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Monday 30 September 2013

Senedd Watch - September 2013

  • Vice-chair of the Conservative Party, Michael Fabricant MP, called for a new Act of Union that grants the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom equal powers, with Westminster retaining control over areas like defence and foreign affairs.
  • A Times Education Supplement survey found between 60-75% of Welsh teachers and headteachers believe school banding hasn't improved standards, and 73-75% believe education reforms have had a negative impact on morale. The Welsh Government said any education reforms “take time to bed in”.
  • BMA Cymru believed proposals for reorganising specialist hospital services in south Wales (South Wales Programme) “lacked detail”; a shift towards community service provision lacked proper consultation with GPs and capacity issues hadn't been properly addressed - citing an overall reduction in hospital beds within each proposal.
  • A leading brain injury specialist, Prof. Rodger Wood, called for more brain injury rehabilitation units around Wales due to increased numbers of patients. The first specialist unit in Wales is due to open in Carmarthenshire in 2014. In addition, the head of the South Wales Cardiac Network warned patients were dying waiting for surgery in Wales and are choosing to go private as Morriston Hospital and University Hospital Cardiff struggle to cope with demand.
  • The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee warned of conflicting reports that patients were “queue jumping” by paying NHS consultants for private treatment. They also said consultants' long working hours were unsustainable and their job-planning was viewed as a “tick-box exercise”.
  • The Federation of Small Businesses in Wales rejected proposals to part-fund an M4 Newport bypass through existing Severn bridge tolls, after it was suggested by a Welsh Government adviser. However, the Welsh Government said they would seek to reduce tolls should the powers to set them be devolved. A public consultation on the proposed bypass options was launched on September 23rd.
  • The Human Transplantation Bill was granted Royal Assent on 10th September. The Human Transplantation Act 2013 will create an opt-out organ donation system in Wales by 2015. The First Minister described it as, “arguably the most significant piece of legislation passed by the Assembly since it acquired law-making powers in 2011.”
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 7,000 in the three months to July 2013 to stand at 8% overall. The UK unemployment rate also fell by 24,000 to 7.7%.
  • A Western Mail investigation into Sports Wales funding found what they described as a “postcode lottery”, with Gwynedd receiving the most per head, Cardiff the largest sums overall, while Newport and Vale of Glamorgan were placed towards the bottom. Mohammad Ashgar AM (Con, South Wales East) called on the Welsh Government to “make sure every area is getting its fair share.”
  • The First Minister opened the nomination process for the first annual St David Awards, the aim being to honour those “doing exceptional things and making a real difference to quality of life”. The first award ceremony is due to be held in March 2014.
  • Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) announced the Welsh Government will issue advice to public bodies so that firms that blacklisted both trade unionists and workers who raised health and safety concerns in the past will be barred from public sector contracts.
  • Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams told the UK Lib Dem annual conference her party should steer the debate on further devolved powers. She also criticised both Welsh Labour's education record and levels of funding for poor pupils.
  • The First Minister told a Welsh Governance Centre conference that devolution of fiscal powers could make the case for the Union in Scotland stronger in the run up to the 2014 independence referendum, warning that delaying or blocking further devolution would play into the hands of nationalists. In addition, he called for a written constitution which presumes in favour of devolution.
  • A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report found poverty levels were higher in working households than in non-working households, especially in rural Wales, with 23% of people said to be living in poverty in Wales. Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), called for effective intervention, but conceded that action relies on UK Government levers, criticising both austerity measures and welfare reform.
  • UKIP leader Nigel Farage told a BBC Wales reporter at his party's annual conference that they no longer oppose devolution, saying the UK “was moving towards a federal model” but some powers could be devolved to a local level from the National Assembly.
  • The First Minister told Labour's annual conference in Brighton his government “sets an example”  for what Labour can achieve in power. Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, defended Welsh Labour's NHS record, saying that it was “as good as possible”.
  • Hywel Dda Local Health Board approved hospital reorganisations in west Wales, which will include a downgrading of Llanelli's Prince Philip Hospital A&E department to a nurse-led unit (subject to a judicial review), with the centralisation of neonatal services kept under review by Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West).
  • Auditor General, Huw Vaughan Thomas, told the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee that local health boards had developed a culture of overspending, and there needed to be a more consistent approach to health budgets.
  • Auditors found more than £20,000 of public funding used as indemnity in a libel case undertaken by Carmarthenshire Council's Chief Executive, Mark James, was unlawful - in addition to a payment in lieu of pension contributions. Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) said it was “exceptionally damaging for Carmarthenshire”, pressing Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) to investigate further. Similar pension contributions in Pembrokeshire and more than £200,000 in compensation for car allowance cuts for senior staff in Caerphilly, were also deemed unlawful by auditors.
  • The National Assembly approved the Mobile Homes Bill on September 25th, following a additional Report Stage over the summer recess. It enshrines new protections for mobile home residents in law and establishes a licensing system for mobile home sites. Introduced by Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West), it's the first Member's Bill passed by the Assembly since the 2011 referendum.
  • Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, called for the devolution of postal services to Wales, and the creation of a publicly-owned “Post Cymru”, following the start of a privatisation process of Royal Mail. She cites a legal precedent where postal services were surrendered to the Isle of Man via the Postal Act 1969.
  • At the UK Conservative annual conference, Welsh Conservative leader Andrew Davies said his party has the ideas and drive to solve Wales's problems, citing “13 years (sic) of stagnation” under Welsh Labour. UK Prime Minister David Cameron denied that delays to the UK Government's response to the Silk Commission were a sign his party were blocking devolution, saying there was a “bubble in Cardiff that was obsessed with powers” and that fiscal responsibility had a “natural attraction” to conservatives.
  • Llyr Huws Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) called for a corporate manslaughter investigation into Betsi Cadwaladr LHB's handling of C.difficile infection at Glan Clwyd Hospital, from which 30 patients died of 96 infected.

Projects announced in September include : The launch of a new EADS training company – Testia – in Newport, which aims to train more than 1,000 aerospace students and apprentices each year; a £40million redevelopment of Gower College Swansea's Tycoch campus, a 2000-capacity £250million prison in Wrexham and a £35million expansion of Parc Prison in Bridgend.

Saturday 28 September 2013

The War on Terror's forgotten front

The terror attacks on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Centre are a reminder
that the War on Terror is as much an African war as an Asian-focused one.
(Pic : The Telegraph)

If you asked most people to name a front line in "The War on Terror", I'm willing to bet most would say Afghanistan or northern Pakistan. In terms of intensity that may well be true, but like all global wars, there are other front lines which might not be getting the attention they deserve, but where US and allied troops are involved.

As demonstrated by the terror attacks and siege in Nairobi over the last week, one of those forgotten fronts is the Horn of Africa, in particular Somalia.

To date, multilateral efforts in this region of Africa to undermine Islamist terrorism have been relatively successful, carefully targeted with seemingly minimal casualties – estimates put the total number of deaths in the area directly attributable to The War on Terror (Operation Enduring Freedom - Horn of Africa) at around 200.

The United States has led those efforts, possessing a large military presence in Djibouti, with between 3,000-4,000 troops stationed at the Camp Lemonnier, which is also a base for the US military's Africa Command (AFRICOM).

Despite this American involvement, the African Union has put substantial resources into fighting anti-government forces in Somalia's long-running civil war. They've achieved many key objectives, with the legitimate Somali government re-taking control of Mogadishu in 2011 from al-Qaeda linked groups like al-Shabaab.

The most heavily-involved nations as part of the African Union's operations in Somalia are Uganda, Burundi and bordering Kenya. All have between 4,000-5,000 troops involved at any one time.

The latest attack is a worrying sign that Somalia's conflict could be spilling over into the wider region, and it has precedence.

Nairobi was where Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden made their "debuts", becoming a recognised international threat following the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania which killed more than 200 people and injured more than 4,000. In 2002, there was an attack against a hotel popular with Israeli tourists in Mombasa, killing 13 people, and a failed attempt to bring down an Israeli passenger plane.
Kenya is one of the more developed nations in east Africa, and wealth is heavily concentrated in Nairobi, and that's probably why a major shopping centre – popular with ex-pats and wealthy locals alike – was chosen as a target.

There are massive income disparities between wealthy urbanites & ex-pats and those who live in slums and rural areas. Kenya is also ethnically and religiously diverse. Although the majority of people are Christians, around 11% of the population are Muslim (compared to 4.5% in the UK, or 1.5% in Wales) and there are concerns they are increasingly being radicalised.

There have been times these inter-ethnic differences have descended into widespread violence, as it did in 2007-08. Luckily, it appears Kenya has recovered well from that. Violence was widely expected during and following the general election in March, but it never materialised to any great extent.

If militant Islamists like al-Shabaab can gain a foothold in Kenya, in reaction to Kenyan involvement in Somalia, it spells danger for the whole of east Africa, especially those with large Muslim populations like Tanzania (35%).

It could not only undermine the relative stability nations like Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia have managed to foster over the last decade, but it could feed off tensions within these countries, and provide another avenue for training Islamist terrorists to carry out attacks closer to home.

The latest attacks in Nairobi could also be interpreted as be a sign that al-Shabaab are weakening, and were carried out as an act of desperation, perhaps hoping to turn public opinion against Kenyan involvement in the Somali Civil War, which could ease some of the setbacks that Islamists have endured there. That's signified by the "threat" issued by al-Shabaab a few days ago.

The more worrying thing here though is possible foreign involvement, with suggestions there could well have been American and British people involved in the execution of the attacks.

Apart from Yemen, and long-standing problems in Pakistan, it'll probably be east and Sub-Saharan Africa which will become the new spring board for Islamist-inspired terrorism. European governments should perhaps take a keener interest in the area that extends beyond combating piracy.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Two Cardiff visions, two different impressions

A coherent vision for Cardiff city centre and how it links with the Cardiff Bay regeneration area has been a cause célèbre for so many people, for so long, that it sounds like a broken record each and every time it's brought up in the media.

In the last few weeks, we've seen further development of two visions. One from Cardiff City Council, the other from a group of citizens and thinkers called Imagine Cardiff.

Due to Cardiff's clout, and with the imminent launch of a strategic city region in south east Wales (I've outlined my own ideas for regional government before too), everywhere from Bridgend to the English border is counting on Cardiff city centre to be "the jewel in the crown".

Cardiff Council

Cardiff city centre should be the "jewel in the crown" of any
future city region, but - to date - on-off plans for a dramatic transformation have
been dealt with in a manner that borders on incompetence or laziness.
(Pic : Wales Online)
The plans for the city centre, from a political viewpoint, boil down to two key schemes :
  • The enterprise zone – In collaboration with the Welsh Government, and aimed at financial and professional services, the enterprise zone covers the area around the Millennium Stadium and Cardiff Central station (known as "Central Square"), Callaghan Square, the JR Smart Capital Quarter and Dumballs Road. Incentives include targeted business support and business rate relief schemes.
  • Rebuilding Momentum – Tied to the enterprise zone, this (latest) 30-year masterplan focuses on key developments within the enterprise zone area; including high-density housing (6,400 units), a convention centre, more than 500,000 sqm of office space and a bus or tram-based light rapid transit system linking the city centre to Cardiff Bay.

Now, that's all fine and dandy.

As for the problems, the previous Cardiff Council administration (Lib Dem-Plaid coalition) outlined their own vision for the city centre between 2008 and 2011. The incoming Labour administration scrapped it, and have since come up with....almost exactly the same plan. So that's several years work wasted for no reason.

Also, to date, the only major developments taking place within the area are a new campus for Cardiff & Vale College at Dumballs Road (due to open in 2015) and modest redevelopments of Cardiff Central and Queen Street stations.

Cardiff Council have since been buying up land in and around the city centre despite there being no firm plans in place. There doesn't appear to be any chance of a replacement for the central bus station any time soon (which was at least included in previous plans), and the whole thing seems to be rather disorganised, though there are legitimate concerns around the state of the economy.

Someone senior needs to have a quiet word as they're making a pig's ear of what should be one of the most exciting economic developments in Wales for the past 50 years.

It seems no one has a clue what's going on, or the timetables, apart from Russell Goodway himself (maybe Edwina Hart, but I suspect she's out of the loop too) and perhaps Cardiff Council's cabinet.

The previous administration – for all its faults, and there were plenty of them – at least gave us all some idea of what they wanted to do with the city centre. Come back Rodney "International" Berman. All is forgiven!

Imagine Cardiff

With the difficulties in closing or rebuilding railways, the likelyhood
is that this is what would pull into the shiny new
transport hub in Cardiff Bay - not a tram.
(Pic : Urban 75)
A concept report commissioned on behalf of the Imagine Cardiff group, sponsored by Vaughan Gething AM (Lab, Cardiff S & Penarth) and Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) was unveiled to much fanfare last week. The report itself is rather large, but available here.

It's full of the sort of buzzwords you would expect – "progressive", "partnership", "stakeholders", "engage", "sustainable/sustainability" etc.

I don't care about that, only the meat. The vision includes:
  • Wetland reserves at Bute Park and Parc Trelai.
  • A 2km blue flag beach in Cardiff Bay based round the eastern edge of the barrage.
  • A new urban village at Porth Teigr dubbed "Baltimore Village" (developed by B&B Enterprises by any chance?).
  • A floating stage/outdoor performance area in Cardiff Bay.
  • A 21st Century transport interchange in Cardiff Bay, along with circular tram system around the edge of Cardiff Bay, Penarth and Butetown, linking to a wider public transport network, including a Cardiff city centre circle line and branch lines to the rest of the city and the airport.
The cost estimates for their "core scheme" – wetlands, beach, Baltimore village – is a rather "modest" £175million. The cost of all of the vision is a rather more substantial £972.1million (which I believe is an under-estimate), and that doesn't include funds towards other developments like Porth Teigr itself and Cardiff's Local Development Plan housing requirements (alone estimated to be £6billion).

The intention would be for a "co-operative consultancy" made up of professionals to advise and work for an Imagine Cardiff community interest company. That's rather novel and I'm not sure if something like that has been done on this scale in Wales before, or the rest of the UK for that matter.

You can't fault the vision. All of the ideas put forward are brilliant and the artist's impressions are seductive (you can see a selection from architectural designer Alex Whitcroft here). The beach, the wetlands...great stuff!

I love the idea of a floating stage (though it would need a roof) and an artificial beach. The latter is very much achievable, depending on the questionable bathing quality of Cardiff Bay itself (overall water quality is surprisingly good).

But it is what it is....artificial. Fake. The whole of Cardiff Bay gives the impression of being a fairground for the middle classes with some shiny buildings dotted around it, turning its back on Butetown as if it were a bad smell.

It still needs some ironing out, however large chunks of this vision read like a bog-standard gentrified housing development with a few extras added that will probably never see the light of day.

For example, they'll have to drop all hope of a tram network as they outlined it. A tram going around the outer circle of Cardiff Bay would never be self-sustaining.You can walk it in an hour. Then there's the negative connotations of putting "affordable" housing right next to a working port.

A great beach, coherent waterfront development, potential
for a tram network and renewable energy....Swansea says "hello".
(Pic :
The Cardiff Bay branch line would need to be replaced, and it's incredibly difficult – legally – to close a railway. There are plenty of other things that need clearing up across Wales as well, unless the "vision" is of a slam-door single car unit trundling into shiny Roald Dahl station after the epic journey from a Cardiff Queen Street bay platform, bellowing black diesel fumes at 6mph.

For the moment, that's all Network Rail have planned for it.

Cardiff isn't some sprawling metropolis, it's a compact city by European standards, and I doubt Cardiff really needs a high-density tram network. Instead, it needs to make better use of existing transport corridors - in particular railways - like filling in gaps in Roath, Ely, Rumney and St Mellons; and ideally at some point in the future completing a "circle line" from Coryton to Radyr.

Any rapid-transit system should probably be bus-based too. So not everything Cardiff Council are planning is bad. I know that's not very "glamorous", but Swansea has more claim to a tram system than Cardiff, especially as the corridor's in place via the bendy bus between Morriston and Singleton.

Swansea doesn't need a fake beach either.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Carwyn's constitutional conundrum

The First Minister has once again gone into some detail on his ideas for
devolution and the impact of the Scottish independence referendum.
(Pic : BBC)

Last week, First Minister Carwyn Jones gave a lecture on devolution and the possible ramifications of the Scottish independence referendum at a conference organised by Cardiff University's Wales Governance Centre and UK Changing Union.

A transcript (and video) of the First Minister's lecture is available on Click on Wales.

This isn't the first time he's made his thoughts known on this. However, for those of you who can't be bothered, here's a condensed version :

Silk Commission Part I
  • The Welsh Government seeks full implementation of Silk Part I (borrowing powers, devolution of smaller taxes, income tax variation [subject to a referendum]) and are waiting for a formal response from the UK Government, which has been significantly delayed.
  • If any legislation is to be passed this Westminster term, then the response will need to be made "this autumn", quipping that he hopes the UK Government don't claim "autumn" stretches to the winter solstice.
  • Silk I shows Scotland that devolution is flexible enough so their aspirations can be met within the Union, implying he would be willing to campaign for the Union in Scotland depending on the UK Government's response to Silk.

Post-referendum negotiations
  • Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, there would need to be negotiations between the Scottish Government and the rest of the UK. If there's a yes-vote, it would be on the terms of independence; a no-vote would be on "terms of continued membership".
  • The constituent nations should have a say in any negotiations in their own right because of different responsibilities for public services.

The future of the Union
  • The Union is in need of reform to make devolution "more of an event than a process", ending ad-hoc tinkering with the constitution.
  • Reforms should complement each other, possibly leading to a codified (written) constitution.
  • There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the two Welsh laws that have been referred to the Supreme Court (Bylaws Bill & Agricultural Sector Bill). Scotland and Northern Ireland haven't been subject to the same levels of scrutiny because they have reserved powers - and that should apply to Wales too.
  • There's justification for different devolution settlements (asymmetrical devolution) due to "our different relationships with England", but they should be underpinned with three key principles for devolution across the UK:
    • 1. Respect for the devolved legislatures – A constitutionally-guaranteed right for them to exist. No legislature should "have to rely on the goodwill of another legislature for its existence". Only the devolved legislatures should be able to vote themselves out of existence.
    • 2. Parity of structure – A reserved powers model for Wales in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland, defining what the National Assembly cannot do instead of what it can. The powers themselves would be dependent on the individual circumstances in each country.
    • 3. A presumption in favour of devolution "Decisions about Wales should be taken in Wales" unless there's a wider UK interest at stake. It should apply to England too. By calling for more devolved powers he "has public opinion on his side".
  • "Cross border issues" aren't a reason to hold back devolution due to the track record of "sensible management arrangements for such issues....and goodwill and good sense on both sides."
  • The English shouldn't be lectured on devolution, but he looks forward to the UK Government's response to the the McKay Commission.

What Carwyn said makes some sense. I think he got the key principles of devolution right and that should also be codified in a written constitution, agreed between the UK's legislatures following any negotiations after a no-vote.

The problem with that is the fact the UK constitution isn't set in stone gives it the sort of flexibility it requires in order to be able to function. Changing that for the sake of codifying it could be an administrative nightmare as you have hundreds of years of laws, conventions and statutes to pile through.

There were some other things I'd pick up on too.

Firstly, I don't understand the excitement in Cardiff Bay about Silk I. The the powers are insultingly small time, and a no vote in any future income tax referendum looks tempting because it doesn't go far enough. Silk II – relating to devolved powers - is going to be more interesting (in my opinion).

Secondly, parity of structure should only come with parity of powers. If "cross border issues" shouldn't affect devolution in Carwyn's own words, neither should the "relationship with England."

Asymmetrical devolution doesn't work because it underpins a union of unequals. It could well have played a part in the Supreme Court call-ins because Wales lacks a legal jurisdiction, and an awful lot of things are run on an EnglandandWales basis for the sake of historical convention - like the Agricultural Wages Board.

We'll still be asking, whenever policy outpaces powers, "Why has Scotland/Northern Ireland/Greater London/Isle of Man got powers over X, while Wales only has Y."

Then there's the elephant in the room everyone's keen to ignore : England. It's a well-trodden point, but a union where one member state makes up 85% of the population (and has even greater economic power) isn't a "union", it's a hegemony. Devolution merely prevents the "Celtic fringe" being squashed.

Attempts to address this – like an elected upper chamber with equal representation of the nations – will go down like a lead balloon in Westminster as there's too much vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That's why constitutional changes take forever, or just don't happen full stop at UK level.

The Welsh line of thinking

There are plenty of views on devolution's future, with a  broad
consensus that regardless of the referendum result things
will need to be reformed one way or another.
The First Minister isn't the only person who's had their say. Click on Wales have been mulling over the possible consequences of the independence referendum on Wales on-off since August.

Deputy Llywydd David Melding (Con, South Wales Central) has put a lot of thought into this, writing a book – The Reformed Union – outlining his ideas for a federal United Kingdom, which was serialised over the past year. He's said too much on it for me to go into any detail now, but in his latest piece he argues that the UK has to adopt the "bilingual nationalism" (Welsh & British) that works in Wales.

His problem – which he acknowledges to be fair - is that the majority of people in Wales reject British national identity, whether they're political unionists or not. That doesn't mean the Union is in any danger, but maybe "the ties that bind" aren't as strong as unionists like to think (and the opposite case for nationalists too).

Welsh Lib Dem leader, Kirsty Williams, talks up the Silk I proposals, arguing that regional governments could be better placed to deliver on economic development than central governments (if the right economic levers are devolved), citing a report from Michael Heseltine. She doesn't elaborate on what levers though.

Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, argued that regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, the relationships between the UK's constituent nations would change. She agrees with  the First Minister about Wales having a say in any post-referendum negotiations, but expands that to the "British Isles" (presumably including the Republic of Ireland and Crown Dependencies) and proposes something modelled on the Nordic Council (which has both sovereign and non-sovereign members) with high-level co-operation in areas of mutual interest.

That might - on the surface - appear to be a rejection of independence. I don't think it is. It's pretty clever, perhaps necessary, as it would lock the "social union" in as a permanent feature, all former UK nations retaining links that wouldn't disappear regardless of the constitution future of those nations.

Wales : A Mouse in the Room

Despite the desire for Wales to play a role in post-referendum
negotiations, are we still on the fringes of this debate?
(Pic : The Scotsman)
People think there are two strands to Welsh Labour opinion on devolution - for or against - but there are probably at least three.

The first follow Carwyn's lead : more powers for Wales up to a certain point and on the Welsh Government's terms. I'd suspect most, if not all, Labour AMs follow this tract or the First Minister wouldn't be saying the things he's been saying.

The second group are "reluctant converts" to devolution and could be persuaded either way. I suspect a chunk of Welsh Labour's grassroots and supporters would fall into this category (as long as Labour are in power in Cardiff).

The third are ideological unionists who are sceptical about further devolution regardless of what official policy is, or because they aren't impressed with performances so far. Carwyn's problem is that most of Labour's Welsh MPs have historically fallen into this category, and he desperately needs someone in Westminster Labour to make his case there.

That's because the problem any Welsh politician has when mulling over the constitution is that the only politicians more anonymous than them at UK level are the Northern Irish Assembly (unless it involves The Troubles legacy in some way) and Cornish nationalists.

Nobody who can set Carwyn's or David Melding's plans in motion cares what they think. The most they'll get is a patronising pat on the head that any proposals they come up with would be taken under advisement.

Westminster listens to Alex Salmond because he's a threat to the status quo and known UK-wide (for better or for worse). They might even pay more attention to ministers and shadow ministers with Welsh responsibilities. However, those are junior roles at Westminster, while ministers with those briefs have hardly rung the endorsements for further devolution or federalism (even if the likes of David Jones, Peter Hain and Cheryl Gillan are/were walking adverts for independence).

It was telling that Douglas Alexander's recent thoughts on possible no-vote negotiations didn't mention Wales, Northern Ireland or federalism at all – days after Carwyn's lecture - despite the First Minister being only senior Labour personality who's discussed reforms in any detail.

So although the future of the United Kingdom as a nation state will be decided in Scotland for the time being, the aftermath of the likely no-vote will be decided between Holyrood and Westminster too - not the nations.

Wales should by rights have a seat at that negotiating table, but it's probably best the First Minister - and the rest of the "Bay Bubble" - turn their attentions to things they can actually control and influence for now.

It's not their fault, but it's better than the undignified sight of Carwyn, Kirsty, Leanne, David etc. talking to a brick wall.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Home Truths? See me, please

A language thousands of years old. A language generating arguments
that seem to go on for a thousand years.
It's time to take those arguments to school....
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Earlier this month, an article from "writer, editor and teacher" Evan Harris appeared on the Open Democracy website, flagged up by Inside Out and National Left. Titled "Home Truths", it was an all too familiar discussion about the Welsh language, Welsh language policy and Welsh medium education.

Let's take a closer look, shall we?

His own fluency

"I tried to say ‘I'm in my flat, frying vegetables’ but couldn’t think of the word for vegetables, or flat and the verb ‘to fry’....All my education from age 3 to 16 was in Welsh – I scored top marks in Welsh language and literature exams – but I can no longer speak it."
This strongly implies he had a Welsh-medium (WM) education, though it's never explicitly stated. In the latest WJEC guidelines for GCSE Welsh First Language, "top marks" requires (pdf p17) :
  • Rich and fluent language.
  • Strong grasp of grammar and syntax.
  • Clear and refined self-expression.
  • Appropriate phraseology for the task and audience.
  • Confident use of a wide vocabulary.
Someone going through WM education from 3-16 will have been taught many – not necessarily all - subjects through the medium of Welsh. That should be enough to develop fluency and retain knowledge of basic nouns and verbs – especially someone getting "top marks".

That's not to dismiss it. Losing a language does happen and it's known as language attrition. However, it's dependent on a combination of proficiency, frequency of use and motivation to retain it.

Therefore, if you want to retain a second language and you're competent at using it (or immersed in it like WM education, Murtagh 2004), odds are you probably will retain it.

The Beaufort-Welsh Government Survey

"I learned my atrophied tongue is not alone; I am part of a trend. A report published by the Welsh Assembly shows only 50% of Welsh speakers aged 16-24 consider themselves fluent. Only a third use it socially."
The report - commissioned on behalf of the Welsh Government, BBC Wales and S4C – found 51% of those 16-24 y.o. Welsh-speakers questioned said they spoke Welsh fluently, with 74% saying they were either fluent or "can speak a fair amount of Welsh" (p21).

There were no differences in older age groups, with figures ranging around the 65% mark for fluency and 80%+ for both fluency and "speak a fair amount". In fact, fluency levels were said to be slightly higher compared to a similar survey from 2005 (p22).

The reasons given for the discrepancy in fluency between young and old include:
  • 16-24s were less likely to say they spoke Welsh at home as a child, pointing towards the  expansion of WM education amongst English-speaking households.
  • Welsh-speakers are just as likely to carry out activities in English as they are in Welsh, depending on the activity. This points to both "functional bilingualism" and a lack of relevant Welsh-medium activities.
  • Younger Welsh-speakers were much more likely to use Welsh via things like Twitter (64% of them did) or Facebook (35%). They're also equally less likely to use traditional media.
  • Welsh-speakers in north and Mid & West Wales were significantly more likely (61-65%) to use Welsh socially that those in the south east (19%). Older people are also more likely to use Welsh at work (including a surprising 51% of 25-29s).
  • The number of Welsh-speaking households where only Welsh is spoken ranges from between 22-37% depending on where you are in the country, while significantly more homes use both Welsh and English.
  • 84% of respondents welcomed the opportunity to "do more in Welsh", with the least fluent more enthusiastic (92%) and 16-24s even more so (95%).
  • Only 24% of 16-24s said they were comfortable using Welsh instead of English, compared to 43% of over 60s.
Across all age groups, only 22-28% of respondents believed Welsh language culture "seemed irrelevant at times", but 16-24s were more likely to say yes. That's outnumbered by those who want to do more in Welsh.

So, the nub of the reason behind a lack of perceived fluency are lack of confidence and lack of opportunities to use Welsh - not that they don't want to use it. Compounding the survey's findings, there's evidence that lack of confidence means people underestimate their proficiency in a language (MacIntyre, Noels, Clement 1997).

There's clear enthusiasm there, but disappointment at the lack of opportunities to use Welsh socially. That's what concerned the Welsh Government in their own words, and no doubts impacts people's perceptions of their own fluency in the long run, as well as perceptions of the language's relevance in daily life.

Attitudes towards the Welsh language

One of Evan's claims that does stand up is that Welsh-speaking
ability is linked to a greater sense of identity and belonging.
However, when it comes to policy he gets it spectacularly wrong.
(Pic : Click on Wales)
From the same report, respondents felt the Welsh language:
  • Enhances a sense of personal identity and a sense of achievement at being able to speak Welsh.
  • Would improve their children's employment prospects and secure the Welsh language's survival.
  • Was necessary in areas where Welsh was heard on the street, and saw the language as "something to share" with incomers. It ties people to a community giving them a sense of belonging.
  • Enhances links with Welsh arts and culture.
I'm in no doubt that Welsh-speakers are more likely to turnout and support further powers for the National Assembly – as in the 2011 referendum (Aberystwyth University study) - and perhaps more likely to support independence. A correlation is noticeable in other surveys, but never been that significant to make a difference.

The Swansea University presentation he links to (ppt), and more importantly the paper, concludes that with regard Welsh language policy "the intrinsic ideology predominates" (Welsh is valued as an independent entity) rather than what Evan claims throughout are instrumental concerns (Welsh is used as a means to another, hinted nationalist, end).

The Welsh language is, as the author says, perhaps "stoked by aspirations to stronger cultural, historical and personal identity" but that's amongst Welsh-speakers alone, and there's no evidence of a negative impact on non-Welsh speakers in terms of their own identity, or it being dependent on social class.

In fact, the Swansea University study dismisses the idea that Welsh language policy (rather than the language itself) is motivated by identity.

It even says that although there may be negative fall-out from pursing intrinsic policies - as with any form of positive discrimination to protect minority groups - any "discriminatory effect" on non-Welsh speakers is minimal, perhaps amounting to as little as 1% in a scenario relating to charity funding - coming from Welsh Government officials themselves!

The "Welsh Class"

Are wires crossed as to why  "the crachach" are
socio-economically advantaged?
(Pic :
As he puts it (via Ralph Fevre et al) :
"....a small middle-class status group, socio-economically advantaged and is concerned with the honour and prestige of its language and culture. It is the community at the heart of Welsh nationalism, and has succeeded in normalising the aspiration to belong to an amorphous national community whilst remaining aloof as the arbiter of its high culture.
"....Welsh language education does not, and perhaps will not, give students access to the benefits the Welsh Class enjoys."
In the local vernacular they're known as "the crachach" or "The Taffia". I define the term as meaning "well-connected snobs" regardless of whether they're English-speaking or Welsh-speaking. Other people have their own definitions.

They exist in folk memory, but are they in an advantaged/privileged position?
What defines a "socio-economic advantaged class"? From the top of my head (and not a conclusive list) :
  • Access to better public services than the majority of the population enjoy.
  • Over-representation in public life, top universities, land ownership and at the top of business.
  • Appointment to high office by patronage, connections and inheritance.
  • Social conditioning that they be treated not only with respect, but reverence.
  • Avoiding unpleasant social obligations (like military service, fines, paying certain taxes).

It's hard to deny it happens in Wales. However, membership of an advantaged class is dependent on exclusive "means of entry" that are beyond the reach of an ordinary citizen, usually coming down to blood, connections or capital.

The only perceived advantage a member of a "Welsh Class"  has - on the same terms he describes it as being - compared to the stereotyped British upper middle class is an ability to speak Welsh, which isn't in itself an exclusive means of entry as absolutely anyone can acquire it.

Any "Welsh Class" probably exists for the same reasons as the British upper middle class – blood, connections and capital. Speaking Welsh or being cultured wouldn't be a means of entry into this "elite" by itself, you need those other things.
They also need palpable advantage. The "benefits of the Welsh Class" haven't been outlined. What are they? What do they actually get from it?

It resembles a furtive fallacy, tying seemingly related factors together (such as the existence of a Welsh-speaking upper middle class, and that Welsh-speakers might be more predispositioned to support further devolution) as evidence that supports an exaggerated non sequitur (a closed-off, high-society elite devoted to the cause of Welsh nationalism).

The author contradicts their claims by suggesting throughout there are few advantages/incentives to being bilingual, despite the existence of an elite who would need to keep their numbers and influence up in order to maintain said advantage.

A claim that expansion of WM education is linked to a nationalist plot is a political point and they have a right to say it, but it's a bit McCarthyite if there's little evidence of a significant and substantial advantage over non-Welsh speakers of the same social status.

An advantaged class that can't even use their "funny handshake" – an ability to speak Welsh - to buy their groceries doesn't sound too advantaged either.

The track record of Welsh medium education

Criticism of stagnant Welsh education standards holds up, I don't dispute it. I've touched on it enough down the years, as have others.

The thrust of the argument here though is a claim that WM schools perform no better than EM schools when taking into account deprivation – measured as pupils entitled to free school meals.

Borrowing Syniadau's example from last year and on the same basis (I hope he doesn't mind), here are the latest performance figures bench marked by medium and free school meals from 2011-12. The figures for 2012-13 are due for release on September 26

Performance by medium and free school meal entitlement 2011-12
(Click to enlarge)

Red indicates the poorer of the two performances, green the better, white the same.

Compared to last year, EM schools where 15-20% of pupils are entitled to free school meals outperformed WM schools, which is good news because they've closed the gap and children are receiving a better education because of that. WM schools have seen improvements at the 10-15% level.

Overall, as you'll see in the right-hand column, WM schools still out-perform EM schools across the board. WM pupils are, on average, more likely to get a collection of higher grade GCSEs - as evidenced by the higher average wider points score - and more likely to get at least 5 A*-Cs at GCSE, including English or Welsh, Maths & Science (core subject indicator).

This is likely due to a lack of large numbers of free school meal pupils, who according to the ONS/Welsh Government (pdf) had a 71 point average wider points score handicap in 2012 compared to other pupils, while EM pupils had a 60 point handicap compared to WM pupils.

They're heavily-clustered in former coalfield local authorities and inner-cities (based on where the majority of deprived WIMD areas are), where WM education has never gained a foothold and where there are higher numbers of low income households entitled to free school meals – numbers which significantly outstrip poor areas of Y Fro.

One way you can make a like-for-like comparison is by using the ONS method to determine the figures in the right hand column, having eliminating EM pupils in the top two free school meal bands.

You do that by working out the number of EM pupils in each of the first three bands who met the respective thresholds (or a cumulative points total), dividing it by the total number of pupils in the first three columns, rounding it to the nearest whole number and comparing them to the WM figures.

Relative performance by medium, adjusted to take FSM
entitlement into account 2011-12
(Click to enlarge)
When you do, performances of EM and WM schools are near enough identical, with WM schools maintaining the slimmest of advantages. However, average and capped points scores still remain higher in WM schools.

Do WM schools perform better than EM schools, even when taking into account deprivation? - Yes.

Next, there's the claim the Welsh language survives :
"....because of coercion and punishment in schools, verbal aggression, humiliation, sanctions....For some in my school, speaking English was a defiant act, an assertion of an identity independent of prescribed nationalism; for most it was just more functional."
Many children and teenagers are obstreperous, attention-seeking, like to establish their individualism and don't do as their told - regardless of the language they're being taught in. They usually grow out of it by their mid-20s.

I imagine using Welsh whenever possible in a Welsh medium school will be high up the list of rules. Breaking school rules - regardless of medium - results in shouty teachers and punishments.

Welsh-speaking ability and employment

In the private sector, Welsh-speaking requirements seems mostly dependent
on the seniority of the post in addition to possessing other underlying
skills and experience.
(Pic :
The paper the author cites says bilinguals earn on average between 9-11% more per hour (p8). It's unclear if that means they're underpaid relative to their other skills, but the paper suggests this was because of, "employers taking advantage of the relative immobility of bilingual workers, due to the value of living where the minority language can be spoken." So, Welsh is useful if you live and work in Wales. Glad that's cleared up.

It's suggested that it could be down to discrimination against Welsh-speakers in an Anglophone working environment as much as bilingualism not translating into "productive skills". (p18) Though there's no firm evidence of either.

According to a Welsh language skills report from 2005, only 9% of private companies reported a specific requirement for Welsh-speakers, with the highest percentage in the media (18%) and the lowest in the service sector (5%).

Despite this, 29% of businesses said customers preferred being offered the choice of being served in either language. A separate survey hints demand could be higher. Whether private companies offer Welsh language services or not is down to them unless required by law (i.e utilities companies).

Employers who had higher Welsh-speaking requirements either worked entirely in Welsh, mostly in Welsh or in both equally. This suggests Welsh-speaking ability is advantageous – possibly essential - in parts of Wales where business might be routinely conducted in Welsh.

In terms of the sorts of private sector jobs (Table 6), professional and managerial roles (Categories A & B) required the highest levels of Welsh-speaking ability compared to routine jobs (Category D).

This suggests having knowledge of Welsh is potentially financially advantageous, as it seems those jobs requiring a greater ability to speak Welsh generally pay higher salaries.

Where Welsh speakers were employed in 2012 by occupation.
(Click to enlarge)

More recent figures from 2012 (p86-87) also show Welsh-speaking skills spike amongst skilled trades, personal services and professionals. So it hasn't changed much in all that time and seems pretty broad in terms of social class. Skilled trades and personal services aren't normally considered jobs for the socio-economic "elite".

Suggesting (for professionals) that it's down to WM education is an easy assumption, but perhaps a lazy one. If WM education disappeared overnight, the children won't. They'll still need schools and they'll still need teachers. So the number of Welsh-speaking teachers, probably the number of teachers overall, would near enough remain the same.

The paper (p9) suggests employment is rarely based on Welsh-speaking ability alone, but because "bilinguals have, on average, higher levels of those characteristics that are rewarded in the labour market, including education and experience."

It's said, for example, that 52% of those who understand spoken Welsh have a degree compared to 37% of monolinguals (p16). However, when it comes to speaking, reading and writing Welsh, that advantage disappears, presumably as there are fewer of them in the first place.

The author says Welsh-speakers are advantaged due to government initiatives and the existence of a "Welsh Class", yet (paradoxically) simultaneously disadvantaged by possessing a skill that "isn't beneficial" - which is definitely not the case if such roles are created by statute (as he says) and Welsh-speaking skills are seen as desirable for certain high-paying jobs.

Setting the Welsh language up to fail either way is a self-refuting idea.

Evidence of better employability and earning potential amongst Welsh-speakers in highly-skilled, relatively high-paying jobs in both public and private sectors is there.

The benefits of bilingualism

As we increasingly understand how the brain works, the belief
that bilingualism inhibits learning (regardless of language) has become
outdated and discredited. The consensus now points towards the opposite.
(Pic : Dana Foundation)
A small selection of possible positive effects of bilingualism:
I don't think it implies – as the author did – that "bilingualism makes children more intelligent", but there are clear benefits.

His claim that bilingualism limits vocabularies is nonsense. Also, his claim that there are few benefits for sequential ("taught") over simultaneous ("natural/spoken at home") bilinguals is partially discreditable.

Experiments have shown that both types of bilinguals outperform monoglots in certain tasks. Though between the two groups of bilinguals, simultaneous bilinguals will significantly outperform sequentials. Bilingualism takes gold and silver, and you have to factor in all the other advantages to bilingualism as well.

Next, it's the question of whether being bilingual makes it easier to learn another language. Yes it does, and there've been several studies showing such :

Take up of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in WM schools
Though declines in the numbers of modern foreign language qualifications
are worrying, the evidence points to WM schools
"pulling their relative weight"
  in terms of take-up.
(Pic :
The issue of language qualifications in Wales is relevant. Unfortunately, the author poisons the well by suggesting there was a lack of "sufficient provision".

MFLs are a statutory requirement in both EM & WM secondary schools as part of the National Curriculum's Key Stage 3 (p25) and are therefore compulsory for Years 7-9.

At GCSE level (Key Stage 4) in 2011-12 there were almost as many WM entries for French as there were for physics (Table 2.7), and WM entries made up between 11-14% of all MFL GCSE entries.

That matches, even slightly exceeds, Welsh-medium's share of GCSEs sat overall (11% - also Table 2.7) - not counting exams sat exclusively in either Welsh or English (like Welsh First Language & English Literature).

You can therefore say that in 2011-12 WM schools were "pulling their weight" in terms of foreign language qualifications, though things could always be better.

The A*-C pass rate for MFLs like German (77%), French (73%) and Spanish (76%) appears to be good across the board (Table 2.5a). Pupils are also more likely on average to get a good GCSE mark through attending a WM school (Table 2.6).

Whether pupils take up MFL beyond the age of 14 is a matter for individuals, and he's correct to say – based on declines in entries - that any "metalinguistic ability is being squandered".

I'm on record as supporting a compulsory second (or third) language at GCSE. That shouldn't need to be Welsh in EM schools, as - to be frank - some aspects of teaching Welsh as a second language in EM secondaries are a joke, in particular the GCSE Short Course.

Must try harder!

On the surface, Evan's article was a well-reasoned, thought-provoking piece.
Underneath however....
Those who oppose the Welsh language and/or WM education have been waiting for a "smoking gun" to back up their arguments since the Blue Books fell out of favour.

The fact they're still struggling to produce one while WM education continues to expand hints that their arguments – in terms of education at least - are being comprehensively defeated, while wider issues surrounding the Welsh language's future remain in flux.

Compared to some things written about language issues down the years, this was a bit more sophisticated. It's a fair attempt to make the arguments against WM education and Welsh language policy more credible by introducing academic, class consciousness and sociological slants to it. This is - for now - as good as it gets.

Welsh is - if you take the article at face value - "being taken away from salt of the earth folk by the crachach". It's almost a romantically tragic lament at the decline of Welsh minus the grief.

Dismissing the opening paragraph – which really should've set people's alarm bells ringing - it was entertaining enough, with valid points made about the state of education and the Welsh language's role in public life.

Delve a little deeper though and there's not much there. It stumbles into tired arguments, appearing to be a thinly-veiled rant at a "Welsh Class" and nationalists in general, but – to their credit – avoiding clichéd references to Pontcanna and Cymdeithas yr Iaith.

If the author hadn't said they were a teacher, this would've been solid C-grade material. Considering this was written by someone who's supposedly trying to instill concepts like objectivity and reasoning in our children, they flunked it.