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Saturday, 31 October 2015

Senedd Watch - October 2015

  • A ban on smoking in cars whilst in the presence of under-18s came into force on October 1st in Wales. Those who break the law will be liable to a £50 fine. Pro-smoking campaigners said the ban is unenforceable, though police forces said they would take an “educational and non-confrontational approach”.
  • A new colour-coded system for 999 medical emergencies was introduced on October 1st . Ambulance response time targets for all but the most life-threatening (Red) 999 calls will be replaced with outcome-based targets. Opposition parties accused the Welsh Government of manipulating targets to mask poor response times, but the Wales Ambulance Trust argued the changes make it “one of the most progressive in the world”.
  • Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP, said the chances of an agreement on further powers for the National Assembly were “very, very low”. It follows the publication of an academic report which suggests the proposed reserved powers model was “convoluted” and could result in law-making powers being withdrawn from the Assembly.
    • The UK Government unveiled the draft Wales Bill on October 20th, which includes new powers over Assembly electoral arrangements, energy, speed limits and sewerage services, as well as a reserved powers model. A row between the UK and Welsh Governments ensued over possible “veto” powers by English Ministers over Welsh laws.
  • An official who regulates bus and heavy goods traffic in Wales, Nick Jones, attacked UK Government policy on traffic commissioners, suggesting Wales was being treated “as a district of the English Midlands” and was subsidising English services. Traffic commissioner functions are non-devolved, though partial devolution has been sought since 2002.
  • A TUC report called for money to be directed towards job creation in the south Wales valleys following new EU rules which will allow public funding to be reserved for disadvantaged groups such as the long-term unemployed. Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) said, “We've got new powers and influence who....gets contracts for the public sector and get people into those jobs" promising to set up a task force to look into the proposal further.
  • The Stage 4 debate on the Local Government Bill – which outlines the process for voluntary local authority mergers – was postponed on October 6th, due to a likelihood the Assembly would vote against it. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) accused the Welsh Government of arrogance for not seeking a consensus beforehand.
    • Following a deal between Labour and Plaid Cymru - which will prevent mergers happening before the 2016 Assembly election - the Bill passed by 26 votes to 17 with 9 abstentions on October 20th. Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy) accused Plaid of hypocrisy for criticising Labour (at the SNP annual conference) then doing a deal with them, while the Lib Dems said the agreement achieved nothing.
  • An Oxfam Cymru report stated Wales should accommodate 724 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 to meet its obligations. It comes as Community & Tackling Poverty Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), updated the National Assembly on actions taken in Wales, in which she called for more information and clarity from the UK Government, adding that all 22 local authorities were willing to accept refugees.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) told the Conservative party conference in Manchester that he led an “anti-establishment party” and that next May's election was a choice between himself and Carwyn Jones for First Minister. He described the election as a “referendum on the Welsh NHS”.
    • The Welsh Conservatives would scrap tuition fee subsidies if they won the 2016 Assembly election, claiming it would save £3.6billion over the course of the Fifth Assembly. Currently, tuition fees for Welsh students are capped wherever the study, but the Leader of the Opposition said the money should be redirected to the NHS and further education colleges.
  • Plaid Cymru health spokesperson, Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion), announced her party would scrap local health boards, replacing them with a single national body to run hospital services – as well as abolish social care charges for the elderly and dementia patients - if they win the 2016 election. They also proposed fully integrating health and social care. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), accused Plaid of wanting to “break up the NHS”.
  • A review of Welsh law-making by the Assembly's Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee recommended introducing a compulsory Report Stage, greater support for Members Bills, consolidation of Welsh law and more comprehensive public engagement. Committee Chair, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) said, “Clear, consolidated laws based on sound, well-thought-out policy are essential."
  • Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) criticised the Welsh Government for spending £19.8million on preparatory work for the M4 Newport bypass, calling for Labour to review the plans in their 2016 manifesto. Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), defended the spending saying, “Roads will always be controversial, but 20 years after you've built them.... they're the norm.”
    • On 13th October it was revealed Jenny Rathbone had been sacked as chair of an EU funding committee for her comments. She criticised an “unhealthy culture” within the Welsh Government and Assembly which doesn't allow independent thought.
    • Welsh Labour accused Jenny Rathbone of not following the proper channels for raising policy issues, while the First Minister defended his decision in the Senedd chamber, saying the committee chair “should act in the spirit of collective responsibility” as it was a government appointment.
    • The Leader of the Opposition questioned Public Account Committee decisions – of which Jenny Rathbone is a member - as members of the Welsh Government are barred from being members of Assembly committees. He wrote to Llywydd, Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West), saying, “The comments made by the First Minister in the chamber ….are deeply damaging and bring into question the legitimacy and democratic nature of the Assembly committees.”
  • A Welsh Health Survey study revealed only 1% of e-cigarette users were previous non-smokers. The Welsh Liberal Democrats believed the findings undermine the Welsh Government's case for a ban on using e-cigs in public, as set out in the Public Health Bill.
  • Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) warned that key Valley Lines rail routes could miss out on electrification after being left out of the Welsh Government's National Transport Finance Plan. She said, “Whilst the National Transport Plan covers the next five years, these schemes don't even appear in the column identified for '2020 and beyond'”.
  • The Assembly approved a cross-party motion condemning the UK Government's Trade Union Bill as an “unnecessary attack on the rights of working people”. Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews, said the Bill extended its scope into devolved areas and the Welsh Government will consider not laying a legislative consent motion (LCM) in front of the Assembly – effectively attempting to block the law from applying in Wales.
  • The National Assembly unanimously agreed regulations to introduce compulsory micro-chipping for newborn puppies. Deputy Minister for Farming & Food, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Mid & West Wales) said, “The ability to trace all dogs back to their owners should encourage more responsible ownership, breeding and help in the control of dangerous and nuisance dogs by creating a link between a dog and its owner.” The regulations will come into force on April 6th 2016.
  • LinksAir, operators of the subsidised Anglesey-Cardiff air link, had their safety licence revoked by the Civil Aviation Authority. The Welsh Government announced Danish operator North Flying will take over the contract. Shadow Business Minister, William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) said, “communities will rightly ask questions and Labour ministers must provide swift assurances.”
  • Deputy Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), confirmed that the troubled Betsi Cadwaladr Local Health Board will remain in special measures for two years. The board was placed into special measures for 100 days following the Tawel Fan scandal, but the Deputy Minister said an extension was needed, “in order to tackle more fundamental challenges, particularly to improve mental health services in north Wales”.
  • At Plaid Cymru's annual conference in Aberystwyth, Leanne Wood asked Labour voters to “take a second look” at her party, saying Plaid will lead on “those issues that matter most”. She said Labour had taken people for granted and “rewarded long-term loyalty with inaction, incompetence and indifference.”
  • Andrew Davies AM called for Cardiff's taxi drivers to embrace controversial mobile taxi app, Uber, which was considering starting services in the city. He said, “As Conservatives we have a duty to level the playing field and to encourage competition between suppliers – not thwart it.” Unions representing taxi drivers have expressed concerns over safety and fare parity.
  • An independent review of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty said these areas needed to do more to foster vibrant communities and provide jobs. Studies estimate they're worth £500million to the Welsh economy and employ 30,000 people. Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) was appointed chair of a task force to explore the issues further.

Projects announced in October include : A £24million replacement for the flood-prone A487 Dyfi Bridge in Machynlleth; an £11million scheme to fund childcare to enable parents to return to work; £3.8million for workplace IT, construction and accounting skills; a consultation on indicators for a national well-being index; a Chinese-backed investment worth £2billion in two biomass power and food production plants in Holyhead and Port Talbot and the final go ahead for the Newtown bypass.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Draft Wales Bill (Number Two)

(Pic : ITV Wales)
Yesterday, the Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.) introduced the draft Wales Bill to the UK Parliament on behalf of the UK Government – you can read it here (pdf).

Monday, 19 October 2015

Cesspool on the Taff?

Pollution in Cardiff Bay isn't just confined to the air and the water.
(Pic : Wales Online)

To paraphrase a famous episode of The Simpsons, what we now call Cardiff Bay used to be a stagnant swamp, and very little has changed. It stank then, and it stinks now.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

AMs take swipe at Trade Union Bill

The post-devolution "partnership working" between unions, employers and employees
in Wales looks set to be threatened by the UK Government's draconian Trade Union Bill.
(Pic : Wales Online)

Shwmae. Yesterday, the Assembly held another backbench members debate, this time related to one of the most controversial laws introduced for a long time in the UK Parliament.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

A Comprehensive Review of Welsh Law-Making

We voted to give AMs law-making powers in 2011, so how has the process been handled since?
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)

Making new laws is the National Assembly's most important function, though it's a role that – apart from a few high-profile cases like the Human Transplantation Act 2013 – draws little in the way of media coverage or scrutiny.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Minister updates Senedd on refugee response

(Pic : Al-Jazeera)
The Syrian refugee crisis has slipped off the front pages in the last fortnight due to Russian military intervention in the conflict, the latest catastrophic brain fart from the US Air Force and party conference season.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Armed Forces School Visits Debated

(Pic : Education Business Partnership West Berkshire)

In June, the Assembly's Petitions Committee published a report (pdf) into armed forces recruitment, following a petition from Cymdeithas y Cymod – which garnered more than 1,000 signatures – calling for the military to be banned from visiting schools for recruitment purposes.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Local Government Bill edges towards statute book

As the law outlining how councils can voluntarily merger reaches its
conclusion, opposition AMs tabled important amendments.
(Pic : Wales Online)

The Local Government Bill outlines how the 22 local authorities can merge voluntarily in light of the new proposed map for local government which has been formed as part of the fallout from the Williams Commission (Back to the Future). On Tuesday (29th September), the Bill was debated at Stage 3, where amendments can be added by AMs.

Any voluntarily-merged authorities will come into being by May 2018, but a second local government law on compulsory mergers will be introduced after the National Assembly election next year, which makes you question if this Bill is really all that necessary.

Anyway, the content of the Bill isn't particularly exciting in itself, but there were a number of amendments tabled by AMs which could (have) add(ed) significant meat to the Bill.

You can read a full list of amendments here (pdf), but I'm going to focus on some of the more significant ones and what AMs and the Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), had to say.

Local Referendums on Council Mergers
  • Amendments 14, 26 and 27 – all introduced by Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy).
  • Proposes that voluntary local authority mergers be approved by a majority of voters in each merging authority.
  • Proposes the question on ballot papers : "Are you in favour of the proposed merger between [ ] and [ ]?".

Janet argued that any changes need to be driven by local people and communities in a way which strengthens the democratic process. Council mergers would have a "profound effect" on all residents involved and it's right they have a say, with Labour placing "proud counties" under threat without consultation. Referendums would mean mergers will have to be justified accordingly.

Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) said his party accepts the point on extra consultation including in amendment 14, but rejects the case for referendums, as we shouldn't allow local considerations to interfere with process at a national level – saying there was no referendum or much in the way of consultation when the Conservatives reorganised local government in 1994-1996. He said referendums were a way of "hiding lack of vision".

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said referendums were the wrong way to approach it, though the Lib Dems would support amendment 14. There was a need to draw a line between national leadership and local determination, and the Assembly was best placed to determine the shape of local services. Peter criticised the Bill as "no longer necessary", adding that the Lib Dems wouldn't support the Bill at all unless their amendments were accepted.

The Minister said the amendments were unnecessary, again raising the point that there were no referendums for previous local government reorganisations in the 1970s and 1990s. Authorities must undertake "full and comprehensive" public consultation as set out in the Bill, so it was already delivering key points of amendment 14. He urged AMs to vote down the referendum amendments as there wasn't enough detail on the campaign periods, spending limits or costings for referendums – which Leighton estimated would cost between £100,000-£400,000 per local authority.

Amendment 14 tied in the vote 27-27, with the Deputy Presiding Officer used his casting vote against the amendment – as is convention. Amendment 26 was rejected by 13 votes to 41 meaning Amendment 27 was rejected too.

The Election Cycle

  • Amendment 17 – introduced by Janet Finch-Saunders AM
  • Proposes that elections cannot be cancelled/postponed under the Bill if it results in councillors serving terms greater than 5 years in length.

One of the carrots dangled in front of local authorities to encourage them to merge voluntarily is that councillors will have their terms extended until the first elections of the combined local authority – meaning councillors will be able to pick up their allowances and salaries for longer than they otherwise would.

Janet told the Assembly it was crucial that councillors aren't serving more time than they were democratically elected to do. Extending terms without facing re-election was "an affront to democracy, public accountability and transparency".

The Minister said that the amendment would create uncertainty and distraction in the lead up to a voluntary merger. He said cancelling elections was "not something we would do lightly", but it would otherwise mean bringing forward the merged authority to May 2017 – which was unachievable given the timetables involved. He asked who would want to stand for election for an authority that has less than a year left?

There were 18 votes in favour, 27 votes against and 9 (Plaid Cymru) abstentions, so the amendment was rejected.

The Electoral System for Local Authorities
  • Amendments 5, 13, 28, 30 and 31 – all introduced by Peter Black AM
  • Proposes the electoral system for local government be changed to Single Transferable Vote, where voters rank candidates in order of preference.

These are probably the most important ones, or the amendments I was most interested in.

Peter Black AM said Leighton Andrews understands STV as he fought an election in Gillingham in support of introducing it, adding that it produces a fair outcome for election. Creating larger authorities with fewer councillors should mean ensuring elections reflect how people vote. It would lead to a more transparent, more accountable local authority that's representative of its communities.

Simon Thomas AM offered Plaid Cymru's support to the amendments, saying STV had been introduced with little difficulty in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and at local elections in Scotland. He said it was a far more effective way of "opening up the electoral process" by ending unopposed elections, adding that one thing that stops people standing against incumbent councillors in rural areas was a "personal element" which is interpreted as a grudge. Simon said STV would challenge all parties, but they have to decide what's best for the whole nation, and ensure every vote counts.

In response, the Minister said Labour were elected on a platform of opposing any change to the local government election system, and the rejection of the Alternative Vote in a 2011 referendum reflects that voters don't want to change the system either.

14 AMs voted in favour of Amendment 5, 40 voted against, so all the amendments were rejected.