Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.

Assembly

The latest news, debates and reports from the Senedd.

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 it.

Committee Inquiries

Detailed scrutiny of how Wales is being run.

Wales and the World

Foreign Policy : How should Wales take its place amongst the global community?

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Wales & The World X : What's Wales For?

(Pic : ITV Wales)

And so this series draws to a close with the most important post of all – What's Wales for? What could, or would, be different about foreign policy in Wales post-independence?

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Wales & The World IX : Our Responsibilities

"Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us." - Carl Sagan
(Pic : Voyager I via liberaterva.com)
The final two parts in this series will try to answer the "What would Wales do on the international stage?" question. Today I look at what Wales will be obliged, or expected, to do.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Wales & The World VIII : Treaties & Agreements

(Pic : ITV)

This one's for hardcore constitutional anoraks. Despite that, it's one of the more important questions surrounding independence and foreign policy : Would the UK's current international treaty obligations extend to newly-independent states (like Wales and Scotland)?

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Wales & The World VII : Foreign Policy & Defence

Foreign affairs, international development and defence policy are all closely related.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
You can't ignore defence when it comes to foreign policy. They're ultimately two sides of the same coin when projecting national influence - whether that's using the military for primarily peaceful means (like disaster relief) or rampant interventionalism.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Wales & The World VI : The Global Community

Will Y Ddraig Goch fly amongst them one day?
(Pic : UK Government)
One of the signs you've "made it" as an independent nation is United Nations membership. The UN isn't the be all and end all, but a Welsh seat at the top table of these organisations (and numerous ones I haven't listed) would be an unprecedented opportunity.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Wales & The World V : Wales in Europe

(Pic : Wales Online)
In previous parts, I've looked at the underlying requirements for foreign policy. This time it's worth taking a detailed look at the foreign policy options in our immediate back garden.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Wales & The World IV : Diplomatic Relations

(Pic : izquotes.com)
Diplomacy is the art of negotiation and exchange of views in international affairs. It's not just about properly representing the interests of your own state, but striking deals, gaining strategic advantages, softening up governments and even issuing threats.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Wales & The World III : The State Apparatus

What would a Welsh state need to enact foreign policy?
(Pic : UK Government)
Now we're starting to get into the details of the precise hows, whats and whys of a Welsh foreign policy. This part looks at what the Welsh state itself will need to have in place to enact foreign policy and, more importantly, allow elected representatives to scrutinise foreign policy.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Wales & The World II : What's the Welsh National Interest?

How can we tell whether foreign policy decisions are in Welsh interests?
(Pic : Wales Online)
"The National Interest" as a concept means the goals and aims of a sovereign nation state in international affairs. This could be entirely to serve a nation's self-interest, or it can involve co-operating with other nations in order to serve the interests of all parties.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Wales & The World I : Our Embryonic Foreign Policy


It's been months in the making (years in the talking of doing it), but at last I've finally got round to it. I've been looking forward to this and I hope those "hard nationalists" who read the blog will appreciate it too.

Friday, 31 July 2015

WAG Watch - July 2015

  • An independent report into University Hospital Cardiff's accident and emergency department described “endemic bullying behaviour”, an “authoritarian” management regime and chronic staff shortages. Cardiff & Vale University Health Board accepted the findings.
  • Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling MP, announced that MPs representing English constituencies – and, in some cases, Welsh-based MPs - would have a veto on legislation affecting England-only (or EnglandandWales). Labour accused the Conservatives of attempting to manufacture a larger majority, while the SNP said it was a “cobbled-together mess”.
  • The Welsh Government launched a green paper on reforms to transparency and openness in the Welsh NHS, including proposals such as "strengthening" community health councils and giving local health boards borrowing powers. It's anticipated legislation would be introduced in the Fifth Assembly.
  • NUT Cymru warned that an (average) £64-per-pupil funding cut for 2015-16 – the first school spending cut in a decade – will come as “alarming news to teachers, parents and pupils.” The Welsh Government said that despite the cut they had met their pledge to keep school spending at 1% above changes to the block grant.
  • Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West), called for a Wales Audit Office probe into local health board spending on fruit and vegetables. Some health boards were spending twice the market price for bananas, totalling an excess £390,000 across Wales.
  • Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), announced a national blood and transplant service would be established in May 2016. Currently, north Wales is served by the English NHS Blood & Transplant Service. It's estimated it would save £600,000 per year and create 16 jobs.
  • In the UK Chancellor's emergency budget on July 8th, George Osborne announced a £9-per-hour national living wage would be introduced by 2020, benefits would be capped at £20,000 per household outside London and working benefits would be frozen for four years. It was also announced that devolution of air passenger duty (APD) to Wales will “be considered”.
    • Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), described the budget as “an assault on young people” due to welfare cuts specifically targeting under-25s.
    • Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said a lower benefit cap outside London was “fair”, saying people should not make more from benefits than they would in work. He hoped private employers would move towards widespread adoption of the “living wage” and promised the Welsh Conservatives would introduce a 6-month council tax exemption for first-time buyers if they won the 2016 Assembly election.
    • The Welfare Reform Bill was approved at first reading by 308 votes to 124 in the House of Commons on July 20th. 48 Labour MPs - including 7 from Wales - rebelled against interim Labour Leader Harriet Harman's calls to abstain in order to “listen to voters” on welfare, which would result in £12billion of cuts by 2020.
  • Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), hosted a summit on the future of opencast mining on July 9th. He said, “I am concerned about the significant and lasting impacts of the failure to restore on communities living in close proximity to opencast sites” adding that he was discussing the issue with the UK Government.
  • The National Assembly's Petitions Committee report into a petition calling for defibrillators to be made available in public spaces recommended more be done to raise awareness of existing machines. Committee Chair, William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales) said, There is little doubt that almost everyone is capable of using them to save lives.”
  • The leaders of Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Lib Dems signed a letter condemning proposed cuts to BBC and S4C – possibly amounting to £1.5million a year to S4C alone – and the small amount of English-language programming aimed at Welsh audiences, saying the “future of broadcasting in Wales is now in serious jeopardy”.
  • Welsh Lib Dem research revealed NHS staff made over 10,000 complaints about staff shortages since 2012. Party leader, Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) said, “These figures paint a picture of a Labour-run NHS that is under enormous strain and in desperate need of help”. The Welsh Government said overall staffing numbers are up on 10 years ago.
  • Plaid Cymru energy spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales), pledged Wales would produce all of its energy needs from renewable energy within 20 years if Plaid Cymru formed the next Welsh Government, facilitated by energy efficiency drives and community-owned power schemes.
  • A review into alleged abuse at care homes in south east Wales (Operation Jasmine) suggested the owners of the care homes in question should have been prosecuted. The reviewer, Dr Margaret Flynn, said the “absence of a judgement or legal resolution compounds the families' grief and sense of grievance”.
  • The Finance Minister introduced the Tax Collection & Management Bill to the National Assembly on July 14th. The Bill establishes a Welsh Revenue Authority to manage devolved taxes from April 2018, which includes landfill tax and stamp duty.
  • A Wales Audit Office report into the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) criticised the lack of Welsh Government oversight, suggesting the taxpayer could have lost £15million as a result of undervalued land sales. The Welsh Government said they would consider taking legal action to recover any losses.
  • A public consultation by the Assembly Commission found 53% of 11-25 year olds support lowering the voting age to 16, and 79% believed it was important for young people to learn about politics. Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) said, "This is the biggest ever response we've had to an Assembly consultation and therefore offers an authoritative analysis of the views of young people.”
  • A draft Minimum Alcohol Price Bill was put out for consultation by Deputy Health Minister Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) on July 15th. The proposals include introducing a minimum per-unit alcohol price of 50p and fines for retailers who don't comply with the law.
  • The Business & Enterprise Committee recommended more job opportunities be created for the over-50s, who are less likely to work than those of a similar age in the rest of the UK. Committee Chair, William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) said, “People are living longer and will have to retire later meaning work is now a necessity not a choice for the majority of this age group.”
  • In a letter to Natural Resources Wales (NRW), the Chair of the Environment Committee, Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), was concerned NRW was seen as “too close” to the Welsh Government and “doesn't appear to be clear about its purpose”. According to a survey only 14% of NRW staff believe the merger which formed the organisation in 2013 was well managed.
  • The Welsh Government proposed paying the tuition fees of medical students who commit to becoming GPs in order to stem a shortage as the workforce ages and retires. £4.5million was committed towards staff training and other proposals include flexible working and a GP recruitment drive. Labour previously criticised similar proposals from Plaid Cymru as “unworkable”.
  • Plaid Cymru economy spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Mon), expressed concern that a recently-announced £600million investment in Phase 2 of the South East Wales Metro was a re-announcement of plans for Valley Lines electrification. He said, "A Plaid Cymru government would take the Metro forward with a real vision....instead of re-badging....public transport schemes as a Metro."
  • Deputy Minister for Farming & Food, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Mid & West Wales), said an EU withdrawal would have "catastrophic consequences" for Welsh agriculture through the loss of £240million of annual CAP payments. UKIP leader in Wales, Nathan Gill MEP, said the UK Government could guarantee continuation of payments with money saved by an EU exit.
  • A short inquiry by the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee into the future of devolved powers recommended a "clear and durable" devolution settlement based on easy to understand reserved powers. The Committee and witnesses were concerned about the current proposed list of reserved powers, which could limit the National Assembly's ability to legislate.
  • The newly-formed Women's Equality Party said they intended to field candidates at the 2016 National Assembly election. UK leader, Sophie Walker, told BBC Wales, "We are going to field candidates and we think we stand a good chance and we think that will form a very good basis going forward to 2020".
  • A Public Accounts Committee inquiry into UK welfare reform recommended that tenants affected by the "bedroom tax" should receive financial help from the Welsh Government. A member of the Committee, Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central), criticised the "partisan" foreword to the report by Chair, Darran Millar AM, adding that the Welsh Government lacked resources to help tenants due to austerity.
  • The Health Minister announced a 12 month trial from October 2015 with regard ambulance response time targets, where targets would be scrapped for all but life-threatening emergencies. The NHS Confederation welcomed the proposal, but opposition parties were concerned about "moving the goalposts" and a long-standing failure to hit current response targets.
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats pledged to create 2,500 "rent-to-buy" homes - which can be purchased without a deposit - if they form the next government after the 2016 National Assembly elections. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said, "if you can afford your rent then we will help you buy your own home".

Projects announced in July include : The launch of an upgraded TrawsCymru bus service in west Wales; a series of events in Cardiff in 2016 to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl's birth; a £19million extension to the Superfast Cymru scheme to reach an additional 45,000 premises by June 2017; a new 5-year plan to address high levels of suicide; £30million for four schemes to boost the rural economy and approval for a £200million gas-fired power station at Hirwaun.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Youth Gone Mild?

The findings of a National Assembly consultation suggest that while a majority of young people
support lowering the voting age to 16, their enthusiasm is perhaps more muted than expected.
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales via Flickr)

Just before the Assembly broke up for summer recess, the Assembly Commission and its youth initiative, Your Assembly, published a wide-ranging report on young people's attitudes towards politics and specific issues like lowering the voting age to 16 (pdf) - see also : The X-Factor and "Devo Wuh?" Young attitudes towards Welsh devolution.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Assembly Requests "Clear & Durable" Devolution Settlement

When the Prime Minister and that-other-bloke-who-used-to-be-important
announced their response to Silk II, it looked like we were due constitutional clarity.
So far it's still a bit cloudy.
(Pic : The Guardian)
The Assembly's Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee recently reported back on a short inquiry they undertook into the future of devolved powers. This was done in light of Silk Commission Part II, the fallout from 2014's Scottish independence referendum, St David's Day Agreement and the forthcoming Wales Bill – expected to be introduced in the autumn.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Assembly calls for assistance for older jobseekers

Are the needs of older workers and the older unemployed being neglected?
(Pic : BBC)

They've previously done work on job opportunities for the young (Gissa Job : Assisting Young People Into Work), but last week, the National Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee published a report into job opportunities for the over-50s (pdf).

Monday, 20 July 2015

Bridgend Council Secretly Approves Playing Field Sell-Off

In closed session, Bridgend Council approved the sell-off of the present
Coety Primary School, controversially including the school playing fields.
(Pic : via Barton Willmore)
The new Coety Primary School in Parc Derwen is close to completion and due to open in November 2015, but questions remained over what would happen to the old Coety Primary site at Heol y Ysgol.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

End of Year Report 2015

The curtain comes down on another Assembly year, the last summer recess
before the big boys and girls face their tough examinations next May.
(Pic : The Guardian)


Another Assembly year ends. While AMs start their 9-week summer recess, it's time to reflect on the performance of key personalities over the last year, being the final such report before the 2016 National Assembly election.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Bill Outlining Devolved Tax Arrangements Introduced

The Welsh Revenue Authority will manage devolved taxes
from April 2018 - including landfill tax and stamp duty.
Last week,  Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) introduced the Tax Collection & Management Bill to the National Assembly. It establishes the mechanisms required to ensure that when certain taxes are devolved to Wales in April 2018 they're collected and managed robustly - the clue's in the name (see also : Assembly Calls for Tax Power Accountability)

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap IV : Endgame?

After a wait of years, the Wales Audit Office has finally
delivered its verdict on the RIFW land sale scandal.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
It's been three years in the making, but at long last the Wales Audit Office have delivered their verdict on the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) and the sale of land parcels to an offshore company, South Wales Land Developments (pdf).

It doesn't make good reading for the Welsh Government. At all.

It's so serious it warranted a special episode of Week In, Week Out : The Big Welsh Land Scandal? which will be broadcast tonight at 10:35 (iPlayer link).

A Brief Recap
The core issue is how or why RIFW sold widely-known lucrative development
land (like Lisvane, above) for significantly less than its proper value.
(Pic : Wales Online)


RIFW was established as an arms-length public body by former Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones. Its primary goal was to sell Welsh Government-owned land to raise match funds for regeneration projects in the EU Objective One area (West Wales & The Valleys).

In 2012, RIFW sold a parcel of 15 pieces of land to South Wales Land Developments (SWLD), which was based in the tax haven of Guernsey. This includes land in Bridgend (Pyle and Brackla Industrial Estate), Lisvane in Cardiff (now being developed as Churchlands), Wrexham and Llandudno Junction.

Former police officer and Conservative AM for South Wales West - now MP for Gower - Byron Davies, referred the sale to the Wales Audit Office (WAO). It was understood the land was sold for a total of just £20.6million.

There's nothing controversial about that in itself; however, because the land was certain to be developed for housing – particularly the Cardiff plot – the actual value of the land would've risen considerably, meaning RIFW (effectively the Welsh Government) sold lucrative land for significantly less than it was worth. From the Cardiff land alone, at the time it was estimated the Welsh Government will have missed out on a potential ~£120million.

There were "claw back clauses" inserted into the deal to ensure that if the value of the land rose, the Welsh Government would get some extra money back, but the exact details were unclear. The implication was that the land was deliberately or accidentally undervalued, the sale was rushed unnecessarily or that someone passed insider information to SWLD.

The Welsh Government suspended RIFW projects in February 2013 (except one in Neath town centre) and ordered two internal investigations. The Wales Audit Office also referred the deal to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

The WAO Report Key Findings

1. The RIFW Concept

  • The RIFW concept was "innovative", but the requirement to sell property distracted RIFW from its core purpose. There's no criticism of the concept, and WAO actually praise it – particularly providing regeneration funding in a period when accessing finance was difficult. Because there were (supposed) deadlines on the EU component of funding, the need to generate funding from land sales should've been acknowledged as a risk and perhaps distracted officials from the task of working on regeneration projects themselves.
  • Progress was slower than expected. The Welsh Government underestimated how long it would take to establish the fund, many projects were not deemed "investment ready", and there were delays as officials worked with interested developers to develop more robust plans – compounded by the economic conditions at the time.

2. Welsh Government Oversight

  • The Welsh Government failed to set out the oversight mechanisms for RIFW as an "arms-length body". RIFW was established as a limited liability partnership (LLP), wholly owned by the Welsh Government, with Welsh Ministers and officials as board members – having obtained legal advice to ensure it complied with EU law.
  • Amber Infrastructure Limited and Lambert Smith Hampton acted as independent fund and investment managers respectively. But because RIFW didn't have a chief executive, it was unclear who was accountable as all executive functions were carried out by Amber. This is described as a "complicated contractual arrangement" which hampered oversight.
  • RIFW would've appeared in the Welsh Government accounts and should've subsequently been subject to scrutiny from the Welsh Government's Corporate Governance Committees – but it never featured at committee meetings.
  • It was unclear where legal responsibility stopped because RIFW crossed a boundary between the Welsh Government and an entirely private company – this should've been cleared up in unambiguous guidance which was never issued.
  • The Welsh Government were represented at board meetings by an "observer", who expressed no concerns over the land sales. This involvement in itself would've compromised the "arms-length" nature of RIFW and could be interpreted as tacit Welsh Government approval of the sales.
  • Further oversight was hindered by departmental reorganisations between 2011-2012 following the 2011 Assembly elections, where responsibility for regeneration shifted and officials who were familiar with RIFW's work were moved. Vital information wasn't transferred with them.
  • RIFW's board was too small, meaning absences impacted performance and the large amount of work the board needed to get through placed burdens on all board members, many of whom were unpaid. An independent board member rarely participated due to a conflict of interest.
  • These weaknesses aren't contained to RIFW, as the Welsh Government internal investigation findings (Lloyd report) are relevant to other "arms-length" bodies.
  • Actions undertaken by the Welsh Government since the issue was raised (i.e. internal investigations and taking direct control of the fund) are described as "appropriate".

3. Value for Money

  • 23 plots were drawn up to be transferred to RIFW in 2009, it was estimated their total value was between £29.8-£35.6million (the higher figure being optimistic/"hope value").
  • The plots were transferred in 2010, however many of them were said to be unready for marketing and sale, plus information was inaccurate with "unresolved issues" at some sites.
  • It's acknowledged that many of the sites had "long-term development potential" if included in Local Development Plans, so a quick sale would minimise returns. RIFW weren't advised to keep hold of high-value land (like Lisvane) and were pressured to sell quickly because of various deadlines (explained later).
  • The Welsh Government published information that became known within the Welsh property industry (i.e. land values, cash requirements) and subsequently weakened their negotiating hand. This information was circulated to six unnamed property companies with interests in Wales, or clients with interests in Wales.
  • There was no December 2015 deadline to sell the land to meet EU match-funding requirements. Some high-value assets could've been held back for the second phase of RIFW beyond 2015. RIFW only had to raise ~£6million to meet the requirement because it was established with £9.4million in cash and had to meet a match-funding target of £15.4million. They were also wrong to assume they needed to invest £55million in the first phase by 2015.
  • The plan for a phased sales was abandoned when they received a written £23million offer from Guernsey-based GST Investments for all of the land. GST were operated by Barclays on behalf of Peter's Foods Sir Stanley Thomas, and were represented in negotiations by Langley Davies. Rightacres also submitted a bid of £17.7million.
  • After torturous negotiations, the sale was agreed for £20.65million, which didn't reflect the market value. Only two voting board members were present at the meeting which accepted the deal. In 2012, the purchaser changed from GST Investments to newly-registered South Wales Land Developments, also in Guernsey - the sale value increasing to £21.75million. These changes weren't properly reported to the RIFW board.
  • There was no independent valuation or open marketing as well as weak professional advice. Phased disposals (instead of selling the sites in one swoop) could've yielded at least an extra £9.2million (£30.9million in total based on District Valuer estimates).
  • The sales agreement didn't allow RIFW to benefit from increases in value. Only sites in Lisvane and Monmouth had "claw back" clauses which entitled the Welsh Government to a share of future profits – potentially worth £20.7million at 2013 prices. It's unclear how much they could've clawed back from other sites which are now being developed, like Pyle and Brackla.
  • The sale of public assets at significantly below market value could be interpreted as unlawful "state aid". The Welsh Government should discuss whether the EU Commission should be informed by the UK Government.

4. Conflicts of Interest

  • Lambert Smith Hampton (Investment Manager) – After the sale in March 2012, LSH were appointed as managing agents for SWLD at some sites, including Brackla Industrial Estate (though that sale was conducted after they were appointed). There's no evidence of improper conduct, but there was a clear conflict of interest which breached their investment manager agreement.
  • Jonathan Geen (Independent Board Member) – As a solicitor he had undertaken work for one of the potential purchasers. He immediately notified the board and left the meeting, though later got permission from the board to act for the purchaser. Again, there was no improper conduct and he took no part in any sales decisions. However, the WAO say it would've been more appropriate to turn down Mr Geen's request to act for a purchaser due to the board's small size.
What does this mean?
If any crime's been committed here it's criminal incompetence.
(Pic : Wales Online)

There were two main scenarios as to what this constitutes : fraud, or incompetence. According to the report, the SFO have decided it's not something which "falls within their remit for investigation" unless further information is brought to South Wales Police or the SFO themselves.

That leaves one other scenario, doesn't it?

I suspect it boils down to the misinterpretation of the December 2015 EU match-funding deadline – the deadline that never really existed in the WAO's verdict. That's presumably why quick sales were pushed so hard and why a sale of all of the sites in one package looked tempting.

RIFW was clearly a good idea which was rendered dysfunctional by its own governance arrangements. SWLD saw an open goal to make money and took it – you can't blame them either. From their end, apart from moral questions that surround being based in a tax haven, everything they've done sounds above board.

The WAO say the value of the Lisvane land, originally estimated by King Sturge, may not be as high as the often-quoted £120million figure because not all of the land can be developed – only about 58-63% can (a proportional £69.6-£75.6million).

The only hard figure of how much the Welsh Government "lost" is in the region of £9-15million (the difference between the sale price and the most optimistic actual values); but when you factor in all the parcels of land without "claw back" agreements, plus the potential value of the workable land in Lisvane alone, you're looking at something approaching £90-100million.

The National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee have also announced today they'll hold an inquiry into RIFW, so it's not quite over yet. The current Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), will be in the firing line as the last minister in charge of RIFW, but due to reshuffles he can argue this is something he inherited from others.

Politicians and civil servants are human and will err from time to time - sometimes at great cost. The price we pay for democracy is that the right person for the job won't necessarily be the one elected or appointed.

Is this the worst blunder involving public funds in the devolution era? It's got to be up there.