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Monday, 31 October 2011

Senedd Watch - October 2011

  • A 5p charge for single-use carrier bags came into force in Wales on October 1st. The money collected by the charge will be donated to charities that work in Wales. Business groups raised concerns that many traders are still confused about the scheme. Exemptions to the charge include bags used for medicines and some foods.
  • The National Farmers Union of Wales has said that farmers on lower quality land will miss out on subsidies under changes made to the Welsh Government's Glastir programme. NFU Wales President Ed Bailey, said that farmers have been "duped". Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), responded by saying the changes were recommended by an independent review group.
  • Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Andrew Davies gave his first speech as Welsh Conservative leader at their annual conference in Manchester. He attacked Labour's record on health, saying Aneurin Bevan would be "turning in his grave" at planned £1billion cuts to health spending in Wales. He also criticised "freebies", called for a Cancer Drugs Fund and said that the Welsh Conservatives would support "sensible ideas" that boost the Welsh economy. Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan also attacked Labour in Wales, calling them "timid" and accusing them of "foot-dragging" over issues such as enterprise zones.
  • A Welsh language "virtual" university has launched to increase the number of students studying in Cymraeg at higher education. Coleg Gymraeg Cenedlaethol, which will work through existing universities, will offer a variety of different modules through the medium of Welsh, and hopes to have 100 lecturers on board by 2015.
  • Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) presented the Welsh Government's draft budget to the Senedd on October 4th. Health and Education have seen increases in their budgets while Housing & Heritage, Business and Environment have seen modest budget decreases. Five key Labour election pledges have been kept as part of the budget - including a Jobs Fund, and extra 500 PCSO's and the protection of universal benefits such as free prescriptions.
  • In response to the draft budget Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones accused Labour of "raiding" the Assembly's reserves to meet manifesto commitments, leaving less money available for emergencies. Peter Black (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said the draft budget was "bare minimum" and "timid" while Paul Davies (Con, Preseli Prembrokeshire) said that the budget was "smoke and mirrors".
  • Meri Huws was named the first Welsh Language Commissioner by the Welsh Government - a role which will see the Welsh Language Board wound up as the result of the Welsh Language Measure passed in the 3rd Assembly. Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) raised concerns about how Meri - a former chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith - will transition to her new role from the WLB.
  • BBC Wales outlined how they will save £10.7million as part of a UK-wide spending review by the BBC in London. There will be no cuts to news output, but some changes to political and radio coverage. Coverage of live events and sports with "high value" will be maintained. 100 jobs are expected to be lost.
  • The numbers of pupils achieving 5 A*-C grades at GCSE in 2011 rose slightly, with 49.6% getting the grades compared with 49.4% in 2010. The numbers at ages 16 with no qualifications at all has hit an all time low at just 0.7%.
  • Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), launched the annual winter flu vaccine awareness campaign, which encourages "at risk" groups - such as pensioners and those with underlying health conditions - to protect themselves.
  • Exports from Wales rose in value by 31.4% over the 12 months to June 2011 to stand at just over £13bn. Exports also rose in value for the other Home Nations, but Wales saw the fastest increase in value of exports and imports (which rose in value by 26.8%) of any nation or region of the UK over the period.
  • The European Union unveiled plans for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) from 2013. Some £260million is paid to Welsh farmers every year, and Farmers Union of Wales president Emyr Jones said that proposed changes would "destabilise" rural Welsh communities by taking agricultural land out of food production.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), said that the University of Wales "requires a decent burial" after a series of scandals, including links with questionable foreign colleges and concerns about degree validation. On October 21st, the University of Wales merged with Trinity St David and Swansea Metropolitan to become University of Wales Trinity St David, ending the university's 120-year history.
  • Unemployment in Wales rose sharply by 16,000 in the three months to August 2011 to stand at 9%. UK unemployment rose by 114,000 to reach the highest level in 17 years at 8.1%.
  • The latest EU Objective One figures show that West Wales & The Valleys are one of several regions of the EU that have become poorer after two rounds of funding, with GVA per capita falling from 66.8% to 64.4% of the EU average in 2008. Labour MEP Derek Vaughan believes that this is because of mismanagement of EU funding. The European Commission said that although the figures are disappointing, the geography of the area and the global economic downturn are to blame.
  • A cross-party group of AMs won a vote on a motion for the Welsh Government to introduce a ban on "smacking" children in Wales. Issues remain regarding whether the Assembly has the power to amend criminal law. Deputy Minister for Children & Social Services Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath) ruled out any new legislation.
  • The Welsh Government is starting consultation on a proposed law that would require under-16's to have parental permission before getting cosmetic piercings.
  • 22 Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCB's), responsible for the protection of vulnerable children, will be replaced with six Safeguarding and Protection Boards which will have the added responsibility of vulnerable adults. Social Services Minister Gwenda Thomas said that 22 LSCB's was "not sustainable".
  • Local Government and Communities Minister Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alun & Deeside) pleaded for local councils to take a "forensic approach to their accounting" before deciding on possible council tax rises in Wales. The Welsh Local Government Association says that local councils may struggle to balance the books off the back of the draft budget - which allocated local government a below inflation 0.24% rise in their total budget of approximately £4billion.
  • The First Minister and the mayor of Chongqing, China signed a memorandum of understanding which is hoped will lead to industrial, social and cultural exchanges. The First Minister visited the China International Garden Expo, which included a showcase garden by the National Botanical Garden of Wales.
  • A deal has been agreed between the BBC and S4C over funding until 2017. The deal will include some BBC influence over S4C's direction, with a BBC Trustee appointed to the S4C Authority. However S4C will retain it's editorial and managerial independence. Cymdeithas yr Iaith dropped their campaign to boycott the licence fee, but remained unhappy, instead calling for broadcasting to be devolved to Wales.
  • An obesity expert called for the Welsh Assembly to levy a "fat tax" to help reduce the numbers of overweight and obese people in Wales. Dr Nadim Haboudi - a gastroenterologist - added that subsidising healthy foods could also be an option. The latest figures showed that 21% of the Welsh population is obese, compared to 26% in England and 22% for the UK as a whole.
  • A ban on unmanned tanning beds in Wales came into force on October 31st, with fines of up to £20,000 against businesses that flout the new rules.

Projects announced in October include a £1.9million scheme to encourage sustainability in Welsh National Parks, a £75million jobs fund that aims to create 12,000 jobs for youngsters, a £45million reorganisation of 4 schools in Penarth, a £5million Assembly land sale that could create up to 70 logistics jobs in Holyhead, a £7.5m revamp of Port Talbot Parkway railway station and a £6million refurbishment of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Scotland the brave, Unionists the confused, Wales the nervous

The SNP held their annual conference in Inverness over the weekend. There's a video and link to the text of Alex Salmond's keynote speech over at Syniadau.

The other parties are pushing for a clear timetable for an independence referendum and called for clarification on other independence related issues, for example defence. The Scottish Government produced a white paper in 2009 called "Your Scotland, Your Voice" which addressed many key points albeit without detailed plans for each. This white paper has been conveniently ignored.

As for a timetable, my guess is that 2012 is a no-no as "Britishness" peaks through the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee. I think the impact of these things is over inflated anyway. Apparently there was a big "British" wedding earlier in the year, but all I can remember from it is a woman's small bum becoming big news. My gut instinct says that sometime in the second half 2014, when "Scottishness" hits a peak through the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, would be the likely time. It's entirely the Scottish Parliament's decision when a referendum is held, and if Unionists want to win, it might be a good idea not to be seen to be lecturing Scottish politicians.

Also of interest, it appears as though Alex Salmond might be considering putting a "devolution-max" option on the ballot paper. This might well cost them a yes vote for independence, but it's a canny move by Salmond. A few months ago, I wrote a piece on the parallels between Scotland and Quebec, during one of the referendums there the Canadian Prime Minister went behind the Quebec nationalists back and put forward constitutional changes. Alex Salmond has now prevented David Cameron or anyone else from controlling the agenda or making a similar offer.

The only thing I can see David Cameron doing now to claw back some influence over proceedings is try prevent a multi-option referendum and push for a straight "in or out" vote. The irony considering today's motion in Westminster would be delicious. I think though that, for sheer pragmatic reasons, the UK Government would be satisfied with devolution-max - Conservatives and the Lib Dems could even support it - as long as it keeps British nuclear weapons on the Clyde and Scottish soldiers in the army the Union intact in some form.

Jim Murphy MP has asked "what does devo-max actually mean?" I've always understood it as the devolution of everything except defence, foreign affairs, macroeconomic policies like currency and some aspects of the constitution. Pretty straight forward stuff I think and well explained before.

Now Jim Murphy has a large head. I'm sure inside it resides a large brain - he certainly comes across as intelligent and articulate. I'm sure he knows what it means. Labour in particular have reasons to be worried about "devo-max". Firstly, the Labour party's baby – the welfare state – could find itself under the control of the SNP, joining Labour's other baby under SNP control – the NHS. Labour couldfind itself marginalised on traditional "Labour issues" both north and south of the border.

Secondly, devo-max could well justify another significant reduction in the number of Scottish Westminster MPs. That would not only make it harder for ambitious Scottish Labour personalities to climb the ladder in London, but would hurt the chances of an overall UK Labour majority for obvious reasons. Gordon Brown could very well have been the last ever Scottish UK Prime Minister. Not really that good for the union in the long term.

What does all this mean for Wales?

Gareth Hughes and Welsh Ramblings have discussed the possible implications. The first is that the Silk Commission could  be pushed to devolve economic powers such as tax varying to the Assembly – powers Welsh Labour have explicitly not sought. It could also mean the end to any possible reforms to Barnett - which will no doubt dismay both Plaid Cymru and Labour - but help keep Scotland in the Union.

Handling Alex Salmond with kid gloves is going to have a "negative" impact on Wales regardless. Alex Salmond isn't there to look out for anyone else but Scotland, and that's what makes him such a brilliant politician. There isn't any sort of "Celtic solidarity" when it comes to the nitty gritty issues.

The onus will be quite firmly on the Welsh Government to improve our lot in ways that really matter, instead of twiddling their thumbs thinking of tiny "quality of life" issues to resolve. If the Silk Commission does decide to give Wales similar economic powers to Scotland under devo-max, the Welsh Government would no longer have a half-empty toolbox.

We'll only get a real taste of what our AMs are made of when they start making decisions that would affect personal or business finances. It could make or break devolution in Wales, and those of us who support independence will be hoping more than many others that they are up to the task.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The smacking ban and devolution

As you might have heard, a cross-party Assembly group put forward a motion proposing that the Welsh Government introduce new legislation to outlaw "smacking". The vote on the motion was won 24-15, but Social Services & Children Minister Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath) has ruled out any legislation.

As for my personal view on any potential ban, I'm firmly on the fence.

The state shouldn't mandate how children are disciplined in the home - it's a matter for parents alone - and I consider that an overriding principle.

On the other hand, resorting to violence to get children to cooperate - in my opinion -means the parent has "lost it", not the child. Using euphemisms like "smacking" detracts from the fact that corporal punishment is an outdated Victorian concept. There's something typically British about wanting to give someone a wallop (literally or metaphorically) when they do wrong - including children.

Though there is room to define "good practice", you end up creating another 40-page Assembly circular that only bureaucrats and politicians will read. Those who should read it – parents - will ignore it or won't even know it exists. You'll also be back at the first argument, going around in circles and providing cover for those parents who would use "discipline" as an excuse for poor parenting or even child abuse.

In EnglandandWales, "reasonable chastisement" is currently legal, provided it doesn't leave a mark. As usual with common law, the definitions and legalese leave it out of the realm of public understanding, and just creates work for solicitors and legal secretaries. The Scottish Parliament debated a full ban a few years ago but passed a watered-down version.

Welsh Select Affairs Committee chair David Davies MP (Con, Monmouth) has (quite correctly) raised concerns that any ban would encroach into criminal law - which isn't devolved and is an EnglandandWales matter. His personal views on the ban notwithstanding (he opposes it, quelle surprise), the devolution settlement is starting to strain.

I don't think this Labour government, with its commitment to children's rights, would walk away from a chance to introduce a smacking ban without there being underlying issues. Could said issues have prevented Gwenda Thomas from taking the Assembly's motion forward?

The Assembly and Welsh Government have previously introduced measures and regulations that could be classed as changes to criminal law and/or enable criminal prosecutions - the ban on shock collars for instance, or the law on single use carrier bags. If these laws can't be enforced properly or can be easily overturned by the likes of the Supreme Court, then Welsh laws are effectively useless, our AMs time wasted and it makes a mockery of devolution.

We elect our AMs on the basis that "protection and well being of children" (as written in Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006) is a devolved Wales-only matter. If the Welsh electorate don't like what AMs are proposing we can vote them out in 2016.

If the constitution is hamstringing ordinary AMs and the Welsh Government from doing their jobs as they see fit, isn't it time for David Davies and Cheryl Gillan to seriously consider devolution of criminal justice and a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction?

All I can see them doing in the future is threatening to run to the Supreme Court every time the Assembly proposes something they don't like, using EnglandandWales as a massive loophole and ensuring they (and their roles) stay relevant.

Not good for devolution, not good for the constitution and certainly not good for effective and efficient governance in Wales.

If the Welsh Government are breathing a sigh of relief that they've escaped a "constitutional confrontation", just wait until the Organ Donation Bill....

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater

I'm often critical of what constitutes a "scandal" in Wales these days. In the past few years we've had cigar smoking, iPods, Lib Dem administrative oversights and this week a provocatively expensive table. However the goings-on at the University of Wales have "shamed" the institution to such an extent that the proverbial last rites are being administered by Leighton Andrews.

What was once a federation of all of Wales' higher education establishments has withered to a rump of its former self. Most of its work appears to be in validating qualifications for various centres around the world – this isn't as unusual or as dodgy as it sounds. The institution which kicked off the scandal back in 2008 was the venerable Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Indiana, which had its degrees validated by the University of Wales, but was not accredited by UoW or any US university either. Oh dear.

In the last few weeks BBC Wales revealed a separate visa scandal, now being investigated by the UK Border Agency. Students at a "centre" in London were exempted from working on MBA's, enabling them to apply for visas to stay in the UK, by purchasing "advanced" diplomas and seeing UoW exam papers in advance.

Despite announcing on October 3rd that they would stop validating other institution's degrees, several universities have called for the UoW to be wound up. UWIC is already rebranding itself as Cardiff Metropolitan University, while Wrexham-based Glyndwr University is seeking degree-awarding powers. All that will be left of the UoW it seems will be a tarnished brand, ruined reputation and a largely redundant registry in Cathays Park.

However eager people are to smack down the UoW, and however convenient this all is, the University of Wales still plays a critical role in the Welsh higher education sector. The Prince of Wales Innovation Scholarships (POWIS), run by the UoW Global Academy and funded by the EU and Welsh universities and businesses, aims to fund and attract high-achieving graduates to Wales to undertake research & development at Welsh universities and Welsh companies.

Although there's certainly an argument that we should be investing in Welsh graduates to do this kind of work, with research and development an increasingly competitive and vital part of the global economy, Wales should seize any advantages and opportunities that come along.

By suspending funding and reviewing the POWIS scheme, perhaps using the scandals as a bit of cover, the Welsh Government might have created a longer-lasting negative impact on Welsh higher education than anything the University of Wales might have done. UoW claims that POWIS has brought in £12.5million of investment in two years and exceeded expectations in product development and research projects - isn't that worth a measly £400k?

There are still many unanswered questions....

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Nation's MOT - Chief Medical Officer's Report 2010

The Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Tony Jewell, released his annual report for 2010 yesterday. As usual the gloomy Welsh media have decided to accentuate the negative – focusing on a dire warning that life expectancies might be lower in the future and on the state of children's teeth - heavily linked to deprivation in the report.  This is justifiable to a certain extent.

The most startling and depressing finding in the report in my opinion were the alcohol statistics - especially those for binge drinking and youth alcohol abuse.

However in the full report, which you can find here, there's quite a fair bit of good news. Here's a summary:

The Good News
  • Life expectancies are increasing – 77.2 for men, 81.6 for women. Higher than both Scotland and Northern Ireland, lower than England.
  • Neonatal deaths are levelling off at a low rate of around 4 per 1000 births, with improvements in the mother's health this may fall to Scandinavian levels in Wales.
  • Premature mortality rates for those under 65 in Wales are roughly the Western European average and are similar to France, the north of England, northern Germany and Greece while better than Scotland, Finland and Eastern Europe.
  • Wales is the first UK nation to have introduced an NHS service that helps identify people who have inherited a form of high cholesterol and can take action to reduce the risk of developing heart disease (Wales Familial Hypercholesterolaemia Project).
  • Fewer younger people are taking up drinking or smoking in Wales, a pattern that largely follows the rest of the developed world.
  • Participating in a community is shown to have health benefits and the majority of respondents in Wales trust most or many of the people in their communities. Less than 5% trusted nobody in their neighbourhood.
  • Air and water quality in Wales is vastly improved compared to the industrial era, but with the need for vigilance.
  • There's a much greater emphasis on prevention, intervention and collaboration in the Welsh NHS since the 2009 reorganisation instead of competition. There's a greater emphasis on quality of care and patient outcomes.
  • The Welsh Government is committed to ensuring military personnel who lose limbs (up to 6 or 7 in Wales per year) will have any Defence Medical Service prosthetics matched by the Welsh NHS when they leave service.
  • The Welsh Low Vision Service has dramatically improved waiting times, with those needing to attend now waiting no more than two weeks, compared to 50% waiting 6 months before the scheme was introduced. It has also been recognised internationally.
  • The number of children aged 6-12 who have lost at least one adult tooth has fallen as have the rates of decay, but still lag behind the rest of the UK.
  • The "1000 Lives" campaign, which seeks to prevent 1,000 avoidable deaths in the NHS has been a largely resounding success, with 1,199 lives "saved". A new 5-year programme is to be rolled out. Excellent progress has been made in reducing infection from respiratory equipment in critical care.
  • A number of key components for better health monitoring and "health intelligence" are in place, but there are recommendations that there's greater use of evidence in policy, greater coordination of intelligence and greater investment in analysis and health literacy in the NHS workforce.
  • A national "Institute of Public Health" is being developed by Public Health Wales, led by higher education partners and with collaboration across Wales.
  • Public health law in Wales is to be consolidated by a Public Health (Wales) Act in 2012.
  • Suicide rates for both men and women have fallen, only Neath Port Talbot had a rate significantly higher than any other Welsh local authority between 2007-2009. Bridgend's suicide rate, well publicised over this period, was only slightly higher than the Welsh average and lower than 9 other local authorities.
  • The cancer mortality rate for men in Wales is below the EU average.
  • The circulatory disease mortality rate for Welsh men is substantially lower than the EU average.
  • Coronary heart disease, cancer and stroke deaths are on a downward trend with the lowest ever recorded number of cancer deaths for those under 75 in 2009.

The Bad News
  • The principal causes of death in Wales are congenital abnormalities for the very young (under 1 y.o), accidents for all age groups between 1 and 39, cancer for women aged between 25-74 and men aged 40-74, circulatory diseases for those aged above 74. The causes are broadly similar for both males and females.
  • Healthy life expectancy for both men and women in Wales are similar at around 62 years of age. Men enjoy a longer healthy life expectancy than those in Scotland and Northern Ireland (0.5 years below the UK average), but women have a shorter healthy life expectancy than those in Scotland and England (2.2 years below the UK average).
  • High blood pressure, depression and asthma are the three most prevalent non-communicable diseases in Wales. Up to 1million adults in Wales (a third of the adult population) could be being treated for heart-related conditions by 2033.
  • Smoking rates amongst adults are comparatively high (23%). The number of adults classified as obese is 22%, while the number of adults taking the recommended daily exercise is just 30%.
  • Of 39 nations questioned Wales has the highest rate of those who have been drunk by aged 13. Binge drinking is "normal" behavior and evident in city and town centres. Alcohol related admissions to hospital are on an upward trend. Deaths from chronic liver disease are also on an upward trend albeit with a fall in 2009.
  • The numbers of children with decayed, missing or filled teeth has risen and is linked to deprivation. In an average class of 30, 4 children will experience dental pain in the last 12 months. More than 5,000 general anaesthetics were given to children undergoing dental treatment in south east Wales, compared to just 2,700 in Birmingham. There are acute problems in Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent.
  • The cancer mortality rate for women is above the EU average, and significantly higher in Merthyr Tydfil compared to the rest of Wales.
  • Pembrokeshire has a particularly high accidental death rate compared to the rest of Wales, blamed on reckless driving on rural roads.
  • Hip fracture rates have slightly increased as have child pedestrian injuries (though they remain below targeted figures). There's no change either way in mental health figures.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Draft Budget announced

The draft budget for 2012-13 was announced yesterday by the Minister for Finance Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan).

In her statement to the Senedd she said:
"We have a responsibility to use all the levers we have to stimulate the economy against the backdrop of failing economic performance, with the UK Government having no credible plan for long term growth. Our vision for Wales is for a more prosperous economy with better, more efficient public services that equip people to fulfil their potential and maximise their contribution to society and the economy. "

Draft Total Departmental Budget Allocations   
(Change on 2011-12 Supplementary Budget)
  • Health & Social Services                                £6.47bn          (+£48m)
  • Local Government & Communities                £5.17bn          (+£15.8m)
  • Education & Skills                                           £1.96bn          (+£34.6m)
  • Housing, Regeneration & Heritage                 £514m            (-£16.7m)
  • Central Administration                                    £349m            (-£13.4m)
  • Environment & Sustainable Development     £327m            (-£2.9m)
  • Business, Enterprise, Technology, Science   £313m            (-£8.9m)

In the Draft Budget Narrative Jane Hutt also:
  • Says that in real terms the Welsh Budget will be £1.95bn lower in 2014-15 than in 2010-11, with a fall of £430m for 2012-13. It will also be £1.3bn lower on 2014-15 than the Welsh budget "peak" of 2009-10.
  • Says that capital spending will fall by 9.9% in 2012-13 - lower than the 28.6% fall in 2011-12. In real terms capital spending will be 50% less in 2014-15 than in 2009-10.
  • Accuses the UK Government of cuts that "go too far, too fast". However says that the Welsh Government is acting responsibly and will play it's role in deficit reduction.
  • Calls for borrowing powers for the Welsh Government and a "funding floor" as the first step towards a fairer funding model for Wales.
  • Presses the UK Government to modify their proposals to change End Year Flexibility.
  • Commits £25m per annum to create 4,000 jobs for 16-24 year olds (Jobs Growth Wales), part funded by Welsh and EU structural funds.
  • Commits to increased GP access measures such as Saturday opening.
  • Commits to the pledge to increase spending on schools by 1% above overall changes to the Welsh Budget, committing £27million for schools in 2014-15. Cash budgets for schools will grow by more than 5% over the budget period.
  • Commits £5million in 2013-14 and 2014-15 to Local Government and Communities to fund an extra 500 PCSO's.
  • Allocates an additional £5m (2012-13), £20m (2013-14), £30m (2014-15) to double the number of children in Flying Start.
  • Allocates an extra £287.5m over the next three years to the Welsh NHS but also says that the NHS needs to find savings of up to £250m a year, which has been done efficiently to date with saving of up to £300m found in both 2010-11 and 2011-12.
  • Protects universal benefits (free prescriptions, free school breakfasts, concessionary bus fares, free swimming schemes).
  • Says the Local Government and Communities Department will undertake a prioritisation exercise for National Transport Plan projects.
  • Will invest £89.4m in targeted support for business, £14.4m in youth entrepreneurship and start-ups, £18.1m for tourism marketing and £3.9m for "major events" - including a feasibility study for a Cardiff 2026 Commonwealth Games bid.
  • Commits £26.4m on "Welsh Learning" and establishing a Welsh Language Commissioner.
  • Says that staffing costs at the Assembly will fall by £20million by 2014-15 and the number of staff overall will fall over the period.

Nothing too exciting or overly dramatic there, some questionable decisions (like cutting the Business budget) but it's a difficult, if not a harsh, settlement. Whisper it quietly, but Jane Hutt's quite good at this....

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Senedd Watch - September 2011

  • The Welsh Government has unveiled a new blueprint for local government in Wales. The 22 local authorities will be placed in 6 "regional groups" with the intention of increased cooperation in the delivery of local government services. There will be no reduction in the number of councils or councillors. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) has described this new blueprint as "reorganisation via the back door".
  • Former Rural Affairs minister Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) has announced she will run for the leadership of Plaid Cymru next year.
  • Every single local authority in Wales met tough waste guidelines for 2010-2011. Wales used less than 75% of it's landfill quota, with the aim of sending less than 50% of waste to landfill by 2013 compared to 1995.
  • Wales has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 23.3% since 1995 according to new figures. Environment Minister John Griffiths, (Lab, Newport East), noted that carbon emissions fell significantly in 2009, acknowledging that "the UK economic downturn was a major factor in driving down emissions during this period." Wales produced 7.6% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, significantly higher than its population share.
  • The Welsh NHS will be given the go ahead to use private hospitals to reduce waiting lists, with the Welsh Government saying that local health boards should "explore every option" to reduce them. Cardiff and Vale NHS trust is believed to be exploring plans for orthopaedic patients to be sent to private hospitals due to capacity issues. The previous Welsh Government ruled out the use of the private sector in the Welsh NHS.
  • Health Minister Lesley Griffiths, (Lab, Wrexham), hit back at the claims, saying that private hospitals would only be used as a "last resort" and that she "completely rejected the privatisation of NHS services."
  • Plaid Cymru held their annual conference in Llandudno. The party delegates voted to amend Plaid's constitution to explicitly support independence, support a moratorium on shale gas exploration as well as support non-payment of TV Licences in protest against changes to S4C's funding. Plaid's outgoing leader Ieuan Wyn Jones criticised Labour's record in Wales in his conference speech, saying Welsh Labour were "timid and unambitious" but adding that Plaid shouldn't turn down the chance to return to coalition government in the future. Former Llanelli AM Helen Mary Jones was elected party chair.
  • The First Minister travelled to New Zealand and met business leaders to highlight Wales as a place to invest, citing Pingar (Swansea) and Xero (various south Wales) as New Zealand businesses who are working in Wales. He also visited a Maori cultural centre in Auckland and received a traditional Maori welcome. The trip coincided with the start of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, being hosted by New Zealand.
  • Unemployment in Wales rose by 7,000 in the three months to September, though the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 8.4% compared to the UK average of 7.9%. Across the UK unemployment rose by 80,000, the sharpest rise for two years.
  • Four miners were killed in an accident at the Gleision Colliery near Pontardawe. Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan has promised a full investigation into the causes of the accident. The First Minister, who oversaw a round-the-clock rescue attempt, said "my heartfelt sympathy goes out to their families and friends in a community united in grief". Local MP, and Shadow Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain has set up a fund in the miner's memory.
  • The Assembly reconvened after the summer recess on September 20th and began with tributes to the victims, families and rescue workers involved in the Gleison Colliery accident.
  • The Welsh Government has announced five "enterprise zones" at Anglesey, Ebbw Vale, Deeside, St Athan and Cardiff. The zones will have business rate relief and possible tax breaks to expand in the future. Each zone will also be targeted at specific industrial sectors. The Minister for Business, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) also announced the creation of three new "sectors" in addition to six imposed by the Economic Renewal Plan. The new sectors are Farming & Food, Construction and Tourism.
  • Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams launched an attack on Welsh Labour at the Lib Dem conference in Birmingham, accusing them of "frittering money away like a wayward teenager". She also criticised Labour's record on health, education and the economy.
  • Health Minister Lesley Griffiths unveiled her plans for the Welsh NHS, including a new strategy for maternity services and the creation of an independent group of experts to examine changes by local health boards. Opposition health spokesman Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West) claimed that the latter is an attempt by the Health Minister to "shirk responsibility". This comes as Assembly statistics reveal that there were just under 9,000 complaints about health services in Wales in 2010-11, a rise of 10% on the previous year.
  • The UK Government is to centralise veterinary science testing services, which may result in the closure of laboratories at Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. This would leave Wales the only UK nation without a veterinary science testing lab.
  • The First Minister addressed the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, saying that Labour's success in Wales showed the party was "back in the saddle". He also defended free prescriptions and attacked the UK Government's austerity measures.
  • The First Minister unveiled Labour's Programme of Government for the term which includes new laws, extra PCSO's, extra apprenticeships, a new five-year Welsh language strategy and various measures to combat poverty and social injustices. Opposition leaders have been critical that the programme lacks set targets to measure success.
  • Deputy Minister for Skills Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly) is to lead a review into 14-19 year old qualifications in Wales, focusing on their value to employers and on vocational qualifications in particular.

Projects announced in September include : a UK Government proposal for a £500million rail link to/from Heathrow Airport which would enable direct rail services from south Wales, a £4million joint scheme between the Welsh Government and Sustrans for personalised travel plans in the Cardiff area, a £12million European research project into the bio energy applications of algae at Swansea University, a £12million public-private scheme to meet social housing needs, a biomass plant on Anglesey that will create up to 600 jobs, the £102million second phase of Morriston Hospital redevelopment in Swansea and a £15million joint EU-Welsh Government scheme to help 14-19 year olds with learning disabilities make the transition between education and employment.