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Thursday 30 October 2014

NHS Wales : The point-scoring has to stop

Playing political football with the Welsh NHS is likely to be as damaging as the political
football which has led to topics like immigration becoming "third rail" issues.
(Pic :
I wish politics was based on the strength of arguments and how good ideas are, debated rationally in language everyone can understand. That's the "Premier League of Politics". Unfortunately, we're stuck with the "Conference of Politics" in the UK, and there's been no better display of political semi-professionalism than the Cardiff-London spat over the Welsh NHS.

The content of the Daily Mail series is nothing we haven't heard before, but as it's dragged on-off for close to a fortnight - it looks like Y Byd ar Bedwar are going to come back to it again next week -  I suppose I've got no choice but to address it as well.

First off – as I'm sure you all realised - this was an attempt by the Daily Mail to embarrass Ed Miliband by flagging up the perceived incompetence of the UK's only ruling Labour administration.

Ed Miliband typifies the career politicians that have caused such a disillusionment with politics in the first place. He's been sheltered from the realities of everyday life and knows nothing but politics as he was born into it. The thought of him walking through the door of Number 10 as Prime Minister next May fills me with a sense of dread, and I don't need the Daily Mail to paint me a picture.

Unfortunately, the Welsh Government did something everyone on the internet should know not to do : they fed the trolls. W
hy the Welsh Government should even care about what happens next May when they have so many immediate problems of their own is something you'll have to ask them. I believe Johann Lamont provided the answer last week; something to do with "branch parties".

I never thought I'd ever say this, but I have to take my hat off to the Daily Mail. Not only was this a visiting Ivy League professorship in trolling, but the Daily Mail have done a better job of getting straight answers on health out of the Welsh Government than 30 opposition AMs have during the whole Fourth Assembly.

The soundbites from Cathays Park and Labour AMs have sounded North Korean, which tells me the Mail hit a nerve.


It's a PR disaster. The Daily Mail is widely-read across the whole of the UK and the Welsh Government know this looks bad. That's because their overall record on health isn't just bad compared to the rest of the UK, it's f**king atrocious. Because this row was was played out on a UK stage - where the Welsh Government and Assembly have no leverage - it makes it different to past rows.

The Welsh Government live in a comfortable "big fish, small pond" bubble here where they often don't have to answer questions properly, can bat away scrutiny by hiding behind rules/process and are confident of being in power forever.
If Labour were running England or Scotland in the same way they're running Wales though, they would've been booted out of office in a landslide after a single term.

They're not used to the kind of high-profile sustained attack they endured from the Mail. This was a smear from the big boys and girls. The Fleet Street titles would utterly break most AMs if they did this consistently, making even the most strongly-worded Western Mail editorial look like a brawl between George from Rainbow and Teddy Ruxpin in comparison.

Having said that, while there are things we can blame them for and should punish them for at the ballot box, there are plenty of things we can't blame them for.

The Welsh Government aren't going around telling people to stuff their own and their children's faces with junk food, work longer hours than is sensible, drink and smoke to excess, get no exercise, ignore the needs of our elderly neighbours and relatives, stigmatise people with mental illnesses, turn up to A&E departments with a stubbed toe or after a drunken fight, or hold up ambulances because we don't know how to drive or park. It's not their fault we have a legacy of industrial disease or disproportionate numbers of older people either.

The under-performance is relative not absolute. The Welsh NHS is nowhere near as good as it could be, and is being mismanaged. However, in the face of so many (mostly self-inflicted) challenges, the Welsh NHS remains one of the finest health systems in the world, and I believe figures showing satisfaction (but not delight) with NHS services in Wales will stand up.

Only an over-promoted cretin with absolutely no sense of perspective could describe the Welsh NHS as "second class" with a straight face.

The Tories - and their little helpers like Danny Alexander - are single-minded, borderline autistic accountants reducing everything to a cost and a price. That includes me and you. They see public services as lines on a balance sheet. Too much red is bad, even if it makes a difference to peoples lives; while too much black means it's either better off in the private sector's hands or can be cut to the bone.

The Coalition's morbid obsession with the Welsh NHS comes across like a rubbernecking driver who's just passed a pile-up, hoping for as much bloodied asphalt as possible so they can tell exaggerated stories to the people back home and feel more alive. That doesn't mean they're always wrong.

Waiting times are longer in Wales. We don't have access to the same cancer drugs as patients in England. Large numbers of Welsh patients receive treatment in England (for geographical reasons, mainly). We really do have a recruitment crisis. Morale amongst NHS workers is through the floor. An ambulance is likely to take significantly longer to reach you in Wales compared to elsewhere in the UK. Meanwhile, care standards in some Welsh hospitals have been roundly criticised and the NHS complaints system is an utter shambles.

Have the Welsh Government taken steps to improve these things? Sort of.

Is it working? No, not urgently enough. Labour in Wales never treat problems with the seriousness they deserve, instead chucking money at issues to a point where the Welsh NHS is becoming a fiscal black hole. They also commission numerous low-level, over-specific investigations (like Trusted to Care) which result in reports that recommend sticking plaster solutions.

Sometimes all you need to do is address problems as they arise, but there's never been a comprehensive review of the Welsh NHS - from top to bottom - that addresses wider systemic challenges and forces the Welsh Government into action.

I don't believe that should be an "inquiry", because it's too quasi-judicial and implies there's someone or something to blame.

The OECD have been appointed to carry out an independent investigation comparing the UK's health systems, and the Welsh Government should co-operate fully. If that means the results are published at a time that inconveniences Ed Miliband and the Labour Party - hard lines. They shouldn't play politics with our health and well-being.

"We have an alternative!" I hear you cry.

I'll give the Welsh Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru credit for restraining themselves and coming up with their own ideas instead of just joining in the game of British Bulldog. Kirsty Williams has a Bill coming soon on minimum nursing levels and her party have called for a Williams-style Commission for the NHS; while Plaid want to integrate health and social care and address recruitment through their proposed tax on sugary drinks. Those are things for debate in 2016, not 2015.

During this row, however, both parties pretended to be above the Tory-Labour mudslinging while in the past they've often pressed for similar answers to similar questions using similar language. It hints at an inconsistency.

The Daily Mail is a Viz for Hyacinth Buckets, the hard of thinking and the highly-strung. But I'm willing to bet if it were the Western Mail, Independent or The Guardian slanging the Welsh Government's record along the same lines, the Lib Dems and Plaid would be marching down from the moral high ground singing a different tune.

The Greens will offer something that sounds high-minded but is incredibly impractical; while I'd imagine UKIP's vision for the NHS – if they even have a coherent idea between them in Wales – will be straight out of a Carry On film.

We can take a few things from this spat :

  1. The Scots made a humongous mistake in September.
  2. The popular press still have an important (Post-Leveson) role in holding governments to account.
  3. AMs are getting a good taste of what "getting more coverage in the UK media" will look like (and they should perhaps shift their focus back to coverage in the "nicer" Welsh media as a result).
  4. The last thing we need in Wales is to be dragged down to Westminster's level.
When you unnecessarily emotionalise a incredibly complex issue you tribalise the debate. It'll turn the Welsh NHS into a "no go area", handing "ownership" of the issue to those on the extremes, and resulting in discussions which resemble a pub car park fight - like immigration often does.

We deserve better than that, and we've been let down by the media and our politicians who keep spinning issues to such an extent that they barely resemble reality.

I realise this is the standard of debate we're used to from Westminster and the sorts of arguments we've come to expect from the Welsh Labour Government, but it's making it all the more tempting to give next May's election a miss altogether, and I doubt I'm the only one.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Mythbusting the TTIP

A valuable, and long-overdue, economic partnership?
Or handover of power to a shadowy corporate understate?
(Pic :

What is the TTIP?

Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership
- a proposed free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union that's currently under negotiation. There's a deadline for it to be agreed sometime in 2015, though there are suggestions it could be finalised by the end of 2014.

It stands to become the largest free trade agreement in history, opening up markets for Europeans in North America and vice versa. It would also partially eliminate the threat of a "trade war" between the EU and US, a threat which has bubbled under the surface a few times in the past.

Because of the various entanglements these supra-national agreements have, there'll be knock-on consequences for other members of NAFTA (Canada & Mexico) as well as the EFTA (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland).

It could also, in its own way, shift the economic balance of power back towards "The West", taking the wind out of the sails of the "BRICS" somewhat. It's claimed (pdf) it could eventually boost the EU economy by up to €120billion (~£95billion) a year by 2027 - though it's also claimed this figure is massively optimistic and doesn't take into account the potential costs.

It sounds like a no-brainer, but aspects of the proposed agreement are extremely controversial.

In Wales, the most vocal arguments against TTIP have come from Plaid Cymru and their MEP, Jill Evans. In fact – and to their credit - they seem to be the only party in Wales taking this seriously (recently joined by Geraint Davies MP).

Although there are plenty of legitimate concerns about what the TTIP means, some of those concerns have been blown out of proportion, while others aren't being given the close scrutiny they deserve.

Call me cynical, but the moment politicians tell me something is "bad" or "good", I become instantly sceptical. That's perhaps my scientific background at work, but on one side you have those on the left who are probably opposed to free trade agreements for ideological reasons; while on the right you have those who are saying it's great whilst having a vested interest in seeing this through.

Who's telling the truth?

It opens the door to privatisation of the NHSFalse, this could only happen if the UK Government decided to privatise it themselves - and they're making good headway on that in England. Monopolised public services, like the NHS, are protected. Most EU members states have public health care (though some charge fees), while the TTIP will have an affect on Canada, which also has public health care. It could potentially lead to American health care companies providing more private treatment in the UK (competing with BUPA etc.), supplying pharmaceuticals and medical devices (without trade barriers), and it could make it easier for clinical trials to be conducted on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time.

That's not to be complacent about this, as some of the reforms being pursued in England could end up privatising the NHS via the back door, inadvertently leading to companies exploiting possible clauses in TTIP. Ultimately, that'll affect the Welsh NHS as spending in England determines the size of the Welsh block grant.

It'll relax restrictions of food standards, in particular genetic engineering Mixed good and bad news. This is something of a cause célèbre for Plaid Cymru, and I completely disagree with their stance on genetic engineering because I don't believe their policy is based on science. The Americans took advantage of genetic engineering, while the EU resorted to a policy based on a toxic mix of protectionism and "dark green" neo-luddism. Despite all that, TTIP wouldn't change any existing EU laws on GMOs.

The areas we do need to be legitimately concerned about are things like : the use of growth hormones in American beef, the use of certain chemicals in processed American foods (some of which are banned in the EU, like olestra), and America's record on pesticides. If American agricultural exports end up cheaper (due to things like the use of GMOs) it could also send many European farmers to the wall, but ditto the other way around. Opening up America fully to lamb, beef and dairy exports for example would probably be welcomed by Welsh farmers.

It'll relax banking laws and regulationTrue. It's one of the big stumbling blocks at the moment and it's bad news. This is the corrupting influence of the City of London at play, who've pushed hard for a relaxation of financial regulations, which would certainly boost the financial service sector. Since the financial crisis, US financial service rules have tightened significantly and are actually more stringent than those in the EU. It's the EU pressing for a harmonisation of rules which will probably weaken regulations in the US, and the US have been keen to keep financial service regulation off the table.

It'll relax regulatory standards on other things like car safety and chemicalsPartially true, but it's unlikely anyone will notice the difference and it could be good in some aspects. It looks like the EU and US are going to retain their particular sets of regulatory standards, just make them "more compatible" with each other, which could strengthen consumer protections in the US and make European industry a bit more competitive.

An example's given (pdf) of electric vehicles, where at the moment the EU and US have different standards on things like plugs and chargers. If regulations were "future proofed" now then it would provide a much bigger future market for electric vehicles on both sides of the Atlantic. National governments will also retain the right to pass their own regulatory standards as they do now.

It could lead to an erosion of worker's rights False, the pressure to do this is coming from right-wing national governments and businesses, not through the deal itself. The US has a pretty poor track record of worker's and trade union rights, the EU on the other hand (with exceptions) looks like a worker's paradise in comparison.

American workers - especially middle and high-earners - are generally more productive and earn more than Europeans (mainly due to lower tax rates and longer working hours). Ironically, a free trade agreement could mean American workers in low-paid jobs and students could seek EU-style rights if they think we're getting a better deal from employers and a higher standard of living because of it. This deal is going to cut both ways and in many aspects, the EU is is on the high ground; this shouldn't be seen as all one way in the Americans favour. If I were a trade unionist I would start making contacts on the other side of the Atlantic and see this as an opportunity, not a threat.

It'll lead to job losses/job gains It depends on which sector of the economy you're working in. It's claimed that TTIP could create up to 400,000 jobs in the UK alone, and around 2.3million across the OECD area. I'm sceptical about those figures.

According to some reports (pdf), the machinery industry is expected to be one of the big winners on both sides of the Atlantic, while it'll boost the insurance and car industries in the EU, and the steel industry in the US. However, these boosts are likely to be through increased bilateral trade not increased production. Therefore gains on one side of the Atlantic could be wiped out by losses on the other side.

Governments could be sued for harming company profits or commercial opportunities
True, and it's probably one of the more dangerous parts of TTIP, though there are hints that this might be taken off the table. These agreements already exist in current treaties and are called Inter State Dispute Settlements (ISDS). Although it won't make privatisation a "corporate right", in instances where, for example, governments block a takeover (using competition rules that contravene the TTIP agreement), ban a product, or nationalise an industry, the company that misses out will have a right to sue for "compensation" in cases where they haven't already been offered such.

That sounds fair but is open to abuse. In a bit of good news, these cases normally have limited success. Nobody has ever successfully sued the UK through existing investment treaties that have ISDS clauses in them.

It's undemocratic Neither true nor false. The big concern many people have with TTIP is the distinct lack of transparency. It's being negotiated behind closed doors by eurocrats, trade lawyers and bigwigs, and is seemingly not being held to account by anybody despite the high stakes. Most of the information so far has come from leaks and whatever information the negotiating parties have decided to divulge.


When member states sign up to trading blocs like the EU, they willingly cede some control over trade agreements. It's being at least part-negotiated by the EU Council - which is made up democratically-elected heads of government that have been delegated this power on our behalf – and the EU Commission, which is made up of members nominated by member states.

The final treaty will also have to be ratified by the democratically-elected European Parliament, the US Congress and the 28 EU member legislatures to become law.

If Plaid Cymru and other opponents of TTIP are going to argue this is undemocratic then they're essentially saying the EU itself is undemocratic, as in terms of how it usually operates this is by the book. It's not often they're on the same side as UKIP, who've remained suspiciously quiet on this.

What does this mean for Wales?

An agreement could potentially - stress potentially - be very good news for some of
Wales' largest employers. That doesn't mean it's all smiles and sunshine.
(Pic : Image Group)
In the last round of trade statistics (pdf), Wales exported £3.4billion worth of goods to the US and Canada in the year to Q2 2014, and the United States is Wales' single largest export destination (rest of the UK and EU as a whole excluded).

Consider which sectors of the economy are expected to benefit : the car industry (Wales has traditionally had a strong supply chain), insurance (Admiral - who've long tried to crack America - and price comparison websites like and, some aspects of agriculture and general manufacturing.

Based on the most optimistic projections (€240 per capita in extra trade across the EU), TTIP is potentially worth up to €720million (£568million) a year to Wales, and with our strong export record and prevailing economic strengths (listed above), the figure might be even higher than that.

It's safe to say that on many indicators, a successful TTIP is firmly in the Welsh national interest.

That's not to say that the concerns about this are unjustified. I'm not going to criticise Plaid Cymru too heavily. In fact they deserve applause, because at least they've adopted a position on it and tried to give it some publicity. They've done their duty, while other parties have been left wanting on an issue that could be of importance to us, yet has gone largely under the radar.

AMs have been keen in the past to stress the benefits of EU membership to Wales (here, here), so while there's still time, the National Assembly should consider holding a debate on this.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Should Wales target the UEFA U-21 Championship?

We're getting used to hosting one-off games, but should Wales consider bidding for
a whole tournament? One we might stand a realistic chance of hosting.
(Pic : Football Association of Wales)

The Football Association of Wales (FAW) took a slap to the face when Cardiff was overlooked to host Euro 2020 games.

Although Cardiff hosted this year's UEFA Super Cup, the FAW have long coveted a major final or tournament. Realistically, the FAW could only host a major final (like a Champions League final) at the Millennium Stadium, while only three current stadiums would be up to the standards required to co-host a European Championships : the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff City Stadium and Liberty Stadium.

Back in 2010-11, the FAW submitted a bid to host the 2013 UEFA Under-21 Championships but were beaten to it by Israel. UEFA praised the high standard of the Welsh bid, however, and the FAW are quoted as saying that Wales should be able to host a major tournament "in the future".

The UEFA Under-21 Championships have traditionally been hosted by the smaller and mid-sized nations. It gives these nations a chance to host a tournament, as they would never stand a chance of hosting a full European Championships by themselves.

Slovakia hosted it in 2000, Sweden in 2009, Denmark in 2011 and, as mentioned, Israel hosted it in 2013. Next year's tournament will be hosted by the Czech Republic.

The crowds are much smaller than those for other major tournaments, but the Under-21 Championships are growing in stature as they've become a proving ground for "stars of the future".

There doesn't appear to be any minimum requirements to host the tournament itself other than all- seater stadiums. Each of the host nations I've mentioned has used four stadiums with capacities of between 8,000 and 35,000.

From 2017 the tournament is expanding from 8 teams to 12 and will probably require 5 or 6 stadiums. Poland is currently considered a shoo-in to host it. Expanding the tournament will make it a bit harder for Wales, but we should be able to put in a competitive bid.

The Possible Stadiums

Ready to go :
  • Millennium Stadium, Cardiff – Capacity 74,500.
  • Cardiff City Stadium – Capacity ~38,000 (after proposed and current expansion).
  • Liberty Stadium, Swansea – Capacity ~33,000 (after proposed expansion).
  • Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli – Capacity 14,500.

Would need some work :
  • Glyndwr University Racecourse, Wrexham – Capacity 10,800. Kop Stand would need to be rebuilt and other parts of the stadium will need renovating.
  • Rodney Parade, Newport – Capacity 7,900. Would have to be upgraded to 15,000 all-seater as previously proposed.

Outside chance :

  • Parc Eirias, Colwyn Bay – Would need a significant redevelopment to ~10,000 seats. Should be doable but might create a "white elephant".
  • Island Farm Stadium, Bridgend – Proposed with a capacity of 12-15,000 but it's unlikely to get built as there's no prospective full-time tenant.

The Issues

Wales 2019?
Maybe it's not quite that simple.
(Pic : UEFA)
The failure of the Euro 2020 bid underlined significant weaknesses in the Welsh offer despite possessing one of the most iconic stadiums in world sport. It's perhaps a bigger embarrassment than has been made out.

The biggest single weakness is a lack of hospitality for UEFA bigwigs, as well as a general lack of hotel rooms for supporters and high-quality training facilities for visiting teams. The former might seem like a trivial concern, but the latter is a huge problem.

On top of this is the weakness in the routes offered to/from Cardiff Airport. So if Wales hosted a tournament, it's likely many supporters and teams will fly in to Heathrow and, Cardiff aside, will probably stay in the English cities along the border like Bristol, Chester, Liverpool and Manchester.

The other issue would be the geographic spread of games. South Wales could probably host a tournament by itself if Rodney Parade is completely redeveloped, resulting in inevitable cries from the north of regional favouritism. Mid Wales would miss out completely.

The Racecourse – as it is – would probably fall short of the requirements to host international tournament games and would need to be upgraded. That'll cost money that Wrexham FC don't have, meaning the Welsh Government or Glyndwr University would have to stump up the cash – my guess would be in the £10million range.

But it would be awkward having one venue in the north and 4/5 in the south. So a second venue would need to be found in the north to balance it out, and Parc Eirias in Colwyn Bay is, realistically, the only stadium that could be upgraded to the required standards. That's another £20-30million.

It's unlikely the economic returns from hosting the tournament would match the outlay. So the cheapest option would be to keep all games in the south along the M4 corridor, which would probably anger the north where football is traditionally stronger.

There are also other tournaments in this range Wales could consider hosting using the same stadiums, like an Under-20 World Cup, the UEFA Women's Championships, or even a FIFA Women's World Cup.Wales does have many of the foundations to host a mid-level international tournament; but if that's to become a reality, then there's still an awful lot of work to be done and some strategic decisions to be made.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Hart Bypass returns to the Assembly

The issue of the Newport bypass has returned to the Senedd, and the
Environment Committee had a few choice words for Edwina Hart and the CBI.
(Pic : Wales Online)

It's back again....

Yesterday, the National Assembly debated the Environment Committee report into the proposed M4 bypass of Newport (Newport M4 : The Committee Strikes Back [pdf]) and the Welsh Government's response (M4 Newport – Edwina's Response [pdf]).

The Senedd's Heart to Hart

Committee Chair, Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), started by saying this project was, "the biggest decision the Welsh Government will take". The Committee haven't drawn any conclusions on merits of particular options, but serious, unanswered questions remained on whether the consultation process met strategic EU directives.

Alun said one issue "not given due attention" was the impact of electrification of the south Wales mainline and the South Wales Metro. The Committee believe these proposals weren't taken into account adequately when considering future travel patterns. He said the total costs of the bypass remain unclear, and funding sources were, "shrouded in uncertainty". He concluded that on basis of current information, the long-term value for money case is yet to be made.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) said the traffic figures from the UK Department of Transport (DfT)– which formed a foundation for the case for the bypass by projecting a 20% increase in traffic – was out of date, and that the latest figures have shown a plateau in general M4 traffic. He said the Committee couldn't get further details from DfT. Mick said it was "of some concern" that the CBI – one of the main private sector proponents of the bypass - failed to respond to six requests to give evidence when the Committee were trying to evaluate the business case.

Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) described this as an "extremely important inquiry", echoing concerns that the CBI didn't contribute to the inquiry in written or oral form. She also criticised the Minister, as she was asked several times to give evidence but turned it down. This is in light of previous criticism in chamber on the way this has been handled.

Antoinette said there were "grave concerns" over the consultation process, in particular the lack of distinction between the three options and the exclusion of the Blue Route. She said it was important that the Welsh Government were "above reproach" on this due to international significance of Gwent Levels, and there was a lack of public confidence in way the process was handled. Antoinette said the Minister hasn't been prepared to be "transparent and scrutinised properly" on this, and she doesn't believe the Minister, "has the support of the public for this project".

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) was also disappointed the Minister didn't give evidence on the route options or financing. This meant the Committee was prevented from scrutinising a scheme that has major financial and environmental impacts. He suggested there were "serious problems with statutory decision-making process", which meant the Committee were unable to scrutinise acutal costs.

Llyr believes the financial detail of scheme should be more widely known to ensure scrutiny on the basis of value for money, with the quoted costs having a massive margin of error, standing between £600million and £1billion. He said adopting the black route, "gave the impression to the people of Wales that it was a done deal" when there's a long way to go.

William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales) said the Assembly's committees perform a key role in scrutinising policy, which is made all the more difficult "when government doesn't participate on their (the Committee's) terms". William also criticised CBI, saying you can read their op-eds in the Western Mail but they were unwilling to give evidence to the Assembly itself.

He said it was "beyond question" that the M4 through Newport isn't fit for purpose, but all options need to be considered. He said it was a shame the answers came so belated from the Minister. However, he said the Blue Route is as open to debate as the Black Route and we should, "let the evidence speak for itself". Williams also stressed the need for other solutions, emphasising that people need to get people out of cars and onto integrated public transport.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) said it was an "annoying and frustrating experience" dealing with the report due to CBI's absence, which "showed disrespect to the Committee". She welcomed the future detailed environmental impact study and the fact no construction will take place until after the 2016 elections, which gives the Assembly "time to have debates on all the options".

She said every effort should be made to avoid the "disastrous impact" on the environment, but they also need clarification on how much of the borrowing will be spent on the bypass. She also said comments (from the First Minister - clip of the FMQs exchange on 30th September 2014) about traffic lights on the Blue Route were irrelevant as they would be replaced by grade separated junctions.

Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) was....surprise,surprise....disappointed the CBI didn't give evidence. He added his view that the Welsh Government ignored the environmental concerns and that any Newport bypass would have a knock-on impact on infrastructure projects in the rest of Wales – picking out improvements to the A55 and A40 in particular. Russell accused the Welsh Government of failing to look at Welsh transport infrastructure "in the round".

Former Environment Minister, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), said the Gwent Levels are unique, and that their importance and historical significance are "beyond doubt". Although he's now one of the more high profile opponents to the bypass, he said he didn't support the Blue Route either due to the possible air pollution and noise problems an urban expressway would cause. John would prefer "carrot and stick" public transport solutions.

He also raised the valid point that there's a new environment since the Scottish referendum, offering veiled criticism of the UK Government's caveat that early access to borrowing be dependent on funding a bypass.

In her response, the Minister for Economy & Transport, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said her letter addressed the Committee's concerns. She regretted not giving evidence in person, but the statutory decision-making process is "very strict" and she repeated her defence that she couldn't give evidence until after the consultation. She agreed with William Powell that this process may need "looking at".

She confirmed the Welsh Government have submitted their defence to Friends of the Earth Cymru's legal challenge and they're waiting for the court's decision. Edwina also confirmed that no detailed design work will be until after a full environmental impact assessment, and she expects more detailed financial information to be provided at any future public inquiry (which will take place in late 2016/early 2017).

Unsurprisingly, she said it would be inappropriate for her to comment further on other matters while these processes were ongoing.

Concluding the debate, Alun Ffred Jones said he was disappointed the government "always has a reason for not giving details or answering basic questions", and he was "none the wiser" after the Minister's response.

He said the Committee weren't opposed to finding a solution to the Newport problems; but it has to be the right decision after all reasonable options have been considered, and because it would have a knock-on impact to infrastructure spending. The Committee simply wanted to, "ask pertinent questions about the process and not discuss the merits of the routes".

He therefore upheld the Committee's recommendation that the Welsh Government should restart the consultation process with all of the route options included.

Total Eclipse of the Hart
The Black Route isn't quite a done deal yet.
(Pic : M4 Newport website/Me)

Some very large obstacles were placed in the way of the Environment Committee in the process of this inquiry.

Firstly, Edwina Hart and the CBI refusing to give evidence; secondly, Plaid Cymru's predetermined support for the Blue Route which threw everything off balance; and thirdly, the sudden/curt announcement from the Minister in July that the Black Route has been selected.

The Blue Route isn't quite dead yet, but you get the impression the Minister is doing her best to kill it off. It seems the only way you can get comprehensive responses from the Welsh Government nowadays is a Daily Mail headline.

Having said that, the media – maybe myself included – might have given the impression that the Black Route is (as Llyr Gruffydd pointed out) "a done deal". That's wrong. All that's happened is the principle of a complete M4 bypass of Newport that follows the black route has been agreed, but the design could change significantly between now and the start of construction, depending on the outcome of the further environmental reports and any future public inquiry.

The problems facing the Black Route continue to mount. I wouldn't at all be surprised if the environmental impact report will make grim reading and lead to serious questioning of the Welsh Government's supposed commitment to *groan* "sustainable development".

Secondly, there seems to be growing opposition amongst Labour backbenchers to the project – notably from John Griffiths and Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), who are two former ministers with responsibility for the environment. You can probably include Julie Morgan and Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) in there too, while Mick Antoniw has reservations by the sound of it.

Thirdly, as the South Wales Argus have covered, Newport Docks is going to have a whacking great big bridge built over it. I'd like to think that someone would've considered whether that proposal might have an impact on port operations. Newport Docks is Wales' most important cargo port and according to ITV Wales supports some 3,000 jobs.

Last but not least, as you might've noticed, the CBI were rightfully given a kicking from all quarters. When you consider they're often mouthing off to the press about the state of Wales, the fact they couldn't be bothered to give evidence on something they consider so vital - so important that it stands to become the single largest capital investment a Welsh Government will ever make - was nothing less than an insult to all of us. Up yours, Digby.

I certainly respect the work the Assembly's committees do, and it's not as if the CBI would ever consider snubbing a Westminster equivalent.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Building a better Wales from the bottom up

Leanne Wood's "Greenprint" idea has been developed further into
 wider reforms of how our communities and neighbourhoods tick.
(Pic : Rhondda Plaid Cymru)

Earlier this week, Plaid Cymru unveiled the latest in a series of discussion and policy papers, this time a comprehensive report (pdf), which was jointly launched by Plaid Cymru's Shadow Cabinet member for the Environment & Energy, Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) and Arfon MP, Hywel Williams.

It addresses, and provides an alternative to, the Future Generations Bill, parts of the Planning Bill and maybe even some aspects of the Williams Commission and "The Greenprint".

You could say it's Plaid Cymru's version of the "Big Society".

The Rationale

As regular readers will know, I'm not a fan of the word "sustainable" (in all its guises) and I'm going to do my best to avoid using it from here on in.

The broad aim of the policy paper is to draft new ways for our communities to work; but instead of being a top-down exercise where a central body or authority prescribes what communities should do, Plaid Cymru would much rather (in some aspects) it was the other way around, with communities taking more control over their own direction, whilst retaining a collective spirit – what Plaid have long called "decentralised socialism".

There are a number of challenges – depletion of resources & climate change, demographic change, increasing demand on public services. But there are also opportunities, like digital technologies, participatory democracy and a Basque-style collective economics, which can help meet these challenges in innovative ways.

The paper is split into three key themes : "empowering communities", alternative forms of investment and supporting infrastructure development.

The Community

Plaid advocate stronger community councils and
new forms of democratic participation.
(Pic : via

  • A National Community Development Programme (Connected Communities) which would be based off existing third sector infrastructure and help develop local social networks and co-ordinate local schemes.
  • A Strategy and Integration Unit within the Welsh Government, which would guide longer-term thinking across all government departments and would be directly responsible to the First Minister.
  • A Social Innovation Hub which would bring together people from different sectors and with different experiences to come up with innovative new ideas for public service delivery.
  • A review of at what level powers should reside in local government, including stronger community councils and the introduction of Single Transferable Vote (STV) in local elections.
  • A pilot of participatory democracy – starting with local budgets – and a digital government programme/Digital Wales fund which would encourage the use of new technologies to improve democratic engagement, promote open government and improve public service delivery (there's a related piece on this from the National Assembly blog covering the recent GovCampCymru 2014).

Communities actively supporting each other is a vital part of well-being.

These "active community" projects do work. Plaid give an example of a "time bank" in the Ely area of Cardiff (where people volunteer in exchange for time credits they can "spend" locally) which has made people feel better about themselves, enabled people to get to know each other better and given people the impression that they're actively improving their communities.

Plaid call for a shift in public sector thinking, where the public sector will work with communities instead of imposing decisions on them unilaterally, perhaps even ceding some control too.

This would require a review of what powers should reside where (something the Williams Commission largely looked over). But it would also mean changing how communities are governed, and Plaid propose a limited form of participatory democracy where decisions are made collectively instead of by representatives or officials.


Plaid would like to shift the focus of Communities First from
whole communities towards individual families.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

  • A Prevention Fund to ensure citizens don't go on to need more complicated and expensive public services.
  • Promotion of alternative forms of finance, and the creation of a Community Investment Fund to underwrite or match fund alternative investments.
  • Use public sector pension schemes to support long-term local investments (in particular housing), with a tax-relief scheme for social enterprises - if the powers are devolved (see : The Collective Entrepreneur).
  • A Welsh "Green Book" which will "put sustainable development at its core".
  • Legislative measures to improve the amount of domestic public procurement, with the aim of 75% of public contracts going to Welsh companies (currently 52%) (see : Public Procurement Reform & Plaid's "Plan C")
  • Shift the focus of the £40million Communities First programme from deprived areas to deprived families.

The second theme focused on investment in light of "shrinking public finances". Although the paper says there's a lot happening already, Plaid believe things can go further. Alternative forms of finance which were discussed include crowd-sourcing, community banking/community bonds, credit unions, social impact bonds and the third sector's Community Investment Fund.

They cite the specific example of the Llangattock hydroelectricity scheme where 100 investors raised £270,000 in a co-operative scheme to generate energy, with a return of between 5-8% per year.

Examples were also given of public sector pension schemes being used to invest in the local community. Islington Council invested £20million of its £800million pension fund in housing, while there are talks about pooling the pension funds across all of London's local authorities. The Welsh local government pension scheme controls around £9billion in assets, and Plaid believes this could be used in a similar way.

Most of the rest of the discussion was about financial incentives and alternative business models. The Basque co-operative conglomerate, Mondragon, are brought up again as a model worthy of consideration, while a co-operative investment fund is mooted as a way to tie existing co-ops together in Wales to eventually create something on the same scale.

There's backhanded praise for the Treasury's "Green Book", which is used to "provide guidance to UK Government departments on putting together a robust business case to support policy change". Plaid believe a Welsh equivalent, which would come with a Welsh Treasury, should take into account social and environmental costs and benefits.


Plaid Cymru would extend the number of developments that wouldn't require planning permission,
and would also like to see a simplified way for communities to financially benefit from developments.
(Pic :

  • Using the reformed/stronger community councils to guide the development of neighbourhood-level infrastructure.
  • Stronger standards on energy efficient and design, as well as mandatory Welsh language impact assessments for infrastructure projects.
  • Simply the planning process and extend permitted development rights (i.e. changes to homes that don't require planning permission).
  • Simplify Section 106 agreements so they're more transparent and create a new system of financial incentives/community benefit schemes.
  • Possible legislative measures to give community bodies a right to purchase disused buildings, probably part of a wider-reaching Infrastructure Bill.

Infrastructure development is often led from "the top", so it was a real challenge to come up with ways in which this could be managed from "the bottom-up". The priorities might be different. An example's given where a community with a lot of older people might prioritise things like public toilets and seating – at relatively low cost – to create "age-friendly neighbourhoods".

Housing was picked out for special focus. At the moment, new housing developments are guided by centralised population estimates, meaning large numbers of houses are often built wherever the land is available with little thought given to how those communities would be planned, or what impact such developments have on the people already living there – including the Welsh language. Survey findings showed that higher-quality developments often endure less opposition. In terms of affordability, I've long supported things like modular/pre-fabricated homes.

Bringing old buildings back into community use was one of the key tenets of the Greenprint, and it returns again. The paper cites an example of community members in Llan Ffestiniog who received assistance to reopen a local pub; while there are other, more high-profile, examples like the Saith Seren in Wrexham.

Bottoms up?

Unfortunately, Welsh politics is a bit tied up at the moment.

The announcement has been overshadowed somewhat, with the Welsh political establishment and media sent into fits of existential despair and near paralysis by an awe-inspiring trolling masterclass from the Daily Mail. The funniest thing about the whole event is that It's not even about the Welsh Government, it's about Ed Miliband.

Anyway, it's nice to be Mr Positive for a change, while the title is in no way a reference to last week's post.

I'm pleased to say this is firmly grounded on Planet Earth, and – once again – there's a lot to like and take from one of these papers. Keep 'em coming.

The biggest omission is detailed costings, and without that information this hits a very big brick wall. That information could easily be provided if Plaid are in a position in government to see this through though, which is perhaps a much harder task.

Another bump in the road could be psychology. People "coming together" is very "jolly hockey sticks", but introverted people like myself (who make up at least a third of the population) are unlikely to be as enthusiastic in the absence of an incentive.

For example, I often find people who try to pester or guilt me into doing something – on a wider level this includes (often self-appointed) "community leaders" and chuggers - incredibly annoying, patronising and draining. So traditional campaigning and community "call to arms" usually don't work with people like me.

Therefore, the widespread use and normalisation of things like "time banking" is critical, and hopefully that would be something Plaid's "Connected Communities" proposal would be able to oversee at a national level.

That's not to fault what's in it. In fact, I agree with most of it in principle and I can't think of much in there I disagree with. I've long supported direct democracy for example (Local Sovereignty II :The Community), and what Plaid propose is a good start – though I believe representative democracy is a hindrance at the lowest level.

They key to this is, as Plaid have said themselves, a "culture shift" in the Welsh public sector and I'd question if they (the public sector) are really brave enough to do some of the things recommended in this report.

Alright, it's not exactly a riveting read, and is so full of public sector buzzwords it makes me want to leave thesauruses around the Assembly estate like those little bibles. However, it's a damned side more intellectually honest than the Future Generations Bill, and the vision is significantly more coherent, practical and innovative.

....and I've only used "sustainable/sustainability" three times, one of which is a direct quote and the other two being myself complaining about it. It appears in the report around 92 times.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Human Rights on the Assembly Agenda

Earlier this week, the National Assembly debated the
high-minded issue of human rights in Wales.
(Pic : Amnesty International)

Human rights is an area that's strictly non-devolved, but the Welsh Government and Assembly have a duty to monitor it in relation to devolved areas (like access to health services or discrimination against minorities). There are also Cross-Party Groups on Human Rights and People Trafficking.

On Tuesday, the National Assembly debated the 2014 report (pdf) from the Equalities & Human Rights Commission in Wales (EHRC).

The report's broad findings were that :
  • Public sector equality duties are working well in Wales and have been "a catalyst for change".
  • Progress has been made on tackling domestic violence, religion in the workplace and mental health in the workplace - though more can be done.
  • More work has been carried out on the links between inequality and poverty.
  • The EHRC has provided evidence to the Welsh Government, in particular on the equalities impact of the budget, hate crime and women in public life.
  • The EHRC has also proposed strengthening its relationship with the Welsh Government which could lead to a permanent presence in Wales. They also submitted evidence to the Silk Commission, which proposed the National Assembly have further powers over human rights duties in relation to devolved areas and full legislative control over public sector equalities duties.

It's very rarely that the National Assembly debates something that could/should be considered the remit of an independent nation state, so it's worth covering for that alone.

Human Rights in the Assembly

Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) praised the work of the EHRC in Wales, which she says has proven to be "effective and successful" and the Welsh Government have a "positive and productive relationship" with the organisation. She says the EHRC's equalities network is "highly regarded by public sector equalities and human rights practitioners", and the government and Assembly can't overlook the links between inequalities and poverty.

Lesley said the Welsh Government support calls for the further devolution of equalities powers, and possibly beyond those recommended as part of the Silk Commission.

Mohammad Ashgar AM (Con, South Wales East), wanted to address one specific area – modern slavery. He highlighted recent legal cases of slave workers on Welsh farms, describing it as "the tip of the iceberg" and hoping the Assembly will support the Modern Slavery Bill. He also said forced marriages are often "undetected and unreported" in Wales.

Mohammad also raised the issue of female genital mutilation (aka. FGM – Life, Ethics & Independence III : Circumcision), and  65,000 girls and women in the UK are at risk of having the "procedure". He said it was an "appalling figure" and pleaded for something to be done on this during the Assembly term.

Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) said those who support human rights are "in a position of having to constantly defend that very concept", especially since the Conservative threat to withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). He defended the ECHR as providing security against miscarriages of justice, saying we now take many of the rights guaranteed under the convention for granted.

He also criticised the previous Labour UK Government's record on immigrants, where children were often interred alongside adults in secure units. Lindsay defended the ECHR's value, as it was there to "protect the vulnerable from the abuses of the state". He said he was proud that Wales was debating how to promote human rights and equality instead of whether governments should promote those things.

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) wanted to emphasise the link between poverty and educational attainment, which was the guiding principle behind his party's Pupil Deprivation Grant. He said pupils who receive free school meals were up to two and a half times less likely to get 5 GCSE grade A*-C than other pupils.

He joined Lindsay Whittle in condemning the proposal to withdraw from the European Convention, and cited an example where The Sun went to court after their privacy was infringed despite opposing the Human Rights Act. Peter suggested that those who oppose human rights legislation simply don't understand what's covered, pointing out what he described as "a number of factual inaccuracies" in the Conservative party proposal which were brought up by former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) said the Human Rights Act was a "jewel in the crown" of the last Labour Westminster administration. He said the threat of withdrawing from the convention was one of "the gravest threats to the reputation of the UK and its international standing". He accused the Conservatives of trying to bat off UKIP, saying, "You cannot cherry-pick with human rights" and that decisions will sometimes go for or against "us" (by which he means the UK, presumably) – citing two examples - the use of torture in Northern Ireland and thalidomide victims.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) focused on opportunities for women. She bemoaned the lack of progress, focusing on drops in women in senior positions in organisations like the NHS, fewer women council leaders and fewer women elected representatives. Julie did point out the gender balance of the Welsh Government as a positive and the fact that the Assembly has more women representatives than most other legislatures. She suggested that the Assembly consider different ways of working in "a fresh, radical way".

Former Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister, Jeff Cuthbert AM (Lab, Caerphilly), will have overseen many of the things covered in the report.

He raised an important point about community cohesion, which is especially important as it's been revealed over the last few months that Muslims from the Cardiff area have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS. He said the joint faith committee set up by the Welsh Government have a vital role to play here to "spread the message of peace, tolerance and co-existence".

In response to the issues raised in the debate, Lesley Griffiths said she welcomed the Modern Slavery Bill and said Wales was "way ahead of every country in the UK" on this. She said the proposed Gender-based Violence Bill covers FGM and in her previous role she wrote to school headteachers to raise this issue.

She said she will continue to have a proactive role in increasing representation of under-represented groups, including women, and highlighted a number of schemes and events aimed at doing just that.

Lesley described the Conservative's proposed withdrawal from the European Convention as a "huge backward step" and said the Welsh Government will do "everything in their power to challenge this" if the Conservatives are re-elected to office next May.

The Assembly approved an amended motion by 41 votes to 11 that :
  • Welcomed the Modern Slavery Bill.
  • Welcomed that forced marriage is now a criminal offence.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure schools have trained staff who can recognise signs of domestic abuse.
  • Calls for greater action from the Welsh Government to stop FGM.
  • Regrets the little progress that's been made in increasing women's representation in public life.
  • Believes continued membership of the European Convention on Human Rights is in Wales' interest, and welcomes the role it's played in "protecting and promoting equality".

Worth Fighting For

It might not be important in day-to-day matters, but issues like this could,
in the future, win the independence argument amongst the intelligentia.
....and it's being handed to nationalists on a plate by right-wing Unionists.
(Pic : The Telegraph)
Human rights, personal freedoms, privacy laws, the ECHR, foreign affairs, ISIS, gender equality....

As I said at the beginning, it's very rarely we have Assembly debates on so many "high end" issues that are, in the main, non-devolved and form the basis for democracy, our personal freedoms and liberties.

It's clear that the Welsh Government and National Assembly take their own responsibilities here very seriously (perhaps too seriously), and we now have things like a Human Trafficking Co-ordinator. The number of cases annually are, however, very small and there's a danger Wales is going to replicate that episode of The Simpsons with the "Bear Patrol".

"Human trafficking" has a stereotyped image of young women being shackled and brought here - from Eastern Europe and further afield - to be forced into prostitution and/or sexual slavery. That happens of course, but the growing problem is – as highlighted by the BBC earlier this week, and an ongoing court case in Wales –  men being trafficked and used as slave labour and/or trapped in indentured servitude.

On the issue of women's representation, I've brought that up before (How do you get more women into politics?). While there's a need for gender balance, as I said last time, quotas don't work. If I'm electing someone, or looking to appoint someone to a senior position, I want them to be the best possible candidate. That judgement should always be based on what they say and do, not what genitalia they have.

Women are disadvantaged here because of prevailing stereotypes and perceptions. Laws and quotas won't fix that, and might reinforce the perception and stereotypes that women can only achieve high office through tokenism and not their own qualities and strengths. Mentoring and building confidence so women come forward under their own steam is the best course of action here, and the Llywydd, Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West), has taken that on as a personal mission.

Another key area here was domestic violence. Relationship education was dropped from the Gender-based Violence Bill, but it should really be in there. It's unfortunate that the Welsh Government have caved to pressure from the Third Sector (as expected) to shift the emphasis wholly or mainly back to women, but as long as they don't completely gut the gender neutrality of the Bill itself there shouldn't be a problem.

Now for the grim bit, possibly prophetic.

Remember what I said when I brought up capital punishment last year. If the UK withdraws from the ECHR (I don't think it's likely, tbh), there's a real possibility that not long afterwards there'll be talk of a return of the death penalty in the UK.

It's always nice to see Conservative and Labour AMs continue to make such a strong case for Welsh independence.