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Sunday, 30 June 2013

Senedd Watch - June 2013

  • First Minister Carwyn Jones called for a “national conversation” on the future of the Welsh language during a visit to the Urdd Eisteddfod in Pembrokeshire, following the 2011 Census results, which showed a fall in the Welsh-speaking population.
  • The Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee report into the European Union's Horizon 2020 scheme called for a similar approach taken by the Republic of Ireland and Scotland in pooling and attracting talent - and investment - for research and development.
  • Shadow Transport Minister, Byron Davies (Con, South Wales West), unveiled the Welsh Conservative “blueprint” for Cardiff Airport, including : marketing the airport to new carriers, lower air passenger duty (once devolved), enhanced freight facilities and an improvement to bus services. Vaughan Gething AM (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) described it as a “u-turn” and welcomed them “backing the Welsh Government's interventionist approach.”
  • A vote to approve Mick Antoniw AM's (Lab, Pontypridd) Asbestos Disease Bill was postponed, after representations from the Association of British Insurers claimed the draft law could be outside the competence of the National Assembly due to provisions relating to the insurance industry.
  • The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee criticised Welsh Government handling of the purchase of River Lodge in Llangollen, Powys. The plans were to lease the lodge for a martial arts centre, however £1.6million was “wasted” when the deal fell through, in addition to conflict of interests involving senior officials. Committee chair, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), described the inquiry as one of the “most illuminating and troubling ever undertaken by the committee.”
  • Wales has fewer doctors per head than Moldova and Kazakhstan according to Plaid Cymru research. Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) suggested financial incentives to recruit foreign doctors and encouraging bright schoolchildren into medicine. The Welsh Government said the vacancy rate was favourable compared to the rest of the UK, while the BMA described the situation as an “unacceptable state of affairs.”
  • The First Minister published the second annual Programme for Government report. He said it highlighted that his government were “standing up for Wales” during difficult economic times. Opposition parties criticised the lack of targets, describing the report as a “fig leaf” and an attempt to give the impression that “all is well”.
  • The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Peter Tyndall, told the Assembly's Health & Social Care Committee he would like to have the power to block publication of some reports to “protect the vulnerable”. Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Kirsty Williams, said public reports are needed to learn from mistakes. Legal experts said there were “obvious dangers” from such a move.
  • Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, repeated her calls for the UK Government to abandon plans to privatise parts of the probation service in EnglandandWales, and for probation to be devolved. She described the UK Government's plans as a “dangerous, ideology-driven path to privatise services that should not be in private hands.”
  • A Westminster committee criticised plans for a £25billion tidal barrage across the Severn Estuary, claiming information submitted to them was inadequate, and that there was an “unproven” case. They suggested alternative ways to harness tidal power be found.
  • The First Minister warned further cuts could be made to “unprotected services” in the run up to the UK Chancellor's spending review on June 26th. The spending review made a 2% cut in the Welsh Government's revenue budget, but UK Chancellor George Osbourne promised “impressive” plans for an M4 relief road, as well as a response to Part I of the Silk Commission.
  • Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) announced legislation would be introduced giving local health boards three years to submit accounts (instead of annually) to give them greater flexibility. He also said cancer patients should see specialists within 10 days to help meet a 62 day target for treatment, and announced a new plan to reduce “bed blocking” to increase emergency treatment capacity.
  • A second conference on media coverage of the Assembly - on hyper-local journalism - suggested AMs need to make their work relevant to the public and the Assembly should back the creation of local news outlets.
  • The Assembly's Constitutional Affairs Committee recommended the “complete disestablishment” of the Church in Wales, after “loopholes” were revealed, tying the Church in Wales to the Church of England. They also recommended that changes to burial law, with regard Church in Wales burial sites, could be included as part of a future Bill.
  • Tourism advisers told the Welsh Government that Wales should aim to become an upmarket, luxury tourist destination, with an aim of increasing tourist spend by 10% over the next seven years. Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), described the target as “challenging yet realistic.” It's estimated that visitors spend £4.5billion in Wales annually.
  • Plaid Cymru freedom of information requests showed that 11,000 life-threatening emergency calls took more than twice the 8 minute target to be responded to by ambulance. Elin Jones AM described the figures as “disturbing”. The Welsh Government said only 6.8% of urgent calls were attended to later than 20 minutes.
  • Former Plaid Cymru leader and Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, resigned his Ynys Mon seat on June 18th – which he represented since 1999 - to lead the development of the new Menai Science Park. Political figures paid tribute, with Leanne Wood thanking him for his work “over the last 26 years.” His resignation triggered a by-election, due to take place on August 1st.
  • A report into Welsh education arrangements recommended the number of local education authorities be “cut by a third”, following a review requested by the Welsh Government, and in light of a quarter of local authorities having their education services in “special measures”.
  • The National Assembly passed the Local Government Democracy Bill, which makes changes to the boundary and remuneration commissions, and requires community and town councils have a web presence by 2015. An amendment also passed, setting out the role of the Independent Remuneration Panel with regard setting the pay of local authority chief executives.
  • The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee report into grant management highlighted several failures and weaknesses within the Welsh Government, in particular lack of cross-department monitoring and not reacting quickly enough to concerns about irregularities. There was also an attack on the handling of the AWEMA scandal in 2012.
  • Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) said he would table an amendment to the Social Services & Well Being Bill to outlaw “smacking”, describing it as a “golden opportunity”. Glyn Davies MP said the responsibility fell within criminal justice powers and was outside the Assembly's devolved competence, describing it as a “borderline issue”.
  • The Assembly's Health Committee reported that the Welsh Government were unlikely to meet their diabetes treatment targets unless urgent action is taken. They said the disease had reached “epidemic” levels, with 5% of the Welsh population now having diabetes, costing the Welsh NHS £500million per year.
  • A Task & Finish Group report, chaired by Baroness Grey-Thompson, recommended that PE becomes a “core subject” in schools to help combat obesity and increase children's physical activity. Teaching unions supported the idea in principle, but warned that it could end up diluting other core subjects like English and maths.
  • Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats announced they would work jointly on budget negotiations, with the Welsh Government needing to negotiate with one team representing both parties in future.
  • Leighton Andrews resigned as Education Minister on June 25th, after the First Minister refused to support his decision to oppose school changes in his Rhondda constituency - as part of his own surplus places policy – in the Senedd. The First Minister also rebuked him, and others, earlier this month for using Welsh Labour branding in a campaign against potential downgrades at Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Llantrisant.
  • Following the resignation, and subsequent reshuffle on June 26th, the First Minister took responsibility for the Welsh language, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) was appointed Education Minister, Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly) Minister for Communities & Tackling Poverty, while Vaughan Gething and Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) were appointed to deputy minister positions.
  • Two senior executives of north Wales' Besti Cadwaladr health board resigned after a damning report into the running of the board, which cited management failings, delayed operations and a lack of foresight when planning – all of which was said to have "put patients at risk”.
  • Business Minister Edwina Hart said a new consultation on an M4 bypass around Newport would be launched in September following the Comprehensive Spending Review, where the project was described as “one of the most important road projects in the UK.”
  • The first report from Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans into access to finance for small and medium sized businesses, recommended that more bank lending decisions be made in Wales, better links between business support programmes and the banking sector and changes to how lending applications are dealt with.
  • A report from the Wales Co-operative Centre suggested that more be done to increase the number of housing co-operatives in Wales, citing ten potential schemes across Wales which could be developed in this way.
Projects announced in June include : a £2billion infrastructure programme by Dwr Cymru until 2021, a consultation into a national service to help flood victims, £1.9million to boost credit union membership, plans for a £200million gas-fired power station near Hirwaun, confirmation from the UK Government of plans for a £250million prison in north Wales and a £10million free wi-fi project in Cardiff city centre.

Friday, 28 June 2013

When a butterfly flaps its wings in London....

The Welsh Secretary launched a broadside at the Welsh Government and National Assembly earlier this week, and is quoted as saying (via The Guardian) :

Jones criticised the Labour-led Welsh government for seeking further powers. The secretary of state said: "It's like a butterfly collector: here's a new one, I'll just pin it up on the board. We need powers for a purpose. Frankly, a lot of the powers they have at the moment are not being used."
Jones added: "The model we have in Wales is the correct one. It should be a dynamic form of devolution that sees powers flowing backwards and forwards as and when required in a way that best meets changing circumstances."
Well, if we're going to use the butterfly collector analogy, the reality is something like this :

Wales has the board and pins.
Butterflies, I'm presuming, represent the Assembly's powers.
The Welsh Government and Assembly are indeed butterfly collectors.

Except, instead of collecting butterflies, they're told they can only collect butterfly parts, with the likes of David Jones Cheryl Gillan, Peter Hain handing over to the Assembly a wing, body or head.

So the Welsh butterfly collection resembles something found in a serial killer's basement – bits of ripped up insect hoisted on pins - not anything equivalent to a working devolution settlement. You have to question the mindset of those who devised such an arrangement.

You know the beginning of Gladiator? Where a German holds up a decapitated head?

"Rydych chi'n bob cŵn felltithio!"

What David Jones is telling us is that, "People should know when they're conquered."

But his criticism didn't end there :
Jones also criticised the lack of excitement and apparent engagement in debates at the Welsh assembly. He said too many members appeared to be "fiddling with computer screens rather than engaging with the debate" and claimed: "That tends to lend an air of detachment to the proceedings."
Jones said: "The House of Commons is a lot more rough-and-tumble than the Assembly. Frankly the House of Lords is a lot more rough-and-tumble than the Assembly."

Considering all that's happened this week, his comments appear to be rather mistimed. Although, in fairness, he's only aping what's been said by journalists recently, why is there this obsession with bringing "rough and tumble"/"yah boo" debate to the Senedd?

It would make good TV and soundbites, but the quality of debate wouldn't improve. It's sounds an awful lot like advocating that AMs shout over each other about very little.

If the Senedd becomes a competition to see who'll be the first to bring the public gallery crashing down with their booming Churchillian oratory, it'll be a backward step. I don't think it'll do its image any good to have worried onlookers surround a smashed greenhouse, as those inside blast Mills & Boon terms through loudhailers in order to get hearts fluttering about fly-grazing, or a ban on cheese.

The closest most people get to seeing Assembly debates, I'd imagine, are edited versions for news and current affairs programmes anyway (if they bother to watch them).

The online services for keeping up to date with what's happening – like the Assembly's website and the Assembly's Research Service – are excellent too, but you can only lead a horse to water.

It's presumptious for anyone to pressure AMs to do their jobs a certain way, lest it ends up like this, or like this.

However, there's no need for AMs get riled up by anything David Jones said. It appears Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms E & Dinefwr) and Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) took the bait on behalf of the Assembly.

Those in the inner sanctum of Welsh politics need to be careful they don't give the impression of being unable to accept any criticism of their role.
Nor should they actively go out of their way to avoid criticism. They've probably had it easy on that front, surrounded by friendly faces in Cardiff and elsewhere who value their time, input and attention and treat them as VIPs.

They shouldn't act surprised that some will never be happy with what they do, what they say or how they act - even if they produce the best evidence imaginable to support themselves. There are plenty out there who would be more than happy to see the whole lot get P45s - I know quite a few.

It's also a gift for those sniffing for stories, trying to meet insatiable public demand to "take politicians down a few pegs", and the sockpuppets on Wales Online and elsewhere.

It's fair to say that sometimes we – as in the public - get angry over the wrong things. That's because the Welsh Government and Assembly have gotten away with so many big things down the years, that as soon as there's a bit of bad news or criticism - regardless of how small - it's now used as an opportunity to attack the institution as a whole.

Instead of saying precisely why they need more powers, for example, AMs and ministers end up going on the defensive about the criticism itself,
launching rather weak party political or small-n nationalist arguments, without countering that criticism head-on.

It even manifests itself in anti-Welsh language fluff. Fortunately, that's because those who espouse a nihilistic, anti-politics, anti-devolution agenda can be ignored quite easily as - to date - they've never articulated their arguments very well.

They might be able to one day, though. If AMs keep carrying on as if everything's fine, their mandate is beyond reproach and everyone's on board, they'll be sitting ducks.

And I say that as perhaps one of the observers with more affinity for them.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Physical Literacy - Should PE become a core subject?

With obesity on the rise, is it time for PE to be at the
heart of school life in the same way as literacy and numeracy?
(Pic : The Telegraph)
On Monday, a Sports Wales Task & Finish Group - chaired by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson - reported back to the Welsh Government their proposals to increase levels of physical activity in schools.

I've covered the "obesity crisis" in Wales before, but the requirement for a review into school activity is laid out in very stark terms in the report (which you can read here) :
  • 36% of under-16s in Wales are overweight or obese (2010).
  • The percentage of 2-15 year olds who are obese rose from 16% in 2008 to 19% in 2010.
  • Just 28% of primary and 26% of secondary school pupils are said to be "regularly active".

There was a separate warning from the Assembly's Health Committee, whose latest report suggests diabetes is reaching "epidemic" proportions in Wales, and the Welsh Government are likely to miss targets for tackling the disease. Type II diabetes is linked to excess body weight.

So if nothing's done, in the long term it's going to lead to reduced healthy life expectancy and put immense strain on NHS resources. It's also likely to be the first thing in Leighton Andrews' successor's in-tray.

School PE – The current situation

PE is a compulsory part of the national curriculum for 3-16 year olds, but it's compulsory in the same way religious education, PSE and IT are – usually one or two teaching hours a week. There could be simple practical reasons why, like too few facilities for too many pupils.

The report cites research that suggests the vast majority (74%) of primary school pupils enjoy physical activity "a lot", with only 4% saying they don't enjoy it at all. That changes in secondary school, with only 50% enjoying it "a lot" and 14% not enjoying it at all. The report hints that PE lessons themselves might be putting pupils off regular exercise.

It's said that while professional athletes and big sporting events like the Olympics provide "inspiration" – and have led to "promising" increases in sports participation in Wales since – they don't provide enough of an inspiration for the "hardest to reach".

What does the report recommend?

PE lessons and teachers don't have the best of reputations.
But is their contribution to pupils' future wellbeing undervalued?
(Pic : Vest Virginia Surf Report)

There was one major headline recommendation – that PE should become a "core subject" in the national curriculum alongside English, maths and science (and Welsh first language in Welsh medium schools).

That would require a significant shift in mindset to make the subject more "valued". They want more teachers to take part in the Physical Education and School Sport (PESS) programme, which offers higher quality training, in order to develop "expert teachers".

Allied to this, there's a desire to create a framework for "physical literacy" in the curriculum – physical literacy defined roughly as, "having the motivation and confidence to become physically competent". It'll mean all teachers will have to show competence when it comes to PE in the same way they have to for literacy and numeracy.

It's estimated the cost of developing this would be around £5million.

I think that's sound. If you don't teach languages properly, you end up with illiterates. If you don't teach maths properly, you end up with innumerates. If you don't teach science properly, people get killed by plug sockets. If you don't teach PE properly, people will grow up to live unhealthy lifestyles.

What else could be done?

  • PE (in secondary schools) could be "streamed" – The more able are currently taught PE alongside those who aren't as good or confident. That's unfair to both groups. Separate the "elite", who could go down the road of more professional coaching, from those who need exercise for exercise's sake.
  • Doctor/Nurse exemptions only? - Pupils are actually going to have to participate in PE regularly in order for this to work, so exemptions from lessons could perhaps be a certificate signed by a GP or school nurse. However, certain biological cycles would make PE uncomfortable for girls and could complicate matters here. So maybe that could be treated with more tact and as a special case.
  • Change PE outfits – Schools shouldn't have a set "PE kit", and perhaps should let pupils choose what they wear when doing exercise. This could help girls and the overweight in particular for obvious reasons.
  • Better organised sport clubs & competitions out-of-school – That's a whole topic in itself, but if you want pupils to be healthy and active all year round, they'll have to be active outside of PE lessons as well. I've mentioned "umbrella clubs" before, with many different sports playing under one co-operative identity in a given area.
  • Make use of out-of-school facilities – This was hinted at in the report, and many schools already do this to a certain extent. If a school is close enough to a leisure centre, for example, but don't have the facilities on school sites, should they have time set aside to use them exclusively?
  • Be creative – PE shouldn't be all ball games, atheltics and gymnastics. The definition of PE could be expanded to include things like martial arts, outdoor activities like geocaching and cycling, mixed-sex sports like korfball, as well as dancing exercises and pool-based exercise. Schools could work in partnership with outside experts and sports bodies to develop these classes.

What are the other issues?

I think it's going to be very difficult to incorporate the Chief Medical Officer's recommendation of three hours of "vigorous physical activity" for every pupil per week into school timetables, especially in secondary schools. We're going to have to give serious consideration to extending the school day if that's the benchmark level of exercise the Welsh Government eventually want to adopt.

Does physical activity stop at the school gates?
(Pic :

Physical fitness doesn't just come down to exercise either. You could easily argue that nutrition should become a core subject for the same reasons as PE. We also have to encourage walking and cycling to school (and generally in life) and provide healthier meals in school canteens.

As well as increased physical activity, schools are going to have to offer more choice in terms of those activities, especially if they want to get to those "hard to reach" groups.

Even at my biggest I was strong for my size and had a decent throwing arm. But running for extended periods of time was painful, I'm not tall enough to be a useful rugby player, so-so at football and a poor swimmer. Maybe pupils should be pointed towards activities that take advantage of innate physical abilities and likes - with teachers trained to look for those strengths and guide pupils towards sports they might actually be good at.

So it's fair to say that I really enjoyed some sports and activities, and genuinely dreaded others, groaning whenever I saw PE on the timetable. Heavy rain during the summer so we would play handball or 5-a-side instead of doing cross country or athletics felt like a godsend. Did anyone else think like that?

PE is currently taught in a way that's a bit like going to subject called "art", having to play a musical instrument – regardless of talent - and getting ripped apart if you're not any good. That's silly, isn't it?

Do we need to be careful that the emphasis
on healthy lifestyles doesn't lead to
over-emphasis on a physical "ideal" ?
(Pic :

There's also the overarching issue of body image. Even if the underlying principle of more exercise is fine, you're going to have to be careful that the emphasis on "healthy bodies" doesn't lead to pupils developing a complex.
It needs to be made clear to everyone from an early age that we all come in different shapes and sizes, and that's fine, but you still need to live healthily.How would teachers be able to do that if on the one hand they're telling pupils they're fine the way they are, and on the other asking them – "Do you even lift?"

Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) has advocated self-esteem lessons in schools. I can understand why, but aren't body image issues indirectly a result of everyone else's attitudes and the media, not the self? Maybe teaching compassion would be better, if somewhat more difficult.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Leighton Andrews resigns as Education Minister

The timing's a bit of a shock, but after what happened in the Senedd earlier today, it isn't a complete surprise.

It's hard to openly oppose two major government policies like that - including your own - in as many months and expect to carry on in cabinet. Once the First Minister failed to fully back him (and it was nigh on impossible to do so, to be fair) the writing was on the wall.

The inevitable questions are going to be asked. Is Leighton putting his constituency's needs first? Or is he that worried about a challenge in 2016 that he felt the need to go now, and do some damage limitation should - for example - the Royal Glamorgan be downgraded?

Considering he's one of Welsh Labour's "big names", you would expect his time outside cabinet to be temporary.

I'm going to review how Welsh ministers have performed by the end of next month - as I did last year - and I was going to be fairly complimentary. I don't think you can question Leighton's commitment and determination to drive through changes in the Welsh education system, even if his methods have perhaps been a bit aggressive.

Somehow, I doubt teaching unions are going to miss him. I'm also a little annoyed that Michael Gove is probably smiling right about now.

But we really needed that approach, as the whole thing had been left to stagnate for some time. At least Leighton was willing to knock heads together, instead of taking a more conciliatory approach, or being under the thumb of civil servants. He had a refreshingly positive attitude to both the Welsh language and the use of technology in the classroom too.

The question now, is who is his successor going to be? It's not an easy job to fill, as like health, education is one of those areas under constant scrutiny. It's likely to become a major issue if Welsh PISA results don't improve in the next wave, and standards overall are still trundling along.

The First Minister has a pretty important and big decision to make here. It could genuinely be make or break.

Will this be a chance for someone new, but unproven, to to move to the front bench? Or will Carwyn opt for a familiar face from a significantly weakened ministerial talent pool?

When you consider the emergency bill announced today (I'll come back to that another time), the Plaid-Lib Dem budget pact, the forthcoming Ynys Mon by-election....

Is that a "pulse" I can feel in Welsh politics?

UPDATE 26/06/2013 : The First Minister has just announced his second reshuffle of the year.

  • Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) has replaced Leighton Andrews as Education Minister.
  • Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly) has been promoted to Minister for Communities & Tackling Poverty
  • Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) is the new Deputy Minister for Communities & Tackling Poverty - a new role, if slightly confusing.
  • Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) is the new Deputy Minister for Skills & Technology.
  • The First Minister himself will take responsibility for the Welsh Language.
I think moving an experienced minister to education is sensible, and Carwyn didn't have many other options to be frank. It's not much of a surprise that Vaughan Gething and Ken Skates are now in cabinet, but that also means that Welsh Labour have now lost two quite effective cheerleading loyalists from the backbenches and gained a grumpy Leighton Andrews.

These are interesting times.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Giving devolution a smack

A ban on "smacking" in Wales has reared its head once
more, but is there any chance of movement?
(Pic :
BBC Wales reported last week on another (long-standing) row bubbling over the Assembly's powers, this time in relation to a ban on "smacking".

Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) described the Social Services and Well Being Bill – due to return from committee later this year – as a "golden opportunity" to enact a ban, saying he would table an amendment to that effect. However, once again the question of whether the Assembly would be able to do so has been raised.

This issue was first raised in 2011. The Assembly approved a cross-party motion calling on Deputy Minister for Social Services & Children, Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath), to enact legislation banning smacking, which she rejected.

I don't like repeating myself, but with the Silk Commission, reserved powers being openly discussed and the fact we all like a constitutional fudge (because it seems to be the only way to get Welsh politics into the headlines), I've decided to come back to it.

The background to the ban proposal

As for my own beliefs, I think parents alone should decide how to discipline their children, and there might be scenarios where physical restraint is appropriate (i.e. a younger child running out into a road, breaking up playground fights). There's a difference between "physical restraint" and striking a child though.

I loath dragging out
clichés, but I was smacked and it didn't do me any harm.

However, that sort of anecdotal evidence doesn't mean it'll be the same in all cases.
Using violence to routinely punish children is perhaps a sign the parent has "lost it", not the child, and it provides cover for abuse. A smacking ban has the support of various bodies, including the Royal Colleges of Paediatrics (pdf) and Psychiatrists (pdf).

I'm not opposed to a smacking ban in principle, I just think it would be difficult to enforce. It could lead to confusion as to what constitutes smacking, discourage "physical restraint" of any sort - even if it's needed - or end up bogged down in guidelines that nobody will pay any attention to.

Welsh Labour, based on their track record of wanting to uphold children's rights, probably would ban smacking if they had the opportunity.

I think this time they'd rather avoid a confrontation with Westminster on the constitution so one of their flagship Bills can pass. This particular Bill has taken its time to get this far and has been seriously troubled at several points.

Betsan Powys noted back in April that Labour's Chief Whip, Janice Gregory (Lab, Ogmore), changed the party's membership on the Children & Young People Committee, replacing vocally pro-smacking ban AMs like Christine Chapman (Lab, Cynon Valley) and Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North). With amendments to legislation needing cross-party support in committee, it would've preventing that from happening.

The Bill will return to plenary with Lindsay Whittle keen to put an amendment in. That's unlikely to have much Conservative support, so any amendment would need significant Labour support, as well as Plaid and the Lib Dems on board.

So, in my opinion, the "golden opportunity" was lost in committee thanks to the musical chairs.

The power to ban smacking

Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 – which outlines what powers are devolved to Wales since the 2011 referendum - says that:
(Part 1, section 15)

Social welfare including social services. Protection and well-being of children (including adoption and fostering) and of young adults. Care of children,young adults, vulnerable persons and older persons, including care standards. Badges for display on motor vehicles used by disabled persons.

....are devolved. There are no exceptions relating to "corporal punishment" or "legal physical chastisement of children".

If smacking is counted as an assault, then that falls under the banner of "criminal justice".
The Assembly, however, does have the power to change criminal laws for matters within its remit, even if the criminal justice system as a whole isn't devolved.

If smacking falls under the banner of "protection and well-being of children" or even domestic violence – which you could interpret it as - then it probably is devolved.

Last time it was David Davies MP (Con, Monmouth) who raised the issue of this being non-devolved –  partly because he opposes a smacking ban anyway. This time it's Glyn Davies MP (Con, Montgomery), though Glyn is perhaps more correct to describe it as a "borderline issue" rather than black or white.

The question then, is whether smacking is an assault or a punishment relating to childcare? The latter probably means it falls under the Assembly's remit.

But that would also mean that David Davies - and others who oppose a smacking ban in Wales on constitutional grounds - would consider smacking a form of "assault" and a criminal offence, which....contradicts their position.

If Lindsay – or other AMs who support a ban - fail to get their amendment in this time around, I think they should concentrate on the proposed domestic violence law. That'll get the Welsh Government shifting uncomfortably in their seats. They couldn't work to end a form of violence against adults whilst neglecting children, could they?

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Local Democracy Bill passed by the Assembly

Things are starting to wind down at the National Assembly as the summer recess approaches. The major business left largely consists of tying up loose legislative ends. At least four Bills are/were on course to be passed before July 19th .

There've been problems with Mick Antoniw's (Lab, Pontypridd) Asbestos Disease Bill, so its final vote has been delayed. There's also Peter Black's (Lib Dem, South Wales West) Mobile Homes Bill - due for a vote on July 10th - and the controversial Human Transplantation Bill, which is up for the vote on
July 2nd .

On Tuesday, another of those four laws was passed – the Local Government Democracy Bill.

The Bill, in its latest incarnation prior to Tuesday (pdf), had the following provisions :
  • Modifications to the Local Boundary Commission for Wales – Including its name (changed to Local Democracy and Boundary Commission), membership and introducing a ten year cycle to review electoral arrangements in each local authority and community.
  • Modifications to the Independent Remuneration Panel (which sets local councillor's pay) – Amendments will be made to the Local Government Measure 2011, which will change aspects of how/when the panel submits its annual report, and give the panel the power to make local authorities publish information relating to councillors' pay and expenses.
  • Political balance on Local Authority Committees – Makes political balance of membership of council committees a legal requirement.
  • Joint Standards Committees – Gives local authorities the power to establish collaborative standards committees to deal with codes of conduct and their violations.
  • Online presence for town and community councils – Every town and community council will be required to provide contact details and records of proceedings via the internet by May 2015.
  • Council Chairs and Presiding Officers – Allows councils to seperate the role of an elected presiding officer from the ceremonical civic "chair" of the local authority (i.e Ceremonial Mayor).

OK, that's pretty dry stuff.

Amendments were tabled by AMs (pdf) and Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), which were also voted on to create a final version of the Bill (pdf), which will now go to Bet Windsor for the official stamp of approval, barring any intervention by Westminster.

Most of the amendments related to wording. The significant ones were :

  • Amendment 3 - Peter Black AM & Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) - Giving people reporting council proceedings "reasonable facilities". I'm not sure what that meant exactly. (Not Passed)
  • Amendment 5 – Ditto – Introducing Single Transferable Vote for local authority elections. (Not Passed)
  • Amendment 6 – Ditto – Provisions relating to the conduct of local authority elections, including election expenses. (Not Passed)
  • Amendment 7 – Ditto – No payments to returning officers except those in relation to carrying out their duties. So it closes the (rumoured) "pocket the savings" loophole with regard election costs. (Not Passed)
  • Amendment 54 – Lesley Griffiths AM – Brought in as part of a deal with opposition parties, it lays out the powers of the Independent Remuneration Panel with regard the pay of local authority chief executives. (Passed)

That agreement resulted Peter Black/Rhodri Glyn Thomas withdrawing their amendment (15) for setting maximum pay for "senior officers". Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) kept it in as Amendment 9 which, as hinted, covered all senior officers, not just chief executives. (Not Passed)

"Local Democracy Bill" sounds like it would be meaty enough to send the proverbial equivalent of several columns of tanks over the Loughor, in order to liberate the Democratic People's Republic of Carmarthenshire. Nyet, comrades.

Echoing what Caebrwyn said yesterday, the reality is that it's quite a limp law, that deals mostly with administrative matters, was beefed up by opposition amendments (all of which failed to pass) and will likely mean nowt to the general public. The title makes it sound grander than it actually is, a bit like the Active Travel Bill.

It's understandable why the opposition and Welsh Government agreed to deal with local authority executive pay, following some rather embarrassing revelations over the last few months.

I'm not complaining, and it's without a doubt the headline part of the Bill. Executives shouldn't be paid so many more times their lowest paid worker's salaries. If we expect principles like those to eventually apply to private companies, we should expect them to apply to the public sector too.

What's not understandable, is why they've decided – in a law called "Local Democracy Bill" – to take powers away from local authorities. A sentiment echoed by others.

There's clearly frustration in Cathays Park and the Senedd about how services are being run at a local level. Although there's currently a review of local services taking place, Welsh Government and opposition alike are giving the the impression of being scared away from making root and branch reforms, and are instead trying to reorganise it via the back door – like the recent report recommending collaborative education authorities. I made my thoughts on local government clear(ish) earlier this year.

A lot has also been said recently about the media and public paying little or no attention to the Assembly, AMs and what the institution does. Here's a case in point. Try convincing the public at large that laws like these are important and a good use of AMs' time. Even I'm struggling.

Of course, it'll be very different on July 2nd .

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Census 2011 : The Home & Relationships

This is my penultimate look at the 2011 census. Considering that I originally only wanted to look at the Welsh language statistics, you can see how it's snowballed. The final post will look at Bridgend county and how it's changed since 2001 - once I'm satisfied all the relevant ward-level data has been released.

Today, I'm clumping together the "other" key data : home and car ownership, as well as living arrangements and relationship status.


First up, it's home ownership and tenure. The number of households in Wales increased by around 94,000 between 2011 and 2001, and Cardiff alone by 19,000.

In terms of home ownership, 67.4% of Welsh households lived in a home that was either owned outright or owned via a mortgage in 2011 - a higher rate than England (63.4%). There's no real set pattern across Wales, with most local authorities having home ownership rates ranging from the mid 60s to low 70s. However, the percentage of homeowners in Cardiff is noticeably and significantly lower than the rest of Wales (59.1%).

% of homes owned outright or via mortgage
in 2011
(Click to enlarge)
Change in % of householes where homes
are owned 2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, places like Flintshire (72.8%), Bridgend (72.4%), Vale of Glamorgan (72.2%) and Rhondda Cynon Taf (71%) have relatively high levels of home ownership.

The interesting figures here are in terms of how this changed. I'm not sure if the recession made an impact, but overall, the percentage of homeowners across Wales fell by 3.1% compared to 2001. Most of this isn't a fall in people owning homes outright – which rose slightly by 1% - it's households owning homes with mortgages (-4.1% nationally). Have they defaulted? Have they switched to renting?

Only Anglesey saw a rise in the percentage of homeowners (+0.8%). The rest of Wales – especially the south – has seen significant falls. Cardiff saw the sharpest fall at -10.1%. Only Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Powys saw falls of less than 1% on 2001.

Change in % of households renting from
private landlords 2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)
Change in % of households renting from
local authorities and social landlords 2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)

As to where they've gone, the sector that's seen the biggest increase are private rentals. Cardiff saw a 10.2% rise in the number of households rented privately, while almost all South Walian local authorities saw rises above 5%. The slowest rise was 2.2% in Powys.

This could be because of the expansion of "buy to let" mortgages, as well as the impact of students and young adults, who don't have the funds to get onto the property ladder and choose to rent instead.

All this has had another impact – a fall in households renting from social landlords and local authorities. Many local authorities have handed over the running of social housing to housing authorities, but that doesn't appear to have made up for the shortfall in supply, with the exception of Cardiff – the only local authority to see a rise (+0.2%).

In Blaenau Gwent, the number of social rented households has fallen by 4.9%, in Wrexham it's fallen by 3.7%. These falls imply that a large chunk of social housing will have transferred to private landlords (not housing associations). If this trend continues, it'll have a massive impact on the supply of social housing and all that entails. None of this has been helped by things like the "bedroom tax".

Car Ownership & Access

In 2011, an extra 93,600 Welsh households had access to a car compared to 2001. It's best to deal with households with no car access first.

% of households with
no access to a car
(Click to enlarge)
Change in % of households with no
access to a car 2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)

The general pattern is rural areas having greater car access than urban areas. Most of the authorities with high percentages of households without car access are in the urban south – Merthyr (35.2%), Blaenau Gwent (35.1%), RCT (31.5%).

Cardiff also has a surprisingly high percentage – 30.5%. People might criticise it, but when you factor in the number of local train stations, Cardiff Bus and the frequency of those services, Cardiff probably has the best public transport network in Wales. So there's perhaps little reason for a car in the first place.

In the valleys though, it could come down to not being able to afford to run a car, fewer numbers of people being able to drive, or needing to drive – think about it. In rural areas, higher levels of car ownership and access would reflect it as a necessity due to poor public transport.

In terms of how it's changed since 2001 though, every local authority saw a fall in the percentage of households with no access to a car. Like other statistics, the biggest falls have been in the more deprived areas.

Change in % of households with access
to two cars or more 2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)
Blaenau Gwent saw a 6.1% fall, and Merthyr a 5.5% fall. Only Cardiff saw a negligible fall – 0.7% - probably because of good public transport as mentioned earlier.

It's hard to tell if this next point counts as "good news". Households with access to just one car also fell, but maybe not for the reason you're thinking. Households with access to two cars or more have increased substantially across Wales – 5.6% nationally – but with no real set pattern.

As to why this happened, there are several possible explanations : cars are cheaper (but certainly not cheaper to run), more adult children living at home, more employers demanding it due to flexible working hours, and an expansion of home-based businesses with small fleets of vehicles required (building contractors etc).

Relationship Status & Living Arrangements

In 2011 there were just over 2.5million people aged 16 or over in Wales. 46.6% said they were married, 33.5% single, 7.9% widowed and 11.9% either divorced or separated. These figures weren't that different from EnglandandWales as a whole, though Wales has slightly fewer single people and slightly more divorced and widowed people.

% of over 16s who were
married in 2011
(Click to enlarge)
Change in % of resident over 16s
who are married 2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)

Things have changed quite substantially. In 2001, in all but two local authorities – Cardiff & Ceredigion - the majority (50%+) of people aged 16 or over were married. In 2011, that was the case in just four local authorities – Flintshire (50.3%), Powys (51.1%), Pembrokeshire (50.4%) and Monmouthshire (54.1%).

Between 2001 and 2011, the married population in Wales fell by 6.9%, with the highest falls of 8%+ in the M4 corridor and Blaenau Gwent. The divorcee population increased by 3.3% nationally over the same time, and separated (still legally married) by 0.6%, with no real pattern anywhere in Wales.

So the falls in married people don't simply come down to a rise in divorces – though divorces  would've made an impact. I think the reason happened is because of falls in the number of people getting married in the first place.

Change in % of over 16s who are
single/not married 2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)

There's a pronounced trend for increased singleness in urban parts of south Wales, as well as Gwynedd and Ceredigion. The change in the number of singles varies wildly though, with rural parts of Wales and north east Wales not experiencing anywhere near the same shift as somewhere like Cardiff, where there's been an increase of 6.1% in the single population.

In places like Cardiff and Ceredigion too, which have larger young adult populations – presumably students – this is probably the effect of an influx of young singles dragging the married rate downwards.
A word of caution though. "Single" - as defined in the census - probably doesn't explicitly mean "not in a relationship", it means not married or in a civil partnership.

Sexual Orientation & Same Sex Couples

The LGBT community in Wales appears to be rather small,
and same sex civil partnerships relatively few.
(Pic : ITV Wales)
I can't remember whether sexual orientation questions were included, and that's reflected by a lack of census data. The ONS does produce what it calls "experimental" figures on sexual orientation. In 2011-12 :
  • 94.8% of the Welsh population aged 16 or over described themselves as heterosexual
  • 1% as homosexual (~25,000 people)
  • 0.4% bisexual (~10,000 people)
  • 0.3% "other" (~7,500 people). I'm not sure what "other" is, but I presume asexuals, pansexuals and the bi-curious.
  • 3.6% refused to answer or gave no response.
Looking at the overall figures – which haven't changed much on the previous year - I'd say Wales has a slightly below-average LGBT community compared to the UK, or placed somewhere "in the middle". There's no way to tell how spread out those communities are, but I'd guess most LGBTs - like any minority in Wales - live in and around the bigger settlements.

Same sex civil partnerships were recorded in the census. Civil partnerships developed between the two censuses, so there's no comparison with 2001.

Nationally, just 0.2% of the population over 16 were in same sex civil partnerships in 2011 – that works out at around 5,000 individuals. There wasn't much variation between local authorities, most recorded 0.1% or 0.2%. It appears Newport is the civil partnership capital of Wales, with 0.4% of the population in one, followed by Torfaen (0.3%).

What can we take from this?

Wales is becoming a nation of renters – The slump in mortgage-owned homes could, as I said, be the result of the recession and defaults. However, it could also be that people are increasingly priced out of the housing market and turning to renting instead.

Did private landlords disproportionately benefit from the Blair-Brown "housing boom"? – Related to the above, the figures suggest private landlords have been the fastest growing group of home-owners in Wales since 2011.

Has easy access to "buy to let" mortgages led to the explosion
of private rental properties since the turn of the millennium?
(Pic : The Guardian)
That could be down to an expansion of "buy to let" mortgages, with cheaper homes in Wales being easy pickings for those looking to start off in the letting business. Also, some parts of Wales have a captive rental market due to the expansion of universities.

The trouble is, we still place quite a lot on home ownership as a step towards financial security. A large chunk of Wales are being denied that if long-term rentals don't provide the same sort of security, or if people aren't able to get on the property ladder in the first place. The Welsh Government recently announced a white paper on reforms to renting.

We have greater access to cars and own more of them – This is neither really a good thing or a bad thing. Sure, more deprived parts of Wales are arguably more mobile than in 2001, which should improve job prospects. But that means nothing if the jobs they're going to are low-paid.

The number of cars in households also has a big environmental and (possible) health impact. It emphasises the task ahead trying to get people onto public transport, as private transport might be seen as a necessity in some parts of Wales. The Assembly undertook an inquiry into integrated public transport recently.

Perhaps for the first time, a majority of Welsh adults are unmarried – One of the more dramatic shifts compared to 2001 is the drop in the number of local authorities where more than half their residents are married.

Again, this doesn't mean that adults aren't "settling down" - as it hints at people not getting married even if they're in a committed relationship. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, really. It's a noticeable trend in other parts of the developed world.

It would be interesting to see an age breakdown of these figures. Relationships and marriages aren't "expected" by a certain age as they once were, and people – especially my age - have more complicated expectations with regard potential partners than 30-40 years ago.

When you factor in divorce and separation rates, people are perhaps more cynical about long-term relationships too and genuinely prefer to remain single or in more casual relationships.

Though yes, on the extremes you have men wearing fedora hats and neckbeards going on about being a "nice guy", whilst at the same time being misogynistic/racist/homophobic (delete as required). And women for whom a walking orgasm, that doesn't talk and only listens, and could grant them anything they desire wouldn't be good enough - even if they don't offer much themselves.

There aren't many gays in the village – Unless a large chunk of that 3.8% who didn't answer the ONS survey are in the closet, the Welsh LGBT community is very small indeed. There's a stereotype that Wales has a disproportionate number of gay men in particular. However, I think it's that Wales has a disproportionate number of "high profile" LGBTs that skewers people's perceptions somewhat. The numbers also highlight the need to protect minority groups like LGBTs so they don't get "squashed". However, sexual orientation shouldn't matter anymore. It's a shame it still matters to some.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Wales : State of Innovation? Or doing the wrong things better?

In the last few weeks, a report entitled State of Innovation (pdf) - authored by Nesta's Matthew Gatehouse and Adam Price - was published as part of the Welsh Public Services 2025 programme.

It sets out a vision of a more innovative Welsh public sector which, considering it's proportionally large impact on the Welsh economy, could well become necessary if we want to see public services delivered more efficiently, and more imaginatively, in the backdrop of public spending cuts.

Why the public sector needs innovation

The report highlights a "triple vice":

  • Public spending cuts and austerity – The impact is likely to last for at least five years, probably more, affecting the general Welsh economy (due to more public sector employees). There's also the issue of "Offa's Gap" – a gap in economic productivity between Wales and the rest of the UK. So public services can't be based off the back of continuous economic growth filling coffers anymore.
  • An ageing and ill population – Rates of child poverty and chronic illness remain above UK averages. Wales also has a proportionately older population too, with the number of over-75s expected to increase by up to 80% by the 2030s.
  • Environmental and social pressures – We increasingly expect to do activities "on demand" and "on the fly" since the advent of things like social media - expecting the same flexibility from our public services. We're still using more than our fair share of natural resources despite commitments to "sustainability". This impacts the public sector, as much as the private sector and individual households.

What does public sector innovation actually mean?

The report says, "new ideas that work at creating public value". In English, I think that means improving how things are run, instead of simply throwing money at problems and hoping that'll work –  the usual way of doing things. "Working smarter", then.

The report describes three different types of innovation :
  • Incremental – Smaller changes to existing services over a longer period of time.
  • Radical – Significant changes to existing services, without altering the underlying purpose of those services.
  • Transformational "Ripping the whole lot up and starting again", with completely new services or methods of service delivery.
I think it's safe to say that the Welsh Government and civil service often opt for "incremental" change, or even not bothering with change at all, and rarely make the step up to "radical" innovation. Those "transformational" changes require new technologies, mind-sets and skills; so they might sound seductive, but might not always be the best option on the table.

Present Welsh public service innovation

Foundation Phase is given as an example of where the
Welsh public sector has been "innovative". Similar examples
are fleeting, however.
(Pic :
Devolution is said to have been delivered off the back of "Made in Wales" solutions to long-standing problems in areas like the economy and health. However, there's lament at the lack of innovation. Instead – and I think we all know this, except the people at the top – we ended up with Westminster policies simply being "tuned" to Welsh needs. The civil service got used to doing things a certain way, without being as "stand alone" as Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Innovation in Wales extends to freebies and subsidised schemes. Low-hanging fruit, sometimes cheap to deliver, and politically successful for Welsh Labour. In other cases, there've been more dramatic changes, like the introduction of Foundation Phase, and the proposed organ donation opt-out law.

One key factor in all this was the Welsh Government's adoption of "partnership and persuasion", instead of aping the more hostile relationship between Westminster and those delivering public services on the ground in England.

There are said to be two "defining strengths" with regard innovation in the Welsh public sector :
  1. Political cohesion – Welsh public services are "closely knit", with the potential for a highly co-ordinated system for innovation, helped by pan-Wales bodies.
  2. Social sciences – Welsh universities produce "world-leading" social science research – for example, Cardiff's School of Planning. This has been added to via the creation of things like the Public Policy Institute, as well as independent bodies like the Bevan Foundation and Institute of Welsh Affairs.
However, there has been frustration in Cathays Park at the lack of progress made in delivering at a local level by councils and various public bodies. There are an awful lot of other roadblocks too, namely :
  • Organisational thinness – We haven't got the numbers to develop the "big" institutions needed to develop the right skills.
  • Lock-out – Small-c conservatism and insularity in the Welsh public sector, where everything is done "on the inside" since the "Bonfire of the Quangos".
  • Lack of citizen engagement – Service users are best placed to point out how things could work better, but aren't being asked, or aren't bothered enough to care.
  • Fragmentation – There's no single system to highlight successful innovations and share them between different parts of the public sector.

What are the barriers to public sector innovation?

These are all things anyone who follows Welsh politics closely will agree with. It makes for depressing reading, but most of you will be nodding along I'd expect.
  • Hierarchies and "silo mentalities" – Seeing radical ideas from "outside" as a threat, and operating in a way that creates barriers to sharing ideas between different parts of the public sector. There's very little mixing of academic research with practice.
  • Risk aversion – Public services staff seeing innovation as a threat to their job, or a challenge to the comfy status quo. The need to be accountable and a need for "certainty" means there's a disincentive to make major changes that could have a big pay off, but might not work.
  • No rewards"If it ain't broke...." mentality, meaning if a service is trundling along fine, it won't be tampered with by managers. Also, radical changes are often flagged up by the media and then opposed by service users, trade unions and politicians.
  • Short-termism – Public service staff work to fix immediate pressures and on administration, instead of "taking a step back and seeing if you can do things differently".
  • Politics – Contributes to short-termism by "demanding instant results" rather than more effective longer-terms solutions. The Foundation Phase is cited as an example, where the results won't be known for perhaps another decade.
Although these are general barriers that can happen everywhere, there are more Wales-specific problems too :
  • Higher proportion of people working in the public sector, who don't get rewarded for innovation and might fear their job is at risk by adopting riskier, untested methods of service delivery. Because of lower private sector employment, they might worry they won't find another job.
  • A lack of creative leadership in public management, who end up perpetuating the above.
  • Innovation is seen as a "distraction" from service delivery in Wales compared to England.
  • Auditing compares public services with existing "good practice" rather than taking into account radical and untested/unproven schemes. Staff said they end up trying to meeting audit checklists rather than coming up with new ways to deliver services. This might result in services improving, but only because of "doing the wrong things better."

What can be done?

That's actually the wrong question. One of the key tenets of the report isn't, "What could be done?" But more, "Wales is doing a lot already, it just isn't being exploited as it could be." It contained plenty of examples, but I decided not to go into them for the sake of brevity (LOL!).

In terms of specific proposals, there's a national action plan outlined as :
  1. Bringing "social science research and public service practice" closer together, with greater collaboration, generating the evidence base needed to put forward the case for more radical public service reforms.
  2. Making innovation skills a key part of public management training, in order to "create a cadre of leaders in Wales who create a new vision for public services." This would help turn innovation into workable projects.
  3. Engaging more independent bodies in public service innovation, to create a more "entrepreneurial culture" to drive up productivity, and develop enterprises to provide services within local communities.
  4. Incentivise partners in the private sector – especially technology – to turn Wales into a "global test bed" for innovations in public services. Examples include digital education and developing new technology in reaction to an ageing population.
There are also other proposals and unanswered questions, like :  funding innovation as a proportion of public sector spending (in the same way private companies invest in R&D), prizes for innovation and changes to how performances are measured to make "taking risks" more attractive.

Can Wales become a State of Innovation?

Ultimately, you'll have to ask Carwyn and the civil service. He's made small steps in that direction through the establishment of the Public Policy Institute, as covered by A Change of Personnel. I still remain sceptical about the remit of the "think tank that can't think", but I don't question the First Minister's sincerity. Maybe this report will be picked up there, who knows?

It's another report that, as Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans bemoans on Click on Wales, largely went under the radar. In all honesty though, it's incredibly hard to make reports like these interesting for the media or relevant to the public - even if said reports are excellent or important.

If posts like this get picked up by other people who have a bigger audience, or make people understand things better - great, I've done my job. That rarely happens as I'm preaching to the choir. I have the luxury of being able to do that, though – the mainstream media don't. But isn't that the problem in the first place?

And, "Doing the wrong things better" is the best summing up of Wales since devolution I've ever come across.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Renting Homes White Paper

Proposed legislation to make renting simpler and more
transparent are outlined in the latest housing white paper
from the Welsh Government.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Back in May, Housing and Regeneration Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), launched a white paper (pdf) on proposed housing legislation, this time to do with renting.

Previous Housing Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) launched a separate, but related, white paper in 2012. This is the first in-depth consultation to stem from those proposals.

The need for change

The Law Commission published a report identifying several areas of the rental market that needed reform, which a multitude of organisations and people had asked for over the course of several years.

Many renters aren't satisfied with being owner-occupiers, and are said to have lower life satisfaction compared to home owners. As I'll point out in my next look at the census (probably next week), Wales is increasingly becoming a nation of renters. Around 30% of Welsh households live in rented accommodation.

Renting has advantages, like flexibility when it comes to moving (i.e for work on short notice) and some level of legal security. However, when it comes to social renting, many people see differences between renting from a local authority, from a private social landlord – like a housing association – or from a fully private landlord.

There are currently loads of different types of residential rental tenancies, many of which were created via Westminster legislation to respond to specific problems like anti-social behaviour (Family Intervention Tenancies, Demoted Tenancies etc.). Many tenants don't understand, or just "skim over", their rental contracts due to the confusion.

The Welsh Government can't offer any sort of tax incentives - like those used in Germany and Australia - to promote long-term renting because they don't have the powers. However, then can use the law to simplify arrangements for tenants, and encourage investment in rental properties by "not placing too many barriers".

What are the proposed changes?

The current system of seven types of residential rental contract will be simplified into two :
  • A "secure contract", similar to local authority secure tenancies. These are said to have much greater protection for tenants, secured in law. It'll also mean that social housing tenants in the private sector and local authorities will have the same type of contract.
  • A "standard contract", similar to short hold tenancies used in the private rental market. This is said to have a lower level of security, but landlords would have the option to create more secure, long-term tenancies if they wish.

What are the other benefits?
  • Tackling anti-social behaviour – Conduct clauses will be inserted, as standard, into rental contracts, with tenants made aware of their responsibilities. Breaching the terms could lead to a possession order being issued by the landlord, which could lead to eviction.
  • Tackling domestic abuse – The above clause would include domestic violence. There'll be clauses to evict the abuser, without the victim needing to terminate their tenancy (as currently). The Welsh Government are working on a related Domestic Violence Bill, which hasn't been introduced yet. More from me once it is.
  • Flexibility in joint tenancies – Instead of joint tenancies ending when one person leaves, the remaining tenant will be able to "give notice" to their landlord, enabling them to have enough time to find a replacement.
  • Rights for young renters – People aged 16 and 17 will be given the same power to rent as an 18 y.o. This could be useful for youngsters leaving care, for example.
  • Succession rights – Carers of a tenant who dies, and who've lived in the rented home for at least 12 months, will have succession rights to the tenancy.
  • No mandatory eviction for serious rent arrears (for housing association tenants) – This effectively removes "Ground 8" from the Housing Act 1988 as a grounds for eviction, granting housing association tenants the same rights as local authority tenants.
  • Abolish 6 month moratoriums on evictions – This might prove controversial, but it's said that most contracts are a minimum of 6-12 months anyway. It could make it easier for tenants to look for a short-term rent or to house the homeless.
  • Including landlord repair obligations in rental contracts – Self-explanatory. They'll be written into every rental contract, hopefully improving the quality of rental accommodation.

It might look heavily skewed in favour of tenants, but landlords stand to benefit too. The new arrangements will be simplified – reducing administration costs – and provide greater certainty with regard rental terms. There'll also be much better ways to deal with things like sudden abandonment of rented properties, which is said to be a big problem.

Implementing the changes

The Welsh Government intend to introduce a Renting Homes Bill in 2015, becoming law in 2016, so this process still has some way to go. Consultation on the white paper closes on 16th August.

It's decided that existing tenants won't have to sign any new rental contracts straight away as a result of the changes. Instead, they'll be phased in. At the moment though, it's unclear what the measures will cost, and the Rental Landlords Association have claimed that the money used to introduce legislation and regulations could be better spent on expanding housing stock.

All those details will become clearer when the draft Bill is introduced, as said sometime in 2015.

A good set of proposals?

The changes, as outlined, appear to be largely common sense and long overdue. Renting was in desperate need of being simplified for tenants and landlords alike, and the proposed changes go a long, long way towards achieving that.

As I'll note shortly in another blog, renting is becoming increasingly important as house prices remain ridiculously high. I would have preferred German-style arrangements for long-term renting, but I accept that's beyond the Assembly's devolved competence, which is a shame. But if the changes work it might not be necessary.

My concern - as with all things housing related - is the law of unintended consequences, where "progressive" changes in Wales could result in English local authorities dumping their problems on our doorstep, instead of pressing Westminster to make these sorts of changes themselves. Hopefully though, this might clamp down on slumlords – and let's face it, they are slumlords - along the North Wales coast in particular and other parts of Wales.

It'll also clamp down on bad tenants. As long as the rules are fair, those changes are fine. But if they break those rules, and are subsequently evicted, there's still the question of where the bad tenants would go? We're not going to go down the road of creating ghettos on isolated estates made up entirely of evicted tenants, are we?