Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Senedd Watch - December 2012

Dymunaf fy holl ddarllenwyr y Flwyddyn Newydd Dda!
I wish all of my readers/followers a Happy New Year!
  • Newly-appointed Anti-trafficking Coordinator for Wales, Stephen Chapman, said Welsh ports could be seen as a “soft target”. He aims to “dispel myths” about human trafficking and wanted the public to recognise it as slavery.
  • Author Jon Gower called for a Library of Wales scheme that republishes classic Welsh books to continue. The scheme costs £50,000 per year, but has been criticised by some for supporting “non-commercially successful” English-language books.
  • A ban on cigarette displays in supermarkets came into force on December 3rd. Smaller stores will be subject to the ban from 2015. A similar ban started in England earlier in 2012.
  • The new Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government, Derek Jones, said he “winced” when he read the Wales Audit Office report into AWEMA. He told the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee that he believed Welsh Ministers gave the organisation the “benefit of the doubt” with the aim of promoting race quality. Former AWEMA Chair, Dr Rita Austin, accused opposition AMs and the media of “strident, partial and ill-informed” attacks.
  • Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) introduced the Human Transplantation Bill to the Assembly. The Bill outlines an “opt out” system of organ donation, but there were warnings that legislation itself wouldn't result in increased in organ donation. If the Bill is passed, it'll come into force by 2015.
  • The £15billion Welsh budget for 2013-14 was passed by the Senedd on December 4th. An agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru will see extra spending on apprenticeships and a university science park.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) launched Qualifications Wales - a new independent body that will regulate the exam system. It was originally announced as part of the 14-19 qualifications review. Angela Burns AM (Con, Carmarthen W. & S. Pembs.) said it was an “embarrassing climbdown”. Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) said Plaid Cymru had long called for an independent exams body.
  • £82million was made available for Local Health Boards following concerns about budget shortfalls. Health Minister, Lesley Griffiths, denied it was a “bailout” - to criticism from opposition AMs. Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) called for LHBs to be directly accountable to the Assembly's Health Committee. Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Kirsty Williams, said “rejigging money around is not going to solve all of the problems in our NHS.”
  • Mick Antoniw's (Lab, Pontypridd) Member's Bill – the Asbestos Disease Bill – was laid before the Assembly. It aims to “enable Welsh Ministers to recover costs incurred by the Welsh NHS in providing care and treatment to victims of asbestos-related disease.”
  • An extra £227million in capital expenditure for Wales was announced as part of the UK Chancellor's Autumn Statement, along with an extra £52million in revenue funding. The Welsh Government added that they were pleased that regionalised public sector pay had been abandoned.
  • The Welsh Government were defeated by 33 votes to 18 in a motion to suspend the Assembly's Standing Orders to allow Council Tax Benefit reforms – which affect up to 330,000 households - to be passed without a vote.
  • The motion was strongly condemned by opposition AMs as they didn't have time to read the regulations. Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carmarthen E & Dinefiwr) – who warned that this was an issue in March 2012 - said it was “poor practice in terms of governance.” Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said it treated the Assembly “with contempt”, while Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said Local Government & Communities Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), had been “negligent in his duty.”
  • The Assembly was recalled from Christmas recess to debate Council Tax Benefit regulations on December 19th. The regulations were approved after the Welsh Government included a “sunset clause” that would mean the Assembly reconsiders the issue in 2014. Around 230,000 more households will pay council tax as a result.
  • The Wales Audit Office expressed concerns about aspects of civil emergency responses in Wales. They said responsibilities were unclear – including differences between Welsh and UK governments - and that there was a lack of training and support. The Welsh Government responded by saying they constantly review emergency planning procedures. The Welsh Conservatives called for a full review of civil emergency arrangements.
  • Ann Jones AM (Lab, Vale of Clwyd) suggested doorstep loan sharks were seeking to exploit victims of November's floods in Denbighshire. She urged people affected to use credit unions instead. North Wales Credit Union are believed to be offering discount rates for repairs.
  • Shadow Rural Affairs Minister, Antoinette Sandbach (Con, North Wales), accused Welsh Ministers of “sitting” on a report from the Wales Rural Observatory which surveyed public service satisfaction in rural areas. The Welsh Government denied any suppression of the report, saying they were undertaking a “thorough quality assurance procedure” prior to publication.
  • A £1billion gas-fired power station in Pembrokeshire may need to alter its cooling system after the European Commission warned the UK Government that there have been up to 18 violations of four environmental laws. Both the Welsh and UK governments said investigations were ongoing.
  • The First Minister rejected claims from the Royal College of Nursing that nurses were “too busy” to care for patients. It comes as Labour MP for Cynon Valley, Ann Clwyd, expressed serious misgivings about the treatment her husband received in the University Hospital of Wales Cardiff before he died.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews asked the OECD to conduct a thorough review into the quality of education in Wales. He said, “we need to learn from the best, that's why I have requested this review.”
  • New data releases from the 2011 Census showed that the Welsh-speaking population fell from 20.8% in 2001 to 19%. Other headline figures include : 66% of people gave their nationality as Welsh, 32% of the population had no religion, 23% of people had a long-term limiting disability, 24% of the population had a degree-level qualification, 26% of the adult population had no qualifications and home ownership rates were higher than England.
  • As a result of the Census figures, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg called for a “living manifesto” that would quadruple the amount spent on the Welsh language, improve planning regulations to take into account Welsh-speaking areas and expand the use of Welsh in the public sector. Former Culture Minister, Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), described the figures as a “wake-up call” and called for improved language planning.
  • Leighton Andrews launched “Hwb” - a web-based “learning platform”. It'll allow users to share information and learning materials across devices. He said it would, “play a key role in helping schools share information with parents and involve them in their child's learning.”
  • Welsh unemployment fell by 15,000 in the three months to October 2012 to stand at 7.9% - slightly above the UK (7.8%). Welsh Gross Value Added (GVA) rose by 2.2% between 2010 and 2011 to £47.3billion, or 75.3% of the UK per-capita average – narrowing the productivity gap with the rest of the UK.
  • Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood called for the devolution of criminal justice powers to Wales, saying it would allow Wales to take a “more progressive, evidence-based approach” following a UK Select Committee report on drug addiction.
  • The Assembly's Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee reported back on an inquiry into a Welsh legal jurisdiction. Their report suggested amendments to existing arrangements including : a Welsh judge on the UK Supreme Court, additional legal training in Welsh law specialisms and the establishment of a body to review the consolidation of Welsh law. David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) said that while a separate legal jurisdiction was “constitutionally viable” it's “ultimately a political decision.”
  • The Assembly's Health Committee reported that changes needed to be made to elderly care, including the possibility of increased use of home care. Committee chair, Mark Drakeford AM (Lab, Cardiff West), said information needed to be “as clear and simple as possible” to enable families and older people to make “informed choices” on care.
  • Loans for 1970s housing developments in Newtown, Powys are still being repaid by the Welsh Government, despite the Development Board for Rural Wales – the body that owed the loans – no longer existing. The Welsh Government said there were heavy penalties for early payment. Leanne Wood described the situation as an “absolute scandal.” Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) said “the right decisions were taken at the time.”
  • The Assembly's Finance Committee published a report saying there was a need for “urgent” and “radical” reforms to how European Union convergence funds are used. Committee chair, Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East) said there were issues surrounding “lack of leadership, co-ordination and monitoring” of EU projects – worth around £1.7billion over 6 years between 2006-2013.
  • Leanne Wood called for the devolution of decision making for same-sex marriage to Wales, after UK Equalities Minister, Maria Miller, included the disestablished Church in Wales in a ban on Anglican same-sex marriages. Leanne said it was “against the spirit of devolution.”
  • First Minister Carwyn Jones announced that a deal had been reached to nationalise Cardiff Airport in 2013 – subject to viability. The airport would be “run on a commercial basis” with profits going “to the Welsh taxpayer”. Leanne Wood offered Plaid Cymru's tacit support for the move, but Conservative and Liberal Democrat AMs expressed concerns about the possible business case.
  • The Welsh NHS failed to meet cancer treatment targets. 86% of patients received cancer treatment within 62 days of GP referral, compared to a target of 95%. The Welsh Government pointed to improvements in screening and overall cancer survival rates.
  • The latest secondary school bandings showed that 61 Band 4 & 5 schools improved on 2011. Schools in Neath Port Talbot performed particularly well, with Ysgol Gyfyn Gymraeg Bryn Tawe in Swansea being the top performing school. Carmarthenshire's Glan-y-Mor school was the weakest performing.
  • Llyr Huws Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) called for the establishment of a national flood action forum to prevent over-development of flood plains in Wales and provide increased representation for people resident in flood prone areas.
  • The numbers of people seeking help for homelessness in Wales rose by 27% on 2011 according to BBC Wales figures. The Welsh Government pointed to a new Housing Bill, however the WLGA warned that funding cutbacks and benefit reforms could result in “significant increases” in homelessness.
  • Prosecutions for attacks on NHS staff in Wales rose over the last year. Lesley Griffiths said “violence against NHS staff will simply not be tolerated” adding that she “hopes it sends a clear message that we have a zero-tolerance approach in operation.”
  • Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) said that many Welsh local authorities failing to keep track of homophobic bullying in schools was “worrying” as they “are in the dark over the extent of homophobic bullying and, possibly, bullying generally.”
  • In his Christmas message, First Minister Carwyn Jones said Wales “stood together” through adversity during 2012, including widespread flooding and the disappearance of April Jones in October. He said a “sense of solidarity....is part of being Welsh....but something we will forever cherish.” In his New Year's Message, he said he hoped Wales would “unite” to face up to tough economic challenges in 2013.

Projects announced in December include : a £200million local government borrowing scheme for the 21st Century schools programme, a £300million limited dividend scheme to complete the duelling of the A465 by 2020, an additional £3million towards maintenance of the A55 in north Wales and a £30million second phase of a tackling poverty programme and Communities First clustering.


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