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Friday, 28 February 2014

Senedd Watch - February 2014

  • Proposals to change the school banding system for primary and secondary schools were revealed, replaced by a colour-coded system reflecting schools causing concern and those exceeding expectations.
  • Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) called for an apology from the First Minister for the Welsh Government's “shabby treatment of farmers”, after the transfer of CAP funds from farm support to rural development was poorly communicated, describing it as “provocative and badly thought through.”
  • AMs agreed to extend a ban on the sale of “e-cigarettes” to under-18s in England to Wales following concerns about possible health dangers. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), said they were “re-normalising smoking", while AMs also approved extending a ban on smoking in cars when children are present.
  • Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) called for the suspension of chief executives in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire – joined later to varying degrees by Keith Davies AM (Lab, Llanelli), Rebecca Evans AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) and Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W & S. Pembs.) - following critical Wales Audit Office reports which said pension payments and libel indemnity funding were “unlawful”. Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said she couldn't comment due to police enquiries, but called on the two authorities to enact the auditor's recommendations.
    • On February 14th, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire Council, Mark James, stood aside after Dyfed-Powys Police referred the investigation into the payments to Gloucestershire Police. Two former chief executives of Caerphilly Council were also formally charged with misconduct in public office on February 18th. On February 27th, a no confidence motion in the the leaders of Carmarthenshire Council failed.
  • The Welsh Conservatives pledged to raise the threshold of paying stamp duty to £250,000 if they win the 2016 Welsh General Election, saying it would cost up to £25million. Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said by “sounding the horn of low tax” it would “stem the brain drain” from Wales to London. Welsh Labour challenged the UK Government to cut stamp duty across the UK, questioning how the policy would be funded.
  • Wales & West Housing Association said the UK Government's “Bedroom Tax” could leave the Welsh public sector out of pocket because disabled tenants forced to move would leave new home adaptations wasted. Housing & Regeneration Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), called for the disabled, foster carers and service personnel to be exempted, pledging £1.3million towards mitigating the effects.
  • Llyr Gruffydd AM called for the devolution of energy powers to Wales, saying renewable energy was potentially worth up to £2.3billion to the Welsh economy. He said Plaid's policy - should the powers be devolved - would ensure community benefits for renewable energy projects, and create a not-for-dividend energy company.
  • UCAS revealed the number of Welsh students studying at English universities rose by 20% since 2010, with a 9.5% fall in those studying in Wales. Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem, North Wales) questioned whether current tuition fee policies meant English universities benefited to Wales' detriment.
  • Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) said it wasn't Welsh Government policy to allow a managed abandonment of coastal communities, after BBC Wales found many local authorities were doing so due to rising sea levels. A 2010 report said £135million was needed to be spent annually to cope.
  • AMs voted to approve the Social Services and Wellbeing Bill at Stage 3 on February 11th, which will move to a Report Stage. An amendment to outlaw “smacking” was rejected, though Deputy Minister for Social Services, Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath), said AMs would be given an opportunity to vote on smacking legislation before the end of the Fourth Assembly.
    • However, the First Minister appeared to renege, later saying the Welsh Government wouldn't introduce an amendment/legislation before the 2016 election, instead saying parties should include it as a manifesto commitment.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies, sacked four members of the Shadow Cabinet after they failed to vote on an Assembly motion condemning the “lockstep” provisions on income tax in the draft Wales Bill. One of them, Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales), expressed disappointment at the “divide in the party” while another, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth), described it as a “coup”. Andrew Davies later admitted divisions within his party, however he maintained the group would be stronger as a result.
  • The Welsh Government announced a deal to bring part of Pinewood Studios to Cardiff, potentially supporting 2,000 jobs and boosting the economy by £90million. The First Minister described it as a “major coup for Wales”, while Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) said it was a “priceless opportunity to promote Wales as a world class location for film.”
  • Welsh Government figures suggest UK welfare reforms could cost the Welsh economy £930million per year, with Neath Port Talbot, Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil hard hit. Communities and Tackling Poverty Minister, Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly), said the Welsh Government was funding debt advice charities in response. The Welsh Conservatives described it as “political posturing”.
  • The First Minister admitted an Easter 2014 deadline to agree local authority mergers, as outlined in the Williams Commission, will be difficult to meet, instead setting a new deadline for the summer. He also admitted the chance of passing legislation on reforms before the 2016 Welsh General Election would be “very small”.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 12,000 in the three months to December 2013 to stand at 7.1% - below the UK average (7.2%) for the first time since June 2009.
  • Calls for an inquiry into excess deaths at Welsh hospitals were rejected by the Welsh Government, after an email sent from the head of a similar inquiry in England, Sir Bruce Keogh, told his Welsh counterpart that mortality statistics were “worrying”. The Health Minister described an inquiry as a “nonsensical trap” that would “drag the Welsh NHS through the mud.”
  • The Assembly Commission unveiled a new partnership with Microsoft to provide automated translation between English and Welsh, which will enable Assembly staff to use the language of their choice and save time and money. Assembly Commissioner for the Welsh Language, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) said it was “a great step forward in bilingual working”.
  • The British Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Society said Welsh patients were being denied obesity surgery because they weren't heavy enough. The Welsh Government said the best way to lose weight was dietary changes and exercise, and that bariatric surgery was only part of the solution.
  • Cardiac surgery patients have been routinely transferred to private hospitals in England by the Welsh NHS to deal with waiting lists according to correspondence between the Royal College of Surgeons and Health Inspectorate Wales. Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), accused the Welsh Government of hypocrisy, as they previously only considered private treatment as a “last option”.
  • Plaid Cymru unveiled plans to integrate health and social care, producing two policy options that would either see adult social care provided by the seven local health boards, or community and primary healthcare provided by local authorities - should the Williams Commission recommendations be enacted in full.
  • The annual BBC Wales St David's Day poll from ICM showed 37% of people supported further powers for the National Assembly and only 5% independence. 23% supported scrapping the National Assembly - rising 10% since 2010. Prof. Roger Scully said there may be a “polarisation in attitudes” towards the Assembly. Also, a majority – 54% - would prefer the UK to remain part of the European Union.

Projects announced in February include : The launch of a Welsh Government-backed campaign to raise awareness of people trafficking, a £20million Schools Challenge Cymru fund targeting the 40 poorest performing schools, an extra £55million in health spending as part of the supplementary budget, a three-year £189million agreement on free bus travel, the launch of a £4million tourism campaign to attract visitors from the rest of the UK and Ireland and £5million towards improved flood defences in Colwyn Bay.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Health and social care sitting in a tree....

(Pic :

Plaid's Shadow Minister for Health & Well-being, Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion), launched a second policy consultation on Tuesday (first - Dr Plaid's NHS Treatment Plan – another several hours of voluntary work), outlining proposals to integrate the two services.

The paper is available here (pdf) and the consultation is open until May 30th.

Why integrate health and social care?

Integrating health and social care will hopefully lead
to fewer scenes like this in Welsh hospitals.
(Pic : The Telegraph)
Firstly, it worth distinguishing between "health care" and "social care".

Health care includes diagnostic and treatment facilities provided by hospitals, GPs, allied professionals like physios, pharmacists, dentists and opticians and the ambulance service. These are provided by the NHS or on the NHS's behalf (in the case of dentists etc.)

Social care helps people with physical difficulties to "live their lives comfortably". That includes things like cooking, cleaning, home adaptions and more personal things like managing finances. This can be done in someone's home, or in a full-time residential complex.
These services are provided both by local authorities and private companies.

The paper outlines several problems resulting from keeping the two services separate from each other :

  • "Bureaucratic battles" over which service is responsible for the care, and for whom specifically.
  • Unnecessary hospital admissions and delayed transfers of care ("bed blocking").
  • Lack of sufficient community care through "chronic under-investment".
  • Budgets for health services have generally been protected by the Welsh Government, but there are threats to social care services due to local government cuts.

Older patients in particular are often passed between different organisations – a concern raised by the Older People's Commissioner. It also means some patients with chronic illnesses go to hospital when it's better for them to be treated at home and given support so they can live independently again.

Merging the two services has long been an aspiration in Wales, with a continued focus on partnerships, collaboration and pooled budgets.

During the recent Social Services and Well-being Bill debate, service integration was raised several times and amendments were proposed – including from Elin Jones herself – which would've paved the way towards limited integration.

The issue is even more urgent as a result of the Williams Commission. Echoing what Leanne Wood said during the debate on that, the Commission's proposals go beyond a simple reorganisation of local authorities. Plaid describe the omission of local health board and social care reform from the Commission's remit as a "flaw".

However, in one example – Powys – the Commission recommended Powys Local Health Board (LHB) merge with Powys County Council. That's because no acute services are provided in Powys (they're reliant on Shrewsbury, South Wales and Aberystwyth) making the process easier. The Commission also recommended the new local authorities don't straddle the 7 LHB boundaries.

So although it was outside of the Williams Commission's remit, they "future proofed" things to enable a smooth integration between health and social care in future.

Plaid argue a single Health and Social Care Service, with a single budget, means some services that would otherwise face cuts can be protected, with all staff involved in care working to the same end. This will improve services for those needing care and put less pressure on hospitals.

Learning from Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has long had a system of integrated health and social care services.
(Pic : South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust)
Northern Ireland, in practice, merged health and social care system in 1973, though a direct merger was delayed until 2009 due to political problems. The driver of change there was also – coincidentally - local government reorganisation, though the advantages of integrated services weren't realised at the time.

In terms of how it works, GPs are at the head of a team of professionals that includes social workers and nurses, services aren't duplicated, people aren't passed between different organisations and care is co-ordinated between the health side and the social care side.

Scotland's currently pursuing integration of services through the Public Bodies (Joint Working) Bill, which, if passed, will offer two options to Scottish local authorities and health boards – joint boards with joint budgets, or functions and budgets being transferred between boards in order to set their respective roles in stone.

England's also experimented with integrated services, with Torbay given as an example, seeing "impressive" falls in bed occupancy rates, emergency bed occupation rates and bed blocking.

Plaid's Challenges

Plaid describe this as a "once in a generation opportunity for Wales to lead the way by fully integrating health and social care". However, they outline the significant challenges standing in the way.

The first is that health services are universally free at the point of use, but social care is means tested by local authorities - with only the poorest receiving free care. There are complications caused by what are described as "bureaucratic battles", where free care is only available depending on which organisation undertook the needs assessment. Governments are therefore reluctant to scrap means testing as it would increase expenditure.

Plaid would prefer to make all social care free at point of use – in line with health services. However, as the budget isn't there do that, they intend to put services into three bands :
  • Free at the point of use – this includes GP appointments, NHS hospital treatment, prescriptions and health information etc.
  • Capped charges with free services or reduced charges for the less well off – dental treatment, opticians, non-residential social care.
  • Charges imposed with means testing available – residential social care and home adaptions.
This is, essentially, how services are provided now. If more money comes in, Plaid say they'll try to make more services free at the point of use.

Plaid also flagged up:
  • Social care affordability – The Dilnot Commission recommended a cap on what a person pays for care, subsequently set by Westminster at £70,000. The Welsh Government hasn't decided whether to bring in a cap or not because of the potential impact on the Barnett Formula.
  • Mental Health Services – A 2008 paper for the Welsh Government recommended the creation of a single body for mental health services in Wales which would "stretch across health and social care". These proposals were rejected by the Welsh Government because there were no links between mental and physical illness, a stand alone body might be subject to cuts they otherwise wouldn't be and there were objections to including learning disabilities within that structure. Plaid propose "revisiting" the idea, and ring-fencing the budget for mental health for the foreseeable future.
  • Third Sector involvement – It's said the third sector has provided both innovation and a voice for service users. An integrated service would allow a review of how contracts are awarded to make it less bureaucratic.

Plaid's Integration Options

Handing control of adult social care to local health boards could result in fewer
hospital admissions and "bed blocking", as services would fall under a single umbrella.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Option One : Adult Social Care becomes the responsibility of Local Health Boards

The Welsh Government "would retain control over strategic decisions" but the responsibility for commissioning social care and mental health services would be with LHBs, not local authorities. It's possible LHB boundaries could be reviewed too.

For democratic accountability, Plaid propose either nominating local councillors to sit on boards, or direct elections for board seats at the same time as local council elections.

They're not proposing the same for children's social care, because users of adult social care often have health problems, while children's social care is often related to things like child protection - a role for social workers, not the NHS.

One risk here – as experienced in Northern Ireland – is that health could dominate the integrated system, furthering under-investment in social care. Under this choice, the Welsh Government would, therefore, "play a stronger role in budget allocations", possibly ring-fencing social care funding.

Option Two : Local authorities are given control over primary (GP) and community health

This is described as "the radical option", where local authorities (presumably post-reorganisation) would control GP services, community hospitals, patient transport and community medicine (including community mental health). Current local health boards would be scrapped, and it's a similar, but not identical, set-up to Denmark.

Hospital services and things like ambulance services would be run either :
  • directly by the Welsh Government.
  • by a single National Hospital Board.
  • three health boards based on fire and rescue service areas.

It would end problems caused by patients transferring for treatment between LHBs, and allows greater national planning.

Plaid say option two would also ensure "a greater emphasis on preventing ill health and looking after people in the community" with bed blocking reducing over time - as long as there's investment in community hospitals.

A risk is that continuing to have two seperate bodies responsible for health and care could continue arguments over who does what, and see no end to "postcode lotteries". There's also a risk current financial pressures on local authorities will transfer into the health service.

For both options, Plaid say it would take an Assembly term (5 years) to integrate services.


Option two sounds attractive, but after the experience of the old 22 local health boards, foisting responsibilities for primary care onto councils after they go through a very rough reorganisation would be a bad idea.

The first option seems sensible - and has been backed by the Royal College of Nursing. It's best to use existing structures for service delivery, while integrating health and social care makes sense for reasons clearly set out in the paper and in the Senedd chamber.

A similar set up has been argued for ambulance services too, and as regular readers will know, I would prefer services like these (and others) to be provided by a regional tier of government - but that boat's sailed.

What's also pleasing is the constructive response of Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), who's quoted as saying he would read the paper "with interest" and that "ministers will look carefully at what the party is saying". That's much better than the nonsense we got last time from Labour.

It's fair to say Plaid are heading in the right direction (again). Shame about "other things".

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Stench of the Cleddau

An otherwise productive meeting of Pembrokeshire Council on the damaging
Wales Audit Office reports descended into an unedifying farce.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

As much of the focus regarding the recent Wales Audit Office reports into unlawful payments has been on Carmarthenshire – due to culminate next week - it's only fair I turn my attentions to their equally-ripe neighbour, Pembrokeshire Council (PCC), which held an extraordinary council meeting to discuss unlawful pension payments to their chief executive and one other senior officer last Friday.

Extensive coverage of the goings on there has been provided by Cllr. Jacob Williams (Non-affiliated Ind, East Williamston) and Cllr. Mike Stoddart (Non-affiliated Ind, Milford Hakin).

Auditor Anthony Barrett's findings (pdf) were very similar to those in Carmarthenshire – which is unsurprising as it was effectively a joint-arrangement. The main difference is the numbers involved and some of the titles of the relevant committees. Pembrokeshire also didn't have any libel indemnity issues.
  • The agreement to pay cash sums instead of pension payments to senior staff who opted-out of the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) - to mitigate effects of changes to tax relief on pensions - was ultra vires (beyond their power).
  • The Senior Staff Committee failed to take into account all relevant considerations. They also failed to provide evidence that supported their claims that not approving the cash payments would prevent the recruitment of high-calibre senior staff. The Committee made a decision based off a one page report, which was exempt from publication.
  • They also failed to take equalities duties into account, and the decision "constituted indirect discrimination" on age and sex grounds because senior staff – mostly older men – would benefit disproportionately from the cash payments compared younger staff and women. As nobody complained within the legal timescale, it was "indirect" discrimination rather than outright (same as Carmarthenshire).
  • The report itself was drafted and presented by two senior officers who had disqualifying personal interests as they could've benefited from the cash payments – rendering it an unlawful decision just by their mere presence.
  • Despite claims to the contrary, the payments would have constituted an additional cost to the council based on future actuarial/risk assessments and changes to national insurance contributions. The auditor says the figures were also different to those the Senior Staff Committee decided upon.
  • PCC's Chief Executive, Bryn Parry-Jones, had received £51,011 in payments across 2012-13 and 2013-14. I understand the report implies £28,742 was also paid to an unnamed senior member of staff.

I was home at the time so I caught most of the second half of the meeting. OK, it wasn't the most riveting thing to watch, but it was conducted impressively. Councillors were given the freedom to speak as long as they wanted – often making great contributions – and the chair didn't dominate proceedings.

Hopefully, Bridgend Council will be joining them later this year. It underlines the importance of broadcasting these meetings – as will become more apparent later on.

PCC accepted all four of the Wales Audit Office recommendations, meaning the council will :
  • Stop the payments in lieu of pension contributions.
  • Address procedural weaknesses to avoid a repeat.
  • Ensure that any similar future payments (if possible) are in line with the decision taken by the Senior Staff Committee.
  • Disclose the payments in their 2012-13 financial statement, and the committee responsible should re-approve the accounts.

Then things took a bizarre, sinister turn.

The leader of the opposition in the council, Cllr. Paul Miller (Lab, Neyland West), had tabled a motion calling for PCC to suspend Bryn Parry-Jones on full pay due to the Gloucestershire Police investigation. This is a very different tact to the Labour leader a few miles east.

As you probably know, since then, Carmarthenshire's chief executive Mark James has temporarily stood down while the police investigation continues. Although it's unclear what "stepping down" means as opposed to a formal suspension, he really should've done so days after the original reports were published – for his own sake, really.

Better late than never. The delay deserves criticism, but he's innocent until proven otherwise.

PCC's ruling "Independent" Group, however, were going to defend their man to the end, and boy does he know it.

In a display of pompous bluster, one of the "Independents" stood up, said he had a prejudicial interest as he had called for the chief executive to remain in post in the Western Telegraph, and withdrew from the meeting hoping to take a large chunk of the opposition with him as some sort of matter of honour.

He later snuck back in and withdrew again, each time accompanied by a dramatic closing of his file.

Tim Kerr QC – a name which should be familiar – revealed that a brown white envelope containing newspaper cuttings was left for him in the chauffeur-driven car that picked him up at Port Talbot station. Those local newspaper cuttings contained quotes from councillors who called for Bryn Parry-Jones's suspension.

After pressing from councillors to name names, he began "readink names from ze list". Lo and behold, almost all of them were councillors who had called for the chief executive to be suspended or resign, whether Labour, Plaid or non-affiliated Independents.

Councillors are supposed to vote with an open mind. So proceedings hinged on whether councillors were predispositioned (leaning towards a decision) or predetermined (100% made their mind up) in their voting intentions.

If they were predetermined, and voted that way on the motion, it was implied they would breach the Code of Conduct and be subject to an Ombudsman investigation.

Cllr. Miller said he received legal advice from Welsh Labour's retained lawyers that his group's statements were predispositions and so his group would remain.

However, Tim Kerr believed many of the newspaper quotes constituted predetermination.
It's also worth pointing out that the envelope was left by Pembrokeshire's Monitoring Officer (a senior legal officer and paid member of staff).

Not willing to be subject to their own misconduct investigations, most – but not all – of the opposition councillors withdrew part in protest, part because they had no choice. As a result, the motion calling for the suspension of the chief executive was withdrawn.

However, as Caebrwyn pointed out yesterday, the official guidance within the Localism Act 2011 on predetermination (which applies to Wales as well as England) doesn't prohibit councillors from voting even if they've made public statements supporting a particular position.

So it looks like what happened in Pembrokeshire was a dirty trick and attempt to intimidate.

And, most importantly of all, it happened all on camera.

What should cause bums to squeak across the south west of Wales however, is the news that's broken in the last few hours that Caerphilly Council's former chief executive, Anthony O'Sullivan, and his deputy, Nigel Barnett, have been formally charged with misconduct in public office....having been brought to that point by similar, but not identical, circumstances to those in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Marching out of lockstep

On Tuesday, the National Assembly debated the draft Wales Bill - I outline what the Bill itself proposes here.

Although many parts of the draft Wales Bill should proceed without a hitch, senior figures in Welsh politics have been critical of aspects surrounding the potential partial devolution of income tax, which has - subsequently - had knock-on political consequences.

What the Assembly Said

The Assembly debate was dry, but became interesting for events
outside the Siambr.
(Pic :
It's grey stuff, but if you want to follow it you can here.

The First Minister started by saying the Silk I recommendations should've been enacted in full, expressing regret at the absence of powers over air passenger duty. He also criticised the "lockstep" on income tax powers tax rises/falls have to be set in all income tax bands at the same time. He described it as a "significant restraint" that "ties the hands of the Welsh Government".

He ended by saying the Leader of the Opposition Andrew Davies's (Con, South Wales Central) view - who's spoken out against the lockstep - was closer to his own than that of the Welsh Secretary, David Jones (who supports the lockstep and who introduced the draft Bill).

Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central) argued that the lockstep prevents Wales from becoming competitive with the rest of the UK. She said the Silk Commission members, Welsh Government and all opposition parties opposed the "lockstep", but the UK Government are pursuing it anyway.

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) broadly supported the draft Bill's provisions, but called for the Assembly to decide its own electoral arrangements and for a name change to Welsh Parliament. He also called for the Assembly to have powers to amend its budgetary procedures, which be believes will be essential should there be fiscal devolution.

Lib Dem Leader, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), welcomed the non-fiscal measures in the draft Bill, supporting a shared income tax arrangement between the Welsh and UK Governments....though saying the lockstep was unnecessary.

As you can tell, there's a running theme developing here.

Shadow Finance Minister, Paul Davies (Con, Preseli Pembrokeshire), said he was "proud" of the UK Government's record on devolution, citing the 2011 referendum, saying these proposed powers would "provide more financial accountability" to the Welsh Government. He said although he supports a referendum on income tax powers he - surprise,surprise - opposes the "lockstep".

Then things started to get "interesting".

Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) argued with Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) that the Treasury said there could be no devolved income tax powers without the lockstep. Mick continued by saying the income tax powers (as they are currently) were "worthless", and also outlined his opposition to the removal of a ban on dual candidacy.

Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) then described the lockstep argument as "one rather minor aspect". Antoinette Sandbach asked if Nick agreed it were better there were some fiscal devolution – even with the lockstep – than none at all? Nick said yes, saying he "had no issue with the lockstep". Uh oh.

Carwyn Jones was presented with an open goal - considering his own party has been split on the issue -  finishing by saying he "did not think Nick Ramsay would so publicly disagree with his own leader", cheekily suggesting that what Nick said was a leadership speech. Andrew Davies tried to drag Owen Smith's own embarrassing contributions into it, but it was too late.

Although both the debate motion, and Plaid Cymru amendment criticising the "lockstep", were passed with no votes against or abstentions, four Conservative AMs refused to join their party colleagues in voting on the amendment at all.

Bull Lets Whip

After being undermined publicly on party policy, Andrew Davies was
left with no option but to sack four of his Shadow Cabinet.
(Pic : Click on Wales)

The party you would expect to benefit most from fiscal devolution would be the Welsh Conservatives. When the powers were first announced, it was clear their (Welsh) policy would be to cut the top rate of income tax to encourage wealthy people from the rest of the UK to move here.

The lockstep (UK Government policy) prevents them from doing that because cuts to the top rate have to be matched by cuts to the basic rate – making tax cuts (or, indeed, tax rises) more expensive. This has led to a very public spat between Andrew Davies and David Jones over who speaks for the Welsh party and membership, and who decides policy in Wales.

So, as a sort of distraction, the Welsh Conservatives have since switched their public attentions from income tax to cuts to stamp duty – the latter of which would come regardless of a referendum and without any conditions attached.

Following the events of the debate and vote, news broke Wednesday night that four Shadow Cabinet members – the four who refused to vote on the lockstep amendment - had been sacked.

It's a big public slap-down, though I've always questioned why every single opposition AM needs a portfolio responsibility in the first place (Lib Dems aside for obvious reasons).

The South Wales Argus reported Nick Ramsay will also lose his role as chair of the Business and Enterprise Committee as a result. That's a shame because, as regular readers will know, I believe he's done an outstanding job there. Nick described the move as an "old fashioned coup", but last time I checked coups happened against leaders.

Andrew Davies hasn't set the world alight as Leader of the Opposition, but - in my opinion - he was left with no choice after such an open rebellion and challenge to his authority.

It's been said elsewhere that there was, slightly bizarrely, a three-line whip on this vote, which is very unusual for such a technical matter, and shows Andrew wanted his party to back both himself in his tussle with David Jones and his opposition to the lockstep. So I doubt any of the four can have grounds for complaint other than the method by which they were sacked, which seemed hamfisted.

Serves them right.

Andrew's shown decisive leadership, but this will have hurt. These things rarely have happy endings, and the early signs were matters could take a turn for the worse. Since then, it appears he's been given the equivalent of a "vote of confidence". Politics isn't football, but....


The "lockstep" is a political and fiscal hazard, and another depressing
indication of Westminster's patronising views towards Welsh devolution.
(Pic : via wordpress)
When it comes to Labour party policy in Wales, the party's devolution policy or the Welsh Government's stance, only Carwyn Jones is worth listening to. When it comes to UK Government policy, only David Cameron is worth listening to.

We also have three other party leaders in Wales to flag up Welsh issues. We don't need MPs yapping like chihuahuas over them to give themselves work. At least some MPs know their place.

There are two main reasons why the income tax powers are useless. Firstly, the "lockstep".

The reason Welsh devolution doesn't work properly, and why we have all these tiresome constitutional arguments, is because powers have been incrementally transferred on a piecemeal basis. If we're going to have devolved powers, those powers should be devolved in their entirety – as happens to a great extent in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

That's one of the main reasons I've come round to supporting independence, as promising to give us "tools to do the job", then instead giving us parts of tools, is an insult.

In terms of income tax, that should include the powers :
  • To set the rates in their entirety – not just 10p in the pound.
  • To create, merge or scrap tax bands.
  • To set income tax rates in each tax band independently of each other.

The block grant would be then adjusted accordingly. Wales gets a "grown-up responsible government", parties in Wales would have the freedom to come up with income tax policies in their entirety, and the Welsh Government would be responsible for raising a fair chunk (about a quarter) of its current income.

We're not getting any of that. Instead we could be, effectively, getting income tax powers in name only as no party would want to hike or lower taxes across the board at the same time.

Secondly, there's the referendum.

A referendum on a general principle that the National Assembly should have tax-varying powers would be a referendum worth getting out of bed and voting in. Any tax powers could then be granted after negotiation between the two governments – with or without a fair funding formula in place.

It would also make it easier to devolve other taxes (like corporation tax and air passenger duty) in future, because a referendum yes vote would've given the two governments a mandate to transfer any tax powers at their convenience.

However, a referendum on whether the National Assembly should have the specific power to vary income tax by 10p in the pound in each tax band at the same ti....

I challenge anyone to explain to me how they would campaign in favour of the income tax powers as they are on the table, and how they would explain it to the man or woman in the street?

Why stop there? Why not have a referendum on landfill tax powers? Or business rates? Should we have a referendum on every single legislative consent motion proposed by Westminster in devolved areas?

The First Minister and others are right to say the lockstep renders the powers useless. Welsh Labour have confused things by saying they don't want income tax powers at present, even though they support the implementation of Silk I in full....which would bring income tax powers, subject to a referendum.

Wanting to tax gravel and rubbish, but not incomes (in principle), and using relative underfunding that amounts to around 2% of the block grant as an excuse not to pursue income tax varying powers, verges on the ridiculous.

Whether they like it or not, it underlines an inherent lack of ambition – not necessarily anti-devolutionism - on Welsh Labour's part. You wonder if they're really up to the rigours of running a country, and if instead they should retreat to their comfort zone of local government and move aside for the big boys and girls.

Roger Scully and Richard Wyn Jones warned of this back in November 2012 as Silk Commission Part 1 was reporting back. Richard has since been kind enough to provide a link to the Wales Governance Centre's detailed submission on the draft Wales Bill, and argument against a referendum, here (pdf).

I warned of it too, saying the whole exercise was "pissing into the wind", but what do I know?

If even people like me could see these problems coming 14 months ago, and nobody else foresaw this outcome, then we should all be worried. Some senior personalities in Welsh politics clearly have an excessively idealistic view of how Welsh devolution works. This isn't a union of equals, everyone. Get it into your heads. It never will be.

Bring on the jam. Income tax powers are toast.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Social Services & Well-being Bill clears major hurdle

I haven't exactly been looking forward to this.

The most complicated law laid before the Assembly since the 2011 referendum passed Stage 3 of the legislative process on Tuesday, following around 10 hours of debate spread over two weeks. It's taken just over a year to get this far – longer if you include the pre-legislative consultation – and has been troubled at numerous occasions.

The joys continue as its final passing will be dependent on a Report Stage – more details from the Assembly Research Service here (pdf).

It isn't "historic" like the Human Transplantation Act 2013, but it's massive by current Welsh law standards, with the current Bill coming in at over 160 pages. It's significant enough to force me to try and outline what the future Act will mean, and slim it down for brevity's sake.

I strongly suggest if you're really interested in this, or have some sort of professional responsibility in the area, you go through the Assembly Research Service publications.

Ultimately, the goal is to "streamline" current legislation and regulations relating to social services and social care, and it's perhaps the biggest set of reforms to Welsh social services in a generation.

What will the (final) Social Services & Well-being Act do?

Dependent upon the Report Stage outcome and Bet Windsor's autograph :

New Statutory Duties – Including more consideration of the individual's wishes in care, respect for dignity, placing duties on local and health authorities to both monitor the social service needs of their populations and provide preventative measures. It also includes promoting the delivery of some social services through social enterprises.

Assessment Rights – Grants new rights to children and adults to have an assessment for what levels of social care they need. Local authorities will also have a duty to carry out an assessment of the needs of young carers/children who care for parents. There's also a right to someone to refuse an assessment - unless they're at risk of abuse or neglect.

Meeting Needs - The law outlines the eligibility criteria (for receiving assistance) for adults and children, as well as a simplification of the eligibility criteria for carers. It outlines the direct payments system local authorities will have to apply if they need to pay towards the costs of care. People receiving care will also be able to move within Wales with any obligations to provide care transferring with them to their new local authority.

Financial Assessments – Local authorities will be able to charge to provide certain services, but they will no longer have to charge for residential accommodation. It also outlines how local authorities can recover charges.

Looked-after children – Some of this is an update to the Children Act 1989. Other parts include duties towards children in local authority care; such as accommodation, health services, education, family visits etc.

Safeguarding – Safeguarding means "protecting people who might be in a vulnerable situation" and will apply equally to adults and children for the first time (it previously just applied to children). It will give social services the power to make enquiries if they suspect mistreatment, and also power of entry to see if a cared-for adult is making decisions freely. "Relevant partners" will also have a duty to report any suspected mistreatment to social services. A new National Independent Safeguarding Board will be established to advise ministers on national issues, as well as local Safeguarding Children and Safeguarding Adults Boards.

Social Service Functions – The Bill replaces and updates social service functions in the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. Welsh Ministers will have the power to state the job requirements for social service directors, who will in turn have new functions. A new code of practice for social service governance will be included, as will the power for Welsh Ministers to intervene on certain grounds.

Partnership Working - Local authorities will have a duty to co-operate with partner organisations and other local authorities to ensure well-being of those in their care. This includes giving Welsh Ministers the power to force local authorities into joint arrangements to provide adoption services.

Complaints – There'll be a completely new framework for complaints, meaning complaints relating to children's services will be on a par with complaints relating to other social services. Powers will also be given to the Public Services Ombudsman to investigate complaints about privately-run care homes and palliative care services – powers which until now have only covered publicly-run services. It'll be the responsibility for Welsh Ministers to provide an independent advocacy service to cover these sorts of complaints.

What major changes were proposed or passed?

Most of the amendments were corrections of drafting errors, and there were quite a few of them. In terms of other major amendments tabled :
  • Amendment 1 – William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East), supported by Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) – Extends the time a person can stay in foster care from aged 16-18 to 22. (Not passed)
  • Amendment 75 - Gwenda Thomas AM (Lab, Neath) – Places a duty on local authorities to consider if looked-after children reaching the age of 18 can continue to live with foster carers. (Passed)
  • Amendment 84 – William Graham AM – Extends whistle blower protections to anyone exercising functions under the Act. (Withdrawn, with a commitment from the Deputy Minister to include whistle blowing protections in future legislation)
  • Amendment 131 – Gwenda Thomas AM  – Protects the rights of disabled children by presuming they'll always have need for care and support beyond that provided by their families. (Passed)
  • Amendment 292 – Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) – Places a duty on anyone undertaking functions in relation to the Act to have due regard for the UN Principles for Older Persons when working with anyone over the age of 60. (Passed due to an accidental abstention from Julie James AM [Lab, Swansea West])
  • Amendment 293 – Kirsty Williams AM  – To place "statutory principles on the face of the Bill", which was a recommendation of the Health and Social Care Committee so anyone reading the Bill would understand what it was trying to do. (Not passed)
  • Amendment 295 – Kirsty Williams AM – Provision that information on social care services should be available in "a range of accessible formats" (i.e the visually impaired). (Not passed)
  • Amendment 300 – Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) – Places a duty on local authorities to take the needs of Welsh-speakers into consideration when providing social care. (Not passed – effectively included as part of Amendment 122)
  • Amendments 308 & 309 – Elin Jones AM – Extends direct payments into health care and gives the power to Welsh Ministers to enact regulations for such payments. (Not Passed)
  • Amendment 310 – Elin Jones AM – Places a duty on Local Health Boards to create a pooled fund with local authority social services to help integrate health and social care. (Not passed)
  • Amendments 322 & 333 – Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East) – Bans the use of "zero hour contracts" in provision of care services either by local authorities or companies to which services are contracted out, subject to Welsh Government regulations. (Not passed)
  • Amendments 325-330 – Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms W. & S. Pembs.), supported by Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) – Creates a National Adoptions Board as recommended by the Children & Young People's Committee. (Not passed)

The (Attempted) Smacking Ban

An amendment which would've, in practice, criminalised smacking fell.

(Pic :
  • Amendment 98 – Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East), supported by Kirsty Williams AM and Simon Thomas AM – Removes a "reasonable punishment" defence from the Children Act 2004 when battery is committed against a child in Wales. (Not passed)

This is the headline-grabbing issue that's dogged the Bill from the time it first went into committee; the so-called "smacking ban amendment".

As Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said on Tuesday, it's wouldn't have been a direct ban, but an indirect ban by removing the main legal defence for hitting a child – doing so as a form of punishment. Parents and guardians could've still done it, but if they were brought to court one of their main legal defences would've gone and the likelihood of prosecution would've increased.

It's quite likely the Welsh Government opposed including the smacking ban because they simply didn't want one of their flagship laws dragged into the Supreme Court over arguments whether the Assembly has the power to introduce a ban (more at Giving devolution a smack), and Gwenda Thomas said something to that effect during the debate.

Instead, the Welsh Government have offered another vote on the issue as part of a different piece of legislation to be introduced sometime during the rest of the Assembly term. I would've though that would be the proposed domestic violence law, which is due to be introduced this summer.

So the Welsh Government's opposition (remember that several Labour AMs support a ban too) was for convenience, not because they oppose a ban in principle.

The rights and wrongs of a ban are still very much open to debate though.

Question marks over the legislative process?

I don't know if it would've been worth splitting this up into separate laws or not, but this is perhaps – sadly – the first case of a Bill having serious difficulties at the drafting stage.

Questions should be asked due to the sheer number of technical amendments. I guess that would be for the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee to look into, and it could be worth a general inquiry into how lawmaking has developed since the 2011 referendum.

There haven't been any other problems to this scale in any other law, but lessons from this experience will need to be learned quickly as there are other weighty laws coming down the line – like the proposed Planning and Future Generations Bills. The Housing Bill will almost certainly end up troubled at points too.

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Kirsty Williams, has raised worries – not only about the number of technical amendments, but about the number of measures that will be decided by regulations alone. This includes things like : preferences for accommodation, the things local authorities will be able to charge for and financial assessments for care. It's dry, but important stuff on the ground.

The minister in charge, Deputy Minister for Social Services & Children, Gwenda Thomas, deserves credit for even managing to get the Bill this far. It's quite an achievement for one of the understated members of the Welsh Government and - speculation abound – could well be amongst her last big contributions to Welsh politics before 2016.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Carmarthenshire Goes Rogue

I don't make a habit of returning to things that haven't concluded, but I'll make an exception in Carmarthenshire Council's (CCC) case, as the local authority continues its downward spiral into chaos.

The fallout from two critically damaging Wales Audit Office (WAO) reports continues – I don't need to tell you to follow the Carmarthenshire blogs and South Wales Guardian there – with an extraordinary general meeting of CCC due to be held on 27th February to discuss them.

The opposition Plaid Cymru group seek to table motions of no confidence in senior officers and members of the Executive Board - which decided to award the pension payments and indemnity in the first place.

The recent intervention of Keith Davies AM (Lab, Llanelli), who's joined calls for Mark James to be suspended, is significant because – as Carmarthenshire Planning has said – he's the first senior Labour figure to voice that opinion and could – as Y Cneifiwr has said – give some Labour councillors a "green light" to back a motion of no confidence or abstain.

I don't know much about internal Carmarthenshire politics, but judging by the numbers it's likely any motions of no-confidence will need at least 10 votes from Lab-Ind, or abstentions, to succeed. Easier said than done.

I'm sure many councillors would've wanted an immediate extraordinary meeting, but it was perhaps the right decision to give the debate some breathing room, even if it extends the headlines for several weeks.

You would've expected suspensions of the senior officers involved too because of the seriousness of the judgements. It's the sensible thing to do – to protect the officers as much as the reputation of the council - but CCC are delicate little flowers and are never, ever, ever wrong!

The formal responses from CCC have been quite astonishing and have read like North Korean news bulletins.I expected a rebuff, but not to these levels.

Caerphilly took it on the chin, but unfortunately it's since descended into an unedifying "tu quoque" bun fight between Labour and Plaid Cymru. It looks like Pembrokeshire are dilly-dallying – though the former Council Leader, John Davies, has been big enough to admit they were wrong. Neither have reached anywhere near the same levels of petulant delusion as Carmarthenshire.

It's an old trick Fungus used at Manchester United – make "your side" (Labour & Independents) think the whole world's against you and it'll create a siege mentality where everyone will pitch together and dig in to win whatever the cost. Fungus was also often described as a Stalinist. And, as history has taught us, sometime an autocrat can get you to do what they want just by being in the same room and looking at you.

The Legal Advice

Aside from the publication of the WAO reports themselves, preliminary police involvement and the intervention of Keith Davies, the biggest development since has been the publication of two pieces of legal advice CCC received in relation to the indemnity funding. As far as I can tell there's been nothing relating to the pension payments, though Pembrokeshire Council are due to debate that later this week.

The first set of legal advice from 2008, by James Goudie QC (pdf), suggests the 2006 Order didn't override clauses in the Local Government Act 1972 (Section 111) which grants local authorities any and all powers to discharge their functions – what West Wales News Review described as a "Get Out of Jail Free Card".

Basically, if CCC want to ignore the 2006 Order, they believe a certain interpretation of the 1972 Act and how the 2006 Order relates to it gives them the power to do so.

As far as I can tell though, that would only be the case had Wales voted no to devolution in 1997.

The auditor said the 2006 Order provided a statutory code to Welsh local authorities outlining precisely when a Welsh local authority can indemnify officers in libel defences, explicitly prohibiting their use to undertake a claim.

Last time I checked, Carmarthenshire was in Wales and the National Assembly has responsibility for most aspects of local government within Wales. What the Welsh Government says in that regard, goes.

Although James Goudie QC disagrees with this, he says in no uncertain terms that "the restrictions in the 2006 Order and the Welsh Assembly Guidance on the bringing of defamation are a weighty factor against granting an indemnity" and that "it will be extremely rare for such a decision by the Council to be reasonable."

The broad conclusion of the 2008 legal advice was, therefore, "even if you can do it – don't". A common sense cautious approach could've interpreted it as advising against awarding the indemnity quite easily.

The Executive Board were apparently told there was unequivocal support in favour of granting the indemnity – which was bullshit, as there in black and white in the legal advice itself.

The second set of advice, from Timothy Kerr QC (pdf), is retrospective and doesn't add anything new. It's basing the lawfulness of the indemnity, largely, on the (for now) successful outcome at the High Court and on similar grounds to the Goudie advice (Section 111 powers).

The outcome isn't important. The lawfulness of the indemnity when it was originally granted is. Therefore, the 2008 advice trumps anything after it.

The WAO reports were written with full knowledge of both sets of legal advice and other unpublished correspondence, so I doubt the publication of the advice damages the credibility of Anthony Barrett's reports at all. It's now CCC's word against the WAO and will almost certainly head for the courts unless "something else" happens.

When it comes to matters of public finance, I know whose unqualified opinion I believe carries more weight.

Carmarthenshire : Rogue State?

We deal with upstart rebel territories a bit differently nowadays.
(Pic :
CCC are not only thumbing their nose at the WAO, Anthony Barrett, the opposition, the media, Carmarthenshire's council taxpayers and pretty much everyone who disagrees with them, they're also challenging the Welsh Government's authority.

By resorting to a justification based on the 1972 Act, they're effectively saying the 2006 Order isn't worth the paper it was written on. I hope Lesley Griffiths, the First Minister, AMs and civil servants in Cathays Park can see that. Their rather timid response to date shows they perhaps don't.

If CCC are given an opportunity to overturn WAO reports in relation to remuneration and indemnities, it could lead to challenges under the 1972 Act provisions to all sorts of Orders issued by the Welsh Government. It undermines both the devolution of local government, and the mandate Welsh Ministers have from the Welsh electorate to make regulations in that area.

That's before considering the serious damage it would do to the Wales Audit Office's reputation.

Carmarthenshire are, in effect, trying to seize control of some aspects of local government finance from the Welsh Government via a loophole that shouldn't even be there.

In less-enlightened times, if a local fiefdom were undermining the authority of the central government and its public servants in such an insolent manner, legions of knights would now be crossing the Loughor and heads would be put on spikes.

We're no stranger to this. Senior officers in Carmarthenshire are in danger of joining the long list of shit heel petty princes who paid the price for getting ideas above their station, having little care for the damage it could do Wales as a whole.

Councillors have been left in a tough position. Many will be swayed by the legal advice, but if they focus on the first set alone, and fully comprehend it, they'll realise the case for awarding the indemnity was likely to have been exaggerated beyond recognition.

I even feel sorry for Executive Board members. They still have to go for their own incompetence, but they've been done up like kippers by people they surely trusted. The sillier ones will still trust them, and will be standing there alongside the officers when the inevitable happens one day.

This is in danger of becoming a national embarrassment, and because of CCC digging their heels in, is more serious than it otherwise would have been.

A failure to, at the very least, suspend those involved temporarily means Carmarthenshire may as well be considered a rogue local authority that's become a law unto itself, needing to be brought to heel in the same way Anglesey was.

This isn't just about the credibility of CCC now, but about the credibility of Welsh local government and some of our most important public institutions.

When it rains....

I doubt anyone will have noticed this, but another sign of both the implosion within CCC's bunkers and contempt they hold the National Assembly and Welsh Government has come from an unexpected source.

The National Assembly's Petitions Committee recently discussed a petition to list the former ground of Llanelli RFC and Scarlets - Stradey Park - which has been eyed up for a controversial housing development (since under construction, apparantly).

The petition itself was closed after Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), said no more could be done (pdf).

Here's edited version of what was said at the Committee meeting last week on this petition :
(Chair) William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales) : We....received a response from the Minister for Culture....and from Carmarthenshire County Council....I think it would be fair to say that we found a degree of churlishness from the local authority. I have had sight of e-mails from the local authority officers that fall some way short of courtesy to the team that supports this committee and to us. I think we should put on record that that is regrettable. Possibly, we might wish to bring these matters regarding the curt and somewhat inappropriate tone of the correspondence to the attention of the leader or chief executive of Carmarthenshire council.

Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) : I think courtesy is the least that anyone can expect. Are you telling me that what is printed here—I read this a few times—is what you received? Was this it?

(Clerk) Mr George : No, this was the second response that we received. The first response was shorter than this.

William Powell AM : I believe that it was, ‘No, no and no’

Joyce Watson AM : That sounded -

Mr George : I went back to say that the response was likely to be put before the committee and, maybe, they wanted to reconsider. We then got this response instead.

Joyce Watson AM : ....I move that we write to the leader of the authority, Councillor Kevin Madge, and to the chief executive.

William Powell AM : Mr Mark James.

Joyce Watson AM : We should simply say that, in our opinion, it is not normally the way we receive correspondence from those that we ask questions of. For as long as I have been on this committee....I have not seen anything so brief, so blunt and which lacks complete engagement, quite frankly.

William Powell AM : It may, at the least, flag-up some sort of training need and the need for people to be called to would be useful for us to write to the chief officer and the leader of Carmarthenshire....just to flag up that matter, because it shows a discourtesy to the committee, to our team and, indeed, to the petitioners to have adopted such a tone.

It's unclear precisely who sent the "No, no and no" response, though the Head of Planning at Carmarthenshire Council is Eifion Bowen. You can read a tidied-up of CCC's curt and disrespectful response to both a National Assembly Committee and more than 4,000 petitioners here (pdf).

Saturday, 8 February 2014

A oes heddwch?

The Temple of Peace is more likely to be used for exams or to film Doctor Who nowadays,
but will its original vision find new life one day in a Wales Peace Institute?
(Pic : BBC Wales)

On Wednesday, the National Assembly debated a Petitions Committee report into a proposed Welsh Peace Institute. The report itself (pdf) was published in October 2013.

The original petition calling for a Wales Peace Institute received over 1,500 signatures, though it took four years from receipt of the petition to get this far. In the process, the Committee received more than 50 representations to their consultation, which they claim is the most responses they've ever had.

The Committee made only one recommendation - that the Welsh Government work to bring interested parties together to flesh out what such an institute would do and how it would work.

The Report's Findings

The report cites three other examples of "Peace Institutes" across Europe, the
Flemish one being all the more poignant considering the anniversary this year.
(Pic :
The petitioners provided some outline of what they wanted an institute to do, backed by Plaid Cymru MEP, Jill Evans.

They envisage :
  • A "relationship" with the National Assembly in order to judge how their actions impact human rights, in addition to Welsh and UK defence and foreign policy. They want the institute to become a "non- partisan authority on peace issues".
  • A single reference point for information and education about peace, conflict resolution, disarmament etc. and developing links with other peace institutes and international agencies (like the UN) which deal with human rights.
  • Freedom to seek independent funding by commissioning research, as well as becoming a consultee with respect to the National Curriculum.

The petitioners explicitly say they're not expecting state funding, they simply want a look into how practical it would be to set the institute up. The Committee say that without that extra detail they found it hard to come to a conclusion, and could've contributed to the length of time it took to get through the Assembly.

The Welsh Government's initial response focused on the academic side of things, like university research and collaboration. The petitioners saw the proposed institute's role being much broader, taking research into "peace studies" out into the public sphere.

The report cites three examples of other "Peace Institutes".
  • Flemish Peace Institute – Established in 2004 after powers relating to licensing the arms trade were devolved to the Flemish Parliament (could you imagine Westminster doing that!?). The remit was broad and covered international relations, polemology ("war studies") and peace in society. The Institute is fully financed by the Flemish Government and can also seek external funding.
  • International Catalan Institute for Peace – Established via a Catalan law in 2007 following a public campaign. Its remit broadly covers conflict resolution and research relating to it. It's fully funded by the Catalan Government and has to publish an annual report to the Catalan Parliament. It's governing body includes Catalan MPs.
  • Peace Research Institute Frankfurt – Established by the Landesrat (State Parliament) of Hesse in 1970, its funding comes partly from both the Hesse State Government and the German Federal Government. It undertakes research and practical work, and is the "leading adviser in Germany" to the German Government on some aspects of policy.

The Committee say there are three main things they can take from the other Peace Institutes.
  • Political Independence – Many of the institutes stressed the importance of being arms length of their respective governments, but despite this there have been suspicions that such organisations are "leftist" (in my opinion, those suspicions are sometimes valid). This was overcome by trying to include more conservative politicians in discussions and undertaking academically rigorous research.
  • Funding – All three stress that structural funding is more important receiving funding on a project-by-project basis. The Frankfurt institute even suggests funding could be based on an endowment (donations by individuals to a trust, with or without restrictions on how it could be used) in order to ensure independence. The Committee say it would be "difficult to assess how much a Welsh Peace Institute would cost", and that the Welsh Government would be reluctant to foot the bill.
  • Regional Parliaments – All three were established by regional parliaments, which aren't responsible for defence or foreign affairs. So there shouldn't be any reason Wales couldn't establish such an institute either, in principle, as the same applies here.
Many of the consultation responses came from individuals and religious groups - Welsh non-conformist churches have a history of pacifism, for example. Many organisations believe a peace institute would be "desirable" – including the Welsh Refugee Council, their reason being that it would provide an independent voice for refugees and asylum seekers.

However, Higher Education Wales rejected the idea, saying many universities already have research programmes into peace that were "held in high regard".

The Committee concluded that although they can't map out what such an institute would look like, they "support it in principle", believing it could help "add value to the Assembly's work and wider civic society".

The Assembly Debate

The Welsh Government rejected the idea of a Welsh Peace Institute, but
broadly supports the concept of peace within public policy.
(Pic : Flakt Woods)

A large chunk of the Assembly debate itself (available here) went over many of the points raised in the report, so there's no need to go into much detail.

Christine Chapman AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) said that while peace, human rights and things like foreign policy aren't devolved, there's room for the Assembly and Welsh Government to get involved in this. She said that there's no need to "replicate exactly what they (other peace institutes) do", though there's no reason peace couldn't become a "cross-cutting theme" in Welsh public policy.

There was lots of support, including from (as you might expect) Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West), Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) and Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) – the latter needing some help in the cause of peace at the moment.

Support also came from unexpected quarters – Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) for instance, who recalled hopes that the horrors of the First World War would create a culture of peace that, as we now know with the benefit of hindsight, didn't materialise.

There were dissenting voices. Nick Ramsey AM (Con, Monmouth) said he didn't support a Welsh Peace Institute, though – slightly strangely – the rest of his speech set out a backhanded case for one, and that "any discussion about peace is a good one to have in the long term".

Minister for Communities & Tackling Poverty, Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly), responded on behalf of the Welsh Government by saying any further work should be "undertaken by an independent body", effectively rejecting the Committee's recommendation, albeit not rejecting the idea of peace playing a role within public policy completely.

This echoes the Welsh Government's official response (pdf). The First Minister said despite the fact he "wholeheartedly supports the promotion of peace on our society", there was too little detail as to how such an institute would work, noting that the petitioners hadn't agreed on what an institute would do, so the case for it was "inconclusive".

He also believes any further work needs to be done by the petitioners themselves – not on behalf of the Welsh Government - as any formal Welsh Government involvement could give the petitioners false hope that an institute could be established.

Peace in our time?

There's a long tradition of pacifism amongst radical and religious groups in
Wales. But this idea looks as though it's - barring more detailed
proposals - going to rest for now.
(Pic :
It's not over, but it could be a while before anything gets done. I don't want to stick the boot in, but this account from Caerau Greens perhaps indicates the size of task ahead, as there appears to have been some sort of disagreement between the alliance of peace groups which backed the petition in the first place.

Any further work will probably have to be undertaken by the Assembly's Cross-Party Group on Human Rights in order for a serious proposal to be put forward.

Arguments that resort to violence as the first option are almost always on shaky ground, and far from being a sign of weakness, seeking peaceful resolutions to difficult problems is often the harder option and possibly, in some cases, a sign of strength.

However, the very concept of a world free of violence is depressingly out of reach.Violence is something that happens, is a natural behaviour and is sometimes necessary.

I'd support an independent Wales being a "neutral state" (more here) – which is very different from a pacifist state - oppose NATO membership (for practical rather than ideological reasons), and believe Wales should only get involved in various adventures abroad either in self-defence, as part of a mutual defence agreement, or under an internationally-agreed mandate - after all attempts at negotiation have failed.

Any future Welsh troops should be taught "soft" military skills - like dealing with natural disasters, disarmament, negotiation skills and humanitarian issues - as much as "hard" military skills.

If Wales is going to make a serious go at this, it should be linked to a university/universities and produce credible academic research – not just on international relations, but things closer to home like domestic abuse, alcohol-related violence, extremism, cults, football hooliganism, Carmarthenshire Council, organised crime and bullying.

That could be very useful for the Welsh Government, AMs, social services, schools and the police. Some Welsh universities are already doing that – Aberystwyth for the international side of things, Cardiff for things like alcohol-related violence, and Prifysgol Cneifiwr for Carmarthenshire.

A Peace Institute could bring all that together under one umbrella and link it to wider civil society instead of it being stuck in an academic bubble. I think that's what the petitioners were aiming for.

I have to agree with the First Minister though that this needs a clear "vision" to be credible, instead of becoming a "club" for committed activist groups who are perhaps just as motivated by politics and individual causes as promoting peace generally.

An interesting and novel idea, but the case perhaps just wasn't strong enough.