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?

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Senedd Watch - April 2013

  • Communities and Tackling Poverty Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) attacked the UK Government's welfare changes, which came into force on April 1st. He said they would have a “devastating impact” and that they made “the poor pay the most” for the fallout from the banking crisis.
  • Natural Resources Wales – the merger of the Environment Agency, Forestry Commission and Countryside Council for Wales – came into being on April 1st. Chief executive Emyr Roberts promised to “make the environment do more for the people, economy & wildlife of Wales.”
  • The Welsh Government reacted strongly to claims that a proposed M4 relief road around Newport could be tolled. The costs of the project will be underwritten by the UK Treasury, however the Welsh Government described the plans as “unworkable”, and that there should be “no tolls” if built.
  • Former Heritage Minister, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr), announced he would stand down at the 2016 Welsh General Election. He's represented the constituency since the Assembly was established in 1999.
  • The leader of the British Medical Association's junior doctors Welsh committee expressed serious concerns that Welsh A&E units were “at breaking point” with poor standards of care, under-staffing and overcrowding. The Welsh Government said they were disappointed by the claims but said “inadequate....care is never acceptable.”
  • Regular vaccination clinics were held at hospitals across south west Wales due to an ongoing measles epidemic in the Swansea area. On April 10th, an American-based measles expert called for the vaccinations to be made mandatory. On April 23rd, the First Minister encouraged parents to vaccinate their children. On April 30th, the number of recorded cases passed the 1,000 mark.
  • Welsh politicians acknowledged former Conservative UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died on April 8th aged 87. First Minister Carwyn Jones said she was a “major force in British life”, while Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), said she was a “one of a kind – a truly great leader and magnificent prime minister.” Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) offered condolences to the Thatcher family on behalf of the Senedd.
  • The Welsh Government rejected calls from farmers for emergency financial assistance to help those affected by cold weather over March and April. Food & Natural Resources Minister Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) relaxed European regulations for burying animals, but said short-term subsidies needed to be “fair and affordable”. £500,000 was later made available to farming charities. The Senedd approved a motion on April 24th, calling for a hardship fund to be set up.
  • A report by centre-right think tank, Gorwel - on behalf of the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales – recommended changes to the Welsh planning system to prioritise economic development, temporary relaxation in planning rules and businesses becoming a formal consultee in planning applications.
  • Figures obtained by BBC Wales showed ambulances had been waiting for a combined total of 55,000 hours (6 years) outside Welsh A&E departments in the six months to February 2013. The Welsh Government said delays were “unacceptable” but sometimes inevitable, though they aimed for a 30 minute turnaround. On April 29th, a major review of Welsh ambulance services was published, making three main key recommendations on the future running of the Wales Ambulance Trust.
  • The National Assembly agreed to the general principles of the Human Transplantation Bill - introducing presumed consent for organ donation - which passed Stage One of the legislative process by 41 votes to 9 (with 5 abstentions). Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) said amendments would be included to ensure families' wishes are respected, including a clear right to object.
  • Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) chaired the first meeting of the Assembly's cross-party group in support of Visteon pensioners, attended by 15AMs. Those affected lost pension entitlements when Visteon – once with a major factory in Swansea, and who split from parent company Ford in 2000 - entered administration in 2009.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 3,000 in the three months to February 2013 (8.2%), while it rose by 70,000 across the UK as a whole (7.9%).
  • Housing & Regeneration Minister Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) cancelled a mortgage assistance scheme – NewBuy – after the housing industry withdrew support, backing a similar UK Government initiative “Help to Buy” instead. Welsh Lib Dems reacted angrily, as NewBuy formed part of a budget agreement in 2011-12. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said the decision “left first time buyers with no way to get on the property ladder.”
  • Paul Murphy MP – appointed Oxbridge ambassador by the Welsh Government – said teachers in Wales “lacked ambition” to encourage their best pupils to apply to Oxford and Cambridge universities. Around 80 comprehensive school pupils from Wales were accepted to the universities in 2012. Shadow Education Minister, Angela Burns (Con, Carms W & S. Pembs) questioned whether Welsh pupils were being pushed enough to excel.
  • The First Minister announced a “wide-ranging” review into public service delivery, which could see reductions in the number of local authorities, or merged local authority services. The review will be led by former Welsh NHS chief, Paul Williams.
  • Electoral Reform Society Wales said a “lack of clarity” over Welsh law-making powers meant AMs could be reluctant to propose legislation. It follows a Twitter row over a proposed law from Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) to change the local government voting system, which received implicit approval from Assembly lawyers, but ambiguity rests over whether it's a devolved power.
  • The First Minister officially opened the Football Association of Wales' new £5million training base – Parc y Ddraig – in Newport, alongside UEFA President Michel Platini. The centre will provide state-of-the-art training facilities for men's and women's national sides and age groups. However, Platini said Wales would need infrastructure improvements before being awarded a Champions League Final.
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats held their spring conference in Cardiff. Leader Kirsty Williams said her party was at a “turning point”, but that the Eastbourne by-election result proved they could “win under tough circumstances.” Danny Alexander MP suggested the Silk Commission recommendations could be enacted in full, while UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said there needed to be a “proper debate” on devolution.
  • Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) welcomed a combined £24million investment – including £12million from the Welsh Government - at the Ford engine plant in Bridgend to develop a new low-emission engine. She said it would, “help safeguard and create high quality engineering and production jobs in Wales.”
  • Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon) warned that underemployment had risen by 58% since the 2008 recession, with an estimated 134,000 people in Wales underemployed in part-time jobs or jobs that don't match their skill set. He called on the Welsh Government to use future tax-varying powers wisely, and adopt new procurement policies to create up to 50,000 jobs.
  • Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) accused the Welsh Government of “treating the concept of open government with contempt” after the BBC failed in a Freedom of Information request to see correspondence between Terry Matthews and the First Minister. The Welsh Government claimed it would “harm the Welsh economy” by impairing the working relationship between government and business.
  • The First Minister announced an independent review will be carried out into neo-natal services in North Wales following an extensive and long-running row over plans to move services to the Wirral. The review will report back in September 2013.
  • Network Rail were criticised for only spending £15million of their £2billion routes and stations budget in Wales – 0.7% of the total budget. Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM said there was “historic under-investment in the rail network in Wales.”
  • Children's Commissioner Keith Towler warned that the proposed Social Services and Well-being Bill would infringe children's rights, as child welfare wouldn't be “paramount”. Deputy Minister for Social Services, Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath), said that he misunderstood the Bill's intentions, and that she received legal advice that the Bill wouldn't impact children's rights.
  • Alun Davies AM announced the Welsh Government will introduce regulations for the compulsory micro-chipping of dogs “by 2015”. Dogs Trust estimated there were over 10,000 stray dogs in Wales in 2012, and it's hoped the regulations will cut down on strays.
  • The Welsh Conservatives held their spring conference in Swansea. Party leader, Andrew Davies AM, said the devolution argument had been settled and that the clock “cannot be turned back”. He also accused the Welsh Government of being “lazy”. Welsh Secretary David Jones criticised Welsh Government building regulations as “driving construction work to England” and also of creating “Soviet-style” enterprise zones.
  • The Public Audit Bill received Royal Assent on April 29th. The Public Audit Act 2013 will strengthen and improve the governance arrangements of the Wales Audit Office (WAO). Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), said the law will help “restore public confidence” in the WAO, after concerns about its practises down the years.
  • The First Minister wrote to the UK Chancellor, asking for tax-varying powers outlined in the first part of the Silk Commission to be implemented soon, as it would show the Scottish people that there was an alternative to independence.

Projects announced in April include : A £2million investment to modernise six public libraries, a 1,000 “village” development in northern Cardiff, the launch of the newly-merged University of South Wales, a £500,000 revamp to Cardiff Airport arrivals and a £4.8million support services centre at Morriston Hospital in Swansea.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The rise of Europe's far-right

Has a shift on the fringes of politics to far-right and populist conservative parties
in Europe been a recent phenomenon? Or is it more complicated than that?
(Pic : The Guardian)

Back in January, Human Rights Watch warned that far-right politics in Europe were becoming more mainstream. No specific causes were outlined, however this has – in my opinion – inevitably come about as a result of the European economic crisis, as well as more localised problems which haven't been properly dealt with since the end of the Cold War.

Goose steps over Europe


It's worth pointing out that shifts to far-right, or populist hard right politics in Europe aren't recent. Since the threat of Islamic fundamentalism was brought to the fore post-9/11 attacks, countries in Europe with small, unintergrated minorities have seen a noticeable shift to the right, perhaps in a panicked attempt to "protect themselves" through limiting things like immigration.

The first major shift in modern times was probably the Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs [FP
Ö]) under the leadership Jörg Haider, who was killed in a car accident in 2008. The Freedom Party won 27% of the vote in the Austrian federal elections in 1999, winning 52 seats, and eventually formed a governing coalition with the conservative Austrian People's Party.

Did the success of  the FPO in 1999 "legitimise"
the far-right in European politics?
(Pic : Der Standard)

Although the FPÖ at the time were more populist that outright fascist, Jörg Haider had expressed sympathy for select Nazi policies, was accused of anti-semitism as well as having links with Holocaust deniers. The election of the FPÖ shocked Europe so much, that 14 nations introduced temporary diplomatic sanctions against Austria via the European Union. Eventually, the EU was forced into a rather humilating climb-down, but the precedent has been set, and it more than likely played a role in Haider stepping down from his role as party leader.

Despite an ongoing "professionalisation" of far-right parties like the French Front National and the BNP, this was probably the first time the far-right had been "legitimised" in Europe since the 1920s and 30s. This will, in my opinion, have had a knock on impact on other nations too.

Between 1998 and 2001, the populist anti-immigration Danish People's Party (Dansk Folkeparti) made a major breakthrough in the Folketing, winning 22 seats – a rise of 9. That's roughly the level of support they've remained at since, peaking at 25 seats following the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoon controversy. They played ”kingmaker” in 2001, offering their support to enable a right-wing coalition government to be formed, in exchange for changes to Denmark's immigration rules – now amongst the strictest in Europe.

The right-wing Flemish nationalist Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) were effectively disbanded. They breached Belgian anti-racism laws, once proposing a form of segregation in parts of public life and expulsion of non-European immigrants. They peaked at 32 seats – near enough a quarter of all seats - in the Flemish Parliament in 2004.

The populist anti-immigration PVV played "kingmaker" following
the 2010 Dutch general election. A trend seen in other European countries.
(Pic : BBC)

Further north, in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid [PVV]) managed to win 24 seats in the lower house Dutch general election of 2010. Under the leadership of the charismatic Geert Wilders – something of a hard line spiritual successor to the assassinated right-libertarian Pim Fortuyn - they adopted a strong stance on Europe, Islam and immigration. Like the Danish People's Party, they were instrumental in government formation through something akin to a confidence and supply agreement.

The hilariously-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia – whose policies, which are neither really democratic or liberal, hint that they would try to hunt down and eat our Lib Dems – somehow have 56 seats in the Duma. They want the Russian Empire back, and they wouldn't be afraid to use nuclear weapons to get it back either.

In the present, however, two of the more significant far-right movements are perhaps the most worrying.


Golden Dawn - the first Nazis freely-elected in Europe since the 30s?
(Pic : The Guardian)

Between 2006 and 2010, Jobbik of Hungary came from nowhere to win 47 seats in the Hungarian Parliament. They once had a ”uniformed group” that probably fell short of an outward paramilitary organisation, though they were disbanded by the Hungarian courts. Although they strongly deny any racism against minority groups – including the Roma - in 2012, a Jobbik MP called for the creation of a list of dangerous Jews who ”pose a threat to Hungarian national security.”

In Greece, since the torturous collapse of the country's economy, Golden Dawn won 18 seats in the Greek Parliament. They have links to hooliganism, and have been implicated in violent attacks against political opponents and ethnic minorities. Their election slogan in 2012 was, "Rid this land of filth." They're probably the closest Europe has come to freely-elected Nazi's since 1933.

It isn't all rosy

Despite all this, far-right parties and populist right-wing parties very rarely get into "power". They generally, at best, end up as small players in coalitions. Or – as in the Netherlands and Denmark – remain outside of government entirely, only popping up to get a few concessions to prevent centre-right governments collapsing. So, I think there is a natural "glass ceiling" when it comes to the far-right or populist conservatives.


Many of the parties I've mentioned have fallen back in recent elections. The PVV lost 9 seats in the last Dutch elections in 2012 for example. They were also responsible for that early election by withdrawing support for the ruling coalition, after a disagreement over austerity measures. Geert Wilders was blamed by the coalition partners and, ultimately it seems, the Dutch public for it.

Despite grabbing headlines, the overall performance of far-right
parties in many European nations states is poor.
(Pic : The Guardian)


Germany's National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands [NPD]) have never performed well at all levels of government in Germany - perhaps understandably - with only a dozen or so elected representatives in state legislatures. In France, despite high-profile, highly-visible successes in Presidential and European elections, the Front National perform poorly at local, regional and national level, with only two Deputies. In Austria, the Freedom Party have never really attained the heights they did under Haider.

That's before mentioning the abject electoral performances of far-right parties closer to home.

I don't think there's anything more damning for liberal politicians than for the public to turn around and choose a far-right candidate over them. Barring legitimate concerns over some policy areas, it's the ultimate protest vote, boiling down to, "I'd rather vote for a Nazi(ish politician) than you." But I don't think many people voting for them really want a far-right (or in many cases far-left) politician to represent them, more give the "usual lot" a very big kick up the backside.

The far-right in Wales and the UK

Have the EDL been and gone?
(Pic : The Telegraph)
Naturally, I've got to position Wales in this somehow. Because we have a right-wing government in Westminster, the far-right in the UK, Wales included, is perhaps neutered. We've already seen a tightening of immigration rules - with negative effects on the Welsh NHS - and a level of right-euroscepticism from Tory backbenchers in Westminster.

Something both far-left and far-right parties and organisations share is a lack of ideological unity, or splits in support by people seeking an "ever purer" version of their politics.


Internal problems within the BNP have led to them suffering said splits in support. Some joined or forming new parties, with the National Front seeing a teeny-weeny resurgence, and the English Defence League probably stealing the BNP's thunder as the most vocal "far-right" organisation on the island of Great Britain. Even the EDL have probably come and gone, as attendances at their rallies - which once mobilised thousands - have been reduced to a hardcore.

The performance of far-right parties in Wales has been historically atrocious – though not quite as bad as Scotland – and I don't see that changing any time soon. There was a poorly-attended "White Pride" march in Swansea a few weeks ago, which is absolutely hilarious in context. Swansea is 94% white and that's one of the lowest percentages.

However, in terms of the "populist hard right", things might be changing and it would threaten the Welsh Conservatives more than any of the other parties.



With UKIP presenting a - you could almost say "secular" - non-racist way to express disapproval over policy areas like Europe and immigration, as well as a strident British Nationalism, I don't think the future of the far-right in Wales or the UK is rosy at all. Beyond Nigel Farage, UKIP don't really have much, though that could change. However, Nigel Farage could well be the BNP's executioner if he can convince enough people concerned over policy areas like immigration that he presents a creditable and socially-acceptable voice for them. That's probably the reason why there may be ex-BNP in UKIP.

The BNP's executioner? Do UKIP offer a "softer", "secular"
more socially-acceptable voice for those concerned about
immigration and Europe?
(Pic : BBC)
Those ex-BNP were probably sold a lemon "we're not racist" schtick when selected as paper candidates by the BNP, and some people's opinions will change over time. Some don't, and they'll probably embarrass UKIP. Opposing high levels of immigration or the EU - even if I don't agree with that - doesn't mean you're a racist as long as you present a reasonable argument. I do believe parties like UKIP have failed to do that, and they're far too reactionary.

But in my opinion, all that would be is a shift to a "populist hard right" similar to Denmark and the Netherlands. That would be much more preferable than a move to neo-fascist organisations seen in parts of eastern and southern Europe.

Again though, I don't think there's any chance of UKIP being in position to run anything larger than a rural English district council. Their aim will likely be to drag the Conservatives to the right, and the rest of us out of the EU.

The EU : A last defence against fascism?


This is the first major economic downturn parts of Europe
will have faced since the end of the Cold War....and they're struggling.
(Pic : Wall street Journal)
Many self-styled rebels in western Europe might wear Che Guevara t-shirts as a reaction to a free-market orthodoxy.
Many younger people in eastern Europe of voting age, will not have grown up under the iron jackboot of Soviet Communism, which was nothing more than fascism with a heart. They'll have probably been told stories of how brutal and repressive it was, and how its collapse left their newly-emerging nation states in a weak position.

Those in eastern, and perhaps southern Europe, look to relics of long-dead glorious empires and the social order that used to "exist" under ultra-nationalist dictatorships. Remember that the Axis in WWII consisted of more than Germany, Italy and Japan; it included plenty of puppet regimes in eastern Europe and the Balkans too.

This resurgence of the European far-right is not only the fault of the global financial sector, but the   mainstream, technocratic Christian and social democrats who dominate European politics.

In the west and south, they've failed to get a grip on issues like the high cost of living, they helped to prop up and create housing bubbles and in some circumstances they've mortgaged the future of their younger generations to pay off the mistakes of the present.

In the east, while the cost of living remains low compared to the west, they're just getting through the first major economic downturn since the fall of Communism. In some countries like Latvia, it's caused property bubbles to burst, while elsewhere they're experiencing double digit unemployment rates and high levels of poverty, used to exploit inter-ethnic tensions.

Meanwhile, EU institutions have become cumbersome and wasteful – perhaps in some circumstances causing more problems than they're supposed to solve.

The trouble is that as soon as mainstream politicians and parties are seen to be failing to address issues like those, at a time when things are tough and people are scared, charismatic individuals come to the fore offering simple soundbite solutions to complex issues. Sometimes they only offer a closed fist and a jackboot. When you've exhausted all avenues with "traditional" parties, what else have you got to turn to?

There's one firewall though. All those nations, by and large, still want to be "part of the club" when it comes to the EU, even if levels of scepticism and uncertainty about the EU itself are on the rise. If they shift towards fascism rather than a populist, UKIP-style "tough on crime and immigration" stance, it would generate enough disgust within the EU to trigger sanctions – be they economic or social – and that would play a role in bringing them back into line.

This is going to sound ridiculous, but for all its faults, we should start to position the EU in terms of it being the last line of defence for European liberal democracy.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Law-making

"I am the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Law-making. Ready to trap
the unweary, the show-off, the fool, and this is the kind of place
you would expect to find me."

The Western Mail - and Glyn over at National Left - reported last week on concerns raised by the Electoral Reform Society Wales director, Stephen Brooks, about how legislation was drafted by AMs, as well as confusion surrounding the Assembly's legislative powers.

I've said a few times that – despite what you all might think - I consider constitutional arguments a political turn off.

If we're going to have a devolution settlement, I'd prefer one that has staying power and works, hopefully not requiring another referendum for 20-odd years. What we get instead are muddled compromises, or "gifts" dangled in front of us by Westminster politicians.


I don't think the constitution is a "distraction from issues relevant to ordinary people", as politicians are perfectly capable of dealing with more than one issue at a time. You have to be rather clever to get selected and elected in the first place.

Rather, it impedes the Assembly and Welsh Government's ability to deliver. This will impact public services if AMs and ministers question their ability to draft new laws to improve them.

It all points to another Anglo-Welsh mess, that could've been cleared up in 2006 through having a robust Government of Wales Act - including a reserved powers model once a referendum was won.

Member's Bills : A brief overview


Backbench AMs have an opportunity to introduce their own legislation – Member's Bills. Anyone who wants to do so puts their name into a hat "from time to time", and a "winner"/"winners", gets to introduce their own law. That's dependent upon the Assembly agreeing, and the Bill has to be introduced within 9 months of the Senedd granting approval. There's more detailed info on this from the National Assembly themselves (pdf).

To give you an idea of the laws proposed by AMs, here's a selection of ones proposed during the most recent ballot, held today coincidentally:
Update: Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) won the ballot and will introduce a Bill on holiday and caravan park regulation.

The two Member's Bills introduced so far this term – The Mobile Home Sites Bill & Asbestos Disease Bill – are quite good bits of legislation on paper. The Asbestos Disease Bill may even been expanded in scope to cover all industrial diseases, which would be quite significant.

The only one you can point to as being a bit silly was Darren Millar AM's previous attempt at a Member's Bill - the Chewing Gum Levy Bill. Having said that, it was well-intentioned and it aimed to address a specific problem, which is what new laws are supposed to do.

So I don't think there's an issue with regard backbench AMs or the Assembly Commission's ability to come up with or draft legislation. They clearly - by and large - know what they're doing and they want to create laws to improve people's lives, presumably address issues close to their hearts too.

It's just that, in terms of the clarity of the legislative waters, they're diving into the equivalent of an abandoned quarry, not off Three Cliffs Bay.

I'll be back-ack-ack-ck-ck-k

This particular row stems from Simon Thomas AM's (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) proposed Member's Bill to change the electoral system at local government level to Single Transferable Vote. It's wasn't up for consideration in today's ballot, so I don't know if he's decided to push it back to a later date because of this.

Simon insists he's been told, in writing, by the Assembly's lawyers that he would be able to legislate for a change in the voting system for local councils.

"The show-offs are easy, but the unwary ones are easier still. The
Welsh devolution settlement and legislation is weak,rotten, 
it'll never take his weight."
Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) - who's become Welsh Labour's de facto backbench spokesperson on constitutional affairs recently – disagreed, saying those powers would fall outside the Assembly's devolved competence. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) joined in too, suggesting there was a "difference of opinion" between the legal teams.


You could say Mike Hedges would be reluctant to see STV in local elections anyway, because Labour holds an ingrained advantage (in many local authorities) by retaining first past the post. However, it appears as though Mike is right. Stephen Brooks also agrees that the local government voting system hasn't been  devolved to Wales.

Assembly powers are devolved on a piece-by-piece, line-by-line basis. So even if local government is one of 20 areas "devolved" to Wales, some individual powers remain outside the scope of the Assembly.
"Only a fool would ignore the signs, but there's one born
every minute. Under the Hain there are traps. Westminster
interference, legalese, old fridges. It's the perfect
place for an accident."
We have to remember that all of us who bothered to vote yes in 2011, voted to abolish the system whereby the Assembly had to ask permission to make laws in devolved areas. It never changed the devolved areas themselves.

I wasted more precious time on this ball of rock going through the sludge and old cars lurking beneath the murky waters of Government of Wales Act 2006, and I found what I believe to be a "smoking gun" :
Schedule 5, Part 1 (listing the devolved powers/"matters")

Field 12 (Local Government) Matter 12.9

Electoral arrangements for elected local government institutions for communities. In this matter “electoral arrangements” does not include

(a) the local government franchise
(b) electoral registration and administration
(c) the voting system for the return of members in an election

That, to me, reads as though electoral arrangements have been devolved (the first sentence), apart from some pretty key components of "electoral arrangements" (exemptions a, b & c). The GoW Act effectively says, in legal terms, "Yes, but no."


If devolved powers were a cake, it's a bit like being forbidden from using butter and eggs in the recipe.


But wait! A big thank you to MH for pointing this out....

When the referendum was won in 2011, Schedule 5 of the GoW Act 2006 no longer applied. Instead, law-making powers are set out under Schedule 7.The list of exemptions in Schedule 7.12 removed the local government electoral system. So, it looks as though Simon Thomas, or the Assembly, would be able to pass a Bill to change the local government voting system after all.


All this isn't confusing at all, is it?
If Schedule 5 no longer applies, then that should be the end of it. But as we saw with the Byelaws Bill, there are so many potholes here, it's open to a massive legal squabble.

So there you have it. Despite local government being a "devolved area", the Assembly can't change basic areas of local government policy like how we elect local councillors. They can't even create directly-elected mayors (Field 12, Matter 12.6).


"Sensible devolution settlements....I have no
power over them."
But - in principle - if local government is devolved, the Assembly should be in charge of it in its entirety, shouldn't it? That would make things clearer for all concerned, and the Assembly would certainly be able to enact more radical and wide-ranging changes if that's what AMs want to do.

Scotland had no problems changing their local electoral system to STV, because their devolution settlement sets out what power Westminster retains, not what's devolved to Scotland (reserved powers).


It's "grey areas" like this, and the existence of piecemeal devolution, that partly-caused the legal row over the Byelaws Bill last year. I'm worried it's going to happen with the Silk Commission too, and some suggestions in Part One certainly look like that.

Instead of having a long overdue, proper debate in the Assembly on the local government electoral system at some point in the future, we'll end up with more articles and blogposts sprouting up – like this one – boring everyone to tears about constitutional trivialities. Everyone else turns off and tunes out.

It's not a surprise that backbench AMs are reluctant to dip their toes in the dark, lonely, sewage-infested water that is the Government of Wales Act 2006.

One more thing....


I don't mean this as a criticism, more an observation, but AMs might not be helping themselves either.

AMs have an opportunity to question the Welsh Government's senior legal adviser – the Counsel General, Theodore Huckle QC – in plenary (roughly) every month. Presumably, he'll be able to clear up concerns over areas like drafting legislation and legislative competence as that's his job. Those answers would also be on the public record for future reference.

It appears only Simon Thomas is interested in asking him questions....any questions....as he's been the only one doing so since last November.

Throwing aside any extenuating circumstances and off the record/private correspondence, how many questions did AMs table for the Counsel General last week – written or oral?

Zero.

Instead, they argue over law-making and legislative competence in public, below the gleaming spires of the University of Twitter's School of Law.

Maybe Carwyn Jones had a point about plenary sessions after all.

"....That was a public information film."

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Welsh measles epidemic - How did this happen?

The measles epidemic is centred on Swansea and Neath Port
Talbot but has began to spread into adjoining areas. How the hell,
in the age of mass vaccination, was this allowed to happen?
(Pic : BBC)

The latest figures point to there being just over 800 cases of measles in Wales - most of which in Swansea and Neath Port Talbot areas - but starting to spread into Bridgend (~30 cases), as well as the Hywel Dda and Powys local health boards.

As the schools recently returned from Easter holidays, it's likely that the epidemic won't peak for another two to three weeks, and Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) has said so himself. It's on course to be one of the worst measles epidemics in the UK & Ireland for some time. It's also unclear whether this epidemic may have claimed its first fatality too.

I think it's worth giving the main LHB involved – Abertawe Bro Morgannwg - a rare pat on the back with regard the public health response. I think they've handled this well and reacted quickly to the situation, including setting up the emergency vaccination programme.

I think it's nonsense to suggest that they, or the Welsh Government, were "slow to respond".
Due to the nature and background to this, there's not much else they could be doing.

Demanding oral statements in the Senedd - telling AMs what they presumably already know - is, to me, an pointless gesture for the time being.

A brief background to the MMR scare

Scares about vaccines aren't new. Did two/three particularly
damaging scares relating to MMR in the 1990s lead
to this epidemic?
(Pic : marriedtothesea.com)
Vaccines generally work by using weakened strains of diseases to enable the body's immune system to recognise them as "dangerous", and build up a natural immune response to those diseases ready for when they're encountered in the future.

Vaccines will have side effects as a result of that immune response – usually a mild form of the disease being vaccinated against, in rare cases something more serious.

A combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was first introduced to the UK in the late 1980s. A strain of mumps used in the manufacturing of the MMR vaccine used at the time was linked to an 1 in 3000 chance of developing a form of meningitis as a side effect. This strain was replaced, but there was a fall in uptake of the MMR as confidence was shaken. This resulted in measles outbreaks in the early 1990s, so the UK government launched a more aggressive vaccination drive in response.


In 1998, gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield – already a leading critic of MMR, and who had originally linked it with inflammatory bowel diseases - published a research paper in The Lancet. He suggested a connection between MMR, childhood digestive problems and a severe form of autism, which he eventually termed autistic enterocolitis.

Andrew Wakefield published more results from the same study over subsequent months and years, and suggested via a press conference (an unusual step in scientific circles) that it would be "safer" to suspend combined MMR and use three separate vaccinations instead. That attracted wider media coverage, leading to a major public health crisis at the turn of the century.

This wasn't
helped - circa 2001 - by Cherie Blair refusing to say whether Leo Blair had been vaccinated with MMR or not. She was absolutely within her rights not to do so to be honest, and that smells of the press trying to whip up an unnecessary storm by trying to expose "hypocrisy". Hundreds of articles were written based on the Lancet paper over several years, and public confidence in the MMR vaccine fell across the UK.

The South Wales Evening Post, based in Swansea, led its own separate campaign called "MMR parents' Fight for Facts" in 1997. There was a reported 14% drop in MMR uptake in the Swansea area, though it's worth pointing out that the Evening Post never actually told parents to avoid vaccinating their children.

Then, as the years went by, it became clear that there was no evidence backing Andrew Wakefield's claims. The original pathological evidence was manipulated – a mortal sin in scientific research. The research had also received financial backing from lawyers specifically looking to sue vaccine manufacturers. There were also other "conflict of interest" allegations which he failed to declare to The Lancet; including looking to launch a testing kit for "autistic enterocolitis" and patents for a new measles vaccine.

It wasn't until 2010 that The Lancet formally retracted the paper. Andrew Wakefield was eventually found guilty of professional misconduct and was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council. The link between autism and MMR has been discredited, and it's unlikely that autistic entercolitis even exists as a disease.

What might have caused this measles outbreak?

Herd immunity is a concept where if a certain percentage of the population is immunised against a disease, the risk of someone who isn't immune catching that disease is reduced. They would be less likely to come into contact with someone who isn't immune, and it would be harder for people to carry that disease (act as a vector).

Vaccines are never 100% effective. So herd immunity is vital, even to protect those who have been immunised, those with supressed immune systems through medical treatment, or those for whom the effect of a vaccine has worn off.

Every child not vaccinated against measles  for whatever reason - especially if it caused vaccination rates to fall below the threshold for herd immunity - would've put the rest of the population at risk.

For measles, the percentage for herd immunity to kick in is around 90%, though the Welsh Government and public health officials aim for a 95% immunisation rate to be on the safe side. That means if 90%+ of children in the Swansea area were immunised against measles, there shouldn't have been a mass outbreak.


In November 2012, just under 42,000 children in Wales alone weren't vaccinated against measles, and a significant number have only been partially vaccinated - probably because they haven't received booster jabs. If they haven't been vaccinated against measles, they may well have not been vaccinated against many other childhood diseases either – including mumps and rubella.

Look at the graph below to see how MMR vaccination rates (the yellow line) changed between 1997-2003 (the start of the Evening Post campaign and the peak of the Wakefield scare) and how long they took to recover to the 90% level:
Childhood immunisation rates in Wales since 1997.
(Pic : Public Health Wales, Click to enlarge)


Looking at the age breakdown of the current recorded cases of measles, the bulk of those affected appear to be between the ages of 4 and 20 - roughly corresponding with the period of 1992-2010 - with most of those being between the ages of 4-14 (1998-2010). Public Health Wales have pointed to particular concerns about a "lost generation" of under-vaccinated children aged between 10-18.

Age breakdown of current recorded measles cases as of April 17th
(Pic : Public Health Wales, Click to enlarge)
As to why vaccination rates fell, you've got to point to vaccination conspiracy theories like those surrounding MMR. They were based off bad science, pushed by media headlines and not properly cleared up by public health authorities.

This would've happened on the Welsh Government's watch – they're responsible for public health - as the panic surrounding MMR "peaked" between 1998-2002.

I'm pleased to say that there's no sign that the safety of MMR has ever been brought into question in the Senedd. AMs have always been more concerned about falls in immunisation rates, so they get a thumbs up from me. That's wasn't enough though, obviously, and I can't tell if there were any press statements from individual AMs to the contrary.

Looking through the Assembly's records, the then Health Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), was aware of the problems and was "taking action" with health authorities at the time. Similarly her successors, including Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower).

As you can tell from the public health statistics, those measures took their time to work. Though there was a spike in vaccine uptake around 2001, the Blair ruckus and ensuing further uncertainty might have partly contributed to the fall afterwards.

I
t looks as though trust in MMR in Wales wasn't properly restored until at least 2009-2010.
That's a big window in terms of age groups affected by this - many will be adults now - and immunisation rates remain below the desired 95%. All of that will have impacted herd immunity for a considerable period of time.

There are separate vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella available that aren't linked to MMR, but they have their own set of concerns and there's nothing wrong with MMR in the first place.

Another possible conclusion is that parents who were concerned about MMR, didn't have their children vaccinated with these separate vaccines either. That could've been through lack of availability, or because they became suspicious about all measles vaccinations as a result of the scare stories.

In fairness, I doubt any parent is sceptical about MMR now, as the queues to receive vaccines in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg area show.

Science and health in the media

As much as sex sells, scaring people sells too.

There's a reason health stories are given pride of place in sensationalist sections of the press. Issues surrounding our personal or children's health are a primal fear. We're not confronted with death and disease as often as we were 50-100 years ago, so anything that shatters our cosy, clean reality is pounced upon, and more often than not, blown out of proportion.


Scare stories about vaccines have been going on for decades. There was one about the whooping cough vaccine in the UK during the 1970s and 80s that resulted in falls in immunisations, and two major outbreaks that killed 100 children.


I don't think it's a question of seeking to "blame" anyone, as that would be counterproductive. These things are going to happen – even if this could've been easily avoided - but it's understandably distressing for any families caught up in it. We need to first and foremost make sure, once this epidemic if over, that it never happens again.

Firstly, there are problems in the reporting of science in the media. Some journalists are specially trained to report science, but that doesn't mean they have a scientific background. It's unlikely local newspapers will have any science journalists on their staff. An exception here would be in-depth investigative journalism, which helped expose the MMR scare fraud in the first place.

For example, everything on this blog is commentary. I try my best to go through any evidence and come up with what I consider "educated guesses" - including this.

Most health or science stories in the media are nothing better than an "educated guess". It's usually reduced to the bare bones for sake of explanation, or cherry-picked for the best headlines, with no consideration given to the science behind those stories, which – admittedly – is usually quite dull or unnecessarily technical. There's also a problem with transparancy when it comes to pharmaceutical development and science in general, which creates so many doubts in people's minds that it gives conspiracy theorists enough material to work off.

Sometimes ordinary people will get caught up in and dragged along by convincing conspiracy arguments in the media, especially if they come from someone in a position of authority – like a doctor, established medical journal, perhaps even including journalists, celebrities and politicians.
People are perhaps also more cynical about government advice on areas like this because of their handling of things like BSE.

The British press – especially the tabloids - went for the MMR scare with gusto. People in Swansea will be just as likely, if not more so, to read The Mirror, Daily Mail, Express or The Sun as the Evening Post. That's before mentioning TV coverage and the impact of the internet in particular - where any idiot can say anything, myself included.

So, the Evening Post shouldn't be singled out in this, as it's probably overstating the influence of the local press. However, people might "trust" local papers more than Fleet Street, and any campaign the local press support might be seen to be more creditable. Although the defence of the Evening Post's coverage in the 90s seems a little strident, at least they're now calling on parents to vaccinate their children with MMR.


It's fine to report the news, it's another thing entirely to get involved in "campaigns" built on shaky foundations. In this case, those shaky foundations are as much The Lancet's fault as anyone else's. Andrew Wakefield merely loaded a gun the press were waving around irresponsibly. And they threatened the health of a generation of children by placing doubts into parents' minds about the safety of MMR.

When you read the specifics of the original 1998 Lancet report and the fallout, including :
  • The small sample size (12 patients)
  • The fact MMR had been used for up to a decade - even withdrawn - in other countries like Japan before being introduced to the UK with no affect on autism rates
  • Improvements in the identification of autism that would've resulted in more autism diagnoses
  • MMR is administered around the same time the symptoms of severe autism develop anyway
  • Nobody has been able to reproduce the results (a fundamental requirement in scientific research)
....I'm amazed they didn't laugh it straight into the bin.

The difference between a legitimate suspicion or scientific hypothesis and a conspiracy theory is that a conspiracy theorist is convinced they're right, and tries to fit evidence around their conclusion. They neglect anything to the contrary, perhaps coming up with related conspiracy theories to explain those away.

The mindset of conspiracy theorists means it's impossible to convince them that their theories are wrong. They usually just move the goalposts in a search for meaning with regard linked coincidences, expecting the worst from people, companies, politicians or institutions. If too many people get carried away by things like that, it can do serious harm.

The link between measles and children being hospitalised, disabled or dying is proven. There's statistically a much greater chance of a child being injured in a car journey on the way to being vaccinated, than from the vaccine itself.
Also, a health service is supposed to maintain the population's health and well being through thoroughly tested and proven treatments. It's an emergency service. It's not supposed to act like a supermarket, giving people "choice". That includes offering de rigueur separate vaccines over MMR and things like homoeopathy.
Ultimately though, it's a parent's responsibility to get their children vaccinated. It's not their fault they were misled – as Glyn Beddau pointed out a few weeks ago– but I find it hard to believe that anyone with a proper understanding of how vaccinations work, or herd immunity, would've avoided vaccinating their children.


If anyone wondered why science is still a key part of the school curriculum alongside maths and literacy, it's for reasons like this.

A healthy level of scepticism is a good thing for society, especially if that results in more of us being able to put decision-makers on the spot when they try to sneak things past us. But that's worthless if it's built on a foundation of bullshit, as it has been with MMR scares and vaccine conspiracies in general. Come to think of it, these two clowns can probably demonstrate it better than I ever can :

         


Saturday, 20 April 2013

Life, Ethics & Independence IV - Stem Cells

Is this modern medicine's "holy grail"?
Or is it a life, and will interfering with it open the door
to some very freaky and unethical rooms?
(Pic : ehd.org)

In my fourth look at contentious public policy issues, I'm addressing something that's a bit more technical than the other ones. It's likely to be one of the more important medicine-related issues over the next decade or two, but still highly controversial – embryonic stem cell research and therapy.

What are stems cells?

Stem cells are cells from which all of the body's tissues and organs originate from. I suppose you could describe them as "seeds" of sorts. They have the ability to change (differentiate) into many different tissues during human development, while some specific stem cells retain this ability through into adulthood.

They were first cultured (in mice) by Cardiff University Chancellor Sir Martin Evans (who won an unrelated joint Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2007) and Prof. Matthew Kaufman when they were both working at Cambridge University.

The science of human stem cells

There are many different "levels" of ability to change into different tissues, called "potency".
  • Totipotency – The ability to change into all cells of the body.
  • Pleuripotency – The ability to change into any of the three main layers that form all of the bodies main tissues during embryogenesis.
  • Multipotency – The ability to change into a fixed line of mature adult cells.
A human blastocyst. The blue mass, once extracted
and put into culture, are embryonic stem cells.
(Pic : teleanatomy.com)

There are others too, but they're not as important for this exercise.

Immediately following fertilisation, human zygotes are totipotent. That makes sense, because everything has to be formed from scratch.

After around eight days, the zygote changes into a blastocyst - a ball of outer cells, and a mass of inner cells. That inner cell mass (embryoblast) will become the developing embryo, and eventually, the foetus. The embryoblast cells are pluripotent, forming the three layers of the embryo, which I've covered before when discussing abortion (ectoderm, mesoderm, endoderm).


Once these embryoblast cells are removed and grown in culture, they're termed embryonic stem cells.

Eventually, the embryo/foetus will mature right through to birth and onwards, losing this pleuripotent ability because it's no longer needed as the foetus has fully formed.

Some stem cells though retain a multipotency through into adulthood. These are called adult stem cells and all of us have them. The most obvious example would be fat (adipose) stem cells – which aren't exactly desirable! - and stem cells found in bone marrow (haemopoetic stem cells).

Why are stem cells prized in medicine?


That's fairly obvious. As I've said, embryonic stem cells (ES cells) have the ability to change into the three main layers that form all of the bodies main tissues. If you could harvest ES cells, and "direct" them in culture to forming specific tissues you could, theoretically, provide replacements for any damaged or diseased tissue in the body. Or, you could use ES cells as a therapy to restore some functions that have been lost through disease.

Adult stem cells are already used to treat various diseases. The most obvious example would be treating leukaemia via a bone marrow donation. The adult stem cells in the donated bone marrow replace white blood cell (leukocyte) stem cells lost to cancer - enabling a recipient to begin producing their own healthy leukocytes again. There's ongoing research that suggests that bone marrow stem cells could be used to create liver and muscle cells too. Some types of adult stem cells have also been used in Canada to restore a man's eyesight.

(Pic : stemceltreatments.in)

Unfortunately, there are plenty of tissues in the body that don't have an adult stem cell equivalent. It's these tissues where ES cells would prove useful, as you can "grow" new tissue. This could provide potential treatments for diseases and conditions like :
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Dementia
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Serious neurological damage as the result of trauma
  • "Degenerative" musculo-skeletal diseases like motor neurone disease, Huntington's disease and muscular dystrophy


Why is embryonic stem cell research controversial?

IVF clinics are already criticised for the number of embryos
they "waste". Should they form the production line for
ES cells too?
(Pic : Daily Mirror)
You have to get those embryonic stem cells from somewhere. That somewhere being....human embryos.

Many of the arguments here significantly overlap with those in the abortion debate. By maturing an embryo just long enough to remove embryoblasts and culture them it would, in effect, be an abortion.

All of the religious and moral arguments against abortion apply here too – regardless of the "utility" of using ES cells in medical treatment. It could be interpreted as denying one life "a life" whilst prolonging another life whose time has come. The moral question is - would humanity have a right to interfere at such a fundamental level like that?



There's also the delicate issue of getting embryos in the first place. That somewhere would probably be IVF clinics.

IVF clinics usually fertilise several eggs at once for back ups, to be used for research or for training etc. Many of those fertilised embryos are routinely destroyed as part of the process, as the law says embryos can't be stored for longer than five years.

It's these embryos – there are estimated to be at least 1million in the UK alone - which would likely become the "resource" for ES cell therapy. That could be interpreted as turning human embryos – perhaps human eggs too - into some sort of commodity. That's quite an uncomfortable place to be, regardless of your thoughts on that.

Catholics alone would be having kittens.

However, you could twist that into making sure embryos aren't wasted by putting them to good use in the first place via stem cell therapy and research.

Is ES cell therapy viable? Are there alternatives?


At the moment, the use of ES cells in medical therapies is in its earliest clinical trials, so it's still some way away from being a mainstream medical treatment.

It's also not without its problems. ES cells, by and large, don't have any real medical application for a simple reason - they're (technically speaking) cancerous. It's hypothesised that some types of cancer could be caused by stem cells that haven't been "switched off" due to damaged/mutated "switch off" genes. There are also, AFAIK, problems in trying to direct ES cells to differentiate into something useful.


The main benefit of using ES cells over adult stem cells is that they have the ability to change into a wider range of cells and tissues. However, there's a (highly experimental) prospect of induced pleuripotent cells. That means adult cells – usually skin – which are "reprogrammed" to have the same ability to change into things (pluripotency) as an embryonic stem cell. So it'll have the benefits, without the controversial need to use a human embryo.

There's hardly any controversy at all surrounding adult stem cell research, which even has the support of many religious groups. There's a very real prospect that many diseases pinpointed for treatment by ES cells could one day be treated by alternatives, rendering the use of ES cells in medicine obsolete. That's how science works, but the research needs to be done in the first place.

The politics of stem cell research and therapy


Barack Obama has overturned many limitations placed on state
embryonic stem cell funding enacted by the Bush administration.
The US currently spends at least $1.5bn on stem cell research.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Most of the controversy here – especially in the US - surrounds state funding for ES cell research, for obvious reasons. Any financial help given towards "destroying" embryos is going to push buttons as it's effectively state-sanctioned abortion (sort of).

At the moment, the US Government (via the National Institutes of Health) spends around $147million (~£90million) on human ES cell research, and a total of around $1.5billion on general stem cell research. Funding rules have been relaxed by President Obama, after being tightened under George W. Bush. There are also individual state programmes – in particular California - and private investment on top of this, so it's quite a money intensive area of research.


That puts Wales' £150million Sêr Cymru and Welsh Life Sciences Fund - however welcome they both are - into perspective. But I think even a relatively modest sum like £10million towards human stem cell research would probably go a long way.

There are European funds available for this, via their €80billion Horizon 2020 programme, which will fund research across the EU between 2014-2020. There are calls to exclude funding for embryonic stem cell research from this programme, partly on religious or moral grounds.

However, as I pointed out, due to improvements in the use of adult stem cells, there might be valid scientific reasons not to fund it too. But I'm not sure cutting funding on this would be the right thing to do, especially for more complicated diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.


In terms of the wider social and health impacts, it would be a game changer, with the prospect of completely transforming medicine. You would no longer need transplants. You could grow replacement organs and tissues from pluripotent stem cells, that would be biologically compatible with the recipient, making rejection unlikely. That would include parts of the body where transplants aren't currently an option – brain tissues and nerves for instance.

A rat's heart created from stem cells.
Could we eventually eliminate the need for transplants
by "growing" new organs this way?
What effect would that have on quality of life?
(Pic : singularityhub.com)

All of that would no doubt rapidly improve quality of life, perhaps healthy life spans as well. That will have its own impact because if we all live longer, healthier lives, we're probably going to want to work longer, there'll be more people to feed, clothe and house. Some of us might even be more willing to engage in risky behaviours if we'll know we can "engineer" a new organ relatively easily.

There are also, perhaps perfectly valid concerns, that a more permissive stance in an area like ES cells could open the door to different experiments on human embryos, perhaps delving into genetically engineered humans, "designer babies" and even – under the wrong political regime – things like eugenics. That's a slippery slope fallacy though. With the right regulations and oversight, it should be fine.

Oh, and you better believe this will end up being a rich man's/woman's toy. In an age where people in some parts of the world still die of completely preventable diseases, the richer nations will put money into research that could extend our healthy lives.

Stem cell policy and independence

It looks like we're on our way towards catching up. This will
be the  future home of the European Cancer Stem
Cell Institute....at Cardiff University.
(Pic : premierconstructionnews.com)
It's unclear if this area of science policy is devolved or not, but I suspect it isn't.

This is one area of policy I believe the UK has largely got spot on already. Creating human embryonic stem cell lines is legal, and Newcastle University is one of Europe's leading research centres in this area of science. China actually has some of the most liberal laws on this, because they generally place no (cultural/religious) value on the embryo.


However, creating embryonic stem cell lines remains illegal in a few European countries like Germany, Austria and France.


I don't think there's any need for a major shift in policy at a Welsh level, whether via devolution or independence. Should we go as far as the Chinese? Probably not, as it's worth keeping a slight leash on any area of scientific research.

Changes could include better guidance and funding with regard all types of stem cell research and therapies, as well as perhaps extending the limit for storing human embryos beyond five years (if they would still be useful beyond that point).

The wider question is – how much money should/could Wales put into this area? Should we try to attract private sector investment and involvement in experiments on human embryos? Should we instead concentrate on adult stem cell research and traditional tissue engineering and develop a speciality there?


Developing a niche specialism in tissue engineering – with or without ES cells - could have big spin offs for the Welsh economy if it resulted in new tools or scientific techniques being developed and properly patented. Cardiff University is already home to a specialist tissue engineering research institute, as well as another research institute investigating links between cancer and stem cells.

Maybe there are "miracle cures" in ES cells, maybe they'll be overtaken by some other innovation. We should probably pursue both avenues, but this issue is likely to shape regenerative medicine over the next decade or two and Wales should stake its claim by building on its university foundations, and by developing solid life science policy from the Welsh Government and Assembly.

Independence, or control over this area of science, might give us a lot more options there.

Part five focuses on animal rights (largely in relation to animal testing) and will be posted sometime this summer....hopefully.