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?

Friday, 30 November 2012

Senedd Watch - November 2012

It's been an busy month in Cardiff Bay by usual standards, so my apologies for this post's length.
  • Plaid Cymru criticised Labour MPs from Wales for voting with some Westminster Conservatives against a rise in the European Union's budget – which could translate into cuts in structural and Common Agricultural Policy funds for Wales. On November 21st, the Assembly approved a Plaid Cymru-sponsored motion calling for the Welsh Government to “make representations” opposing the move.
  • Welsh-language broadcaster, S4C, celebrated its 30th anniversary on 1st November. Chief Executive, Ian Jones, said they were considering English-language dubs for some programmes via the red button. S4C were also carrying out a feasibility study with regard moving to three smaller sites.
  • Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) called for the creation of a “green belt” around Cardiff, following Cardiff Council's draft Local Development Plan, which plans for 45,000 homes between 2006 and 2026.
  • The Children's Commissioner called for a new inquiry into child abuse at north Wales children's homes in the 1970s and 1980s, after it was revealed senior public figures may have been involved as part of a paedophile ring. The First Minister urged victims to go to the police, and said he would look at the terms of reference to the original 1997-2000 Waterhouse Inquiry. Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, also joined the calls, saying that victims “should be heard”.
  • UK Home Secretary, Teresa May, announced a new inquiry into the abuse on November 6th, which will be lead by the National Crime Agency. A separate inquiry will investigate the terms of reference of the Waterhouse Inquiry. On November 13th, a cross-party group of AMs called on an outside police force to investigate North Wales Police's handling of the abuse.
  • New regulations came into force in Wales granting children a “right to play”, and placing a duty on local authorities to assess play area provision and suitability. Deputy Minister for Social Services & Children, Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath), said Wales is “leading the way on promoting children's rights” and that play is “vital for children's development.”
  • A report - commissioned by the Welsh Government - found that scrapping Severn bridge tolls would boost the south Wales economy by £107million. The First Minister called for control of the tolls to be devolved to Wales once the current toll concession expires in 2017-18.
  • Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) criticised Cardiff Metropolitan University for “misleading and bogus” advertising claims suggesting they were Wales' top “new university”, which damaged institutions like Glamorgan University. In a related development, Education Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), granted Cardiff Met a reprieve from a merger with Glamorgan and Newport Universities, which will allow the former two to merge in April 2013.
  • The Assembly's Finance Committee expressed concerns that the Welsh Government's draft spending plans won't meet all of their proposed objectives once inflation has been taken into consideration. Committee Chair, Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East), expressed particular concerns about local health board budgets, and legislation's impact on local authorities. On November 18th, NHS Wales Chief Executive, David Sissling, said he was “confident” local health boards would balance their budgets.
  • Environment Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), set up a Task and Finish Group on Marine Conservation Zones, which will report back in April 2013. Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) said the number of consultation responses highlighted the “huge concern at these proposals.” Llyr Huws Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) said he was pleased that the Welsh Government listened to concerns, but that the new approach “should have been adopted from the outset.”
  • Health Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), announced an extensive review of the Welsh Ambulance Service, following failures to meet performance and budget targets. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said that too many reviews had been undertaken on ambulance services and told the minister to “get a grip of this issue.”
  • Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru agreed a 2013-14 budget deal, which includes an extra £40million for apprenticeships over two years - possibly rising to £60million - and capital investment in a science park for Bangor & Aberystwyth Universities. Plaid Cymru will abstain from the budget vote in December.
  • Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembrokeshire) called the deal “cheap” and said it “hails the return of an ineffective tag team.” Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Kirsty Williams, said her party wouldn't support the budget due to failures to close a school funding gap with England.
  • Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, defended his handling of 2011-12 GCSE English Language marking. He told the Assembly's Children & Young Persons Committee that had he changed grade boundaries before results were released, he would've been “crucified in the media....because I would have had little evidence to base that judgement.” He added that it was important, as a minister, to step in when there was a “fundamental issue” at stake.
  • The first Assembly Bill since the 2011 referendum was granted Royal Assent on 12th November. The National Assembly (Official Languages) Act was described by the First Minister – also Keeper of the Welsh Seal - as “the beginning of a new era for the governance of Wales.”
  • Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion), said advice documents from 2006 - proving Welsh Government ministers wanted to protect actors from smoking - contradicts current proposals to ease regulations on enclosed smoking for the film and television industry.
  • Local Government & Communities Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), reassured the public that there were “record” levels of salt grit stored around Wales. He said, “this will ensure....we're self-sufficient throughout the winter period without the need to re-stock.”
  • As part of Aberystwyth University's Welsh Politics Annual Lecture, Leanne Wood announced that Plaid Cymru would “crowd source” their manifesto and open their candidate selection process – including open primaries. She also announced her intention to stand for a constituency seat in 2016.
  • Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) accused the chair of the National Clinical Forum of undermining an independent report on hospital reorganisations in north Wales. The report was initially critical of changes, but was rewritten by the chair and re-submitted as the forum's own work to include support for some Betsi Cadwaladr LHB reforms.
  • Welsh unemployment fell by 5,000 to stand at 8.2% in the 3 months to September 2012, compared to 7.8% for the UK as a whole. Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said youth unemployment was still too high, and asked the UK Government to extend rate relief schemes into 2013.
  • Local Government & Communities Minister, Carl Sargeant, relaunched the Welsh Government's flagship anti-poverty scheme - Communities First. Changes will include “clustering” Communities First areas together and he said he would to provide “robust monitoring” of the scheme, following concerns it wasn't providing value for money.
  • Concerns were raised that Welsh local authorities aren't doing enough to combat human trafficking. A BBC Wales investigation found that a quarter of local authorities had no policies on the issue. Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales), said that the National Assembly were taking human trafficking “extremely seriously”, pointing to the creation of an all-Wales human trafficking coordinator.
  • Winston Roddick (Ind, North Wales), Christopher Salmon (Con, Dyfed-Powys), Ian Johnson (Ind, Gwent) and Alun Michael (Lab, South Wales), were elected Wales' first Police & Crime Commissioners on November 15th. There were concerns raised about turnout levels, which averaged ~15% in Wales.
  • The Global Entrepreneurship Monitoring report found that levels of business start-ups amongst Welsh youngsters (18-29 y.o.) trebled between 2002 and 2011 - from a rate of 3.4% to 9.7%. However, the report also suggested that business confidence in Wales was low, with only 17.7% of entrepreneurs questioned saying there were “good opportunities” in the next six months.
  • The Silk Commission published the first of two reports on Welsh devolution on 19th November, covering fiscal devolution. Recommendations include : devolution of taxes such as stamp duty, air passenger duty, landfill tax and aggregates levies; capital borrowing powers and the ability to vary income tax from 2020 – subject to a fair funding agreement and a referendum. Under the proposals the Assembly will be responsible for raising a quarter of its budget. Deputy Llywydd, David Melding (Con, South Wales Central), suggested these new powers would require more AMs.
  • Leighton Andrews announced a study into the structure of of education service delivery, which will report back in March 2013. He told the Senedd that the possibility of local authorities losing control of school funding decisions – effectively abolishing Local Education Authorities - is being considered. Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms West & South Pembs) said it was an “admission of 13 years of failure.” The Welsh Local Government Association said it would be “undemocratic.”
  • Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, called on the Welsh Government to take class action against energy companies and banks over “market rigging”, which could pave the way for Welsh consumers taking similar action.
  • The UK Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Local Government Byelaws Bill was within the Assembly's competence, after it was called-in by the UK Attorney General over concerns about Secretary of State powers. The Welsh Secretary said the judgement, “clarified the boundaries of devolution” while the First Minister said it proved “the Welsh Government was in the right.”
  • The Assembly rejected a Liberal Democrat motion - by 26 votes to 27 - calling for the Ministerial Code of Conduct to be policed independently of the Welsh Government (nominally the First Minister) and the Assembly Commission.
  • The Wales Audit Office reported that the Welsh NHS is likely to face budget shortfalls of £70million in the current financial year - possibly up to £130million. Darren Millar AM said the Welsh NHS faced “financial meltdown” without a big cash injection from the Welsh Government. Elin Jones AM called on more honesty and action from the Health Minister, whilst the Liberal Democrats expressed “grave concern.” NHS Chief, David Sissling, told the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee on 27th November that there was a £50million reserve in place.
  • 53% of waste collected by Welsh local authorities in now being recycled according to Welsh Government statistics. Environment Minister, John Griffiths, said he was “delighted” and wanted to “build on our recycling success so....we can meet our....targets of 70% recycling by 2025 and zero-waste by 2050.”
  • The Welsh Government launched a consultation on its draft Control of Dogs Bill, which will include : bringing 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act measures into effect on private property, measures to force owners to register out-of-control dogs and making muzzles compulsory for dangerous breeds. The Welsh Government are also considering compulsory chipping of dogs, as proposed in an earlier consultation.
  • Politicians from all parties reacted with dismay to the announcement of 600 “white collar” steel redundancies across south Wales, and 200 job losses at a pizza factory in Flintshire. The Welsh Government pledged to provide support to those affected.
  • One person was killed as a result of serious flooding of the River Elwy in Denbighshire on November 27th, after days of torrential rain and gales caused problems across Wales and much of the rest of the UK. The First Minister promised an investigation after in emerged that flood defences on land – bought by a housing developer, but formerly owned by the Welsh Government – failed.
  • Deputy Minister for Skills, Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly), unveiled a qualifications review for 14-19 year olds, which will retain GCSEs, improve literacy and numeracy skills within qualifications, set up a new arms-length qualifications agency for Wales and make changes to the Welsh Baccalaureate.
  • The Assembly approved a motion calling to end stigmas surrounding mental health. Four AMs - from all parties - disclosed their own experiences with mental illness as part of an initiative to “Get Wales Talking.”
  • Vaughan Gething AM (Lab, Cardiff South & Penarth) launched a report, backed by the Co-operative Group, calling for the establishment of a not-for-profit “Rail Cymru” to run the all-Wales rail franchise from 2018. He described it as a “once in a generation opportunity”.
  • The Welsh Government made a bizarre attempt to pull a repeat episode of S4C soap opera, Pobol y Cwm, following complaints they were denied a “right to reply” after a character criticised their handling of bovine TB. Peter Black AM – a known opponent of a badger cull - said the Welsh Government had “no respect for free speech and artistic integrity.”

Projects announced in November 2012 include : A feasibility study into a new postgraduate centre at the Old College in Aberystwyth, a Liberal Democrat-backed mortgage guarantee scheme for up to 3,000 new homes, a £42.5million RNLI investment in Wales for modern lifeboats and a relaunch of the £30million Economic Growth Fund.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Black hearted political dwarves at S4C

I couldn't help raising a titter or two seeing the Welsh Government throw a paddy  noting our noble leaders express constructive dismay at S4C daring to air a repeat of Pobol y Cwm in which a character expresses concerns over government policy with regard the badger cull  degrading themselves to political lackey status.

Now, I've always believed the Welsh Government are (censored). On today, of all days, when statutory press regulation has been the main talking point, this wasn't the best timing to say the least as it blows any case for even moderate press regulation by the state out of the water matches the Leveson report's progressive idealism to protect ministers from sycophantic, bourgeois traitors.

I've mentioned before that our government structures might provide an environment which could help foster corporate psychopathy are absolutely perfect in every way and any contrary opinion was counter revolutionary and I apologise for being the reckless stooge that I am.

Welsh Labour always have their our best interests at heart, and the impression that they're nothing more than an overbearing, managerial blob of a party that have lost their way and become noticeably touchy about criticism the last year or so has been reinforced.

Tonight, the Welsh Government have embarrassed themselves and embarrassed stood up for Wales.


Message ends. Hoch hech!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Mysterious superhero rids Wales of Cymraeg

They seek him here, they seek him there
Those Welshies seek him everywhere
Is he in Belgrade? - Or is it Cwmbran?
Where is that damned illusive Angloman?
As he does a Captain Morgan pose atop a Cardiff building, Angloman growls his words out. "You wanted me, here I am," he said. "I'm an angel keeping watch. Welsh-speakers and darkness take over the country. There are tens of millions of law-abiding English-speakers, and they cry out for my protection against this moral cesspool of Cymraeg."

His valiant campaign has inspired many. I visited Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr, where a sad, lonely, elderly man was painting over the signs. "The NHS has been revolutionised," he said. "Before, they might've thought the ambulances were delivering the Cymry's secret gold, or the hospital was for Welsh-speakers only. They might've felt ostracised, see.

"Needs to learns people to talk tidy, like I. Look at these signs now. English. English. English. Right across the board. All of them, right along here. All English."
"Well, didn't they have English anyway?" I asked. "Why don't you just use a different colour for the Welsh and make English the top one?"

"But....these are all English."

Later, I was greeted by a beaming headmaster – originally from Whitbury New Town – who was relieved he won his battle to rename Ysgol Pili Pala to the more inclusive and aspirational Duke of Winston Churchill Haverdisher-Smythe Academyspace for the Learning.

He puffed his chest out, proudly telling me, "We now foster bilingualism the proper, English way. It won an award in the Daily Heil."

I passed a classroom, where a teacher was shouting, whilst pointing at the whiteboard, "DO. YOU. SPEAK. ENGLISH?"

"Do. You."

"Louder! More patronising!"

"DO. YOU. SPEAK. ENGLIIIIIISH?"

"BETTER!"

"By getting rid of Welsh,"
the headteacher said, "pupils can finally use the language of successful business. The language of Enron, RBS and Lehman Brothers. They turned into the next Richard Branson overnight." He points to the former playing fields, "We had to construct a business park on school grounds to cope with the innate entrepreneurialism and value for money that results from being able to speak English."
I asked a pupil what they thought, "I developed throat problems as the digraphs got stuck in my vocal cords. Now that I don't need to learn my Welsh Second Language GCSE short course anymore, I'm using the hour saved to invent a perpetual motion machine - and I'm starting my own bank!"

"We're proud the student-units gave up their Welsh lessons voluntarily," the headmaster said. "It sends the right message to prospective employers that if they don't want to do a subject, they can toss it aside. Just name one economically successful multilingual, nation. You can't ca...."

"....Switzerland, the Basque Country, Catalonia, the Republic of Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Canada, Belgium, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Malta, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany...."

"Germans speak German!"

"Low Saxon, Sorbian, Frisian, Danish. That's before considering Turkish and Polish communities. All of them are officially recognised to an extent."

"But....how many speak Welsh?"

"Well, if you count Welsh-speaking émigrés...."

"Pah!," the headmaster waves a hand. "They all speak English anyway. Everyone in Wales speaks English too."

"So,"
I said, "you accept that English is being taught to first-language standard, even in Welsh-language schools?"

"That's not the point. They should learn useful languages."

"Don't Welsh medium schools teach modern foreign languages as part of the national curriculum? Shouldn't children – in certain parts of Wales - know the majority language of the area they're living in? Is your objection that they are being taught Welsh at all?"


"....but they all speak English anyway."

"So," I said, "you accept that children are learning English to first-language standard, even...." I wasn't getting anywhere.

Next, I visited a cheery manager of a big energy company, who was busy deciding how many pensioners will die of hypothermia this winter. "Usually, you would think those people believing that the bill itself -literally - makes up a large proportion of energy costs would have some sort of brain infection.

"But thanks to these idio....sorry, concerned citizens.....everyone in Wales now knows that the reason they pay through the nose for energy isn't because of our price rigging, complicated tariffs that don't provide value for money or mismanagement of fuel stocks – it's the Welsh language. Yup. It's the Welsh language's fault. Booooooo!

"We saved £50 in printer toner costs," she continued, "and we're delighted we'll no longer have to pass those costs on to our valued custom...." She couldn't continue because she did one of those laughs where you stop breathing.

French energy companies - inspired by Angloman - have decided to serve consumers in French-only in future, including those in south east England. UKIP MEP Crawford Fitzroy-Levillier said, "How can foreign companies build their power stations and windmills all over our country, and force the natives to use their bastardised tongue?

"Nobody in serious business uses frog croaking,"
his face became redder as he sprayed biscuit crumbs into his moustache, "they're all former colonies that don't matter. They're not America, or the Pitcairn Islands."
"You realise knowledge of Spanish will become politically advantageous in the US in a few generations?" I asked. "And that, despite it being taken seriously there – percentage wise – there are fewer Spanish speakers in the US than there are Welsh speakers in Wales?"

"Bloody Welsh!" he said. "They should learn a more cost effective language! Like binary!"

"Clearly I didn't make myself clear last time," Professor Yogi Plopp told me. "Swansea now smells like Hong Kong in the 70s. I have rows of Wales' top brass, legs akimbo in front of hot fans, working 24/7 to produce the volumes of essence required. The aim is to drop it from helicopters used to put out forest fires. I'm calling it 'Operation Apocalypse Muff.'

"We're also getting the Japanese to build the world's largest deep fat frier on Anglesey. Chips, cheese and Caesium-137 is proving popular in Bridgend."

I caught up with Angloman at their secret base – a Ceredigion farmhouse that once sustained jobs in the community but is now a source of renewable hot air. They said, "I have nothing against the Welsh language, or Welsh-speakers, but...
"We can't go back to the days of children being given stickers for using the Welsh language in a Welsh language school in a Welsh-speaking area. That's discrimination, that is. Tantamount to child abuse.

"You need to expose their secret society," they said. "You need to take away any semblance that they have a right to their own culture. There's a billion strong English-speaking silent majority, who need to stand up in the crowd of apathy and make complete arses of themselves. After thousands of years of existing, everyone knows a website and a Daily Mail article will bring the whole Welsh house of cards down. 

"They need to be constantly reminded of why it's inferior. It should be ridiculed, so it has to justify its existence – and costs - to us on our terms because we say so.
"You can then either assimilate them, breed them out of existence or get rid of them. Then we can live happily ever after, in one kingdom, as one people and with one language. We shall build Jerusalem in Birmingham's green and pleasant back garden.
"There are no historical parallels," they said. "At all. None whatsoever. There are no examples of  ethno-linguistic minorities in Europe being turned on by a 'silent majority', whipped into a frenzy, that started as little things being taken away, and ended with people being bulldozed into ditches."
They renamed the farmhouse from Glan-y-Mynydd to Cheesy Glans. "It's simple really," they said. "Nobody asked us to be here, or say anything - and we honest to God think we're doing you a favour - but we haven't given our personalities the equivalent of a gentleman's wash.
"We're not a threat, just an annoying bi-product. We'll leave you with a nasty itch after giving the country a forgettable fumble, that'll leave us feeling inadequate as you ask us 'is it in yet?'

"That's why she dumped me, the Welsh-speaking trollop! Tell me to 'clean my helmet' in your monkey speak, will you! I said I'd get her back! I'll get all of them back! Made it, Ma! Top of the world!"

After calming down, they continued, "I realise the vast majority couldn't care less about language issues. But some people will always be bad neighbours, and some people enjoy using 'national' newspapers as fluffers. It doesn't matter where we come from, or who we are.
"We're proud to be England's smeg."

Monday, 26 November 2012

Bridgend Library relocation & Berwyn Centre update


Bridgend Council have rubber stamped plans to move
the town's library to a redeveloped Recreation Centre
(Pic : BBC Wales)

A few months ago, Bridgend Council launched a consultation on moving Bridgend Library from its current building on Wyndham Street to Bridgend Recreation Centre (which is currently undergoing redevelopment).

In response to Welsh Government statutory guidelines, BCBC carried out a review in 2010. It was agreed that a "community hub"/"life centre" model should be developed for libraries – for example, the one in Pyle - which would result in the closure of smaller/lesser-used libraries and an expansion of mobile library services to compensate.

When you consider that Bridgend county has one of the poorest library use rates in Wales, that – on paper- seems like a sensible course of action. Questions were raised about Bridgend Library's ability to meet the demands of the 21st century, and it was proposed to move the library to the Recreation Centre. BCBC's Health & Wellbeing Committee met last week, and rubber stamped the move.

There were several key challenges that prompted the decision:
  • The lack of an alternative site – There were mooted proposals to move the library to the Old Courthouse on Derwen Road as part of HD Ltd's developments in the area, which had the support of Bridgend Town Council. BCBC say the proposals were "interesting" but failed on two fronts : parking facilities and affordability. I think that's unfortunate, as it would've complimented the regeneration works on Court Road and Derwen Road quite well.
  • Demographics – Most users of the existing library are older people, whilst more younger people use the Recreation Centre. Combining the two might encourage younger demographics to use the library and perhaps safeguard its future in the medium to long term.
  • Parking – It would be much easier at the Recreation Centre than the existing library. However, wouldn't the exising car park(s) become overcrowded?
  • Accessibility and Facilities - It's hoped a modern library would improve accessibility and would have a much bigger floorprint that the existing library. There would be facilities for use by library users at the Recreation Centre too as part of the redevelopment (cafe, children's play areas etc.).
  • Finance – The proposals weren't made with financial considerations in mind (yeah, right). However, a new build library, or redevelopment of the existing library, would've been "unviable" due to the lack of capital funding.

There were problems though. The consultation suggests that a slight majority of existing library users would be unwilling to use a library at the Recreation Centre, as the existing library is closer to bus routes, town centre facilities etc.

I imagine these problems could be overcome by diverting some bus services from the west of Bridgend along Angel Street. There's already a ready-made lay-by on one side, but having bus stops there might conflict with the fire station - and maybe that's why it hasn't happened.

Questions would also remain about what would happen to the Wyndham Street library once it's closed.

Berwyn Centre update


My last post on the issue generated some interesting comments, and there've been some big developments on that front, so it's worth a follow up.

Such was the outcry in Nantymoel, the community established - not one, but two - groups campaigning to rescue the centre, which evolved further in subsequent weeks (more on that further down).

Firstly, it's worth looking at issues surrounding ownership. Ogwr Borough Council (predecessor to Bridgend CBC) were – apparantly - made trustees of the Berwyn Centre when it was originally saved in the 70s.

Former BCBC leader, Jeff Jones, said he had no knowledge of this – perhaps because of complications caused by local government reorganisation in the 90s, meaning BCBC simply didn't know they were trustees with an ongoing obligation to maintain the building, or the trusteeship didn't transfer from Ogwr BC. If BCBC have been trustees this whole time – whether they knew about it or not - that might well have left them open to a legal challenge.

A report from 2007 suggests that BCBC (then run by a rainbow coalition) knew the centre was in a state of disrepair, and did nothing to cover the (then) estimated £300,000 repair costs. The survey suggested that – although there were concerns about some parts of the building – the Berwyn Centre was/is "structurally sound", with a requirement for remedial measures. I think there might've been a more recent survey carried out that has also come to the same conclusion, undermining BCBC's grounds for closure and demolition.

Demolition is reported to have been paused to allow negotiation with the community, but there's been a huge twist.

It appears that one of the community groups set up to "save" the Berwyn Centre (Friends of the Berwyn Centre) have accepted demolition, and will now campaign for a new centre to be built. They appear to have the support of Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West). I imagine if BCBC were to work with one of the groups, it would be these as those aims match what they originally planned in the aftermath of the closure (establish a committee to work towards a replacement).

The other group - Save the Berwyn Centre - have established a not-for-profit company (Berwyn Community Life Centre Ltd) which appears on the surface to have more popular support. They aim to "access funding streams such as enterprise and development grants not available to community groups." If/when the Berwyn Centre is saved, it's intended to replace the board of directors of this not-for-profit with an elected board to run the centre.

Similar things have happened elsewhere in Wales, perhaps the most famous and recent example being Saith Seren in Wrexham. There are no doubt others as well. It can, and does, work.

I imagine Leanne Wood would be interested in developments here too – even if it's just outside her region - seeing as "bringing disused buildings back into use as community facilities" forms part of her Greenprint for The Valleys.

But now there are more questions : Which "group" will win out in the end? How long has Nantymoel got before the bulldozers move in?

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Creating a Welsh legal jurisdiction

Following this week's Supreme Court judgement, the legal authority
of the Welsh Assembly is solidified. However, is a Welsh legal jurisdiction -
or subsequently, reserved powers - required to cement it once and for all?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Earlier this year, First Minister Carwyn Jones and the Counsel General, Theodore Huckle QC, launched a wide-ranging consultation on the creation of a Welsh legal jurisdiction. An inquiry is currently being led by the Assembly's Legislative & Constitutional Affairs Committee, all the details are available here. It looks as if they are preparing to report back on it fairly soon.

Now, this is going to be one for the anoraks, but it's an issue that's come to the fore recently (indirectly) because of the Supreme Court case involving the Local Government Byelaws Bill (A farce that should never have happened). As you probably know, the Welsh Government quite comprehensively won that argument.

What is a legal jurisdiction?

The Welsh Government's consultation document has a wider discussion on this (p 4-9), but I'll simplify things.

In short, a legal jurisdiction is a defined territory within which laws, and designated legal authority, apply. This could sometimes go so far to include a separate courts and legal system. Scotland and Northern Ireland are "separate legal jurisdictions". Wales and England are part of the same legal jurisdiction.

A brief history of EnglandandWales


Until Henry VIII's Laws in Wales Acts (LIWA), Wales was a half-way house legally. Although the Welsh had been subject to English common law, it was administered slightly differently. Marcher Lords retained some powers – and were quite influential - whilst some aspects of the civil court system remained distinctively Welsh.

The LIWA formally absorbed the Welsh legal system into the English model, creating a single legal jurisdiction for England and Wales (nominally England).

It established the "traditional counties", the Welsh language was no longer a language of the courts and Welsh people were effectively granted "English subject" status. All this helped the Welsh gentry assimilate themselves into the English aristocracy, and the effects of these things are with us in the present.

The LIWA have been called an Act of Union between England and Wales, but that's open to interpretation. The LIWA had nothing to do with political union, just merging the legal systems. Wales was brought into the union by Norman annexation over several centuries and the Statute of Rhuddlan - not political union in the same way as Scotland (1707) and Ireland (1800).

Parts of the LIWA were repealed by the Welsh Language Act in 1993, which put Welsh on equal standing with English in public life, as well as other bits of legislation before this. Wales also became part of the double act of "England and Wales", after the Wales bit was rather silent for several hundred years.

In subsequent years, Government of Wales Acts in 1998 and 2006 have formalised Wales' position within the Union as a distinct national/territorial unit. Since 2006, a distinct body of Welsh law has also developed, and since 2011, the Assembly has had greater law-making powers in devolved areas. The Assembly also has powers over community safety, tribunals and the family court system.

So, Wales already meets some of the definitions of a legal jurisdiction. However, legally, Welsh laws are part of EnglandandWales statute books – they just apply only to Wales. This isn't the situation in the other devolved administrations, or the Crown Dependencies. Confused?

And now - partly because of this, partly because of politics (see Daran Hill's recent piece at Click on Wales) - we have Welsh laws, passed by a Welsh legislature, being entangled in the Supreme Court. If Westminster tried that with Alex Salmond, Scotland would already be independent.

I always put EnglandandWales in italics because it's not a nation - it's a "thing", and now it's becoming a constitutional tumour. Welsh devolution reaches yet another pointless, unnecessary roadblock.

A Welsh legal jurisdiction : What's the point?

On the surface, this sounds like a very technical issue, but if it did happen, it would have wide-ranging impact on the devolution settlement.

Advantages

Would a Welsh legal jurisdiction make it easier
to devolve areas like policing?
(Pic : BBC Wales)

"Welsh laws, made in Wales, for Wales" – Those of us who bothered to vote said yes to this in 2011, logically this is a conclusion to that process. The National Assembly would have an unquestioned authority to make laws in defined devolved areas, within Wales, to suit Welsh needs. There would be no justification for Westminster "hand holding" and it might dampen (but not eliminate) the threat of Welsh Bills being called in by Welsh Secretaries or the Attourney General.

Equal footing (legally) with Scotland – It's a bit more complicated than saying EnglandandWales would be over once and for all, but it would be a huge step in this direction. Each constituent nation (minus Cornwall) would be their own legal jurisdiction for perhaps the first time ever. The UK would finally be inching towards a more formal federal-lite model.

It would make devolving criminal justice easier – I believe one of the reasons things like policing haven't been devolved yet, might be the lack of a legal jurisdiction for Welsh police forces to work in. It would be too confusing to decide who has authority over what - the police would uphold EnglandandWales laws, whilst being accountable to the National Assembly. That would be yet another constitutional mess. A Welsh legal jurisdiction would clear things up, and make it easier for a Welsh legal system to function – if responsibilities were devolved.

The creation of a Welsh "Legal Society" – This might be dependant on devolving criminal justice. Having (potentially) a Welsh Inns of Court, Welsh Bar association and Welsh Judiciary would give us some standing in terms of the British court system(s). I think, personally, it would be the most significant development in Welsh "nation building" since 1997. It could lead to the creation of more opportunities for Welsh law/legal graduates closer to home. For example, if you had some major legal hurdle in Wales to overcome, eventually you would only – realistically - be able to use a Welsh legal firm when currently you could just as easily use one in Bristol as you would Bridgend. Legal cases under Welsh law would have to be heard in Welsh courts too.

Disadvantages

Would it be too complicated - and too expensive - to start
to separate into English and Welsh judiciaries?
(Pic : UK Department of Justice)

It wouldn't lead to better laws being drafted – This is a big point. It wouldn't improve law-making by the Assembly, and wouldn't lead to improvements in scrutinising legislation. One of the more disturbing issues raised by the Byelaws case, is that no AMs, or Welsh Government ministers, picked up on any possible conflict. They were proven right in the end, but they need to be more careful. Ultimately, this will come down to the colour of the governments we have either side of the M4, and the legislative drafting skills of AMs and Assembly Commission staff.

It's worthless without criminal justice powers – Saying it should be devolved is easier than doing it. This is one of the points raised by Theodore Huckle, but not necessarily because he supports the move. Having a legal jurisdiction without any corresponding legal "teeth" (policing, prisons, probation, courts) would be a hollow, symbolic gesture. Devolving the police would be relatively simple, but the courts system would be more difficult as there's (currently) little of the administrative apparatus in place.

Duplication of functions previously shared – The effort required to create a stripped-down legal jurisdiction (in which Welsh laws only apply to Wales) would likely be minimal. The cost of criminal justice powers, or even a Welsh judiciary (with or without justice powers) would be an issue. I imagine justice spending could simply added to the block grant. But as I (sort of) pointed out in The Big Independence Question, there are discrepancies between how much is actually spent on criminal justice in Wales (out turn expenditure) and how much is reported by the Treasury, or even the Welsh Government's own figures. In short, there appears to be far more reported to be spent on certain things in Wales than is actually spent. That could be the same across whole (UK) government departments.

Increased differences between Wales and the rest of the UK – Is the chance to make criminal law to serve Welsh needs worth it? Or is the current system working so well, that it needn't be interfered with? For those reasons, it could have both a positive, and negative, impact on the Welsh legal profession in particular. My Bristol and Bridgend argument above could easily be the other way around. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the (English) legal system as it is. But as I pointed out, in terms of devolution, I think a single EnglandandWales legal jurisdiction is starting to become a nuisance. Despite my allegiance, I can see both points to the argument.

The impact on devolution

Westminster would retain significant authority over many matters,
but are a Welsh legal jurisdiction and reserved powers intertwined?
(Pic : The Guardian)

Firstly, it has to be pointed out that even with the creation of a Welsh legal jurisdiction, there would still be an overarching "UK" legal jurisdiction. The UK Supreme Court would still be the highest court, and in the case of Wales - unless the criminal justice powers came with it – policing, prisons and courts would (as I understand it) remain run on an EnglandandWales basis.

As the First Minister and Counsel General have suggested, it might lead to the requirement of a Welsh judge (and presumably Scottish and Northern Irish judges too) sitting alongside English judges on the Supreme Court. I don't see the point of a single Welsh judge sitting there - at the moment - until some of these issues are sorted out. It seems symbolic more than anything. They don't actually believe we're equals in the Union, do they?

For this to work effectively, Wales would almost certainly need a "reserved powers" model like Scotland. That means powers would be retained explicitly by Westminster, rather than powers explicitly devolved on a piecemeal basis - as currently.

It sounds like Lilliputian arguments over breaking eggs, but it would clear up where Wales and Westminster stand constitutionally. It would go some way to setting the Assembly's powers "in stone" and make the Assembly seem less subordinate in legislative terms.

The Assembly has a (perceived) status half-way between a county council and a devolved parliament like Scotland within EnglandandWales - where it's obvious the "Daddy" legislature for EnglandandWales is Westminster.

Both the First Minister and Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid, Ynys Mon) raised the issue recently, and steps towards reserved powers are now becoming a jog (Manon George & Alan Trench). If there are any problems with the Organ Donation Bill – I'm expecting there'll be a rough ride - those jogs will become sprints.

It remains to be seen whether a legal jurisdiction would be a pre-requisite for reserved powers or not - I think it would be. There's no point in reserved powers without a jurisdiction in which those powers would apply. However, complications resulting from the creation of an embryonic Welsh Judiciary might make the idea sound more appealing that it actually is.A Welsh legal jurisdiction would, in my opinion, mark a bigger "growing up" phase in Welsh devolution compared to the fiscal powers announced earlier this week.

In terms of the "devolution journey", the original Assembly (1999-2006) was Welsh politics in the primary school, 2006-2011 was GCSE. Welsh politics is currently studying A-Levels. This move (combined with reserved powers and fiscal devolution) would put Welsh politics in the first year of university. Federalism or Devo Max would be a university graduate - and that's where most people would get off. Confederalism would be Masters, whilst independence would be a constitutional and political PhD.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Silk Commission - Part One : Finance & Devolution

On Monday, the Silk Commission published the conclusion of the first part of its remit, covering the devolution of fiscal powers. The full report and executive summary are available here.

There were a total of 33 recommendations, and I've summarised them below. I strongly recommend you read the executive summary at the very least yourselves though.


Devolution of tax powers
Will devolving Air Passenger Duty for long haul flights with Westminster
retaining the control over APD for short haul flights until they decide it meets
their own policy objectives....heh....heh....I'll just catch my breath...
result in a turnaround in....oh f**k it.
(Pic : Holidayextras.co.uk)

"Smaller yielding and local taxes" – It's recommended these are devolved. These include : Air Passenger Duty, Stamp Duty (on land), Aggregates Levy and Landfill Tax. These don't amount to much revenue (less than £200million), but could be used as tools to help Welsh Governments meet policy objectives. For Air Passenger Duty, it's recommended it should only apply to long-haul flights in the short-term, with Westminster deciding whether to go the whole hog as part of its own aviation policy. I think attracting long haul flights to Cardiff requires more than that. And the suggestion that Valley, Swansea, Pembrey or Harwarden could be developed into international airports off the back of changes in APD is hilarious.

Non Domestic (aka Business) Rates
– NDR is currently "half-devolved". The Commission recommends devolution in line with Scottish arrangements. Parties have focused on changes here as a way to boost small businesses, while the Welsh Government carried out its own review earlier this year.

Corporation Tax
– The Commission accepts it's "a powerful policy", but recommends against devolving corporation tax - unless it's devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Corporation Tax (within enterprise zones)
– Subject to state aid requirements, the Commission believes that "enhanced capital allowances" should be allowed in Welsh enterprise zones.

Income Tax (Partial)
– The headline-grabber. Current bands (20p, 40p, 50p) would be reduced by 10p respectively, and the Welsh Government will be able to either restore the status quo (raising each by 10p) or vary things. The Welsh Government would have the power to set each rate independently of one another. So, for example, they could set a basic rate of 19, a higher rate of 41 and an additional rate maintained at 50. The block grant would use "indexed deduction" to reflect the changes.

The impact of income tax changes is small. If the higher rate rose/fell by 1p for example, it's estimated to make a £16million difference either way. It's the basic rate which has the power as a potent tool, with a £180million impact either way.

I think the Assembly would be terrified of pursuing a different income tax regime from England, because that's been their mentality since day one. I wouldn't be surprised if they maintain the status quo, perhaps raising the basic rate to fund one off projects. Or, they could raise the higher rates to service borrowing when required, or lower them to encourage wealthier people to move to Wales.

94% of residents living in Wales, work in Wales, so I don't see what the report's point is about an "interconnected economy with England." The numbers out-commuting amount to 2.5% of the Welsh population. It looks to be the opposite to a large degree – the likes of Flintshire aside. They do, however, conclude that "modest" changes to income tax would have little impact on cross-border migration.

Why do people think these problems have never been encountered in human history? Have they ever been to a "eurodistrict"? Or US state border? Or better still, the Irish border? Or the Isle of Man?

It's also recommended that new taxes - within devolved areas - created by the UK Government should be considered "with a presumption in favour of" devolution to Wales.

Borrowing, "fair funding" & legislative requirements

"Toytown Treasury"? Or big shake up in economic reporting and powers?
(Pic : Buildingopinions.com)

Last month, both governments agreed that the Welsh Government should have borrowing powers, as long as they raise the income to service it. So the fact that borrowing powers were included wasn't a surprise.

Currently, the Welsh Government needs to plan capital spending over a three year period. It's a fixed pot of money set by Westminster. The report recommends that the Welsh Government be able to borrow directly from the UK Government – with agreed limitations – for both:
  • Capital expenditure – Suggested up to £130million per year.
  • Revenue expenditure shortfalls – Suggested up to £100million, with total debt limited to £500million (as currently).

The exact figures, limits and arrangements would need negotiation between the governments. The fact Wales has a significantly lower PFI debt than Scotland – just 1% of the UK's total - suggests Wales might be able to service higher levels of borrowing, perhaps up to £3billion in total.

"Fair funding" wasn't part of the commission's remit, but they suggest a new funding arrangement be agreed before moves on this – so does Carwyn Jones - as both governments will share responsibility over taxation. The Welsh Government might also be able to switch spending between capital and revenue spending – subject to agreement.

It's recommended a "Welsh Treasury" is established - effectively replacing the existing Finance Department – to oversee it. That seems like a cosmetic measure to give us the illusion that these are heavy duty powers. But there are indications that economic monitoring will be significantly beefed-up.

The Commission recommends that within this Parliamentary term (by 2015), a Wales Bill is passed to include all the measures listed, and including provisions for a referendum. All the tax and borrowing powers - except income tax powers - would come into force in April 2016.

The referendum

Sigh. Here we go again.
My bet is on a sub-30% turnout sometime in Spring 2018.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
It's proposed that the power to vary income tax be decided via referendum, once both governments agree to funding reform. Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) let slip on Twitter that it was at the behest of Labour and Conservatives.

True Wales "warned" that tax powers would follow a successful 2011 referendum. They were right, but for the wrong reasons. In an ironic (and hilarious) twist, Welsh Labour have explicitly said several times that they're not seeking tax-varying powers. It's a logic grenade being hurled into the True Wales camp. Do they campaign against Westminster's mandate to decide these things? This was their doing.

Once again, a Welsh constitutional decision, which is very staid, dull and technical – but important - will rest on whether Labour want it or not. All indications are that the answer would be no.

Welsh Labour are,on the whole, pretty good at keeping in step with public opinion, but this might be an example of when they're not. Polls have consistently suggested a majority are in favour of tax-varying powers, whilst, more crucially, there's a suggestion people don't see the point in a referendum on the issue.

A referendum on whether the Assembly should have the power to vary in....your eyes are glazing over, aren't they? Richard Wyn Jones and Roger Scully put it better than me. A referendum would be easily won IMHO, but if we're going to have referenda, let's ask something significant and worth the effort.

The referendum won't happen this Assembly term, and income tax powers (which I said are pointless as, in practice, there'll be a fear of differing from England) won't come before 2020. Seven-to-eight years. In political terms, that's a glacial pace.

There might be a legitimate reason for the "delay" - to get the right state apparatus in place. However, while the Assembly tinkers with landfill taxes and air passenger duty for long-haul flights (that don't even serve our only major airport); Scotland might have seceded, on current trends Offa's Gap is likely to be wider than it is now and our tax base could be much, much smaller.

Conclusion : Pissing into the wind

Aggregates levy. Yeah.
(Pic : Telegraph)

The announcement confirmed the nuggets of info released over the last year or so. It's not exciting stuff, and I doubt it'll make much of an impact, but overall, it's another one of those "steps in the right direction."

The big - and perhaps only significant - positive is the devolution of business rates, which all parties support reforms to. That lever's also hefty in terms of the revenues involved. Borrowing powers could be used effectively too. Emphasis on the "could".

Labour get what they wanted : control of "minor taxes" like air passenger duty, capital borrowing powers, an acknowledgement that a "fair funding" agreement is needed and income tax powers are stalled.

I imagine the other parties will be happy too. Tories because they can propose tax cuts/"responsibility" in Assembly elections without making any real impact, Plaid and Lib Dems (mostly) for the same reasons as Labour. Though Plaid have said, perhaps unsurprisingly, that these recommendations "don't go far enough."

I would've preferred recommendations that put pressure on the Assembly. That means, in addition to business rates, borrowing (including bond issue) and the minor taxes : complete control of income tax, corporation tax - and perhaps vehicle excise, fuel duty and alcohol/tobacco duties too (because transport and health are [supposed to be] devolved).

And all to come into force in the next Assembly term - minus referendum - so we can go into the 2016 elections with manifestos promising policies that would make people sit up and take notice for a change.

I might be pre-judging Part II, but I hoped I would be saying Wales is reaching - in constitutional terms - a federal "endgame". If it's done well, that's something I could live with. This isn't that, and every time it's fudged, it pushes me further into the "screw the lot of you" camp by giving me the distinct impression that Wales isn't being taken seriously in either Cardiff Bay or Westminster.

I doubt I'm the only one pissed off with the same constitutional arguments flaring up again and again. It isn't exciting, it's dull and unnecessary. Gradualism might be appropriate for devolution as a whole, but the economy and fiscal responsibility scream out as areas where Wales - quite literally - can't afford to take mere "baby steps in the right direction".

We'll be back here again in the 2020s, probably deciding whether the Assembly gets full control of income tax, or other minutiae that should've been decided years earlier.

We'll be arguing over whether we have another referendum too. That could be because of our political class's innate lack of confidence in their own abilities, or even their own feelings of inadequacy about their mandate to govern Wales.

And, considering how joint powers over legislation works/worked so brilliantly, I wonder what glories await us with taxes.

We could have a nation state that treats federalism as a serious proposition, whilst being able to elect politicians at "state level" who can improve lives with meaningful, not half, or even quarter measures. If AMs want to play in a sandpit with their paper round money, and MPs approve of that, I think it's fair to treat both accordingly.

If anyone wanted reasons why the vast majority of people don't give a toss about Welsh politics - this is one of them. It's taken me just 20 months to go from wide-eyed optimist to cynic of all things "devolution".

Maybe those massed ranks are the wise ones, and it's never been a more tempting time to join them.

                        

Monday, 19 November 2012

Giving children the right to play

The Welsh Government has become one of the first
in the world to legislate for play.
(Pic : Tripadvisor.com)
I know today's top story will be the release of the first part of the Silk Commission, and I'm giving it the once over for later this week. Let's just say my initial reaction isn't positive.

It makes quite a contrast to my last blog on abortion, but today, I'm going to focus on some good news that perhaps went under the radar.

In 2004, the Welsh Government formally adopted the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. This was followed up by the Children and Families Measure in 2010. The measure had a section, laying out local authorities duties with respect of providing safe and reasonable play areas for children.

In the last few weeks, Deputy Minister for Children & Social Services, Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath), issued new statutory guidelines to local authorities, governing children and play.

The new regulations and guidelines include:

Play Sufficiency Assessments : Local authorities (and in some cases, town and community councils and Communities First partnerships) will be obliged to carry out an audit of play areas, determining if there are enough suitable play areas for children.

Statutory Action Plans
: Where there are "deficiencies" in play provision, various bodies will be obliged to plan out improvements. If provision is adequate, then plans will need to be put in place to ensure it stays that way. These plans will need to be submitted to the Welsh Government by March 2013, and every three years after that (2016, 2019, 2021).

Consultation
: Views of parents - and crucially - children, will need to be taken into account. These include ideas for what sort of play areas they would like to see, as well as the reasons why they might not use existing facilities. For example, dangerous roads, or anti-social behaviour.

Play is considered vital to childhood development, whether that's "freely chosen play" (without adult supervision) or "structured recreational activities." Adequate play facilities will also improve overall health/wellbeing, and hopefully reduce instances of anti-social behaviour. It's all part of ensuring the Welsh citizens of tomorrow are well-adjusted and well-rounded (but not in a fat sense).

The Welsh Government also passed former Plaid AM, Dai Lloyd's, Playing Field (Community Involvement in Disposal Decisions) Measure in 2010, which ensures playing fields cannot be sold off/developed without adequate consultation with statutory consultees.

When I was a lad, aside from Newbridge Fields (which was/is generally well-maintained), the only other open space was my old primary school rugby pitch. There were syringes, dog mess, and broken glass - from a nearby abandoned building that wasn't demolished for the best part of a decade – to varying degrees.

There were two smaller equipped playgrounds nearby, both of which were poorly maintained. I'm pleased to say that's not the case now. Though it took the death of a 5 year old girl in an automatic gate for one of them to be upgraded. The original playground was completely removed over concerns about anti-social behaviour.

It might not be their highest-priority, but - other than rubbish collection - playgrounds and leisure facilities are what most people think of first when it comes to local councils, even if their responsibilities extend further than that.

Successive Welsh Governments, and Welsh Labour, have a good track record in tackling these small, but important, quality of life matters. On paper, it's an excellent idea that underpins their commitment to improving opportunities and rights of children.

It's just a shame they still can't get many of the big things right.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Life, Ethics & Independence I - Abortion

"Her name was Pauline, she lived in a tree."
Here's something cheery for a Saturday morning.
Most people stay away from this, but I don't because I'm a moron.
(Pic : WebMD [Foetus at 8 weeks gestation])
This is the first in a series looking at contentious issues surrounding science and health policy with regard independence – no doubt they'll be raised during Scotland's independence debate. I was going to post later this month, but due to debates about the abortion limit, and the news from Ireland this week, I decided to bring this forward.

Parts will probably go down like a rugby team of Frankie Boyles crash landing in the Andes and eating each other, but I'm not one to shy away from going where others fear to tread.

For now, I'll be looking at : abortion, vivisection & animal welfare, stem cells, genetic engineering (including GM crops) and euthanasia. Others could be added with time, but I'm spreading these out over a longer period. I'll also be looking at drugs policy separately, and in more detail, but not for a while yet.

I'm not trying to prove one way or another whether abortion is "right" or "wrong", just the reasoning behind it and the talking points. It's fair to point out that, although I consider non-emergency late-term abortions distasteful, I'm pro-abortion (I hate the labels "pro-life" and "pro-choice" as they're loaded terms).

I haven't included any gory pictures, though some of the content might be distressing for obvious reasons.

Defining abortion

Any foetal death is considered an abortion – whether that's natural (miscarriage) or medically induced (what most people consider an "abortion"). Most miscarriages occur before the 13th week of pregnancy, and any miscarriage after that is generally deemed a "stillbirth". Deaths of a live baby post-birth are called "neonatal deaths."

Most live births occur around the 40th week of pregnancy. Any birth before the 37th week is "clinically premature". Today, coincidentally, is World Prematurity Day. I'm great with timing, aren't I?

In 2011, of the 8,493 abortions in Wales carried out :
  • 90% were carried out before 13 weeks
  • 93% were funded by the NHS and the remainder (7%) privately
  • 67% were carried out in hospitals, with a further 26% by independent NHS contractors
  • The Welsh abortion rate (14.9 per 1,000 women aged 15-44) was lower than England (17.9)

Abortion : The biology

Time for a science lesson. For once this is an area where I can say I have some expertise in - which almost certainly means I'll get some of this wrong.

Firstly the ages. Gestational age means the age of the embryo/foetus from the mother's last menstruation (2 weeks before fertilisation). This is what the abortion limit, and the number of weeks I'm listing, is based on. Embryonic age is the age of the embryo/foetus from fertilisation. So if the abortion is carried out at 24 weeks, it means the foetus itself is 22 weeks old.

A life-size model of a human embryo
at 8-weeks gestation. Is this a person?
That's for you to decide.
(Pic : Digitaljournal)

There are two stages of prenatal development.

The first eight weeks of pregnancy is called embryogenesis. The embryo exists as a bundle of cells, which divide and gradually change into three layers which arrange themselves to form the body's core tissues and systems :
  • Endoderm – Digestive system, liver, pancreas, respiratory system, most glands
  • Mesoderm – Kidneys, cardiovascular system (including heart), dermis, connective tissues, musculo-skeletal system, genitalia
  • Ectoderm – Nervous system, hair, nails, eyes, enamel, pigmentation cells, epidermis

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to change into these three layers (pleuripotency), and subsequently, into cell lines which form specific tissues (multipotency). That's why they're considered a potentially valuable medical treatment.

Mammalian, bird and amphibian embryos have a lot in common with fish – a throwback to a common evolutionary ancestry. The eyes develop to the side of the head and move to the front, whilst many structures of the head develop from "gills" called pharyngeal arches.

The second stage – the foetal stage – is where the organs and tissues grow and develop to maturity.

It takes 9-11 weeks for a recognisable human face to develop, and you can tell the baby's sex from 13 weeks - though genitalia don't fully form until 15 weeks. It might have a face. It might have a heart and primitive lungs. But these aren't developed enough to enable it to survive outside the uterus - and the foetus itself would fit in your palm.

Comparisons between a chick embryo
and a human embryo.
(Pic : Berkeley University)

Most medical screenings take place within 12 weeks. However, you can't formally test for chromosomal abnormalities – like Down Syndrome – until after 15 weeks. Some scans can't be carried out until at least 18 weeks and a full foetal heart scan (cardiotocography) for example, can't be carried out until 24 weeks.

Alveoli form at around 21 weeks, but the lungs aren't mature enough to cope with gaseous exchange until 24-25 weeks.

Most scientists agree that a foetus doesn't feel pain until 24-26 weeks, while the foetus doesn't have the brain connections to relay sensory information (thalamus) until 28 weeks.

A "rough guide" to human gestation and foetal viability.
(Click to enlarge)

In terms of viability :
  • A baby born before 22 weeks wouldn't survive.
  • At 22-23 weeks, a baby only has a 10-30% chance of survival.
  • The chances of a baby surviving at 24 weeks is 50% (see this SW Argus article)
  • By 30 weeks, a foetus is 95%+ likely to survive if it were born there and then.

So there's a "zone of viability" between 21 weeks and 27 weeks.

Although mammalian embryos and foetuses aren't by definition parasites (as they're the same species), before this "zone of viability" they shares similar "mutualistic" biological behaviour:
  • A symbiotic (mutually supportive) relationship with the host (mother)
  • Reliance on the mother for basic life functions
  • It causes "upset" to the the mother's body
  • It exists at the consent of the mother's body (it can be biologically rejected)

But it's important to point out that a foetus does have some beneficial impact on the mother (offset by negatives). It improves reproductive fitness for example, and it's been suggested that pregnancy eases the symptoms of certain chronic conditions.

Abortion : The medical procedure


A fuller list of methods is available here, but I've simplified things.

For young embryos (up to 7 weeks), abortion is pharmaceutical – termed a "medical abortion". Drugs are used to induce a natural miscarriage. A vast majority of induced abortions in the UK are carried out this way.

Once you reach the foetal stage, surgical methods are used more often. For younger foetuses, in most cases, a vacuum is created in the uterus, which allows the doctor to remove the contents via medical tubing. This method is sometimes used as a therapy following miscarriages too.

More controversial, are intact dilation and extraction abortions, or "partial birth abortions." In this method, the doctor extracts the foetus legs-first, leaving the head inside the uterus (hence the term partial birth). Next, the head is - for want of a better description – "deflated", and the contents are mechanically extracted. In the UK, this method is only used when there's a threat to the mother's life, while it's been banned to varying degrees in the United States.

Abortions aren't riskless. Surgical abortions - in particular late-term abortions - are quite invasive medical procedures carried out under general anaesthetic. However, statistically, abortions are safer than childbirth.

Abortion : The public debate


Issues like abortion are rarely debated on science or medical reasons alone. There are several issues here that are hard to answer, or based on personal beliefs.

When does "life" start?


Most mainstream religions believe that life begins at conception, and is sacred (sanctity of life), with varying tolerances on abortion. Buddhists, Hindus and some Jewish sects believe abortion is "negative, but permissible" in varying circumstances. Muslims are allowed to abort in the first four months - for example, in cases of rape, deformation or a threat to the mother's life.

The picture with regard Christianity is more muddled. Even Catholic clergy generally accept "unintentional abortions" – for example, resulting from chemotherapy (principle of double effect). The general impression is that, unless the mother's life is threatened, abortion is immoral. Some liberal denominations take a more permissible stance, or no stance at all.


Others will argue that a life doesn't become "a life" until it's autonomous as an individual and a definable person. This isn't so much a question of science, but one for philosophers and personal beliefs.

When does a foetus become a person?


Religions with the concept of a soul believe a person becomes a person when they receive one ("ensoulment"). This varies depending on which faith you follow. The first foetal movement ("quickening"), which occurs around 15 weeks, is the generally considered to be the point of ensoulment. Hindus believe it's around 7 months after conception.

It's important to note that, barring complications, every single embryo has the potential to become a person, but probably doesn't meet the definition of an autonomous "being" until late in prenatal development. It's "alive" without being "a life".

I don't, personally, believe that a foetus becomes a person until it has an excellent chance of survival outside of the uterus, and can/starts to respond to outside stimulus – including pain. Based on the biology, I would probably say the moment a foetus changes to a "being/person" is in that zone of 21-27 weeks.

Of course, you don't legally become a person until you're born and registered.

Is an embryo, or foetus, part of a mother's body?

As I noted earlier, mammalian embryos and foetuses have a mostly one-sided relationship with the mother. They aren't autonomous beings/persons until late in pregnancy, and are reliant on the mother and the environment of the uterus to survive.

Until that point - where a foetus changes from reliant-on-mother to "passenger" - you could argue that they are not separate from, but part of, the mother's body or at the very least living at the mother's pleasure.


Where that point is in pregnancy is the issue. It makes the difference (morally, and perhaps scientifically) between removing a non-viable foetus and infanticide.

Should women have freedom of choice over their own body?

It's solid medical ethics for a patient to have control over their treatment. Abortion is – however distasteful it might be to some - ultimately, a common or garden medical procedure.

I think we'd all agree that, whatever your views on abortion, if it's required, it has to be safe for the woman. We cannot, under any circumstances, go back to the days of backstreet coat hangers and knitting needles.

What counts as a valid reason to get an abortion?

Many consider the only valid grounds for abortion to be rape, incest or a medical threat to the mother's life.

As you might have heard, a mother recently died of septicaemia in the Republic of Ireland, after being denied an abortion during a miscarriage at 17 weeks, because the foetus' heart "was still beating". It's important to point out that it's unclear if an abortion would have saved her life – this is probably a case of malpractice - but it's likely the miscarried foetus caused the infection.

Under EU law, mother's have to be offered an abortion when their life is at risk. Irish political parties have chickened-out of legislating for abortion, which is usually governed (informally) by their widely-held Catholic faith, and therefore a political "no man's land". That means it's informally banned or informally legal under certain circumstances depending on interpretation. Since 1992, Irish women have been permitted to travel abroad to get an abortion. Obviously, if it's a medical emergency, you might not have that opportunity.

Should people be subject to the religious practises and beliefs of others?
(Pic : Via Flickr)

I think it's time a version of George Carlin's "eleventh commandment" (above) becomes EU law. Translating as : Only the faithful need to act and live by their religious beliefs as a matter of personal conscience – nobody else – especially if it's going to cost them their life.

Procreation between distant cousins is
less dangerous than closer relatives.
(Pic : Zimbio)

Incest/Inbreeding is genetically dangerous, and the criminal definition, in my opinion, should include first cousins. It would be wrong for the state to force an abortion - in any case - but it would, I imagine, be the sensible course of action. Distant relatives (removed, second and third cousins) is probably fine, if rather icky. It has nothing to do with wanting to elect heads of state with a chin and robust chromosomes.

Others might include serious birth defects. There are some truly heartbreaking ones that aren't picked up for several weeks of pregnancy. I don't need to go through them for reasons of taste, but personally, I think in some cases it's cruel NOT to have an abortion.

A minority might believe that carrying a baby with, for example, anencephaly (absence of most of the head and brain) to term is a "righteous thing to do". I was going to say something strong in response to that but decided against it. A decision like that has to be for the parents/mother alone.

You might also point to nations, widely considered "liberal", that have shorter abortion limits - 12 weeks for example. I believe this is because those nations have comprehensive, non abstinence-based sex education programmes, so well-informed women are less likely to find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy.


Some have the impression that abortion promotes promiscuity, implying that women can "run away from the consequences of their behaviour". I don't believe that's the case. For example, contraceptives are never 100% effective, and failures could lead to an unplanned pregnancy that wasn't picked up until it was too late.

I don't believe that a woman gets an abortion "just because she can". It's also important to note that abortion has no known proven impact on mental health. So, as long as abortion is legal, I don't believe there needs to be a reason, just a reasoned abortion limit.

What role should the father have in abortion decisions?


In cases of rape, there's no way you would be able to involve the father, and a crime has been committed – which should be the overriding consideration there.

Based on the principle that an embryo or foetus is part of the mother's body, it might logically follow that mothers should have exclusive authority. Making the decision as a couple – where applicable – should be considered good etiquette rather than a requirement.

Obviously there would be circumstances where a partner - as next of kin - or a medical professional, might have no choice but to authorise an abortion - an accident that left the mother unconscious for example.

"Sodomy is eco-friendly, and abortion is green." - Doug Stanhope

I might be slightly misanthropic, technocratic and utilitarian to a fault, but I'm not someone who thinks humans are a planetary cancer and nobody should have children ever. When I'm in a good mood anyway.

The above quote might be a crass way of putting it, but there's a point there. Every single new baby has an ongoing environmental, financial and social impact. There are ways you can minimise these impacts – not using disposable nappies for instance, or not having large families with no means to support them.

So, by removing themselves from the breeding pool (IVF exempted), not only have gay and lesbian communities contributed extensively to Welsh public life down the years, they're also helping to save the planet in more ways than one. More gays, fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer abortions. Problem?


There's a controversial study from the US, that theorised that legalised abortion resulted in falls in crime. The (summarised) argument being that unwanted children were not being brought up in dysfunctional/unstable households. That's not an unreasonable hypothesis, but it's worth reminding ourselves that correlation doesn't always imply causation. There were also concerns raised about the methodology, so take it with a pinch of salt.

Considering Wales' demographics, we should probably be encouraging more births. But those children have to be wanted and carefully planned for, not just by individuals and families but by governments too. It's one of the reasons politics exists.

So, once again, I think this comes down to comprehensive sex education, wider use and promotion of contraceptives....and recreational use of the mouth, cleavages, interestingly-named "aids", hands and the anus.

Abortion and independence

So, what abortion policy could an independent Wales have? Or even, what abortion policy could Wales have if it were devolved?

The issue was raised in the Senedd recently by Plaid's Health Spokesperson, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion),  following Jeremy Hunt's statement supporting a 12-week abortion limit. Nadine Dorries eating kangaroo anii and being buried in cockroaches is supposed to have something to do with the debate too....apparently. More on that at Plaid Wrecsam.

There are three separate issues that need to be addressed.

1. Sex Education


As in all health matters, prevention in the best cure.
(Pic : The Guardian)
This is worthy of a more detailed post another time, and I have addressed it in passing before. If you want the abortion rate (and limit) to come down, then there needs to be an overhaul of sex education and sexual health awareness to prevent unwanted pregnancies. You can either follow other examples, like the Dutch model, or come up with something appropriate to Wales.

Legislation could be passed making sex education "compulsory and comprehensive" in all Welsh schools, and include other related measures about provision and rights with regard sexual health services. Creating a fit-for-purpose sex education programme could be done in cooperation between local health boards, local governments (as education authorities), the Welsh Government and education professionals.

Labour suggested compulsory sex ed – at UK level - in 2010, but the Coalition dropped it, probably because of "outrage" about "exposing young children to filth" etc.

The Assembly might have the power to do something similar to this now – whether through statutory regulations or legislation. However, abortion itself is likely to remain reserved to Westminster – but there is the Northern Irish precedent (the most recent UK abortion laws don't apply there) and "Devo Max".

The ultimate tool of course, is the "i-word".

2. Abortion rights
  • Women should have the legal right to safe medically-induced abortions as part of a universal health care system, within a defined legal limit.
  • Abortion should be available "on request" without a reason being needed.
  • The state cannot "force" an abortion, but in situations where a mother's life is in danger, and she can't give consent for whatever reason, the next of kin would be able to authorise on her behalf.
  • Abortion counselling (pre and post) should be optional, but funded by the health service.
  • Abortion has to be an informed choice (procedures need to be fully explained to the patient).
  • Medical professionals (i.e GP) can refuse to authorise an elective/optional abortion based on personal objections, but if they do, they must immediately refer the patient to an alternative practitioner who would authorise it. They shouldn't be able object if the mother's life is in danger.
  • The requirement for a GP and abortion clinic doctor to sign a certificate authorising an abortion (ensuring legal requirements are observed) could remain.
  • Abortions should be classed as an "urgent non-emergency", and the administrative process should be as quick as possible. If a pregnancy is within a week of the abortion limit, then it should be (ideally) carried out the following day.

3. Abortion limits : Definitions and regulation
  • An embryo should be legally defined as a life state and not a person.
  • A foetus would "reach personhood" once they have a medically-proven greater than 50% chance of survival outside the uterus.

Abortion limits could/should be based on (roughly):
  • The point at which the majority of foetuses, if born naturally, are able to survive outside the uterus (viability).
  • When it's agreed, by medical evidence, that a foetus is able to feel pain.
  • Advances in medicine that enable a foetus to survive at increasingly earlier points.

Based on existing evidence, that would imply a minimum of 21 weeks and a maximum of 26 weeks. The 24-week abortion limit balances personhood, viability and reducing suffering on the mother and the baby perfectly. Limits should be reviewed at regular intervals to take advances in medical knowledge into account.

Abortions could be carried out beyond this point for reasons including:
  • The mother's life is in danger (as stipulated under EU law).
  • It's a result of/required for a medical procedure (i.e chemotherapy).
  • The foetus has died in the uterus/stillborn.
  • The foetus isn't expected to survive birth (i.e serious abnormality).

Abortions carried out for any other reason after the legal limit could be categorised as voluntary manslaughter.

Conclusion
It's unlikely Jeremy Hunt's 12 week limit (or Nadine Dorries' 20
week limit) will be debated in Westminster for some time.
(Pic : The Guardian)

I think it would be foolish for the UK Government to pile an abortion debate onto the problems they already have regarding Europe and various other things. I think those other matters have put the issue to bed (for now).

There might be a case for reducing the abortion limit by a few weeks, but I honestly don't see what the point would be. The current limit works fine, and most abortions are carried out quite early anyway. A 12 week limit (which Jeremy Hunt proposes) would be arbitrary – and not really standing up to any serious objective reasoning - without a guarantee that, at the very least, abortions that threatened a mother's life could still be carried out after that point.

It's still worth thinking about at a Welsh level should the powers be devolved (if Wales is going to run health, in principle it should be) and whether abortion and sexual health policy form a key part of the Welsh Government's commitment to "social justice".

I doubt many AMs would be pleased if the UK Government cut the abortion limit without consulting them.