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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Senedd Watch - November 2014

  • Former Labour peer, Joel Barnett - creator of the (controversial) Barnett Formula, which determines public expenditure levels in the devolved administrations – died age 91 on November 1st. He was described as an “extraordinary individual” who did “his best to ensure the best for the people of this country”.
  • Education Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), launched a campaign to raise awareness of changes to GCSEs and A-Levels in Wales, due to come into force from September 2015. Wales-only GCSEs – including the introduction of new GCSEs in English language and two new GCSEs in mathematics - have been criticised by independent schools as “lacking credibility”.
    • The Education Minister later told BBC Wales that teacher training in Wales was “chaotic”, and teachers need to “step up to the challenge” of changes to their professional development as a result of a critical OECD report into the Welsh education system.
  • A survey revealed that a quarter of Welsh workers (261,000) were being paid below the £7.85 per hour “living wage”. The Wales TUC said low pay “blighted” workers, while the CBI and UK Government supported the principle of a living wage, but not at the expense of job creation.
  • The First Minister told the National Assembly that a “veto” from the devolved nations on an exit from the European Union in a proposed 2017 referendum was “worth considering”. It comes as the incoming Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, suggested a referendum vote should produce the same result in all home nations to be valid – a call rejected by the UK Government.
  • A deal to sell the Murco oil refinery in Pembrokeshire to a Swiss company collapsed, resulting in a possible 400 job losses. Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said the Welsh Government “did everything we could to support....the deal”. Plaid Cymru's Jill Evans MEP called for the use of the EU's Globalisation Adjustment Fund to help workers.
    • On November 12th, the Minister announced a £3.5million package of support for Murco workers, and said dualling of the A40 road will be examined. A nearby refinery run by Valero also announced they would take on Murco apprentices.
  • A petition with almost 100,000 signatures calling for a cancer drugs fund – backed by the Welsh Conservatives - was presented to the National Assembly. The Welsh Government simultaneously announced changes to its policy on “orphan drugs” for rare diseases which will create a “fairer and more transparent” system for applying and receiving the drugs.
  • A Public Accounts Committee inquiry into Senior Management Pay recommended a more consistent approach to the issue, with a clear definition of what a senior post is and better publication of senior rates of pay in the Welsh public sector.
  • The First Minister launched a four-week consultation on new Welsh language standards for public bodies as a result of the Welsh Language Measure 2011. It comes as retailer Lidl were slammed for a policy of staff speaking in English only, resulting in criticism from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg and the Welsh Language Commissioner.
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats proposed a “recall” system for Assembly Members which will trigger a by-election if 20% of the electorate in a constituency (or each constituency in a region) sign a petition in favour of a recall and vote yes in a referendum. Leader, Kirsty Williams, said it would “give people proper powers to hold politicians to account.”
  • Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) launched an 8-week consultation on the future of Community Health Councils (CHCs), including proposals to strengthen their role and to enable them to hold local health boards to account properly – one of the main criticisms of the Trusted to Care report.
  • A complaint was made to the Wales Audit Office that land along the proposed Newport M4 bypass is owned by the Welsh Government, which could have influenced its decision to choose the controversial “Black Route”. Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), said it “gives the impression of a preemptive strike by the Welsh Government in order to lead conversation around which route to take”.
    • Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said £11million in preparatory spending on the M4 Newport bypass should be suspended, describing the project as a “£1billion blunder” and calling for more investment in road schemes across Wales. Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) called for investment in new trains instead of the bypass.
  • A report for the Public Policy Institute of Wales revealed that bus companies were making up to £22million profit from Welsh Government subsidies, despite services being withdrawn. The Welsh Government said they would introduce Quality Partnerships across Wales in 2015 and negotiate directly with bus operators for routes of “national significance”.
  • The £2.4million Ynni'r Fro community energy scheme was criticised as a “waste of money” after it was revealed just one of its 102 projects was generating energy. It's hoped 22 projects would be completed by March 2015. Consultants said it was too early to judge the success of the scheme as the requirement for various permissions was often bureaucratic.
  • Office for National Statistics figures showed that crime in Wales had risen by as much as 17% since 2010, mostly due to a rise in violent crimes. However, crime levels remain half those of 1995. The reliability of crime figures in EnglandandWales has been questioned by Westminster's Public Administration Select Committee.
  • The National Assembly's Communities & Local Government Committee recommended the Gender-related and Domestic Violence Bill required “significant” changes, including amendments to emphasise women victims and calls for further clarifications on funding.
  • The Children, Young People & Education Committee concluded that Bethan Jenkins AM's (Plaid, South Wales West) Financial Education & Inclusion Bill was “unnecessary”. They instead proposed the Welsh Government ensure financial literacy provisions are improved in schools. Bethan Jenkins withdrew the Bill on November 26th to work with the Welsh Government to improve existing and future financial education measures.
  • The First Minister told the National Assembly that the future of Cardiff Airport – purchased by the Welsh Government in 2013 – was dependent on long-haul flights. The Welsh Conservatives said there were “substantial negatives” at the airport. On 19th November, the Welsh Government announced a £3.5million package to attract new airlines, after the withdrawal of services from Germanwings.
  • The National Assembly approved a Welsh Liberal Democrat motion by 28 votes to 19 calling for a minister to be given responsibility for transgender affairs, and for the Welsh Government to formulate an action plan to tackle prejudice against the estimated 31,000 (sic) transgender people living in Wales.
  • A deal between the Welsh and UK Governments for rail electrification was agreed on November 21st. The UK Government agreed to fund electrification to Swansea by 2018 and provide £125million towards Valley Lines electrification, with the rest of the funding coming from reduced costs and increased revenues. The Welsh rail franchise will also be devolved.
  • A Business & Enterprise Committee inquiry into tourism recommended a number of measures including a better online presence for Visit Wales, full assessments of the impact of major events and a stronger “brand”. Committee Chair, William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East), said “more must be maximise Wales' huge tourism potential”.
  • Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), said the number of local authorities in Wales could be reduced to as few as six as he launched an independent review into local government spending. He said he expected local authorities to reduce spending on back room functions and focus on front line services. A deadline for expression of interest in voluntary mergers expired on November 28th, with only six authorities giving preferred partners.
    • Former Welsh Government economics adviser, Gerald Holtham, told BBC Wales that harmonisation of council tax rates will need to be considered before proposed council mergers. He proposed an indexed charge based on property prices which could save £20million in council tax benefit.
  • The Independent Remuneration Board for Assembly Members recommended an 18% (£10,000) rise in AMs salaries to £64,000 from 2016 to reflect new responsibilities and improve the calibre of candidates seeking election. Political parties gave a guarded reaction to the proposals, while public sector unions Unison and Unite called for AMs to reject the proposal.
  • The National Assembly approved a motion to create a special Assembly committee to look into the issue of physical punishment of children, and possible future legislative measures in the area. Plaid Cymru criticised the move, as they believe legislative measures could be taken immediately.
  • The National Assembly's Children & Young People's Committee inquiry into child and adolescent mental health severely criticised levels of funding, access to treatment and some aspects of treatment itself. Demand for the service has doubled since 2010, and the Health Minister is leading a “root and branch” review of the service.
  • The 2014 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD) was released on November 26th, showing that the St James's area of Caerphilly was now the most relatively deprived community of Wales. Communities and Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said the Welsh Government were “continuing to invest in our most disadvantaged communities to help improve people's life chances.”
  • A third of children do not receive free school breakfast through a Welsh Government scheme, with only 8 out of 10 schools offering them despite it being available to all schools. Shadow Education Minister, Angela Burns (Con, Carms W & S. Pembs.), said parents who could afford to do so should make a contribution to ensure free breakfasts were provided to all.
  • The Environment & Sustainability Committee Stage 1 report on the Future Generations Bill called for more clarity on its sustainable development goals and stated that duties placed on public bodies were too weak to have any effect. Committee Chair, Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), said that while there was support for the intent of the Bill, “significant improvements were needed in order for the Bill to have a meaningful impact”.

Projects announced in November include : £3.5million and £10million packages to improve training of GPs and primary care staff; the launch of the National Adoption Service; an extension of the North-South air link until 2018; £500million for the 21
st Century Schools programme via the non-profit distributing model, and a pilot for community cultural schemes in seven deprived areas.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Mental health services for young people criticised

Mental health services are often inadequate for adults, being described as a "Cinderella service", meaning it's often ignored by a cruel stepmother (aka. the government).

So what about younger people with mental illnesses?

The National Assembly's Children & Young People Committee recently published its report (pdf) on their long-running inquiry into Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), covering how these services are funded and resourced, regional variations, respect for children's rights and access to treatment.

In an unusual move, the Committee didn't make any recommendations as the Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), is carrying out a "root and branch review" (pdf) of CAMHS. Therefore the Committee believed it would be inappropriate to make recommendations until that review has finished, instead making observations.

The evidence was shocking.

The Welsh Government's Role

The Welsh Government have no fewer than seven policies and strategies on CAMHS, but a 2009 review said CAMHS were "putting children at risk". Since then, mental health policies have changed from child-specific to all-age, which the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said has "created an impetus for improvement" but CAMHS was now "seen as the Cinderella of the Cinderella service".

The out-going Childrens Commissioner, Keith Towler, said he was concerned about the removal of specific mental health strategies for children and young people, and this might "dilute regard to the intentions of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC)".

Previous reports have also slammed CAMHS as not offering standardised delivery, not undertaking proper risk assessments and poor caseload management.

The Health Minister said Local Health Boards (LHBs) have "made progress" on improving these services. In his own evidence, he said he was in contact with LHBs four times a year, and they often give him feedback on what improvements are being made. Other witnesses say that CAMHS has had a much keener focus on it over the past 12-18 months than it had previously.

The Committee were concerned that none of these reviews have led to any significant changes, that Welsh Government targets weren't clear enough, and also – understandably – had worries about the possible negative impact a removal of child-specific mental health policies would have.

Access to CAMHS

Demand for CAMHS has doubled in four years, and in some parts of Wales even more so.
(Pic : BBC)
Everything points to an increase in the cases of diagnosable mental illnesses amongst young people – leading to an under capacity in CAMHS - but the picture across Wales is unclear as there's little to no data collection. Also, there was regional variation in access to certain specialist services, in particular young offenders.

Demand for CAMHS has doubled (+100%) since 2010, from 1,204 referrals to 2,410 referrals, with the sharpest increases in the Aneurin Bevan LHB (Gwent), which increased by 241%.

So difficulties in accessing CAMHS were a running theme throughout the evidence received by the Committee, with many parents and patients saying they had a negative experience trying to get the help they need, which put serious strain on families.

Some parents say specialist referrals have been rejected "without explanation", and some GPs said rejections occurred without even seeing the patient. LHBs only started to collect data on refused referrals from November 2013, and the figures show that since then there've been 2,835 refusals, but because this didn't include Betsi Cadwaladr LHB (North Wales), it's said to be an underestimate.

Access to specialist CAMHS often requires a diagnosable mental illness, but many witnesses believe this ignores the needs of children who endure traumas and psychological abuse which aren't officially illnesses but can permanently affect mental health. This often means CAMHS is, as one witness described, being treated as an "accident and emergency service" where treatment is only offered for urgent cases.

Early intervention programmes are said to be "limited", despite the Mental Health Measure 2010, which placed a duty on local authorities and primary care to assess mental health needs. There were concerns though that too much of the money resulting from this legislation (around £3.5million) has gone towards adults instead of children and young people.

School counsellors were said to be important, but this often meant children with serious mental health problems were being referred to them, with their limited training, instead of specialist psychologists.

The Health Minister doesn't believe that the number of young people with mental illnesses has doubled, and says CAMHS needs to be put in the context of a specialist health service which deals with the most serious cases, not a general mental health service. He did, however, recognise the long waiting times, though he insisted that, "more children are being seen within the target times than at any other time".


Staff shortages and high staff turnover are factors said to put
strain  on families of young mental health patients.
(Pic :
The irony in all this is that mental health services (in general) are said to be the largest single area of expenditure in the Welsh NHS, with £617.5million spent in 2012-13.

It's fairly obvious where this money is going though. £82.75 per head is spent on adult mental health, £58.18 on the elderly and just £13.94 for CAMHS.

Unsurprisingly, this low level of funding raised concerns, though LHBs wanted more clarification on how much they should spend on CAMHS as specific services aren't ring-fenced. These financial problems even filter through into local authorities, where Rhondda Cynon Taf Council complained about cuts to social work budgets "eroding" the social work side of CAMHS.

Shortage of staff and high staff turnover was highlighted by parents, as this puts more pressure on them and carers, meaning patients often can't build a relationship with staff.

It's said there are 9.9 full-time equivalent CAMHS staff per 100,000 population, compared to 15.9 for adult mental health. The recommendation of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) is between 19.3 and 23.4 staff – excluding young offending and substance misuse work.

The Health Minister said mental health problems facing adults and the elderly are "more enduring" and often need closer attention and (sometimes) higher security, while he described the RCP's guideline staffing levels as "aspirational".

Delivery & Structure of Services

Despite investment in the likes of Bridgend's Ty Llidiard, in-patient CAMHS services are still
seen as inadequate, and the clinic-based nature of CAMHS was criticised by patients.
(Pic : NHS Wales)
The Committee say the evidence they received points towards there needing to be a more consistent service across Wales, especially to bridge the gap between rural and urban areas.

Current CAMHS are said to be limited by 9-5 services offered by clinics, which is said doesn't suit the needs of the most vulnerable and complex cases who need round the clock or out of hours services. Basing services in clinics also reduces access in rural areas where there's strict timekeeping for appointments and longer distances to travel.

Patients themselves said clinic-based services weren't meeting their needs, but they praised some of the voluntary sector programmes and courses. Unfortunately, these projects are dependent on sketchy sources of funding and often close with short notice.

Due to the clinic-based provision, urgent CAMHS cases are often sent to hospital accident and emergency departments as "a default setting" – usually, it's said, as a result of self-harm or substance abuse. This often meant children were admitted onto adult mental health wards, or children being discharged too early without proper follow-up support. Some patients even said that attempting suicide didn't meet the threshold to qualify for CAMHS services.

As a result of in-patient bed shortages, many CAMHS patients are being sent out of area, which is a pretty expensive option, with the practice criticised by the Auditor General in 2013. This led some patients to believe they were being "institutionalised" or "kept away". Despite investment in new in-patient facilities – like Ty Llidiard in Bridgend – these often fail to meet demand.

There were extreme concerns about transfer from CAMHS to adult mental health services, with some patients effectively "dropping out" of the system instead of making a smooth transition. Patients and their families effectively have to start from scratch.

In terms of treatments, access to psychological therapy is said to be increasingly limited, while some clinical psychologists criticised the widespread use of medication (without being used alongside other therapies/strategies) as an "easy option". One even said that in 20 years time we could be looking back on it as a scandal.

The Health Minister and his officials said operating hours of community mental health teams are being extended to be increasingly available at weekends and nights, and the Minister said community-based treatment will reduce admission rates and allow services to be delivered flexibly. They also said an extra £650,000 was found to enable current mental health staff to deliver psychological therapies.

A(nother) hidden national disgrace?

While many people – including myself, it has to be said – are preoccupied by things like the ambulance service and hospital reorganisation, this has gone under the radar as a hidden national disgrace.

I suppose in many ways, this post – easily the most important of the three blogs this week, but will probably get a fraction of the interest – feeds into the other two.

Firstly, I'm surprised the reaction to this report hasn't been stronger because it really puts the outcry over AMs pay into some much needed perspective. Secondly, the poor services offered some of our most vulnerable young people – especially when compared to the elderly - underlines an argument in favour of them being able to vote, as this is yet another policy area where they're perhaps getting shafted.

If there's a single thing out of all the evidence that worried me most of all it's children being admitted onto adult wards. That must be terrifying for them, especially if they have a history of abuse and/or if the adults need constant care or heightened security.

I'm sure it's very different in reality, but the way the Health Minister has been quoted in the report makes him sound flippant in the face of such glaring failures. So in many ways I'm disappointed the Committee chose not to make any concrete recommendations because their input, based on the evidence they've received, might've helped in the review process.

I can't really add anymore. The evidence is enough to make you depressed by itself.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The £64,000 Question

I wouldn't ask the audience if I were you....

You probably know full well I don't like these sorts of stories, but I have to cover it as there are serious implications.

As you're probably more than aware, the Independent Remuneration Board for the National Assembly has controversially recommended that Assembly Members' annual salary should rise by 18% (just under £10,000) to £64,000 from 2016. More from National Left, BBC Wales, Western Mail, South Wales Argus, Borthlas and Click on Wales....pretty much every major outlet in Wales has had its say, as well as the public.

The Board's recommendations (pdf) are out for consultation until January 12th, so I suggest if you feel strongly about it you make your feelings known.

The reasoning for the proposal is underpinned by a Bangor University report from July 2014 (pdf), the conclusions of which being very similar to those of the Hansard Society back in 2013 (Lifestyles of the dull and half famous), citing numerous grumbles of AMs, such as a poor work-life balance (in particular childcare), problems with media scrutiny and public perceptions of the Assembly (this helps!), and higher levels of legislative work since the 2011 referendum.

Add to this long-standing complaints about the calibre of Assembly candidates and sitting members, and it feeds into the proposal for a pay increase to properly reflect the stature and changing nature of the job.

The Board itself is made up of some eminent people, while politics isn't everyone's favourite profession even at the best of times. So it's unlikely any recommendations – except a pay cut or pay freeze (AMs have been on a voluntary pay freeze this term) – would've generated good press anyway.

I realise this has been timed so the proposals can be sorted out well in advance of the Fifth Assembly, but to propose this now, during austerity, is inflammatory and borders on idiotic, proving once and for all that even some of the cleverest people lack common sense.

Starting with the proposals in detail, it's worth looking at the raw pay levels themselves. I'd say current salaries (~£54,000 per year) "feel" about right.

An AM earns just over twice the median Welsh salary and still – even before this proposal – will be amongst the top 5% of earners, ranking ahead of senior hospital registrars, for example.

It is a very fast-paced job, and can be stressful with long hours. So - together with expenses, pensions and relocation allowances etc – it's a fair deal for them and the public. The pay structure didn't need fixing; that's the first big mistake made here.

We've had those who've been refreshingly honest – like Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales), who deserves credit for explaining why a pay rise might be appropriate, citing her experiences as a single parent and the difficulties that causes someone in politics.

But surely childcare issues should be dealt with via the expenses system? There's no need for all AMs get a pay bump when not all of them will have dependent children.

As for the rest of them, we're now going to get a hair shirt parade where individual AMs or whole parties will try and out-do each other in denouncing this affront to public sensibilities. It's patronising and insincere, as it's not as if AMs are living like Zen monks at the moment. If it were any other job, they would be jumping around the living room and eyeing up a new car or expensive holiday (subject to re-election).

Next there's the changing nature of the job itself. The workload has noticeably increased since the 2011 referendum, but I'm not convinced it's dramatic enough to justify a pay hike of this magnitude. Bills are much trickier to work with and require finer scrutiny than Measures and LCOs but the process is still very similar to the Third Assembly.

My worry is AMs (and the wider Welsh political class) have a massive inferiority complex with regard MPs (perhaps MSPs too), and are desperate – perhaps too desperate – to be taken more seriously on the wider UK stage at the expense of their current devolved roles. They think that to do that they have to emulate Westminster in every way, including pay.

Also, believing paying politicians more will attract higher quality candidates is bizarre logic. It's the "peanuts and monkeys" argument that's been demolished by the goings on in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. The last thing we need is more lawyers, ex-civil servants, teachers and accountants in the Assembly, attracted by similar salaries. That's what we have at present.

If we're going to sit down and say that in order to attract the best candidates to the National Assembly you have to dangle a golden carrot in front of them, we might as well pack up now.

It works in some professions, but most professions are looking for specific skills and can match individuals to those roles. The quality of AMs is ultimately down to political parties, and they can't improve the calibre of AMs by chucking money at the problem.

Party members choose candidates, and they make bad choices. That's the elephant in the room, recently touched on by the IWA – political parties in Wales are dying, increasingly leaving them with ideologues (out of touch with reality), careerists (carpetbaggers) and stalwarts (a bit thick, sees the party as a social club and does what they're told).

Imagine your typical constituency branch lining up two candidates for a seat. One is a "party stalwart", the other is parachuted in from academia or the private sector and was begged to stand by party HQ on the promise of a similar salary. Guess who the several dozen aging party members and mates of the stalwart are going to choose?

That's how it works. All this proposal means is we end up with the same quality of candidates being paid more (if elected) for the same standard of work.

This is a very nasty early Christmas present for AMs - a Yule log made of poo - and one of those occasions where they're damned if they do, damned if they don't (though, it's worth reiterating, they have to accept the proposals and get elected/re-elected first). And even though they've had nothing to do with this, it's likely to become an election issue in 2016.

If they accept the recommendations, then they get a massive pay rise and wouldn't be able to look the public in the face the next time they talk about cuts.

Even if they did the whole good PR thing of giving the difference between what they currently earn and the new salary to charity, the damage would be done and might be irreparable. The Fifth Assembly will start under a very dark cloud.

Meanwhile, if they reject the recommendations, then you have to wonder what's the point of establishing an independent panel to decide these things - and going through all this effort - if AMs are set on rejecting its recommendations from the start?

It renders the independent assessment of pay and expenses – which was hailed as a positive difference between Cardiff Bay and Westminster since the expenses scandal – a complete sham. You might as well hand control over pay and expenses to the public, and if that happened, I hope AMs have a warm sleeping bag and enjoy Pot Noodles.

Objectively, they should just take the money and do whatever spiritual cleansing they need to do come 2016. Subjectively, they should have their pay cut in real terms or frozen.

There are people in the Assembly who are worth a pay rise - not the AMs, and not senior officials either. You have to go into the bowels of the Assembly to find them, and I'm willing to bet most of the public don't even know they exist.

I'm talking, of course, about AM support staff (AMSS), who often do the grunt work (for little credit) and are seriously undervalued and poorly paid considering the work they've been lumbered with since the 2011 referendum (which is often criminally overlooked in this discussion).

None of you believe AMs write speeches, deal with the minutiae of casework, do research and draft press releases themselves, do you? There's a whole army of "little people" to do that, who don't have expenses, get paid (at most) two-fifths what AMs do yet still have to deal with the public and anything else demanded of them....

....and I'm not just saying that because I know this blog is significantly more popular with AMSS than Assembly Members, but because this blog means I have a partial idea what their job is like and therefore more sympathy for them.

What AMSS should do if these recommendations are approved is strike for better pay, because if you're one of those people who think the standard of work from AMs is bad now, I shudder to think what you'll make of it without their support staff.

Then we might have a discussion about who really deserves a pay rise.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The X-Factor

Since the Scottish referendum allowed 16 and 17 year olds to vote (an age group which includes most Year 11s, FE college students and sixth formers), discussion has ramped up in earnest about extending the franchise to this age group permanently.

Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) launched her own drive on behalf of the Assembly Commission to find out what teenagers think – though it's worth pointing out that she herself supports lowering the voting age.

During the referendum campaign, around 109,000 Scottish 16-17 year olds registered to vote.

Turnout was high across the board and unlike anything we've seen in living memory. It's fairly obvious that because this was such a serious decision on the fate of an entire country reduced to a simple dichotomy of "yes" or "no", turnout was always going to be much higher than it would've been had it been a multi-option referendum or an ordinary election.

In general, under-35s are significantly less likely to vote in ordinary elections than other age groups. According to the BBC, in the 2013 local elections in England, turnout amongst 18-35 year olds was just 32%, compared to 72% for over-65s.

The Arguments For

Under-18s are amongst those most affected by key government policies and legislation,
so surely they should have an influence on deciding who makes those decisions?
(Pic : National Assembly Flickr)
The one most keenly trotted out is that 16 year olds can have sex, pay taxes, get married and can join the armed forces – some even start families - but they can't vote. Within the last century children were leaving school at 14 and working down mines, so surely they'll be mature enough to handle the responsibility of putting an X on a bit of paper. The "maturity" argument against is a bit strange as it's not as if large swathes of the public actually pay attention to, and understand, policies and manifestos, is it?

Specific to Wales, giving 16-17 year olds more say on public policy and public services (by being able to vote) might force policy-makers to take into account the impact of their decisions on the young. Education policies, for example, are almost always formulated from the viewpoint of industry and teachers, and rarely what learners want. The reason young people aren't listened to is because they don't vote, while pensioners – who do very, very well out of politicians – turn out in droves and actually hold politics in some esteem.

There's been a lot of discussion on financial education and physical literacy, so what about civics?

Lowering the voting age could have a positive impact on political education/discussions in schools. I often had to discuss things like that with interested friends and look up topics under my own steam. This often meant I ended up with very kooky ideas (no, not independence) that were never challenged – but that means now that I've matured a bit I can see a bad idea or policy from a mile off. If everyone received a proper political education at a younger age, we could have a electorate that can put controversial topics like immigration in a proper context and develop keen BS detectors.

* Wavy Lines *

Back in 2001, just before the Westminster election, one of the history teachers organised the Bridgend candidates, and the sitting Labour MP, Win Griffiths, to speak to a group of us who were free at the time. The Conservative candidate was from London, the Plaid Cymru candidate was originally from New York and the Lib Dem candidate was a very nice old lady from Porthcawl. Someone was also standing for the Pro-Life Alliance but she didn't turn up.

After they said their bit and left, we were asked who we would vote for if we could. I would say that more than half of the hands that did go up, went up for the Plaid candidate (I'm not joking, and I presume it was partly for the novelty of having an American talk to us, party because more popular members of the year went that way). I opted for the Lib Dem (despite being a self-proclaimed Marxist) along with someone else. And I think two people put their hands up for the Tory and Labour.

The second largest vote was for "None of the Above", and those that did so were given a lecture about people dying for our right to vote etc.

Win Griffiths was re-elected at a canter, while turnout fell 12%. "None of the Above" were clearly in the ascendancy.

* Wavy Lines *

That's the closest thing I received to a political education throughout school.

I'm willing to bet if you asked the same group of people the same question now that we've turned 30-31, the largest group will be "None of the Above" (and nobody would dare lecture them about people dying for the vote), more would support Labour and the Conservatives just for the sake of giving an answer or because of their jobs, two or three would say UKIP, I would probably be the only person backing the Plaid Cymru candidate and nobody would consider the Lib Dems (or wouldn't in public).

That doesn't really tell you anything other than political opinions change over time, and we probably have an entire generation who don't have strong political opinions either way. You could even say that Millennials/Generation Y are becoming "post-political" (I'll have more on this soon).

Votes at 16 might turn things around at a point in a person's life when it's most needed.

Perhaps the most important argument in favour is that it would get young people in the habit of voting in order to combat low election turnouts. I'm not convinced we'll see Scottish referendum turnout levels ever again – any Welsh referendum on income tax powers would be an absolute dud compared to that; even I'm not interested. Unfortunately, the cynicism of younger generations is going to lead to really, really low turnouts as we get older because we've never really engaged in politics and politicians have never really engaged with us.

The Arguments Against

So we're thinking of giving people who aren't deemed old enough to
buy pornography or drive a train the right to help choose the government?
(Pic : via Wikipedia)
You can flip the "16-year-olds can...." argument on its head very easily. 16 year olds might well be able to marry or join the armed forces but they can't do so without parental consent; and in the case of the latter they wouldn't be put in active service, just serve an apprenticeship until they turn 18.

You can't learn to drive until you're 17, and you can't buy alcohol, fireworks or tobacco – or (ironically) stand for election - until you're 18 (and I don't think anyone's seriously suggesting 16 year olds stand for election but, logically-speaking, why not?). Additionally, you can't learn to drive a HGV, bus or train until you're 21 (Independence Minutiae: Legal Ages).

There might even be an argument in there somewhere for raising the voting age, as the brain doesn't develop to the level necessary for fully rational decision-making until age 25. If we deny 16 year olds access to these very fundamental civic responsibilities and rights, why should we give them the power to direct the decision-making of the whole country? We could end up with 16 year olds being able to vote on defence and foreign policies, but not being able to (legally) buy a porn or horror DVD.

And everybody pays tax. Everybody. It's a poor argument to base whether someone should vote on. 7 year olds pay tax (VAT) when they've saved up pocket and birthday money to buy a new toy. So when people say "pay tax", what they're really saying is "pay income tax". Well, many adult low earners don't pay any income tax but they can certainly vote. Rich people who do their best to avoid income tax can buy an election too.

Giving 16-17 year olds the vote might put the future of youth parliamentary organisations at risk. It could be seen as unfair if this age group are fully enfranchised, and on top of that have dedicated parliamentary organisations working for their interests. Parliamentary organisations, and advocates like the Childrens Commissioner, often have far more influence on government decisions than voting ever does.

Votes at 16 is still an arbitrary cut off point too. As someone born in August, I would've found it grating if most of my classmates had a right to vote but I had to wait simply because I'm a few months younger than they are – something that absolutely dogged me throughout my school life.

Giving younger teenagers the vote wouldn't necessarily make them any more interested in politics, and might even have the opposite effect.

Imagine if all these 16-17 year olds voted, and quickly realised "every vote counts" is a load of rubbish. Their vote is actually only one sixty thousandth of a voice in their local constituencies. They'll read all the literature, actively campaign and discuss it all they want, but then they go out and see their favoured candidate fail hard and a donkey get elected by 35% of those who voted, while some party grandee becomes a Lord without an election at all.

Sweet Sixteen?

I'd say I'm in favour mainly because too many big decisions that directly affect 16-17 year olds have been taken on their behalf without their input in the past (notably tuition fees), and it would boost political education in schools. Those things should really outweigh the arguments against.

That's pretty much it, though. It's not a fundamental right that's been cruelly denied. I don't believe it'll do much to drive up voter turnouts either, and I don't see 16-17 year olds becoming any more interested in the Assembly or local politics than they are now.

They'll be more likely to vote on The X-Factor – along with many, many adults. That's the real challenge facing politics, not gimmicks like this.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Assembly gives Wales mixed Tripadvisor review

On Thursday, the National Assembly's Business & Enterprise Committee launched its wide-ranging  report into the tourism industry (pdf).

The Committee and Assembly staff undertook a series of away days over the summer, visiting new and established tourism businesses to collate their views. This ranged from the Llechwedd Slate Caverns in Gwynedd, to the National Museum in Cardiff.

The Committee made 28 recommendations, summarised as :
  • The Welsh Government should create a stronger tourism brand, coordinating their efforts across relevant government departments (like culture), and doing more to promote Wales' unique selling points.
  • Visit Wales should do more to involve tourism businesses in their marketing programmes.
  • The Welsh Government should "maximise the tourism impact of major events", including :
    • an economic impact assessment of the Newport NATO summit
    • a similar assessment for events surrounding the Dylan Thomas centenary
    • an explanation as to how they intend to continue the work of the (disbanded) Wales Music Foundation following WOMEX 2013
  • The Welsh Government should develop targeted strategies for tourism sectors with significant growth potential.
  • Improving the online presence of Visit Wales, and continuing to work to improve access to high-speed broadband.
  • The Welsh Government should work with Visit Britain to improve Visit Britain's promotion of Wales, and set Visit Britain targets to increase the number of visits to Wales.
  • The Welsh Government should provided details of its £20million "total funding" for tourism so the tourism industry can have a better idea of how it compares to the rest of the UK. EU funding opportunities for tourism should also be maximised.
Because the remit of the inquiry was so broad, by Assembly standards this was a long report, so I'm afraid this is going to be a long post as a result.

Tourism Policy & Funding

Whether in the Senedd chamber or up a mountain, you can
guarantee William Graham will be well turned out.
(Pic : National Assembly Flickr)

Tourism is currently worth £6.9billion to the Welsh economy (13.2% of gross value added), supports some 209,000 jobs (making it Wales' third largest employer) and since 2005 it's the fastest-growing sector in Wales. In 2013, the Welsh Government set a target of tourism growing by 10% by 2020, and the Committee say they're well on the way to reaching that goal.

For 2014-15 the Welsh Government set aside £12.8million for tourism marketing, and they've also drawn down £36million in EU funding as part of the Environment for Growth (E4G) scheme. There's also a Tourism Investment Support Scheme (TISS) which provides grants and repayable loans for upgrades to facilities.

Contact between tourism businesses and the Welsh Government used to be via four regional tourism partnerships. However, back in April 2014, Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) announced all Welsh Government support for the partnerships would cease, with the responsibility passing to specialist teams within Visit Wales.

Businesses gave a mixed response to the closure of regional tourism partnerships, with concerns raised that some areas might lose out or lose local expertise, but others believing the partnerships duplicated work.Many respondents were concerned about lack of financial resources to promote tourism, with the Association of Self Catering Accommodation believing current levels of expenditure don't reflect tourism's place in the economy, suggesting marketing budgets need to be closer to £50million. It's said experience has shown them that Wales needs to market first-time tourists (which is often more expensive), as these tend to return.

Others believed Visit Wales were doing a good job with the resources they have, but Westminster spending on tourism elsewhere in the UK made it hard for them to compete.

Deputy Minister for Tourism, Culture & Sport, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), said the Welsh Government's total spending on tourism was £20million, with a marketing budget of around £8million. The lack of details made it hard to compare this with figures from around the UK.

E4G funding has been used for six projects, including the Wales Coastal Path and Valleys Regional Park. Wildlife Trust Wales were critical that EU funds weren't used to enhance biodiversity ("natural capital"), which other EU member states – like the Czech Republic and Greece have done (this becomes relevant later on).

The Committee recommended - following comments from the Arts Council of Wales - tailored EU support for the tourism sector similar to that provided by the Welsh Government's Media Antenna (Does Wales make the most of EU opportunities?).

The Performance of Visit Wales & Visit Britain

Visit Wales' website has been criticised for being too slow to update,
while some businesses are unclear what Visit Wales does.
(Pic :
Visit Wales is the Welsh Government branch with responsibility of tourism promotion. Formerly known as the Wales Tourist Board, its functions were taken on by the Welsh Government as part of the 2006 "Bonfire of the Quangos".

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) say it's currently very hard to determine how well Visit Wales are performing due to a lack of published information – they don't even produce an annual report. Visit Wales' budget isn't reported by the Welsh Government either.

Other witnesses believe there was a "lack of clarity" over what Visit Wales does, though Ken Skates argued that specific tourism actions are on the Welsh Government's website for anyone to see.

Visit Wales' website itself was criticised as hard to navigate and slow to update its business information. Cardiff Metropolitan University's Prof. Annette Pritchard was upfront and described it as "very poor in terms of information."

Visit Britain is the pan-UK tourism quango, funded by the UK's Department for Media, Culture & Sport. Its relationship with Visit Wales is described as "close" and Ken Skates said it's "strengthened significantly in recent times". Visit Wales will soon have a marketing manager seconded to Visit Britain's team in London.

Visit Britain's GREAT campaign is reported to have resulted in a three-fold increase in overnight stays in Wales amongst those influenced by the campaign, however there were complaints that GREAT was too focused on London and South East England. Prof. Pritchard said Visit Britain's priorities changed, becoming more about boosting visits to London at the expense of the rest of the UK instead of previously trying to get people out of London.

In terms of Visit Britain's wider impact on Welsh tourism, people visiting or seeing their campaigns were twice as likely to spend money in Wales, twice as likely to visit Wales and generated around 1,300 press articles during April-September 2013. But international promotion of Wales via Visit Britain was described as "problematic", with Wales "totally absent from Visit Britain's digital content".

Marketing Wales

Prof. Pritchard said the Welsh tourism brand was at a "tipping point" requiring "greater clarity and consumer and media resonance". Some witnesses even went as far as saying the Welsh tourist brand was "non-existent". The FSB were also unconvinced that smaller tourism businesses were engaging with current tourism branding.

The Ashton Group undertook a review of "Brand Wales" for the Welsh Government between 2012-2014, but it seems hardly anybody has seen the results of the final report. Edwina Hart said the report led to immediate changes; but the then Minister for Culture & Sport, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), said he wasn't even aware the review was taking place.

Some tourism businesses criticised the recent £4million Visit Wales advertising campaign (TV ad above), as it didn't promote Wales' unique selling points, but instead a "bland sameness". Some were also disappointed with the lack of engagement from Visit Wales, and the fact only one attraction from north Wales featured.

Others were complimentary, saying it was "setting the right tone", while Prof. Pritchard said it was helping to promote a distinctive Celtic heritage.

Welsh Tourist Assets

Castles and heritage sites are clearly very popular with international tourists.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
According to a 2013 visitors' survey, the main reasons for visits to Wales are :
  • to enjoy the landscape.
  • to visit historical sites and/or specific attractions.
  • to take part in outdoor activities.
Going on a tour of Welsh castles was listed as a "dream activity", while National Parks and the coast were also popular amongst international tourists.

It's felt – from Prof. Pritchard and the FSB - that more had to be done to sell Wales' uniqueness, which includes the Welsh language, industrial heritage and historical sites. Unfortunately, "cultural tourism" is usually associated with cities, and Cardiff isn't considered a "cultural destination" (yet).

Heritage tourism is an area of focus at the moment having received a £19million boost from the Welsh Government between 2009-2015 – overseen by Cadw. Six key heritage sites – Blaenavon Ironworks, Caerphilly, Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech castles and St David's Palace – were said to each generate £6.95million for local economies.

St Fagans museum is also undergoing a £25million redevelopment, which is hoped will boost visitor numbers from 600,000 to 850,000 a year by 2021.

Major Events

Gold tourism has been boosted by the 2010 Ryder Cup and
the 2014 Senior Open Championship in Porthcawl.
(Pic :

Wales is said to be developing a niche for both internationally-recognised events and "quirky events" like the Bog Snorkelling Championships. Prof. Pritchard did say, however, that these events weren't filtering through to the Wales "brand".

There was praise for the Major Events Unit – set up by the previous Welsh Government – and Ken Skates said the Welsh Government have made "big strides in building Wales' position in the global events industry". Golf tourism has increased following the 2010 Ryder Cup and Senior Open Championship in Porthcawl this year, the value of which rising by 14% between 2012 and 2013.

However, the situation regarding WOMEX 2013 was picked out for special attention. Despite bringing £3million into the economy, the Wales Music Foundation – which helped to host the event – was disbanded when Welsh Government funding ceased. The Committee were worried the momentum for hosting similar cultural events may have been lost.

Prof. Pritchard was sceptical about the benefits of the NATO summit, saying (before the summit was hosted) that there needed to be a "real Welsh presence....otherwise the media just moves the next place". Ken Skates argued the summit provided a platform for Wales, and Barack Obama's comments would encourage Americans to visit Wales (this isn't 2008, Ken).

Maximising Tourism's Value

Poor international connectivity has - yet again - been flagged up as
something seriously holding back the Welsh economy.
(Pic :
In 2013, Wales accounted for 6% of UK tourism spending but just 2.5% of international spending. In terms of total spending within Wales, almost 90% comes from visitors from the rest of the UK. The harsh fact is the number of overseas tourists has declined for five years – though this has happened in all parts of the UK except London. Respondents therefore agreed that domestic tourism should be the focus as that's our "core market".

In terms of the economy, tourism makes up a larger proportion of Welsh domestic productivity compared to the rest of the UK. To meet the aforementioned Welsh Government targets by 2020, tourism visits have to increase by 1.4% a year – described simultaneously as ambitious, not ambitious enough and in the right ballpark depending on the witness - so it's hard to determine whether the target fits or not.

The FSB underlined the importance of training people to work in the tourism industry, while Llechwedd Slate Caverns said many young people were reluctant to work in tourism as it was associated with seasonal work and limited career prospects.

Several areas were picked out for growth :
  • Nature-based tourism – This is described as "an untapped market" in Wales. Scotland is currently top when it comes to wildlife tourism, but Wildlife Trust Wales said people were currently "unaware of the wildlife wonders Wales offers". To grow this sector it's said investment is needed to improve the whole tourist experience (hence the comment about EU funding earlier).
  • Cruise ships – Again described as "largely untapped", with the Celtic Sea "providing a significant tourism opportunity to Wales" in an area dominated by the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Baltic seas.
  • Activity holidays – This presumably includes things like fishing, hiking, mountaineering and mountain biking. Conwy Council said more more needed to be done to promote "the adrenaline side of the outdoors". Llechwedd Slate Caverns said fishing was worth £150million to the Welsh economy, but doesn't feature on tourism marketing.
  • Faith-based tourism – Churches, monasteries and cathedrals draw tourists, but it wasn't believed it was receiving the support it deserves.

In terms of barriers to tourism growth, two areas were picked out :
  • Transport and connectivity – There were calls for "smooth transportation" to get people out of London. Cardiff Airport was singled out for improvement by witnesses, as well as improvements to internal connectivity, while it's said more needs to be done to promote connectivity between north Wales and Manchester Airport. Signposting (literally meaning those brown and white road signs) was also picked out as an under-reported issue in tourism, as the process to get a brown sign was often bureaucratic.
  • Mobile & broadband signals – This doesn't just affect tourists, obviously. Some businesses went as far as spending £20,000 on leased lines to improve broadband connectivity. WiFi and mobile phone networks continue to be unreliable, and it's often the areas strongest for tourism which were weakest for signals. The Welsh Government are rolling out the Superfast Cymru scheme, and Ken Skates said he expects up to 98% of the population to have access to 4G by the end of the decade.

Tourism : Is it really the future?

Attractions like Bounce Below at Llechwedd Slate Caverns are innovative,
but is tourism enough to build an economy in the long-term?
(Pic : National Assembly Flickr)
Many of the conclusions in this inquiry are very similar to previous inquiries : a weak "Brand Wales", lack of co-ordination between Welsh Government departments, poor infrastructure, not being well-served by pan-UK organisations and, yet again, some curt (perhaps unpopular) decision-making by Edwina Hart.

All these things are becoming running themes and trends to the point that if you bundle the committee inquiries together, it should be more obvious what the problems are in terms of delivering the Welsh Government's economic policies. You can probably boil everything down to communication problems - both from/within the Welsh Government and between Welsh Government and industry generally.

The Committee's recommendations seem to be common sense though, and it's clear that while Wales could be doing significantly better here we're not doing too badly either. So why are there still doubts in my mind as to whether tourism is a good thing to underpin our economy?

Firstly, the jobs really are seasonal and sometimes over-reliant on our unreliable climate. A good summer's results can be wiped out by a bad one.

Secondly, you can reach Wales in hours from the rest of the UK, so it's overseas tourists who are – logically – the big spenders on a per head basis. Limiting tourism promotion to just the UK, even if it's the core market, seems slightly self-defeating.

My other concern would be the lack of quality destinations in Wales and the lack of high quality accommodation. Having loads of two and three-star bed and breakfasts and seaside hotels is all well and good, but we need the four and five star hotels and resorts too.

A five star mountain bike resort would be something that would work to Wales' strengths, and although there were/are plans for something like that in the Afan Valley it never came to pass. Likewise, there are other blind spots in Wales, like the lack of major theme parks (Oakwood is tiddly compared to Alton Towers et al.), zoos/wildlife parks, Michelin-starred restaurants and big indoor leisure facilities (like aqua parks).

So there are huge challenges to overcome if tourism is going to seriously challenge the likes of manufacturing and financial services in terms of economic importance and long-term growth. Despite tourism's importance, Wales has to have "something else" on top, and we can't fall into the trap of putting more eggs in fewer baskets and, at some point down the line, creating 21st Century Rhyls.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Total Recall

If people darken my door demanding my signature because an AM has broken
wind in a child's face or double parked, I might decide to get my ass to Mars.
(Pic :
During a lecture held by the Electoral Reform Society Wales earlier this week, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), proposed a new policy which would allow the public to force a by-election in the National Assembly, or force a regional list AM to stand down and be replaced.

The Welsh Lib Dem's full policy document, Paying Down the Democratic Deficit - which includes plenty of other ideas like increasing the number of AMs, reform of the Ministerial Code in Wales and widespread adoption of PR - is available here (pdf).

The issue of "recall" of MPs is currently in the news as a Bill is going through Westminster to introduce it there (more from the Assembly Research Service). Recall is also used in the United States, where it (in)famously led to Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming Governor of California.

At the moment, the only way to remove an AM from office and/or force a by-election is if they're sentenced to prison for 12 months+, resign voluntarily or die. Even if an AM is suspended or expelled by a party – for whatever reason – they're entitled to see out their term of office as an Independent.

Kirsty Williams proposes that if 20% of the electorate in a constituency sign a petition within a 2 month window (not two weeks?), a referendum for a recall by-election will be held, and if there's a yes vote, a full by-election will be triggered within another 2 months.

For regional list AMs, if 20% of the constituents in each and every FPTP constituency in their region sign a recall petition, the AM will be forced from office and replaced by whoever was next on the party list.

The principle is that if an AM does something we don't like - but falls short of offences which would see them forfeit their seat anyway (like being sent to prison for more than a year) - we can "throw them out".

Is that really fair, though?

Each case of "bringing the Assembly into disrepute" should be judged on its own set of circumstances. Determining that is currently the job of the Assembly's Standards Committee and the independent Standards Commissioner - that's what they're there for.

That doesn't mean this recall process will be too easy to trigger. The bar is set very high indeed - 20% of the electorate in the Bridgend constituency, for example, is around 12,000 people. It also makes it next to impossible to recall regional list members, as 20% of the electorate in each FPTP constituency in a region is easily 70-80,000 signatures. Turnout in a recall by-election or referendum will probably be incredibly low too.

Considering the political apathy in Wales, an "incident" would have to be really, really bad for the public to demand a by-election; so bad that an AM would have to resign anyway. No AM has come near generating those levels of bad publicity for themselves.

I also doubt blowhards who leave comments on Wales Online will risk catching hypothermia going door to door, drumming up signatures because of whatever AMs have done to offend them this week - like breathing at taxpayers' expense, or eating the wrong crisp flavour.

Not being able to please everyone all the time is something politicians have to live with. But as long as a politician who's been caught out by the rules shows remorse for what they've supposedly done, and works to rebuild trust, that should be enough and we can move on.

Unfortunately, politicians - as a group - try to create an impression of sanctimonious infallibility, so their role ends up being given more respect and deference than it deserves. This results in an awful lot of shallow hair-shirting, and it's this that gives those who would like to send them crashing back down to Earth a licence to look for even the slightest chink in their armour.

We can all think of occasions when AMs have done or said something that's pissed us off; but I'm willing to bet those same AMs have done good too, and away from the spotlight will be genuinely decent people who make bad decisions from time to time – like the plonker who likes their plonk (I find it hard to believe an AM could have their head that far up their backside, and I suspect someone was having a giggle at the Western Mail's expense).

If politicians aren't up to the job, we can deselect them (if you're a party member) or we can vote for someone else, based on policies and what they stand for, not their brain farts.

The reaction to misbehaviour in the Assembly often resembles the levels of righteous indignation you'll find on a school playground.
Judgements are always quick, the punishments harsh and there's little room for forgiveness - but it's also (sometimes) quickly forgotten. So my concern would be that we'll end up with constant calls for such-and-such to stand down for cracking open an egg the wrong way, something they said on Twitter or for hanging out in bars frequented by women with three breasts.

That wouldn't be "democracy in action". Instead it's a bit pathetic. The last thing we need to do is give the sort of anti-politics populism that's pumping up the UKIP beach ball more credence than it deserves.

There's an old adage, "We get the politicians we deserve". So h
alf the responsibility for creating a higher standard of politics in Wales falls on the electorate. We have to raise our own game.
The first step towards that is to stop getting wound up by stupid things, and stop placing too much emphasis on how politicians act instead of what they do.

"Recall" is, at the end of the day, a euphemistic way of saying "holding a referendum to sack someone".

To do justice to the AM in question there has to be a concrete reason for any recall based on job performance, past standards of behaviour, gross hypocrisy and the level of seriousness of any rule breach. Not liking them or their lifestyles shouldn't count.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

National Assembly debates veterans support

People who leave the armed forces after active service are sometimes at greater risk of
developing mental illnesses, falling foul of the criminal justice system and homelessness.
(Pic : UK Government)
On Tuesday, the National Assembly debated Welsh Government support for armed forces personnel, which coincided with Armistice Day.

Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), started by underlining the importance of 2014 due to the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. He said it was also important to remember veterans of more recent conflicts : Falklands, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each local authority has signed a community covenant and has appointed a designated armed forces champion. In terms of what the Welsh Government are doing, Leighton said Veterans NHS Wales was the only national veterans' service of its kind in the UK, and veterans were satisfied with the service they received.

New guidelines will ensure veterans have a right to housing advice, and this will be backed by £2million for those leaving the armed forces. In addition, council tax reductions were introduced in April 2013, and these don't include veterans' benefits when means-testing. Leighton also said veterans were a priority group for the all-Wales re-offending prevention scheme, and that future support for veterans will need to take reservists into account, as UK Government reforms will mean reservists will have a more front line role.

Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), said it was "good news" the the UK government accepted part of British Legion's manifesto where spouses will be able to keep military pensions for life even if they have a new partner. Mark welcomed the work of both governments in signing up all 22 local authorities to the military covenant.

However, he said there was a need to protect real-terms funding for health services for ex-service personnel, and few veterans were aware of the services. Mark also highlighted the importance of peer mentoring of ex-services personnel, as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be complex and might require residential treatment. Mark was concerned that the Welsh Government didn't support residential-based services.

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said debates like this were, "an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of armed forces". The Welsh Lib Dems would prefer, what he describes as, a "seemless service" for veterans with mental health issues caused by active service.

He said helplines and websites were not always the best way to deal with such problems, and the Welsh Government weren't doing enough to address mental health issues, with serious treatment and diagnostic delays. Peter also made the important point that PTSD of this sort isn't just confined to the armed forces, but applies to the emergency services.

Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) described his 5 day stint in Afghanistan, saying that when he was waiting to leave Kabul, all service personnel had in terms of readjustment to demobilisation was a 10 minute video.

He said veterans are more likely to face homelessness, fall foul of the criminal justice system and suffer  mental health problems. As many of the services often have to be sought out by the person themselves (self-referral), Lindsay believes this meant many "slip through the net". He argued that as so much money was spent on training recruits for combat, similar resources should be available for readjustment.

Lindsay criticised the Ministry of Defence, saying they had a "duty of care" to veterans, and they should stop expecting the "overstretched" Welsh NHS to pick up the tab.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North), said a new British Legion drop-in centre had over 1,000 contacts in the short time it's been set up, and she was impressed by the range of help offered, and the fact it was easily accessible. She raised concerns about people leaving the armed forces before their minimum service requirements (usually 4 years), as they're not always able to access the same levels of support.

Jeff Cuthbert AM (Lab, Caerphilly) said that as the last British troops were being withdrawn from Afghanistan, there's a more critical need to look at veterans' support; even if defence policy isn't devolved, aftercare is. He believes the Welsh Government should continue to report on their package of support annually.

He raised the issue of finding veterans employment after they've left the services, as they're often young, have transferable skills, and can show teamwork and communication skills. He would, therefore, also like updates on re-employing veterans and the training they receive.

The motion noting the Welsh Government's support for armed forces personnel and calling for ongoing support was unanimously passed.

Policy Responses

There've been two policy announcements from Welsh parties to coincide with Remembrance events.

Firstly, outgoing Plaid Cymru MP, Elfyn Llwyd, launched the party's own set of commitments to helping the estimated 250,000 veterans living in Wales. Their proposals include special Veterans' Courts to deal with criminal justice cases involving veterans, ensuring people leaving the forces have access to information on housing, health and employment and an audit of the numbers of ex-forces people in prison.

Though after what's happening in Scotland, political parties should be very careful about calling something a "vow".

Secondly, the Welsh Conservatives debated their own proposal for an Armed Forces Commissioner yesterday. The Commissioner would be tasked with holding public bodies to account to ensure they live up to their commitments under the military covenant.

The Welsh Conservatives have also long supported an Armed Forces Card, which would provide concessionary or free services, or bump them up waiting lists.

Soldiers are for life, not just for Remembrance Day

The biggest mark of respect we can pay members of the services is
ensuring they're only put in harm's way for the right reasons.
(Pic : Getty Images via Financial Times)
I'm glad the Assembly discuss things like this, but as someone with a strong military pedigree - on both sides of my family - even I feel there's a sentimentality about veterans and remembrance that's bordering on a complex.

Although it was inevitable it was going to go into overdrive this year (and will again next year and in 2018), it's become noticeably stronger over the last decade, and I think it's collective guilt.

Large numbers of us feel guilty about Iraq (perhaps other wars too) – some of us didn't do enough to stop it, others backed it when they shouldn't have, others – like the Labour Party – are forever stained by it. By questioning it we think we're "letting veterans down", so we overcompensate by excessive parades, commemoration and glorification of a modern toy soldier.

That's all very solemn and respectful, but it doesn't address the bigger issues.

First of all, let's dispel the myth that the modern UK military are "defending the country", because they're not. That's rarely their job anymore.
The imminent dangers the UK face are severe weather, flooding and disruption to energy supplies, not a foreign military power.
What the military actually do is implement the forceful side of the UK's foreign policy, whilst also playing a role in international development, counter-terrorism abroad and policing. They're also a de facto further education college for many kids who are otherwise hard to reach, and are amongst the biggest purchasers of goods and services in the public sector.

It's never wrong to question defence or foreign policy, or question whether it's right to send troops into various situations. Doing so doesn't do anything to take away any sacrifices service personnel make, and it might prevent it happening in the first place, which is more respectful than seeing them as disposable heroes.

But we don't force tens of thousands of teenage boys to their deaths anymore and the modern military is highly-skilled, highly-trained and – most importantly of all – voluntary. That's despite it sometimes being an employer of last resort for those who can't find jobs elsewhere, or need the discipline and camaraderie a military career often provides.

In terms of dangerous jobs, you're more likely to be killed or seriously injured on a farm or fishing boat than in the military; while a significant proportion of service personnel will be killed on the roads compared to active service.

Lindsay Whittle hit the nail on the head. Defence isn't devolved. It's the Ministry of Defence and UK Government who should clear up the problems their little sojourns abroad leave the men and women they so actively ask to serve their interests. Or, at the very least, they should make sure the Welsh Government have everything they need to do the job they've largely abandoned.

That's not to understate the mark serving in the armed forces leaves on individuals. The adjustment to civilian life can be incredibly difficult for some, especially if you're used to regimented routines and having everything you need provided for you.

Outside the military, the only other place you get that is prison.