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Monday 31 March 2014

Senedd Watch - March 2014

  • The second Silk Commission report, published on March 3rd, recommended devolution of policing, youth justice, teachers' pay, some transport powers/budgets and raising the limit for Welsh Government energy project consent from 50MW to 350MW. The report also recommended a reserved powers model and an increase in the number of AMs to 80. The report rejected devolution of broadcasting, but called for a review of devolution of the criminal justice system between 2018-2025.
  • An academic study found 4 in 5 workplaces in Wales were dominated by one gender, with 91% of skilled trades occupied by men. The Electoral Reform Society also backed calls to increase women's representation on local councils, setting parties a target of 40% of winnable seats having women candidates at the 2017 local elections.
  • Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), announced changes to how mortality statistics are recorded following concerns about mortality rates at Welsh hospitals. Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West), said the answer was to, “look at the problems, not blame the data”.
  • The National Assembly granted Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) leave to introduce a Minimum Nurse Staffing Levels Bill. She said the Mid Staffordshire scandal in England highlighted how low nurse-patient ratios were a threat to patient safety and care, and her law will, ensure that we have safe staffing levels in our hospitals".
  • Welsh exports rose by 11.2% in 2013 to stand at £14.8billion, significantly outperforming than the rest of the UK (+0.4%). The First Minister said it, "demonstrated the overwhelming success of our approach". Plaid Cymru Shadow Economy Minister, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn), said his party would establish an Overseas Trade Initiative to further improve export performances.
  • The National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee published a critical report into Welsh NHS Finances, calling for greater transparency and more flexible financial planning. The NHS Finance Act 2014 – which comes into force in April – will give Local Health Boards three years to plan their budgets instead of one.
  • The Assembly's Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee inquiry into Welsh roles in EU decision-making called for a focused EU strategy, and a review of "soft diplomacy" used in Brussels. Committee Chair David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) said, "it was more difficult to make yourself heard in debates which affect your interests" within the EU.
  • Education Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), launched an immediate investigation after GCSE English language results in January 2014 were lower than expected, following course changes as a result of a marking row in summer 2012.
    • On March 12th, the minister announced Glasgow University's Prof. Graham Donaldson had been appointed to undertake a "comprehensive, wide ranging and independent" review of the curriculum and assessments in Wales.
    • On March 18th, the WJEC announced they would re-mark 300+ papers, but said an internal review found marking was "consistent" with "no sizable disparities".
  • Plaid Cymru held their Spring Conference in Cardiff, where leader Leanne Wood told voters to "reject Europhobia" in the forthcoming European Parliament elections, saying UKIP's politics "had no place in our country, not now, not ever". Plaid floated policies such as a £300million full-time childcare scheme and also ruling out lowering the top rate on income tax should tax-varying powers be devolved.
    • Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) was sacked from his roles as transport spokesperson and chair of the National Assembly's Environment Committee on March 13th, after describing Plaid's attack on UKIP as "facile" and criticising the wording of a press release.
  • Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), told BBC Wales that the public should have access to information on senior executive pay in local government, following a series of critical reports from the Wales Audit Office and scandals. New guidance will be issued to local authorities in April.
  • The National Assembly's Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee inquiry into sports participation said more needed to be done to overcome barriers amongst women, girls, the deprived and ethnic minorities. It also called for better statistics gathering and a Welsh Government review into their free swimming scheme.
  • The Welsh Conservatives launched a year-long consultation on changes to higher education, including proposals for two-year bachelor degrees, which is said would enable students to enter the workplace faster and cut student debts.
  • Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) launched a consultation on the Financial Education & Inclusion Bill, revealing that financial education provision varied wildly in Welsh schools, ranging from 270 hours to "nothing". The Welsh Government said they had reinforced financial education in the school curriculum, believing legislation was unnecessary.
  • A row broke out between the Welsh and UK Governments on electrification of railways in south Wales, after the First Minister suggested Westminster would pay for rail electrification, while the UK Government insisted costs would be eventually borne by the Welsh Government - despite rail infrastructure being non-devolved.
  • The National Assembly approved the Social Services and Well-being Bill at Report Stage on March 18th by 53 votes to 5. The Welsh Liberal Democrats voted against due to concerns about the legislative process. Deputy Minister for Social Services & Children, Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath), said it will, "make a real difference to the lives of those who need care and support".
    • Plaid Cymru accused Labour of " blatant hypocrisy" for rejecting their amendment to outlaw zero hour contracts for social care workers, despite Labour's public criticism of the contracts in other walks of life.
  • Unemployment in Wales saw another large fall – by 12,000 – in the three months to January 2014, with the unemployment rate at 6.7% compared to 7.2% for the UK as a whole.
  • The UK Chancellor announced the budget on March 18th, with changes to pension and saving rules, compensation payments for energy-intensive businesses – like Port Talbot steelworks – and an announcement that the Wales Bill on financial devolution would be introduced. The Welsh Government's budget will be increased by £36million over the next two years.
  • The Welsh Government announced £8million in loans towards two housing schemes in Tonyrefail and Newport, which are said to be worth £225million to the Welsh economy and could create up to 2,300 jobs. Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said the schemes will, "help transform brownfield sites into thriving communities".
  • The Wales Audit Office questioned the benefits of a £90million Welsh Government project to move civil service jobs out of Cardiff, saying the benefits were "uncertain". However, the project was said to have delivered "all its objectives" overall.
  • The National Assembly approved the Education Bill on March 25th by 37 votes to 4 with 11 abstentions. The Education Act will harmonise term dates and create a new professional body to oversee teaching in Wales. In a significant change to the original Bill, special needs education provisions were removed and will instead be included in separate legislation.
  • Ambulance responses within target times saw a sharp drop in February 2014, falling 5.5% to 52.8%. Welsh Lib Dem leader, Kirsty Williams, described it as a "national disgrace", saying ambulance services "had reached crisis point". The Welsh Government announced they would change the targets in order to show clinical benefit, not pure response times.
  • The Assembly's Children & Young People Committee inquiry into childhood obesity said children were having to wait until adulthood to receive obesity treatment. They also called for better monitoring of government health programmes and outcomes. In 2011, around 35% of under-16s in Wales were either overweight or obese.
  • BBC Wales reported concerns from within Natural Resources Wales (NRW) that they were put under pressure by the Welsh Government not to object to developments – pointing towards the Circuit of Wales development in Blaenau Gwent, where NRW opposition was withdrawn. Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), said the body was "independent" and had "achieved a lot" since it was established in 2013.
  • Opposition politicians criticised Welsh Labour after AMs blocked Ann Clwyd MP (Lab, Cynon Valley) – a vocal critic of the Welsh NHS - from giving evidence to the Health Committee. It follows a row over the care her late husband received at University Hospital Cardiff, the First Minister telling the Senedd she had "produced no evidence" of poor care.
  • At Welsh Labour's spring conference in Llandudno, the party said they would offer "Scottish-style" taxation powers and a reserved powers model if they win the 2015 UK Election. The First Minister admitted his government "could do better" on the NHS, but said his party was, "on the frontline in the Tory war on Wales".

Projects announced in March include : An extra £4.2million towards flood repairs after winter storms, a £21million extension of the Sêr Cymru science investment scheme, a £1.8million fund towards physical literacy in schools, £1.7million towards credit unions, a pilot scheme for a project to provide training places for youngsters in workless households which could eventually help up to 5,000 individuals, and a £15million package to cut business rates.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Off the Bench - Boosting sports participation in Wales

Being regularly harvested by dung beetles hasn't stopped Arjen Robben from combining football
with a successful diving career. So what barriers prevent uptake of sports in Wales?
(Pic :

Earlier this week, the National Assembly's Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee reported back on their inquiry into sports participation (pdf).

The goal was to see if the Welsh Government and Sport Wales were meeting their targets, and also to determine if there's accurate statistics-gathering, what barriers there are to sports participation, and if events like the Ryder Cup, 2012 Olympics and Paralympics left a legacy.

Other Assembly committees are undertaking inquiries into childhood obesity and weight loss services. So, I'll link the posts together into a mini series looking at obesity and its impact on policy. Naturally, this inquiry is related too.

It looks like the childhood obesity inquiry will report back soon, but I won't return to that until April as the next fortnight will be turned over to another important, but unrelated, health topic.

In summary, the Committee made 12 recommendations :
  • The Culture Minister should publish a joint delivery plan with Sport Wales and Public Health Wales, and undertake a review of statistics used to judge sports participation levels amongst under-represented groups (like ethnic minorities) and the deprived. The Welsh Government should also address low levels of ethnic minority sports teachers.
  • The Culture Minister should work with Sport Wales to see how sports fit into child poverty strategies, and address barriers preventing under-represented groups participating in sport, setting clear targets.
  • The Culture and Local Government ministers should work together to determine what impact local authority cuts are having on leisure services.
  • The Welsh Government should review its free swimming scheme and report back on why take-up is low in some areas, setting out an plan to increase swimming amongst those aged 11+.
Sports Participation : The Current Picture
Regular sports activity amongst youngsters has increased, as have club
memberships, but overall figures once you include the whole population remain static.
(Pic : BBC Wales via Press Association)
In the Welsh Government's own words, "sports participation has shown a worrying decline for all age groups, particularly in light of consequent health implications" – i.e obesity, heart disease, diabetes.

Public Health Wales (PHW) say sports participation levels, "have been static for a decade....and hasn't shifted for many years". Sports Wales say men are more likely to participate regularly in sport than women, as do higher-income households and younger adults in general.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) said school sport participation declined 12% between 2009 and 2011, and the, "(Welsh) Government is not achieving the goals it set widen participation in sport....and physical activity".

PHW downplay the role of organised sport, saying "physical activity" encompasses a wide range of things including organised play, active travel (walking & cycling) and other active forms of recreation – presumably things like dance, shooting, martial arts, skateboarding, geocache and hiking.

To increase participation, Sport Wales say they work with sports "that make the biggest difference" in order to provide opportunities to "thousands rather than hundreds."

Sport Wales and Welsh Sports Association statistics showed the percentage of young people participating in sport at least three times a week rose from 27% in 2011 to 40% in 2013. The sports seeing the biggest increases were gymnastics (+25%), swimming (+39%), cycling (+24%), boxing (+33%), athletics (+12%) and disabled sports (+20%).

BBC Wales recently reported the latest figures showing sports club memberships have reached record levels, with 542,000 recorded members.

The Welsh Government currently provide £24million to Sport Wales to deliver on its sports and physical activity objectives.

Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), accepted the Welsh Government had not made the progress it hoped, saying it was a global problem and driving up sports participation was a "constant effort".

The Welsh Government have subsequently set up a Physical Activity Executive Group (another sodding committee) which crosses over with the health department. They also want to "mainstream physical activity", pointing to the Active Travel Act 2013 as an example of that in practice.

The Committee were pleased with recent progress, but concerned that the miserly £300,000 allocated to implement parts of the Active Travel Act was too little, and disappointed Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) wasn't willing to discuss the Act in detail despite it being her responsibility (I've covered the confusion over responsibilities before).

Number crunching

Sport Wales carry out extensive statistics-gathering surveys, but there
were concerns this didn't highlight which local areas and groups have specific problems.
(Pic :
Sport Wales run two annual surveys – one covering adults and the other schoolchildren.

The last school survey covered 110,000 children from 1,000 schools and is claimed to be "the largest survey of its kind in the world". The adult survey covers 22,000 households and is said to be the "most comprehensive source of information" on adult physical activity.

In addition, there's the annual Wales Health Survey alongside local government and sporting governing bodies data.

The Football Association of Wales (FAW) and Wales Football Trust (WFT) – more here - called for "robust statistics". They said Sports Wales data provided a good idea of trends, but not enough information at local level so they can plan their services better.

It was argued survey responses should be broken down into areas within local authorities to get a better picture of specific problems which might be putting people off sport, while the NUT argued all schoolchildren should be surveyed.

Next, there's a lack of data on race and sexual orientation, with Show Racism the Red Card critical of lack of research into discrimination in sport, questioning the relevance of some of the survey questions to ethnic minorities.

Sport Wales acknowledged imperfections with their surveying methods, because they're reliant on schools and local authorities actively wanting to participate. They went on to say they had specific problems with unnamed local authorities. That wouldn't include The Best Local Authority in Wales
by any chance?

The Culture Minister said it was worth "taking a very close look at the data that we generate" to determine if it's useful.

Barriers and Opportunities

Despite high-profile stars, there are still specific barriers facing women & girls,
ethnic minorities and the disabled - with girls most likely to drop out of sport aged 14-16.
(Pic : Welsh Rugby Union)
Sport Wales say there needs to be a "culture shift", but changing sedentary lifestyles would be a challenge, requiring "sophisticated marketing and innovative programmes" above and beyond what we currently see. Specific issues include people not being aware of what's available, lack of sporting skills or lack of equipment.

There was an emphasis on the role of schools, with pupils' experience of school sport "planting seeds for lifetime participation". Sport Wales appear to fall short of outright support for the proposal to make PE a core subject, but said PE should be "at the heart of the curriculum".

The NUT argued access to the facilities was essential, but currently under pressure due to funding cuts. They believed a wider range of activities should be offered to engage difficult groups – older girls in particular – but working pressure on teachers meant staff couldn't always focus on boosting participation.

In terms of specific groups :
  • Women and girls – 36% of girls take part regularly in sport compared to 44% of boys. Sport Wales say sport isn't meeting women's needs as they get older, with fewer sports to choose from and a focus on competitiveness and skill at the expense of socialising and enjoyment. The NUT say years 10 and 11 are when girls tend to drop out of sport, citing body image concerns and lack of options.
  • The disabled – There's been "considerable growth", but barriers remains like : access to facilities, lack of clubs, transport issues and media perceptions. Disability Sport Wales were concerned cutbacks in schools meant the same sporting opportunities couldn't be offered to disabled pupils as non-disabled. There's also a lack of co-ordination with mainstream sports clubs to make them more accessible and inclusive.
  • Deprived communities – Youths living in deprived areas are less likely to play sport than wealthier peers. Reasons include : costs, poor facilities and poor/lack of equipment. Sport Wales have a specific strategy to increase opportunities, including StreetGames.
  • LGBTs Diverse Cymru said there was an "urgent need" to tackle homophobia is sport in the same manner as racism, citing a lack of LGBT sporting role models, which meant professionals are too afraid to "come out", fearing fan reaction. LGBTs are just as interested in sport as heterosexuals, but sports clubs are often an "unfriendly environment".
  • Ethnic minorities – The issues here are wider than skin colour, including faith (Muslim women, for example) and childcare. Show Racism the Red Card Cymru said it's a complex - yet often over-simplified - issue that fails to acknowledge what communities want. Other problems include a lack of role models, lack of research into specific problems facing ethnic minorities, and lack of leadership – there's apparently only one PE teacher in Wales from an ethnic minority.
The role of local authorities
Despite seeing investment - like Ebbw Vale (above) - council-run leisure services
are under pressure due to cuts. There are also concerns about patchy uptake of the
Welsh Government's free swimming scheme amongst under-16s.
(Pic : South Wales Argus)
The WLGA said cuts have "had a major impact on use of leisure facilities", often leading to outsourcing (i.e Halo Leisure in Bridgend). They warn that while local authorities value leisure services, further cuts could lead to the loss of people on the ground. Sport Wales said there needed to be greater collaboration at regional and national level – possibly requiring ministerial oversight.

Availability of facilities was said to be "critical" to sports participation (duh!). PHW want a "major push on providing access sports, recreation and physical activity that are cheap, easy to get to, and run by enthusiastic champions".

As mentioned earlier, that could include schools. I've mentioned that in previous blogs, and the WLGA say there are examples where it works well (including the likes of Archbishop McGrath School in Bridgend). Though the NUT believe teachers shouldn't be expected to staff facilities out of hours.

The Welsh Government currently spends £3.5million to provide free swimming to under-16s during weekends and school holidays, and over-60s during term time. Take-up amongst over-60s has increased, but there's been a decline amongst under-16s, almost halving from 808,000 in 2004-05 to 421,000 in 2012-13.

The WLGA say variances between different local authorities on take-up was often due to the type of pool available. However, they argue numbers of people aged 11+ who can swim has "increased substantially", and changed significantly in comparison to England.

The Culture Minister said he was "very concerned" about local authority budget pressures, emphasising a "pressing need" for them to "find better ways of delivering services". He said opening school sports facilities to the public made "perfect sense", saying he would work with the Education Minister on that.

Extra Time

Despite the report's detailed findings, it glossed over an important area.
(Pic : BBC)
There's a huge, glaring omission from the report - and supposed to be one of the inquiry's terms of reference – the impact and legacy of the Ryder Cup, 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

I suppose increases in participation in "Olympic sports" points towards a lasting legacy, but there's no conclusion and it's barely referred to – with zero mention of golf. So unfortunately I don't think we know for sure, unless it was mentioned in the committee evidence sessions themselves and didn't make the report. There's no way in hell I'm going to go looking for it.

There's also (AFAIK) no mention of sports which could have seen a decline in participation - if you look at trends in England that might include football and tennis.

Having said that, the rest of the report is a mixed bag. Sport Wales appear to have a grip on things and some of their initiatives are clearly working and making an impact.

One trend I've noticed are gyms appearing in big warehouses on industrial estates, often focusing on things like crossfit. There's also been an expansion of the private gym industry. I wouldn't mind seeing some research into what impact private sports clubs have had on use of local authority facilities.

Clearly though there's ongoing issues in schools, and issues amongst hard to reach groups like girls and minorities. I've mentioned it before, but I support things like community-owned sports/athletic clubs that play several sports under a single banner. Through sharing facilities, coaching staff etc. it might create scale and enable sports to be offered that otherwise wouldn't be.

Perhaps local sports leagues should be set up and tiered based on ability. So if someone wants to play for fun they can, while at the same time the more competitive can compete in organised national competitions for championships. As someone's confidence increases they can move up a tier, as they get older they can drop down. It might be worth coming back to that another time.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Why are girls turning their back on science?

Women and girls are well-represented in life sciences, but the numbers
studying physical sciences are on the wane. Why? What are the consequences?
(Pic : The Telegraph)
National Science Week starts next week. To celebrate, I'm going to commit seppuku by posting some of my most controversial and morally ambiguous blogs to date.

Until that potential disaster however, I turn my attention to an article at Click on Wales by David Cunnah about the number of girls studying science subjects – in this case physics. Well, it appears at least one woman could buck the trend here in Charlotte Church.

Truth in Stereotypes

If you want anecdotal evidence, I studied separate sciences at GCSE and classes were slightly dominated by boys, with a large cohort of girls. At A-Level, my biology classes were about 50:50, while there were only 3 girls in my chemistry class - though more were in the class on the other side of the timetable.

Then again, I took AS-Level English Language and Literature and was one of only 5 or 6 boys in the year who did so.

It seems not a lot has changed, and it's backed up by hard evidence too. Last month, Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns (Con, Carms. W & S. Pembs.) revealed the number of girls studying science subjects at A-Level had fallen since 2012 – with the exception of biology.

The only detailed breakdown of figures by gender and subject I could find are from 2011-12 (xls).

At GCSE-level :
  • 54.1% of separate science entries were male (8,703 vs 7,378).
  • 65.4% of design and technology entries were male (5,893 vs 3,120).
  • 57.5% of full course IT entries were male (2,675 vs 1,977).
  • 97.9% of vocational engineering entries were male (492 vs 11).

The only subjects you can point to having a gender balance are those which are compulsory (like maths, English etc.), with the notable exceptions of history and business studies, which are near enough 50:50. Languages, humanities and arts subjects tend to be dominated by girls.

At A-Level :
  • 56% of biology entries were female (1,316 vs 1,034) but....
  • 52.2% of chemistry entries were male (984 vs 894)
  • 79.9% of physics entries were male (986 vs 265)
  • 59.3% of mathematics entries were male (1,914 vs 1,314)
  • 60% of design and technology entries were male (514 vs 343)
  • 60.6% of IT entries were male (766 vs 498)
  • 97% of electronics entries were male (131 v 4)

Again the trend continues. Subjects like history, business studies, geography and music are more gender-balanced, while girls dominate subjects like English literature, religious studies, art and design and languages.
So some stereotypes are true (or perhaps self-perpetuating). Girls tend to take more context-based and social-facing subjects, while boys stick broadly to abstract and technical-based subjects. Where the skills overlap – like biology, history, business studies and geography – there's more gender balance.
Is it simply down to personal interests? Is it forced? Is it cognitive or confirmation bias? I don't know.

Science is hard, pays poorly as a career (except some fields like chemical engineering), has limited opportunities at the top, isn't treated with any respect, attracts negative stereotypes, can be overtaken by new developments very quickly and often requires very intense study or research to get anywhere.

Women in science also face the same problems as women in other walks of life. Though employers like universities are often more flexible when it comes to balancing work and family, you're less likely to find it in the private sector.

Having said that, one of modern science's big selling points for women and girls is that the "glass ceiling" is much easier to break through than areas like business. Science is quite meritocratic as quality of work is often (but not always) worth more than how it's presented or whether your face fits - unless you're presenting a science programme on the telly.

Why? What affect could it have?

Even at university level – where I studied life sciences – I'd say a majority of undergraduates were women, and in terms of postgraduates and doctoral candidates it's around a 50:50 balance.

I can say with confidence there are loads of women working in science, it's just that at the top level – professorships etc. - they're under-represented. That could be because there's a delay, and the numbers of women science professors and PhDs will gradually increase as the years go by. It could also be that women are dropping out of science in greater numbers after graduation to go into other careers.

No, not a character from a Jane Austen novel.
She invented computer programming.
(Pic : Metro)
As for why life sciences in partiuclar have been more successful than physical sciences in attracting women, I'd guess it's because many jobs which have been dominated by women, or increasingly more so (physiotherapy, psychology, medicine, dentistry, nursing, teaching) require a firm grounding in biology and chemistry, but not so much physics and maths.

I suspect girls are making a rational choice to stick to biology and (sometimes) chemistry as A-Level choices, instead of taking subjects like physics and maths, which aren't absolutely essential to their career goals and could put them at risk of being awarded a low grade if they're not confident or interested enough in those subjects.

At the moment - and as the Institute of Physics has demonstrated (pdf) - physics, IT and engineering skills are more important to the Welsh economy than other parts of the UK.

That's because Wales retains a large manufacturing base and has highly-developed niches in sectors like aerospace, energy, construction and the car industry.

Physics is going through a revolutionary period, and it's likely that we'll have to throw out our textbooks over the next few years thanks to the likes of CERN and rapid pace of technological change in areas like computing and materials science.

David also noted in his article that large numbers of teachers with physics degrees are dropping out of education around age 50 age 35-40 (pic). It could be simple early retirement. It could also be that teachers are struggling to keep up with the pace of change and are dropping out before their knowledge becomes obsolete in order to use their skills in other industries.

As physics – in scientific terms – goes through a metamorphosis, life sciences and biotechnology will become the "growth" science sector for this century, exemplified by the Welsh Government's
Sêr Cymru scheme. That means it'll be at the heart of the economy, while other branches of science take a back seat.
Played a vital role in discovering  the structure
of DNA. Largely forgotten by history.
(Pic : Scientific American)
So as long as girls continue to study life sciences in large numbers, the career opportunities will hopefully still be there for them in the future. They'll struggle, however, to break into existing industries like manufacturing and engineering unless they take physical science subjects in bigger numbers. Subsequently that'll contribute to gender gaps in wages and skills in the short to medium term.

Maybe physical science subjects need to take a leaf out of life science's book and put the syllabus in some sort of context in order to make the subjects less intimidating.

You can argue that it's social engineering, and to a slight extent I'd agree. There's nothing inherently "bad" about girls not taking up science subjects, in the same way as boys not taking up humanities or languages. It's a free choice.

However, I'd also argue that both sexes might be wasting talents they don't realise they have, whether that's because of stereotyping, social conditioning/peer pressure, lack of confidence or lack of role models.

Come to think of it, the "lack of role models" argument for girls is ridiculous.

Marie Curie is arguably one of the most famous scientists, let alone women scientists, who ever lived. Rita Levi-Montalcini won a Nobel Prize for Medicine for discovering how nerves grow. We wouldn't have modern computing without Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. Rosalind Franklin played a pretty critical and criminally understated role in the discovery of DNA.

Closer to home, there wouldn't have been a Welsh coal or steel industry without Lucy Thomas (a de facto geologist). The list goes on.

Wouldn't it be a tragedy and waste if we had a potential Marie Curie or Grace Hopper in our schools, who felt she couldn't take physics or IT for whatever reason?

Monday 10 March 2014

Towards a Cornish Assembly?

Cornish nationalist party, Mebyon Kernow, recently launched a
consultation on the format of Cornish devolution.
(Pic : Western Morning News)
While most of the constitutional focus in Wales has been on Silk II, and constitutional focus across the UK on the Scottish independence referendum, the fifth nation of the UK has thrown its own hat into the ring.

Cornish nationalist party, Mebyon Kernow (MK), launched a consultation document on proposals for a devolved Cornish Assembly on March 5th – St Piran's Day. It's available here (pdf).

Fifty thousand Cornishmen will know the reason why

As I've covered before (The Case for Cornwall), Cornwall meets most of the standard requirements and historical precedents to be considered a nation rather than an English region or county. Back in 2001, more than 50,000 signed a declaration calling for Cornish devolution. It was Liberal Democrat policy, with the closest Cornwall coming to devolution being a backbench Government of Cornwall Bill (pdf) introduced by Dan Rogerson MP (Lib Dem, North Cornwall) in 2009.

As I post this, the Lib Dems have made it official party policy again.

Many of the problems facing Cornwall are very similar to those facing
us in Wales  - especially in terms of economic development
and demographic change.
(Pic : BBC)

With the UK constitution now in flux, MK believes "there needs to be a mature, respectful and wide-ranging debate about the future of the whole of the UK and how it is governed." A constitutional convention then - something our First Minister and others in the National Assembly would no doubt agree with.

If it's agreed that Cornwall should see devolution, and a detailed proposal fleshed out, MK supports holding a referendum.

Many of the challenges facing Cornwall are all to familiar to us in Wales : an ageing population caused, in part, by in-migration of retirees; high house prices in rural areas, a relatively weak economy (Cornish GDP per capita was 61.2% of the UK average in 2012, compared to 72.3% for Wales) and "peripheral neglect" by being so far from Westminster.

Except, of course, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own devolved legislatures to deal with some of these issues to varying degrees of success (or failure).

MK believe a Cornish Assembly would "be in a strong position to built a more prosperous Cornwall's traditional and emerging industries, build on Cornwall's sense of place, it's unique brand, and maritime potential".

Chuckles' "Prince of Wales" title is exactly that - a title and nothing more.
His role in Cornwall, however, is significantly more hands on
- perhaps to Cornwall's detriment.
(Pic : The Telegraph)

The party also believe that Cornwall suffers from a "democratic deficit" as they only have 123 councillors serving a population of 534,000 in a single unitary authority. Devon has two and a half times the population but four times the councillors, while Somerset has 1.7 times the population and 3.5 times the number of councillors.

A National Assembly would also reinforce Cornwall's national status, with 73,200 people describing themselves as Cornish in the 2011 census, despite it not being on the official census form, working out at around 14% of the population. Also, 46% of children in the 2013 school census described themselves as Cornish (more from Cornish Republican).
There's a very specific bone of contention too involving the Windsor clan. Chuck Windsor (and presumably in the short to medium term, Billy Windsor) enjoys near-feudal rights as Duke of Cornwall. MK believe devolution will make it easier to hold a full inquiry into "Cornwall's ambiguous constitutional relationship with the Crown and contradictions between this....and administrative arrangements".

What would a National Assembly of Cornwall look like?

Mebyon Kernow propose something for Cornwall near enough identical
to what we have in Wales, with some key differences - in particular the voting system.
(Pic :
  • Devolved powers – Effectively the same powers as the Welsh Assembly (agriculture, tourism, health, education, culture, housing, local government etc.) - including primary law-making powers from the start. They also want the power to vary income tax, perhaps in light of what's on the table for Wales and Scotland.
  • The Cornish Assembly – 40 Assembly Members (AMs) elected in multi-member constituencies by Single Transferable Vote (STV). This works out as roughly 1 AM per 13,350 people. The exact arrangements and constituencies will be decided by a special commission. Cornish AMs would sit in committees and work in a similar way to our AMs. Although there's nothing in the proposal about where a Cornish Assembly would be based, you would presume it would be at the existing Cornwall Council buildings in Truro without the need for a new building.
  • Cornish Government – Made up of between 4 and 6 ministers with "a small number of junior ministers". It would be headed by a First Minister along the same lines as the Welsh Government and supported by a civil service.
  • Finance – Cornwall would be funded via a Welsh-style block grant via a needs-based settlement, which MK estimate at being in the region of £4billion. They also want control of EU Structural Funding (Objective One), which Cornwall receives in the same way as West Wales & The Valleys, except it's administered from London and Bristol.
  • Local Government Reorganisation – The single local authority covering Cornwall would be rescinded and replaced with four new councils, each with 35-45 councillors, set out by legislation. These councillors would also be elected by STV. Some decisions could be devolved further down to community and parish councils.
  • External Relations – Cornwall should have representation on the British-Irish Council, and should have its own MEP, with offices in Brussels. Cornwall should also have its own Commonwealth Games team and the Cornish should be protected via the Convention for National Minorities in the same way as the Welsh and Scottish.

Devolution : Go for it, but don't repeat our mistakes

If a Cornish Assembly were formed,  these signs might have
more than a little bit a truth in them for once.
(Pic :
Wales stands testament to the fact that while devolution does bring a means to make sometimes significant policy changes, it doesn't guarantee success, and is far from a "magic bullet" in itself.

Believe it or not, Mebyon Kernow have been "inspired" by some of the achievements of our National Assembly over the past 15 years (and the Scottish Parliament), picking out :

  • Scrapping prescription charges and hospital car parking charges.
  • Protection from the "creeping privatisation of the NHS in England".
  • Statutory waste and recycling targets with an aim of "zero waste".
  • Allowing suspension of "right to buy" in areas facing housing pressures.

So there are plenty of things the Cornish can learn from devolution elsewhere in the UK, but there are also plenty of mistakes they would do well not to repeat. I would pick out mismanagement of EU funds as the biggest lesson Cornwall could learn from Wales, as well as timidity in policy making and having too small a legislature to allow effective criticism of the executive.

Politically-speaking, a Cornish Assembly could throw up some interesting things.

If you want to compare it to Wales, it's likely the Lib Dems and Labour would swap positions, with Cornwall becoming a Lib Dem hegemony and Labour being a minor party that would struggle to get more than 3/4 seats in a 40-seat legislature. It would make the machinations of an STV system interesting for psephologists I suppose – and it's sensible that Mebyon Kernow have proposed that system from the start.

As to how to get in the position of being able to hold a referendum, MK would have to secure their "Gwynfor moment". By that I mean winning, or seriously challenging for, a Westminster seat. Then the party would probably have to become a major force on Cornwall Council, being in a position to form a government or some sort of coalition with the Lib Dems in order to get Cornish devolution on the Westminster agenda.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Wales in Europe : What role do we play?

The National Assembly's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee
believes the Welsh Government should make their EU strategy clearer.
(Pic : Wales Online)
On Thursday, the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee published their report (pdf) into the role the National Assembly and Welsh Government play in the decision-making processes of the European Union, and how that can be improved upon.

As it's a European election year – I'll start covering that next month – it's a subject worth looking at. You might also be interested in What Wales gets from the European Union.

The Committee made 13 recommendations, summarised as :
  • The Welsh Government review their "soft diplomacy" to achieve its strategic goals and objectives within the EU.
  • The Welsh Government maintains and expands its presence in Brussels to include representatives from business and "Third Sector", and engages more with the four Welsh MEPs.
  • The Welsh Government should address how Whitehall and Welsh departments work together on EU policy, and should make their observations on EU policy known to the UK Government.
  • AMs who are members of the Committee of the Regions should periodically lay a statement on their work in front of the Assembly. The Welsh Government should also investigate, with Whitehall, how to speed up the appointment of Welsh members to EU committees.
  • The Welsh Government should review its EU strategy, with an annual statement and Assembly debate held on it.

How Wales fits into the European Union

Ultimately, Wales is represented at EU Commission level by UK Ministers,
resulting in what Carwyn Jones calls "The Bridgend Question".
(Pic : The Telegraph)

I'll go into the mechanics of how the EU works in more detail another time, so I'll skip that and cut straight to where Wales fits in.

The Welsh Government has regular engagement with the European Commission (the EU's "government"), and several areas of devolved policy are directly impacted by decisions in Brussels – agriculture, fisheries, structural funds etc.

Wales isn't an EU member state, so we don't have an EU Commissioner and no Welsh member sits on the EU Council. We also have fewer MEPs as a UK "region" than we would if we were a full member state. So most of this work is led by the UK Government on our behalf, up to and including the Prime Minister.

However, in devolved areas – agriculture picked out for special focus – Welsh Government ministers do have a say and are part of UK delegations to Brussels on such matters. So the Committee say Wales has an "indirect voice" through UK representatives.

Knowing the UK Government's stance on EU policy is therefore absolutely crucial in order for the Welsh Government to influence it. There's a Concordiat on Co-ordination on European Policy which allows Welsh ministers to do this in devolved areas.

Welsh influence in Brussels

Wales House has established a "good reputation" in Brussels, but the Committee
believe the Welsh Government needs to make better use of "soft diplomacy".
(Pic : Click on Wales)

The Committee heard four key ways to influence the EU – good communication, a good presence in Brussels, good timing and strong personal contacts. In addition to this, there needs to be good co-operation between the EU institutions, Welsh Government and UK Government.

The Welsh Government's presence in Brussels is based at Wales House, which includes offices for the National Assembly, WLGA and Welsh Higher Education. The Committee say they were "left with a positive impression" when meeting people involved in this, while Wales House has "established a good reputation in Brussels". However, they say there needed to be a bigger business presence and a presence for the Third (aka. Voluntary) Sector – which stood out as "obvious gaps".

Like most things in politics, to get a good reputation you need to build up your contacts. The Committee also heard getting your input on policy issues in quickly is just as important. David Hughes, from the EU's Cardiff Office, said the Welsh Government and National Assembly "were good and effective at getting access to key figures", however they could work at getting their input in early.

The Committee believe it's "crucial to identify key priorities and focus on them", with a clear strategy from the Welsh Government on which priorities in particular, how to deliver them, who to target and how to make best use of current resources in Wales, London and Brussels.

They suggest this be done through "soft diplomacy" – what the rest of us would call schmoozing. Some suggestions include holding more events to promote Wales, organising trade delegations and bringing together all Welsh EU organisations and AMs to discuss EU priorities for Wales.

EU Policy, Wales and the UK Government

This isn't the first time Wales has been left of an EU map, and
it looks like that it won't be the last unless action is taken.
(Pic : ITV Wales)

The first issue here was dubbed "The Bridgend Question", put forward by Carwyn Jones. Basically it's a reverse of the West Lothian Question whereby the devolved government have the responsibilities but the sole voice and decision-making power in Brussels rests with the (nominally English) UK minister.

Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), said he - as Welsh minister with the responsiblity for agriculture - can contribute to the "speaking note" UK representatives use in meetings but couldn't speak himself, with "too much power and goodwill" resting on the "personal wishes of UK Ministers". He believed devolved administration ministers should also have "an absolute right of attendance".

The Scottish Minister for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop (SNP, Linlithgow), expressed grievances along similar lines. Of course, if Scotland votes for independence and joins the EU, they'll no longer have this problem. Same for Wales.

The Committee didn't say this was "a major issue in practice", though the First Minister believed a replacement for the current arrangements was appropriate, with the Committee adding there needed to be improved interaction between Whitehall departments and the Welsh Government. This was recently raised in Silk II.
As highlighted earlier, many of those who gave evidence believed there needs to be a "strong coherent strategy". The Scottish Government have done this, targeting four key areas which subsequently "provided leadership and focus".

A specific area pointed out for criticism in Wales is the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) programme. It ultimately led to Wales being "left off the map", and the Enterprise and Business Committee are looking at as part of a separate inquiry. Their inquiry has uncovered what are described as "problems with negotiations" between EU Commission, UK Government and Welsh Government.

Horizon 2020 (the EU's research and development programme) was also picked out as it needs "direct engagement from industry and universities", but as a programme was not transparent or easy to work with. Prof. Hywel Ceri Jones said the period to 2020 was the "last chance saloon with European money" and the major challenge was getting private companies on board.

The Welsh Government could do more there by identifying priorities and setting out an EU strategy that would be openly debated in the Senedd.

Wales and EU institutions

The Committee say since the Lisbon Treaty the role of the European Parliament has "strengthened and increased in prominence" in areas relevant to devolved Wales like agriculture and structural funds. They add that the "power of the European Parliament should not be underestimated", suggesting that bodies and organisations "adapt their approach to this increasingly influential institution."

Alun Davies said he seeks to engage not only with Welsh MEPs, but MEPs from the rest of the UK. It was also clear that lobbying MEPs from across the whole of the EU with similar interests was increasingly vital. Welsh MEPs are said to "work together as a team" on issues important to Wales in consultation with the First Minister. The Scottish Government take a similar approach too.

MEPs say that the Welsh Government could do more to keep them informed, and the Welsh Government should do more to make their thoughts on EU policy matters known.

The Committee of the Regions (CoR) is where regional and stateless legislatures have a voice on EU matters. Two AMs are members - Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) and Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM 
(Plaid, Carms E & Dinefwr) - along with two Welsh councillors. Rhodri serves as a rapporteur ("clerk") for the CoR, saying there needs to be a clearer role for the body and strengthened relationship with the EU Parliament.

The report says written statements should be laid in front of the Assembly outlining the work of the CoR, and that the process of appointing Welsh members to the CoR needed to be sped up.

On the edge of the action?

It's plainly obvious I support Wales becoming a full EU member state, but it's clear the Welsh Government are relatively satisfied with the current state of affairs.

The onus on improving Welsh influence in Brussels, it seems, comes down to communication between the respective governments on this side of the English Channel and the EU Commission. And yes, more hors d'oeurvres for EU big wigs visiting Wales House and more reports for AMs to read.

I'm surprised, shocked even, that there's no significant Welsh business presence in Brussels. That will need to be fixed pronto, but perhaps it's best to wait until after any possible Development Bank of Wales comes to be so we have a "brand" to sell there.

There are many pan-EU initiatives that Wales has been too disengaged from and could do more for our economy than Objective One – Horizon 2020 and TEN-T being highlighted in the report. So a proper EU strategy from the Welsh Government is essential. If we were going to pick four strategic priorities like the Scots, mine would be : exports, transport links, turning SMEs into big companies and renewable energy.

So, not the most entertaining subject but certainly some significant findings.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Taking stock of a Welsh Stock Exchange

Bulls, bears and shares?
It's another idea that refuses to die - a Welsh Stock Exchange.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
This idea of a Welsh Stock Exchange has been raised on-off for a decade or so, mostly as a way of stimulating debate into how to properly capitalise Welsh businesses, and reduce the reliance of Welsh businesses on structural funds and grants from the Welsh Government (and/or its associated bodies).

It's time for - as other have put it - our business culture to "grow up" a little bit.

More recently, a high-profile proposal for a Development Bank of Wales has been put forward as a replacement for the Welsh Government's finance arm, Finance Wales, as part of a review into business finance led by Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans.

The issue of a stock exchange has been resurrected yet again following a recent article from former economics lecturer, John Ball, at Click on Wales.

In his article, John outlined that a 1993 academic paper by Raymond Atje and Boyan Jovanovic linked strong stock markets to strong economic growth, while they found no similar trend when it came to bank lending. So while the emphasis has been on establishing a "Bank of Wales", maybe a regional stock exchange isn't being given the attention it deserves.

A 2004 study by Prof. Robert Huggins – from what was then called UWIC – explored the idea in more detail, claiming that if Wales had 60 extra listed companies it would boost our economic output relative to the rest of the UK by around 9%. That might not stand up to scrutiny now, but when you consider the current figure is stuck at around 73% (UK=100%), then that would be a significant closing of what's been dubbed "Offa's Gap" – the difference in economic productivity between Wales and the rest of the UK.

In terms of a Welsh Stock Exchange as public policy,
in 2008, the Welsh Government provided a £13,000 grant to explore the idea, but the concept seems to have been shelved as a serious option.

In the Assembly itself, it was raised by former AM, now Liberal Democrat peer, Jenny Randerson, and made it into the Welsh Lib Dems 2011 Assembly Election manifesto. The idea hasn't been raised again in the Senedd since November 2011 as far as I can tell.

However, despite the political reluctance, Cardiff University has developed a virtual trading floor for Masters students, while OSTC – a derivatives trading company – established what was at the time described as "the largest trading floor in the UK outside of London" in Swansea.

The foundation to support a Welsh stock exchange is coming together, but the question is how to make it a reality? There are huge problems to overcome.

Firstly, a Welsh Stock Exchange will require lots of regulatory oversight. It would be right to ask why companies would bother with the potential risks of a new, smaller Welsh exchange when the London Stock Exchange (FTSE) is well-known and well-respected globally?

Secondly, will local companies even be willing to list? A stock market would no doubt be good for Welsh prestige and pride, but a "Field of Dreams approach" – build it and they'll come – doesn't always cut it.

There's a warning from the West Midlands. Investbx was established in 2007 to encourage local people to invest in local businesses and provide investment opportunities for companies that couldn't access bank finance. It was a flop, with only 3 companies listing. Investbx was sold for £1 in 2011 despite costing £3million in public funds to set up.

The Irish Stock Exchange has 25 listed companies on its main securities market and another 25 on its enterprise securities market (for small and medium-sized businesses).

You would therefore expect a Welsh exchange to need somewhere between 40-50 willing companies of all shapes and sizes to be viable. There are plenty to choose from if you take a glance at the Western Mail's annual Top 300 list. As John Ball argued, this could be expanded to include things like sports clubs (Cardiff City or the regional rugby teams), green energy start-ups and other SMEs.

A speculative Welsh Stock Exchange would therefore be some sort of Wales-based Alternative Investment Market (AIM) with a similar cap on investment as Investbx (£500k-£2million), rather than a full-blown exchange like the FTSE.

Last but not least there would need to be political will to see it thorough. If a Welsh Stock Exchange were established with Welsh Government backing then collapsed, it would end careers. Ministers get flak a lot of things, but I don't think any of them – or ordinary AMs – would want to be judged by how shares in Peter's Pies or are doing.

The Welsh political class are risk-averse at the best of times, so it's highly unlikely the parties will stick this in their manifestos come 2016, unless there were a high-level study that gave the idea the academic equivalent of a thumbs up, and enough interest in listing from willing companies to make a Welsh exchange viable.

Ideas like this are often written off as fanciful, and maybe they are. But it's worth remembering there used to be several exchanges located around the UK, including the Coal Exchange in Cardiff, with Scotland having its own stock exchange until 1973.

Re-balancing the UK economy between London and South East England and the rest of us is a gargantuan task. That means no option - however ridiculous - should be taken off the table. Maybe a little bit of The City needs to come to Wales instead of the other way around..

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Silk II : The Wrath of Paul

On Monday, the second and final part of a wide-ranging review into Welsh devolution was published by the Silk Commission – available here (pdf).

The first part looked at fiscal powers, culminating in the current Wales Bill. This second part, however, looked at the National Assembly itself and its devolved powers, as well as other issues like the Welsh civil service and cross-border cooperation.

It was difficult to decide how to approach this, so I decided to split it into one chunk looking at devolved powers, another at key powers taken off the table and another looking at changes to "the machinery of government" (civil service, the Assembly etc).

What further devolved powers does Silk II propose?

The headline proposals are to devolve policing and youth justice, though
without wider criminal justice powers at present.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Policing – The headline recommendation, which includes crime prevention and community safety. Devolving the police would mean the National Assembly would have legislative competence for the "governance and administration" of the police in Wales – the only emergency service not currently devolved. Things like the National Crime Agency would remain non-devolved. In terms of funding, the current Home Office grant would transfer to Wales, with an estimate £2-3million bill to set up a specialist Welsh Government policing team. Policing should be devolved by 2017.

Youth Justice
- This covers the "treatment and rehabilitation" of those aged 10-17 who commit criminal offences. Many of the factors here are intertwined with devolved and local government services like education, social services, training and health. So it's recommended administration of youth justice services be devolved by 2017, which would cost around £300,000.

Transport – There's a package of powers here, the big ones being devolution of Network Rail funding and the Wales & Borders rail franchise, which is what the Welsh Government and Enterprise and Business Committee have long called for. Also included is ports development, which is important for the economy. Elsewhere in public transport, there are proposals to devolve Traffic Commissioner functions as well as regulation of bus and taxi services. In terms of road transport, there's a recommendation to devolve speed limits and drink-drive limits – in line with what's happened in Scotland.

Energy Project Consent – Because the energy needs of Wales (a net-exporter of electricity) would be out of kilter with wider UK needs, the full devolution of energy consent was rejected – however the limit for the Welsh Government to consent to energy projects would be raised to 350MW from the current 50MW (more from A Welshman's Blog).

Water (Partial) – Powers over sewerage should be devolved, and the boundary for legislative competence should be aligned with the national borders, with a formal inter-government protocol on cross-border water issues.

Local government elections
– Including their administration and rules of conduct. Technically speaking, the local government electoral system is devolved, but I imagine this recommendation includes that too.

Teachers' pay – In line with Scotland and Northern Ireland, however pensions devolution has been rejected as it would discourage cross-border movement of teachers between England and Wales. The Scottish and Northern Irish education systems are a bit more independent than the Welsh system anyway.

What devolved powers did Silk II reject?

The Commission rejected the devolution of broadcasting, but included
measures that will give the National Assembly an enhanced role.

Criminal Justice (for now) – This includes the court system, prisons, legal aid, sentencing guidelines, public prosecution and probation services. The costs of creating a Welsh judiciary are much, much smaller than I was expecting - £2million – but the additional cost of a Welsh court system would be £10million. The Commission say the Assembly should instead start off with powers that impact the "day to day lives" of people (policing). So it's rejected now, along with prisons, but something that "should be contemplated in future", with a full review into devolution of criminal justice taking place between 2018-2025.

Further economic powers – The report rejects further devolution of economic powers. Amongst those proposed were DWP work programmes, consumer protection, regulation and inward investment. Instead, the report says there should be better cross-border coordination in policies which overlap (like training programmes).

The Crown Estate – Instead of transferring responsibility for the Crown Estate to Wales, its recommended Wales have similar status to Scotland, with an appointed Crown Estate Commissioner and Crown Estate office.

Broadcasting – As expected, and as I predicted back in September last year, devolution of broadcasting has been rejected due to opposition from both Welsh and UK governments. However, the National Assembly "should take an enhanced role in broadcasting" with a devolved governance body (Welsh BBC Trust), public funding for S4C should be devolved (which doesn't matter as it's moving to whole scale licence fee funding) and appointment of S4C Authority members should require Welsh Government approval. Ofcom should also have a board member with "specific responsibilities for Wales".

Social security "Social welfare" is devolved to the National Assembly, that includes things like social services and child protection. Social security – aka. the benefits system – isn't, and isn't even devolved in Scotland or Northern Ireland. 46-51% of people polled believed the National Assembly should control the benefits system, however it's rejected because it's an important part of the social and economic union, and the Welsh Government were concerned about exposure to budgetary risks.

What does Silk II outline for the machinery of government?

In addition to reserved powers, by 2021 will this
be home to an 80-member Welsh Parliament?
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)

Reserved powers – Arguments in favour of a reserved powers model are :
  • Certainty in what powers the Assembly has, meaning they can "legislate with confidence".
  • Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 is "unclear", because the whole thing has to be consulted before laws are made, while it's obvious in a reserved powers model which powers are explicitly off the table.
  • It would "be more stable over time", meaning no challenges to Welsh laws as we've seen in (currently) three cases. A reserved powers model would also reduce the risk of such litigation.
  • It would "bring greater consistency" with the rest of the UK, as a reserved powers model is used in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • It would enable the devolution settlement itself to be redrawn along "clearer and more logical principles" and it would be simpler.

Inter-governmental relations – Welsh and UK governments should share good practice, with a statutory code provided in a new Government of Wales Act. A Welsh-UK Government intergovernmental committee should be established with a new arbitration system for disagreements between the two governments.

The National Assembly itself – Some proposed solutions to the "scrutiny gap" and demands on AMs time have included "smarter working" (which I've covered before) adding co-opted unelected members to Assembly committees (as in local government) or the creation of a second chamber. However, the Commission say it's "convinced the Assembly requires more backbench scrutinise policy and legislation more thoroughly." They therefore propose an increase in the number of AMs from 60 to 80 at a cost of approximately £5.3million. Don't cheer all at once.

Also, the (pseudo-colonial) right for the Welsh Secretary to participate in National Assembly sessions would be removed. The Assembly should also be able to regulate its own financial procedures with the door left open on a possible name change to "Welsh Parliament" – though I don't see the point, personally.

The National Assembly should also be recognised as "permanent" as long as it's the will of the  people of Wales.

The Civil Service & Civil Society – There are no proposals to "devolve" the civil service, and the Commission believe that the Welsh Government should continue to be staffed as part of the "Whitehall" civil service. UK Government departments should also be "clearer about the extent of their responsibilities for the different parts of the UK."

Timescales & The Referendum Question

The proposals will not only mean an increase in responsibilities,
but also an increase in the devolved budget.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

The big thing to note is that the Commission rejects holding a referendum on these extra powers (other than the proposed income tax powers as outlined in the Wales Bill). Instead, it should be a matter left for individual party manifestos in the 2015 UK Election and 2016 Welsh General Election.

I'm not entirely sure I agree with that, for reasons I outlined in Marching out of lockstep.

Some of the proposals can be introduced without legislation, mainly those powers relating to improved inter-governmental working, or things that can be transferred by Orders in Council.

The other powers, and a reserved powers model, would require a new Government of Wales Act. A Bill would be published in autumn 2016 and enacted by summer 2017. If the Bill passes, then the National Assembly would have a reserved powers model following the 2021 Welsh General Election.

Full devolution of rail and policing would result in the devolved budget increasing by £500million, and full devolution of criminal justice would increase that to £800million. If you include the £300million "fair funding" then I guess that takes it to £1.1billion.

Conclusion : A golden mean?

The shelves must be creaking under the weight all these reports...and the dust.

(Pic : Click on Wales)
I'll come back to the political reaction when this is inevitably debated in the Senedd over the next couple of weeks/months.

Silk II has been argued in a logical, pragmatic manner. It's much better than Silk I and undoes a lot of the mess Peter Hain left in 2006. However, at the same time there's also very little on the table. The powers are similar to those devolved to Scotland under the Scotland Act 2012. Copy and paste, almost.

The question there is if Scotland votes no in September, and as a result acquires further devolved powers or devo-max, Wales will be left behind yet again when - based on this report - Wales is tantalisingly close to achieving parity with Scotland (if criminal justice powers were devolved in future).

A lot of the things have been mentioned so many times before – like devolution of the Wales & Borders franchise, policing, youth justice, reserved powers and teachers' pay – that it's a bit of a damp squib, albeit welcome.

It would've been exciting, and really made a difference to the National Assembly's standing, if we got criminal justice powers alongside that, but we'll have to wait until the 2020s if it's to happen. It's sensible for it to be reviewed thoroughly, but it seems like a largely unnecessary delay.

Having control over policing without criminal justice powers is a bit like like having control of the ambulance service without running hospitals.

Returning to the Assembly itself, it'll be hard to justify 80 AMs until after the devolution of criminal justice powers because those powers really will increase the workload for AMs above and beyond what they currently have. The current 60 should be able to cope with these powers (like policing, teachers pay etc.) as long as they find ways to – as the report puts it, and as myself and others have put it before – "work smarter".

So I'd say I'm neither blown away nor disappointed - it's pretty sensible on the whole. However, as history has shown us, the final versions of visions of grand commissions often end up watered-down. This is going to have to remain a whole package, as I don't think there's any room for compromise here that won't undermine its intent.