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, 31 January 2014

Senedd Watch - January 2014

  • Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), said the Welsh Government needed to do more to support business, after figures revealed Wales had the lowest number of active enterprises (455) per 10,000 people of the Home Nations. The figures were described as “utterly damning”, and Plaid Cymru called for business rate reform and reiterated calls for the creation of a business bank.
  • Subsequently, Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), announced a feasibility study into a state-backed Development Bank for Wales to provide a “one stop shop” for business finance, in response to an inquiry into SME finance led by Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans.
  • The Welsh Government announced a review of coastal flood defences after storms and tidal surges caused damage over January, affecting the Aberystwyth area particularly hard. Natural Resources & Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) said there were “no blank cheques”, though an additional £2million for repairs was made available.
  • The First Minister travelled to Uganda, saying Wales for Africa projects were “transforming lives in a country many will have never been to”. Many from within Labour, and outside, criticised the visit due to Uganda's proposed anti-homosexuality law, which condemns homosexuals and LGBT-rights campaigners to life imprisonment. He defended the trip, saying that “speaking out could've made the situation worse, not better.”
  • The Welsh Government launched a consultation on proposed Welsh language standards, relating to public service delivery, correspondence, telephone services, and both personal and public meetings. The First Minister said it was, “an important step....to improve Welsh language services to citizens.”
  • Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) announced changes to GP contracts for 2014-15, which reduces the number of measures used to fund practices, and encourages collaboration. The Minister said the new contract would “remove a treadmill of bureaucracy”, allowing GPs to spend more time with patients.
  • Head of the WLGA, Steve Thomas, warned that up to 10,000 jobs could be lost in Welsh local government over the next four years as a result of funding cutbacks, which could see graduate roles in planning, environmental health and trading standards reduced. Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) said many local government roles went to young people, and that the private sector couldn't be relied on alone to increase employment levels.
  • Plaid Cymru announced a policy consultation to recruit 1,000 extra doctors over two Assembly terms. The proposals include gradually wiping the debts of medical graduates who train in specialities experiencing shortages, improving research and professional development opportunities and paperless working to enable distant treatment. Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) attacked the proposals as “fantasy politics” and “economically illiterate gibberish”.
  • The Welsh Government announced a transfer of 15% of funds from direct payments to farmers to rural development as part of changes to Common Agricultural Payments (CAP). The move was broadly welcomed by opposition parties, but on assurances the Welsh Government would ensure both a smooth transition and that Welsh farming remains competitive.
  • The National Assembly unanimously backed a Welsh Conservative motion underlining the economic and cultural impact of rugby union in Wales, with some AMs calling for an Assembly inquiry into the governance and finances of Welsh rugby. It came in the backdrop of an ongoing dispute between the WRU and the four regional teams, which the First Minister offered to mediate privately.
  • Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), ditched plans to merge Wales' two heritage organisations, saying it received a “mixed response”, and after weighing up the evidence decided the organisations should remain separate.
  • The Health Minister told an NHS Confederation conference that up to a fifth of NHS work in Wales was unnecessary and could do more harm than good. He told health chiefs to adopt more prudent medicine, including measures such as not offering surgery for certain conditions. The Welsh Conservatives said it amounted to “rationing services”.
  • Leading political and economic figures in Wales criticised aspects of the draft Wales Bill, in particular income tax powers, which were described – to varying degrees – as “useless” due to an inability to set income tax rates independently of each other. In her own submission, Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) called for an increase in Assembly Members from 60 to 80 to deal with increasing legislative workloads.
  • The Williams Commission into Public Service Delivery reported back on January 20th, recommending changes to management training, scrutiny in local government and a merger of local authorities into 12, 11 or 10 councils by 2018. The WLGA said reorganisations could cost up to £200million, while the Commission put the figure at £100million with long-term savings. A deadline for provisional agreement on mergers was set for April 2014.
  • The Health Minister announced that neonatal services would be centralised in Carmarthen, resulting in a removal of services from Withybush Hospital, Haverfordwest. Around 1,000 campaigners held a protest march, while a judicial review is under way.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell in the three months to November 2013 by 12,000, or 7.2%, slightly above the UK average of 7.1%. Business leaders described the news as “heartening”.
  • The Welsh Conservatives unveiled ideas to boost inward investment, including a privately-run Investment Council to provide better “after care” for companies setting up in Wales, and setting ambitious inward investment targets. The Welsh Government pointed to a 191% increase in foreign direct investment in 2013 which “showed their own approach was working”.
  • The National Centre for Languages (CILT Cymru) called for foreign languages to be taught in primary schools to encourage take-up at GCSE level, numbers of which fell by a third between 2012 and 2013. Shadow Education Minister, Angela Burns (Con, Carms W & S. Pembs.), described the figures as “depressing” and believed it could harm the economy.
  • A survey of cancer patients on behalf of the Welsh Government found 89% believed their care was either excellent or very good. However, there were big variations depending on location and cancer type, with patients suffering from rarer cancers less positive. Patients in the south west of Wales were also less positive about treatment than those in Cardiff and Gwynedd.
  • Estyn's annual report said overall teaching standards had to improve in order to see better education results. The report said fewer than half of secondary schools improved compared to the previous year, while primary school standards were good - though rarely excellent and largely unchanged. The Shadow Education Minister said education has “stagnated” under 15 years of Labour rule and was a “damning indictment” of their mismanagement.
  • An Electoral Reform Society survey of backbench AMs found 90% supported a comprehensive review of Assembly procedures, highlighting dissatisfaction with both plenary sessions and the strength of the executive. Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central),called for a procedural review by the Business Committee, more topical debates, extra plenary sessions and a name change to “Welsh Parliament”.
  • The percentage of life-threatening incidents responded to by ambulances with 8 minutes dropped from 63.2% to 57.6% in December 2013. The Welsh Government blamed “spiky demand”, but Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West) described it as “another extremely troubling slump”.
  • The Wales Audit Office published three public interest reports that said over £100,000 in payments to senior officers in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire were unlawful. Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM called for Carmarthenshire to be placed in special measures and the resignation of senior officers and councillors, while Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Darren Millar AM expressed alarm about senior executive pay.
  • Deputy Minister for Skills, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), unveiled a new ten year strategy to boost skills amongst the post-19 workforce, saying Wales needs to attract more high-skilled jobs and close the skills gap between what employees have and what employers want.
  • Minister for Housing and Regeneration, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), announced the detailed allocation of £100million in Vibrant & Viable Places regeneration funding for eleven local authorities, which he hopes will help create “diverse and vibrant town centres”.

Projects announced in January include : the launch of the £170million “Help to Buy” mortgage guarantee scheme, new financial incentives to encourage high-calibre postgraduates into teaching, a £10million grant fund to tackle poverty, the launch of the “Just Ask Wales” service to encourage inward investment and the launch of a mentoring initiative by the Llywydd to encourage more women into public roles.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Rotten Borough - Carmarthenshire's Smoking Gun

It's appropriate that Carmarthenshire Council's HQ is on the site of a former jail, because
the Wales Audit Office has just led senior councillors and officers to the proverbial gallows.
(Pic : urban75.org)
It's quite fitting that Romania can now play a full part in the EU, as today has a.....pre-Christmas 1989, Bucharest feel about it.

It's already been covered comprehensively by Y Cneifiwr, Carmarthenshire Planning, Wales Eye and Inside Out; as well as BBC Wales, South Wales Evening Post and Western Mail.

It's only right – because of the wider impact this pathetic county's actions have had on political criticism in Wales – that I add my own voice to the chorus of condemnation.

As covered back in September/October, the Wales Audit Office believed two decisions taken by Carmarthenshire Council (CCC) were unlawful.
Those two decision were; pension arrangements for senior officers (also implicating Pembrokeshire – more from Cllr. Jacob Williams), and the granting of indemnity funding to Chief Executive, Mark James, to undertake a counter libel action against Carmarthenshire Planning's Jacqui Thompson.

As you can understand, the thought that such upstanding public servants would engage in something....."unlawful"..... (synomyms and related words : illegal, criminal, actionable, corrupt, nefarious, prohibited, outlawed, illegitimate, illicit)....came as a terrible shock.

Today, the Wales Audit Office's Anthony Barrett published two separate public interest reports into the decisions. They make pretty damning reading for Carmarthenshire Council. So damning, it could be the beginning of the end for many.

The Pensions Arrangement (pdf)
  • The agreement to pay cash sums instead of pension payments to senior staff who opted-out of the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS) - to mitigate effects of changes to tax relief on pensions - was ultra vires (beyond their power).
  • The Executive Board of CCC, which made the decision and includes senior councillors, were wrongly informed that officers would have to leave the LGPS as a result of changes to the law.
  • Although CCC maintain that they have the power to enter into particular financial arrangements with their employees, the Auditor believes the powers can't be used to get around pensions legislation. In shorthand terms, this was a tax avoidance scheme.
  • The Executive Board failed to take into account all relevant considerations. They also failed to provide evidence that supported their claims that not approving the cash payments would prevent the recruitment of high-calibre senior staff.
  • They also failed to take equalities duties into account, and the decision "constituted indirect discrimination" on age and sex grounds because senior staff – mostly older men – would benefit disproportionately from the cash payments compared younger staff and women. As nobody complained within the legal timescale, it was "indirect" discrimination rather than outright.
  • The item approving the payments didn't appear on the Executive Board agenda, therefore couldn't be scrutinised by the public. This breached regulations and "had no reasonable basis". CCC defend leaving the item off as one of their assistant chief executives – who believed it had to be addressed before the next meeting - was very busy at the time, so it didn't need to be treated as a formal urgent item. The Auditor disagrees.
  • The report itself was drafted and presented by a senior officer who had a disqualifying personal interest as they would've benefited from the cash payments – rendering it an unlawful decision just by their mere presence.
  • £28,750 was paid to Mark James in lieu of pension contributions across 2012-13 and 2013-14, though it's unclear if it's been paid back. The equivalent sum for Pembrokeshire is over £50,000.
  • CCC has since rescinded the cash payments, so the Auditor recommends CCC address procedural weaknesses.

The Libel Indemnity (pdf)
  • The decision to award indemnity was contrary to the Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) Order 2006, as indemnities can only be used to defend a defamation claim not bring a counter claim. CCC can't fall back on previous laws dating from 1972 either.
  • The Welsh Government's legal advice - when the regulations were issued - clearly warns local authorities "to use common sense" and generally avoid funding defamation proceedings from the public purse.
  • Mark James participated in the decision to award the indemnity and didn't declare an interest, which even by his very presence makes the decision unlawful.
  • CCC apparently held an off the record "pre-meeting" - which Mark James didn't attend - to go over the details before the formal Executive Board meeting, and therefore CCC believe Mark James didn't participate in the decision-making process and board members were fully-informed of the issues. The auditor doesn't buy it, saying this raises concerns about openness and transparency of decision-making processes.
  • The Executive Board failed to take advice from the Wales Audit Office into account, failed to consider the likelihood of the law suit's success and failed to consider a (presumably) "no win, no fee" funding arrangement for the libel action.
  • The Executive Board only saw what's been described elsewhere as a "sexed-up dossier" of legal advice on the indemnity funding, not the full advice which was significantly more cautious.
  • Treating the matter as an "urgent item" was questionable, and again CCC use the excuse that a decision was needed before the next meeting, which contravened regulations and prevented public scrutiny. There was, however, enough time for the item to be introduced the standard way – at least three days before the meeting.
  • A total of £26,426 has been spent on external legal advice since 2012-13, but it's unclear how much this will eventually cost CCC.
  • The Auditor recommends the libel indemnity funding be withdrawn immediately.

The Reaction


Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP (both Plaid, Carms E. & Dinefwr) have called for senior resignations, the former believing the authority should also be placed in special measures. Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy), said it highlights the need to rein in senior executive pay.

The local Plaid Cymru group leader, Peter Hughes Griffiths (quoted via Y Cneifiwr), has called for a rainbow coalition to "take control of the situation".

No political capital can be made out of this as it's much a fault of councillors as officers. A power-sharing agreement between an old, venal regime and upstart rebels wouldn't change things. There needs to be a clear-out, and those involved don't deserve the dignity of quietly walking away into retirement.

Not only does this highlight at least two substantial failings of governance and procedure that opened the door to possible misconduct in public office, it also underlines that the governance structure at CCC is neither working, transparent or 100% kosher.

The positions of senior officers and councillors at Carmarthenshire are now untenable. As Jacqui herself said, there are clear parallels with the fraud investigation in Caerphilly, and this should, ideally, be investigated by a police force from outside Wales. Just to underline the seriousness, if this falls under the definition of fraud or misconduct in public office - totalling over £50,000 - we're talking prison sentences.

I concur with Rhodri Glyn Thomas that there's a strong case for placing Carmarthenshire into special measures and run directly by commissioners as soon as practically possible.
That requires Welsh Government involvement, so we shouldn't get our hopes up.

There's also a need for a full inquiry – possibly involving Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly too - which could serve as further evidence when considering reforms to how local government works in Wales, something broadly ignored by the Williams Commission. The National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee could do that, and it looks like the Chair, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), is ready to go.

People start making mistakes when they think they're invincible and beyond reproach.

Far from a "sustained campaign of harassment", words Jacqui Thompson has used to describe some actions of Carmarthenshire – which apparently damaged Mark James' feelings and reputation to to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds, possibly resulting in Jacqui's future homelessness – were embellishments of a cold, dark truth. I think we all knew that, but if the law's often an ass, defamation laws are a haemorrhoid.

As she heads towards some semblance of vindication, Jacqui Thompson's not only owed a full apology from Carmarthenshire Council, she's owed justice.

What we're NOT allowed to say about Carmarthenshire Council

It's time to play the music!
It's time to light the lights!
I'm a sucker for authoritative-sounding bollocks.

So, it's worth noting the warning recently issued by Carmarthenshire's (outside chance of soon being ex-) Council Leader, Kevin Madge (Labour).

All of us should realise that we're here to listen and nod along to anything anyone in elected (or unelected) office says or does. As they cock their legs on their plush leather seats, we should bend over in tribute, gratefully receiving their rose-scented farts - of both brain and bowel.

Heeding Kevin's advice, it's best - for public information purposes - that I outline the sort of things we're not allowed to say about this illustrious local authority.

We can't say, for example, that Carmarthenshire Council is a festering tumour on democracy in Wales, and perhaps the biggest single threat to it since the Battle of Britain.

It would be wrong to insinuate that some Carmarthenshire councillors are walking, breathing proof of evolution from lesser forms of primate - senior councillors and officers acting as silverbacks at the head of a pack of Homo Moridunum.

It would be totally wrong to suggest they're also proof that age doesn't make you wiser, or more competent, and that – unless you've proven you can handle public responsibilities - sometimes retirement or your student days are best spent in a garden or library, not a council chamber or committee room.

It's incorrect to say that many councillors are about as much use at their desks as a gonk, or that I've dissected cadavers with more self-awareness of both where they are and what responsibilities they have to the public.

I shouldn't give the impression to any readers that many councillors are people elevated above their station. Or, that many are paper candidates who walk their way though elections because of first past the post, but who aren't trusted to take control of matters of any real importance.
This is highlighted by CCC making the fastest attempt by authorities to offload management of public toilets since rumours of an e-coli outbreak circulated at the British Vindaloo Festival

Then, one day, because the number of competent elected members are few, or because the wrong party's in power at the wrong time, Forrest Gump becomes your Council Leader. Meetings are reduced to a night at the world's dullest cinema, and councillors are appointed to senior positions lacking the faculties or bravery to question officer's decisions properly.

It would be wrong to point out that the Independent "group" – vipers in grandparent's clothing - con us into believing that all non-affiliated members would share exactly the same ideals at exactly the same time. That doesn't sound like a political party to me at all; subjecting themselves, and everyone else, to political manoeuvring and clandestine backstabbing that would make New York's Five Families blush, bending quicker than a rubber tree in a hurricane.

It would be wrong to say Carmarthenshire residents are seen as mushrooms by their local council because – after all - mushrooms need to be fed bullshit and kept in the dark.


It would be libellous to suggest that CCC is corrupt. They're not corrupt. They're not clever or competent enough to be corrupt, as it takes skill to be bent and get away with it.

It would verge on harassment to say there's anything dodgy about Parc-y-Scarlets and other developments, or that Carmarthenshire residents should ask the people of Boston in Lincolnshire how that will pan out.

I can't say that senior officers are bullies. Because one characteristic of bullies is that they get others to fight their battles for them – up to and including the resources of an entire council. This hasn't happened in Carmarthenshire. Nope.

I pour scorn - as the legal system continues to do so - on anyone who would dare criticise the best local authority in Wales. Shame on you.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Williams Commission : The Fallout

What's long been seen as a no-brainer reorganisation increasingly
looks like it's going to cause the Welsh Government headaches.
(Pic : Wales Online)

Yesterday, the National Assembly held the first of what's likely to be many debates on the Williams Commission report – which I covered last week - into the future of public service delivery, and possible reorganisation of Welsh local authorities.

It's only part of the public discussion that's continuing into the report's recommendations, and it's certainly generated several talking points.

The Assembly
Although most AMs who spoke did so in favour of change, it looks like the Welsh
Government will have trouble convincing their own AMs, let alone the opposition.
(Pic : National Assembly)

The debate started with the First Minister, who said some of the Commission's findings will make "uncomfortable reading for local government, for us (AMs) and for other public services in Wales." He emphasised that the report underlined that delivery was patchy in addition specific problems with long-term finance *insert obligatory Westminster cuts reference here* .

He said the report was "never just about mergers in local government" but believes this reorganisation "will be different" (compared to 1996). As Welsh Labour leader he says his party will be consulted on the proposals and a Welsh Government stance will be reached by the end of March. Though he later said "the time frame for....potential legislation" needs to be in place by April.

Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy), criticised the timetable, and although she welcomed the Commission itself, called for strong leadership from the First Minister to see it though. She raised concerns about uncertainty facing local government workers.

Plaid Cymru Leader, Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central), welcomed the wider work into public service delivery, even though the debate had focused on "lines on maps". She wondered why the debate was held "now" instead of on a cross-party motion that would have the backing of Welsh Government and Assembly. She said reforms "must....aim to improve public services" and that the last reorganisation was "built on whole scale horse-trading" that mustn't be repeated.

The Lib Dems Local Government spokesperson, Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West), dismissed the idea that the report's recommendations "should be accepted wholesale", and criticised the fact there was no (political) representation of opposition parties on the Commission (there were, however, members closely associated with parties, like Nerys Evans and Nick Bourne).

He believed the terms of reference were flawed, highlighting that it didn't look at health or the local government voting system. He also criticised the language of the report – "a bureaucratic nightmare written in consultant speak".

Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) rejected the idea of "tinkering with the electoral system". Although she accepted change, she believed concerns about the cost of reorganisation should be listened to, and the Assembly was "rushing headlong into (reorganisation)....in order to meet an arbitrary Easter deadline for which there appears no rational explanation ".

Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) raised concerns about the specific proposal to merge Powys Council with Powys Health Board due to some services being commissioned from neighbouring health boards.

Leighton Andrews AM (Lab, Rhondda) said he was sympathetic to the Commission's recommendations, unsurprisingly making the link between scale and education failures. Although he agrees with the need for "smaller, stronger councils", he believes the role of local government wasn't explored in enough detail, neither were alternative forms of service delivery.

His comments were partly echoed by Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd), who also questioned the wisdom of merging two poor local authorities (RCT + Merthyr) and said the role of community councils needed to be discussed.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms E & Dinefwr), said the First Minister's statement was "contradictory" because he expects the opposition to respond to the report without himself offering a response on behalf of the Welsh Government.

In his closing remarks, the First Minister rejected Peter Black's assertion that opposition parties were being "forced to back" the Commission's report, and instead believed AMs would've wanted to debate the issue early. He said it was "preposterous" there were 22 planning authorities, local education authorities etc. wondering if one or two of the LEAs "would ever come out of special measures".

He agreed with Leanne Wood that there shouldn't be any "horse-trading" on wards, boundaries etc. saying it might cause the process to unravel.

The First Minister finished by warning AMs that the longer the process continued the more uncertainty it could cause local authorities, especially in recruiting senior officers.

When it came to a vote on the motion and amendments, AMs - except those from Plaid and the Lib Dems - rejected the idea of changing the local election voting system. However, they supported an amendment calling for a reduction in the number of local councillors.

Too Soon?

Although there were Q&As in previous sessions, the fact they held the debate just over a week after the report's publication is unusual. Plenary debates on committee reports, for example, are usually up to a month after publication. This was significantly more complicated than anything that's come out of an Assembly committee.

Maybe Carwyn Jones though he was doing AMs a favour by offering an early debate, and he hints at that. However, I would be surprised if AMs and their support staff made it through the full report and fully-digested it to the levels expected of a professional legislator this soon.

Before I'm accused of hypocrisy, I can base blog posts off the summary because I'm not paid large sums of money to go through it line by line. I'm "allowed" to miss bits and pieces here and there because I don't have any credentials or responsibilities. AMs can't.

As a result, it'll take some convincing for me to believe this was a fully-informed debate, and it looks like an attempt to rush things.

Local Government & Public Bodies
It appears local authorities are waiting for the Welsh Government
to make the first move, though support for reform appears lukewarm.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Many of the current 22 local authorities are – as far as I can tell – still "digesting the full report" (or using it for post-digestion purposes) which makes the Assembly debate timing even odder.

The broad vibe I'm getting is that they "cautiously welcome" some but not all headline recommendations, and are waiting for the Welsh Government to make a formal response.

I know Bridgend Council circulated statements to reassure staff that the reorganisation process is at an early stage (English : No jobs are currently under threat). I'm sure other local authorities have done the same.

Some immediate concerns have been flagged up. Vale of Glamorgan Council Leader, Neil Moore (Labour), pleaded to the Welsh Government not to merge his authority with Cardiff. Ceredigion Council's Leader, Ellen ap Gwynn (Plaid), questioned the Easter deadline, while her Chief Executive expressed concerns about insecurity amongst workers.

On Monday, the Daily Post reported a campaign's been started for Anglesey (I don't know if its by Paul "The Druid" Williams) to remain apart from Gwynedd due to concerns about a possible Bangor-centric local authority, with Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) calling for "local voices to be heard".

The WLGA are also "digesting the report", but judging by their evidence to the Commission, there are strong signs the WLGA might oppose full-blown mergers on cost grounds, instead seeking more formal collaboration between the current authorities.

As far as I can tell there hasn't yet been any formal response from fire authorities, national parks, police forces or local health boards – all of which could be affected by the Commission's proposals too.

The Bay Bubble

Most of the civil society responses have come via Click on Wales.

First off, there's an article from former Cardiff Council Conservative leader, John Winterson Richards, which called for better leadership not better structures. He believes the Welsh Government and Assembly haven't applied enough pressure on councils, leading to entrenched poor leadership, which he partly blames on Labour's hegemony. He's not the first to question the reported financial savings from reorganisation either.

The Electoral Reform Society's Stephen Brooks summarises a series of articles from AMs, local government and academics – Catch 22 (pdf). He wonders if proposed reorganisations might reduce local democracy, as larger authorities might be too distant from their communities. He effectively questions if local government is 100% trusted to deliver certain services, and that a centralising technocracy has developed in Cathays Park since devolution.

John Osmond offered a comprehensive summary of the Commission report itself. This was followed by a Gareth Hughes article, which questioned whether the process will be completed before 2018, due to big political differences in the Assembly about the way forward.

Next, there was an article from director of Co-production Wales, Ruth Dineen. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, and I'm more than used to jargon in the sciences. I've often believed it's harder to describe complicated issues in layman's terms than through public sector management-speak. Though if I'm completely honest I barely understood a word of it and wonder if it (and a few of the responses) was a subtle satire of the Commission report itself.

I think what Ruth was trying to say was that there's an opportunity to rethink how local services are provided. Users and other members of the community could volunteer to run and design local government services alongside professionals. That's "radically different" to what we're used to, and a model used in places like The Netherlands and closer to home via things like timebanks.

Elsewhere, there's an article from Phil Parry's ITK (to use footballing terms), Daran Hill, on Wales Eye which further explores some of the political machinations. We all realise Labour are probably in for a tough time from their local government ranks, and that the Conservatives are almost certainly going to oppose reorganisation if it's not proven to save money in the long run. Daran believes that Labour could reach an accommodation with Plaid (or the Lib Dems), but it's likely to come down to the issue of the voting system.

ITV Wales' Adrian Masters says there are tentative steps towards some sort of deal, with talk of meetings between the First Minister and the opposition party leaders being arranged for next week - again Adrian says a deal might hang on proportional representation.

On the subject of voting systems, over on the Elections in Wales blog, Prof. Roger Scully described the current method of electing local councillors as a candidate for "The Worst Electoral System in the World". He says the chance to change the electoral system at local government level would be a "valuable reform", giving a nudge and a wink towards Single Transferable Vote (STV) - as used in Scotland.

Last but not least, former Bridgend Council leader, Jeff Jones, launched a broadside at the Commission and its proposals in The Western Mail. He described the recommendations as a "quick fix solution" that would create local authorities with entrenched economic under-performance (like the proposal for the Gwent Valleys) and lead to big redundancy pay outs for senior officers.

It's 11 weeks or so until Easter, the deadline suddenly looming an awful lot closer.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Plaid's Vision for the Future of Welsh

The reverberations of the 2011 Census continue, with Plaid Cymru
recently reporting back on their own consultation into the future of Welsh.
(Pic : visitwales.com)
Back in November, the First Minister concluded Y Gynhadledd Fawr ("Big Conversation"). It explored attitudes towards the Welsh language amongst Welsh-speakers, determining what they valued and how it could help shape current and future policy. This was in response to census results from 2011 which showed a proportional decline in the number of Welsh-speakers compared to 2001.

Last week, Plaid Cymru's Shadow Minister for the Welsh Language, Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales), unveiled the results of the party's own year-long consultation, which serves as both a response to the census and a way to flag up new policy ideas.

That process included a separate discussion paper from Adam Price – Arfor (pdf) - which called for the creation of a regional government for Y Fro Gymraeg, and new urban centres in Y Fro to act as hubs for economic and social development through the Welsh language.

During an Assembly debate last Wednesday, AMs from all parties raised all too familiar concerns about : the economy in Y Fro, Welsh-medium education, planning issues and TAN20 - raised by Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) - and social opportunities.

The First Minister, who has direct responsibility for the Welsh language, responded by accepting some on the issues raised, repeating some of the things he said in the Cynhadledd Fawr debate, and flagging up some existing schemes like Twf (bilingual childcare).

Linking Welsh to the economic development was the main thrust of both papers, but first of all it's worth looking at the results of the consultation itself.

What did Plaid's own "Big Convo" find?

The responses were under 8 separate headings, but I'm going to slim that down a bit.

Education & Transferring the language - The first part dealt with Welsh in schools, in particular lack of fluency amongst second-language learners. Some respondents wondered whether immersion would be better, including providing all Foundation Phase education through Welsh, pointing towards the innate cognitive benefits of being bilingual from a young age.

There were concerns about indifference towards the language amongst second-language school pupils, and respondents believed it would be better if the subject was put in a broader, historical context that makes full use of modern technology. They also – quite correctly – point out that compulsion breeds resentment.

Others believe that not enough is being done to support adult learners, who might find it easier to lose the commitment necessary to learn a second language outside a formal classroom environment. It was suggested nurseries and adult colleges could join forces to teach parents and younger children at the same time.

When it comes to transferring the language between generations, it was believed there was a responsibility amongst Welsh-speaking households to use Welsh outside of the classroom.

The Economy – The paper says "measures affecting the economy will inherently affect the growth of the Welsh language". Bingo. No jobs or affordable housing for young Welsh-speakers, no Welsh-speaking families, no Welsh-speakers.

Instead of an ultra-local, slightly parochial response to this – people living in the same village or town from birth to death – there's greater desire for a more regional, even national approach. It's said the economy as a whole will have to improve, and therefore Welsh language policies shouldn't be detrimental to economic growth. It's even suggested that traditional opposition to things like road schemes in Y Fro has done more harm to the language than people might expect.

What's unclear though is if such opposition is from locals or "green flighters".

There are, of course, areas where respondents felt there should be more obligations to Welsh-speakers, such as doing more to encourage entrepreneurship, and encouraging the use of Welsh in the workplace – both public and private sector.

Welsh in the community – Adam Price's Arfor paper is central to this, where he called for a regional tier of government encompassing the west and north west ("Arfor") where Welsh would be the primary language of administration.

Others disagreed with this, believing Welsh should remain a "national language" that requires a Wales-wide approach. Measures there would include the further expansion of Welsh-medium (WM) education, and more affordable homes in rural areas.

Some people were upbeat about the prospects of Welsh in future censuses, as the proportion of Welsh-speakers in younger age groups is relatively high, and WM education continues to expand outside of Y Fro - in many places remaining oversubscribed. Iaith Cyf believed the 2001 census was an over-optimistic assessment of Welsh-speaking ability, and there could well have been a slight increase in Welsh-speakers in 2011 compared to 1991.

Welsh as a "language proper" - Firstly, there was a suggestion that Welsh should become a legal "language proper" in the same manner as Basque or Catalan (Update : there's a much fuller explanation and interpretation of what this means from MH over on Syniadau) . That means Welsh-language skills would be essential in public administration (despite claims to the contrary, they often aren't unless Welsh skills are 100% essential, like WM education and media/translation).

Others believe 1% of the Assembly's budget (~£145million) should be earmarked for promotion of the Welsh language – mostly to encourage language transfer between generations and provide more social opportunities.

Plaid make no solid commitments there. Though if I were to choose one of those it would be to increase spending on bilingual social opportunities, which was one of the big issues raised in Y Gynhadledd Fawr.

In terms of attitudes towards the language, it's believed there needs to be a change in perception that Welsh "is for an elite", to combat both negative press and lack of confidence in using the language amongst school-leavers in particular.

Echoing important points

This sums up the Welsh second language short course perfectly. You can talk
about your favourite films, but would likely struggle to understand an S4C discussion
on films, or answer a phone call in Welsh.
(Pic : Apple itunes)
Broadly-speaking, the responses fall in line with a those to Y Gynhadledd Fawr – prioritising economic development, social opportunities for the young and education.

I completely agree with the "compulsion breeds resentment" argument in relation to Welsh in EM schools (and society generally), and I can hardly be accused of being one of "those sorts".

The first problem is that Welsh is taught as a second language full stop - something both Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) and Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) raised during the Assembly debate.

From my own experiences, that means learning to parrot phrases about the weather or what you did on holiday, not exploring things like Welsh literature or it's wider socio-historical context. There's no spark, and Welsh in EM schools is often a very dull, very dry subject which teachers aren't enthused to teach, and pupils (unless committed) aren't entirely enthused to learn.

It's right to point out that it's not confined to Welsh either, and can easily apply to how most second languages are taught in schools.

I'd even say some aspects are pointless, in particular the Short Course GCSE, its scrapping having been recommended as part of a review into Welsh Second Language a few years ago. I sat my GCSEs the year before a compulsory Welsh GCSE came into force, and I'm sure if I had been forced into doing the short course I would've resented it, in the same way I resented short course RE.

A compulsory second (or third) language at GCSE level is fine, but I don't see the point of a token short course that I doubt anyone takes seriously, and doesn't provide pupils with a strong grounding in Welsh.

Despite that, Welsh Language and Literature A-Levels in EM and WM schools are identical, so anyone leaving an EM School with at a good full GCSE Second Language grade probably counts as near-fluent.

Creating a formal "Bro" like the Irish Gaeltacht would be a mistake in my opinion, but I certainly agree Y Fro needs to be seen as a distinct region, including the creation of a planned Welsh-speaking community that has the same benefits as those cities to which the young might be drawn to.

That doesn't need to be a new town, and if I were to shortlist places ideal for that approach it would include Porthmadog, Aberystwyth, Caernarfon, the Menai Bridge area and Carmarthen. Bangor's a bit too crowded, topographically speaking.

I've said time and again that the long-term survival of the language will be linked to economic development and shifting the demographic tide in Y Fro, with expansion of WM education (especially at adult, higher and further education level) across Wales thrown into the mix. I doubt it's dependent on things like legislation, protest movements and compulsion.

It seems many of those who responded to Plaid's survey agree, but it remains to be seen if there's enough political will and bravery across the parties in the Assembly to see some of this through.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Life, Ethics & Independence VIII - Cloning

Is there room in this world for 11.1 Carwyns?
Are there things humanity just shouldn't play with?

Time for another one of "these" posts looking at ethical considerations in relation to independence and devolution. After a recent Coronation Street episode, euthanasia has been in the headlines, even mentioned by Glyn Davies MP - if you're interested in my look at that, here it is.

This time, I'm taking a look at cloning, which is related to genetic engineering but has different uses, which – for now – are limited to other animals and plants, but could one day be used in relation to humans.

The Science of Cloning

Cloning is the process by which you create a genetic copy of an organism.

Dolly the Sheep was the first cloned mammal, created by
Edinburgh University scientists in 1996.
(Pic : How Stuff Works)

It happens naturally. Identical twins, for example, are caused by a division in the earliest stages of embryo development, which results in two identical foetuses developing in the same womb. It also happens in some species of plants as a form of reproduction – strawberries, for example - where the main plant sends off a stolon (aka. runner) producing identical plants along the way. It's why you can sometimes cut off a stem and grow a new plant from it.

Artificial cloning of animals (and potentially, humans) is a bit more complicated, but the principle is fundamentally the same.

All genetic information for an organism is contained in the cell nucleus. First, you remove the nucleus of an unfertilised egg, replacing it with the nucleus of a matured adult cell (like a skin cell) – called nuclear transfer. Cell division is then kick-started (usually via electricity), and the embryo develops to term in a surrogate.

The resulting offspring will be a genetic copy of whom/whatever donated the matured cell. This is how Dolly the Sheep was created in 1996 at Edinburgh University – the first cloned mammal. They proved she was a clone because Dolly was a white-faced sheep, but carried in a black-faced surrogate from a black-faced egg.

What about cloning humans?

The technology to clone a human through to adulthood isn't there yet and unlikely to be for several decades.

Cloning can be dangerous to the clone. It's believed cloned cells age faster than normal cells – though recent Japanese research on cloned mice produced mice that live normal life spans. Clones are also susceptible to certain diseases and conditions caused by gene problems.

I suppose you could compare it to a print of a original oil painting looking identical but containing imperfections below the surface.

Cloning is also relatively inefficient as a process, with the success rate being as little as 3%. You can get away with doing this in a plant or other animals. In humans though it would be considered irresponsible and unethical. Double standards? It certainly would be seen to be by animal rights campaigners.

Cloning an embryo for medical or research is one thing, but it's
hard to think of any practical reason for reproductive cloning of humans
- science fiction plots aside.
(Pic : stackexchange.com)

Human embryos have been cloned, usually to provide a source of embryonic stem cells. However, a mature cloned human would cross so many ethical lines it's probably not worth the risk.

It's hard to think of practical uses for a cloned adult human that aren't nefarious or border on science fiction – espionage, playing tricks on people and using clones of genetically engineered humans to perform certain tasks in society.

Clones would be no different, really, to identical twins. A clone would still have parents as it would still be made up of genetic material from a male and a female.

A clone would probably also count as offspring as it would develop from embryo through to child the same way as a non-clone, despite being identical to the nucleus donor. Whoever carries the cloned egg to term would, I suppose, be no different to a surrogate mother.

If all that were done entirely in a laboratory though, and a cloned human is seen as "property" rather than a separate human being, then you're looking at opening a door to slavery. A clone, despite being a copy, wouldn't be the same person, and would develop based on their own experiences in life. From a psychology perspective, cloning would be the ultimate way to decide the "nature v nurture" debate, but that would cross ethical boundaries.

Many of the arguments against cloning, especially in relation to embryos, overlap with those for abortion, use of stem cells and genetic engineering.

There are also specific theological consideration for the religious, such as the question of whether a clone would have a soul? Or, in relation to eastern religions, whether clones would be subject to reincarnation or karmic laws?

There are, however, potential uses for cloning – even human cloning - that could be seen as beneficial.

Current and potential uses

Scientific research – Cloning is already a powerful tool in genetics research. This is usually restricted to cloning tissues or smaller animals in order to carry out experiments, such as helping to determine how stem cells develop into tissues and organs.

Cloned embryos could provide a steady supply of embryonic stem
cells to treat diseases or be used in medical research.
(Pic : BBC)

Therapeutic cloning – This is perhaps the best example of a potential practical medical application for cloning. Instead of developing a clone through to term in a surrogate mother, a cloned embryo could be used to supply embryonic stem cells which are compatible with a patient. As mentioned in Part IV, embryonic stem cells are particularly powerful as they have the ability to turn into any tissue of the body, meaning compatible replacements for damaged organs and tissues without relying on transplants or artificial organs.

A more advanced form of artificial selection – Cloning would probably be safer than genetic modification, as the clone would have the same impact on the environment as the original. You can also clone a genetically modified animal with a desired trait – high milk yielding cows, for example. The negative from this would be a reduction in both biodiversity and the gene pool amongst a herd. So "useful genes" – i.e. genes that provide resistance to certain diseases – might be lost if herds of animals are produced from a half dozen clones.

Only last week, the BBC reported on a "cloning factory" in China which produces pigs for genetic engineering and research. This sort of cloning on an industrial scale would've likely caused outrage in the West, but China has very different attitudes to the embryo and its value.

Lab-produced meat – It's still decades away as a technology, but there's also the prospect of producing meat products that involve no slaughter of animals at all, other than collecting the initial cells and growing them in culture. The first lab-grown beefburger, developed by Maastricht University, was eaten in London last August. Cloned meat from slaughtered animals, as well as products from cloned animals is already, apparently, in the food chain. There's a growing row over whether it needs special licensing or labelling.

Dinosaurs won't be resurrected any time soon - if ever.
If you like mountain goats, however....
(Pic : spyhollywood.com)

Commercial cloning of pets – This is perhaps one of the more obvious ones, where a loved family pet (dog, cat, rabbit etc.) or an award-winning pedigree is cloned to ensure their physical characteristics aren't lost, or to provide some continuity to lessen the impact of a death of a pet or working animal (like police dogs). A service has been launched in the UK, though it currently costs £63,000! As the technology improves, the costs might come down. It also raises questions about whether shelter dogs, for example, which need a home will be overlooked for clones down the line.

Reintroducing extinct species? – I'm veering into science fiction here. Perhaps most famously portrayed in Jurassic Park, it's scientifically invalid for now. I suppose it would be theoretically possible to resurrect extinct species, but you would have to be there to witness its extinction and have a viable way to enable a surrogate to carry to term. So resurrecting dinosaurs from fossilised amber is, for now, impossible. The Pyrenean ibex – which went extinct in 2000 - is an example of an extinct species which scientists are actively trying to resurrect through cloning. So far, one clone has been produced, but it died shortly afterwards.

Public Policy & Cloning

Produce from cloned animals is already in the food chain, though
the European Union is attempting to restrict cloning of livestock.
(Pic : businesspundit.com)
Many things here are outlawed. Article 3 of the The European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights prohibits "reproductive cloning" of humans – that's cloning a human who would go on to adulthood. All other forms of cloning (like therapeutic, agricultural and research cloning) are seemingly fair game, though the results of that are still controversial and procedures sometimes restricted.

Similar to their anti-genetic modification stance, the EU also takes a strong stance against cloning in agriculture, with the European Commission recently proposing a ban on cloning animals for food. However, the EU doesn't have many restrictions on the produce of cloned animals (cheeses, milk, meat etc.) which can be sold without labelling.

Like their opposition to GMOs, the opposition to cloned meat could be seen as an act of protectionism from cheap imports, not one of public safety. It's hard to think of any safety risks from cloned meat or plants seeing as they're identical to non-cloned versions.

At a UK level, laws relating to embryology and fertility were updated by the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, which allows – subject to regulation - the cloning of human embryos and also the creation of cloned human-animal hybrids for research purposes. Therapeutic cloning is also currently legal in the UK.

If we go by the Scotland Act 1998; embryology, surrogacy and human genetics are reserved matters to the UK, so Wales would take responsibility for them only following independence or if the powers were devolved in future.

In terms of the current prevailing political consensus in Wales, the Assembly's research service paper on food security (pdf) from June 2013 includes cloning as something that could affect the values of consumers. The issue of animal cloning for food was also flagged up to the Assembly's Health & Social Care Committee as part of the European Commission's forward work programme for 2013 (pdf p36).

As far as I can tell there's no official Welsh Government or Welsh party policy on cloning – simply because it's not a devolved matter, I presume. However, judging by the general consensus in the Assembly and parties against genetic modification and genetic engineering, there's likely to be opposition to cloning in Wales too.

As I said in relation to GMOs, I personally believe opposition for opposition's sake would be wrong, and any opposition should be based on science not the "ick factor".

You're more likely to hear cloning mentioned in the Assembly in relation to town centres.

What could an independent Wales do?

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is pretty much spot on. Subsequently, post-independence or devolution of the powers, I don't see any need to vary wildly from it, apart from issues relating to things like abortion, for instance, which could be revisited.

There are other, more specific, policy stances, like :
  • Continuing to support a ban on reproductive cloning of humans in the EU, and globally, due to question marks about the rights and status of a cloned individual (parentage, identity etc.).
  • Artificial human cloning for non-medical or research means should be completely outlawed, punishable by stiff prison sentences. Continue a strong licensing regime for all other "legal" types of cloning.
  • Allow the sale of cloned meat and food products (subject to EU regulations and scientific consensus on safety). Whether it should be labelled or not is another debate, but I don't see the need for a label.
  • It might also be worthwhile maintaining a genetic database of near-extinct species of animal and plant in Wales, so that they could – theoretically – be reintroduced once the technology's there.

Some issues here could be dealt with purely at a Welsh level, some would have to be dealt with at an international level – especially if an independent Wales were a member of the EU. Most of it would probably come down to closely monitoring and regulating cloning activities at Welsh universities – again, a continuation of obligations in the Embryology Act.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Ambulance death underlines A&E capacity issues

Not a week goes by without another negative story about the Welsh NHS.
Here's another one, this time hitting closer to home.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
As widely-reported in the media - Welsh and UK - on January 16th, 58-year-old Michael Bowen from Ogmore Vale, died at Bridgend's Princess of Wales Hospital after waiting in an ambulance outside the A&E department for four hours.

This is the latest in a string of concerns about excess deaths, which have already prompted a high-level review and procedural changes at the hospital.

The latest reports in the Glamorgan Gazette say there've been serious problems at the hospital throughout January. Union reps representing paramedics say waits to be discharged from ambulances have ranged from 30 minutes to 5 hours - regardless of how serious the emergency. It's also been reported as many as 10 ambulances have been waiting outside A&E at any one time.

It comes as a recent BBC investigation showed ambulances in Wales faced some of the longest waits to transfer patients to A&E departments in the UK, though the average in Wales is said to be around 20 minutes.

In Abertawe Bro Morgannwg (ABM) Local Health Board's official statement, they say that after being seen by a doctor (in the back of the ambulance), Mr Bowen suddenly became very ill in the A&E department around two hours after being admitted, subsequently dying despite resuscitation attempts. ABM say the A&E department was "extremely busy at the time....and there were delays admitting patients as a result."

ABM have launched an "urgent inquiry", while they also clarify that despite media reports, South Wales Police are not "carrying out an investigation" but gathering evidence for the coroner – which is standard procedure. The coroner's inquest has subsequently opened and been adjourned until May.

It'll be for the coroner to determine what caused Mr Bowen's death, and nobody – apart from medics and anyone else with him at the time – will have any idea what state he was in when he was at hospital.

However, I suspect most people in the Bridgend area will be asking whether Mr Bowen would've stood a better chance of survival if admitted sooner?

A patient dying after waiting in the back of an ambulance for several hours, metres away from advanced life-saving equipment, is an absolute disgrace that can't be sugar-coated by anyone. The Welsh NHS is a first world service, but that's a third world death.

It's nobody's "fault". On the surface of it, the Ambulance Service are, at least, blameless this time.

Putting the tragic loss of life aside, what this incident does underline are long-standing issues plaguing the NHS, not just in Bridgend but across Wales.

Late morning-early afternoon is the busiest time for A&E departments. On top of that, you have to add people going to A&E when they shouldn't and the impact of winter bugs like norovirus - people had already been warned to stay way from Bridgend's A&E unless urgent.

I'm sure the thought of people sharting en masse is very amusing (if you have a sick sense of humour like myself), but it can become very serious, very quickly for the elderly and infirm (of which there are proportionally more in Wales) - justifying hospitalisation.

Winter illnesses are highly infectious, spreading around hospitals, shutting wards and blocking beds very quickly. Ward 10 at the Princess of Wales Hospital is already closed to visitors due to "diarrhoea and vomiting".

In dealing with it, hospitals are caught in a catch-22.

They can firstly send people home, or encourage people not to come in. As a result, the vulnerable suffering from winter illnesses might not get the right treatment and become gravely ill, ending up referred to A&E departments either by their GPs or because there's no other alternative.

Or, hospitals can admit the most serious cases, filling beds (and bed pans) and risk infections spreading, albeit with isolation protocols in place.

While some members of the public choose to ignore advice about staying away, hospitals have no choice but to admit people.

The Welsh NHS and Welsh Government need to find a way to make treatment at home practical, because it's typical for people to turn up at A&E no matter what and expect treatment, when a day or two in bed or a trip to a pharmacy is often a better option. As a result, people are stuck in ambulances outside A&Es.

Another long-standing reason for admission delays are, of course, staffing and treatment capacity issues.

Firstly, if a patient was waiting in an ambulance for four hours, that ambulance was also out of action for four hours - one less ambulance to respond to 999 calls in the Bridgend area, increasing ambulance response times.

The proposed reorganisation of hospitals across Wales aim to deal with the staffing problem by concentrating specialist staff on fewer sites. One major part of the South Wales Programme, which hasn't been sufficiently addressed in the consultations as far as I can tell, is that of capacity – the number of beds and treatment areas available at the proposed centralised A&Es.

Those centralised A&Es will serve a larger catchment area, seeing more patients as a result.
Since Neath Port Talbot Hospital's A&E department was downgraded to a minor injuries unit in 2012, the Princess of Wales has provided A&E cover for the Port Talbot area . If "Option 3" of the South Wales Programme is chosen, then the Princess of Wales could see some emergency patients from the Rhondda and Ely Valley on top of that.

Emergency beds, high dependency units and clinical decision units come with hefty price tags. However, the reorganisation plans – as far as I can tell – will mean a similar number of treatment places, in fewer A&Es, just with proportionally more doctors available to see anyone who comes through the door.


Does that sound "safe and sustainable"? Do you see how ambulance queues could get worse as a result?

The image conjured - post reorganisation - is of crowded emergency departments, and doctors who can't do anything until beds clear and ambulances unload....oh.

Judging by answers given in the National Assembly this week, the Welsh Government and health boards are undertaking a review into how A&Es work in order to "improve patient flow".
That's welcome and long overdue.

Having said that, t
hose A&E capacity issues should've been sorted before reorganisation plans, not as those plans are being finalised. If they were, the plans might've been more convincing, instead of leaving unanswered questions and doubts hidden beneath a technocratic undergrowth.

Local Health Boards and politicians can squeeze as many doctors they want into as few hospitals as they want, but....

Give a doctor a patient in an ambulance that arrives on time, give that patient a bed, and give both access to equipment, treatments and nurses, and the doctor is then practicing emergency medicine.

Take away the bed, prompt ambulance transfers, equipment, treatments and nurses, and a doctor's nothing but a first-aider who happens to have a medical degree.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Williams Commission : Council shake-up revealed


Arrivederci, Anglesey! Bon voyage, Bridgend!
Local government in Wales is due to undergo reforms following the
publication of the findings of the Williams Commission.
(Pic : Bevan Foundation)
It was the worst-kept secret in Welsh politics, but....

Yesterday, the first of the "big commission reports" of 2014 was released. Chaired by former NHS Wales Chief Executive, Paul Williams, the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery has proposed a near-halving of Welsh local authorities, an overhaul of management training in the Welsh public sector, and changes to some aspects of funding and scrutiny.

Local government reorganisation is something many have anticipated for a long time in their own nocturnal commissions; waking up at the very thought of it feeling all sticky and warm.

As regular readers will know, last year – about a month before the Williams Commission was established – I outlined my own thoughts on local government reform, coming up with :
  • Scrapping community councils , replacing them with ~300 "cantrefi" run via a form of direct democracy.
  • Bringing back up to 30 of the pre-1996 districts, granting them powers over "small ticket" local matters (development control, licensing, leisure etc.) and headed up by directly-elected mayors, in turn scrutinised by significantly smaller councils.
  • The creation of at least 4 provincial/regional assemblies, with many public bodies - like local health boards - folded into them and made democratically accountable. They would take responsibility for running "big ticket" items like health services, policing (if devolved), strategic planning, fire services, social services, education, National Parks etc.

As the great and the good are now questioning the impact of the Commission's proposals -  whether it will disengage people from local democracy, and whether the proposed local authorities will be too large for local issues, but too small to cover health and education - it was a wasted effort, I suppose.
I'm only a blogger, after all.
The full report is available here (pdf), but it's a whopper, coming in at over 350 pages. I'm basing most of this post off the summary report, which is "only" 105 pages long (pdf).

To the lay person, the report itself - even its summary - will be impenetrable, full of public sector buzzwords (step-change, sustainability, delivery, resilience, partnership, collaboration, tackle etc). I realise it was always going to be, though as a result this is a long post.

Before you complain or leave, summarising the review's details in 3,000-odd words this soon was hard work and nothing short of miraculous. Don't thank me all at once.

The Challenges

The review didn't stop and start at local councils, but
included other public bodies like local health boards and fire authorities.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The Commission highlighted three key long-term challenges facing public services in Wales : austerity, demographic change (resulting in more people reliant on public services) and higher expectations from the public in terms of performance. They outline that there's an increasing "funding gap" that could last until the mid-2020s.

The Commission believe that to meet these challenges, and more, "some structural changes are....necessary and urgent. But they will achieve nothing without changes to governance, scrutiny, accountability" etc.

The first issue was complexity. If you want an idea of how complicated current governance arrangements are in Wales, take a look at the "accountability map" provided (pdf). They say this isn't "unique to Wales", and that new bodies have simply been created as new policies have developed. The Commission even suggest that some complexity is desirable in the public sector because some issues can't be contained within single organisations. I'd say it's because of managers and third sector empire building in an attempt to make themselves "indispensable", so I'm not convinced of that argument at all.

Next, there's the issues of scale. The Commission say there are 935 public sector organisations in Wales - listed here (pdf) - one for every 3,200 people. Smaller organisations are said to face greater risks and costs, though that has no bearing on performance. However, smaller local authorities have problems in capacity (lack of resources), are unable to attract higher-calibre managers, spend up to £50 per person more in some areas compared to a larger authority and are disproportionately affected by demographic changes (Anglesey and Monmouthshire picked out specifically).

On the issues of governance, scrutiny and service delivery, the Commission believe current systems neither provide enough internal challenge, or respond to citizen's voices. Citizens aren't strongly engaged in scrutiny (I wonder why), and there's a culture of defensiveness in the public sector.

Next, the Commission turns to issues of leadership and culture in public services. They say there's an urgent need for an overhaul of leadership in the public sector; both in producing managers who can deal with uncertainties and in terms of greater collective responsibility. They go as far as to suggest a "new type of leader is necessary", as current quality of leadership is inconsistent. There are also long standing problems with "silo working", parochialism, short-termism and lack of innovation (explored more in Wales : State of innovation?).

Finally there's perhaps the biggest issue of all - public service performance. The Commission believe performance is directly-related to all the other issues above, which creates a "public sector that's....not performing as well as it needs to." Performance is patchy and poor compared to countries of a similar size, with few improvements over time across education, health and social services. The Commission believe lessons should be learnt from services that have performed well – for example,  fire services and recycling, where Wales excels compared to the rest of the UK.

Their overall conclusions were summed up as :
  • The Welsh public sector is too complex and crowded to cope with the pressures placed on it.
  • Many public organisations in Wales are too small, placing them at severe risk of governance failure.
  • Organisations are slow to respond to pressure for change, and internal governance arrangements are inadequate.
  • The culture in the Welsh public sector isn't well-suited to face challenges.
  • Public sector performance is "poor and patchy", and inadequate in the face of the big challenges ahead of it.

The Recommendations

"Scrutiny should be valued" was a key recommendation - a message
that falls on deaf ears in Welsh local government at present.
(Pic : Broken Barnet)

There were a total of 62 recommendations, which I'll summarise by theme.

Reducing Complexity
  • Simplified funding arrangements - focusing on achieving outcomes, with funding based on whether policies actually deliver or not.
  • Review legislation to ensure it streamlines public sector decision-making.
  • Community Health Councils should ensure the concerns of patients are at the heart of governance, and should scrutinise objectively, with the Welsh Government expanding their remit to include advice and advocacy roles, reinforcing their independence from Local Health Boards.
  • National Park Authorities should collaborate with each other, with the Welsh Government co-ordinating and providing national-level leadership. Local authority members to National Park Boards must represent wards within the National Parks.
  • Fire Authorities should be reconstituted to scrutinise Chief Fire Officers, and the Chief Fire Officer should be legally responsibly for planning, managing and delivering fire services. Fire Authorities should also scrutinise joint-working between fire and ambulance services, raising the possibility of new bodies to scrutinise all emergency services – subject to devolution of the relevant powers.
  • Local authorities and local health boards should prepare plans to integrate their services. Specifically, Powys Council and Powys Local Health Board should fully merge, with the Welsh Government legislating to bring that forward.
  • The Welsh Government should legislate to merge Cadw and the Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments (recently rejected by the Culture Minister).

Increasing Scale and Capability
  • Current local authorities should merge into larger units of either 10, 11 or 12 local authorities (I return to this later).
  • Arrangements for mergers must be agreed by Easter 2014, with the process completed by 2017-18.
  • Some community and town councils should be merged, while local authorities should adopt a neighbourhood management approach to identify and help deal with community issues.
  • The Welsh Government and local authorities should review regional delivery of public services, and figure out which changes are no longer needed as a result of the recommendations above.
  • The four education consortia should be aligned with the proposed local authorities.

Improving Governance, Scrutiny and Delivery
  • Scrutiny should be valued by all people involved in public services – including officers and elected members. Decisions should be publicised clearly and invite scrutiny.
  • Local government scrutiny committees should engage more with the public, including the co-option of people from advocacy groups.
  • Auditors, inspectors, regulators etc. must report directly to the relevant scrutiny committee.
  • Council Leaders, especially where it's unclear what they stand for (i.e. Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire style "Independents"), should produce a written manifesto and present it to the full council, with an annual statement of progress towards achieving its aims.
  • The Welsh Government should review independent appointments to Local Health Boards by December 2014, while LHBs themselves should review their own scrutiny and governance arrangements.

Improving Leadership and Changing the Culture
  • The Commission propose the Welsh Government establishment a public service leadership and development centre, owned by, and accountable too, the Welsh public sector as a whole, funded by contributions and charges.
  • It should replace Academi Wales, be outside of the Welsh Government, would "bring together the best leadership programmes" and provide training. It should be established by the end of 2014-15.
  • The Welsh Government should consider the creation of an Appointments Commission to fill senior public sector leadership positions.

Improving Performance
  • Performance measures should be based on effectiveness of policies/outcomes, not on efficiency of services. Performance criteria should be clearer and more distinct.
  • Performance should be driven forward – based on the success of recycling – by changing delivery practices and through public awareness campaigns.
  • All public bodies should engage with staff to aim for continuous improvement and the intelligent use of information.
The Commission recommend the Welsh Government start work on addressing these issues "immediately", lasting 3-5 years, and in collaboration with public bodies. They also recommend the Welsh Government maintains a register of all public bodies in Wales.

The Main Event : Local Authority Reorganisation

Many people might question the need to reform local authorities, especially as other countries have smaller local authorities which produce better outcomes. The Commission justified their proposed changes to local authorities, in response to that, because "policies differ from one country to the next".

If I'm honest, that was a little non-sensical and the Commission didn't properly explore the reasons why different local government arrangements work. I bet they didn't because if they did, two-tier authorities would come out on top. That would be a little "too radical".

As for the proposed changes themselves, the new local authorities should be co-terminus with (can't cross) :
  • the European Union NUTS2 regions (East Wales & West Wales and Valleys) due to how EU funds are distributed – the gerrymandered and artificial "Rich Wales" and "Poor Wales".
  • local health board areas
  • police force areas
  • the four education consortia areas
Here's a map of the proposed 12 local authorities, with their populations as listed in the full report :

The headline recommendation for local authority reorganisation
- to be in palce by 2018
(Click to enlarge)
Apart from a merged Gwynedd & Anglesey and a stand-alone Carmarthenshire they would be identical to the EU's NUTS3 areas.

The Commission included a scenario of 11 local authorities – where either Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire merge; or Bridgend, Swansea and NPT. A scenario of 10 local authorities includes both those mergers.

If the headline option of 12 local authorities is implemented, and based on a presumption that a cap of 75 councillors would be in place, the total number of councillors in Wales would fall by 370 to 894 (p320 of the full report).

A few of these proposed local authorities cross fire authority boundaries, especially in the Swansea area (NPT is Mid & West Wales, Bridgend is South Wales). So fire authorities, regional transport consortia and police forces would probably need  moderate reorganisations too.

The inclusion of Carmarthenshire as a stand alone authority seems odd (more from Y Cneifiwr). Pembrokeshire-Carmarthenshire would be a more natural merger - if unpleasant for anyone living in either
Democratic People's Republic - or even the proposed reincarnation of Dyfed.

We can now look forward to the bun fights over where they should be based and what they should be called. That's unless they're going to do something monumentally stupid, like moving council meetings between two or three grand, fully-maintained civic centres in a manner as wasteful as the European Parliament.

Then there's all the other "little problems" to iron out :
  • Council tax and business rate arrangements, plus the formula used to determine the annual settlement. An equalised NPT-Bridgend council tax bill could mean a tax rise for Bridgend residents and a tax cut for NPT residents (p320 of the full report).
  • How much will it cost? The WLGA say £200million, with a potential 15,000 redundancies. The Williams Commission say £100million, with savings of between £60-80million per year afterwards. That's before you add issues relating to pensions and job evaluation.
  • The status of local development plans and housing projections. There's good cause to rip both up as the dynamic would change dramatically.
  • The status of existing joint arrangements and collaboration, like between Bridgend and Vale of Glamorgan for civil parking enforcement, and possibly other things in future.
  • The certain need for another local authority ward boundary review and significant reduction in the number of councillors, plus dealing with the opposition - from within Labour in particular - this will create.
  • Will it actually improve services? We don't have a clue, and won't know until afterwards.

There's no problem with 12 unitary authorities, as I see it, providing there was; a proportional voting system for local elections; a review of council procedures and practices to ensure service delivery is scrutinised properly; and the option of directly-elected mayors to provide more accountable leadership and replace chief executives. We didn't get any of that, so there are issues with these proposals - speaking personally - but they'll have to do.

Also, it'll be politically difficult to get this process completed by 2018.


I doubt every AM will agree on this for a start. It looks like the Welsh Conservatives are leaning towards opposing this if it costs a significant sum of money (notwithstanding the fact they'd never run a Welsh local authority alone again under these boundaries). Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems are both cautious and lukewarm, while former Swansea Council leader, Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East), has often spoken against reorganisation. That's before you factor in councillors too. Angry letters from Blaenau Gwent inbound.


The familiar droning chorus of the good ol' Welsh moan at any change to the status quo has already begun, while this will inevitably cause a period of uncertainty for local government employees - precisely what they don't need right now.Meanwhile, getting local authorities to agree on mergers by this Easter seems optimistic, bordering on an attempt to rush things - which would be dangerous. That's unless some of this was agreed informally beforehand and the whole process was used to support a pre-determined conclusion. Nah, that wouldn't happen in Wales, would it?

Wales being Wales, this could get very nasty, very quickly and requires a strong arms at the top. The Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), better start pumping iron.

Conclusion : Halfway there?

 Should it have gone further? Will it be watered down?
Let the games begin.
(Pic : Wales Online)
I'll admit it. After the initial coverage, I was expecting to go into this finding nothing but a fudge. I'm pleased to say that's not the case.

There are a lot of good proposals in relation to measuring progress, scrutiny and leadership. There's also a comprehensive analysis of the current issues and problems facing Welsh public services. However, it only went halfway to where it should've been.

That's not the Commission's fault. On the contrary, whenever this happens – like Silk I, Holtham and Richards before it, presumably Silk II too - I'm more annoyed that we waste the time and talents of those involved.

The Commission were given a remit that sounded broader than actually it was, and too little time to do a "deep review". This process should've lasted 2-3 years and been Welsh local government's equivalent of the Richard and Holtham Commissions combined.

Subsequently, this barely scratched the surface. Merging local authorities is a slightly lazy conclusion. However, it was the absolute maximum the Commission could realistically propose - minus a wider mandate.

The best single idea to come out of this is the creation of a public sector leadership centre. Possible collaboration between fire and ambulance services, as well as intergration between social services and health, also sound interesting and could have a big impact on service delivery.

However, for all the focus on delivery and management, there's very little in the way of absolute changes. It's more a shopping list of, "It would be really nice if local councils did X,Y,Z" - basically telling councillors, managers, board members, officers etc. to do things they should've been doing in the first place.

In the long-term, these proposals will lead to fewer managers, fewer councillors, fewer chief executives and generate migraines for local government administrators.

All current problems regarding delivery will persist, just in new branding.
We'll settle back into "old ways" as soon as the dust settles, because this review didn't look at what local authorities should do, or what level is appropriate for service delivery, just some aspects of the how.

I'll stick my neck out and predict, firstly, that there'll be a struggle to hit the 2018 "deadline". This Welsh Government are small-c conservatives who don't have the cojones to do anything this drastic (by their standards), and despite the language of determination coming from Cathays Park, might find opposition from within local government too much to handle. We'll need a new generation of ministers and AMs with few ties to local government to push it through.

Next, I predict we'll get a watered-down version – a compromise of 16-18 local authorities - where only the smallest local authorities, or those persistently in special measures, will merge with larger neighbours (Merthyr, Anglesey, Blaenau Gwent etc). We'll still get the inevitable harumphing from councillors and officers in the Welsh press, but it'll keep costs and redundancies to a minimum. We'll lose under 100 councillors, which won't spook the parties too much.

Any compromise will be justified on cost grounds, following successful lobbying from various public bodies, WLGA and the bigger local authorities in the south and west.
We'll still have 900+ public bodies, and we'll return to this again in 15-20 years time, because simple mergers won't solve the complexity problem and won't improve scrutiny.

They correctly saw what the problem was, they formed a committee, they chickened out of making the big calls.

"How Wales works" in a nutshell.