This site is no longer updated

Please use the links in the sidebar to visit the new sites!

Sunday 16 December 2012

Nadolig Llawen!

I've given consideration to packing this in. That's nothing to do with lack of interest, in fact I've exceeded my own expectations there. It's as though I've been blogging on autopilot. Perhaps an excuse for a break has come at the right time, though I felt like flipping a coin to decide if it would be permanent or not.

In the coming year, I'd like to look at : local government in Wales – which couldn't come soon enough in my opinion - broadcasting and who Wales' “twins” are around the world.

I'll hopefully finish my look at contentious public policy issues (including capital punishment) and there's Part II of the Silk Commission too. I've considered looking at the recent Census “stunting” of the Welsh language, but I think that's best left to fluent Welsh-speakers to be honest.

I'll give a full evaluation of David Melding's serialised proposals for a federal UK (if it's finished next year). I also do the usual stuff covering bigger stories in Bridgend, the Welsh economy and the Assembly.

There've been rumours of a Welsh Government reshuffle. There were some "interesting" searches directing here at the end of October/early November (that, in the wrong context, could've easily been misread!). Carwyn Jones was coy when asked on that, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did happen early in 2013.

Editing Neophobia has taken longer than I thought, but the final draft should be finished next week. I'm not sure how long formatting will take. Due to the recent tax issues I'm reconsidering whether to use Amazon as "publisher" and distributor, though I'm unlikely to change my mind for practical reasons. My guess is that it'll be out in February.

If, over the holidays, you're bored, you can't stand either your family or the crap on television or you just don't have a life, then here are the most read posts from the last year. It might give you an insight into what sort of posts are popular.
  1. Cardiff Green Investment Bank Bid – Enough's Enough
  2. Wales: An Economic Profile I – Primary Industries & Energy : The first in a six-part look at the state of the Welsh economy at present.
  3. Defending Wales I – What are Wales' strategic defence needs? : The start of a five-part look into a possible independent Welsh defence policy. I might return to this in the future.
  4. Forced Cymraeg - A special investigation : A tongue-in-cheek look into the thoughts behind the anti-Welsh language "movement". See also : Mysterious superhero rids Wales of Cymraeg.
  5. Whither Porthcawl?
  6. Kings of their castles : Do our government structures nurture corporate psychopathy? Or is Carmarthenshire Council just a running joke of a local authority? Consider the recent problems with the South Wales Guardian when reading it again.
  7. Linking north and south Wales by rail
  8. Offa's Gap – What? When? Where? & Why?
  9. March 1st 2036 – Cardiff, Wales
  10. Leanne's Greenprint for The Valleys

Honourable mentions:

A Welsh Monarchy
The Big Independence Question (@ Cambria)
Could Wales host a Commonwealth Games?
Dirty deeds done dirt cheap?
The future of the Welsh media report

The only thing important or relevant enough over the next fortnight worthy of a blog is the Assembly recall for a vote on Council Tax benefit regulations. I think I've done enough this year to say, just this once, “I can't be arsed.”

Cyfarchion y Tymor pawb!

Tuesday 11 December 2012

14-19 Qualifications Review

In September 2011, Deputy Minister for Skills, Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly), launched a review into qualifications for 14-19 year olds. That, presumably, encompasses :
  • GCSEs
  • AS & A-Levels
  • Welsh Baccalaureate
  • NVQs

The board set up to oversee the review reported back a few weeks ago. There were a comprehensive 42 recommendations in total. Here's summary the proposals.

A National Qualifications System
Is the formation of Qualifications Wales
the beginning of the end for the WJEC?
(Pic : CMB Engineering)
  • A national qualifications framework that would "allow divergence from the rest of the UK."
  • The establishment of a single qualifications body for Wales (Qualifications Wales) that would regulate, award and carry out quality assurance of all non-degree qualifications, "learning from the model in operation in Scotland".
  • Vocational qualifications of the highest value to the Welsh economy should be taught in both English and Welsh, with clearer pathways for Welsh medium students.

Qualifications Wales was launched last week by Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) as an independent body to oversee exams. There have already been rumours that it might be a replacement/successor to the existing WJEC. It sounds very similar to the Scottish model, where the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) sets and regulates Standards, Highers, vocational courses and some higher education courses (HNDs, HNCs).

It also raises questions about Ofqual's future role in Wales. Has Leighton taken Ofqual in house? That would be a pretty big development, as until now there's been some ambiguity about who's in charge of what, which partially led to August's GCSE row.

The expansion of bilingual vocational courses matches Leighton's own Welsh Language Strategy for 2012-2017. I think the reason there've been specific problems here, is because some Welsh medium secondary schools might not have the equipment/facilities to provide vocational courses in the same way an FE college might. Perhaps one way to get around this would've been to designate an existing WM secondary within a region as a "regional Welsh medium FE centre" – effectively a WM sixth form/FE college.

And despite the doom and gloom over today's census figures, one crumb of hope is that Welsh-speakers amongst younger age groups are increasing. I think a big contributing factor in the decline  has been outward migration of Welsh-speakers in their 20s and 30s due to lack of job opportunities and affordable housing in Y Fro. If youngsters are going to learn Welsh, they need as many opportunities as possible to use it - including vocational courses.

The Welsh Baccalaureate
The Welsh Baccalaureate might become
the "headline performance measure" from 2017.
(Pic : Click on Wales)
  • A more rigorous Welsh Baccalaureate at GCSE (Key Stage 4) and A-Level/Further Education (Key Stage 5) that should include a "broadly based core" and include more rigorous testing of literacy and numeracy.
  • The Welsh Government should encourage "universal adoption" on the revised Welsh Bacc.
  • Attainment of the Welsh Bacc. should be the "headline performance measure" from 2017.
  • The Welsh Bacc. will be graded from 2015.

I'm not convinced the changes here are as significant as made out, with exception to that the last two, which I'll return to later. It appears as though the Welsh Bacc is going to be as important at GCSE, and  vocational courses, as it is at A-Level.

It's not too different from Michael Gove's English Baccalaureate. To get the Welsh Bacc, learners will need to, seemingly, pass GCSE English/Welsh language and Maths at the very minimum (or A-Levels at Advanced level). However, unlike England, there's no specific requirements for what's deemed "good GCSEs". The core parts of the Welsh Bacc appears unchanged.

I think that's a missed opportunity. I would've preferred a move to the French or Dutch model, and I've outlined my thoughts on that before. I would've also included a second language as a compulsory element, but there are probably issues there in terms of staffing at schools that might have made it impractical for now. But with novel teaching methods, maybe it needn't be.

What's interesting is that attainment of the Welsh Bacc. will be the "headline performance indicator" from 2017. Does that mean the end of GCSE/A-Level results day in Wales, and the beginning of "Welsh Bacc attainment day"? It's said it would be "raising the bar in terms of of expectations about the qualifications learners should achieve." Without it being like the French or Dutch model, I don't see why it would to be honest.

GCSE Maths might be split into separate numeracy and
technique-focused qualifications.
(Pic : The Guardian)
  • GCSEs should be retained as the main 14-16 qualification.
  • A full review of GCSE English Language and GCSE Welsh First Language to build on literacy standards outlined in the Literacy and Numeracy Framework.
  • The introduction of two Mathematics GCSEs – One covering numeracy and the other covering mathematical techniques.
  • Literacy and numeracy standards should be integrated into all new GCSEs proposed by the Welsh Government.

It's said that the current qualifications don't give potential employers "sufficient confidence in the skills of young people". It's said, for example, that the benchmark of a C-grade for English/Welsh language GCSE or Mathematics "doesn't guarantee sufficient literacy or numeracy."

I think splitting maths GCSE is an excellent idea. Mathematical concepts like trigonometry are only valuable in certain career paths. Not everyone needs to learn that, but I imagine if you want to go to university, you will have to take the Mathematics Techniques GCSE. So, in future, Maths GCSE will be (sort of) double-award like science. It does appear as though GCSE Mathematical Techniques will be optional, but the expectation is that most learners would take both.

The modular/unit model will be retained, but with only one resit per module/unit. The grading structure for GCSEs will also be reviewed at a later date.

Another welcome development, is that the review recognises that GCSE questions need to be more like PISA. I believed that one of the reasons we lag behind, is that the GCSE syllabus is based on broader concepts, not practical applications – unlike the PISA test.

Keeping GCSEs could be seen as a major divergence from England, where they appear to be moving towards a return to "O-Levels". The GCSE "brand" is recognised, so it would've been a mistake to change it. The only thing that needs changing is the structure of the courses, and the review recommends greater flexibility in designing courses to meet the requirements of individual subjects.

  • A-Levels should be retained as the main 16-19 qualification, maintained similarly to England and Northern Ireland (with room for variations).
  • Ensure employers and universities are involved in developing new A-Levels
  • At least two units of : Literacy, numeracy, "wider key skills" and digital literacy will need to be taken to Level 3 (A-Level) standard, with the other two to Level 2 standard (GCSE A*-C).

A-Levels are said to be "fit for purpose" with a "strong brand and support". There's support for the AS/A2 "split" as it allows learners to take a broader curriculum. Getting universities involved in the development of A-Levels makes sense, but their involvement might not be as extensive as implied.

There's also a continuation of Curriculum 2000's Key Skills element. That's not a major change from existing arrangements, but perhaps will be taken a little more seriously if the Welsh Bacc. is to become the main benchmark to judge attainment.

Vocational Qualifications
  • Recognise vocational qualifications as on a par with general (academic) ones.
  • Welsh Government and Qualifications Wales should ensure that assessment of vocational qualifications is "rigorous, valid and proportionate".

There's a recommendation to adopt a European definition for vocational qualifications. The first (IVET) is pre-occupational training – for example, in a school or FE college environment. The second is on-the-job training (CVET) – presumably covering things like professional accreditation.

For 14-16 year olds, vocational qualifications would be more general sector based than occupational based. I presume that means students would be introduced to a wider range of theories and concepts than a specific role. So an "automotive" qualification might cover all aspects of the automotive industry, not just mechanics. If it is like that, then I think it's long overdue and would seriously boose the credibility of vocational qualifications in the eyes of the media, students and employers.

For 16-19 year olds, the emphasis would be on specific vocational roles, as per the European definitions listed above.

Vocational qualifications would be based around National Occupational Standards, where sector bodies themselves will be able to rate vocational qualifications and try to identify gaps that can be plugged.

It's proposed that monitoring/moderation/marking of vocational qualifications is given "appropriate externality in assessment". At the moment, perhaps understandably, it's probably mainly internal assessment. They're not suggesting moving to a wholescale external marking/monitoring system, but instead drawing up a "proper assessment of competence and skills" that could be applied across the board.


There are two big developments here : the creation of Qualifications Wales, and the Welsh Baccalaureate becoming the attainment benchmark from 2017.

Many of the other proposals are welcome, but I doubt they're as radical or transformative as they could've been. The review, in effect, is "radical" by keeping large chunks the way they are - as opposed to what's happening in England.

I don't think there would've been much justification for scrapping GCSEs and A-Levels anyway, but I fear the Welsh Baccalaureate is going to remain "A-Level General Studies on steroids" when I would've preferred a move to a French-style Baccalaureate. Maybe that could happen in the future, but – as is the Welsh way – problems that could be sorted out now have to be kicked down the road for the sake of consensus building.

I think "Key Skills" is a flawed concept, and I say that as someone who's actually been through it. The curriculum itself – all subjects - should change to include more literacy, numeracy and use of IT, not have them bolted on as extras. You probably use as much maths in science and subjects like geography as you would in a "numeracy unit" for an Advanced Welsh Bacc.

But, all in all, it's yet another "step forward". I think the changes to vocational qualifications in particular are long overdue, and there's a clear commitment on Leighton Andrews' behalf – and his deputy - to grab the bull by the horns so to speak.

Maybe we're finally going to start to see things turn around for the better in Welsh schools. However, qualifications are as much about content as they are about attainment and teaching methods. The Welsh national curriculum needs to be reviewed too, or none of this will make any difference. I think, once the OECD have reviewed Welsh education, that should be Leighton Andrews' and Jeff Cuthbert's next port of call.

Saturday 8 December 2012

What Wales gets from the European Union

It's bloated. It's bureaucratic. Its budget is yet to be (formally) decided.
What does Wales actually get from EU membership?
(Pic :
I don't think issues surrounding the European Union are, really, at the forefront of most people's minds. It does look as though an agreement on the EU budget for 2013 is imminent after an EU Commission climbdown, but the agreement for the budget between member states for 2014-2020 remains at an impass. These matters impact Wales whether we like it or not.

The EU budget

A few weeks ago, Conservative backbenchers and Labour MPs voted against a rise in the EU's budget, and passed an amendment calling for a real-terms cut. You can argue this is a reasonable stand – if national governments have to make sacrifices, shouldn't Brussels?

The relationship between Wales and the EU is slightly different than many other parts of the UK. Although the EU failed to agree a budget at their last summit, any cuts or freeze will be noticeable here. A failure to agree to a budget would put long-term projects at risk.

Plaid Cymru MEP, Jill Evans, spelt out some benefits of Wales within the EU, working out that every Welsh person is getting back £40 more than is put in. That roughly works out at Wales being £120million better off as a whole.

That doesn't sound like much, but I think the benefits are much wider. It's also fair to say that some of this money may well have been (perceivably) mismanaged. I said this a few months ago:
"EU-funds appear to be used for things like public realm improvements, or incredibly niche schemes, spreading funds far too thinly. In the period 2007-2013, £1.5billion has been spent on the public sector (mainly universities), £99million on the third sector (including ~£6.1million to the likes of AWEMA), and just £23million in the private sector."

It's also worth pointing out that the EU's own strict guidelines, regulations and rules mean that an awful lot of effort needs to go into getting the funds in the first place. That doesn't mean that some of the people bidding for these funds are always suitable. Note Jac o' the North's account on that.

It's also right to point out that seeing grants as the be all and end all solution in Wales, or a natural "Welsh way of doing things", is perhaps creating an incredibly damaging, short-term, dependant mindset.

A Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East) motion passed the Senedd – including support from Welsh Labour AMs – that pressed the Welsh Government to "make representations" to the UK Government, opposing the budget cut.

Are (UK) Labour equally concerned about the "threat" posed
by UKIP as the Tories seemingly are?
(Pic : The Times)

Now, I don't know why Westminster Labour have decided to lurch towards euroscepticism-lite. Maybe they're just hardening their stance to appear "tougher on Europe" than they were in government to stave of a UKIP threat amongst the working class.

I don't have any truck with UKIP's views, but in terms of public debate, they've opened a window – even if it only lets in muck spreading wafts. They're eccentric - with a Colonel Blimp jingoism and a twee view of the UK's place in the world – but deserve to, and will, be taken seriously in 2014 and 2015. However, I think it's too soon to be building them up as an electoral force. Due to FPTP, the chances of them gaining MPs will be slim.

Welsh Labour are, seemingly, more pro-Europe that the Westminster party. They might be disciplined on the surface, but there's a history of differences causing "tensions". The first chinks in Tony Blair's armour came from Wales in the shape of Rhodri Morgan.

If Carwyn Jones were taken seriously as a head of government by his own party, instead of being seen as a loyal provincial governor, I'd put £10 on him verses Ed within two rounds.

It's also heartening that Welsh politicians can debate these matters of importance in a reasoned and mature manner, while British politicians try to out-clown each other in the Westminster lobby on News 24 trying to prove who wants to cut the most.

How does Wales benefit from EU membership?

Broader benefits

Jobs – The First Minister acknowledges that at least 150,000 jobs were based wholly or entirely on EU membership, and 50,000 were employed directly by companies from other EU member states. You could also suggest EU membership imperils Welsh jobs – especially if operations move to more attractive places in eastern Europe. It's also fair to say these jobs wouldn't disappear overnight if the UK left.

Free trade & membership of the world's largest economy – As I highlighted back in September, Wales is less reliant on the EU for our exports than the UK as a whole. But having free and open access to a market of half a billion people in one of the wealthiest parts of the planet (in spite of what's going on) is a no-brainer.

Carwyn Jones recently said that 50,000 people in
Wales were employed by companies based elsewhere in the EU -
including ~500 at (German-owned) Siemens Diagnostics in Llanberis.
(Pic : Daily Post)

Free movement
– Although the UK isn't part of the Schengen agreement, being able to move visa-free between large economies like England, Germany and France - as well as faster-growing economies like Poland - should be considered a huge benefit. It's a shame we tend to focus on those coming in instead of thinking about going out – in business terms especially. It also has spin offs like guaranteeing free health care in EU nations.

Peace & political stability – The timing of the EU being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was...."amusing". The EU has developed a strength in its diversity - when it was once a weakness. Instead of Europe's great powers using smaller nations as chess pieces in their quest to dominate the continent (or further afield), disagreements are now thrashed out around negotiating tables in Brussels and Strasbourg. There's also a strong commitment to liberal democracy in all member states – though that's starting to slip in places like Hungary. It's just a shame the European institutions are so cumbersome, but maybe they need to be.

Harmonised pan-European regulations – Whenever we hear about EU laws, they are usually BS about straight bananas and weights and measures. What about mobile phone roaming? Environmental regulations? Standards on chemical safety and water quality? Car and air safety standards? Veterinary and agricultural standards? Cross-border crime fighting? It's also important to point out that the much-maligned European Court of Human Rights isn't part of the European Union.

Specifically important benefits for Wales

Agricultural Programmes – Includes the European Fisheries Fund, European Agricultural Rural Development Fund (worth about £195million to Wales between 2007-2013) and Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP alone is said to be worth £350million to Welsh farmers every year.

The Common Agricultural Policy is due for reform, but
without it, would Wales have much of a farming industry left?
(Pic : BBC Wales)

You can argue that farms shouldn't need subsidy, and should be encouraged to become more commercially viable – that's supposed to be amongst these funds main aims. These funds are in desperate need of reform – especially since EU enlargement - and make up a sizable chunk (€270billion) of the EU's total budget. I think attempts at reform have probably been blocked by the French and Spanish, who benefit disproportionately from the current arrangements. The UK does too, it has to be said.

Convergence Funds – Commonly referred to under the umbrella of "Objective One", or the more grand European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). These funds are worth up to £1billion over a 6 year period. It looks like West Wales & The Valleys might qualify again in 2013. That's not really good news, as convergence funds have to be match-funded by the Welsh Government and are a sign of a weak economy.

These funds have had a big impact on the university sector in particular. Jill Evans mentioned using EU funding to electrify the north Wales mainline recently, and that's the sort of project you would expect this money to be spent on. However, as noted earlier, I believe many of the projects over the last few decades have been well-meant, but haven't delivered anywhere near the outcomes – especially in terms of economic development and infrastructure – that West Wales & The Valleys desperately need.

"Objective One" is probably the most visible
sign of the EU in Wales. But is the money
being invested wisely?
(Pic : Ceredigion Council)

European Social Fund – Another branch of "Objective One". This is worth around £690million over six years. These funds are used on the "social schemes". For example : reducing economic inactivity, "social justice", up-skilling. But it also makes its way to the third sector, who haven't covered themselves in glory of late. The rules are incredibly specific and so full of hoops, that I doubt much money makes it to the front lines.

Specific Investment Funds – This includes the JESSICA framework (funds aimed at developing urban areas). It could be considered a branch of the main convergence funding. The Welsh Government have set up and Urban Development Fund and the Regeneration Investment Fund under this EU framework. It's supposed to be used on regeneration projects. In fact, a chunk of RIFW's cash is going to be spent on Neath town centre over the next few years. Again, the outcomes and management should be questioned. The JEREMIE initiative also helps/helped the Welsh Government's finance arm (Finance Wales) support small and medium businesses. It was/is worth £150million.

Erasmus– A pan-European exchange programme. Although it's said only 630 students (and 112 staff) from Wales have participated in the programme last year, compared to the all-UK figure (~12,000 participants) that's roughly what you would expect – perhaps slightly more than our population share. Cardiff University also hosted one of the largest overseas Erasmus contingents in the UK. Even brief periods living and studying in another EU state would obvious help cross-cultural understanding and – hopefully – international relations should they grow up to become business or political leaders.

What we also get, and what we'll get in the future

London Mayor, Boris Johnson, recently mooted a "pared down" relationship
with the EU - citing Switzerland and Norway. That might suit London, but
would it suit Wales, or the UK as a whole?
(Pic : BBC)

Bone-crushing levels of bureaucracy. No (Welsh) voice at the top tables. The pointless spectacle of moving between Strasbourg and Brussels. The ongoing "will they, won't they" fiscal union debacle. Nigel Farage. Uninspiring leaders at European level. And a voice for lunatics on the far-left and far-right in the European Parliament.

And it's fair to point out that there's significantly more subvention/subsidy from the UK that there is from the EU. We might be £40 better off in Europe, but thanks to leaky submarines, West Ham's new stadium and RBS – and other, more important things like social security – we're estimated to be about £4000 "better off" in the UK. Even if most of that is borrowed via the Treasury's credit card.

So although I clearly believe there are benefits to Welsh membership of the EU – via the UK at the moment – there's a need for reform.

The Lisbon Treaty went a long way towards doing that. It merged several institutions and created, in effect, a European constitution. But I think things are coming to a head due to the eurozone's fiscal problems.

My hunch is that the worst of the Euro fiscal crisis is behind us, but there's nothing ahead but a decade of stagnation. I think a new treaty is inevitable – probably creating a full fiscal union between eurozone members – and, ultimately, a "two-speed Europe".

Guess who'll be trundling along in the outside lane, indicating to take the next exit - with Wales in tow. Would that be in Wales' interests? It's a big question, and one that's perhaps too difficult to answer at the moment.

But, at the end of the day - whether you're Welsh, Slovene, German or French - we're all Europeans aren't we? If you even consider the British Isles a part of Europe. It appears the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly doesn't.

Stronger together....

Thursday 6 December 2012

Domestic Violence White Paper

I was going to post something on yesterday's council tax benefit ruckus from the Senedd. The Welsh Government cover themselves in brown, pongy glory once again.  I'm pretty sure Rhodri Glyn Thomas (Plaid, Carmarthen E & Dinefwr) warned of this happening a good 8-9 months ago. As there's very little to work off other than some strongly-worded statements, finger pointing and incompetence, I decided against.

He's got himself into another fine mess on that, but Local Government and Communities Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), recently launched a white paper drawing up proposals for a new law on domestic violence and violence against women. He's asking for consultation responses – some representations from major domestic violence groups have already been submitted, I believe – which are due by February 22nd 2013.

The Problem

Domestic violence – defined as "patterns of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse" - is said to cost Wales up to £800million a year. That figure presumably covers costs of social services, healthcare and perhaps even extending into the economy if domestic violence victims are too intimidated to go out and work.

The Welsh Government have also make the (more than welcome) decision to make the domestic violence provisions gender neutral. If this had been women only – even though women make up the majority of victims - it would've neglected victims of domestic violence in same sex couples and male victims.

"Violence against women" – another core/specific part of the proposed legislation – is defined by the United Nations as "actions....likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women." This would include, presumably, things like stalking and harassment.

The Welsh Government believe that people have a "right to feel safe" and believe that legislation in this area will go some way to improve the services provided to victims.

Specific Proposals

Leadership & Accountability

The approach by the public sector in Wales to domestic violence is said to be "innovative". However, the Task & Finish Group preceding this white paper said there needed to be improvements to "leadership and accountability". They also want to improve consistency across Wales, as these issues are – in the main – the responsibility of local authority-run social services.

There are early proposals for a Welsh Government appointed adviser on the issue, but that falls short of the Commissioners for Children, Older People and the Welsh language, for example. The adviser would have the power to carry out investigations and contribute to funding decisions taken by the Welsh Government. Some of these powers will link in with those outlined in the proposed Social Services Bill from earlier this year (details here).

Our old friend - local authority collaboration – makes an appearance, again tying in with the Social Services Bill.

Education & Awareness

The white paper cites studies showing that between a quarter and a third of young women have been victims of some sort of unwanted sexual attention or harassment at some point. The Welsh Government want people to "engage" with the proposed Bill. They want to ensure that relationship education is on the school curriculum.

The Welsh Government want to dispel myths amongst the public about domestic violence and even rape victims – for example, the belief that revealing clothing makes a woman partially or wholly responsible for being sexually assaulted.

The aim, through education, is to reduce victim-blaming, make violence unacceptable and reduce "damaging gender stereotypes". The Welsh Government want to set national standards to ensure services relating to domestic violence aren't as varied as currently, by placing more statutory duties on education/prevention on local authorities.

To address inconsistencies in training to deal with abuse, there are proposals for a new national advice framework (groan!) for everyone ranging from the public to public leaders. The Welsh public sector will also have a statutory obligation to have a domestic & sexual violence policy.

Strengthening Services

The Welsh Government want to improve information sharing between relevant public bodies and groups so they can improve safety of victims at a much earlier stage, and help identify perpetrators sooner.

Welsh public bodies – like the NHS - will also be expected to "act and ask" by disclosing information to relevant agencies, and increasing referrals to relevant bodies dealing with abuse. They also want to provide safer accommodation for victims, so they don't feel obliged to stay at home with an abuser.

It's hinted more than once that the capital and resource costs of this might be difficult for local authorities and the NHS to meet. So, one more, "regional collaboration" crops up.


The broad aims are welcome – domestic violence is a particularly vicious crime because, more often than not, it traps the victims emotionally – but I do have some issues with a few of the proposals.

I might be open to accusations of hypocrisy considering what I said about replicating Scotland's Sexual Offences Act in Wales (if criminal justice powers are devolved), but I imagine most outward examples of domestic violence would be covered by current assault and harassment laws. The psychological abuse would be hard to define or (in some cases) prove.

It's a tricky thing to tackle by legislation alone. I think the Welsh Government realise this, and that's why they've focused on attitudes and services, but I fear this is going to get bogged down in public sector buzzwords and policy wonk talk.

The UN definition of "violence against women", as cited in the white paper, might refer to violence in specific circumstances – for example, in warzones, or using rape as a weapon. Maybe I'm wrong about that. I don't think that definition's entirely applicable to Wales, but obviously some aspects (i.e human trafficking) would be.

Like housing, I fear that local authorities elsewhere in the UK might see the more aggressive approach taken to tackle domestic abuse here - by a "progressive, caring" Welsh Government - as a way to pass problems onto us that they should be addressing themselves.

A proper course of relationship education in schools as part of PSE lessons would be wholeheartedly welcome, and I've mentioned that before. I just hope it's genuine and well-planned so it doesn't become another box-ticking exercise. It's this public education and awareness aspect that would make the big difference, seeing prevention as the best cure.

But let's not go over the top. Men still make up – by some significant margin – the perpetrators and victims of general violence. You would think that a "Violence Against Men" Bill, under the same benchmarks, would probably be laughed out of any legislature in the world. Once you take into account things like the 1995 Srebrenica massacre - Bosniak  men and boys were specifically targeted - the concept of gender-based violence against men might not be so laughable.

On the other hand, I can see why a "Violence Against Women" Bill makes sense, as it's usually (but not always) a symptom of something else, or a way to exert control rather than spontaneous.

However, the title of the white paper and (presumably) any future Bill might give the mistaken impression that it'll clamp down on the violence itself. Sadly, I don't think it would.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Welsh Budget 2013-14

Finance Minister Jane Hutt's (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) Welsh Government budget for the coming year passed the Senedd earlier by 25 votes to 18.

Here's a summary of the total spending allocations (combined revenue and capital spending plans) and their change compared to the plans in the 2012-13 supplementary budget from June this year.

Main Expenditure Group (Total spending) Budget 2013-14 Change from 2012-13 Supplementary Budget
Health & Social Services £6,430million -£115million
Local Government & Communities £5,204million +£57million
Education & Skills £2,048million +£15million
Housing, Regeneration & Heritage £488.2million -£38.9million
Central Services & Administration £350.2million -£10.8million
Environment & Sustainability £326.8million -£13.7million
Business, Enterprise, Technology & Science £315.3million -£1.3million

In the final budget narrative, Jane Hutt notes:

  • An extra £175million in capital spending over the next two years to support "strategically important projects" as outlined in the Welsh Infrastructure Plan.
  • The above includes an extra £16million towards housing on public sector land (up to 1,800 new homes) and an extra £30million to the Wales Economic Growth Fund over the next two years.
  • Allocating £6million in extra funding from reserves towards Business Rate Relief schemes in Enterprise Zones.
  • The establishment of an Advisory Group to see how the proposed budget impacts equalities.
  • A continuation of the Pupil Deprivation Grant from last year's deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This has been increased by £4.7million.

It's also been announced today that there'll be an extra £200million for capital spending on schools - funded via local borrowing - while up to £300million will be raised via a not-for-profit mechanism (which sounds suspiciously like the "pie in the sky" and "uncosted" Build for Wales idea mooted by Plaid Cymru in 2011 and roundly criticised by opposition parties) to complete the A465 duelling.
This budget passed because of a deal between Labour and Plaid Cymru. Plaid Cymru abstained from the vote, but they got:

  • £20million in 2013-14 and £20million in 2014-15 to create new apprenticeships. This could be topped up to £60million via European and private sector funding. It's estimated this could create between 8,000 and 10,500 apprenticeships.
  • £10million over the next two years towards a new joint science park facility for Bangor and Aberystwyth Universities. It's been hinted/rumoured that this might be based on Anglesey.

Last year, Plaid criticised the Liberal Democrats for "selling themselves cheaply". I said it seemed as if Kirsty Williams sold herself short as well. But is there that much of a difference between the two deals?

Plaid's deal might be a bit more "concrete" in terms of outcomes than the Pupil Premium – which seems, on the surface, a bit like throwing money at a problem - and the science park is a commitment to a specific project. So, I'd say Plaid (and Labour, as an expansion of apprenticeships would reduce unemployment) have marginally got a better deal, but it isn't some fantastic game changer.

The only difference between this year and last year really are the sums of money involved and Plaid being a bit more practical - which is welcome to see. But there's no need to go overboard hailing the deal's virtues just yet.

As for the budget as a whole, the overall impression is "steady as she goes." The total budget is down by ~£108million, but the figures I've given appear more dramatic because I used the supplementary budget (which I believe is a more accurate measure of what's actually spent) as the comparison, not last year's final budget. If I'd used 2012-13's final budget instead, then the figure would still be a cut, but a smaller one – probably around the £50million mark, which matches the cut to the block grant.

Regardless of which budget is used, there's another obvious cut to the health and social services budget as a whole (NHS spending itself is largely protected), which the Conservatives in particular – I'd imagine – are going to use as a stick beat the Welsh Government with.

There are ongoing worries there. This isn't the first year concerns have been raised regarding NHS efficiency savings. In fact, this year's obligatory Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West) outburst matches last year's almost word for word. The only difference is that this year's spending gap is bigger, and it's getting worse. I think time's starting to run out for the Welsh Government and Local Health Boards to get a grip of the issue. As an ordinary member of the public, with family members who use NHS services regularly, I'll say this – we're starting to notice it.

There's an overall (real terms) 8.7% cut in capital budgets, so Jane Hutt's been a bit more careful about where that money's gone, focusing on getting return on that investment – and Plaid played a role in directing it.

But judging by Labour's shopping list in the Infrastructure Plan, borrowing powers couldn't come soon enough. It could make the difference, for example, between Newport waiting years for M4 improvements or decades. We'll see if Gorgeous George has any early Christmas presents tomorrow, but I don't think we should be getting our hopes up somehow.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Assembly Welsh Premier League Inquiry

Full houses at Welsh Premier grounds are rare. Our national football league
has always been poorly sold and poorly supported by the FAW and
other authorities.
(Pic :
The Welsh Premier League (WPL) is a much-maligned creature. Attendances are woeful, the standard of football leaves a lot to be desired and (S4C attempts aside) there's precious little promotion of our national league.

The Assembly's Local Government and Communities Committee, chaired by Ann Jones AM (Lab, Vale of Clwyd), reported back on their inquiry into the WPL last week. There were 9 key recommendations, summarised as:
  • More co-operation between the Football Association of Wales (FAW), Sport Wales and the Welsh Government on football development and finance
  • The FAW needs to improve their relationship with WPL clubs
  • Welsh Government, FAW and local authorities should support the development of 3G/4G pitches (artificial/mixed playing surfaces)
  • The Welsh Government and FAW should develop WPL clubs as "community hubs", with an academy system supporting grassroots football

Funding & Governance

The FAW are - broadly - said to be "making progress" by taking a more strategic approach to the sport. The FAW have a reputation amongst football fans of being parochial - bordering on incompetent - so it's good news. There were criticisms that the WPL is only represented by one member on the FAW Council, which WPL clubs consider a "lack of respect".

There's also criticism that the Welsh Government doesn't do enough to support Welsh football.

The Minister in charge, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), pointed to £800,000 grants to the Welsh Football Trust by Sports Wales (the funding body who receive most of their funds from the Welsh Government). However, he added that, "the WPL and professional game in Wales do not receive any financial support from the Welsh Government", and instead money was target at the grass roots game.

The FAW themselves are criticised for similar reasons. Bangor City pointed to infrastructure funds being targeted at lower league clubs rather than established WPL clubs. The FAW defend this by saying it's to enable clubs to meet licencing requirements for promotion applications.

The Welsh Premier League itself

The elephant in the room in Welsh football is that our biggest sides play in the English pyramid. But without a national league, there's no justification of the FAW's existence – so no Welsh Premier, no Welsh national teams. I've covered the background to the WPL's formation before.

Wales' biggest club sides ply their trade in the
English pyramid, while the WPL is a semi-professional
league. Does this harm the domestic game?
(Pic : BBC)

Dic Mortimer submitted evidence about Welsh clubs in the English pyramid. The FAW acknowledge that the move to a national league in the 1990s was "handled badly", but said expecting the likes of Cardiff and Swansea in the Welsh pyramid is "unrealistic".

Although it appears as though the committee washed their hands with the issue, in fairness, there's little they could've done.

The report cites pitch conditions as a factor on the poor standard of games. The FAW acknowledge issues, but said many pitches – rented from local authorities or other bodies – don't attract enough investment from those third parties. It's said 3G/4G pitches would "transform the fortunes of all our clubs", and point towards improvements in Northern Ireland, Sweden and Turkey. Oswestry-based The New Saints already use an artificial pitch (pictured below).

It's said a move to mixed/artificial surfaces would
improve WPL club fortunes and the standard of games.
But it comes with a hefty price tag.
(Pic :

It's estimated introducing 3G/4G pitches to all 12 (current) WPL clubs would cost ~£5million. Huw Lewis expressed tacit support, without making any commitments.

The introduction of a 12-team league has – reportedly - led to a 26% increase in attendances, but the average WPL crowd remains around the 300-mark. The "split" in the second half of the season to decide champions and relegation is welcomed by some, but clubs are disappointed with the format, expressing preference for a 16-18 team league (the old format). Coincidentally, the Scottish pyramid is being reformed that way.

Media coverage

Although WPL clubs were complimentary of S4C coverage (Sgorio), they were less pleased about other outlets (BBC Wales, ITV Wales, print press). I remember BBC Wales used to show League of Wales highlights - and live games - in the 90s, and Depeche Mode's Enjoy the Silence is now embedded into my brain because of that.

Fortunately, the Welsh Premier/Welsh domestic football in general has excellent independent online coverage via the likes of, Llandudno Jet Set, Mark Pitman and Ffwtbol - amongst others.

It's said the FAW needs to do more to "sell the league" to media and sponsors, and lack of action has caused a rift between clubs and the FAW. WPL clubs don't receive money for broadcasting live games. The producers of Sgorio, Rondo Media, were "astounded" by that fact. I also think it's ludicrous, but it has to be said that S4C don't have much money as is. However, for WPL clubs, I imagine even a token sum like £1000 could make a difference.

Summer football

It's been suggested that moving Welsh domestic football
to a summer calendar would improve performances in European
competitions - like the Republic of Ireland.
(Pic : [Shamrock Rovers v Rubin Kazan - 2011/12 Europa League Group Stages])

The FAW supports the introduction of a March-October (summer football) domestic calendar, as used in the Republic of Ireland. It's said to benefit clubs because (ideally) warmer weather would prevent matches being called off, and it means Welsh clubs would be mid-season when playing in European competitions - which might boost performances.

However, clubs and S4C oppose the move. The clubs because they believe it would be harder to attact part-time players and fearing irrigation problems. S4C because fewer people watch TV during summer months. It's said 3G/4G pitches might solve a lot of the problems, and the focus should be there instead of summer football.

Player/Coach Development & Management

The report points to a number of WPL players who've been developed by clubs in the league and moved to the English pyramid. There's overall praise for the academy network, but there were concerns that - outside the WPL - clubs don't have the funds to develop their academies.

The FAW is investing up to £400,000 in coach development in the WPL, and the standard of coaching is said to be high. It's said the FAW should lead a strategic development of academies, and decide what role "the 12 Welsh Premier clubs should play". This probably falls within the "community hub" model that was recommended, which would include improving access to things like kit, travel to training & games and encouraging underrepresented groups – like women - to take up football.

The WLGA said that league management needed "updating" as it was still based on the pre-1974 county model. The FAW pointed to transport rules drawn up by UEFA and FIFA to keep local players "local".

Welsh football independence

There were noted concerns that many FIFA members have/are actively trying to overturn Wales' independent status within FIFA and the rule-making body (IFAB). Sport Wales' Dr Huw Jones said the creation of Team GB wouldn't have done much to "exacerbate the situation", but both he, and other witnesses, suggested caution and "keeping eyes open".

It's said independence needed to be "cherished and....actively brought out by the Welsh Government, internationally" to protect it. Despite this, it isn't said to be a "major worry at the moment."


They're more famous for football , but Catalan giants FC Barcelona
play other sports under the same name. Could the "community hub" model do the
same thing in Wales on a smaller scale?
(Pic :

I doubt I'm the only person who believes that the Welsh political circles have been overly concerned with rugby as opposed to football. There's room for both in Wales, but rugby union has always seemed the establishment "favourite sibling". I don't think this inquiry will go far by itself, but I hope politicians – of all colours – realise there's more to Welsh sport than rugby. I think many do, to be fair.

Seeing WPL clubs as potential "community hubs" is a step forward. I'm not sure what it means in practice, and I fear it'll end up another strategy filed away. It's all very well making steps forward but Wales needs leaps and sprints.

I think one way to develop Welsh sport (in general) is establishing local authority based "athletic clubs" that could include several teams - playing different sports - under one umbrella, perhaps including a WPL club too. It's a model that works well for the likes of FC Barcelona, for example. That's unlikely to be popular as clubs value their identity and football fans are rather tribal.

If the domestic game is to thrive, it needs better coverage and a better portrayal. The standard of football isn't great compared to what's on offer by English pyramid clubs, but it isn't awful and the WPL plays an important part in maintaining Welsh football's independent status. S4C and independent websites aside, I think our major national outlets do Welsh pyramid clubs a disservice.

It's a mistake to reject summer football out of hand, IMO. WPL clubs are right to be wary of anything coming from the top, but I don't think it would hurt to trial it – with or without 3G/4G pitches. Maybe there's scope to create a beefed up Futsal League (a fancy name for 5-a-side) from the current FAW Futsal Cup for the winter months too (if the moved to a summer calendar).

It's also important that clubs in the lower tiers want promotion to the WPL, especially clubs from the larger settlements of the south and south east. Bridgend Town are doing their best to muck that up this season.

And yes, getting all Welsh clubs playing some sort of all-Wales competition would go a long way to lifting the profile of the domestic game, and I've mentioned that before. Last season's attempts to get those sides involved in the Welsh Cup were an embarrassment, while the FAW Premier Cup was never taken seriously.

One way the Welsh Government might help is by working with the FAW to get a big name sponsor for the Welsh Cup to provide a financial carrot for the likes of Swansea and Cardiff – alongside a European place – so they'd take the proposition seriously. That would be a big, big ask and a hard sell to the English pyramid sides.

The Welsh Government will need to be careful they don't pry too far into the internal workings of the FAW while trying to create "community hubs", as FIFA and UEFA take a dim view on "political interference". Cooperation is the best way forward, even if you would like the Welsh Government (or Assembly) to wring necks sometimes.