Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.

Assembly

The latest news, debates and reports from the Senedd. (Fourth Assembly stories are under 'Archive').

Bridgend

The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.

Laws

We gave AMs law-making powers; this is what's being done with them.

Committee Inquiries

Detailed scrutiny of how Wales is being run. (Fourth Assembly inquiries are under 'Archive').

Independence In Depth : Defending Wales

How could Wales defend itself as an independent nation?

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).

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Vice Nation: Junk Food

Wales is presently one of the fattest countries in Europe, if not the world.
(Pic : superhealthykids.com)

There's no single definition of "junk food", but it generally means cheap, processed, high-calorie foods and drinks that contain high levels of salt, preservatives, sugar and saturated fats. At the same time they often contain little in the way of vitamins, fibre and protein.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Labour's Committee Collapse & More

The current state of play in Bridgend Council.
(Click to enlarge)


Here's another round-up of some of the main items on the agenda of this week's Bridgend Council (BCBC) cabinet and full council meetings.

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”.

Backbenchers

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 worse....it 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.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Beginning of the End



Since August I've been asking myself, "Why am I still doing this?"

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Law to support Additional Learning Needs introduced

(Pic : Northampton College)
Having stood down the "picket line", it's worth giving those of you who might've laughed it off a friendly reminder of how much work's done here - just under two hours for this post; no pay, very little if any coverage of this topic anywhere other than the BBC. It's also what's going to be lost in the future; more on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

FMQs: On Strike



The final First Ministers Questions of 2016 takes place this afternoon, but you won't be getting anything from me.

Monday, 12 December 2016

National Ass. sucked into own rectum


We really, really could be calling our AMs "Ass-sucks" in the future - not joking. Read on.


As suggested yesterday, it's becoming harder to tell where reality ends and satire starts.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Year Satire Died


2016 has marked some notable deaths, but the biggest celebrity death of the year was Satire, who passed away peacefully having suffered a long illness called humanity.

Satire spent time in a coma, but briefly regained consciousness before expiring, surrounded by friends Irony and Slapstick – who graciously provided an outline of Satire's final moments.

After coming around, and a nurse fluffing their pillows, Satire was upbeat, "Fill me in on everything that's happened, so I can get back to work as soon as I'm out of here."

The blood drained from Irony and Slapstick's face, "We'll start softly. How about football?"

"Tell me some things are still sacred in this world. Tell me Jose Mourinho is still a wanker."


"Yes, nothing's changed," Slapstick replied. "Irony, why don't you fill Satire in on Euro 2016?"

"It's a good place to start. Wales reached the semi-finals, while England were knocked out by a desolate volcanic rock, whose pool of professional players is shorter than a Post Office queue. They didn't even need penalties."

"What!?" Satire's blood pressure rises and the machines surrounding him start making unsettling noises, but they manage to calm themselves down before drawing the attention of the medical staff.

Slapstick takes over, "Then they replaced Woy Wodgeson with Sam Allardyce – who got sacked after a few weeks because nobody looked at his track record at club level and thought, 'Hmm, he might be a bit dodgy.' England were paying him £3million a year yet he was still looking for an extra 400 grand."

"The jokes write themselves, I suppose," Satire said. "I guess things in domestic football calmed down by the end of the year."

The two friends shake their heads. "Remember Jimmy Savile?" Irony adds. "Times that by three."

"What else?" Slapstick thinks. "Oh, there was that thing where people were going around dressed as clowns, standing in creepy poses on doorsteps and in the streets, or trying to catch monsters on their smart phones."

"You mean the Welsh Assembly election?"


"It produced one of the biggest shocks in modern political history," Slapstick says, piquing Satire's interest.

"Really?"

"No, Labour won."


"What about the legendary Elwyn Davies?"


"Elwyn remains the politician Wales deserves."

"What really happened?"

"The thing is," Irony says, "you know how I said Labour won. Well they still didn't have a majority, so with Plaid Cymru gaining a massive one seat and taking their total number to 12, they decided Leanne Wood should be First Minister instead so put it to the vote."
"That's a reasonable tactic to send Labour a message and give them a bloody nose, maybe even force them to the negotiating table, even if it was a certain loss," Satire concludes.

"The vote was tied; Labour threw their toys out of the pram because they didn't get their own way while Leanne Wood was very nearly made First Minister with Tory support."


Satire rolls over in pain; his sides are splitting and not in a good way.

"It get's better", Slapstick adds. "The only Lib Dem joined the cabinet, but everyone's still trying to convince themselves there's no formal coalition."

"Just to prove how topsy-turvy everything is," Irony says, "one of the most senior and experienced AMs left the main opposition party because the party were opposing too much. Plus, the privately-educated landowner, Andrew RT Davies, is half-successfully setting out his stall as the voice of the anti-establishment common man."
"How can anyone write jokes when this is what actually happens?" Satire laments. "Please tell me there's no more. I don't know how much I can take."
"UKIP," Slaptick gulps, "won seven seats."

Satire groans as a nurse sticks their head around the door.

Irony explains further, "They ousted the guy who was the face of their successful campaign within days of taking office, and replaced him with a disgraced former MP who doesn't even live in Wales and who once wrote a song in support of the English football team."

Slapstick finishes, "At one of the first plenary meetings he equated the female opposition leaders with prostitutes."

Satire groans again, but Slapstick presses on, "At UK level they held two leadership elections in as many months as the first winner quit within 18 days, and one of the previous front runners was twatted in Brussels then left the party in a huff."
"Seven AMs. SEVEN." Irony reiterates. "They also want to build a motorway in Wales and make the Irish pay for it."

"It's not over yet," Slapstick warns. "We still need to talk about Brexit."

"The British are a sensible group of people,"
Satire replies half-reluctantly. "I'm sure the debate was a reasoned one, based on the pros and cons of membership of a globally significant trading bloc, the possibility of reform from within in areas such as immigration and the fiscal union, as well as a detailed analysis of the options - and workable plan – should the UK leave the EU."

"Well...." the pair don't quite know how to break the news, "....it came down to spending a phantom £350million a week on the NHS; 'kick 'em out'; both sides accusing each other of scaremongering and German car-makers needing us more than we need them."
"No...." Satire becomes short of breath, "how bad....is the damage?"

Slapstick runs off a list with his fingers, "The pound is about as valuable as Monopoly money, while there was a brief run on Marmite and Pot Noodle; even Toblerones and packets of Maltesers have shrunk. After seeing what's happening here, support for the EU has risen in the EU itself too, while it's expected to leave a £122billion black hole in public finances over the next four years.
"Also, people who were once arguing that Brexit would result in power being wielded by a sovereign UK Parliament, are now complaining because a court have decided that power should be wielded by a sovereign UK Parliament. So now they're appealing it."

"It looks like the UK can't afford 'independence',"Irony added. "You know something's not quite right when the son of Ian Paisley is touting Irish passports, and the grand plan for post-Brexit trade is flogging jam, tea and biscuits to the Japanese."

"Why didn't anyone warn them?!"

"The people 'had enough of listening to experts', so they listened to Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg instead. Gove writes for The Times, don't you know."
"Well you can't write this stuff....Who was the voice of opposition in all this?"

"Nicola Sturgeon still has her head screwed on," Slaptick explains, "but at a UK level it was Jeremy Corbyn."

"Corbyn?" Satire recollects. "Oh, I remember him from before I went into a coma; the unelectable Trot. I take it amidst the chaos over Brexit there was a leadership contest, and one of these great, multi-talented rising stars I kept hearing so much about stuck their neck out and took over in case there was a snap general election – Dan Jarvis, Chukka Umuna, Caroline Flint...."

"....Owen Smith."

"Owen who?"

"Exactly." Irony is tempted to laugh it off but realises Satire's in no condition for jokes, "Jeremy Corbyn now has an even stronger mandate. He's almost certain - as a pound shop Michael Foot - to lead Labour into the next general election against a pound shop Margaret Thatcher who's getting better polling figures than Tony Blair in 1997."

"The corpse of the 'progressive alliance' is being propped up on a stick again," Slapstick continues, "meaning Greens could be asked to vote for Trident-supporting, pro-nuclear Labour candidates to keep out Trident-supporting, pro-nuclear baby-eating Tories. You and I both know the left only raise the idea of a 'progressive alliance' when they know they're fucked and have run out of ideas."

Satire lets out another howl of pain. Outside, a nurse points towards the room whilst talking things over with a doctor, "It can't get much worse, can it?" Satire just about has enough strength to go on. "The world still needs to keep the powers that be in check and that's my job. I'm still relevant damn it! It's too soon for me to die!"

"There is one more thing,"
Slapstick adds, unsure how Satire will take it. "You know how the Americans don't like being upstaged in anything...."

"....Yes...."

"....including playing yourself...."


"....give it to me."

"The Republican presidential candidate was a former reality TV star-cum-billionaire property tycoon who, whilst being as privileged as humanly possible, positioned himself as leading the fight against 'The Man'. He ran a campaign on mass deportations, white nationalism, boasting of sexual conquests and a casual attitude to nuclear weapons."

Irony cuts in, "He was so controversial he was 'inexplicably' getting blanket 24/7 coverage in newspapers, on TV news stations and on social media. Following the election of the first black president, Americans had a mainstream candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
"The Democrats picked the only candidate as untrustworthy and unlikable as him because it 'was her turn'. Plus, people take Facebook and Twitter so seriously nowadays they actually believe the fronts people put up to show they're living fulfilling lives instead of being deeply miserable like everyone else....and that Hillary Clinton is a reptilian with Alzheimer's."

Satire can't speak anymore, but their brow furrows as they muster the strength to rise from the bed and point as if about to say something.

"Yes, he won."

Friday, 9 December 2016

Committees Bite Size #1: December 2016


Like First Minister's Questions, this is an experiment in improving Oggy Bloggy Ogwr's depth of coverage. As some of you might've seen from my fifth anniversary post last March, I only cover about a third of the Assembly's committee work. This move will enable me to push closer to 80-100%.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Senedd busts a gut

(Pic : oeko-travel.org)

We're all living longer, but that doesn't necessarily mean we're any healthier. We also all know that obesity and lack of regular exercise are two of the most significant public health crises facing Wales.

There's no single root cause and no single solution. The one thing that can be said is that – like many public health issues – it comes down to changing behaviour.

There was a members debate in October on the benefits of walking and cycling (Senedd rallies to get Wales moving). This is a sequel, but with greater emphasis on the public health impacts of sedentary lifestyles.

The motion called for the Assembly to note that:
  • Obesity continue to rise and is more prevalent amongst poorer communities.
  • Changing eating habits is difficult and down to the availability and affordability of good food as well as general cooking skills.
  • The Active Travel Act 2013 is yet to make an impact on levels of walking and cycling.
  • Declines in smoking have come about through education and government action. A combination of education, legislation and public procurement changes are needed to address the growing public health problem.



Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) started off with the stark statistic that one quarter of Welsh adults are obese and 60% overweight (clip). The consequences are serious, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers. Also, the difference in life expectancy between rich and poor is 9-to-11 years, most of which is "completely avoidable".

Less than a third of adults eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day, while just 1% of food advertising promotes vegetables. Despite schemes like Appetite for Life, Wales has amongst the worst child obesity rates in the UK. Three measures Jenny highlighted that could bring about change include: restrictions on marketing (which is non-devolved), promoting healthy eating in schools and using taxes to change behaviour.

Jenny cited a scheme in Flintshire where children order school meals at registration. This eliminates waste by letting caterers know exactly how much to prepare, with seasonal products promoted – no other local authority has followed Flintshire's lead.

Around the world, France has introduced a tax on sugary drinks, Finland and Mexico have put taxes on sweets, sugary drinks and similar things like ice cream. In Hungary, they apply a public health tax to certain products, with consumers subsequently choosing cheaper or healthier alternatives and food manufactures reformulating their products to avoid taxation.

Plaid Cymru health spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn), said it was no overstatement that obesity is one of greatest health challenges of our age, but the tide isn't turning in the same way as smoking and alcohol where young people are now less likely to take them up (clip). Childhood obesity is worse now than it was a few years ago, and Rhun was saddened Anglesey has one of worst levels of childhood obesity, with a third of 5 year olds overweight or obese.

Tackling obesity needs the same commitment and resources as tackling smoking. Heavy taxation and advertising bans cut smoking rates, but tackling obesity makes that look easy. That's because the health impacts of obesity are not automatically understood as there's no single source, and foods only become harmful when over-consumed. There's no level of support to the obese similar to that provided for smokers, while governments still make decisions that contribute to unhealthy lifestyles like car-centric town and city planning.

Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) highlighted issues in disadvantaged areas. 63% of adults in Rhondda Cynon Taf were either overweight or obese, and obesity is expected to cost the Welsh NHS £465million and the wider economy £2.4billion by 2050 (clip). Also, only 1 in 3 children meet physical activity guidelines (see also - Fat of the Land : More work needed on childhood obesity). Policies like free swimming promote exercise, while Change4Life promotes health eating in schools. Cwm Taf health board are also providing obese pregnant women with specialist ante-natal services to prevent weight gain during and after pregnancy.

Vikki was disappointed the UK Government watered down proposals on sugar and unhealthy food advertising, particularly as unhealthy food remains cheap and accessible. Welsh children also suffer from a "nature deficit disorder" where they have weaker attachment to the outdoors than children elsewhere in the UK; dealing with this can encourage them to take more exercise.

Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) believed it was important not to just talk about this but get to grips with it (clip). As a doctor he's dealt with problems stemming from obesity, seeing the solution as combination of healthy eating, stricter portion sizes and increasing breast-feeding (see also: Life, Ethics & Independence XI : Breastfeeding) to give babies a good start in life - research shows it decreases obesity.

Nobody has to go to extremes on personal fitness, it's as simple as walking as much as possible; this "natural fitness" can't be replicated by prescription medicines. Dai talked up legislative measures, which have successfully reduced smoking and can change the way society thinks about an issue.

John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) said it's also important to have strong local examples in what can be done to meet the challenges so good practice is spread out (clip). Newport holds "physical activity summits" with key partners. He also praised a local Park Run scheme, where hundreds of people take part every week, with agreement to hold a second meeting. John hoped physical literacy will be driven forward in schools to embed good habits in young people that stay with them for life (see also: Should PE be a compulsory subject?).

Gareth Bennett AM (UKIP, South Wales Central) said levels of walking and cycling haven't shown much improvement since the Active Travel Act, with an actual decline in walking to school (clip). He asked whether the Welsh Government could offer financial incentives to encourage walking to school and outdoor activities? They could also support leisure centres, who through outsourcing may increase prices and entrance fees. He criticised the lack of targets to boost active travel in the Future Generations Act, and questioned how cyclists and walking will be integrated into the South Wales Metro.

Long distance cycle paths -  welcome though they are - do little
to encourage "everyday" physical activity.
(Pic : Visit Wales)

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) was proud of the Active Travel Act, but it has to be used at every opportunity (clip). A message needs to go out that people can help develop safe walking and cycling routes that are useful to them. However, health habits need to start young – whether breast-feeding or ante-natal support – and Sustrans are targeting young mothers and mothers-to-be, as there's evidence that if parents walk or cycle, their children will too.

Julie also focused on poverty. For both boys and girls aged 2-15, there's a greater prevalence of obesity in lower-income groups. Nutrient-dense foods are more expensive and lower-income consumers have lower protein, iron, oily fish and vitamin intake.


Lee Waters AM (Lab, Llanelli) endorsed John Griffith's praise for Park Run, being enthused by the support of volunteers – many of whom wouldn't do any exercise if the scheme didn't exist, making the £6,000 investment in getting Park Runs off the ground a "no-brainer" (clip).

The Active Travel Act "shouldn't be a tick-box exercise", but is a huge opportunity to get people who take little or no exercise to do some as part of their everyday routine; leisure centres and gyms are ineffective with such groups. Most car journeys are under 1 mile and these journeys need to be done by foot or by bike.

He said AMs had a cognitive dissonance in saying they want to do something on public health, but being inconsistent in how they apply it. He cited support for free parking in town centres as, despite AMs wanting to increase active travel, the policy encourages car travel. He also had guarded criticism for Carmarthenshire Council for focusing development of long-distance cycling/walking routes for tourists at the expense of utilitarian point-to-point urban routes in Llanelli.

Minister for Public Health & Social Services, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), said that while the Welsh Government were doing more to create the circumstances for people to make healthy choices they can't do it alone (clip).

The Change4Life programme will be complemented by Public Health Wales training health staff to offer brief, helpful advice on lifestyle changes. At a UK level, we need restrictions on advertising of high fat, sugar and salt foods – particularly to children. She supports the UK's sugary drinks levy but would like to see progress, citing the voluntary salt reduction with food producers scheme, which has resulted in salt levels falling by 50% since 2012. Procurement criteria will factor in nutrition – something already being done in the NHS and set to expand across the public sector.

In terms of active travel, there's a commitment to work with schools to develop walk-to-school schemes and fund cycling and walking training. Local authorities are also currently working on their integrated active travel maps under the Act.

Over 80% of the adults are non-smokers for the first time since records began, and this has been achieved through preventing uptake amongst the young and helping people quit. The recently-introduced Public Health Bill includes "strong" measures on smoking, while there's a target to reduce the percentage of the population who smoke population to 16% by 2020.

In summing up, Conservative health spokesperson, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.), said the Minister could do one thing today without a grand strategy (clip): increase the amount of time dedicated to sport in schools (which has consistently declined over the decade) and be more creative in defining "physical activity" – girls may be more body conscious and dislike team sports, for example.

It was also all well and good taking part in Park Runs or going to a gym surrounded by "Lycra-clad bunnies" – but the large group of people who are overweight need to feel less embarrassed and out of place when attempts are made to "bring them in", as their body image may put them off exercise in the first place.

The motion was unanimously approved.

Guts up!

It was always going to be difficult to cover so many points in a limited amount
of time, but cooking lessons were broadly overlooked in the debate.
(Pic : Barry Comprehensive School)

I'm not going to spend too much time on commentary as I've written a lot about this in the past and I intend to look at junk food (with a view towards independence) in January, so I'll be coming back to some of the issues raised yesterday, particularly tax.

The only area in the motion that AMs didn't really address was cooking lessons. There's always a risk that, by trying to create a "literacy" for what are basic life skills, school timetables will be full to bursting - but I'd expect the argument for "food literacy" to rumble on ahead of the new curriculum.

Points made by Lee Waters and Angela Burns are worth picking up on. Firstly, there really is too much emphasis on long-distance walking and cycling routes aimed at tourists than those within and between urban areas (though hopefully the integrated travel maps will help there). Having a nice, scenic bike ride, walk or run along an old railway line is fine, but people need to walk from school, shops and work – not just in their leisure time - or the whole thing's pointless.

It's often the easiest option for local authorities because longer-distance routes are often much easier to engineer; for example, they won't interfere with road traffic as much and don't require large number of drop kerbs or other safety features. So you might end up with a high quality route between, for argument's sake, Pontypridd and Cardiff - but as soon as you get to Cardiff and stray too far from the Taff Trail things get more difficult to engineer and this in turn will put casual cyclists and walkers off, maintaining the cycle of car dependence.

Secondly, Angela Burns was right to say that as the majority of the adult population are now overweight or obese, the hectoring we've seen with smoking probably isn't going to work. The approach need to be subtle and needs to match what individuals want or would feel comfortable with. For example, women-only gyms staffed by women personal trainers, a wider variety of sports offered in schools (as said) and harder-nosed measures like banning secondary school pupils from leaving premises at lunchtime (whilst simultaneously offering nutritonally balanced options for them; ideally with their input).


Wednesday, 7 December 2016

PISA: Denial to Anger to Depression

(Pic : E)

Climb into your bath, track your arteries with a razor blade and bring on The Smiths.

It's PISA time and there's nothing the Welsh enjoy more than a good moan, revelling in the doom as we all – once again - rubber neck the slow motion car crash that is the Welsh education syst....

....like Glyn over at National Left I'm getting a strange sense of deja vu.

As you all know, the OECD's PISA tests in reading, mathematics and science are used to draw comparisons between the performance of 15-year-olds in the world's major economies.

PISA tests – which have an heavy emphasis on problem-solving and application of theories learned in the classroom – are taken every three years with the latest results released yesterday (6th December). There's a more detailed background on PISA's importance from the Assembly Research Service here.

There's been a growing sense from before May's Assembly election and the period after it that the Welsh Government have been softening us up for bad news.

Labour rolled back on promises that we would see improved PISA scores, while current Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), re-emphasised the long-standing need for XYZ (usually a mix of collaboration, curriculum changes and more spending on disadvantaged pupils) to improve matters.

In the end, the managing of expectations was justified....but it's not quite as bad as it seems.

The Results
PISA & Wales 2006-2015

The general report is available here (pdf), and the summary relevant to Wales and the UK is available here (pdf).

I'll get the good news out of the way first.

Welsh performances in mathematics has jumped significantly - up 10 points from 468 in 2012 to 478 in 2015. Although Wales is still ranked bottom of the Home Nations and below the OECD average, the gap has closed with England (493), Northern Ireland (493) and Scotland (491). It's actually our second-best result since Welsh students started taking the tests.

Now the bad news.

In reading, the Welsh score fell by 3 points compared to 2012 from 480 to 477 and remains below the OECD average. This still lags behind England (500), Scotland (493) and Northern Ireland (497) but because the other Home Nations have done worse than expected, the performance gap has closed slightly.

Finally, science – which has traditionally been Wales' strongest area. Welsh scores have fallen by 6 points from 491 to 485, with England (512), Northern Ireland (500) and Scotland (497) all out-performing Wales yet again. The 20-25 point gap hasn't changed much.

Overall, this is another set of disappointing results with one big bright spot on maths; but for once it's the other nations in the UK who have more to worry about – in particular Scotland and, considering the amount of effort that's gone into making their curriculum "more rigerous", England too.

Other key findings:


  • There's no significant difference in performance between boys and girls in science. While girls out-perform boys in reading and boys out-perform girls in maths, the gender gap is narrower in Wales in both cases than the other Home Nations. Boys are marginally more likely to be "top performers" (proficient at the highest levels 5 & 6 in the tests) than girls.
  • Only 4-5% of pupils in Wales are considered "top performers" in reading, maths and science, compared to the UK average of 10-12%.
  • 28% of Welsh pupils expect to have a career where scientific knowledge is a prerequisite, near enough the same as the UK average but higher than the OECD average (24%). However, in Wales more top performers in science (55%) expect to have a career in science than the lowest performers (17%) when compared to the rest of the UK.
  • Headteachers in Wales are significantly less likely (20%) to say shortages in teachers with a science degree impacts delivery of lessons than the rest of the UK (43%).
  • 35% of Welsh pupils said they skipped at least one day of school in the two weeks prior to the PISA tests - the highest percentage in the UK and significantly higher than the OECD average (20%). This is more common in disadvantaged schools than advantaged schools.

International Comparisons

  • In mathematics, the Welsh score (478) places us roughly mid-table alongside Malta (479), Hungary (477), but ahead of the United States (470), Israel (470) and most of eastern Europe.
  • In reading, the Welsh score (477) again places us somewhere in the middle to lower-half alongside Argentina (475), Luxembourg (481) and Lithuania (472).
  • When it comes to science, Wales (485) is just about in the top half of the table in between Russia (487) and Luxembourg (482), but out-performing Italy (481), Iceland (473) and Israel (467).
  • Overall, the tables are dominated by Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taiwan, Finland and Canada. Wales is about 10-15 points behind the scores attained by most EU member states.

Five Stages of Grief

Here's what previous education ministers have had to say following the release of PISA results.

Denial - Jane Hutt (2007):
"The real benefits of the PISA assessments will come not from the headline figures and league table rankings, but from the detailed analysis of strengths and weaknesses and what more we can learn from the best and most effective practice internationally."

Anger - Leighton Andrews (2010):
"These results are disappointing. They show an unacceptable fall in our overall performance - everyone involved in the education sector in Wales should be alarmed. There can be no alibis and no excuses. Countries with less money spent on education than Wales have done better than Wales. Schools, local authorities, and ourselves as government need to look honestly at these results and accept responsibility for them."


Bargaining - Huw Lewis (2013):
"Everybody working in and around the Welsh education sector needs to take a long hard look in the mirror this week. The PISA results are stark and the message is very clear, we must improve educational attainment and standards right across the board. I expect to see the impact of our reforms reflected in the next set of results. They're ambitious and I believe they will have a lasting, sustainable and positive effect on education in Wales."

Depression - Kirsty Williams (2016):
"We can all agree we are not yet where we want to be. While we have seen a 10 point lift in our maths score, the results for science are disappointing. Last month I invited the OECD to look at how we are doing in Wales; their advice to me was unambiguous: Stay the course, be brave, you are doing the right things. The easy thing to do would be rip up the plan and start again. But we owe it to our pupils, parents and the profession to do what is right."

Maybe in 2019 Wales will finally reach Acceptance.

PISA – useful tool as it is – isn't the be all and end all when it comes to measuring educational attainment, and its wider economic impact is negligible with very little correlation between good PISA scores and a strong economy.

For example, a large part of South Korea – which consistently ranks near the top in PISA – has a GVA per capita very similar to Wales, while Welsh workers are about 25% more productive than those in Shanghai. PISA isn't a qualification either so has no bearing on employment prospects or a factor in determining that pupils are being "abandoned".

That said, there are no more excuses and Wales should be doing better than we are.

Where next?


Despite the marked improvement in maths, the portents of doom from our media – even Wales Online graciously managed to drop advertising-masquerading-as-news about a bar in Cardiff to cover this – are as pronounced as previous years.

We can't see beyond the British Bubble and realise this is about 70+ nations and stateless nations. Everything comes down to England, when Wales is decidedly mid to upper-mid table both globally and at a European level, not at "the bottom" of anything. We really need to be looking at the likes of Estonia, Finland and the Republic of Ireland for a fair benchmark.

Government AMs have gone through the usual platitudes of saying how disappointed they are and that things will improve, while opposition AMs are screaming for "something to be done" without actually saying what.

Based on Kirsty Williams' reaction, there's a realisation that it's perhaps better to let reforms filter through than take knee-jerk action, but I'm fully expecting the Education Secretary to still come under pressure from certain quarters. There's no such thing as long-term thinking in Wales, particularly when we feel "embarrassed" in front of the English, when they're more concerned about being embarrassed in front of the Chinese.

Some of those reforms – the introduction of numeracy tests and the start of separate numeracy and mathematics GCSEs - may well have contributed in part to the improvement we've seen in maths. Our reading and maths scores have remained relatively stable since 2006; it's our science scores that are dragging us down  - as you can see from the graph earlier. Science rarely gets a look in when it comes to discussions on Welsh education, it's all about literacy and numeracy.

However, one of the key lessons which the OECD themselves say nations should take on board, is that the best performing nations value and respect teachers. It's not about class sizes. It's not about selective schools. It's not about bilingualism. It's not about how much money you spend per pupil.

As much as I don't want to let Labour off the hook for their failure, for the next PISA cycle - and ahead of the eventual introduction of the new National Curriculum - let's try something really radical: do nothing.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

FMQs: PISA, Article 50 & Bank Closures




Obviously the big story today is the OECD's PISA 2015 results – I'm pushing to get something done for tomorrow but I'm currently unwell 😰. In the meantime, there's the penultimate FMQs of 2016 with PISA featuring heavily as you might expect.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Arfon Jones & Legalising Drugs

(Pic : Daily Post)

Gwynedd county councillor, Cllr. Sion Jones (Lab, Bethel), has called for the resignation of PCC Arfon Jones (Plaid, North Wales Police) - who recently called for drugs to be "legalised", and offered his support to the idea of clean "fix rooms" for drug addicts who use injectable drugs after a man was filmed injecting in a Caernarfon Bus Station toilet.