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Friday, 31 March 2017

Senedd Watch - March 2017

  • A leaked document revealed that unless Ford's Bridgend engine plant attracted future work, as many as 1,100 jobs could be lost by 2021. Unions described it as a “kick in the teeth”, while the Welsh Government said they would do “anything they could” to bring new work to the plant.
  • The UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee criticised progress on rail electrification, including London-Cardiff. There were concerns there wouldn't be enough funding for valley lines electrification due to “serious management failings” on current projects. The Welsh Government pressed for rail infrastructure to be devolved.
  • In her speech to her party's spring conference in Newport, Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) outlined aims to re-balance the Welsh economy for communities outside Cardiff, and prioritised access to the EU single market. The party also proposed raising income tax by 1p to pay for public services.
    • On March 3rd, the Adjudication Panel for Wales upheld a complaint against Neil McEvoy AM (Plaid, South Wales Central) that he “bullied” an officer in his capacity as a Cardiff city councillor whilst representing a tenant facing eviction. He was subsequently suspended as a councillor for one month for breaching the councillor's code of conduct.
    • On March 7th, Neil McEvoy was temporarily suspended from the Plaid Cymru Assembly group and had his portfolio responsibilities of sport and tourism withdrawn. He later apologised to the officer involved and was re-admitted to the group on March 21st.
  • Health Secretary, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), announced that GPs will receive an extra £27million in the coming financial year as part of a new contract. In exchange, GPs will be expected to provide additional services in residential care, diabetes and for patients using blood-thinning medicines.
  • Alice Hooker-Stroud resigned as leader of the Green Party in Wales on March 6th. She said due to a lack of funding the voluntary role had become “untenable”. She called for political party funding reforms to aid smaller parties. Grenville Ham assumed the role at the end of March.
  • The UK Chancellor's budget on March 8th included an extra £200million for Wales over four years following a boost to spending on English social care. It was also said “good progress” was being made on a £1.3billion Swansea city deal, while national insurance for the self-employed would have increased by 2% over the next two years.
    • On March 15th, the UK Chancellor announced a “u-turn” on increasing self-employed national insurance contributions – ruling it out for the remainder of the UK Parliament term - following pressure from Conservative backbenchers and the public.
    • The Prime Minister and First Minister signed off the £1.3billion “city deal” for the Swansea Bay area on March 20th. It's estimated the programme could create 9,000 jobs through hubs for the data industry, health diagnostics and steel research.
    • Finance & Local Government Secretary, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), said the budget meant “austerity wasn't over” with no clarity provided on proposed £3.5billion cuts from the Welsh budget.
  • Opposition parties raised questions over £340,000 grants to Newsquest – publisher of the South Wales Argus – after the company announced it would close its Newport base in April 2017 and move production to Dorset. The National Union of Journalists said the company, owes an apology to the Welsh Government and to Welsh taxpayers."
  • Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), told her party's spring conference they were "achieving more than other parties put together" and have a "new found confidence" ahead of the local elections in May. She also said raising teaching standards was a "national mission".
  • First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, announced she would seek a second referendum on Scottish independence between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. She described it as, “A choice of whether to follow the UK to a hard Brexit, or own relationship with Europe." The UK Prime Minister said “now is not the time” for a referendum. The Scottish Parliament gave approval for a referendum on March 28th.
  • The Welsh Government introduced a Bill to suspend “Right to Buy” for social housing tenants across Wales. Tenants would have one year after any Act is passed to take up their right. The Welsh Conservatives opposed the move, saying Labour's failure to build more social housing has caused shortages.
  • An internal report leaked to BBC Wales revealed Sport Wales risked damaging its reputation by showing favouritism in its award of contracts, with some bidders said to be given an “undue advantage” in tendering processes. Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) said the revelations harmed the organisation and the Welsh Government needed to consider the quango's future “very carefully”.
    • The chair and vice-chair of Sports Wales - Dr Paul Thomas and Adele Baumgardt - were sacked by the Welsh Government on March 29th. The Welsh Government have also refused to release a review which led to the internal problems.
  • UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, told the Welsh Conservative's spring forum in Cardiff that the UK should look forward “with optimism and hope”. Conservative leader in Wales, Andrew Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), warned that a vote for Plaid Cymru in May's local elections would “be a vote for....independence”.
  • Park home owners demanded the Welsh Government scrap the 10% commission charged by site owners for new park home purchases. The Mobile Homes Act 2013 retained the commissions over fears that scrapping them would lead to pitch fees rising to compensate.
  • Five people were killed - including a police officer and the assailant - and at least 50 injured in an Islamist terror attack near the Palace of Westminster on March 22nd. The Prime Minister condemned the attack as “sick and depraved”. Plenary sessions at the Scottish Parliament and Senedd were suspended the same afternoon as a mark of respect.
  • At his party's spring conference in Llandudno, the First Minister told delegates he wanted Wales to become a “fair work nation” where people can access better jobs closer to home. He also admitted it would be “tough” for Labour to avoid losses in the forthcoming local elections.
  • The Senedd's Environment Committee report on the future of Welsh agriculture called for full post-Brexit access to the EU single market for Welsh agricultural produce and the creation of a single payment scheme for farmers. Committee Chair, Mark Reckless AM (UKIP, South Wales East), said “In the longer term there is an opportunity to develop innovative, ambitious policies, made in Wales to make the sector more outcome-focused.”
  • The Welsh Government will refuse to bail out four health boards, who are due to report a combined £151million budget deficit for 2017-18. The Welsh Government called for a “significant improvement” in financial performance and that the NHS overall will run a balanced budget for 2016-17.
  • On March 29th, the Prime Minister notified the EU Commission of the UK's intention to leave the European Union under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The move triggers a two year negotiation process. The First Minister warned that, “If we believe our priorities are not being championed we will....not remain silent”.

Projects announced in March include: a partnership agreement between the Welsh Government and Heathrow Airport which includes landing slots for flights from Cardiff Airport and a rail spur; a £14million upgrade to Junction 28 of the M4 in Newport; the shortlisting of Port Talbot for a Category C “super prison”; £30million towards local transport projects and a £21million programme to help food and drink producers.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Post-Brexit goals for Welsh farming outlined

(Pic : Wales Online)

Last week, the Senedd's Environment Committee published its report on the future of Welsh agriculture and land management (pdf).

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

FMQs: Article 50, NHS Deficits & Grass fires

The news that the Welsh Government will refuse to bail out four health boards dominated proceedings today, but the activation of Article 50 tomorrow also focused attentions.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Coast with the most?

(Pic : The Telegraph)

Wales doesn't have the longest coastline in the world – and the Welsh perhaps aren't considered "seafaring" in the same way as the Cornish or English. Nonetheless it's a spectacular addition to the natural beauty of the country and could also provide a significant economic boost, which was the focus of the latest backbench debate in the Senedd.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

FMQs: City Deals, IndyWales & Rough Sleeping

It was a rather sedate edition of FMQs this afternoon (not that it's different to any other week) with today also marking Carwyn's 50
th birthday 🎉 - to the jocularity of opposition leaders.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Right to Buy set to be abolished in Wales

(Pic : The Guardian)

The controversial "Right to Buy" scheme – a flagship policy of  Margaret Thatcher – is set to be abolished in Wales as part of a Bill formally introduced by Communities Secretary, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), yesterday afternoon.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

FMQs: IndyRef2, Drugs & Urgent Stuff

The usual stuff was on the agenda today alongside an abnormally large number of urgent questions (a few more weeks and I never have to do this again). Once again, Leader of the House, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), was filling in for the First Minister.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Committees Bite Size #3: March 2017

Here's another round up of some of the committee inquiry reports that've come out of the Senedd over the last few weeks, including: ovarian cancer screening, two Stage One reports on Welsh laws, the Kancoat grant scandal and support for ethnic minority and traveller school pupils.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Welsh Economy: On Solid Foundations?

  (Pic : via
© Copyright Kev Griffin and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.)

The latest backbench member's debate – held this afternoon – focused on the "foundational economy". No, I'd never heard of the term either, but if you care about the future of the Welsh economy it's worth paying attention to.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

FMQs: Aid, Air & Dogs

After last weekend's “excitement” I was hoping to return to normality. Plaid's Assembly Group have dealt with the issue in a refreshingly swift and professional manner even if – despite what I wrote on Sunday - a suspension seems too strong. As far as I'm concerned the matter's closed.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

We need to talk about Neil

(Pic : BBC)
For the second time in succession, a Plaid Cymru conference has been overshadowed by internal politics.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Senedd Watch - February 2017

  • The UK House of Commons approved a Bill authorising the activation of Article 50 - granting the Prime Minister leave to the start the EU withdrawal process - by 498 votes to 114 on February 1st. 10 Welsh MPs from Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems and Labour voted against the Bill.
    • The UK Government published its Brexit white paper on February 2nd. Proposals include: migration controls, maintaining the Common Travel Area with Ireland, securing rights and status of EU nationals in the UK (and vice versa) and a bespoke UK-EU free trade agreement.
    • Finance & Local Government Secretary, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), called for Wales to retain access to the European Investment Bank saying, “We are facing unprecedented challenges in terms of public finances so it's vitally important we unlock all opportunities to boost investment.”
    • Eluned Morgan AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) warned that Welsh ferry ports could lose traffic to Irish Sea ports in Scotland and Northern Ireland if the UK leaves the EU customs union. She said it would require, “more money, more infrastructure and more red tape”.
  • Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), announced higher education funding body, HEFCW, will be scrapped following an independent review. A new organisation will be established to fund universities, further education colleges, research and skills.
  • The Assembly's Culture Committee's review of Welsh broadcasting recommended the BBC commit to spending £30million on English language broadcasting, that Welsh news opt-outs be provided on Radio 1 and Radio 2 and S4C's funding be protected. On 21st February, BBC Director-General Tony Hall announced an additional £8.5million towards English language programming in Wales.
  • The Llywydd, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion), admitted to BBC Wales that despite new powers “stretching” AM workloads, the argument for Assembly expansion was “difficult”. An expert panel chaired by Prof. Laura McAllister was established to explore electoral reform and is due to report in Autumn 2017.
  • A report by the think-tank Gorwel revealed 44% of AMs had previously been councillors, despite the proportion of the population who've done the same being less than 0.1%. Also, only 16% of sitting AMs had been employed in the private sector despite the sector representing 68% of the workforce.
  • UKIP leader, Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP, Mid & West Wales), wrote to the Llywydd saying it was "highly irresponsible" to block any Senedd visit by US President Donald Trump, as it could put investment at risk. He also warned her "display of impartiality" could lead to calls for her to stand down. It came as Elin Jones supported a ban on Trump speaking at Westminster on social media.
  • Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) introduced member's legislative proposal motion calling for life-saving skills to be compulsory in the Welsh curriculum. She said, "Schools can do this now....but take-up is not huge." The Assembly backed the proposal by 33 votes to 3 with 17 abstentions on February 8th.
  • The Welsh Government said they would look in detail at revised financial plans for the Circuit of Wales motor sports development in Blaenau Gwent before giving backing to the project, after the company behind the £425million scheme revealed the names of possible investors. A due diligence process lasting 6 weeks will be necessary before a final decision is made.
  • The UK High Court ruled a proposed £84million takeover of Dee Valley Water by Coventry-based Severn Trent could proceed following a dispute over a shareholder vote. Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) disagreed with the ruling saying, “Small shareholders have been disregarded.....while big corporate shareholders will be laughing all the way to the bank.”
  • Citizens Advice Cymru called for employers to end workplace discrimination against disabled people after it was revealed just 43% of people of working age Welsh people with a disability or long-term condition were employed compared to 79% of non-disabled.
  • The Public Accounts Committee criticised a Welsh Government decision to award Swansea-based Kancoat £3.4million between 2012 and 2014, despite warnings from financial advisers that the company was in serious trouble, later going into administration. The Committee recommended decisions that go against official advice be documented.
  • Minister for Public Health & Social Services, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), suspended the Chair and Vice-Chair of Sports Wales and reinstated the rest of the board following a ministerial review after a damning internal report in 2016. The Minister said the decision was due to a serious breakdown in inter-personal relations.
  • Communities Secretary, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), announced the process by which Communities First will be phased out. Funding will be cut by 30% until April 2018 with a £6million legacy fund for well-performing projects after that.
    • Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda), accused the Secretary of “walking away from our poorest communities”, while Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) said many schemes in his constituency would end - claims the Secretary rejected as “frightening people”.
  • Tata Steel employees backed a deal tabled by the company – which will involve a conditional £1billion investment and controversial changes to pension schemes – by 72% to 28% on February 15th. The General Secretary of the Community union said the vote, “provides a move forward in our discussions with Tata and find a sustainable solution for the British Steel Pension Scheme.”
  • A Freedom of Information request revealed Michelle Brown AM (UKIP, North Wales) asked the Assembly Commission if a job advert for a staff member could be altered to prevent her brother being sifted out of potential candidates. The job wasn't filled. It came weeks after it was also revealed the AM was fined for “illegally smoking” at a Cardiff hotel in May 2016.
  • A concessionary bus travel pilot scheme for 16-18 year olds, which was originally due to be scrapped in March 2017, was reinstated. Funding will be extended until 2018 when a new youth travel pass will be launched. The Conservatives said the “u-turn” was an example of Welsh Government mismanagement.
  • Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, said the proposed Newport M4 bypass shouldn't go ahead over concerns about the amount of borrowing required to fund the project and because it didn't provide a “long-term, sustainable solution” to problems resulting from Brynglas Tunnel congestion.
  • Ofcom were asked to investigate how a public affairs company, Deryn, were awarded a monitoring contract without prior tendering, and whilst having two directors sit on Ofcom's advisory board. Neil McEvoy AM (Plaid, South Wales Central) said, “It’s impossible to know whether Deryn offered the public value for money since no other companies were able to bid for the contract.”
  • The OECD backed reforms to the Welsh National Curriculum in a report released on February 28th. The new curriculum is set to be in place by 2021, with the OECD saying the changes should be underpinned by continued investment. The Education Secretary told the Senedd, “We can use our size as an advantage in ensuring coherence, confidence and a truly national commitment to reform”.

Projects announced in February include: a £10million loan scheme to bring derelict buildings back into use; the launch of £10,000 a year postgraduate student loans from August 2017; a £1million music endowment fund; a £104million programme to improve energy efficiency of 25,000 homes in deprived areas; a £10million business rate relief scheme; a £95million package for health care education and training and a £14million upgrade of A&E facilities at Ysbyty Gwynedd.