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').

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Senedd Watch - February 2012

  • A ban on cigarette vending machines came into force in Wales on February 1st. A similar ban began in England in October, and Northern Ireland is to introduce a ban in March 2012.
  • The handling of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Wales was criticised in a new report from Cardiff Business School on behalf of Cardiff Business Partnership. Wales has fallen from being the second-best UK nation or region (excluding London) at attracting FDI in 2003 to second-bottom in 2010. The Welsh Government responded by saying that the First Minister is planning new trade missions to the US and India.
  • Two new enterprise zones have been announced for Wales at Milford Haven and Trawsfynydd, Gwynedd. The St Athan aerospace enterprise zone has been expanded to include Cardiff Airport and it's environs.
  • The First Minister met with BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten to set out concerns relating to cuts in funding for BBC Wales and S4C. Carwyn Jones said that "it would be a cruel irony if the immediate response to the Assembly gaining law-making powers is to see a reduction in the amount of coverage devoted to Wales."
  • The Assembly Commission has introduced a bill which will see English and Welsh have full equal and official status in the Senedd if passed.
  • 50 senior medical staff at Bronglais hospital in Aberystwyth signed a letter of "no confidence" in Hywel Dda NHS Board. They expressed concern about the future of local services in the area as the health board undertakes a review of hospital services. Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) intervened, saying she expected health board officials to work constructively with clinicians and health professionals.
  • The Welsh Government has launched a new "shock" campaign to cut down on parents smoking in their cars in the presence of children. If parents don't heed the new warnings then new legislation may be introduced to ban it.
  • Deputy Minister for Social Services Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath) launched a new Family Justice Network following a joint review by the Welsh and UK governments. Independent expert advice from social worker by bodies like CAFCASS Cymru will be retained, and it's hoped the new board will "provide greater leadership and co-ordination within the system."
  • Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) withdrew from the Plaid Cymru leadership race on Feb 6th, throwing his support behind Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion).
  • The Welsh Government defended its decision to open a new office in London, claiming its current space at the Welsh Office was "inadequate". It's estimated the new office will cost £270,000 per year to run.
  • A new report by the Welsh Government and Big Lottery Fund into the running of AWEMA was published. It highlighted several issues including mismanagement of finances and poor leadership structures. Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) suspended all Welsh Government funding with immediate effect. AWEMA's chief executive, Naz Malik, and finance director Saquib Zia were sacked on February 17th.
  • The First Minister announced a new "Welsh Institute of Public Policy" to come up with ideas to improve public services in Wales. He said that the new body would be arms-length from the Welsh Government and wouldn't encroach on the work of existing bodies such as the Bevan Foundation and the Institute of Welsh Affairs.
  • Welsh Language Board chair Meirion Prys Jones said that the Welsh language is still "in crisis" and "cannot survive without cash injection". The Welsh Language Board is due to be abolished shortly, and powers transferred to the Welsh Language Commissioner. It comes near the 50th anniversary of Saunders Lewis' Tyngyd yr Iaith radio lecture. Other figures suggest a net reduction in the number of fluent Welsh speakers in Wales by 3,000 people per year.
  • The chair of governors of Cardiff Metropolitan University said that legal action could be taken to prevent the institution merging with University of Wales, Newport and Glamorgan University. Education Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), argues that through merger the new university would be the second largest metropolitan university in the UK and be "able to provide a wide range of student experiences and will contribute to the economy of south east Wales".
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 3,000 in the three months to December 2011 – bucking the UK trend of a 48,000 rise. Unemployment is still higher in Wales compared to the UK average, standing at 9% compared to 8.4%.
  • Welsh Labour held their spring conference in Cardiff in preparation for local government elections in May. The First Minister appealed to Plaid Cymru voters who don't support independence, and warned Labour not to become complacent. Shadow Secretary of State for Wales Peter Hain criticised Independent councillors, describing them as "closet Tories".
  • Banding for primary schools is to be delayed until 2014 Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced. He added that the delay was to enable the introduction of new literacy and numeracy tests, saying there wasn't enough "sufficiently robust data" to calculate primary school bands.
  • The First Minister attended a Joint Ministerial Committee in London where he raised the issue of renewable energy in Wales, calling for the devolution of powers for renewable energy projects up to 100MW.
  • The House of Commons Welsh Affairs Select Committee published a report into the Welsh economy. The report says that scrapping the WDA in 2006 has lost Wales inward investment opportunities by "reducing Wales's visibility in the global market place". It also criticised the decision of Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) to not appear before the committee.
  • The Assembly's Children and Young People Committee reported that children's dental services need to be approved and that parents need more help to understand the importance of good oral health. Committee chair Christine Chapman AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) said that "dental decay is still the most common childhood disease, and the dental health of children is amongst the poorest in the UK".
  • The First Minister, on a visit to Brussels, has said that the EU was of benefit to Wales and that he wants the Welsh Government to be an "active and constructive partner" in the EU. Conservative leader Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) said that the First Minister should "concentrate on creating dynamic trading relationships" with the EU.
  • A row has broken out between Plaid Cymru and Labour over the future of Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth. Plaid Cymru accused Labour of putting patients lives at risk by "downgrading" the hospital. The Welsh Government refuted this, accusing Plaid of "scaremongering". The First Minister adding that there were "no plans to close or downgrade Bronglais hospital". Several hundred people travelled from Ceredigion to Cardiff on February 29th to protest outside the Senedd.

Projects announced in February include : a £4million regeneration scheme for town centres in north east Wales, a £14m improvement to the rail services to Abergavenny including a new station at Caerleon (due ~2016), a £2.2million scheme for creative industries to exploit digital cultural heritage, a £5million scheme to allow local authorities to loan money to bring empty housing back into use and a £12million scheme to improve sustainability in providing services in West Wales & The Valleys.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Plaid Leadership : Visions for Welsh Nationalism

The ballot papers have now gone out, and Plaid members from Bangor to Beacon Hill will be casting votes for a new leader. As this is the last comment from me on the leadership election until the winner is announced, I think it's worth reflecting on Ieuan Wyn Jones's tenure. I wrote an assessment last September, so I don't want to repeat myself too much.

For all his faults – the managerialism, the blandness, the waffling - he was a likable, effective, consensus-building leader who helped deliver a valuable and long overdue constitutional advancement. His record as economy minister might be open for debate, but I believe he was the best transport minister we've had since devolution. History is probably going to be far kinder to him than many expect. Diolch yn fawr iawn, Ieuan.

The whole leadership race has been a wonderful exercise. Plaid have hopefully set the trend and this could be the format adopted by all Welsh parties in the future. I commend Plaid and the candidates for how they've gone about this. By Welsh standards it's been a captivating and interesting contest from the start.

As to what do I think will happen, a lot has been said about second preferences, and I suspect that will be the deciding factor in favour of Elin Jones. I might as well come out and say it now - a few of you probably guessed anyway - if I had a vote, Leanne Wood would be my first preference. I quite like, in some respects even admire, Dafydd Elis-Thomas and all he's done for the Assembly. However I feel it's time for a new generation to step up.

This section is about how I see Welsh nationalism in general developing under each candidate.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas

Independence isn't high on Dafydd's list of priorities, that much is clear. He's part of a generation to which self-government in itself was a really significant development. I don't think anyone should criticise him too harshly if he's "soft" on independence. I suspect the rush towards that has only been boosted by the success of the SNP, who've managed to be open about independence without turning voters off. Dafydd is quite right to point out that Scotland isn't Wales - we have a different dynamic - but being ambiguous at the start has probably hurt his chances more than he realises. I actually think it would've been better if he had just come out and said he supported federalism or devo-max in the short term, or simply that Wales should match whatever constitutional settlement Scotland "gets" if they remain part of the UK.

There's always been an element (or an impression of an element) within Plaid who have never believed in independence in a UN-member, own military, own foreign policy sense - just "Home Rule". Now that we have "Home Rule" to an extent, Dafydd - if elected - will probably be the last Plaid leader to not support independence from the outset. In some respects his "post-nationalist"/"interdependence of nations" views are quite progressive, but he hasn't articulated what that means, or how Wales - as part of the UK - would be able to influence proceedings.

Dafydd believes in further devolution, as he puts it, the "UK needs to be reconfigured to meet the needs of the 21st century". Dafydd also believes that Wales will be independent in his lifetime and "relishes the chance" of leading debate on the issue. However, he doesn't offer any clues as to what powers should be devolved or even taken away. Dafydd's clearly pro-Europe, but it's unclear if he wants Wales to be a full member state - requiring independence - or remaining a "region" with little influence at the big tables.

Where could Welsh nationalism go under Dafydd Elis-Thomas?

Guardians of devolution – Expect a slower pace to calls for constitutional change. Expect more reflection on the "devolution journey". Plaid would be positioning themselves as the "elders", making sure devolution works effectively in the interests of the Welsh people. All talk of independence will be on the backburner. Also, expect an awful lot of "friendly criticism" of Labour, probably culminating in a formal coalition at some point. Plaid would probably position themselves as a national movement akin to a political Gorsedd of Bards. Plaid would slowly become small-n nationalists, in an unofficial electoral pact with Labour as a progressive union – Labour's head to Plaid's heart - acting as a bulwark against the Tories at every turn.

Elin Jones

Elin Jones is clear that independence should be the primary aim for Plaid. In the campaign she's taken an even stronger line saying that two Assembly election wins would be a mandate for an independence referendum. So far, she's the only person who's set a tentative date – 2036 – the 500th anniversary of the first Laws in Wales Act and has subsequently said it could be as early as 2020.

Considering Elin will be pushing 70 years old by the latter date, and that many nationalists who steadfastly supported independence will - I hope I'm not being crass here - be worm food or a pile of ash, I would hope for a date a decade or so sooner. I should be well into middle age by then. I'm alright Jack. However I don't think it's right to set a date. It could happen in 5 years, it could happen in 100 years. What's important is that there's a case and a vision made.

It's good therefore that Elin says that there needs to be an "articulate route map to independence" with a "compelling vision". Plaid have attempted something like this before with Adam Price's Wales Can website. How this could be done will be a key issue. Will there be some grand "national conversation"?

Would members from other political parties be able to contribute their ideas for an independent Wales as a thought experiment? I'd be just as interested to hear what Labour, Greens, Lib Dems or the Tories would want an independent Wales to look like. If they use the cop out that "it'll never happen" then clearly they lack imagination.

Being a former Rural Affairs Minister, Elin realises the importance of the EU and has made it clear that she would like Wales to be a full EU member state. That old "independence in Europe" thing.

Elin says that Plaid should press for further devolution - noting fiscal autonomy - but she could be prejudicing the outcome of the Silk Commission by saying that.

Where could Welsh nationalism go under Elin Jones?

Plaid Cymru Version 1.5 – Upgraded, improved, patched. With Elin's economics background I would expect a far more effective - in intellectual terms - opposition to Labour. Plaid would be treading very familiar ground : protecting the Welsh language, attacking Labour in the west and north, not really making any progress anywhere else. Elin would get good press, she'll be seen to be doing things - and she'll expect ordinary members of Plaid to do the same. Plaid will probably make a good go of recovering what they lost in 2011, but will find it difficult to break that 20% of the vote mark. Independence might be spoken of more openly, but without any spark.

Leanne Wood

Leanne generally treads a lot of the same ground as Elin Jones. Leanne says that independence should be Plaid's "unapologetic" primary long-term aim, and that independence needs to be "made clearer" to the electorate. She also says, that in the short-term, Plaid should continue to campaign for further devolution. Also like Elin, Leanne has unconditional support for the EU, but as a "union of peoples, not markets". Is there a hint of left-euroscepticism there?

Leanne Wood, along with Bethan Jenkins, are Wales' most high-profile republicans. As a republican myself this would be a huge development in UK politics. Should Leanne win, she would be the first leader of a political party on "mainland" Britain since Michael Foot (not exactly auspicious) to be an avowed republican AFAIK. How she would handle that tag could make or break her.

She would almost certainly get positive press in the leftie broadsheets on a whole range of issues (think Caroline Lucas). However, Leanne will have to remember, in a Jubilee year, that the Queen herself is quite popular. Even in Wales. Even indeed amongst a minority of Plaid members, supporters and voters. Christ, even I like Betty Windsor, however much I despise the institution.

Where could Welsh nationalism go under Leanne Wood?

A popular progressive front – I don't think Leanne alone would lead to Plaid picking up lots of seats in the Valleys. Plaid simply aren't in that position. She would, however, be able to slash majorities – and that's absolutely crucial. If Labour have one more "bad" term post 2016, then those seats will be ripe for picking come 2020/21 - quite possibly with Adam Price in the Assembly, and opening the door to the likes of Ron Davies, rising stars like Heledd Fychan and the return of experienced former AMs like Helen Mary Jones and Nerys Evans. That's a government in waiting. It would be a big mistake to expect Leanne Wood to do this all by herself. It's going to be incredibly hard work.

A Leanne-led Plaid will presumably be attacking Labour from the left, but that could make Labour appear reasonable to the small-c conservative electorate. Plaid will be out there on the streets, getting noticed and getting involved. There'll be colour brought to debate in Wales, but will it always be articulate? Will all the sums add up? Will it be all heart over head? I could easily see membership gradually increase over the years, but not spectacularly. Leanne will be that rare breed – a Welsh politician people will want to be seen with – but whether those people would represent the average Welsh person would determine how this plays out for Plaid. If it's just the crusties, student lefties and trade unionists then prepare for disappointment in May 2016.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Do shock tactics work anymore?

Firstly a heads-up – some of the links could be considered distressing, offensive, cripplingly nostalgic or all three.


Now I'm not a fan of the "nanny state", however last year I expressed regret at the loss of the Central Office of Information, which will be wound up at the end of March. I consider myself something of an aficionado of public information films – you could call that "sad" but judging by most of the content on this blog that's par for the course.


"Whether it's taking extra care with chip pans, or making sure you don't accidentally on purpose get hit by a train. It was comforting to know that the state actually cared enough about you to warn you of these things, even if it came across as incessant nagging."


More often than not it was via public information films during school holidays, warning you to stay away from stagnant water, not to throw fireworks in other people's faces or get trapped inside an abandoned fridge.


In school, excitement would build as the portable television was wheeled to the front of the classroom, only for a British Transport Police officer to describe in some detail what it's like to scoop someone who had an unexpected encounter with the 7:30 from London Paddington into a bin bag. Or a SWALEC education liaison officer showing a teenager getting fried trying to retrieve a football. The one that sticks in the mind though was seeing a group of kids die in various horrible ways in farming accidents. I can honestly say I've never been near a slurry pit since and look both ways when crossing a railway line. Shock tactics certainly work on the young and impressionable.


Although it's before my time, the Saatchi & Saatchi AIDS awareness campaign – arguably the most successful public information campaign ever (Margaret Thatcher isn't everyone's cup of tea but I think you can list this as one of the "good things" she did) - was notable for its apocalyptic and blunt style. The message and imagery was clear – "ignore this and you'll be carving your own tombstone".


The Welsh Government recently launched an equally candid campaign against smoking in cars with children, possible leading to legislation at some point in the future. The underlying message again is point blank - "you're poisoning your children".


In the last decade or so the public information campaign has evolved from being almost entirely about personal safety to encompass charities, social awareness and equalities issues. Anti-fur groups have long produced gory 18-rated horror campaigns for cinemas as have environmentalists. I think the turning point was back in 1999 when the NSPCC produced a TV spot on child abuse as part of their "Full Stop" campaign. It was so shocking, that in the end it was only broadcast after the watershed. In terms of raising awareness, and funds, the campaign was a resounding success. However, the BBC report that in the same year, the NSPCC spent more on administration and campaigning (£38m) than it did on actual children's services (£28m).


Shock tactics are nothing new and that's the problem.


"Hard-hitting", "scare 'em straight", "dropped anvils" – there are many descriptions for this tactic. But 2012 is a different world. It's post 2 Girls 1 Cup, BME Pain Olympics and Blue Waffles. With absolutely anything you can possibly think of being a mouse click away, it's an increasingly desensitised world too. Images that would've once been exclusive to medical textbooks are now on Wikipedia.


Animal rights group PETA sparked controversy this month by producing a darkly-humourous advert that shamelessly implies that violent sex is a side effect of veganism. It got people talking – not about PETA's causes – but about the misogyny (you can argue there's a bit of misandry in there too), prompting debate over whether charities should resort to shock tactics at all.


That sums it up – "resort to". It's almost becoming a rather lazy fall back position for advertisers that have run out of ideas. If shock tactics continue to be used so casually, we could reach a point where absolutely nothing grabs the audiences attention.


Picture this. You're settling down with a curry for some ITV drama, then Ray Winstone pops up to say:


"Vis ain't just 'ard 'ittin' , it's 'ard-shitting".


A morbidly obese woman – resembling Bella Emberg - takes a rather painful dump in a dank, miserable public toilet, sweat dripping off her face, crying in anguish. The sights, the sounds - it evokes memories of that regrettable vindaloo from Caroline Street. In the end there's a close-up on a lot of dark blood clotting on toilet paper.


"Evry yeeuh, fifteen faahsand peepw in the UK die from bowew cancer. So tha' next time you take a tom tit, and notice somefing a bit fahnny in the old Wrigley's, get dahn the GP's."


You carry on eating. These adverts are now part of the background noise. Five years previously someone would've been looking at an obscenities charge, or the very least a Daily Mail headline reflecting on the hell of it all, but who's going to drag a charity through the courts? They all do it.


There are hints that shock tactics are starting to go out of fashion. The British Heart Foundation launched a campaign at the end of last year featuring Vinnie Jones. It was a funny, catchy way to remember basic life saving information using music and rhythm rather than a sense of impending doom, gore or primal fears.


In contrast, back in 2008, the same charity used "shock tactics" – "Watch Your Own Heart Attack" – in which Steven Berkhoff describes in agonising detail what having a heart attack (or being beaten up by Steven Berkhoff) actually feels like.


I have my own opinion on which is more effective and sticks in the mind.


With charities now facing traditional business pressures as "consumers" become ever more discerning about where and why they donate money, I don't think the shock tactic, or the heartstring tugging advert are going to disappear any time soon. However, if it becomes a default position that all advertisers and campaigners – private and public – fall back on because they can't think of something more creative, then the effect of knocking you around the head to change your behaviour or your lifestyle will ever lessen.

It'll become as corny as the low-budget crackle, the Hammer Horror production values and the gentle nagging of the 70s public information film.




Thursday, 23 February 2012

Schmallenberg virus - a threat to Welsh farmers?

First some encouraging news.

Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) recently told the National Sheep Association in a keynote speech that sheep farmers have "a lot to be optimistic about". Lamb exports have increased significantly over the years thanks to the success of cooperative ventures like Hybu Cig Cymru. Carwyn Jones has also reportedly discussed possible lamb deals with the Chinese in recent months.

Cases of the Schmallenburg virus - which affects sheep, goats and cattle - have been detected in the south east of England (with a case in Cornwall) after first appearing in Germany, Belgium, France and The Netherlands at the end of last year.

I have to stress though, so far no cases of Schmallenberg have been detected in Wales, but cases are starting to spread into the Westcountry so South Wales is now reported to be in the firing line.

The virus causes illness in cattle and deformities in newborn lambs (more detailed information from the Welsh Government here), although judging by some of the monitoring reports it appears to only affect small numbers in large herds. With the majority of lambing coming in the next few months this is a concern. Defra are monitoring the situation and are producing regular updates on infections and farm inspections.

At the end of January, Environment Minister John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East) published a new climate change risk assessment which included reference to new pests and diseases. But as far as I can tell, a question from Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) on that risk assessment is the only record of Schmallenberg being mentioned in the Senedd.

With the UK Government's recent decision to consolidate and downgrade veterinary health laboratories in Wales, this is a timely reminder that these services are vital to farmers livelihoods in some of Wales' most isolated parts. According to Plaid's Jonathan Edwards MP, by 2013 there'll be no veterinary lab testing facilities in Wales, despite agriculture being a largely devolved area.

I don't think we would tolerate NHS testing being centralised in this way, so why animal health? Especially when our meat exports could help build and strengthen economic links with China.

I hate to be a cloud on an otherwise sunny day but I don't need to underline the impact the virus could have on the rural economy if it made its way to Wales and took hold.


Monday, 20 February 2012

Labour delivering (a horrible echo...cho...ho....o...)


Two of my favourite stops on the Welsh blogosphere - Valleys Mam and A Change of Personnel – have both lamented that not much appears to be happening and the Welsh blogosphere is running out of puff. I don't blame them.

Is it our fault for expecting miracles from a pretty weak Assembly with few "juicy" powers that, by and large, just goes through the motions week by week? Or perhaps there's another reason everything seems to trudge on with increasing familiarity, going around in circles, repeating the same points over and over again.

Minister approves multi-million pound hospital plans at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd - 26th May 2011
Plans for £77m redevelopment of Ysbyty Glan Clwyd approved - 11th October 2011
Welsh Government gives go ahead to redevelopment of Ysbyty Glan Clwyd - 16th February 2012

Hello?...ello?....ello?.....llo?....lo?.....lo?..........?

Cardiff Royal Infirmary to receive £16m revamp - 8th June 2011
Go-ahead for £15.8m Cardiff Royal Infirmary revamp - 16th January 2012

Bore da?.......re da?.......e da?.....da?....a?......?

Igloo submit plans for Cardiff creative industries centre - 14th February 2011
Porth Teigr enters next phase of development - 13th February 2012

Is there anyone there?....there? .......ere?.....ere?....re?.....e?

New link to reduce congestion on the M4 - 9th March 2011
New access road for Newport moves a stage closer - 13th February 2012

Echo!....cho!.....cho!.......ho!.......o! Echo!!.....cho!!.....cho!!.....ho!!......o!!

What next? Carl Sargeant turning up in a hard hat to announce the start of work on Harbour Way?

Now I do believe it's completely unfair to say the Welsh Government haven't done anything, but perhaps you can see where some of us are getting that impression.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Welsh Rugby Union : Time for a review?

Welsh rugby is currently on a high. After a relatively successful - if heart-breaking - World Cup last year, the national side have made a great start to the current Six Nations – even managing to draw 10,000 people to an open training session. However, the regional sides have struggled to attract decent crowds, threatening their financial sustainability. Back in December the average gate at a Welsh regional home game in the Pro12 was just 6,300. Is Welsh Rugby peaking before a fall?

The Regions – success or failure?

The Labour MP for Pontypridd, Owen Smith, wrote an article on Wales Home a few weeks ago effectively calling for a "valleys regional side" and saying that rugby fans have been "sold short" by the current structure.

I'm not sure this is the right call for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I believe there's a rose-tinted view of the game pre-regions. Attendances weren't great at any of the clubs in the old Welsh Premiership/Welsh-Scottish Premier. Clubs like Pontypridd did take massive support on the road – as highlighted here in a game against Bridgend - but the clubs were kept afloat largely off the back of wealthy benefactors. It was unsustainable. Creating the regions was the right call however unpopular it was and still is.

Secondly, there's the question of talent. Isn't it sometimes better to promote quality over quantity? I'm sure many of the towns across Wales could support a top-flight team – but could they support a modern, professional team, paying top-end salaries? Unlike football, you generally can't just pick up a rugby ball and play at the top level. Rugby players are generally "made" or "born" and due to the highly specialised positions, you need the strongest, biggest or quickest person for each one.

One of the reasons the regions were created was to boost the national team, and by and large I think it's succeeded. That doesn't mean I'm saying it's perfect, clearly there are issues that need to be resolved.

What's gone wrong?

BBC Wales' Week In Week Out examined this a few weeks ago, following a family from the Bridgend valleys to see why they turned their back on the Ospreys, but continue to follow Bridgend Ravens and the national side.

We have to remember that Welsh rugby has always been rather tribal. It's a well worn point but expecting Pontypridd fans to support a "Cardiff" team is a bit like expecting Cardiff City and Swansea City to merge. These wern't regions – they were superclubs. I can't ignore the demise of the Celtic Warriors – effectively the "valley region" - in this debate. However, the Warriors were on the track to becoming just another M4 club. The town of Bridgend and the southern half of the county is more an extension of the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff commuter belt after all. Although there were ambitions for the Warriors to relocate to a central location like Llantrisant, the WRU clearly had their heart set on only 4 regions from the outset.

The number of games on television is also cited as a concern. It often means games are moved to suit the broadcasters (an issue in football too) with a big carrot of TV money. It generally doesn't put bums on seats. At the end of a working week, the last thing your average family wants to do is go through the effort of travelling from home to an out of town stadium or a city centre on a Friday night. It's easier to just stick the telly on.

Owen Smith does have a point about the game becoming a "commodity" instead of something that belongs to the community. Sadly, that's not just confined to rugby. Commercial pressures are being exerted on all sports. Fans clearly want to a "connection" with players and want to see a "local boy'girl do good". There's a disconnect between the clubs ( and their communities) and the regions and nothing's been done to try and bridge that gap.

In trying to solve these issues, I think we actually have to take a leaf from America's NFL and New Zealand's domestic rugby set up.

Proposed new structure for Welsh rugby union


(Click to enlarge)

Schools Rugby

  • A focus on developing technical skills, developing interest and knowledge of the laws.
  • A gentle introduction to tackling, starting with tag rugby.
  • Tag rugby games against primary schools with uncontested scrums on smaller pitches. Full-contact competitive games shouldn't start until Under-12 level.
  • Training sessions with pro-players in the respective region nearing retirement (for coaching/referee qualifications)
  • Retain competitive inter-school/college league and cup competitions for older teenagers. Games should ideally not clash with regional or club fixtures.

At the bottom are the schools. Schools play an important role in getting kids interested in the game in the first place. Skills should be introduced slowly and gradually. I can only speak for myself, but as someone who can be described as "vertically challenged" - and one of the youngest pupils in my year - having to play full-contact rugby as a 10 year old with and against boys sometimes twice my size was absolutely terrifying. It put me off playing the game for life, and threw me right into the arms of football. It's only in the last ten years or so I could even watch a rugby game - the memories were that bad.

As kids get older it should become clear to PE teachers and scouts who had the potential to make a step up to semi-professional, or even professional level. The existing school and college league/cup system should be strengthened so these players can stand out more - the best being selected for the Wales Under-18s or Under-16s national sides.

Club Rugby
  • Should revert to being a wholly amateur game again – Welsh rugby's "heart". Clubs could be run on a cooperative model.
  • National Leagues and cups would largely be unchanged, but perhaps club games could be moved to Sundays to avoid clashing with regional games.
  • Would continue to provide additional training and playing opportunities for youngsters, but more for fun and enjoyment than serious player development.
  • Clubs would continue to "bridge the gap" between the WRU and grassroots and should be the first port of call for fans of all ages.

The "Super 16"
  • A new semi-professional competition based on New Zealand's ITM Cup or US "College Football". It would be the premier domestic competition, and clubs would also compete in the British & Irish Cup.
  • Super 16 sides should use local FE College training facilities as bases.

Four licenced clubs per region based on multiple criteria including  catchment area, club facilities, recent record in the Welsh Premiership and history of player development (indicative list) :

Blues : Cardiff, Pontypridd + 2 others
Ospreys : Bridgend, Swansea, Aberavon, Neath
Dragons : Newport, Ebbw Vale, Cross Keys, + 1 other
Scarlets : Llanelli, Gogledd Cymru, Carmarthen Quins, Llandovery
  • There could be a case for not including clubs from towns/cities that host a regional side.

Season could be formatted as:

1. Two 8-team conferences – East (Scarlets & Ospreys) & West (Blues & Dragons) – playing once against teams in own conference and once against teams in opposite conference. Top 3 in each go to end-of-season play-offs to determine a champion (second v third placed sides, winners v first place sides, grand final) and would also qualify for the following season's British & Irish Cup.

2. A 16-team division with each side playing against the others once either home or away (15 game regular season) followed by a play-off series.
  • The competition could be expanded to include "up and coming" clubs rather easily – that's the reasoning for only playing one game against other sides per season. It also helps make every game an "event" – especially derby games.
  • Under-performing clubs could be replaced by the best performing club in their region every X years (similar to Super League licencing).
  • These "superclubs" would act as the academy for the regional sides, with a minimum number of players aged under-23. Fans would be watching "internationals of the future" as locally as possible.

End of season draft
  • Any under-23 players from the Super 16 would be eligible for the draft and the opportunity to become a professional. "Exceptional talents" can be drafted at a younger age, but no younger than 18.
  • Players should be expected to become a professional by age 23. If not, they should either drop down to the club game, be kept on as a semi-pro player in the Super 16, or be helped into coaching or refereeing.
  • The lowest-placed Welsh region in the Pro12 would have first pick and the highest-placed region the last pick.
  • Regions can trade draft picks with one another for older players out of contract, or for an extra draft pick in a subsequent year. Regions can also pass on a draft pick if they don't want to select any of the remaining players.
  • If a drafted player accepts a contract offer with a region, their school, club (if relevant) and their Super 16 club would be compensated for a set % of the value of the contract or a mutually agreed fee.
  • Drafted players should be under no obligation to accept a contract offer from a region. If a player turns down an offer, the region would have an extra pick. If a drafted player has their heart set on a particular region, the two regions can negotiate a settlement (i.e. Player exchange or draft pick trade).

The Regions
  • Would remain the highest level in the domestic game and the only fully professional level. They would no longer have academys - that role would be undertaken by the "Super 16".
  • A salary cap should remain in place. Older players moving abroad would be replaced by "drafted" players from the Super 16.
  • Central contracting is often mentioned, but is probably unworkable. The regions should maintain some autonomy from the WRU.
  • The regions should be expected to take games "on the road" within their region, especially games where they wouldn't expected to fill more than 40% of their main stadium.
  • As a result, the WRU should work with the "Super 16" sides to improve their stadia to a minimum standard required to host regional games.

In the long term, a fully-blown European league is possible - perhaps 2 divisions with promotion and relegation between them and the Heineken Cup becoming a straight knock out competition. This could lead to the NH nations developing their own "Super 16"/ITM Cup for the clubs left out. Wales could be a step ahead by starting early.

Broadcasting


The number of live games shown on TV has been
given as a reason for a slump in regional game attendances.
(Pic : BBC)


The NFL has a system called a"blackout" where local home games are not broadcast on the local TV network to ensure attendances at the games themselves hold up. It's similar to there being no 3pm live games in football.

I'd propose a reciprocal broadcasting arrangement whereby only away games involving respective nations sides/regions in the Pro12 should be broadcast live. So for example, BBC Alba would show Glasgow and Edinburgh away games, and S4C/BBC the Welsh regions playing away. Big derby games could be an exception.

The Pro12 sides could consider a joint TV rights bid like the Premier League, and should also consider commercial terrestrial broadcasters (ITV Wales, STV, TV3) to broadcast highlights – Scrum V effectively acts as a Pro 12 Match of the Day – as well as live matches.

The "Super 16" should also have a (single) live game every week, full coverage of the play-off series or a highlights show. The WRU, Region and Super 16 sides should consider investing in mobile aps and in online "magazine" coverage.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Plaid Leadership : Where do they want to take Plaid?

In this section, I'm looking in closer detail at what each of the candidates propose for Plaid itself : its policies, relationship with other parties and internal structures.

In the next couple of weeks I'll take a final look at the candidates views on independence and the possible directions Welsh nationalism could take under each potential leader.

Simon Thomas has withdrawn as you already know, so that leaves three other candidates.

Dafydd Elis Thomas (Campaign Website)

Dafydd believes that Plaid should aim to be a "party in government". He's called for something reminiscent of the "progressive alliance" mooted at Westminster in 2010 – a coalition with Labour and possibly the Liberal Democrats for the sake of "effective democracy". He takes a holistic approach to the nature of devolution in Wales, and believes it's his duty - and Plaid's - to ensure the Welsh Government delivers its pledges. If Dafydd becomes leader there'll be a One Wales II that much is clear. However, he does appear to rule out working with the Conservatives, unless Labour were no longer the largest party.

A key plank of Dafydd's campaign is sustainable development and a "green economy". He says he would like to "enforce sustainable development across Wales". He also believes that Wales can be a "world leader in sustainability and environmental issues". Dafydd understands the importance economic drivers are in environmentalism and would like to invest in green jobs as part of a wider green stimulus. He focuses on improving "green skills in the construction sector" as one way to kick start that process. Whether you consider his support for nuclear power a contradiction to these green ideals is for you to decide. I know what I think of it. Nuclear power? No thanks.

Thorium-fuelled nuclear power is a different story but the technology is probably decades away. Thorium is relatively abundant compared to the amount needed to fuel a reactor and guess which part of Europe has some of the largest reserves? Until then it has to be renewables all the way.

From his answers in the BBC Q&A ,  it looks like Dafydd has brushed off many of the findings of the Moving Forward report and certainly doesn't support a name change for example.

Elin Jones (Campaign Website)

Elin believes that Plaid has "more important things to do than revel in Westminster politics on a Welsh stage". She wants the party to to "reach out and listen" more and has broadly welcomed the Moving Forward report – including the proposed name change. Elin believes there's a "place in Plaid for everyone" but she would "expect discipline" from both new members and old members alike. I'm not sure what that means exactly. Elin is ambitious for where Plaid should go, saying that Plaid "cannot allow Wales to become a one-party state" and that the next Plaid leader "should aim to be First Minister".

Does that mean Elin isn't ruling out a possible coalition with the Conservatives to achieve that? She doesn't seem too enamoured with Andrew Davies, but goes on to say that it's Plaid membership that would decide any coalition, not the leader.

Elin goes into some detail on public services. She laments that "the NHS of Aneurin Bevan has ceased to exist" and goes on to say that Wales shouldn't follow the reforms of the English NHS. Elin also rules out profit motive in health services – but what if they were "nicer" forms of profit, like cooperatives or social enterprises? On education Elin believes that children should be "challenged by the education system to reach their fullest potential" – echoing the recent Estyn report that suggests that more able students in primary schools are let down.

As an economist, Elin touches on fiscal policy saying she supports "the distribution of wealth via progressive taxation" and that "income taxes based on ability to pay is the fairest form of taxation". She also underlines the need to tackle child poverty in Wales – as Labour have often laudably (but in my opinion misguidedly) targeted. Elin also makes the point that "economic policy needs to be tailored to Wales's needs not the City of London".

Elin would like to see a "second industrial revolution" based on natural resources exploited for Wales' benefit – echoing other candidate's calls for a "green economy" or a "devolution of control over natural resources". She believes Wales needs to "unleash talent" in small businesses – a nod towards that old chestnut of "less red tape"?.

On the future of the Welsh language, Elin says it isn't secure and that Plaid should continue to support its growth. Also, more interestingly, Elin says she would like Wales to become a "multi-lingual society beyond bilingualism". Does that mean a third language taught in primary schools becoming official Plaid policy? Judging by recent reports, Wales hasn't quite got the bilingualism bit nailed down just yet.

As an additional note, her maneuverings re. Simon Thomas/Jac-do show a somewhat Machiavellian side to Elin. There might be a bit of steel under those brightly-coloured cardigans after all. For some reason I quite like that.

Leanne Wood (Campaign Website)

Leanne has gone into some detail on where Plaid as a party could improve itself, perhaps more so than other candidates. She notes that Plaid need to sort out "policy inconsistencies", though she doesn't cite any particular examples. Somewhat surprisingly, Leanne hasn't mentioned public services in her campaign yet (AFAIK). I don't think any of us need to think twice about what her stance would be there though.

Leanne has a clear vision for the role Plaid could play, saying that the party should strive "to end war, inequality and discrimination" and that the economy should "distribute wealth fairly". The bedrock of Leanne's views and vision for the economy are in the "Greenprint for the Valleys" document and I intend to look in greater detail at that at a later date.

Leanne has also recently published a detailed document on possible green energy proposals, which you can read courtesy of Syniadau. She has consistency in supporting a green, decentralised economy based on cooperatives and mutualism – echoing The Collective Entrepreneur. In a nod to traditional capitalism she also believes that small businesses "needs to be supported to foster enterprise". Leanne has clearly put in a lot of hard graft in compiling these policy documents and setting out a clear policy direction for Plaid, but some of it does read as a bit wishy-washy at times (yes I'm a fine one to talk).

She plays to the gallery by saying Plaid need to break new ground in Labour heartlands by showing Labour voters that Plaid shares their concerns. That's probably the main reason she's built up such a momentum behind her. Of the three candidates I don't doubt that Leanne would be the most likely to be able to do this. However it's not a guarantee. An increase in vote share not matched by an increase in seats wouldn't do her any good.

Leanne wipes the idea of a coalition with the Conservatives out right away. A Leanne-led Plaid wouldn't work with anyone who would "obstruct the path to independence". Strong stuff, but is it pragmatic? I'm unconvinced.

For Plaid's structures, Leanne suggests several changes. The ones that stick out are proposals that local party meetings should be revamped - with open Q&As. On membership she would like members to be "clear what role they can play to further the aims of our independence project" with an interconnected "active tier" of members. I think that's an absolutely outstanding idea and I hope whoever wins the leadership takes that on board. She believes there needs to be "better communication between the grassroots, elected officials and the leadership".

As a Welsh learner herself, she approaches the Welsh language in a positive manner, saying that although Plaid needs to move away from "being seen as a Welsh language only party", Plaid should be unapologetic about its support for Welsh and treat it as an equalities issue.

Monday, 13 February 2012

AWEMA - someone in Cardiff needs to own up

More on this at Jac OThe North, Inside Out, National Left, The Western Mail, Betsan Powys, Gareth Hughes and Wales Home.

It's been a point made elsewhere but Martin Shipton and his team at The Western Mail (as well as BBC Wales and the South Wales Evening Post) need to be congratulated for this excellent piece of investigative journalism. It's shows the true value a solid national press has for Wales and the vital role it plays in holding TPTB to account.

The latest report from the Welsh Government and Big Lottery Fund was published last week into the goings-on at All Wales Ethnic Minority Association (AWEMA). We've had things called "scandals" in the past (Nick Bourne's Ipod, The Lib Dem 2, second homes in Penarth and Rosie Butler's table), but I'd agree with Daran Hill that this is "perhaps the biggest scandal around the use of public money since devolution began". However, we have to put this in perspective. It's still small fry compared to some of Westminster's shenanigans.

You probably already know about what happened but here's a summary of the allegations from the latest report:
  • AWEMA didn't submit any accounts to Companies House or the Charity Commission for the year 2010-11 and no management accounts exist having "not been produced for some time".
  • There's an "absence of key policies and procedures within AWEMA", for example an expenses policy, conflict of interests register or register of hospitality's given/taken – this was taken advantage of (mobile phone bills paid, greetings cards, parking charges) although the sums were small and backed with receipts.
  • Creditor information was not available - said to be vital to give assurance of solvency.
  • Naz Malik (the CEO) hadn't been subject to a performance appraisal since 2006.
  • ABOMA (the board of management) held no regular meetings or were done so on an "ad hoc" basis with big gaps between them – sometimes as long as 11 months.
  • Naz Malik's decisions were only given retrospective approval by ABOMA.
  • Expenditure from AWEMA's funds included £2,100 on gym membership, £800 on rugby and cricket tickets and one of Naz Malik's parking tickets worth £110. None of these were disclosed to HMRC and it's unclear if these were funded from public money.
  • Naz Malik relied on the Financial Director for details of financial processes, when as CEO he should have "a key duty in overseeing these processes".
  • The AWEMA payroll system was "seriously inadequate". The three directors salaries were "high in comparison to other members of AWEMA" though action has now been taken by ABOMA.
  • Naz Malik's daughter reported to him as a director, a "clear conflict of interest" and her salary increased from £20,498 in 2008 to £50,052 in 2012 with Naz Malik present at meetings of ABOMA (when approving salary increases) both as CEO and an ABOMA member.

The most damning statement of all is that there can be "no assurances" that there were "appropriate arrangements in place to safeguard and make proper use of Welsh Government (£105k), Wales European Funding Office (£5m) or Big Lottery Funds (£523k) entrusted to AWEMA". That's a potential (and I have to stress potential) misuse of some £6million in public funds.

But it gets worse.

As you probably know, the Welsh Government were warned about AWEMA in a 2004 report (found by a Lib Dem researcher – more on that at Gareth Hughes's blog) that suggested all public funding was stopped there and then.

So it's taken the Welsh Government 8 years to act, after they commissioned their own report into AWEMA, after the resignation of their acting chairman in 2007 and after that report rung whacking great big alarm bells that AWEMA had issues.

We needn't dwell on the fact that the Malik family are prominent Labour members and supporters. I don't buy that this was a conspiracy - just a toxic mix of negligence, arrogance and old fashioned cronyism. In fairness Labour were quick to suspend them and appear content to stall things for now while distancing themselves from the Malik's and AWEMA. No doubt they'll want to "move on to the important issues that matter to the people of Wales blah blah blah"  - and they'd have a point.

However this going to be hard for them to shake off for the following reason.

Somebody, somewhere, signed off public money to AWEMA back in 2004 (probably with the best of intentions) while ignoring independent advice wilfully or accidentally. Presumably a social justice, European affairs or equalities minister, a deputy minister or a senior civil servant.

Only the anoraks who follow Welsh politics closely are really interested in this and we're comfortably out-numbered by those who aren't. However I think we'll all be more forgiving if that person (or persons) owned up instead of hunkering down hoping this will blow over. If it turns out public money they signed off has been abused in any significant way, a dent in their pride by taking ownership of their mistake should be the least of their concerns.

At the very least that person(s) has to come out with an apology, explain the reasons why they ignored the original report and cooperate with any new investigations. The sooner the better. We don't know what any possible criminal investigation could reveal though I suspect the worst of it is already public knowledge.

I'm not going to speculate on who that could be.

Of course that's small comfort to those losing their jobs or having their schemes/funding/programme under threat by AWEMA's demise. I hope that all those who had nothing to do with this can move on to better things.

I also hope someone in Cardiff Bay or Cathays Park is having their conscience tugged before someone else tugs it for them.


Saturday, 11 February 2012

Independence Minutiae : Wales & Net Neutrality




What is "Net Neutrality"?

Network neutrality, or "net neutrality" is the view that all traffic on the internet should be "treated equally". That means that access to all websites, web content and other internet platforms is the same for all internet users and only restricted by their hardware or software capabilities (i.e. connection speeds).

It's a bit like having a subscription to satellite/cable television and having the same service regardless of which company you subscribe to.

Why is this important?

The internet is the most open medium in existence and a major technological and social breakthrough – although I don't think it's correct to say it's completely unrestricted. Companies can come out of nowhere and become major players in their field. It can be a force for political change and it's an important weapon in the fight against corruption and in local and global campaigns for greater transparency.

Of course the internet has its darker side. The so-called "deep web", however, isn't something 99.9% of people know about, let alone access regularly (it requires certain software and proxies). Most of the extreme pornography, hacking and copyright infringement will start off there with a little of it making it's way up into the visible "surface web".

What threatens it?


Many telecommunication providers see potential in offering "tiered" access to the internet. That means a company could charge more for faster access to certain websites or web services when currently everything is open to everybody unless blocked. It could also mean bigger companies could block the websites of potential competitors or start-ups that would threaten their business.

Using my earlier satellite television analogy. The internet could become a marketplace with differences between ISPs being like those between Sky, Virgin Media or ESPN. You might be able to access Facebook on all ISPs, but a few sites/services – for arguments sake iTunes, Netflix, Skype or Twitter - could become "exclusive" to certain ISPs, or slower depending on how much you're willing to pay.

The latest threat comes in the fight against online copyright infringement. I'm certainly not condoning it by the way and agree that there needs to be a sensible resolution to the issue. In the US the "Stop Online Piracy Act" (SOPA) and the "Protect IP Act" (PIPA) are the two latest attempts to clamp down on online piracy. Both are very wide ranging in scope and vague in their definitions. It could - in the loosest definitions possible - allow authorities to close websites that host user content (like Youtube videos with a soundtrack in the background), bar search engines or ISPs from allowing access to sites that breach copyright infringement (i.e Torrents) and, as a result, possibly discourage investment in new internet ventures – potentially costing jobs rather than saving them.

SOPA/PIPA look unlikely to be passed by the US Congress. However a new bill has been introduced by the creator of SOPA called the "Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act". This Bill includes measures that would allow the tracking of IP addresses and financial details under the cover of a welcome arsenal in the fight against child pornography.

Perhaps what the US really needs a "Neutral Titles for Bills Act".

What are the arguments against net neutrality?

Obviously ISPs own the infrastructure that carry the internet, so any restriction on what they can and cannot do with it could be considered a violation of their property rights.

With the internet ever expanding, companies like Skype have been accused of "freeloading" on infrastructure and bandwidth that ISPs pay for, construct or maintain. ISPs and other telecoms companies believe that offering tiered/prioritised access would enable them to invest more in their infrastructure through higher charges to preferential users.

There's also the argument that net neutrality laws would provide another "red tape" burden that would stifle innovation and competition.

What's the current UK position?

The Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative industry is on record as backing an end to net neutrality in the UK. Ed Vaizey said in November 2010 that "in order for the internet to continue as the open, innovative force for good that it has been for the last 20 years it is essential that all elements continue to prosper". He argued that many ISPs already have some form of "traffic management" to ensure smooth running "without compromising on competition or consumer rights".

The ISP Association welcomed this as a "lightly-regulated, market-led approach".

There have been several debates in Westminster down the years, including one sponsored by American telecoms company AT&T. It was decided that net neutrality laws would be "extreme, unattractive and impractical".

Even the US – where the issue is most widely debated - has what could be loosely described as net neutrality laws, or rulings in the judiciary that protect net neutrality in principle.

The EU is establishing a "framework" to protect net neutrality with pressure on the EU Commission at the end of 2011 to make new EU laws protecting net neutrality in all member states.

What could an independent Wales do?

It would probably make Wales a pariah, especially to Hollywood executives, but I believe that "net neutrality" should be enshrined in any Welsh constitution. It could be a 21st century partner to "freedom of speech" or "freedom of assembly" clauses.

Belgium, The Netherlands, France and Italy have all passed, or are considering passing, laws that protect net neutrality to varying degrees. Many other EU member states - in particular Germany and Spain - are coming under pressure from their telecoms companies to abandon net neutrality

If the EU does establish some form of net neutrality law and Wales eventually becomes an EU member state then this might render that requirement null and void.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Welsh Government makes a splash on school toilets

Lack of supervision, a laissez-faire attitude to defecation and bullying.
I'll be posting on the  AWEMA report another time.
(Pic : Time.com)

I like to pride myself on looking at issues in Welsh politics that might get overlooked. Sometimes that means looking under a rock and not finding anything particularly interesting. Back in January I noticed that the Welsh Government issued new guidelines for school toilets. As a challenge to myself I decided to actually try to blog on it and make it as interesting as possible.

It's easy to criticise present and previous Welsh Government's for focusing on minor "quality of life" concerns just so they can say they've done something. However in this case there's a serious side. Back in 2005 an outbreak of E-coli in south Wales schools affected 150 people, lead to 31 hospitalisations and the death of 5-year old Mason Jones from Caerphilly. There've also been smaller outbreaks since; Wrexham in 2009, Bangor and Swansea in November 2011.

In the Pennington Inquiry which followed the 2005 outbreak, it was recommended that the Welsh Government look at toilet facilities in schools. As a result Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) and Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) carried out a joint venture between their departments. They surveyed 1,800 pupils and 71% described their school toilets as "horrible" or "quite bad". Only 3% described them as "nice".

The pan-UK campaign Bog Standard was set up in 2003 to raise awareness of school toilets and provide information to schools, architects, parents and pupils on what they can do to improve them. They published "Lifting the lid on the nation's school toilets", which was taken up by the Children's Commissioner for Wales, and formed part of the foundation for the new guidelines.

Poor school toilets can spread diseases, lead to health problems in later life if pupils are reluctant to use them (ie. chronic constipation, "small bladder syndrome") and as an "adult-free zone" can be breeding grounds for bullying and sometimes lack the basic essentials for privacy.

The new guidelines recommend several examples of "good practice":
  • Schools will require a written toilet policy with the participation of pupils and governors.
  • Toilets should be free to use at all hours a school is open.
  • Staggered checks of toilets by staff as a deterrent to bad behaviour.
  • Toilets should be warm enough in the winter.
  • No location of drinking water in toilet areas.
  • Proper supervision of hand washing amongst younger children.
  • Proper provision and disposal of sanitary products in girl's toilets for those aged 8 or over.
  • Toilets should be cleaned at the end of every school day, with cloths, mops etc. not used anywhere else in a school.
  • Toilets should be inspected, adequately budgeted and inspections properly recorded.

All well and good, a lot of common sense there, but you also have crackers like:


  • Disabled toilet cubicles should be big enough to manoeuvre a wheelchair (simply revolutionary).
  • Toilet paper dispensers should be mounted where they are easily accessible ( as opposed to hanging from the roof like a piñata?) .
  • All toilets should have seats and should be strong enough to cope with a high volume of users (I realise childhood obesity is a concern but....).
  • Malodours should be prevented within toilet areas (kids love the smell of fresh turd in the morning......smells like.....victory).
  • CCTV should be considered at the entrance/exit when "all other options have failed" regarding supervision (....yeeeeeah....good luck with that one).

As far as I know, the Welsh Government are the first in the UK to publish "good practice" guidelines like this. Very well intentioned, very relevant with regard good hygiene practice. I'm not criticising it.

However, like their approach to sex education, I wish the Welsh Government would learn that sometimes 45 pages of guidance can be whittled down to under 10 pages. Separate the guidance that goes out to relevant people/authorities (shorter, less bureaucratic) from the documents and studies justifying it (longer, more legalese).

Everyone's happier.



Monday, 6 February 2012

The Collective Entrepreneur : Social Enterprise & The Smart State



Last March, a joint report was published by Prof. Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University and Adam Price (no not the Borgen creator) entitled The Collective Entrepreneur – Social Enterprise and the Smart State. Backed by Community Housing Cymru and the Charity Bank, the report looked in detail at the opportunities social enterprise, cooperatives and mutualism can bring to the UK (under the banner of the Big Society) as well as a detailed look at Wales. The foreword by Prof. Ian Hargreaves trumpets a "revival of the spirit of Robert Owen."

The reason I'm posting this now, is because in the past few months, "new capitalism", "mutualism" and "cooperatives" have been in the news due to a "decaying case for a monoculture of shareholder-led enterprise". This is embodied by the rise in things like open-source software - given as an example of the rise in mutualism and collaboration in business.

In From the Margins


The fallout from the Credit Crunch "exposed the shortcomings of the traditional business model", particularly the banking sector and credit agencies. However, social enterprises have a "Cinderella status", being a "poor relation to conventional business".


Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England argued that there needed to be "more systemic diversity" in the financial sector because the UK banking industry's over-dependence on share-holder owned PLCs led to a "homogeneity" that "bred fragility". As risk-management at these companies failed the interconnectivity and similarity between individual bank's business models caused the crisis to spread quickly and devastatingly (contagion).

The creation of banking mutuals - like credit unions - in Wales promotes Haldane's "systemic diversity". They also protect consumer choice - something seen as critical to providing more resilience in the financial services sector. The report also says that government needs to realise that social enterprise cannot just be an "arm of the state". The sector needs its own distinctiveness.

The Collective Entrepreneur


Big social changes rarely come about without some sort of crisis. The NHS and welfare state as we know it came about as the result of the Second World War. Also, before this, David Lloyd George's rapid social reforms post World War One could also be an example.


Although not completely diminished, the anger
against the excesses of the free market has been replaced
with disappointment after the Occupy Movement's failure.
(Pic : The Telegraph)

The credit crunch made us "ask questions about the nature and purpose of enterprise". However the momentum was lost. Look at the Occupy Movement – a "popular" cause that lost steam quickly. Were these examinations too uncomfortable for the free-market orthodoxy? Or did we have too many distractions? Phone-hacking, the Olympics, the Royal Wedding, MP's expenses....

The report highlights two different types of entrepreneur. The "Heroic" and the "Collective".

The Heroic Entrepreneur – a neo-liberal, rugged-individualist soldier in a war against state control. Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter is called the "ambassador" for this type – saying that these individuals are not content with "being ruled", they "break routine" and are visionaries with "mental freedom". Schumpeter also interestingly argued that as socialisation grew alongside innovation and technological developments this "type must diminish".

During the rise on neo-liberalism this "hero" was given a new lease of life as a personification of the free-market. This celebration of the heroic entrepreneur gave the impression that "social inequalities in wealth were the result of individual differences in talent".

However, teamwork is in fact a key to enterprise success - a fact "ignored by centre-right politicians". A study is cited of Wall Street analysts where "star performers" who transferred to a different setting experienced a drop in performance that lasted as long as 5 years.

Collective Entrepreneur – Enterprise is seen as a collective social endeavour where "the team is the hero". Innovative firms aim to create a "corporate community" where workers and managers exchange innovation and ideas freely. Some of the worlds biggest and most innovative companies – Google and Facebook for example – do tend to use this sort of model. Indeed it's very common in "knowledge intensive industries".


Facebook HQ - An example of a new type of workplace hierarchy.
(Pic : Time.com)

This changing nature of authority is said to present problems however. Authority would be based on knowledge instead of a strict, layered hierarchy. That could mean that some workers could be answerable to those "below them" rather than superiors.

Collective entrepreneurship can't be given a singular definition. Indeed the roles of the knowledge economy and the social economy are quite different. The knowledge economy is focused on making profit, while the social economy is about providing a service with a surplus to ensure sustainability. The report argues, however, that many industries not traditionally associated with cooperatives or mutualism still extol the virtues of cooperation and teamwork.

In social enterprises, there's a "strong element of mutual support as a response to social and ecological problems". Robin Murray of the LSE argues that social economy requires "new infrastructures, tools and means of distributing resources services, new forms of organisation and new ways of linking the formal and informal economies".

From Big State to Big Society

At first glance the authors compliment the Conservative Party's Big Society vision. They say that David Cameron draws on a "One Nation conservatism" and that Eric Pickle's Localism Bill could "easily appear word for word in a centre-left manifesto" with its aims to "fundamentally shape balance of power in society....letting councils and communities run their own affairs". David Cameron is said to be trying to reshape the state "in the interests of civil society", undoing the Thatcherite policy of reshaping for market interests.

Cameron's Big Society is the opposite of previous Thatcherite
ideology of what society is and what role the state should play in shaping it.
(Pic : Political Scrapbook)

They are also critical of Labour's state-centric approach which gave the impression that the public sector as "neither democratic nor innovative", when they had in the past looked towards mutualism more.

On a closer examination of the Coalition's deficit reduction programme, it appears to be out of kilter with the Big Society ideals. Local authorities in particular are looking at "27% cuts over the four years to 2015". As a whole, the voluntary sector is reliant on the public sector in the UK, so declining income from state sources would leave "too big a gap to be filled". Of the £12.8bn public money spent on the voluntary sector in 2007-08, 70% of that came from public contracts and the remaining 30% from public grants. Liverpool City Council - one of four pilot councils for the scheme - say it would be "impossible to pursue Big Society aims while absorbing £100m of budget cutbacks".

To counteract this, a Big Society Bank is to be set up, funded by dormant bank accounts as well as donations from the commercial big banks. However, the arrangements and scope of those donations is yet to be decided.

Threats and Opportunities for the Social Enterprise Sector

Opportunities

1. More opportunities for direct service provision as the state cuts back.
2. Social enterprises could receive a proportion of the public money saved as a result of their work (Social Impact Bonds).
3. Community Asset Transfers from public sector to third sector.
4. Up to £236bn (2009-10) in public procurement possibly open to social enterprises.
5. Social enterprise could help public sector meet social and environmental goals as they are dropped due to costs.
6. Skills burden/dearth could be addressed by drawing on pool of unemployed graduates.

Threats

1. Public spending could dry up faster than public markets open to social enterprises.
2. Social enterprises need alternative sources of finance (40% of surveyed social enterprises were reliant on the state).
3. Community Asset Transfers can become a liability if the resources aren't there to maintain them.
4. "Management culture" in the public sector means penalties outweigh awards when risks are taken.
5. Social enterprises need to be able to form consortia to become credible bidders for big contracts.
6. More action is needed from government to develop leadership skills in the third sector.

Wales : The Social Network Nation

Social enterprise in Wales is expected to thrive due to the communitarian values, including the historic "cymortha" tradition of collective harvesting. Wales has historically high reserves of social capital and the Wales Co-operative Centre is said to be the largest co-operative development body in the UK. Wales is also said to be responsible for 8% of UK social enterprise turnover compared to a population share of 5%. However, these statistics are dubbed "questionable" and when compared to general business, the proportion of social enterprises was much smaller.


The longest running co-ops in Wales are agricultural societies, established due to the "dogged determination" of Augustus Brigstocke from Carmarthenshire. These societies had government support, and these models of co-operation in agriculture continues today with the "successful marketing co-ops for Welsh Beef and Lamb". The Miners Institutes of industrial Wales are also given as an example of Welsh cooperative tradition, with many out-surviving the mines they were formed for.

The report outlines three challenges needed to be overcome to sustain the growth of cooperatives in Wales.


1. Social Procurement

The biggest possible consumer for social enterprises is government. However social enterprises "face the same barriers as other small businesses" listed as : too much information, being perceived as high-risk ventures, the lack of trading record, public contracts being too large in scale and a decision process that emphasises cost reduction.

Public bodies have responded to these barriers by using EU procurement "community benefit" clauses to give social enterprises a "hook" with which to win public contracts. An example is given of the One Wales government encouraging the NHS and social landlords to use social enterprises in procurement. Despite this Welsh Government statistics show that their procurement arm, Value Wales, only sought 8% of services from social enterprises.

The report says there needs to be more detailed data on the social market share of government procurement and suggests setting a target of 20% of public procurement from social enterprises by 2020.

Joint purchasing agreements in the public sector created larger contracts than individual social enterprises could realistically provide for. Local authorities - the report suggests - should be given financial incentives to include "community benefit" clauses – for example, by the Welsh Government rewarding organisations that include these clauses in a high percentage of their purchases.

Another, more interesting suggestion - to immediately save up to £30million in procurement costs - is to transfer all major public sector IT contracts to open-source software.



Housing stock transfers have met resistance in Wales, but by transferring social housing to community housing mutuals – these housing associations are said to have become "major players" in themselves. Welsh housing associations have not only sought procurement from other social enterprises but have established their own. Moneyline Cymru – an alternative to doorstep lenders – is given as an example, as is the fuel-efficiency Arbed programme to retrofit social housing – recently given a boost in the Welsh Government's budget deal with the Liberal Democrats.

The report wonders whether the Welsh Government will continue to carry this experiment into services like health and education. Combining the "entrepreneuralism of the private sector with the accountability of public services" can "drive up quality and effectiveness of Welsh public services".

Examples of where this might work is in the reorganisation of rural schools, where parents and teachers form co-operative trusts as an alternative to LEA's.

Co-operatives are cited as being a "bulwark against (the) privatisation" of social care and there are plenty of examples already. The Assembly could aim for social enterprise to be the "biggest supplier of social care within a generation".

Social enterprises are already a part of the healthcare scene - despite the potential for controversy in this area. Children's hospice Ty Hafan is the leading example but there are also others, particularly in mental health and substance misuse. Independent health providers in Wales are said to be "closer to healthcare friendly societies" than outwardly profit-driven health providers.

With the possible future devolution of S4C to the Assembly, Gerry Holtham suggested a mutual solution there too. Viewers could made voluntary contributions to S4C's funding as a "partner" and the S4C Authority would be elected by its membership, which is said would increase accountability. Labour have also suggested that the BBC Trust become a mutual.

2. Scaling up, skilling up

The Welsh Social Enterprise Coaltion is "challenging some cherished beliefs within parts of the social enterprise movement". They call for social enterprise to turn into a "large-scale economic model". Despite these ambitions, RBS says that social enterprise growth in Wales is the slowest in the UK in spite of an inherent "cooperative culture".

The report says that over the next 20 years, Wales should aim to create three "beacon firms" : another Glas Cymru, a financial mutual to rival Principality Building Society and a "Welsh John Lewis" (I recently suggest something similar for Peacocks).

Jeff Skoll, founder of ebay, is quoted as saying that "social entrepreneurs will be the driving force of next 100 years". Wales needs to become its own centre of excellence during this future boom in the social market. It goes onto suggest a "Social Business School", with a Master of Social Business Administration, which would work to build skills in the existing social market as well as disadvantaged communities. The report creates an ambitious future role for Wales, including a "Hay Festival for social enterprise" inspired by the TED movement as well as many more ambitious plans outlined in the next section.

3. Finance is key

Surveys have found that good finance and funding are the greatest enabler of success. Out of the "People's Bank" idea - floated by both Labour and Plaid Cymru - there is a "public appetite for an ethical financial sector".

A Development Bank – Finance Wales would be moved from being a public interest company to once based on the Glas Cymru model. It could be part financed by the creation of Labour-owned investment and pension funds, however this would require central government support and legislative changes (an argument for independence? Wales wouldn't have to wait for "central government support").

The 8 major public sector pension funds in Wales have a collective £6billion under management. Even the diversion of a small amount of this would have a big impact on the capital available to business in Wales. It's said the creation of an "All Wales Pension Fund" would save on administration fees and would focus exclusively on investment in Welsh businesses, regeneration and public infrastructure – especially housing.


Could a "social enterprise square mile" become Wales's niche?
(Pic : Guardian Cardiff)

Mutual Home Ownership – In partnership with Welsh mutuals (Principality, Swansea & Monmouthshire Building Societies), tenants would pay a monthly payment for a share of collective equity funded by a "corporate loan by a social enterprise instead of a personal mortgage".

A not-for-profit rail company – Suggested by Plaid Cymru for when the Arriva Trains franchise ends in 2018.

A Renewable Energy "Glas Cymru" – A public interest corporation investing in locally-owned, community-based energy production or funding larger projects like tidal lagoons and the Severn Barrage. Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) has suggested something similar in a recent short debate in the Senedd in the creation of a "Wealth Fund".

Broadband Mutual
– The Dutch town of Nuenen is cited as an example where 95% of the broadband infrastructure is cooperatively owned. It's suggested a scheme similar to this could be rolled out in Wales via Public Bonds (issued presumably by the Development Bank suggested above).

A Savings Super Mutual – This would be a "national umbrella" that would "provide back office functions to Credit Unions" – effectively a "super Credit Union". It's suggested to reduce the risks that this company should start within an existing housing association, then be "spun-out" eventually as an independent company.

A National Trading Bank
– This would provide "liquidity, treasury and payment services to local authorities" who currently "receive low rates of return from London-based funds that don't invest in Wales".

A Welsh Wholesale Social Bank – Communities First funding and the money from dormant accounts would be transferred here. It's role would be to "pool capital for social purposes" including a "right-to-buy" for community assets. This is similar to the Big Society Bank mentioned earlier.

The report is grand in it's scale and ambition, saying that a "social square mile" in Cardiff could "steal a march from other financial centres". This "Welsh niche" would also involve hosting a social investment market and a "social stock market" which would trade social impact bonds and other "ethical investments".

The Smart State Strategy

Social enterprise offers opportunities in areas where "neither the market or the public sector offer hope for social innovation and economic renewal". However social enterprise needs "stronger, better and more imaginative nurturing and structure" – a "Smart State Strategy".

The Smart State should:
  • Create a "networking culture" where all partners; state, private firms and social enterprises collaborate.
  • Use its own powers creatively to boost the social enterprise sector.
  • Mobilise other key players like universities and banks to deploy their own resources.
  • Deploy public procurement effectively and manage value instead of costs.
  • Use new financial instruments (i.e social impact bonds) to mix banking finance with social capital.
  • Fashion new training opportunities and university courses to upskill the third sector.
  • Create a "social infrastructure" where social enterprises learn from each other.
  • Wales in particular needs to prove that its cooperative values are an asset not a "thing of the past".

Conclusion

It's been hard to try and cram a 45 page report into under 3,500 words, so if you're still reading at this point I'm both impressed and gratified
. I hope that you now get an idea of the ambition and vision this report – practically ignored by the media – has for the Welsh economy. I hope when you've got the time you'll read it yourself and form your own opinions.

I've always had the impression that social enterprises and cooperatives are only necessary to stave of a business failure. Clearly my thinking is wrong. Although the Welsh Government has a commitment to social enterprise and the "third sector", if we want Wales to achieve anything close to the ambition laid out in the report – a development bank, a "social square mile" and a re-ignition of Wales' "cooperative culture" – then it will not only require the tools but the political will. Independence might be the ultimate way to have all those tools and see this vision though – not having to rely on the UK Government to pass legislation for example, but clearly it's not as simple as that. (You can't blame a nat for making that point can you?)


AWEMA are still trying to defend the indefensible.
Allowing organisations to use "social enterprise" and "good causes" as
a shield to deflect criticism is just asking for trouble.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

In recent months, the Welsh third sector has been rocked by the AWEMA scandal, allegations made by Cllr. Neil McEvoy about Safer Wales and Welsh Women's Aid as well as ongoing concerns about how Welsh housing associations allocate housing. I fear that a small corner of the third sector is in danger of becoming a breeding ground for corruption without the proper skills and without proper oversight.

So I'd include the following "additions":
  • The proposed "Social Business School" should be the first step in scaling-up the third sector before anything else. It should be academically rigorous and aim for global respect. Within a generation anyone running a third sector organisation in Wales should be expected to have an "MSBA" regardless of that organisations purpose.
  • There needs to be a "third sector watchdog/third sector FSA" to properly audit social enterprises and charities – independent of government. Hiding behind "good work" cannot be used as an excuse for nepotism, embezzlement, incompetence or corruption. AWEMA for example are currently playing the race card with aplomb.
  • The third sector should no longer be funded by central government grants - only from the proposed development bank, social market bank or other ethical investments. The links between the state and social enterprise should be broken completely or at very least held at arms-length.

In my personal opinion, transferring public services to a social enterprise or a not-for-profit is still privatisation by definition – just "nicer". I'm not sure what point the authors were trying to make by saying it would be a "bulwark against privatisation" in the cited social care example.

We also cannot ignore traditional enterprise. Profit isn't a dirty word. Although social enterprise might be the best way to reduce Welsh reliance on the public sector - as an employer and as an economic driver – free-market capitalism doesn't look like it's going anywhere soon.

As much as the Welsh Government should support the not-for-profit rail company or the "People's Bank" it needs to support the recruitment company or the fast food franchise. Cooperatives might be a way of making business more palatable to the Welsh people, who have traditionally been (or socially ingrained to be) mistrustful of the capitalist class. However it's going to take patience and time before it replaces the traditional free-market - good or bad - as the major economic model in Wales.