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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

FMQs: Trump Ban, Cancer & Tidal Lagoons

For most of this afternoon's FMQs, you would think you were following a parliamentary session in an independent country: foreign policy, condemnation of foreign governments, state visits, discussion of immigration, how to win the battle against Islamic State – and Carwyn Jones was using the language of a Prime Minister, not a regional premier.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Tainted Blood

(Pic : ITV)

The latest member's debate covers what was once described by Prof. Robert Winston as one of the worst disasters in NHS history.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

FMQs: Trains, Schools & Fraud

The big story is the Supreme Court's ruling that the UK Parliament must vote to start the Brexit process (“activate Article 50”) instead of it being left to the UK Government.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Making sense of the "Sardine Express"

(Pic : Wales Online)
It could be written off as dredging social media for stories, but numerous reports over the last couple of months regarding overcrowded Arriva Trains Wales (ATW) services in and out of Cardiff - as well as some longer-distance services to and from Swansea - display what's becoming a very serious problem.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Trade Union Bill: Senedd picks a fight

(Pic : Wales Online)

The latest - and slightly controversial - Welsh law was introduced by Finance & Local Government Secretary, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) earlier this week.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

FMQs: Brexit, Trains & Disability

There are two big non-FMQ related stories today. Firstly, the Senedd voting on a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) for the Wales Bill. It's expected to pass and there's little to add. Just cross your fingers and hope AMs haven't been sold magic beans (either way).

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

FMQs: Norway, Steel & Bird Flu

It may be a new year, but one of the constants in the world is getting the same old stuff from the Senedd. Even if this site isn't considered good enough anymore, my thankless gruntwork continues for now (as promised) – though regular readers will notice I'm going to pull back the throttle over these next/final few months.

As everyone's persistently whinging that Assembly proceedings are dull, I've decided to liven things up a bit by providing a relevant "invigorating soundtrack" in lieu of Senedd TV. 😈

FMQs, 10th January 2017

Party Leaders

Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood (Plaid, Rhondda) called back to September (Mindfulness, Tourism & Winter is Coming), where she asked the First Minister about Child & Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) waiting times. He told her resources had been put in and waiting times will reduce. Leanne pointed to statistics saying the numbers waiting 16 weeks+ got slightly worse over the year, and the threshold to receive treatment was too high, resulting in patients being turned away. When could people expect improvements?

The First Minister told her the number of CAMHS admissions has stayed steady, with new money expected to make a difference. He stood by his view that children are being added to waiting lists without cause; CAMHS is an acute service, he wouldn't expect children to be referred to it automatically - they should/would go to a GP first.

Conservative leader, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), highlighted the considerable speculation over merits of the Tata Steel deal (here) – subject to a union ballot this month. It was important to understand the gravity of the situation as workers are being asked to give up something (pensions will be changed) in return for job security.

Before Christmas the First Minister said it was, “a deal (we) can endorse”; is that still his opinion? What would the consequences be if the deal were rejected (as suggested by Plaid Cymru)?

Carwyn was aware of members' concerns on pensions (raised in an earlier question), but there's "no Plan B", admitting (with unusual frankness) that,“it's this plan or no plan”. Other consortia interested in taking over Tata's operations were as concerned about pensions too. He was, however, disappointed the UK Government haven't taken as keen an interest in steel since Theresa May came to power.

UKIP leader, Neil Hamilton (UKIP, Mid & West Wales), asked what conclusions the First Minister drew from his recent fact-finding trip to Norway, particularly with regard free-movement? The reality is 508 million Europeans have a right to move to the UK and EEA membership would mean the same. He suggested a visit to South Korea, where they've agreed an EU free trade agreement without the burden of free movement.

The First Minister accepted Norway may not support EU membership but does support EEA membership (see more: What sort of Brexit suits Wales?). The rules are applied in Norway to allow freedom of movement for labour/workers – something he believes the UK public may support as a reasonable option.

Free trade agreements take years to negotiate, and officials he's spoken to find a two year timetable for a UK-EU free trade agreement “laughable”.


Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) asked how regional economic policies will sit alongside the ambition to have a million Welsh-speakers by 2050? Social and economic opportunities are essential, and national/public institutions (she suggested the Welsh Revenue Authority) should be established in Welsh-speaking areas.

The Welsh Government have consulted on the draft vision, with a finalised document discussing the relationship between economic development and the Welsh language. The First Minister asked officials to consider basing public bodies outside Cardiff, including the Caernarfon area or elsewhere in Wales.

Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) asked what plans the Welsh Government had to promote Welsh goods/produce to Welsh consumers? Many countries have an official “country of origin” brand for consumers. Can we have a strong brand for Wales to withstand the “economic lunacy of Westminster”?

The Welsh Government have taken a a number of actions, including working alongside the National Procurement Services to increase Welsh produce in the public sector. Welsh produce now has far better label than 15 years ago, and a “Brand Wales” may be advantageous to some companies but not to others. Carwyn stressed the importance of not having tarrifs applied to Welsh food and drink exports to the EU.

Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) asked for an update on the recent confirmed outbreak of avian flu in Wales. She praised the actions of Llanelli Wetland Centre for closing its doors to the public when the virus was detected to prevent its spread.

The First Minister described it as a matter of serious concern, with work undertaken with other governments to co-ordinate action. The Welsh Government's advice is updated continuously, and he called for those who work with birds to check it regularly.

Urgent Questions

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) asked for a statement on the Royal College of Emergency Medicine comments that emergency care in Wales was in a “state of crisis”. Figures from November 2016 showed only 77% of A&E patients were seen in 4 hours, and this was likely to get worse. Didn't the Health Secretary think it was an embarrassing situation for Labour colleagues in Westminster trying to attack Jeremy Hunt over recent bad headlines?

Health Secretary, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), praised staff, who always face pressure in winter and who he didn't want to see demoralised. He rejected any idea there was a “crisis”, but accepted there were very real pressures.

We all need to think sensibly and be accurate in our language about where we are in Wales; England runs different systems and Wales has avoided the headline-grabbing comments from the Red Cross and hasn't seen as harsh cuts in care budgets. Objectively-speaking we're in a better position than we were last year.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Game of Thrones: Demise of the Crown

After failing to make the traditional public appearances over Christmas and New Year, question marks have been raised around Liz Mountbatten-Windsor's health.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

What type of youth service does Wales want?

(Pic : University of Wales Trinity St David)

Youth services play a valuable role in boosting the confidence and skills of young people, particularly those from backgrounds where making the wrong choice is often an attractive option.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Senedd Watch - December 2016

  • A BBC Wales investigation found local health board spending on non-permanent and agency staff rose from £64million in 2013-14 to £137million in 2015-16 – an increase of 114%. BMA Cymru said the use of locums stemmed from “bad workforce practices and poor planning”. The Welsh Government recognised challenges in medical recruitment but the problems “weren't unique to Wales”.
  • The Wales Refugee Council criticised “sub-standard” accommodation provided to Wales' 2,500 asylum seekers. Clearsprings Ready Homes - which provide all asylum accommodation in Wales – has a £119million contract with the UK Home Office to supply the homes and refused to comment.
  • A Wales Audit Office report into the National Library of Wales criticised a lack of transparency between staff and management. The library's income fell 17% over the last several years, with the use of reserves to prop up finances dubbed “unsustainable”. President of the library, Rhodri Glyn-Thomas, said the institution was “broadly on the right path”.
  • The Family Fund charity warned that 4,000 families with disabled children could miss out on grants after Welsh Government cuts. Funding for similar schemes in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland has been protected. The Welsh Government said it was the result of a merger of four different Third Sector grant schemes, with a decision to limit funding for any individual scheme to £1.5million a year.
    • There was also criticism of the Welsh Government's decision to transfer responsibility for Independent Living Grants, which subsidises home care for the disabled, to local authorities. There were fears budget pressures will force local authorities to cut the £27million scheme.
  • The Public Services Ombudsman upheld a complaint against Bridgend Council that a foster child's savings were “maladministered”. The person received only £270 when leaving care, and the Ombudsman ordered the council to repay £3,310. The report was submitted to the Welsh Government as it raised issues about savings of looked-after children.
  • Wales continued to place bottom of the UK Home Nations in the latest round of OECD PISA tests, despite a 10 point improvement in mathematics. Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), admitted the results were disappointing but said, The easy thing to do would be rip up the plan and start again. But we owe it to our pupils, parents and the (teaching) profession to do what is right."
  • A deal between Tata Steel and trade unions to secure the medium-term future of their steel plants in the UK was agreed in principle on December 7th. The deal – subject to a ballot of union members – includes commitments: to keep two blast furnaces operational at Port Talbot, a provisional 10-year £1billion investment programme, avoiding compulsory redundancies for five years and a consultation on replacing the current pension with a "defined contribution" scheme.
    • The First Minister welcomed the announcement, describing it as a "massive shot in the arm for the industry". The Welsh Government pledged to provide £4million in developing skills and training for Tata employees, with a wider package of support subject to further negotiation.
    • Plaid Cymru economy spokesperson, Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr), believed the workforce's confidence in Tata's management had been "dented" through the year-long crisis. He also said the deal's ties to renegotiation of pensions sets "a very, very dangerous precedent".
  • The Llywydd, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion), launched a consultation on a name change for the National Assembly. The options include: Welsh Parliament, Senedd and Parliament of Wales. The power to change the name will come with the Wales Bill and is expected to cost between £40,000 and £150,000. However, the public consultation was criticised for not enabling ethnic minority respondents to describe their nationality as Welsh – blamed on the use of 2011 Census data.
  • A leaked letter revealed Network Rail estimate it would take 28 years for Welsh railways to be brought up to the required standard due to lack of investment. Economy & Infrastructure Secretary, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), accused the company of not doing enough to clear tracks of leaves, which has increased in the number of trains taken out of service, leading to overcrowding and reduced punctuality.
  • A Health Committee inquiry into NHS winter preparedness found only 46% of NHS staff were vaccinated against flu. The report also called for integration between health and social care and a review of home care. Committee Chair, Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) said, "It is clear from the evidence....that the many pressures facing the NHS....are not restricted to a particular period or season but are....all year round”.
  • The Communities & Local Government Committee inquiry into the effectiveness of the Domestic Violence Act 2015 recommended relationship education be included in the new National Curriculum and that proper resources were provided to groups supporting victims under the Act.
  • Minister for Lifelong Learning, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), introduced the Additional Learning Needs Bill on December 13th. The Bill proposes every child with additional needs be provided with an individual plan, places a duty on local authorities to promote independent advocacy services and creates an Education Tribunal of Wales.
  • The Assembly's Petitions Committee agreed to raise the signature threshold before they would consider a petition from 10 signatures to 50. It follows a report during the Fourth Assembly which said the move would discourage “nonsensical” petitions.
  • Communities Secretary, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), admitted that the Welsh Government's long-standing goal to end child poverty by 2020 will not be achieved, saying the Assembly didn't have the welfare powers needed to make a difference. He told the Assembly a new “whole-government approach” was required.
  • Environment & Rural Affairs Secretary, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said renewable energy progress in Wales was being frustrated by a “clear lack of policy” by the UK Government and a lack of clarity for the industry. Control over energy projects of up to 350MW are to be devolved in the Wales Bill, but the Secretary called for the power to offer financial incentives to be devolved too.
  • Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) called for the introduction of a register for people convicted of animal abuse. She cited evidence that animal abuse was a sign of, or concurrent with, domestic violence and difficultues in tracking people who have been banned from keeping animals.
  • Gross Value added (GVA) figures for 2015 revealed Wales saw the sharpest rise in GVA of the UK Home Nations (+2.8%) to £55.7billion, and that GVA-per-capita stood at £18,002 (71.3% of the UK average). However, this remained the lowest GVA-per-capita of the UK's 12 nations and regions.
    • Plaid Cymru said the economy of some parts of Wales was “in freefall” and called for an emergency economic summit after Wales' wealthier areas – like Cardiff – remained below the UK average in GVA-per-capita. Adam Price AM said, “There seems to be a contagion in economic decline”.
  • In their inquiry report on youth work and youth services, the Children & Young People's Committee believed the Welsh Government will find it difficult to deliver “universal” youth services. They recommended a refreshed national strategy and greater involvement by young people in developing services.
  • A deal on a new fiscal framework for Wales was agreed on December 19th. The agreement will double Welsh capital borrowing powers from £500million to £1billion and partially devolve of income tax varying powers in 2019 - with an appropriate adjustment to the Welsh budget.
  • Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) pledged to support the Welsh Government for the remainder of the Fifth Assembly, effectively giving Labour a working majority. It followed speculation he had been offered a cabinet position, resulting in Plaid Cymru threatening to withdraw from compact agreements.
  • Freedom of Information data revealed NHS staff in Wales were subject to 18,000 assaults over the last five years. The Royal College of Nursing said, “It may not necessarily mean its getting may be the reporting is better, staff are being supported more to report these issues and address them.”
  • The Welsh Government pledged to oppose moves to categorise housing associations as public sector bodies, following concerns that a public sector designation would restrict their ability to access private finance to build homes.

Projects announced in December include: An extra £30million towards a target of providing 20,000 affordable homes by 2021; an £11million naval reserve training facility in Cardiff Docks; plans to launch a Development Bank of Wales in the first half of 2017; a codification project to consolidate Welsh legislation; an additional £10million to help firms cope with changes to business rates; £16million towards hospital diagnostic equipment and a final go ahead for construction of a Llandeilo bypass, starting in 2019.