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Monday 31 August 2015

Senedd Watch - August 2015

  • As part of a BBC Radio Wales programme marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of Plaid Cymru, former AM and MP, Cynog Dafis, said the party needed to “break the hegemonic role of Labour in Wales”, adding that Welsh self-government wasn't on the radar until Plaid were formed.
  • The Welsh Conservatives said they would scrap Visit Wales and replace it with an arms-length body run by the tourism industry itself. Shadow Tourism Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), said it was a “huge mistake” to scrap the Wales Tourist Board, which “rendered a world-recognised brand obsolete at the stroke of a pen”.
  • A review of selection procedures for UK judges recommended a Welsh judge be appointed to the UK Supreme Court due to the increase in Welsh law. The First Minister said the recommendation was “long overdue” and had the support of the Welsh Government. However, former deputy high court judge, Lord Gresford, said the idea was “premature” as Welsh cases would “not be frequent”.
  • Education Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), announced that religious education would be revamped as “religion, philosophy and ethics” to tackle extremism and to allow pupils to consider citizenship alongside faith. Chair of the Assembly's cross-party group on faith, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), said he was “alarmed” by the proposal, expressing concerns that the RE curriculum will be “watered-down”.
  • A Health & Social Care Committee inquiry into substance abuse recommended more alcohol licensing powers be devolved to Wales, more focus from GPs on treatment and more help for groups at-risk of abuse like the homeless and ex-prisoners. Committee Chair David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said, “Alcohol and substance misuse can have devastating effects on individuals, their families and communities."
  • Caerphilly-based financial services company Guardian Wealth Management, which left Wales a year after receiving £700,000 in Welsh Government funding, has been asked to repay half of its grant. It comes as the Welsh Government were criticised for awarding a total of £850,000 in grants to two other financial service companies which went into liquidation soon afterwards.
  • The Welsh Conservatives accused the Welsh Government of kicking plans for a stand-alone Welsh Development Bank “into the long grass”. It comes as Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), wrote to AMs saying that Finance Wales would continue in the medium-term while a business case is drafted for a bank.
  • Plaid Cymru warned that 20,000 NHS computers in Wales could be vulnerable to viruses and hacking through the use of Windows XP, which Microsoft withdrew technical support for in 2014. NHS Wales said Plaid's figures were “outdated” adding they had “a very clear programme” to replace the software.
  • Former UK Trade Minister, Digby Jones, said Wales should welcome skilled migrants to fill skills gaps in industry, saying current education policies had “failed Britain” because not enough school-leavers have the pre-requisite skills required for modern workplaces.
  • The head of the Farmers Union of Wales (FUW), Eifion Huws, recommended a dairy cattle cull to combat an oversupply of milk, which led to a significant drop in prices and supermarket protests from farmers, who were being paid less than the cost of production. On August 14th, NFU Cymru held a rally in Cardiff to promote Welsh produce. Deputy Minister for Farming & Food, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Mid & West Wales), said farmers faced a “challenging period” ahead of a UK-wide crisis summit on August 17th.
  • Concerns were raised about cuts in funding support for pupils who speak neither English or Welsh as their first language. Around 24,000 pupils are in this situation, with Polish the most common foreign language spoken at home. Education experts warned it can take pupils 10 years to become proficient enough in English or Welsh to sit external exams. On August 27th it was revealed 5.8% of the Welsh population (180,000 people) were born outside the UK in 2014 – rising from 3.3% in 2004.
  • In 2015's A-Level results, the proportion of students achieving an A* grade increased on 2014 from 6.7% to 7.3% - though this remains behind the England, Northern Ireland and Wales average (8.2%). The overall A*-E pass rate fell slightly to 97.3%, while 92.2% of students achieved an A*-C mark in the Welsh Baccalaureate.
  • Plaid Cymru called for increased capacity for heart operations after figures revealed 58 patients died in the past two years whilst on surgery waiting lists. Health spokesperson Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) said, “A report earlier this year....stressed that shorter waiting times influence mortality and morbidity on the waiting list." 
  • The Welsh Government announced the NHS budget for mental health – £587million in 2015-16 – will continue to be ring-fenced following an external review by PwC. Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) said, “In Wales, we spend more on mental health services than on any other part of the NHS; today’s announcement is a further demonstration of our commitment to this vital part of the health service.”
  • A report collated by the National Assembly's cross-party group for eating disorders suggested improvements to current services such as early diagnosis, improved public information and significant reductions in waiting times for treatment. In response, the Welsh Government said they had invested an extra £250,000 in eating disorder treatments for children and young people.
  • Opposition parties criticised Welsh Government plans for a public ban on e-cigarettes after a Public Health England report said e-cigs were “95% safer” than tobacco, recommending that e-cigs be available on prescription. Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar, said the Public Health (Wales) Bill proposals were “not backed by evidence”, while Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) said, “Labour ministers in Wales need to take heed of the evidence....and scrap these proposals at once.” Plaid Cymru also urged caution before pursuing a ban.
  • The A*-C pass rate in 2015's GCSE results remained unchanged on 2014 at 66%. 19.2% were A*-A grades – a slight fall (0.2%) on 2014. There was a 1.1% improvement in science A*-C grades and an improvement in A*-C pass rate in Welsh second language to 79.4%. However, there were falls in the number of modern foreign language and humanities entries.
    • The Education Minister hailed results at 40 Schools Challenge Cymru schools, saying, “These are some of our most challenged schools and to see some of them reporting percentage improvement in the double figures really is remarkable.”
  • Recycling rates rose to 56% in 2014-15 – up 2% on 2013-14. Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), said Wales “continues to lead the UK”. The Welsh Government set a target of a 100% recycling or reuse rate by 2050, prompting the WLGA to suggest fines be considered for those who don't recycle.
  • An independent review into local museums warned many institutions could end up as “zombie museums”, with the report recommending a regional or national museum management. There are 2 million museum visits in Wales, a reported rise of 24% since 2004.

Projects announced in August include : An £89million scheme to create up to 25,000 traineeships over the next four years; the launch of a National Software Academy in partnership between the Welsh Government and Cardiff University; an extra £1.24million for fourteen domestic abuse projects; £7million in EU-backed finance to tackle unemployment amongst over-25s and £5.7million towards clinical research.