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Thursday 31 January 2013

Senedd Watch - January 2013

  • Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards accused the Welsh Government of “shedding crocodile tears” after Severn Bridge car tolls rose to £6.20 on January 1st. A Freedom of Information request showed the Welsh Government lobbied in favour of a change to the toll formula which caused the rise.
  • In a related development, transport expert Prof. Stuart Cole argued that high Severn Bridge tolls were “no deterrent to tourism or inward investment” and argued in favour of using bridge tolls as a revenue raiser for transport schemes.
  • A “smart card” system for public transport fares across Wales has been delayed for five years, however they will come into use on buses in 2014, with a trial beginning in north Wales this month. The Welsh Government said renegotiation of the all-Wales rail franchise in 2018 is the reason for the delay.
  • University applications from Welsh students fell by 11.7% compared to 2012 according to UCAS statistics - the sharpest drop of the Home Nations. Only Northern Ireland saw a rise. Wales also lagged behind on the award of top degrees (firsts and 2.1s), but outperformed the rest of the UK in terms of graduates employed after six months, which stood at 91%.
  • Swansea City's promotion to the English Premier League is worth £58million to the local economy, and created/safeguarded around 400 jobs according to a Cardiff University report. Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) welcomed the report's findings, saying Swansea City's promotion “ opportunities to promote....economic development and tourism.”
  • Edwina Hart launched a network of “one stop shops” for micro and small business advice, which will operate from 11 sites. She said the “Business Wales service will available through our Business Information Helpline and Business Wales website.”
  • Shadow Education Minister, Angela Burns (Con, Carms W & S. Pembs.), criticised some Welsh universities for offering places with low grade requirements at A-Level and GCSE. She said it,“sends out a message that (Welsh universities) have bargain-basement entry requirements and don't appreciate the value of academic rigour.”
  • Network Rail unveiled their strategic plan until 2019, setting provisional dates of 2018 for south Wales mainline electrification and 2020-2024 for Valley Lines electrification. Around £1billion has been committed towards both projects.
  • Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, called for the devolution of probation services following the UK Government's announcement that probation services for low-risk offenders could be outsourced to the private sector in EnglandandWales.
  • The Welsh Conservatives criticised the Welsh Government's decision to seek to purchase Cardiff Airport. Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) said it was a “financial liability we don't need in this day and age.” Edwina Hart said negotiations were confidential and she “wouldn't provide a running commentary” on them. On January 30th, the First Minister told the Assembly's Business and Enterprise Committee that a deal was “close”.
  • A petition was handed in to the Assembly, with more than 22,000 signatures, calling for business rate relief for charity shops to be maintained. The Welsh Government said they were “sensitive to many viewpoints.”
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) launched a Masters in Educational Practice (MEP) module, which is intended to “drive up standards in schools” by supporting newly-qualified teachers via ongoing professional development.
  • The chair of the National Clinical Forum explained his modifications to a Betsi Cadwaladr Local Health Board report, which originally called hospital reorganisations in north Wales “unsustainable”. He admitted that his chances appeared to be “totally bizarre”, but believed the board responsible “didn't understand the proposals”.
  • The Welsh Conservatives criticised the Welsh Government for cutting funds for promoting Wales abroad for tourism. Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) said Labour had made “a massive own goal in failing to market Wales to our closest neighbours.” The Welsh Government said they were focusing on UK tourists, who account for 80% of tourist expenditure.
  • There were calls for “strong political leadership” over NHS reforms from Community Health Councils (CHCs). Disagreements on reforms between Local Health Boards and CHCs can be referred to Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), who has been criticised for her attitude to CHCs in the past.
  • A campaign was launched to cut down on waste of prescription medicines, which is claimed costs the Welsh NHS £21.6million over the last year.
  • Leighton Andrews was warned by Welsh exam board, the WJEC, that he could be damaging the exams system through his reforms. Qualifications Wales was created in 2012 as a new body for exam regulation and awards. The Welsh Government said the WJEC were “in denial.” The Welsh Government also confirmed that GCSE's and A-Levels would be maintained in Wales, despite reforms in England that would see them replaced.
  • The Assembly passed the School Standards and Organisation Bill on January 15th. Amendments mean that local authorities would decide school closures and mergers, instead of proposed determination panels.
  • Minister for Housing, Heritage and Regeneration, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) described UK Government welfare reforms as a “social atrocity”. He was accused by a Liberal Democrat MP of the “lowest form of politics”. Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards supported the statement in principle, but said all but 10 Labour MPs abstained during the second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill which instituted the changes.
  • The Welsh Government launched a review of bank lending to small and medium sized enterprises, including the difficulties SMEs may face and alternative models of finance. The review will be led by Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans.
  • In related development, Plaid Cymru called for the creation of a state-backed “Bank of Wales”, which would provide funding to SMEs, based on German regional Landesbanken model. The Welsh Conservatives also proposed a similar scheme, but one that would allow SMEs to borrow public money via existing high street banks and post offices.
  • An education expert criticised Welsh Government progress on truancy rates as “painfully slow”. Prof. Ken Reid told the Assembly's Children & Young People Committee that promises made as a result of a 2008 report remained unfulfilled. The Welsh Government pointed to improvements in attendance rates in the last year.
  • The Welsh Government found £22million necessary to prevent 230,000 households in Wales paying council tax for the first time following changes to council tax benefits. Communities and Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), said the Welsh Government was “protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.” Opposition leaders welcomed the move, but described the handling as a “u-turn” and “shambolic”. Fresh council tax benefit regulations were approved on 22nd January following provisional regulations passed at the end of 2012.
  • Health Minister Lesley Griffiths announced the Welsh Government is to invest up to £82million in providing training to healthcare professionals. She said “high quality healthcare education is critical to support the delivery of health services in Wales.” The funding will help health authorities determine staff levels to maintain services beyond 2016.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) proposed a motion for debate - signed by cross-party AMs - calling for the Welsh Government to lobby in favour of the introduction of “safe standing areas” in Premier League and Football League grounds.
  • Diabetes UK Cymru warned the disease could “overwhelm” the Welsh NHS, following a 9.4% increase in the numbers being treated in the last two years. The Welsh Government said diabetes treatment rates in Wales were comparable with “the best in Europe” and that a new diabetes delivery plan was in development.
  • Chair of the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), called for the Wales Audit Office to investigate a £2million heritage centre in Gwynedd following a BBC Wales investigation which showed the centre, and its land, was transferred to private landowners following its failure.
  • The Assembly unanimously passed the Food Hygiene Ratings Bill on January 22nd. Once granted royal assent, the Food Hygiene Ratings Act will make the display of food hygiene ratings compulsory. Regulations relating to the new law will be debated later this year.
  • Suicides in Wales rose by 30% in the last two years according to the Office of National Statistics, with the suicide rate amongst middle aged men the highest since 1981. The Samaritans said that the difference may be due to changes in how deaths are recorded.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 1,000 in the three months to November 2012. There was a 37,000 fall across the UK as a whole.
  • Prime Minister David Cameron promised an “in out” referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union should the Conservatives win the 2015 UK General Election. First Minister Carwyn Jones said it would create “years of instability”, while Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans pointed to the benefits of Wales within the EU.
  • First Minister Carwyn Jones gave a speech to Irish business leaders in Dublin, stressing the importance of Welsh-Irish trade – worth up to £1.5billion per year. He also wants to encourage more Irish businesses to invest in Wales “under the banner of the EU single market.”
  • Lesley Griffiths told the Assembly's Health Committee that the Human Transplantation Bill, which will create and “opt-out” organ donation system in Wales, will not include limb or face transplants.
  • Cardiff Airport saw a 16% drop in passenger numbers (-200,000) between 2011 and 2012 according to the Civil Aviation Authority, but with a small rally in December 2012. The Football Association of Wales also claimed the current state of Cardiff Airport was hindering a potential bid to host Euro 2020 games.
  • School inspectorate Estyn's annual report called for more help for more-able pupils. It also said fewer schools achieved “good” or “excellent” ratings compared with the previous year. The NUT also threatened industrial action over proposed literacy and numeracy assessments proposed by the Welsh Government.
  • The Welsh Government introduced the Social Services and Wellbeing Bill, which take carer's needs into consideration alongside those being cared for, create a national adoption service, grant social workers a power of entry with a court order and new eligibility criteria for social services.
  • UK Government plans to reduce the number of MPs in Wales from 40 to 30 were defeated in Westminster on January 29th. The plans will be postponed until at least 2018.
  • The Welsh Ambulance Service missed its response targets, with only 56.1% of life-threatening emergencies responded to within 8 minutes in December 2012, compared to a Welsh Government target of 65%. Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Kirsty Williams, said that the Ambulance Trust had to “work with increasingly strained resources.”
  • Research suggests onshore wind energy could create up to 2,000 jobs and generate up to £2.3billion for the Welsh economy if a 2,000 megawatt target is met by 2025. Campaigners point to differences is renewables energy policy between Scotland and Wales – where the Scottish Government have been more proactive.
  • Five Welsh local authorities were in the top 10 areas where the lowest proportion of people felt their health was “good” in EnglandandWales according to the latest census data. Health had only improved in three local authorities – Cardiff, Wrexham and Swansea.

Projects announced in January include : the shortlisting of north Wales for a “super prison”, £1.5million towards nine regeneration projects in the “Western Valleys” across 2012-13 and 2013-14, a £39million investment in faster broadband connections for schools, £5million towards flood protection to protect up to 1,000 homes, a new £25million bus funding scheme that will replace three existing service grants and £1.25million towards “improving public engagement” in local government.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Lifestyles of the dull and half famous

In May 2011 there was a turnover of 23 new AMs compared to the previous term. The Hansard Society recently published a report into the experiences of these new AMs over their first year in office.

I thought it was interesting, but some of the things raised weren't entirely surprising. It's worth covering their side of the story for a change.

Getting Elected

It cost roughly £4,000 to run for an Assembly seat in total.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
As you might expect, AMs go into it to "serve the community, help people" blah blah blah. Call me cynical, but everybody going into public service says the same thing – not just politicians, but teachers, doctors, nurses etc. You can judge whether they mean it by outcomes and how willing they are to put service ahead of "perks" and "working conditions".

The costs for running for the Assembly are said to be around £4,000 – including the costs of getting selected for a constituency/region in the first place. I'm (pleasantly) surprised the costs for running for the Assembly are that low. I would've expected £10,000 minimum.

There is an issue of, even these rather modest costs, putting people off standing - especially if they're on a low income. However, I don't think even partial state funding for AMs or parties would work in practice. The state shouldn't underwrite specific ideologies or private members clubs – and that's what political parties are, essentially. I'm not a fan of trade unions or special interest groups funding them either. Maybe there's a case for some sort of Short Money, as they have in Westminster, for party administration purposes.

It's said that a few AMs took a pay cut to run for office. I don't really care what AMs did before they became an AM, and I'm even less bothered about what they earned – it's none of my business. It gives you an idea into what they might bring to the table professionally and in terms of skills, but that's all it is really.

I'd have more respect for a former tramp who could draft decent legislation and ask awkward questions than a lawyer or teacher who just grunts their approval at whatever their leaders say.

Getting Started

Some of the new AMs described starting work at the
Assembly like the "first day at school".
(Pic :
Again, as you might expect, most say they were excited at becoming an AM. There's praise for the Assembly Commission's induction programme, but it's said some aspects could be improved upon, including providing some sort of "starter pack" in their offices. There were also issues raised about some aspects Assembly support for constituency offices – particularly IT. I'm surprised the Assembly's responsible for that and not the AM's office themselves.

There's criticism of the relationship/understanding between the Welsh Government, civil service and AMs. I believe one of the most poisonous aspects of the Westminster/Whitehall system is that the civil service are distant from the people accountable for decisions they make. More worrying, it seems many AMs don't understand how the Welsh Government works – neither do I! And the less said about how Welsh Government ministers respond to questions the better.

Some AMs question the role, perhaps even the purpose, of plenary sessions (an issue raised recently). Many prefer to work in the committees, citing that it's more deliberative and it's easier to ask questions and get answers as there's less grandstanding. This was obvious, you generally get that impression anyway. Some AMs - especially those with local government experience - want to shift more power/influence to the committees.

However, like it or not the Assembly is a Parliament in all but name. One of the criticisms of the Assembly is that it comes across as a "county council on steroids". I think anything like the old committee system being taken nationally would be a backwards step. The blazer brigades in local government are/were bad enough.

AM Lifestyles

Issues with travelling I can appreciate, even those living closer to Cardiff. I would support something like free public transport for AMs and their staff in exchange for a cut in expenses or salaries, but I imagine that would be difficult to implement and not entirely useful. However, I found the complaint from some AMs that properties in Cardiff within the £700-a-month rent limit (roughly the median rent in the city) "didn't meet their expectations" offensive.

The work-life balance problems I don't have (much) sympathy for until working practises change right across the economy. I don't think people appreciate how hard professional politicians work. However, it's fair that if we elect someone into that position they put in the hours. It's probably naïve to think longer recesses and well-publicised family-friendly practises are going to make the job easier by themselves.

But everyone deserves to rest and relax. It's their right to "switch off" regularly, and I think people expect politicians to store themselves away in a cupboard or fridge until activation the following day. It's their policies that are robotic and similar/repetitive, not the AMs themselves. I don't think any of us dislikes politicians so much that we'd want them to neglect their own well being. I actually think long recesses are a good thing even if, in practice, it probably only means AM's work slows down slightly.

Assembly Workloads

It's said average working hours are around 57 hours – an increase on 49 hours compared to 2011. That difference could be accounted by beefed-up lawmaking powers, which requires more reading of draft legislation itself.

To put things into perspective, I'd estimate that every 1,000 words here is an hour's work once you include research, redrafts, sourcing pictures etc. That's probably why I don't cover as many committee reports as I'd like to. I tried to do something on the committee report into adoptions from November but it was so heavy even I turned my nose up at it. Once reports go over 70 pages – unless there's something in there that'll make it worth my while – it's usually a "no".

So yes, I definitely appreciate the workload AMs have - and their need for teams of support staff - once regulations, legislation, constituency casework and portfolio responsibilities are added to that. It's a shame many don't, but there you go.

However, I consider committee reports to be highly readable and well-presented – even the long ones - and if anyone thinks they're dull and dry, I suggest they try reading a scientific journal sometime. I don't mean New Scientist; I mean some real hardcore top-shelf stuff like Science, Microscopy Research and Technique or Cell.

There's perhaps argument for an increase in AMs to spread the workload, but I wouldn't want any more than 80 AMs even if Wales were independent. It's a hard sell to the public and, like many things in Wales, could've been addressed years ago by adopting the Richard Commission's recommendations in full. Thanks again, Peter!

Media Coverage

I think there's a disconnect between media, public and Assembly and this contributes to misunderstanding about what AMs can actually do – and perhaps what work they do full stop.

If people don't understand what AMs can do for them, they might go to them expecting help on matters that are non-devolved - welfare for instance. In those positions AMs end up coming across as a limp "advocate" rather than a driver of change. It's a waste of their time, but I can see why they would feel honour-bound to try and do something, and reluctant to say no even if - by rights - they should.

Legislation is another example of the disconnect. It was only the Byelaws Bill row last year that drew wider attention to the Assembly's law-making powers since the referendum. You could say the reason people aren't interested is that these laws are weak, or so narrowly-focused that they're ground down in bureaucratic wonk talk. I'd agree with that to an extent, but it's damaging when only "bad" things get reported.

Two good pieces of legislation to appear this term have been Member's Bills – Peter Black's (Lib Dem, South Wales West) Mobile Homes Bill and Mick Antoniw's (Lab, Pontypridd) Asbestos Disease Bill. Both of these proposed laws could impact people's lives for the better.

So I can understand why AMs would be annoyed if they put the effort into drawing up legislation, sitting through committees and plenary debates, make brilliant contributions, then have it all effectively ignored. Or for us - as members of the public – to turn around and say, "We didn't know about X,Y,Z."

I don't think we need a "Welsh Question Time" anymore, possibly extending to Pawb a'i Farn. People can easily interact with AMs directly via social media if they want to. Not everyone can use that though, so there's still a place for surgeries and constituency offices – even if the report suggests a big chunk of work comes via e-mail. I'm working on yet another filibuster on local government that will partially address this in March.

Media Portrayal
I don't have the personality to run for office myself. However,
are all of us too quick to rush to judgement of politicians (of
all sorts) when negative stories are published?
Someone mentions the "bitchiness" surrounding some coverage – and yeah, even if I'm on the fringes I'm guilty of that too sometimes.

If AMs say or do something incompetent in relation to their jobs, it's fair to pick up on that – even get annoyed.

As representatives of the general public some of them are going to be naughty occasionally because all of us are at some point. To judge "negative" stories in a balanced and rational way you have to consider what the reaction would be if politicians did same things as ordinary members of the public. I think coverage would be different. That's not really fair, is it?

If you prick them, they will bleed. They have feelings too and it's worth respecting those feelings.

You can't judge politicians by anything other than job performance unless you know them personally. However, reporting of some AMs (and other politicians) over the last few years by sections of the media has been, in my opinion, tantamount to public bullying. In those circumstances it makes me feel more sympathy towards the targets – regardless of party – but I'm probably in the minority there.

I'm rather egalitarian and – to put it bluntly – boorish, irreverent and against pompous forms of authority based on title and tradition over merit and competence. You probably figured that out yourselves, but there's a point to it.

When politicians take themselves too seriously I consider it a sign of insecurity, not a sign of strength or authority. I'm not overawed by them and I don't consider them celebrities. I believe it's dangerous to put politicians on that sort of pedestal because it may give them the impression they're infallible, "special" or grant them a false sense of entitlement. But you have to respect their personal space for the same reasons to prevent all that from happening in the first place.

Having said that, most of my criticism of AMs and the Welsh Government is from a perspective that I believe they're better than they think they are and have more potential than they're currently showing. Don't take this in a soppy way, but I suppose I do care about them.

I'm not interested in running for office of any sort because I know what my strengths and weaknesses are and I don't have the personality for it. My political career would probably end with "....before turning the gun on himself."
So I think it's worth taking time to appreciate ALL those one time "ordinary members of the public" who stuck their necks out and ran for the Assembly – on our behalf - in the first place.

So whoever you are. Thank you.

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Census 2011 : Losing our religion?

Is Wales turning its back on established religions?
What are we embracing instead?
In my second visit to the census data, it's time to look at another one of the more dramatic changes compared to 2001 – an increasingly secular Wales.

As a humanist scientist, who's put on record his support for a secular state, you would expect me to perhaps welcome that development. However, I think the picture's a little more complicated than that.

Believe it or not, I still think there's a place for religion - or at the very least some sort of personal worldview - which you can have even if you don't believe in God(s). It's just the warping of these beliefs or forcing them on non-believers that I object to.

What does the picture look like in Wales? And what might it mean for us as a nation?


Wales is still, just about, a majority self-identifying Christian nation. However, the falls in the numbers identifying themselves as Christian are quite dramatic.

As you can see from this first map, all Welsh local authorities have a Christian majority (with the exception of Blaenau Gwent, which is just below 50%).

Christians as a % of the population per
local authority
(Click to enlarge)

The local authority average/mean Christian population was 72.6% in 2001. In the space of ten years that's fallen to 58.5%. The overall national figure is slightly worse at 57.6%. Flintshire has the highest percentage at 66.5%, with all north Wales local authorities – except Gwynedd – above 60%. The only obvious pattern is that rural Wales is significantly more Christian than urban south Wales.

That could be because they're "older" in demographic terms - and church attendances and adherence has traditionally been stronger amongst older generations. It could be that there's a stronger legacy of non-conformism in these parts of Wales.

How precisely has this changed?

The lowest fall in the Christian population compared to 2001 was a "mere" 12.3% in Monmouthshire. The average drop across all Welsh authorities was 14.1%, with 15%+ falls in seven local authorities – the sharpest in Bridgend at 17%.

These authorities already had some of the lowest percentage of Christians in general terms. Though it does appear, on the basis of both figures, that Christianity is holding up relatively well compared to the rest of Wales in the former county of Dyfed (Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire).

Percentage change in the numbers of
Christians 2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)

I couldn't find any denominational breakdown of the figures, so it's hard to tell which particular church is losing the most members. Logically, you've got to presume it's the two big establishment churches – the Anglican Church in Wales and Catholicism.

The picture is also complicated as Wales' non-conformist tradition means there are more active denominations than other parts of EnglandandWales, except perhaps Cornwall and Greater London. These denominations, especially more evangelical ones (Baptists, Pentecostals), tend to be spread out a bit more and have small, but very loyal groups of worshippers.


The number of Welsh Muslims has more than doubled, from 0.7% of the population in 2001 to 1.5% in 2011- around 46,000 people. That's still pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things nationally.

There's a local authority average/mean of 1%, however this is distorted by Cardiff (6.8%), Swansea (2.3%) and Newport (4.7%). Cardiff's Muslim population has increased by around two-thirds compared to 2001 (3.7%).

In nearly all other Welsh local authorities the Muslim community is comfortably below 1%, with the (perhaps surprising) exception of Gwynedd (1.1%).

Judaism, Eastern religions and Other religions

The largest religion in Wales other than
 Christianity or Islam is Hinduism.
(Pic :
To be frank, other than Christianity and Islam the other religions are – in statistical terms – practically non-existent in Wales as a whole. But obviously they still have thousands of worshippers on the ground.
  • Jews – 0.1% of the population
  • Sikhs – 0.1%
  • Buddhists – 0.3%
  • Hindus – 0.3%
  • Other Religions – 0.4%

There have been concerns expressed about the terminal decline of Wales' Jewish population, however it appears to have held up compared to 2001, with only a small fall (~300) in the number of Welsh Jews, most of whom live in Cardiff.

However, Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism have all seen increases, but only Hinduism had more then 10,000 Welsh believers in 2011, with Buddhism close behind it. Once again, you're more likely to find worshippers of these faiths in the three main cities (Swansea, Cardiff, Newport). That could be down to students from India and China studying at Welsh universities, or that long-established communities have grown in that time, topped up with modest levels of immigration.

"Other Religions" have almost doubled. I'm not sure what would be included under this label, but presumable smaller religions like : Zoroastrianism (Cardiff's Iranian community), Shinto, Celtic Paganism/New Age Paganism, Wicca, Satanists and people putting down Jedis, Klingons, Football etc. If Welsh/Celtic Paganism made a comeback that would be....interesting. I don't think any of us need wake in a cold sweat over the Hounds of Annwn anytime soon though.

But, as all you heathens out there should know, there is only one true religion. Worship, brothers and sisters, at the altar of steel :


Irreligious & Religion not stated

The other dramatic change is the rise in the number of non-religious people. That doesn't mean exclusively that they're atheist, it could perhaps include the "not religious, but spiritual" people and agnostics. In fact, compared to 2001, the numbers not stating a religion (instead of non-religious) fell slightly.

Overall there was a combined average 13.2% rise in irreligious and non-stated per local authority. However, it's fair and right to point out that in 2011, no Welsh local authority had a non-religious majority. That's rapidly changing though

Percentage of the population irreligious or
religion not stated.
(Click to enlarge)

As you can see, the numbers of irreligious and non-stated religious are more heavily weighted towards the south Wales valleys than elsewhere.South Wales is now, arguably, amongst the least religious parts of the UK and in the next census, it will probably be Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly or RCT that become the first Welsh local authorities to have a non-religious majority. That contrasts with north east Wales, where religions are holding up perhaps slightly better than the rest of the country.

In terms of how it's changed compared to 2001, the sharpest rises were again in the south of Wales. Bridgend, Caerphilly and Torfaen saw the joint-sharpest rises at 14.8%. Cardiff had the slowest rise at 11.6%, perhaps because there's a more diverse population there.

Percentage change in people describing
themselves as irreligious or religious not stated
(Click to enlarge)

It's hard to tell if these people have simply ditched the Christian label since 2001. It's also pretty hard to give any reasons precisely why there's been such a dramatic change.

I don't think scientific rationality has replaced faith to a great degree. I don't think it's because everyone has suddenly taken to dressing like vampires and listening to My Dying Bride either. I think it's probably that in some parts of Wales, a sense of faith tied to community has been replaced with a browbeaten fatalism, you could even say nihilism, as a result of the condition their communities have been in for decades.

If that were turned into a bottom-up secular communitarianism it could be a positive in the long run, but I think that's a big, big ask as it flies in the face of political and economic realities in Wales. I'd like to retain some hope that it could happen though.

What could this mean for Wales?

This is probably going to become an increasingly common
sight over the next 10-20 years unless Christian churches can
turn around the decline in attendances.
(Pic : ITV Wales)
Wales is still, for now, a "Christian country" – Although there have been colossal falls in the numbers of people identifying as Christians since 2001, they are still a healthy majority in Wales. Based on the trend, I don't think it's too outlandish to suggest that Wales will probably cease being a majority Christian country between the 2021 and 2031 censuses.

Churches need to take a look at themselves – I'm convinced the falls are terminal unless Christian churches adapt to life in the 21st century. That could come down to how worship is conducted. It looks as though the Church in Wales is starting to look at that, but will it be too little, too late? It might well come down to some core Christian beliefs no longer seeming relevant to younger generations in particular. Re-evaluating these beliefs and their interpretations might be a step too far for many denominations. I'm not sure if churches will be satisfied with a social role reduced to just conducting christenings, weddings and funerals.

Wales is rapidly secularising
– This could have massive social and political implications. It could mean changes in policy such as school "daily acts of worship" in the medium-term. It could perhaps mean that right-wing parties in Wales are going to have to become more socially liberal. It probably means that pseudo-religious phrases like "family values" and "moral majority" are going to have very little political clout in Wales. It also means a materialistic evidence-based approach to some public policy issues – abortion and same sex marriage for example – might be increasingly more palatable to the Welsh as a whole.

Question marks over the future and relevance of faith schools - I don't think this is that big an issue. As long as there is demand for faith-based education, then it'll be provided somehow, just like Welsh medium education. If both parents and pupils alike are questioning/rejecting faiths in increasing numbers, then you have to wonder what role faith-based schools are going to play in the future - perhaps their very existence in the long-term.

Considering Wales' history of non-conformism, it's (somewhat) understandable
that Wales is targeted by evangelical groups. However, attempts to
convert or create a "Bible Belt" aren't working and probably never will work.
(Pic : Yahoo News)

Attempts by Christian evangelicals to create a "Bible Belt" in Wales are doomed – We've seen a lot of groups come to Wales over the last decade, bringing some really quite hardcore "fire and brimstone" views with them under the guise of community work or missionary work. They've been targeting parts of west Wales in particular. Some even end up with public money, perhaps an excuse by local authorities to offload responsibilities. The hard evidence says this isn't working and they're not really converting many new people, perhaps just making the inevitable decline a little bit slower by being quick to adopt modern ways of proselytising.

Wales is still relatively monocultural – With the exceptions of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, Wales remains fairly homogeneous compared to vast chunks of England. I imagine this will be reflected in the ethnicity figures as well, which will be my next port of call.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Well, tonight thank God it's them instead of you

"Everything is fine. All is well. I'm doing a good job. Give me a pay rise.
.....Wait, what are you doing with those Kalashnikovs?"

(Pic :
I want you to close your wait, that won't work. Just read the description below and see what images this might conjure up in your mind.
  • Those with executive powers are appointed, not elected, and aren't accountable to anyone but themselves.
  • Internet access for democratically-elected representatives is selectively blocked.
  • The local print press is undermined with the tacit approval of the executive.
  • The elected body is a puppet to the executive and generally does whatever the executive wishes.
  • Meetings behind closed doors regarding freedom of the press are considered the height of transparency.
  • Steps are taken to make watching the elected body as uncomfortable as possible to the public.
  • The constitution is, generally, made up as they go along.
  • There's a gathering separatist element in some parts of the territory, unhappy with the way things are being run from the centre and willing to take the unprecedented step of breaking away from their control.
  • The executive and elected body consistently ignores condemnation from relevant watchdogs and authorities and seems to take very little action to remedy the situation.
  • They have a track record of co-operating with "dodgy" individuals and groups that others would turn their noses up at.

North Korea? Myanmar? No, Carmarthenshire obviously.

If this were a country full of brown people living in mud huts and carrying AK-47s, Michael Stipe would be painting lines on his face. Other celebrities would be diverted away from important matters - like deciding which disease is the most glamorous to support - to comment on it.

Morrissey would write something for The Guardian about how we're in no shape to criticise the regime because we eat burgers, while people will bathe in Poundland All Day Breakfasts to raise money for relief efforts.

Lenny Henry would be on the back of a 4x4 being driven down mud lanes in hilly areas after being smuggled across the border. Midge Ure would be thinking of lyrics for the charity single. It would probably go something like this:

There's a soggy biscuit council
Who are a persistent stain on democracy
Doobie, doobie, doobie doo
Why? Kev, Pam and Mark

Let's be hypothetical for a moment.

Let's suppose something really, really bad slimed its way out of Carmarthenshire County Hall at some point in the future. Something much worse than anything that's preceded it. A scandal on the scale of Jimmy Savile or Baby P. Something that makes the UK press sit up and take notice en masse. Not just The Guardian, but the major UK papers ordinary people in Carmarthenshire read, including "red tops".

They'll do some digging for stories around the side of the main piece. They'll stumble across blogs and the South Wales Guardian story. They'll find the council's track record over the last few years quite "interesting" I'd imagine. One of the first stories that'll pop up will be a blogger being arrested for trying to film a council meeting. What was she trying to find out? What were the council so desperate to hide?

Fleet Street would have stories for months about "The Rotten Borough". It would take Ceausescu-esque levels of obliviousness to think that Carmarthenshire's PR department would be able to put any gloss on it. They'd probably try though.

Someone would be followed by cameras. Someone would have to make statements to the press on behalf of the council body that's politically accountable for all these deeds. Someone would have to justify any and all decisions made in that council chamber.

Kevin Madge (Labour) and Pam Palmer (Independent) are the public faces of what's happening in Carmarthenshire. They're accountable for all this nonsense - hypothetical or not. Maybe the press would turn their attentions to the devolved government in Cardiff Bay that didn't pay any attention to the warning signs and didn't do anything about it.

It probably won't happen, but I hope they're all prepared for that.

I'm starting to wonder whether some Welsh local councillors in ruling parties or coalitions are either naïve, sadists or are just incapable of thinking for themselves.

Do they think that if the heat is turned up enough, or if a scandal is big enough, that the executives aren't going to throw them to the wolves to save their own skins? "They voted for it." "They approved it." "I only offered a recommendation."

After it was so spinelessly decided to hand executive powers over to unelected officers, we've created the conditions necessary for, effectively, absolute monarchs. It's a system of monarchy right from the top to the bottom. Many haven't gone whole hog, others have. Like any good tyrant, they also have plenty of human shields in front of them to protect themselves.
It's not the chief executives standing for election, is it? Their head isn't on the block.

All you need is enough elected humps, combined with an unaccountable, paranoid executive hoisted up by a servile PR department with a commitment to blocking honest and upfront communication with the public. That increasingly describes many Welsh local authorities. In 2013. In a "democracy".

Before you think it's just "Crazy Carmarthenshire", there've been rumbles in Cardiff, Pembrokeshire, Caerphilly and Wrexham. Now Gwynedd too. Perhaps others that are being kept quiet. Lest we forget Anglesey as well.

It's not really a Labour problem then, but you have to wonder how a party with such electoral dominance here can be so inconsistent from county to county. You also have to question how and why some candidates are selected at local level.

Who are "officers" accountable to when they make mistakes? Who do they answer to full stop?

Why are "independents" even allowed to form groups to enable them to run a council by themselves or in coalition? What do they stand for? What are their agendas?

So, tonight thank God it's just Carmarthenshire. But it'll probably be you soon enough.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

A return of the Bank of Wales?

Hat tip to Glyn at National Left.

Welsh Government review of SME finance

Are the big high street banks letting down Welsh businesses?
Business Minister Edwina Hart has launched a review to find out.
(Pic : The Guardian)

Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) recently announced a review funding for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The review is to be led by Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans, and investigate the difficulties and pitfalls smaller companies in Wales face when trying to obtain finance.

One of the big complaints since the financial crisis started is that SMEs are being turned down for funding, or being made to jump through hoops by the big London commercial banks. They suffer especially if their margins are particularly tight, they struggle to move stock or they suddenly face unexpected up-front costs or bills.

A review is welcome, obviously. Though you can certainly argue, as A Change of Personnel has rather succinctly, that it's taken a sweet age to come this far. I'm not sure if a report or review spelling out what we already know, on behalf of the government of the economically weakest part of the UK, is going to make a blind bit of difference.

I'm pleased that Edwina Hart has chosen Prof. Jones-Evans to lead this review, as at least he knows what he's talking about. I think Edwina deserves some praise for this decision, as it shows she's willing to compromise and get in someone "from the outside" to look at the big issues instead of taking a more tribal "keep it in the family" route. I'm looking forward to seeing, and covering, what this review comes up with.

But since the announcement, two of the opposition parties have come up with two different possible solutions to the problem.

Plaid's "Bank of Wales" & Welsh Tories "Invest Wales"

Germany's network of regional public banks (Landesbanken)
offer commercial business finance to companies within that region.
Plaid's mooted "Bank of Wales" may be similar.
(Pic :
Plaid's Economic Policy Commission are considering an investigation into the creation of a government-backed "Bank of Wales" to address the issue highlighted further up, which is described – perhaps rightly – as a "market failure" for Welsh SMEs.

One of Wales' big economic weaknesses, as I've pointed out in a little detail before, is the lack of an indigenous commercial banking sector. There was once a regional "Bank of Wales" but it merged fully with RBS several years ago. I wonder how the Welsh economy would've panned out over the last 20 years or so if, instead of being picked off, it remained a separate subsidiary of RBS like Ulster Bank.

Anyway, I digress. Adam Price and Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon) moot using Finance Wales cash – up to £20million – to get the new Bank of Wales off the ground. Finance Wales already acts as the Welsh Government's investment arm, so this new function shouldn't be that hard to fit in. At the fundamental level all it would be, at heart, is some sort of spin-off.

But obviously having a "bank" would give it greater flexibility in how it might operate, and also allow the new bank to circumvent EU regulations on areas such as state aid. Unfortunately, the Welsh Government seem very reluctant to seek out these "loop holes" for reasons I can't fathom. Plaid aren't, and they took a similar path with their proposals on procurement last year.

I don't particularly like the idea of a "state-owned" bank, as that assumes that as well as the successes the state would also be burdened with the cost of any failures too. But it's probably "safer".

However, once again, this isn't some radical new idea. Wales used to have a network of local banks aimed at drovers who moved livestock to sell in larger markets. We even had hyper-local banknotes (more on that at Welsh not British). As financial services gradually centralised in, and were standardised from, London, most of these banks became defunct.

Germany has a unique network of state-owned, federal state-based (Länder) banks called Landesbanken. They offer a mix of commercial and private banking services and employ tens of thousands of people across Germany. They're primarily a source of credit and bonds for both public sector and private companies within their respective states.

So the "big bank money" tends to be cycled within the state. That's probably one reason why economic disparities between regions aren't as pronounced within parts of the former West Germany as they are in a unitary state like the UK or France.

Unless you're using a local Credit Union or one of the Welsh building societies, Welsh money goes to London and stays there. Welsh SMEs then struggle to get money back because of "market failures", or the money comes back to us in other forms via general taxation (when banks pay their taxes). Then, when there's a chance that a financial institution might base itself in Wales....oh, I don't know....the Green Investment Bank for example....we get this approach from the Welsh Government.

£20million isn't a massive sum of money, but it's a start. As Glyn Beddau pointed out, it's worth taking those existing Credit Unions into consideration too – and in fairness, there's cross-party support of them. I wouldn't mind seeing Credit Unions scale up and begin to offer some personal banking services such as mortgages or underwrite shared-equity schemes as part of housing co-operatives, as pointed out in The Collective Entrepreneur. Maybe there's a need to revisit a regional stock exchange too.

Yesterday, the Welsh Conservatives made their own announcement of a business bank (of sorts) – Invest Wales. The difference between the two ideas is that it appears the Conservatives (in shorthand) want to "franchise out" Finance Wales and use existing banks and post offices to funnel funds to SMEs on a local or sub-regional basis, combined with extra commercial business support.
Both ideas overlap. Both would probably have similar outcomes.

However, I think Plaid's mooted plan would be more secure, more publicly accountable (as a directly-financed state-backed enterprise than a "franchised" one) and perhaps easier to run and keep tabs on in the Assembly. But I would say that, wouldn't I? So I implore you to judge for yourselves.

I don't see how getting the banks that are currently not supporting Welsh SMEs on board is supposed to improve matters. The Conservative plan also seems on the surface to slightly complicated and, dare I say it, slightly bureaucratic. Which is quite incredible thinking about it. However, they clearly have the more detailed plans for now. I'm not knocking it though, I think the extra business support and sub-regional approach makes some sense, especially if we want to close the gap between West Wales & The Valleys and East Wales as much as between Wales and the rest of the UK.

Both ideas are worthy of consideration, but I think Plaid probably have the edge, and the relationship with the Welsh Government, to actually get something off the ground – probably dependant on the outcome of Edwina Hart's review.

Monday 21 January 2013

Network Rail's plans for Wales until 2019

A few weeks ago, Network Rail unveiled their Strategic Business Plan for 2014-2019. The overall aim of the strategic plan is to improve capacity (i.e. more carriages, longer platforms) and help meet UK Government targets to mitigate climate change and CO2 emissions.

They've already committed £874million towards Great Western Line electrification, and there's at least a further ~£350million in the pipeline for Valley Lines electrification.

The Great Western Line to Swansea will be electrified by 2018 and the Valley Lines by 2024 at the latest (it's likely to be sooner than that). A Welsh Government funded £45million improvement to North-South services should be completed by 2015.

The idea is that electrification will reduce maintenance costs (as the trains are lighter) and would enable current diesel trains to be replaced by "refurbished" electric ones, which have faster acceleration and would hopefully shave journey times.

The fact it takes so long to get from the heads of the valleys into Cardiff – a journey of 30 miles tops - is ludicrous and has been for decades. It takes an hour to get from Merthyr, Ebbw Vale and Rhymney to Cardiff Central, just over an hour from Treherbert and around 50 minutes from Maesteg. And that's before you factor in any possible delays.

Additional platforms are being provided at Cardiff Central and Cardiff Queen Street (the latter is currently under construction) which will enable more trains to and from the Valleys per hour. There's also new platforms planned/under construction at Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Barry. A passing loop will be constructed at Tir Phil on the Rhymney line, which will enable a half-hourly services to/from Rhymney itself.

I don't think there are any new stations planned over the next few years (by Network Rail or the Welsh Government) other than Energlyn (Caerphilly), Caerleon and Brackla (Bridgend). There's much more commentary on that at Plaid Monmouth.

There are also other strategic priorities:
  • Various resignaling projects across Wales, all delivered by 2017. North Wales resignalling should be completed by 2020.
  • Making the Welsh Marches Line (Newport-Shrewsbury) a "strategic freight route".
  • "Improving" services between Shewsbury-Aberystwyth, Cardiff-Manchester and along the north Wales coast.
  • Improving the track to allow heavier freight trains to use docks and freight terminals in south Wales (Cardiff, Barry, Wentloog)
  • Improve platform safety for vulnerable users (i.e. Elderly, disabled)
  • Develop an annual route vegetation clearance plan (i.e. prevent leaves on the line)
  • Reduce railway crime through improved fencing, public information, removing scrap and identifying "high risk level crossings".

The Assembly's Enterprise and Business Committee are currently undertaking an inquiry into integrated public transport. Obviously, as I said further up, electrification may improve journey times slightly as well as service reliability, helping the Welsh Government meet their own targets. Obviously I'll cover any committee report once it's produced, presumably sometime later this year.

They recently released a video of Nick Ramsey AM (Con, Monmouth) using buses and trains between Cardiff and Swansea to promote the inquiry. I found it funny for reasons I can't quite explain, I guess it's just my sense of humour.
"An epic journey of self-discovery. An exceptional piece of minimalist Welsh cinema. ****" - Oggy Bloggy Ogwr

As always though, Wales is a "special case" or "basket case".

As rail infrastructure funding isn't devolved, ours is on an EnglandandWales basis. Scotland's is separate. There is, however, a separate route plan for Wales which outlines Network Rail's plans here in more detail. Network Rail devolved itself - operationally - to Wales back in 2011.

So, the Welsh Government could fund a station, or a re-opened line out of their own pocket, but wouldn't have been able to carry out something as large or "new" as electrification. Devolution in action, everybody.

Scotland is planning to spend just over £4billion. Wales' proportional share of Network Rail's £37.5billion spend should be £1.87billion. Discounting the stretch of Great Western Line that's in England, and not including the resignalling works, I think it's safe to say it falls several hundred million pounds short of that.

If funding were devolved along the same lines as Scotland, and if the Welsh Government wanted to do it, I doubt Wales would be waiting so long for Valley Lines electrification to be completed. It probably would've been done years ago.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Lard of my fathers - A Welsh obesity crisis?

Obesity levels in Wales are increasing. Why, and how, has it
become such a "problem"? Do we need to rethink how obesity is approached?
(Pic : BBC)
Continuing the health theme this week - as a nation, we're all getting fatter apparently. There've been several stories over the last few months about obesity in Wales, which will have a knock on effect on health services and general well being in the future if it isn't tackled.

How is obesity defined?

It's worth pointing out that obesity isn't – in the strictest definitions - a "disease", though it's usually treated as such. It's a term for a person with an abnormal amount of body fat.

Obesity is measured by the Body Mass Index (BMI) where height and weight are used to determine how "dense" someone is. So, a short but large person would have a higher BMI than someone who is tall but thin - even if they weighed the same.

If you have a BMI below 18, you're underweight. 18-25 is the average range. Above 25 is overweight and above 30 obese. Those with a BMI above 40 are considered "morbidly obese".

Care should be taken in using Body Mass Index
alone to determine obesity.
(Pic :

It's usually the primary, simplest measure. However, BMI is imperfect as it doesn't take into account muscular build (muscle is denser than fat) or even body shape or weight of bones and organs. Most athletes in the prime of their fitness would count as obese by BMI alone. Try telling the Welsh rugby team that to their faces.

To be absolutely certain, "proper obesity" is probably a combination of high (30+) BMI, a high body fat percentage and a waist measurement of more than 40 inches for men or 35 inches for women (because women's bodies distribute fat around the chest and hips more than the abdomen).

Even then it's still imperfect, especially for women who – to put it mildly – carry significantly more weight around the chest or hips than elsewhere through no fault of their own.

Why is obesity a problem?

In the latest National Health Survey (September 2012), 57% of Welsh adults were said to be overweight, and 22% obese. This is similar to the UK average. Taking that alone, Wales would be pushing towards the top in terms of "fattest countries in the world".

Obesity increases the risk of developing several long-term and chronic illnesses :
  • Heart/cardiovascular disease
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Strokes
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Skin conditions
  • Some mental health problems
  • Certain types of cancer

As you might expect, these diseases are expensive to treat and some are amongst the leading causes of premature death. Obesity itself is estimated to cost the Welsh NHS around £73million per year. Though the cost of treating diseases associated with obesity is likely to take up a significant chunk of the NHS budget.

There's also a specific issue with childhood obesity. In the same survey, 35% of children are said to be either overweight or obese. It looks as though obesity rates are levelling off, but an obese child is more likely to develop those conditions at a much younger age, probably reducing life expectancy and quality of life with it.

However, there is evidence that it's possible to be "fat and healthy" - as long as you exercise and abide by a reasonable diet. Where you carry body fat is as important as how much of it there is. That may well come down to genetics.

How has obesity become such a problem?

Firstly, we eat a lot more processed food, high in things like salt, sugar and fats. As the old saying goes – "you are what you eat" - but I don't think it's as simple as that. Everything is fine in moderation. Wales is, traditionally, an agrarian society with a "meat and two veg" diet. I don't think that's changed much, just how we eat and how that food's prepared.

Is it any wonder we're getting fatter if we don't know what's
in the food we cook? Like horse, rat or chimp.

For example, if people wanted to avoid horse meat in their burgers, or want to watch salt and fat intake, wouldn't it be better if they made them from scratch instead of buying processed burgers out of the freezer section? In some (but not all) cases, it might work out cheaper.

One overlooked area is alcohol. A pint of beer contains as many calories as a burger. Also, you're more likely to eat something starchy while/after drinking alcohol. Moderate amounts of alcohol might not do much to increase body weight due to how it's metabolised, but those post-pub snacks will.

We're not really – as a whole – consuming more calories than we did 50-60 years ago. In fact, there's evidence that average calorie intakes have fallen since the mid-1970s. The only difference is we're more sedentary. We've shifted from an industrial economy, where manual labour was commonplace (burning more calories over the course of a day) to an office-based service economy where you're more likely to sit at a desk and perhaps work irregular hours.

So although the amount and quality of food we eat is going to be a factor, it's just as likely to come down to lack of exercise. Humans are evolutionary preconditioned to conserve energy, and the easiest way to do that is not to do anything physically straining at all - and certainly not seek it out if you can help it.

We're also raising a generation of children who are as happy to play the latest FIFA game than play football, and whose parents are scared of their own shadows because of paranoid tabloid newspapers. Then, just when you think the Olympics might boost sport participation and get kids running around outside again unsupervised – April Jones disappears.

What are the Welsh Government doing?

The Welsh Government has an "All Wales Obesity Pathway" as part of its strategic approach to health over the next 20 years. That's above the head of most people, and it's mainly for the Local Health Boards anyway.

The public face of the Welsh Government's obesity drive is the Change4Life campaign - a pan-UK initiative that aims to inform the public about healthier food and drink choices, as well as encouraging people to exercise. It's not as blunt as public information campaigns for tobacco or alcohol, and wants to try and get whole households acting together.

The Welsh Government are under no obligation
to make you exercise, eat healthier or take up the
latest stupid infomercial fad.

Indirectly related to this are previous Welsh Government legislation to protect playing fields, as well as statutory play assessments announced late last year.

You might expect me to harangue the Welsh Government for "not doing enough", but really they're doing everything they can and shouldn't be criticised for something that's beyond their control.

They can do more for the things around obesity – specialist obesity clinics, increase sport opportunities etc. but it's not as if they can go around forcing people to eat healthier or take more exercise.

The problem's complicated in Wales by having an above average number of people with limiting disabilities, who might not exercise because of discomfort or lack of appropriate facilities.

I think Welsh politicians and health professionals can set an example. For instance, it's hard to take advice on heathy eating seriously from doctors and nurses who look like they're on the brink of a heart attack themselves.I don't mean go hold a sports day in front of the Senedd – just give the impression they're taking care of their own physical health and that it isn't "above them" like many professional people might believe.

Rhodri Morgan did after his heart scare back in 2007. Some current AMs noticeably are or have done for some time, so good on them. I don't think it's fair to name names either way, but it's probably obvious who I'm referring to.

So, is Wales facing an obesity crisis?

There's a clear problem, but I'm concerned it's turning into a moral panic. Let's not get too carried away, shall we?

Firstly, we need to think about what message a "clamp down on obesity" is going to send out about physical appearance, especially to girls and women who are already under the cosh. We still have really stupid photoshops in glossy magazines. We still place skin-deep values above personal worth and skills. Sometime that's fine, or part of an act – I don't have a problem with it in those circumstances – but I'd like to think people are worth more than a nice photograph.

Things might improve if, instead of anonymous bums waddling down high streets, we had images of obese people – you know – being completely normal. Some might be considered attractive. Some of them might even – brace yourselves – enjoy exercise or play sport regularly. Just pop along to your local Division 5 SWALEC League game or golf club if you don't believe me.

Health campaigns need to focus on the selfish emotional and physical down sides of being obese rather than the  "freak show" side of it : limited movement, excess sweating/heat, low self esteem and body consciousness, unable to play with your own children (in some cases) and shortened life expectency.

Shift the focus in school PE lessons to doing exercise for its own sake, and because it can be fun, not necessarily for performance. There's a chronic problem in getting girls (and some boys) to play sport in particular, so alternative forms of exercise in schools – like zumba and dancing – shouldn't be written off as "PC nonsense".

Should alternative forms of exercise be as
valid as traditional sports in schools?

Most importantly of all, get the public to set realistic targets. Gastric bands are an extreme "get slim quick" measure. I'm not a fan of the NHS using them unless someone is so obese their life is in danger. You can still eat "bad food" with a gastric band. You can still avoid exercise. Those are the two things health professionals should want the obese to avoid. It is very much a lifestyle switch similar to giving up smoking.

Before I'm accused of hyprocrisy or lack of empathy, unlike many people I can say that I've been there myself. I've endured all the worst things about being obese whilst young. And I'm not talking about being a little bit tubby either, my BMI was over 40.

I didn't lose the weight because of a medical procedure or a fad diet. It was exercising more, eating less and setting realistic targets for myself. I'm not kidding. It took two years to lose the weight, though fortunately I haven't rebounded.

Despite all that, the only reason I believe it worked was because I wanted to do it, I found exercises I actually enjoyed (walking, moaning and weight training) and not because I was told to or was nudged.

Food for thought – excuse the pun – for policy makers and health professionals.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Accountability vacuum causing problems for Welsh Labour?

With Hywel Dda Local Health Board formally adopting
its hospital reorganisations today, is this the
start of an uncomfortable period for Welsh Labour AMs?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
I only saw these last week, but there are two videos (here and here) of Sandy Mewies AM (Lab, Delyn) talking with protesters outside a meeting in Connah's Quay back in September. The protesters were campaigning to save Flint Community Hospital, which has been outlined for closure by Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board.

Although this was a while ago, I think this exemplifies a big problem with regard public service delivery. Sandy makes repeated claims, or implied, that it's "not to do with me" – a classic politician's line if ever there was one.

Right, OK, she doesn't come across too well in the videos. However, in this case, she's technically right and it's going to cause the Welsh Government and Labour AMs headaches in the coming years.

Who runs the Welsh NHS?

Local Health Boards (LHBs) actually run and administer NHS services in Wales. The LHBs are the ones overseeing hospital reorganisations and consultations on reorganisations. These are run by appointed officers and managers, but those higher up are practically anonymous.

Community Health Councils (CHCs) are supposed to represent the views of service users and the general public. Local councillors are represented on those boards – in a similar way to police and fire services.

The Welsh Government, and by extension Labour AMs - like it or not - are politically accountable for these reorganisations. But in practice they have very little say in what's being done. They can only scrutinise really, and that's – primarily - being led in the Assembly by opposition AMs.

Labour AMs have been quiet with one or two exceptions. Backbench Labour AMs seem unwilling to speak either for or against the LHB decisions, and that was one point raised by the Flint protesters. I'd draw your attention back to what's been said about Assembly plenary sessions.

I'm convinced that's just one reason reason why some public services in Wales are poorly run, because it's always someone else (Councillors, AMs, MPs) carrying the can, even if they had nothing to do with the decision-making.

So, the decision-making ability rests in one place, the accountability rests with the politicians. They should be joined together. I think that's what most people would call "a functioning democracy".

Say what you like about PCCs, but at least you can't say that of the police anymore.

What's going wrong with hospital reorganisations?

I've said several times that the changes make sense - primarily because of shortages of specialist medical staff. I should be explaining why the changes are needed. However, whenever I go to do so, some other bungle appears – whether that's by ministers, LHBs or someone else. I go back to banging my head against the desk, hoping to wake up one morning and find I'm only human left alive, or that Wales is sinking into the Irish Sea, so we can put all this madness of thinking we have a functioning country to rest.

It's been rushed – Perhaps that's with one eye on NHS budgets, which are under immediate strain, but many LHBs are using 12-week consultations (the bare minimum) for the public to judge changes that will last decades. In an ideal world, this would've been phased in over several years. Even if it is going to be, that's not the impression given.

People still don't understand what's happening – This is supposed to be the point of the consultations, and some LHBs have gone some way in explaining the changes to the public. However, some consultations have been poorly attended and if you mention "hospital changes" to anyone in the street, they'll probably assume that means "closure". In fairness, sometimes that is the case – especially smaller community hospitals like Flint. Today it was announced that a community hospital near Llanelli will shut.

"No hospital is under threat, and no hospital was ever under threat in Wales" - Carwyn Jones, First Minister's Questions, May 1st 2012.

People assume the worst about NHS changes because that's what Labour have been saying to them for decades, putting it constantly in a position of danger unless Labour are running it. Heh. It has to be said that some opposition AMs are making the job harder too, but that's....their job.

Bad news follows more bad news – Again, this isn't helping things. Stories about people being treated in ambulances, missed targets, negligence, poor standards of care, failures to recruit specialist staff and sexed-up documents. Today there was issues surrounding Hywel Dda LHB's handling of reorganisation. Yesterday, ITV Wales revealed Carwyn Jones himself redacted parts of a report into the death of Robbie Powell – which is pretty damned serious by itself.

So, the climate isn't ripe for dramatic, fundamental changes to hospital services in Wales at the moment.

Us - Now, we the public rarely help ourselves. I think there's an expectation that to get "proper care" you need to go to a "proper hospital". We rarely hear about advances in things like emergency medicine or home care, which might reduce the need for hospital visits. We also expect NHS staff to perform miracles. I wish more people would pay attention to Welsh Government advice on things like reasons to call 999 or go to A&E. You can find out more information here.

I don't usually disclose what searches lead here, but one that sticks in my mind was "emergency arse doctor rectal surgery port talbot". I don't want to know.

Labour's problem

I feel sympathy for Sandy Mewies' situation in the videos. I don't like to see that happen to an AM (or politician in general), as she's only (sort of) trying to do her job within the confines of the job description. She's been placed in an awkward position.

The decision-making process seems complicated. Basing this partially off Community Health Councils recent calls for "stronger political leadership", here's how I understand it:
  1. Local Health Boards run and administer NHS services and propose reorganisations.
  2. Community Health Councils negotiate the changes with the LHBs "on behalf of the public".
  3. If there's a disagreement, and only then, it gets referred to the Health Minister (Lesley Griffiths).

There seems to be very little direct role in reorganisations for AMs other than to ask questions in the Senedd, or organise protests and petitions.You can understand why an inability to actually do something about it is going to look like inaction to the public - Labour inaction in most cases - if they're not willing to speak out on government policy one way or another on behalf of constituents.

Ideally, the LHBs and CHCs would be democratically accountable for these decisions in some way shape or form – perhaps answering directly to the Assembly's Health Committee. That's something Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) suggested last year, and several times before that, with regard finances. I think it'll have to go further than that. There's no point in putting local councillors on the CHCs, as local authorities are generally run along this arrangement too.

But, ultimately, Welsh Labour seem quite happy with the arrangement as they've done little to change it, other than push for greater collaboration between varying authorities at local and regional level.

At the very least they should consider Elin Jones' suggestion now, or Sandy Mewies will only be the first Labour AM to (on record) get this treatment. If Labour handled it like this in England or Scotland they would be toast, but being Wales and seeing as the Chuckle Brothers down the M4 are rather unpopular at the moment, I doubt this is going to affect the party electorally.

I want them to get this right, because as long as the changes are reasonable I think we might see long-term benefits through the creation of "centres of excellence". But, yeah, at a fundamental level they're making a complete hash of it.

The thing is though, it's not entirely backbench AMs fault. But you better believe it's going to be their faces and names to it.