Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.

Assembly

The latest news, debates and reports from the Senedd. (Fourth Assembly stories are under 'Archive').

Bridgend

The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.

Laws

We gave AMs law-making powers; this is what's being done with them.

Committee Inquiries

Detailed scrutiny of how Wales is being run. (Fourth Assembly inquiries are under 'Archive').

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Senedd Watch - September 2015


  • UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, backed calls to scrap Severn Bridge tolls in 2018, saying they penalised "those coming in....on one of the most direct routes from England". He suggested it would be paid for by building a cheaper Newport bypass. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) accused him of being "financially illiterate" for confusing where responsibilities for bridge maintenance and bypass budgets lie.
    • Nigel Farage later told BBC Wales that UKIP's Welsh branch will “help pick” candidates at the 2016 National Assembly election, after reports emerged that senior personalities – such as disgraced former MP Neil Hamilton and centrally-appointed Wales election coordinator Mark Reckless – were considering seeking Assembly seats.
  • The UK Government accepted a recommendation from the Electoral Commission to change the wording and answer of the future EU membership referendum to "remain" or "leave" instead of "yes" or "no". It follows claims the original question was biased.
  • The First Minister called for the UK Government to "show leadership" after a refugee crisis in eastern and central Europe intensified. He said "Wales stands ready to play its part", saying Labour would accept 10,000 refugees in the UK. This follows criticism from Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central), that the Welsh Government hadn't "stepped up to the mark".
    • The Prime Minister said the UK would take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees from camps surrounding Syria between now and 2020. The Welsh Refugee Council said Wales could accommodate up to 1,600 refugees – 8% of the proposed UK total.
    • An all-Wales summit on the crisis was held on September 17th. A task force of relevant agencies was established, with Wales "preparing the ground" for a response. In the National Assembly a few day earlier, the First Minister described the UK Government's response as "laggardly".
    • The WLGA said local authorities were "willing to play their part", but the cost of housing refugees should not be met from existing council budgets. Wales was home to over 2,300 asylum-seekers at the end of June 2015, or 7.6% of the UK total.
  • A review of the 5p single-use carrier bag charge, introduced in 2011, showed use of the bags fell by 71%, with the levy raising between £17-22million for good causes. Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) said, "I am pleased that almost four years on from the introduction of the charge in Wales consumer habits appear to be changing.”
  • New Year 10 pupils were the first to start Wales-only GCSEs in English, Maths and Welsh as part of a overhaul of qualifications. Teaching unions expressed worries about overcrowded timetables, while Shadow Education Minister, Angela Burns (Con, Carms. W & S. Pembs.) said, “Our over-riding concern with these new qualifications is that they will lack credibility and may not be recognisable around the world.”
  • Plaid Cymru launched a policy consultation - A Road Map for Wales - ahead of the 2016 National Assembly election, saying Labour had “wasted 16 years of devolution”, pointing towards failings in health and education. Labour hit back by saying they were “tired attacks”.
  • A Bevan Foundation forecast on the state of Wales in 2020 suggested the unskilled workforce would rise and would result in increased competition for unskilled jobs. Also, people working in the public sector and on benefits will be worse off and there would be rising demand for treatments for long-term health conditions on the NHS.
  • A leaked letter revealed the UK Government believe two commercial loans provided to Cardiff Airport by the Welsh Government, worth a combined £23million, could have breached EU state aid rules. The Welsh Government denied the accusation, saying the leak was “politically motivated” adding that the report used to support the state aid accusation was out of date.
  • Veteran left-wing MP, Jeremy Corbyn, was elected leader of the UK Labour party and Leader of the Opposition on September 12th with almost 60% of the vote in the first round. Welsh Labour figures called for the party to unite behind the new leader, while the First Minister described the result as “impressive”. Llanelli MP, Nia Griffith, was appointed Shadow Welsh Secretary, replacing Owen Smith, who was reassigned as Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary.
    • Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said Carwyn Jones and Jeremy Corbyn were “the two most dangerous men for Wales' future” posing “the greatest risk to economic growth that our country has ever seen”. Labour dismissed it as a “laughable rant”.
  • A Welsh Institute of Health and Social Care report into end-of-life care for children criticised standards, saying services needed “strategic attention” and that lessons had not been learned from previous reports. Around 1,000 children require palliative care in Wales each year.
  • BBC Wales revealed that 54 insolvent companies awarded grants by the Welsh Government owed £11million. Economist Gerald Holtham said the Welsh Government should issues loans instead of grants, while the Federation of Small Businesses criticised grants as a way to create short-term jobs.
  • Chinese vice-premier, Liu Yangdong, visited Wales as part of a UK tour. The Welsh and Chinese governments signed a memorandum of understanding on cultural issues. The First Minister said, “Strengthening links with China, one of the world's most powerful economies, has been a long-standing aim of the Welsh Government”.
  • At the Lib Dem annual conference in Bournemouth, key figures in the Welsh branch acknowledged the “huge challenge” facing their party in the 2016 National Assembly election, saying they would "re-establish and re-define the Liberal narrative" to make it clear what their party stands for after humiliating results at the 2015 UK House of Commons election.
  • A report published by Save the Children found 67% of youngsters from poorer backgrounds were likely to score below average in vocabulary tests at age 5 compared to 34% amongst those with no experience of poverty. The Welsh Government said, "Raising literacy is a major....priority and we have introduced a range of policies, including our Literacy and Numeracy Framework and annual reading tests to help achieve this”.
  • Legal & General announced a £400million investment in property developments within Cardiff's Central Square, which should enable projects to be brought forward. It was described as the largest property deal in Welsh history, with a predicted 10,000 jobs set to be created.
  • Friends of the Earth Cymru research discovered that more than £1million of the Assembly Members' pension fund had been invested in tobacco, gambling and fossil fuel companies. FoE Cymru director, Gareth Clubb, said it was “morally indefensible” and “hypocritical” after the Assembly had passed legislation to protect future generations.
  • Leading academics warned that plans to create a reserved powers model for Welsh devolution were “not thought through” after the UK Government proposed reserving both civil and criminal law. The Wales Governance Centre described current proposals as “unclear, highly-complex and unstable”.
  • The Welsh Conservatives criticised an estimated £100million of redundancy payments to council employees since 2012. Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy) said, “taxpayers will be furious to learn that their bumper council tax bills are being used to fund golden handshakes for council staff.” The WLGA hit back by accusing the Conservatives of victim-blaming.
  • The Local Government Bill – which outlines the process for voluntary mergers between local authorities by 2018 – passed Stage 3 on September 29th. Amendments from opposition parties on ensuring promotion of economic development and the Welsh language, local referendums on mergers and the introduction of single transferable vote were rejected.
    • Before the debate, the Welsh Lib Dems criticised the Williams Commission process, describing its £130,000 cost as a “colossal waste of money” after the findings were widely ignored by the Welsh Government.
  • There was criticism from opposition politicians and Welsh civil society following a Welsh Government announcement that they would stop publishing ministerial decision reports, which outline evidence used by Welsh Ministers to make decisions. Leading Cardiff Bay lobbyist, Daran Hill, described it as “an information shut down”, while the First Minister was likened to controversial FIFA President Sepp Blatter in the National Assembly.

Projects announced in September include : The launch of (another) public consultation on proposals for a £1billion M4 bypass of Newport; an extra £17million to attract top scientists to Welsh universities; £6.7million to purchase 44 new ambulances; plans for £200million of road improvements on Deeside; a £115million innovation fund over the next seven years and a £16million brain injury rehabilitation unit in Cardiff.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Coming Constitutional Crisis

Just when you thought the issue of Wales' law-making powers had been settled....
(Pic : The Guardian)
The next Wales Bill is due to be introduced this autumn and will, as announced earlier this year (A St Davids Day Deposit), include additional powers for the National Assembly.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Recruitment problems stifle Bridgend Social Services

Social work is tough, and a report to an influential Bridgend Council committee has underlined the
problems BCBC face when recruiting and retaining social workers who work with vulnerable youngsters.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Earlier this week, Bridgend Council's Children & Young People Committee discussed staffing levels in children's social services (pdf). Ongoing issues are said to "challenge many authorities" and are "well-documented".

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Jennings Building & (Old) Coety Primary Plans Submitted

Plans have been submitted to bring new lease of life to a Porthcawl landmark.
(Pic : Ellis Williams Architects)
After being announced to great fanfare by Bridgend Council in March, formal plans have been submitted to regenerate the Grade II listed Jennings Building in Porthcawl Habour as part of the town's wider regeneration plans.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Hear No Evil, See No Evil....


(Pic : thezooom.com)

A significant story broke today - courtesy of ITV Wales and Friends of the Earth Cymru - that the trust that manages pensions for Assembly Members have been investing in what many would consider ethically dubious companies.

UPDATE : 23/09/15 - The director of FoE Cymru, Gareth Clubb, has provided more details on his blog, Naturiaethwr (rough English translation via Google Translate).

This shouldn't come as any shock. After the hoo hah over the pay rise, I suspected this would be the next port of call and had a proverbial deck chair and popcorn ready for it. I'm just surprised it's taken this long and you've got to tip your hat at Friends of the Earth Cymru for their top notch ferreting.

Anyway, according to the UK Government Actuary's Department (pdf), the market value of the pension fund's assets was just under £25.5million in March 2015. Since the rules were changed (pdf), AMs contribute 11% of their salary, while the Assembly Commission – as employer – contributes an equivalent of 16.6% to the fund (it used to be a whopping 23.8%). So for each AM, you're looking at a combined contribution of at least ~£14,900 a year (more for ministers and office holders).

Safe to say that money isn't being invested in Rainbow Wuzzle Dreams Inc and Oochie Snuggle Bums plc.

It's worth, first of all, separating the issue surrounding the investments from the conduct of individual Assembly Members.

Almost all pension funds are managed by trusts or specialists, and members won't have any input into where their money goes unless they want to micromanage it themselves – which can be tricky and bewildering for amateurs, and AMs don't have time (if you were unkind, you could say skills either) to play Gordon Gekko.

AMs wouldn't have had much idea where the fund was investing and they have very strong plausible deniability. I'm sure few AMs would've willingly invested in these companies if the decision were theirs alone.

But – as it typical with these stories - AMs haven't helped themselves.

At some point in the last 16 years, AMs past and present will have spoken out publicly against many of the industries and companies their own pension fund was investing in. Now that doesn't look bad at all, does it? It's at least a 7.4 on the Nathan Gill scale.

It seems none of them thought it would be a good idea to check where their own money was going before making various statements on the public record.

For example, Plaid Cymru are one of the most ardently anti-GM parties in the UK, and the Welsh Government is highly sceptical of the technology, yet it's reported AMs pensions were invested in anti-GM nemesis Monsanto.

Earlier this year, the Assembly voted in favour of a fracking moratorium, but upon retirement from the Assembly, AMs will benefit from investments in companies involved with fracking. Up to £800,000 has been invested in fossil fuel companies generally....from legislators that brought you the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015.

That's not the worst of it either. AMs were pretty strident in their support for Burberry workers when the company closed its Rhondda factory in 2007. Their pension fund has, predictably, invested up to £90,000 in Burberry.

Then there are investments in tobacco companies. This Welsh Government are one of the most vehemently anti-smoking administrations in the UK and are pursuing a clampdown on e-cigarettes – yet it's reported £180,000 has been invested in big tobacco. Meanwhile, an indeterminate sum has been invested in the gambling industry.

Up to £10million of the fund's investments are unattributable. For all we/they know it could've gone towards arms manufacturers, payday loan companies or the big financial service companies many AMs have long criticised since their role in the recession.

Looking at it cold-hearted and rationally, for a pension fund these are sound investments. As the Chair of the Trustees – William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) - is quoted as saying :
"The Trustees have a legal duty to act in the best (financial) interests of Scheme beneficiaries, while the Pensions Regulator, the Government body, responsible for regulating work-based pension schemes in the UK has stated that trustees have a ‘fiduciary duty to choose investments that are in the best financial interests of the scheme members – for example, you must not let your ethical or political convictions get in the way of achieving the best returns for the scheme.'"

In short, as a pension fund you're obligated to get the best returns for members regardless of where those investments go; it's their retirement income after all.

The tobacco industry makes colossal sums of money every year and massive profits – there'll be more on this from me next month. If you want to make money for a pension fund they'll be amongst the first ports of call. Similarly, natural resources will result in big returns  – and are obviously geared towards fossil fuels and mineral extraction.

There's nothing wrong or illegal about any of this, but it's incredibly embarrassing.

As Caebrwyn eloquently covered earlier with regard the Dyfed Pension Fund, the wider issue is whether public sector pension funds have just as much a moral obligation to invest ethically, as they do a financial obligation to ensure its members have a good income upon retirement. That's a very tricky balancing act.


Once you get beyond a certain level, most free market capitalism becomes essentially unethical anyway, and
you can probably count the number of massively-successful ethical companies on the fingers of one hand.
This isn't what I would call hypocrisy as AMs wouldn't have had much of an idea where the money was going, but no AM can claim to be holier than thou on this. The best they can do is damage limitation or stop digging the hole they're in any deeper.

It's telling that it's only after the destination of investments have been publicly revealed (the first time since the Assembly was established AFAIK) that AMs are scrambling to distance themselves from it or calling for clarity.

It was their money. Where did they, honestly, think it was going?



Monday, 21 September 2015

State of the Nation's Health

(Pic : Wales Online)

As reported from Wales Online towards the end of last week, the latest National Health Survey results, for 2014, were published by the Welsh Government. It comes as the Assembly scrutinises the Public Health Bill (Tattoos, Bans & Bogs).

Saturday, 19 September 2015

A Princely Sum

Principality Building Society have taken a bold step in securing
naming rights to the Millennium Stadium from 2016.
(Pic : Welsh Rugby Union)

As you probably already know, it was announced last week that the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) have agreed a £15million, ten-year deal with Cardiff-based Principality Building Society for naming rights to the Millennium Stadium, which will be known as the Principality Stadium from January 2016.


It was rumoured that Barclays and Vodafone were interested and it's since been revealed that Barclays have taken a £10million share in the stadium....whatever that means. The deal was accompanied by the latest set of financial results for the WRU, which had a £64.2million turnover in 2014.

The deals, and financial results, effectively means the debt incurred by the WRU for the construction of the Millennium Stadium can be wiped out, or at the very least significantly reduced. The cherry on top was June's announcement that the stadium will host the 2017 Champions League final.

These are all great achievements – no bones about it. Regardless of your opinion of the people at the top, the WRU have been run very effectively from a business perspective - the on and off-pitch politics being a sore point. It augers well for Cardiff Airport, which (out-going WRU Chief Executive) Roger Lewis will move to after the Rugby World Cup.

So why does this deal sit uncomfortably?

It's nothing to do with the name. It's easy enough to tell the difference between the Principality Building Society and the derogatory small-p "principality" (Is Wales a principality?). It's disappointing that the rare occasion of a Welsh company showing ambition – a company which has long supported rugby through sponsorship - has attracted online petitions and social media sniping. It doesn't do the nationalist reputation of being a bit chippy any good.

Now you could see it as a back-handed wind-up - Roger leaving his post doing his best trollface and doffing a WRU cap to Chuck and Billy Windsor. Or, you could interpret the name as honoring the old principality/principalities, irony being of course that Cardiff was in The Marches.


Anyway, that aside, in modern sport selling naming rights is a necessary evil. I would have hoped the Millennium Stadium would've been an exception as it's a national icon, one of Cardiff's most famous landmarks and one of the most iconic stadiums in sport. You can't picture the English FA selling naming rights to Wembley, or Man United selling naming rights to Old Trafford.

What I'm actually disappointed about is how low-value the deal is, and it verges on suspiciously low.

For want of comparison, Dublin's Aviva Stadium naming rights deal has never been officially revealed, but is rumoured to be worth somewhere in the region of £3million (€4-4.5million) a year.

You would've therefore expected the rights to have been sold for at least £2.5million a year, if not matching – perhaps even exceeding – Dublin. That might've provided a bit more money for the grassroots or other investments in the game. It's great a Welsh company is sponsoring the stadium, but maybe it would've been better to have held out for a higher offer.

Watch the Neighbours
With the WRU seeking to expand facilities around the stadium, it
might be worth keeping an eye on the future of another Cardiff landmark.
(Pic : via keytothecity.co.uk)

Central Cardiff is currently undergoing something approaching a property boom. This includes the flagship Central Square development, and projects from local developer JR Smart – the most recent being a £100million deal with the Welsh Government to redevelop land which used to house the Welsh National Opera and No Fit State Circus.

Where there's money to be made there'll inevitably be some slightly backhanded deals going on.

Private Eye recently produced an interactive map (here) listing all the land currently owned by companies and individuals based in offshore tax havens. In south Wales you can see the handiwork of South Wales Land Developments (Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap IV – Endgame?) as well as Oak Regeneration – which are listed as Beech Regeneration (see also : The Parc Slip Monster and The Abyss Staring Back at Wales) and even the National Assembly's Ty Hywel building.

What interested me is a piece of land adjoining the Millennium/Principality Stadium.

Earlier this year, the WRU announced plans to build Westgate Plaza – a 240,000sqft mixed-use development of apartments, retail, a 100-bed hotel andconference facilities directly linked to the stadium itself. This is land the WRU owns and there's nothing suspicious about it – it actually looks like a quality development, but was delayed since 2007 due to the recession.

Nearby – what's currently the Cardiff Civil Justice Centre, Parkgate offices (former Post Office) and a derelict building – is land listed as owned by British Virgin Islands-based company Hyperion Investments Ltd, who bought at least one of the buildings in 2011, reportedly paying £11.8million.

This sale would've happened long after WRU investigations had discovered who owned what around the stadium, and it's likely the WRU's plans for Westgate Street will have become public knowledge in Cardiff property circles long before 2011.

In 2013, it was reported the old post office building was up for sale for £11.5million by a London-based company called Bamfords Trust PLC, which seem to have links to the Syrian community.

Perfectly innocent?
(Pic : Modified via Private Eye)

It's highly-likely that once Westgate Plaza is built, land values on Westgate Street will sky rocket – especially if Cardiff Athletic Club press forward with plans to redevelop the Arms Park. One of the last remaining development plots in the area will be these Grade II listed offices. BT currently lease the building and that lease is due to run out in December 2022.

I might be putting 2 + 2 together here and coming up with 8, but the WRU seem to be in a rush to complete Westgate Plaza, and seem convinced it can be completed by 2019 – helped along by the recent cash boost equivalent of £25million from Principality and Barclays.

After it's built, as said, land values will rise in the surrounding area, which conveniently lies within the Cardiff enterprise zone and eligible for favourable support packages like business rate relief and finance. Currently empty or under-utilised buildings will become more attractive to investors and developers, and I'm sure this prime land - possibly owned by a company based in a tax haven - will be keenly sought after.

There's nothing wrong with that in itself bar the morality of systematic tax avoidance, but as the ongoing saga with the Grade II listed Coal Exchange proves, being listed is no guarantee that buildings of historical or architectural value won't be left to rot.

There's scant information about Hyperion Investments Ltd as the British Virgin Islands operate with notable secrecy, while there are numerous companies with similar names based elsewhere. It would be interesting to know who was on the board and who knew what about Westgate Plaza though but, alas, we will never know.

There's no scandal here, and there probably won't be in the future; but previous experience of cases where off-shore companies and land sales have mixed together, or even neighboured each other, indicates a scandal probably isn't too far away.



Thursday, 17 September 2015

Refugee Crisis : Wales Responds

(Pic : The Telegraph)
I'm sure most of us will have been moved by "that picture" of Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach a few weeks ago. It marked a turning point in the Syrian refugee crisis, changing it from something that was affecting "somewhere else" into a hard tug on Europe's conscience.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Welsh Government Scopes Out Bridgend Business Park

(Pic : Arup c/o Welsh Government)

In the last few days, the Welsh Government submitted a pre-application (known as an application for scoping opinion) for a new business park to the south of Bridgend at Brocastle. Unlike last time (Exciting plans for former Labour Club), this is a real development (pdf).

Monday, 14 September 2015

You Won't Believe What Happens Next....

(Pic : [Various] Wales Online, via BBC Wales)
In the midst of a review of the BBC's future role, the focus briefly shifted back to the Welsh press last week.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Exciting plans for former Labour Club



Having closed for the last time almost two years ago, the future of the former Ogmore Constituency Labour club building in Bryntirion looked uncertain. However, local developers RDRR Ltd have submitted plans to regenerate the site as a modern, inclusive private members club for Bridgend residents.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Road to Somewhere?

With the latest section of the A465 dualling project set to fully open soon,
it's worth reflecting on the short-term and long-term impact.
(Pic : a465brynmawr2tredegar.co.uk)

The latest section in the long-running project to dual the Heads of the Valleys road (A465) between Abergavenny and Hirwaun is due to fully open imminently (it's been partially open for a few weeks now). Section 3, which runs between Tredegar and Brynmawr, has cost £158million, with £80million of that coming from the EU.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Network Rail - Taking the Welsh Government for a ride?

The project to redouble a section of track between Wrexham and Chester is an example
of Network Rail over-promising and under-delivering when it comes to Welsh railways.
(Pic : rmweb.co.uk)

Network Rail's relationship with devolved Wales has always been somewhat awkward. They now have a department responsible for rail infrastructure in Wales, but they're not directly answerable to either the Welsh Government or National Assembly.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

O Ye of Little Faith

Religious studies has remained a compulsory part of the National Curriculum
since the 1980s, but a major overhaul of the subject is expected to begin soon.
(Pic : bargainbinblasphemy.tumblr.com)

A few weeks ago, the Welsh Government announced that the religious education/religious studies (RE/RS) curriculum will be overhauled as part of the ongoing Donaldson review (Detention for Donaldson?).

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Seven Bridgend Schools in the Red & More....

It's not a great start to the new academic year for Brynteg School.
Firstly, new figures show it ran up a £600,000 budget deficit in 2014-15.
Secondly, many Brynteg pupils are set to be hit hard by free school transport changes.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Bridgend's councillors have been on their summer break, so there was a packed agenda waiting for them at the first cabinet and full council meetings of the autumn.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

What do we do with a drunken country?

A recent Assembly committee inquiry provided a stark reminder
of the devastating impact drink and narcotics have on society.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Three major stories out of the National Assembly during the current summer recess were all related to public health.

Firstly, a report from the cross-party group on eating disorders, which you can read here (pdf).

Secondly, Public Health England's report into e-cigarettes which contradicts current proposals in the Public Health Bill (Tattoos, Bans & Bogs). I hope to return to that later this autumn.

Returning to the subject of today's post, the Assembly's Health and Social Care Committee reported back on a major inquiry into alcohol and substance abuse
(pdf). Regular readers will know I covered drugs in spring 2014 (Wales on Drugs), while I looked at alcohol policy in some detail in February 2015 :

The Committee made no fewer than 21 recommendations, summarised as :
  • The Welsh Government should set out how it intends to take the report's findings into account in the next Substance Abuse Delivery Plan (2016-2018), including specific focus on image enhancing drugs like steroids.
  • There should be a review of GP training on substance abuse and more encouragement for GPs to specialise in treating alcohol and substance abuse. This should include training to reduce bover-prescribing and properly diagnose patients with alcohol-induced dementia.
  • The Welsh Government should do more to promote substance abuse services, making them more accessible to those who need them or are vulnerable – in particular the homeless and recently-released prisoners.
  • The Welsh Government should ensure appropriate information on alcohol and substance abuse is provided to schoolchildren, university students and other young people.
  • The Welsh Government should ensure the forthcoming Wales Bill includes measures to help tackle alcohol misuse, while they should also work with the UK Government to determine what information should be put on alcohol products.

The Assembly's Communications team have started to use Adobe Slate to help make committee reports more accessible. They include video clips, put faces to quotes and includes a summary of the report's contents. You don't have to download anything to view them and it's particularly useful if you're on a tablet. You can view the slate for this report here; mae'r fersiwn Cymraeg ar gael yma.

The Scale of the Problem

Increasing abuse of anabolic steroids is cited as a worrying trend.
(Pic : ITV Wales)
This inquiry follows on from a previous inquiry into new psychoactive substances (aka. "legal highs" – see Legally High).

A lot of the evidence the Committee received this time related to on alcohol abuse. Figures consistently show that referral rate for alcohol abuse treatment (54% of all referrals) are consistently higher than that for illegal narcotics such as heroin (15%) and cannabis (9%); it's generally a problem amongst men too – both points I made previously.

One emerging problem is people are becoming increasingly dependent on prescription and over-the-counter medicines, while abuse of so-called "image enhancing drugs" – like steroids – is also increasing amongst young people. The latter is a trend the Deputy Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), said is hard to monitor as current evidence and statistics collection is poor.

The Welsh Government have a ten-year substance abuse strategy running from 2008-2018, built around harm reduction and recovery. This received a £47.8million boost in March 2015, with £5million of that going towards residential treatment centres. The Deputy Minister said this funding would continue for the next two years "subject to negotiations with other parties and partners".

Witnesses, and others involved in the inquiry, were broadly supportive of the strategy but were concerned about patchy implementation.

Intervention

The role of GPs in identifying and properly assessing substance abuse
problems was underlined as important - but not without serious issues.
(Pic : UK Government)

There was criticism of the role GPs play, with little advice given on substance abuse or too few referrals to appropriate services. The Deputy Minister acknowledged weaknesses, but these were being worked on, with a specialist certificate in substance abuse backed by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) available. The problem is not all GPs will want to specialise in the field, and there were frank admissions that some GPs may be prejudiced against those suffering from alcohol and drug issues.

A more common issue, which applies to everyone, is lack of access to GP appointments because of strict booking criteria (i.e making appointments before a certain time). Some patients were also put off seeking help because they believed they "needed to be clean" before accessing services, made worse by a stigma surrounding drug and alcohol treatment programmes.

On alcohol, the BMA have encouraged what's known as an "alcohol brief intervention" (ABI), where those with problems are encouraged through structured conversation to reconsider their habits and seek help. 8,000 people have been trained to deliver ABI, with the Deputy Minister saying there was "good evidence of its effectiveness". However, there were no targets for training.

An emerging problem is addiction to prescribed medicines, particularly in situations where patients have been prescribed powerful medicines over a long period of time. Some prescription drugs have even made their way onto the open market, while expert witnesses said patients on powerful prescription drugs – like methadone – need to have "exit plans" to come off them gradually.

You can't discuss substance abuse without exploring mental health, with a reported three in four substance abusers also having a mental health condition. It can destroy families and can lead to suicides, alcohol-related brain damage, overdoses or fatal diseases like cirrhosis.

Having an underlying mental illness is said to make treating substance abuse more difficult, and one witness said it results in a "chicken-and-egg situation" where you can't tell which comes first.

Treatment

The wealthy can afford the best care when it comes to addiction, but despite the
best efforts of charities and the NHS, those at the bottom of society are left wanting.
(Pic : houstonpress.com)

Witnesses said substance abuse treatment should be seen as "everyone's business" as it crosses many areas of the health service. Public Health Wales called for "clear treatment pathways" from the earliest point of contact. However, the RCGP argued for a single service, while homeless charity The Wallich said there needed to be just as much focus on the person as the drug problem.

In terms of targeted services, witnesses believed there was too much focus on youngsters binge-drinking while older people are much more likely to be over-prescribed medicines or have a serious alcohol addiction, with the average age of referrals for alcohol abuse being 41 compared to 31 for narcotics.

There were additional concerns about an inconsistent approach to residential treatment, with Wales' sole women-only facility being based in Cardiff. Plus, the Committee were worried about gaps between a former peer-mentoring scheme (which ended in 2014) and its replacement, which the Committee said should "be put in place as soon as possible".

Other vulnerable groups include the homeless – who often have a physical or mental health problem as well as material concerns on housing – as well as recently-released prisoners, who might develop a drug habit whilst inside. Although some treatment programmes in Welsh prisons were praised, there were concerns about resettlement and aftercare. Ex-prisoners are "effectively homeless", or may be released on licence with requirements they be resettled in a particular type of accommodation.

Prevention

As was recommended in the inquiry on legal highs, the Committee said there was a need to make public information more relevant to audiences – something the Welsh Government said they're working on.

Not unsurprisingly, there was a return to the role of schools. The Donaldson Review recommendations (Detention for Donaldson?) included references to creating "ethical, informed citizens" who "understand the consequences of their actions". In the present, there's a programme of school visits from police officers and targeted help towards "the disengaged".

Some witnesses believed the police might not be the best people to deliver the lessons because some young people may not have a good relationship with them; they instead called for the focus to be on harm, not legality.

The issue of alcohol labelling also cropped up, with witnesses saying the use of "units" (10ml of pure alcohol) was unhelpful, suggesting instead that each drink be assigned a percentage of the weekly/daily recommended intake.

The Law & Devolution

Witnesses supported a lower drink-drive limit - in line with Scotland -
as well as tougher licensing rules, but it's unlikely to happen in Wales.
(Pic : Press Association via BBC Wales)
Alcohol Concern Cymru (ACC) said the "big levers" on alcohol policy are price and availability, as well as specifics like a lower drink-drive limit. ACC were worried alcohol was becoming increasingly cheaper, and strongly support a minimum price per unit – backed by some local health boards.

The drinks industry (unsurprisingly) opposed the move, believing a minimum price was targeting them disproportionately. Nevertheless, the Welsh Government recently published a draft Minimum Price Bill, which will presumably be introduced in the Fifth Assembly.

Other witnesses called for limits on alcohol sales similar to cigarettes, as drinks are often on promotion or easy to buy, making life harder for recovering alcoholics. ACC go so far as suggesting "the protection of public health" should become a key consideration in awarding alcohol licences.

However, licensing and sale of alcohol is an exception in Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and, therefore, non-devolved; similarly drink-drive limits, of which there was support from witnesses for lowering it in line with Scotland.

Alcohol powers weren't included as part of the St Davids Day agreement and are likely to be retained by Westminster – a decision the Deputy Minister described as "disappointing".

Conclusions

We're all going to have our own ideas on what's causing these problems and how to deal with it; I'm not going to go over what I've said previously on either narcotics or alcohol, while there's nothing to really disagree with in terms of the report's recommendations.

William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) outlined his own "Three R's" for tackling alcohol-related crime – Respect (for people and property), Refuse (to serve), Review (alcohol licensing) – a few weeks ago. I don't know if he was speaking on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives or himself, but you can read more here.

However, it's not just a problem for sink estates and people thrown on society's scrapheap. Substance abuse - though alcohol abuse in particular - is just as much a middle class problem. The statistics speak for themselves.

How many upstanding white collar folk reading this have come home from work and polished off a bottle of prosecco? How's that any different to an 18 year old drinking a litre of Diamond White on a park bench?