to enlarge

I put the above together at the end of February and it's already out of date. For example, Cllr. Ralph Cook – then a Green/Independent on Cardiff Council – has defected to the Lib Dems.

At a more local level, another Labour "purge" in Neath Port Talbot has increased the number of sitting Independents from 5 to 13, while the recent untimely death of long-standing Brackla Labour councillor, David Sage, has left a (technical) vacancy in Bridgend.

Labour have net-lost around 30 council seats since 2012 (2013 once Anglesey is included) – mainly through defections and suspensions than by-election defeats. They've also lost positions in ruling coalitions in two local authorities – Carmarthenshire and Wrexham. As Labour were way out in front in 2012, losing some ground isn't surprising and not bad news in itself. The real question is whether their current dire polling, or the creation of large number of spurned Independents through internal "purges" will "cause the dam to break".

Independents have made gains since 2012/2013 – some 47 councillors and also seizing overall control of Wrexham. Most of those gains will have come through defections and suspensions, though I don't remember any significant by-election victories for Independents.

Plaid Cymru have made modest progress – a net gain of 6 councillors since 2013, in addition to taking overall control of Gwynedd and forming a ruling coalition in Carmarthenshire. More positives than negatives, but they perhaps haven't made the progress they would've liked in the Cardiff by-elections.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are pretty much exactly where they were in 2012. Nothing more to add, really. That does, however, also mean they've managed to keep their respective numbers despite everything that's been thrown at the Lib Dems in particular - which is probably a good sign for them all things considered as it displays loyalty.

UKIP and the Greens aren't really doing much either. Technically UKIP has no councillors (they won seats in the Vale of Glamorgan and Merthyr Tydfil but have since lost them, their only councillor in Ceredigion sits as an Independent) and the Greens only one. The only other major talking point is the disintegration of Llais Gwynedd, having lost 6 councillors since 2012, including one of their leading figures in Louise Hughes.

Top-Down Pressures on Local Government

(Pic : Wales Online)

Finances – The Welsh Government decide the combined budget for local authorities, and the budget for the Welsh Government is in turn decided by the UK Parliament. If Westminster cuts the budget to Wales then inevitably Cardiff will pass those on to county halls (though they have a choice whether to do so or not). Once inflation is taken into account all Welsh local authorities have seen their budgets cut every year for the last five years – amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds – and despite the relatively "good" settlement for 2017-18, the cuts are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Social Services & Social Care – Due to a population that's living longer but not necessarily living healthier, there are a number of pressures facing social services departments across the UK, but particularly in Wales where the population is older and sicker than the UK average. A new law was passed by the National Assembly in 2014 which intends to provide more personally appropriate assessments of a person's social care needs and greater protection for vulnerable children and adults. Trying to fully implement those measures rests of the shoulders of local councils, amidst growing budget pressures and long-standing issues over the cost of full-time residential care.

Schools – During the Fourth Assembly it was Labour policy to protect school budgets at 1% above any change to the Welsh block grant. That policy has since been abandoned and it means that at a local level, schools budget are now "fair game". That doesn't mean councils will automatically cut there, but with the budgets having been largely protected for the last five years, some councils – Bridgend included – will make cuts. In the long run that could mean teaching redundancies, bigger class sizes and more pressure to do more with less when it comes to the curriculum.

Regional Working & Pursuit of Reforms – One moment it looked like we would see the number of local authorities cut, but in a typical Welsh Government fudge, that's been replaced with a new policy of closer regional working. It's already done with schools (Regional Educational Consortia) and some aspects of health, but it could also be coming in for other areas. Will this cause confusion? Is it just delaying the inevitable (mergers)? Will some councils – like Conwy and Denbighshire – press ahead with mergers by themselves?