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?

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Senedd Watch - October 2015


  • A ban on smoking in cars whilst in the presence of under-18s came into force on October 1st in Wales. Those who break the law will be liable to a £50 fine. Pro-smoking campaigners said the ban is unenforceable, though police forces said they would take an “educational and non-confrontational approach”.
  • A new colour-coded system for 999 medical emergencies was introduced on October 1st . Ambulance response time targets for all but the most life-threatening (Red) 999 calls will be replaced with outcome-based targets. Opposition parties accused the Welsh Government of manipulating targets to mask poor response times, but the Wales Ambulance Trust argued the changes make it “one of the most progressive in the world”.
  • Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP, said the chances of an agreement on further powers for the National Assembly were “very, very low”. It follows the publication of an academic report which suggests the proposed reserved powers model was “convoluted” and could result in law-making powers being withdrawn from the Assembly.
    • The UK Government unveiled the draft Wales Bill on October 20th, which includes new powers over Assembly electoral arrangements, energy, speed limits and sewerage services, as well as a reserved powers model. A row between the UK and Welsh Governments ensued over possible “veto” powers by English Ministers over Welsh laws.
  • An official who regulates bus and heavy goods traffic in Wales, Nick Jones, attacked UK Government policy on traffic commissioners, suggesting Wales was being treated “as a district of the English Midlands” and was subsidising English services. Traffic commissioner functions are non-devolved, though partial devolution has been sought since 2002.
  • A TUC report called for money to be directed towards job creation in the south Wales valleys following new EU rules which will allow public funding to be reserved for disadvantaged groups such as the long-term unemployed. Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) said, “We've got new powers and opportunities....to influence who....gets contracts for the public sector and get people into those jobs" promising to set up a task force to look into the proposal further.
  • The Stage 4 debate on the Local Government Bill – which outlines the process for voluntary local authority mergers – was postponed on October 6th, due to a likelihood the Assembly would vote against it. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) accused the Welsh Government of arrogance for not seeking a consensus beforehand.
    • Following a deal between Labour and Plaid Cymru - which will prevent mergers happening before the 2016 Assembly election - the Bill passed by 26 votes to 17 with 9 abstentions on October 20th. Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy) accused Plaid of hypocrisy for criticising Labour (at the SNP annual conference) then doing a deal with them, while the Lib Dems said the agreement achieved nothing.
  • An Oxfam Cymru report stated Wales should accommodate 724 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016 to meet its obligations. It comes as Community & Tackling Poverty Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), updated the National Assembly on actions taken in Wales, in which she called for more information and clarity from the UK Government, adding that all 22 local authorities were willing to accept refugees.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) told the Conservative party conference in Manchester that he led an “anti-establishment party” and that next May's election was a choice between himself and Carwyn Jones for First Minister. He described the election as a “referendum on the Welsh NHS”.
    • The Welsh Conservatives would scrap tuition fee subsidies if they won the 2016 Assembly election, claiming it would save £3.6billion over the course of the Fifth Assembly. Currently, tuition fees for Welsh students are capped wherever the study, but the Leader of the Opposition said the money should be redirected to the NHS and further education colleges.
  • Plaid Cymru health spokesperson, Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion), announced her party would scrap local health boards, replacing them with a single national body to run hospital services – as well as abolish social care charges for the elderly and dementia patients - if they win the 2016 election. They also proposed fully integrating health and social care. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), accused Plaid of wanting to “break up the NHS”.
  • A review of Welsh law-making by the Assembly's Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee recommended introducing a compulsory Report Stage, greater support for Members Bills, consolidation of Welsh law and more comprehensive public engagement. Committee Chair, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) said, “Clear, consolidated laws based on sound, well-thought-out policy are essential."
  • Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) criticised the Welsh Government for spending £19.8million on preparatory work for the M4 Newport bypass, calling for Labour to review the plans in their 2016 manifesto. Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), defended the spending saying, “Roads will always be controversial, but 20 years after you've built them.... they're the norm.”
    • On 13th October it was revealed Jenny Rathbone had been sacked as chair of an EU funding committee for her comments. She criticised an “unhealthy culture” within the Welsh Government and Assembly which doesn't allow independent thought.
    • Welsh Labour accused Jenny Rathbone of not following the proper channels for raising policy issues, while the First Minister defended his decision in the Senedd chamber, saying the committee chair “should act in the spirit of collective responsibility” as it was a government appointment.
    • The Leader of the Opposition questioned Public Account Committee decisions – of which Jenny Rathbone is a member - as members of the Welsh Government are barred from being members of Assembly committees. He wrote to Llywydd, Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West), saying, “The comments made by the First Minister in the chamber ….are deeply damaging and bring into question the legitimacy and democratic nature of the Assembly committees.”
  • A Welsh Health Survey study revealed only 1% of e-cigarette users were previous non-smokers. The Welsh Liberal Democrats believed the findings undermine the Welsh Government's case for a ban on using e-cigs in public, as set out in the Public Health Bill.
  • Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) warned that key Valley Lines rail routes could miss out on electrification after being left out of the Welsh Government's National Transport Finance Plan. She said, “Whilst the National Transport Plan covers the next five years, these schemes don't even appear in the column identified for '2020 and beyond'”.
  • The Assembly approved a cross-party motion condemning the UK Government's Trade Union Bill as an “unnecessary attack on the rights of working people”. Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews, said the Bill extended its scope into devolved areas and the Welsh Government will consider not laying a legislative consent motion (LCM) in front of the Assembly – effectively attempting to block the law from applying in Wales.
  • The National Assembly unanimously agreed regulations to introduce compulsory micro-chipping for newborn puppies. Deputy Minister for Farming & Food, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Mid & West Wales) said, “The ability to trace all dogs back to their owners should encourage more responsible ownership, breeding and help in the control of dangerous and nuisance dogs by creating a link between a dog and its owner.” The regulations will come into force on April 6th 2016.
  • LinksAir, operators of the subsidised Anglesey-Cardiff air link, had their safety licence revoked by the Civil Aviation Authority. The Welsh Government announced Danish operator North Flying will take over the contract. Shadow Business Minister, William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) said, “communities will rightly ask questions and Labour ministers must provide swift assurances.”
  • Deputy Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), confirmed that the troubled Betsi Cadwaladr Local Health Board will remain in special measures for two years. The board was placed into special measures for 100 days following the Tawel Fan scandal, but the Deputy Minister said an extension was needed, “in order to tackle more fundamental challenges, particularly to improve mental health services in north Wales”.
  • At Plaid Cymru's annual conference in Aberystwyth, Leanne Wood asked Labour voters to “take a second look” at her party, saying Plaid will lead on “those issues that matter most”. She said Labour had taken people for granted and “rewarded long-term loyalty with inaction, incompetence and indifference.”
  • Andrew Davies AM called for Cardiff's taxi drivers to embrace controversial mobile taxi app, Uber, which was considering starting services in the city. He said, “As Conservatives we have a duty to level the playing field and to encourage competition between suppliers – not thwart it.” Unions representing taxi drivers have expressed concerns over safety and fare parity.
  • An independent review of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty said these areas needed to do more to foster vibrant communities and provide jobs. Studies estimate they're worth £500million to the Welsh economy and employ 30,000 people. Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) was appointed chair of a task force to explore the issues further.

Projects announced in October include : A £24million replacement for the flood-prone A487 Dyfi Bridge in Machynlleth; an £11million scheme to fund childcare to enable parents to return to work; £3.8million for workplace IT, construction and accounting skills; a consultation on indicators for a national well-being index; a Chinese-backed investment worth £2billion in two biomass power and food production plants in Holyhead and Port Talbot and the final go ahead for the Newtown bypass.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Vice Nation : Smoking IV - Smoking & Independence

(Pic : BBC Wales)

In the final part of this mini series on nicotine products, I look at the policy options that might be available to Wales in the event of further devolution or independence.

There are very few, if any, nations that don't have at least partial curbs on smoking. There are, of course, variations in how anti-smoking laws and regulations are enforced – China is notorious for its lax enforcement, and they're paying the price with an estimated 2 million people expected to die each year from smoking-related illnesses by 2030.

In Germany and the United States, smoking laws are decided at a state level and are patchy – 28 US states have public smoking bans, 10 don't have any state-wide bans of any kind (or at most require designated smoking and non-smoking areas).

It's also true to say that anti-smoking laws in Wales, and the rest of the UK and Europe, are particularly strict compared to most of the world.

Public Attitudes to Smoking

There's clear public support - even from some smokers - for public smoking bans.
(Pic : Newport City Council)
Before considering what policy options might be available, it's worth looking at attitudes towards current restrictions.

A YouGov poll from March 2015 on behalf of Ash Cymru found (pdf) :
  • 81% support the current smoking ban in enclosed public spaces (including 50% of smokers).
  • 60% support banning smoking in cars, while 54% support banning smoking in communal recreational spaces (i.e. playgrounds).
  • 70% support putting tobacco products out of sight in shops, while 83% support introducing licences for tobacco retailers.
  • 78% supported a "help to quit" scheme aimed at 11-25 year olds (none currently exists).
  • 38% of e-cig users said they used them to help them quit smoking, while 20% said they used them to cut down on the amount of cigarettes they smoke. Only 2% believe they're more harmful than cigarettes.
  • A majority (51%) support controlling the advertising and sale of e-cigs in the same way as tobacco.

Smoking Laws in Wales : A Recap
  • Health warnings started to appear on UK tobacco packets in 1971; by 2009 it was mandated that at least one full side of a packet should consist of a health warning.
  • Tobacco advertising was banned in stages between 1989 and 2005.
  • The age to buy tobacco products was raised from 16 to 18 in 2007.
  • Smoking was banned in all enclosed public spaces in Wales in 2007, though other smoking bans (on public transport etc.) have existed for longer.
  • Tobacco vending machines were banned in Wales in 2012.
  • Tobacco displays in supermarkets have had to be kept behind screens since December 2012; this was extended to smaller stores in April 2015.
  • Since October 1st 2015 it's illegal to smoke in a private vehicle whilst in the presence of someone under the age of 18 in Wales.
  • Plain cigarette packaging will be introduced in the UK in May 2016.
  • The Public Health Bill (Wales-only) proposes introducing a ban on smoking and using e-cigs in workplaces, a register of tobacco retailers, extending the age to buy e-cigs to 18 and – as mentioned in Part III – introducing a ban on using e-cigs in enclosed public spaces or designated vehicles.
What could an independent Wales do?
Flavoured tobacco and numerous additives were banned in Brazil in 2012.
(Pic : CBC)
All things considered tobacco is, without a doubt, the most heavily-restricted legal drug.

That means there's very little room to manoeuvre in terms of new smoking policies. If policy-makers are going to continue their clamp down on smoking post-independence, they'll have to be clever and innovative about it.

As I see it there are three broad categories where a final few policies can be squeezed out before we move towards total bans on smoking.

1. Tighter regulation of tobacco and tobacco ingredients
  • Brazil banned all flavoured tobacco in 2012, and only allows 8 additives to be used in tobacco (compared to the usual several hundred). They gave tobacco companies 18 months to withdraw all non-complying tobacco from sale.
  • Work at a global/international level to encourage tobacco farmers to shift from tobacco production to food, perhaps through an EU-ban on tobacco imports from countries that subsidise tobacco production.

2. Make smoking more expensive
  • Smoking employees could pay a tithe as compensation to employers for lost production due to unofficial cigarette breaks. British Heart Foundation research has found full-time smoking employees cost employers up to £1,815 a year, with a figure of £447 for part-time workers.
  • Further hikes in tobacco duties. The current price of a pack of 20 cigarettes ranges from £8-£10, which is a bit more expensive than the equivalent for e-cigarettes. It's been recommended by a cross-party UK Parliament group that the price of a pack of cigarettes should rise to £20, though long-term inflation is likely to take the price that high anyway.
  • Minimum price per cigarette (or equivalent) – if it's being considered for alcohol, then surely the same principle should apply to tobacco?
  • Deliberately introduce lower excise duties for e-cigs than tobacco products.

3. Make smoking more inconvenient
  • Ban supermarkets and convenience stores over a certain size from selling tobacco products, so they can only be bought from smaller specially-licenced retailers or pharmacies.
  • Make cigarettes and cigars smaller in length and thinner so they contain less tobacco and, subsequently, less nicotine. This would be trolling on a national level, but might help shift smokers to e-cigs as part of a harm reduction policy. It would probably have to be led at EU-level though.
  • Limit the amount of tobacco a person can buy at any one time – in the same way sales of things like paracetamol are limited to two packs at a time.
  • Ban smoking tobacco in all public indoor and outdoor spaces - effectively confining smoking to the home, private outdoor business property and private gardens.
  • As has been considered with foetal alcohol syndrome, consider making smoking during pregnancy a criminal offence.
Of course, an independent government could also go against the grain and relax some of the existing rules and restrictions by, for example, reintroducing indoor public smoking through the use of designated smoking rooms, or rejecting things like plain packaging. That's unlikely to happen though.

The Nuclear Option : Can smoking be banned completely?

New Zealand is one of several nations seeking to phase-out smoking over the coming decades.
(Pic : New Zealand Government)
There's a fairly good chance that within a generation or two smoking anywhere other than the home will be illegal. It probably wouldn't take much more effort after that to ban smoking completely.

Medical professionals support an outright ban on smoking, and I'm sure many politicians and public health officials would too. In 2014, the British Medical Association voted in favour of a complete smoking ban, phased in by banning anyone born after 2000 from purchasing or using tobacco.

The situation with regard e-cigs will be a bit more complicated, but once 80%+ of current smokers have switched - which on current trends could happen in the next 20-30 years – there'll probably be a strong enough case to bring the curtain down on cigarettes, cigars and pipes in the same way leaded petrol was replaced by unleaded petrol.

Nobody will really miss it as long as they have an alternative. So there's a decent chance smoking will die out even without a ban.

Only one nation currently has an outright ban on the cultivation, sale and consumption of tobacco products – the devout Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, which passed a law in 2010. However, other countries are set on their way towards phasing out tobacco :
  • Iceland – A former Icelandic health minister introduced a Members' Bill which would have banned tobacco sales and made it a prescription-only drug.
  • New Zealand – In 2011, the New Zealand adopted a goal to make the country smoke-free by 2025.
  • Finland – In 2010, the Finnish Government set out to completely ban smoking by 2040 and already has some of the strictest anti-smoking laws in the world.
  • France – The French Government have long-term goals to abolish smoking over the next 40 years.

Smoking, in a twisted way, has its advantages to the state. It keeps the population down (meaning savings in welfare and pension payments) and it also helps keep income-based taxes down too; after all, you're taxing something people are addicted to so the money's going to roll in.

Like alcohol, if smoking didn't raise more in taxes than was spent on smoking-related illnesses, tobacco/nicotine would probably be an illegal Class A drug.

Imperial Tobacco's headquarters in Bristol.
Before considering whether a total smoking ban is a good idea, check your pension pot.
(Pic : TClarke)

Nevertheless, banning smoking is always going to come with a lengthy list of unintended consequences which would probably put the brakes on it :
  • Criminalisation - Unless they've already diversified, you'll be criminalising tobacco producers, manufacturers and executives overnight, turning them from monkeys in suits into Pablo Escobar. It could well shift tobacco underground and many of the current problems we see with narcotics (Wales on Drugs) - like legal highs, heroin and cocaine - will start to make their way into the tobacco trade. There are already huge problems with counterfeit cigarettes.
  • Legal action – A total smoking ban would almost certainly lead to hefty and damaging lawsuits from tobacco companies – the poor dabs – due to restriction of trade.There's a pretty good chance they would win against a single country, but if it were led a global level, their chances would be slimmer.
  • The economic impact – Criminalising tobacco would destroy the livelihoods of some of the poorest farmers in the world. Some countries actually subsidise tobacco production anyway, and there would well be positives if these farmers are encouraged to switch to food production.
  • The impact on pension schemes and investments – I suspect there's tens of billions of pounds in private money, including many pension schemes, tied up in tobacco companies. Local authorities are said to have up to £2billion of pension investments in tobacco companies alone.
  • Tax – As covered in Part I, smoking generated some £9.6billion in duties for the UK and £421million in Wales alone in 2014-15. Although there would be savings made in the longer-term resulting from a reduction in smoking-related diseases, all those who already have those diseases still require treatment, and there would be a funding gap that would have to be closed – probably by raising taxes elsewhere.

I don't think I could ever support a complete ban – a public use ban certainly, but I suspect that would be the absolute limit the population at large would accept.

Prohibition doesn't work and has never worked, and you imagine what damage it would do if tobacco ended up in an underground economy run by criminals in the same way as other drugs.

If people are going to want to use nicotine, and public health campaigns can't stub it out, then based on the evidence we have, we should be using policy to actively push smokers away from tobacco and towards safer alternatives for nicotine delivery – a policy of harm reduction.



Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Vice Nation : Smoking III - E-Cigarettes : The Facts

(Pic : Times-Herald)


One of the most contentious parts of the Welsh Government's Public Health Bill is a proposed ban on the use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigs/"vaping") in enclosed spaces in Wales (Tattoos, Bans & Bogs).

In August 2015, Public Health England (PHE) published a updated report on e-cigs (pdf) which could be a game-changer in the debate.

What are e-cigarettes and how do they work?

E-cigs were introduced onto the market circa 2004 and work by atomising a liquid by heating it using a battery and filament. The user then breathes in the vapour/aerosol via a cartridge, mimicking smoking a cigarette. E-cig kits normally cost around £40-50 and are rechargeable.

In addition, the liquids come in different flavours – such as fruits - or even mimic the smell and taste of cigarette smoke. The liquid can even be sold without containing nicotine at all, though each refill cartridge can contain the same nicotine as 25 cigarettes and you can usually by a pack of them for under £10.

What chemicals are in e-cigs and their vapour?

The vapour released from e-cigs is riddled with deadly chemical dihydrogen monoxide.
9Pic : via Youtube)

E-liquids predominantly contain propylene glycol, vegetable glycerol, water, flavourings and nicotine.

Propylene glycol and glycerol are routinely used in food and pharmaceutical manufacturing and are almost entirely safe on their own – you have to be exposed to large, undiluted quantities to be harmed. However, it's true to say that these chemicals do change when heated and there's evidence that propylene glycol is an irritant when inhaled; it's actually used in theatre fog. People can also have allergic reactions to it (Grana et. al 2014).

There's little evidence on the long-term effects of inhaling heated propylene glycol, but some industrial chemical companies warn against inhaling it for long periods of time, while it's also been linked to behavioral changes and spleen damage.

Water is, of course, one of the deadliest chemicals known to man.

The flavourings are largely the same chemicals used to flavour jellies, sweets etc. which are themselves more concentrated versions of the chemicals that produce smells and tastes in nature. When these flavours are combined excessively, they might produce harmful compounds - though at a significantly lower level than cigarettes, to the point of being a background risk.

Nicotine is the active component of e-liquids. PHE reviewed 14 academic studies and found that although e-cigs leave deposits on surfaces, one particular study concluded the air in homes of e-cig users contained six-times less ambient nicotine than the homes of smokers (Ballbe et.al. 2014). The nicotine has the same effect as that found in cigarettes (on the circulatory system etc.) so isn't 100% safe in itself.

Who uses e-cigarettes?


As I demonstrated in Part I, smoking tends to be more common amongst deprived groups and in deprived areas. For e-cigarettes (p12), uptake has increased at the same rate across all social classes, though e-cig use is highest amongst ABs (managers and professionals) and C1s (skilled manual workers).

According to the report, a pilot with disposable e-cigarettes has been launched in three prisons in EnglandandWales as offenders and people with mental illnesses are more likely to smoke.  The report even says it's inappropriate to restrict the use of e-cigs in hospitals or prisons unless "there's a strong rationale to do so". Despite this, a ban on smoking in prisons in Wales and south west England is due to come into force in 2016 as part of a phased ban across EnglandandWales.

In terms of e-cigs and their impact on smoking behaviours, in England e-cigs have become the most popular quit smoking aid, overtaking over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapies (like nicotine gum and patches) in 2012-13.

The report states a mix of curiosity, and a desire to quit smoking, are the main reasons for the take up of e-cigs, recommending that people finding themselves in that situation should be offered support to quit smoking completely.

Do e-cigs act as a gateway to cigarette smoking?

This issue has been in the headlines recently following experimental preliminary findings from the National Health Survey (pdf p6) – though it comes with a warning that the results haven't been properly weighted.

It says 6% of Welsh adults currently use e-cigs and 14% had ever used one.

More importantly, use of e-cigs is significantly more common amongst current and former smokers, with only 1% of adults who've never smoked ever using e-cigs, and no recorded current users of e-cigs had taken it up having never smoked before.

One of the Welsh Government's concerns is that e-cigs will normalise and encourage people to take up cigarette smoking ("act as a gateway"), undermining efforts to clamp down on it. There doesn't appear to be any current evidence of it.

However, this isn't necessarily backed up by the PHE report (p37-39), which suggests that although the very concept of the "gateway hypothesis" is flawed, there's a genuine need to carefully monitor "dual-use" (smoking and using e-cigs at the same time), particularly amongst young people.
What are the wider benefits of e-cigs?

There is some limited evidence emerging that e-cigs are useful in getting smokers to quit tobacco.
(Pic : via Pinterest)
A quit smoking aid – There's some evidence that e-cigs help smokers either reduce or completely quit smoking tobacco. The Cochrane Review of randomly controlled trials showed e-cigs which contain nicotine resulted in reduced smoking amongst users when compared to a placebo – however, it was cautioned that the confidence in the results was "low" (p46). Another trial in Flanders (Adriaens et. al. 2014) produced results where 34% of a group of smokers quit within eight weeks of using e-cigs, compared to 0% for those not given e-cigs. Many smoking cessation advisers and practitioners in England are now said to support the use of e-cigs as a quit smoking aid.

Only 4%-5% of the relative risks of smoking – Working to UK Advisory Council on Drugs guidelines, experts concluded that e-cigs have 4% of the relative harm of tobacco (including social harm) and 5% of the relative harm to the user. There's a note of caution : it's accepted there was "a lack of hard evidence for the harms of most of the nicotine products on most of the criteria" during the study. 

"Passive vaping" is unlikely to exist - PHE's report states e-cigs, "release negligible levels of nocotine into ambient air with no identified health risks to bystanders" and that the levels of nicotine absorbed by passive vaping were also negligible (p64-65). E-cig steam is exactly that - mostly water vapour with a trace of nicotine. There's certaintly an argument that public vaping is impolite, but it's massively less harmful than exposure to tobacco smoke.

What are the wider risks of e-cigs?

The major risks associated with e-cigs aren't necessarily related to health.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The liquid can be poisonous if drunk directly – There are high-profile examples of young children being hospitalised after drinking e-cig liquids, and the PHE report says there's at least one unconfirmed death of a 2 year old, as well as attempted suicides through nicotine poisoning. Nearly all e-cig liquids post no real threat as long as they're used as intended and come in child-proof containers.

Poor labelling of contents
– The PHE report says poor labelling is now less common and poses "no major concerns", but there have been examples of nicotine concentrations varying from the label by between -17% and +6%, while trace nicotine has been found in e-liquids labelled as 0% nicotine. They say poorly labelled liquids are more likely to contain less nicotine that the stated amount, which makes it a trading standards issue rather than a health issue.

Faulty rechargers have been linked to house fires – Smoking is a fire hazard in itself, but there've been a number of incidents – including in Wales – where the e-cig chargers have started house fires. It was reported by fire services in EnglandandWales that up to 100 house fires have been linked to e-cig chargers since 2013. Fire services have subsequently issued warnings about the use of fake or faulty chargers.

E-Cigs in Welsh Politics

E-cig ban : The nanny state? Or simply taking precautions?
(Pic : Wales Online)
The Welsh Government are keen to make what they call "evidence-based policy" – meaning they use facts and research to guide policy-making. In the case of the Public Health Bill, Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) has publicly stated the Welsh Government "are not going to wait for proof of harm" with regard e-cigs and will press ahead with an enclosed space ban.

Although the British Medical Association, Public Health Wales and other public health professionals support the Welsh Government, some key opponents to the policy include Ash Cymru, the Royal College of Physicians, the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Tenovus
– presumably because they believe that e-cigs are significantly less harmful than tobacco smoking, so it's better to reduce harmful behaviours than try and change behaviour through force.

In addition, all of the opposition parties in the National Assembly - but the Welsh Lib Dems in particular - have spoken out against the proposal.

In June 2014, a petition was submitted to the National Assembly – which has since gone on to gather 1,200 signatures online – calling for the Welsh Government to re-consider the ban.

What the Welsh Government are doing is illiberal but, like it or not, there's a logic behind the Welsh Government's "precautionary" approach. There are numerous examples throughout history of new products, chemicals and drugs being hailed as wonderful innovations but without the risks or side-effects being rigorously tested beforehand.

Radium and thalidomide are the two of the best examples. Radium was used in all sorts of things, from making glow in the dark paint for signs and clocks, to even being used in bread due to quackery surrounding the supposed "benefits" of being exposed to it. Thalidomide was hailed as a treatment for morning sickness in the 1950s and 1960s.

We now know radium is one of the most radioactive chemicals, and thalidomide led to serious birth defects (though it's still used to treat certain cancers and arthritis). We didn't know these things at the time, and there's always a danger that there could well be something in e-cigs we don't know about too.

Those worries may be misplaced as the quality of chemical and medical testing are as rigorous as they've ever been. If there were seriously dangerous side-effects to e-cigarettes, they probably would've been discovered by now - a few sensationalist headlines in the Mail and Express don't count.

That doesn't, in any way, negate the need for a ban on sales to under-18s, a ban on e-cig advertising, proper regulation of e-cigs and full research on the long-term effects of e-cig use.

It also doesn't, however, justify bans and curbs on usage based on nothing better than a gut feeling.

Part IV looks at the possible policy options with regard smoking and e-cigs post-independence.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Vice Nation : Smoking II - The Risks

(Pic : wordbypicture.com)
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Owen : This was written long before this morning's news from Porthcawl, where it's reported a drunk driver crashed an Audi into a smoking shelter near the Streets nightclub, injuring 13 people. Emergency services declared a major incident and the 24 year old driver has been arrested - though South Wales Police are still appealing for witnesses.

Due to the somewhat ironic content of the blog (given the circumstances) I considered whether to post it or not. A few of the injuries were serious, with reports that some victims had to undergo emergency surgery to their limbs. However, as none of the injuries are said to be life-threatening, I've decided to go ahead anyway.

It looks like everyone involved had a lucky escape as it sounds as though this could've been much, much worse.

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You probably already know this stuff, but it has to be covered. Who says bloggers don't do public service broadcasting?

Friday, 23 October 2015

Vice Nation : Smoking I - A War on Smoking?

All work and no play makes J...*cough-cough-cough-cough-cough*
(Pic : ieltsplanet.info)

Back in February I explored alcohol policy - with one eye on independence - as part of a series of posts which will be spread out over the coming months/years looking at "vices/sins", unoriginally called Vice Nation.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Firefighters Sacked, By-Election Update & Pedestrianisation

(Pic : via Google Earth)

I start in the Ogmore Valley, where a serious row has broken out – as covered on the front page of this week's Glamorgan Gazette - over changes to the terms and conditions for retained fire fighters based at Ogmore Vale fire station.

Because the Ogmore Valley is relatively isolated and a fair distance from the closest full-time fire station (which is probably Bridgend – a good 15 minutes away at the best of times), the retained service is vital.

It's well known that retained/part-time firefighters usually have to remain within 5-10 minutes of their station and are expected to report to the station as quickly as possible after an alarm is raised. Retained firefighters are also normally on call for around 70-80 hours a week, have to take part in mandatory training sessions as well as hold down second jobs.

However, South Wales Fire & Rescue Service (SWFRS) are said to have introduced a new contract which would require them to be on call for 120 hours a week on top of their other jobs. Understandably, this would leave many with a very poor work-life balance.

Reportedly, due to serious recruitment problems Ogmore Vale is the only fire station subject to these new terms. Subsequently, two firefighters refused to sign the new contract - which came into force on 11th October - and were dismissed.

The two firefighters have been named elsewhere, but I wouldn't want to name them here without their permission. What I will say is the two men have a combined 40 years of service between them.

A protest was held at the station last Saturday, attended by local residents and the families of those affected by the changes.

Plaid Cymru's candidate for Ogmore in 2016, Cllr. Tim Thomas (also standing in the council by-election in Ogmore Vale) - who also attended the protest - said :
"Retained firefighters at the Ogmore Vale Fire Station serve Ogmore Vale and the surrounding communities well. Notwithstanding the service they provide, they are ingrained in the local community by the great number of charity events and school visits they perform and almost everyone in the area will know someone who works at the station.

"For this reason I am extremely disappointed by the way firefighters affected by these new contracts have been treated, and I call on South Wales Fire and Rescue to open up talks with the Fire Brigade Union and members.

"I met one family of a firefighter, who has been dismissed for not signing the new contract. Previously, he only had 17 hours free time and was otherwise expected to be within 5 minutes of the station, making family and social life all but impossible. Members of the community I have spoken to want firefighters to have a work life balance to allow them to be focused on the job they so admirably perform."

It was also reported in the Gazette that local politicians Huw Irranca-Davies MP, Janice Gregory AM (both Lab, Ogmore) and Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) have contacted SWFRS on the issue.

Responding in the Gazette, SWFRS rejected the claims, saying no retained firefighter is required to be on call for more than 84 hours a week. They've also stressed this isn't a backdoor attempt to close the station (for more information on SWFRS's plans, see South Wales Fire Review -  Bridgend stations to merge?) and the changes are because "the cover provided by crews on their existing contracts was below that required to maintain 24/7 emergency cover".

Candidates set for Ogmore Vale By-Election

(Pic : Wales Online)

Staying in the Ogmore Valley, the formal list of candidates standing in the Bridgend Council by-election in Ogmore Vale was released recently (doc). It's a surprisingly crowded and high-quality list for a local by-election.

In alphabetical order by party :
  • Jamie Wallis (Con) – Managing director of IT company Fields Group, based in Pencoed. Ogmore Assembly candidate in 2016.
  • Cllr. Ralph Shephard (Ind) – Ex-Labour, contested the ward for the party in 2012. Member of Ogmore Valley Community Council, previously a borough councillor.
  • Dhanisha Patel (Lab) – Legal assistant, previously worked for Citizens Advice Bureau.
  • Cllr. Tim Thomas (Plaid) – Pencoed town councillor and Communities First researcher. Ogmore Assembly candidate in 2016.
  • Sally Hyde (UKIP) – Local government worker. Stood as an Independent in Litchard in 2004.

The Ogmore Valley is arguably one of the most neglected parts of Bridgend county and has always seemed a poor relation compared to the Llynfi and Garw. Nonetheless, it boasts some of the best scenery in the county and is home to the iconic "Bwlch" pass.

In many respects, since the Wyndham Washery closed in the 1980s Ogmore Vale has become a rare example of small town rural life in the otherwise urbanised south Wales valleys. In 2011, the Ogmore Vale ward had a population of just over 3,100.

There's clearly been a sense of dissatisfaction with Bridgend Council in the Ogmore Valley - notably issues surrounding the Berwyn Centre. There've been other controversial decisions in more recent times such as the closure of the Penllwyngwent recycling centre and the expansion of onshore windfarms – the Pant-y-Wal windfarm is on the hills in between Ogmore Vale and Gilfach Goch.

Politically, Ogmore Vale's demographics and characteristics makes it bread and butter Labour territory, but both they – and neighbouring Nantymoel – returned Independents in 2012.

You could see this as primarily a two-way fight between Labour and Independents. However, all five candidates could put up a strong showing for different reasons, giving the four party candidates in particular a very rough idea of how strong their support is going in to the Assembly election campaign.

By-elections normally suffer from incredibly low turn-outs, but even then this might be a close one.

The by-election will be held on Thursday November 12th.

Bridgend Pedestrianisation Debate (Never Ends)

(Pic : bridgend.eu)
Debates on the extent and necessity of pedestrianisation in Bridgend town centre have been going on for as long as I can remember.

It's resurfaced again, with Suzy Davies AM organising a petition alongside Bridgend Conservative Assembly candidate, George Jabbour, calling for a rethink of pedestrianisation.

UPDATE 28/10/15 : The petition has been launched and has been distributed to town centre traders, but if you're interested you can also sign it online here.

I'm not going to bore you with my extensive opinion, namely because the whole issue of pedestrianisation is worthy of a post in itself. I do, however, think the scheme as it currently is has been too extensive – only Adare Street and either Wyndham Street or Caroline Street really needed to be pedestrianised. There's scope to reintroduce limited single-file traffic to some town centre streets along the same lines as the (relatively successful) regeneration of Nolton Street.

I'm old enough to remember what the town centre was like before it was pedestrianised, and it wasn't the halcyon shoppers paradise people think it was. Bridgend used to be a very grubby, traffic-congested town and excessive on-street parking often made it dangerous to cross the road. Most of the traffic was going through the town centre, not stopping in it. It looked busy, but these were the days before internet shopping and out-of-town retail parks.

If you're interested in seeing what Bridgend used to be like before pedestrianisation, then I highly recommend local historian Louvain Rees' (Hello Historia) Remembering Bridgend Facebook group.

There's also this bus-tacular video :



Of course, the traffic problems wouldn't be so bad now because of the cross valley link road.

We all want lively high streets, but it's going to take smart planning as well as significant public and private sector investment. It's not a black and white choice between traffic or traffic-free, it comes down to whether you have a Debenhams or Next on the high street, or pound shops and charity shops
(see also : Bridgend Town Centre - Answering Carwyn's Call).

There is a bit more news on this too.

In the letters section of this week's Gazette, amidst his usual party political blustering and unfortunate "Y'all ain't from round these parts" comments, Council Leader Cllr. Mel Nott (Lab, Sarn) indicated Bridgend Council are reviewing pedestrianisation and are preparing a report that will be published in due course. When they have something further, I'll cover it here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Draft Wales Bill (Number Two)


(Pic : ITV Wales)
Yesterday, the Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.) introduced the draft Wales Bill to the UK Parliament on behalf of the UK Government – you can read it here (pdf).

Monday, 19 October 2015

Cesspool on the Taff?

Pollution in Cardiff Bay isn't just confined to the air and the water.
(Pic : Wales Online)

To paraphrase a famous episode of The Simpsons, what we now call Cardiff Bay used to be a stagnant swamp, and very little has changed. It stank then, and it stinks now.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Camera Shy

(Pic : Bridgend Council via Moodle)

As I've covered previously, plans were announced in December 2013 for webcasting Bridgend Council (BCBC) meetings (Council webcasts coming to Bridgend?). After numerous delays (due to technical problems), this September was to see the start of webcasting. Detailed plans outlined that planning committee meetings would be broadcast as standard, alongside other key council meetings when warranted (New Date Set for Council Webcasts).

Thursday, 15 October 2015

AMs take swipe at Trade Union Bill

The post-devolution "partnership working" between unions, employers and employees
in Wales looks set to be threatened by the UK Government's draconian Trade Union Bill.
(Pic : Wales Online)

Shwmae. Yesterday, the Assembly held another backbench members debate, this time related to one of the most controversial laws introduced for a long time in the UK Parliament.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

A Comprehensive Review of Welsh Law-Making

We voted to give AMs law-making powers in 2011, so how has the process been handled since?
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)

Making new laws is the National Assembly's most important function, though it's a role that – apart from a few high-profile cases like the Human Transplantation Act 2013 – draws little in the way of media coverage or scrutiny.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Son of a Beech : Parc Slip Update

Parc Slip opencast, April 2015.
(Pic : via Google Earth)

There were further – perhaps significant - developments on the Parc Slip opencast mine saga over the last fortnight, with Bridgend Council's Planning Committee provided with an update by officers ahead of their meeting on Thursday (15th October) – which you can read here (pdf).

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Minister updates Senedd on refugee response

(Pic : Al-Jazeera)
The Syrian refugee crisis has slipped off the front pages in the last fortnight due to Russian military intervention in the conflict, the latest catastrophic brain fart from the US Air Force and party conference season.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Bridgend Council offices set for £3.8million revamp

"Angel Street is falling down, falling down, falling down...."
(Pic : Wales Online)

Bridgend Council's (BCBC) annual report (pdf) and an updated capital programme (pdf) are due to be discussed at cabinet and full council this week, as councillors prepare to start the process of setting next year's budget.

Monday, 5 October 2015

The conspiracy at the heart of Welsh Government

"There's the three-pronged logos, lots of red, the brutalist architecture of the government headquarters...."

Opposition AMs and prominent members of the Bay Bubble erupted into a convulsive rage last week following an announcement that the Welsh Government will no longer publish ministerial decision reports.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Armed Forces School Visits Debated

(Pic : Education Business Partnership West Berkshire)

In June, the Assembly's Petitions Committee published a report (pdf) into armed forces recruitment, following a petition from Cymdeithas y Cymod – which garnered more than 1,000 signatures – calling for the military to be banned from visiting schools for recruitment purposes.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Local Government Bill edges towards statute book

As the law outlining how councils can voluntarily merger reaches its
conclusion, opposition AMs tabled important amendments.
(Pic : Wales Online)

The Local Government Bill outlines how the 22 local authorities can merge voluntarily in light of the new proposed map for local government which has been formed as part of the fallout from the Williams Commission (Back to the Future). On Tuesday (29th September), the Bill was debated at Stage 3, where amendments can be added by AMs.

Any voluntarily-merged authorities will come into being by May 2018, but a second local government law on compulsory mergers will be introduced after the National Assembly election next year, which makes you question if this Bill is really all that necessary.

Anyway, the content of the Bill isn't particularly exciting in itself, but there were a number of amendments tabled by AMs which could (have) add(ed) significant meat to the Bill.

You can read a full list of amendments here (pdf), but I'm going to focus on some of the more significant ones and what AMs and the Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), had to say.

Local Referendums on Council Mergers
  • Amendments 14, 26 and 27 – all introduced by Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy).
  • Proposes that voluntary local authority mergers be approved by a majority of voters in each merging authority.
  • Proposes the question on ballot papers : "Are you in favour of the proposed merger between [ ] and [ ]?".

Janet argued that any changes need to be driven by local people and communities in a way which strengthens the democratic process. Council mergers would have a "profound effect" on all residents involved and it's right they have a say, with Labour placing "proud counties" under threat without consultation. Referendums would mean mergers will have to be justified accordingly.

Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) said his party accepts the point on extra consultation including in amendment 14, but rejects the case for referendums, as we shouldn't allow local considerations to interfere with process at a national level – saying there was no referendum or much in the way of consultation when the Conservatives reorganised local government in 1994-1996. He said referendums were a way of "hiding lack of vision".

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said referendums were the wrong way to approach it, though the Lib Dems would support amendment 14. There was a need to draw a line between national leadership and local determination, and the Assembly was best placed to determine the shape of local services. Peter criticised the Bill as "no longer necessary", adding that the Lib Dems wouldn't support the Bill at all unless their amendments were accepted.

The Minister said the amendments were unnecessary, again raising the point that there were no referendums for previous local government reorganisations in the 1970s and 1990s. Authorities must undertake "full and comprehensive" public consultation as set out in the Bill, so it was already delivering key points of amendment 14. He urged AMs to vote down the referendum amendments as there wasn't enough detail on the campaign periods, spending limits or costings for referendums – which Leighton estimated would cost between £100,000-£400,000 per local authority.

Amendment 14 tied in the vote 27-27, with the Deputy Presiding Officer used his casting vote against the amendment – as is convention. Amendment 26 was rejected by 13 votes to 41 meaning Amendment 27 was rejected too.

The Election Cycle

  • Amendment 17 – introduced by Janet Finch-Saunders AM
  • Proposes that elections cannot be cancelled/postponed under the Bill if it results in councillors serving terms greater than 5 years in length.


One of the carrots dangled in front of local authorities to encourage them to merge voluntarily is that councillors will have their terms extended until the first elections of the combined local authority – meaning councillors will be able to pick up their allowances and salaries for longer than they otherwise would.

Janet told the Assembly it was crucial that councillors aren't serving more time than they were democratically elected to do. Extending terms without facing re-election was "an affront to democracy, public accountability and transparency".

The Minister said that the amendment would create uncertainty and distraction in the lead up to a voluntary merger. He said cancelling elections was "not something we would do lightly", but it would otherwise mean bringing forward the merged authority to May 2017 – which was unachievable given the timetables involved. He asked who would want to stand for election for an authority that has less than a year left?

There were 18 votes in favour, 27 votes against and 9 (Plaid Cymru) abstentions, so the amendment was rejected.

The Electoral System for Local Authorities
  • Amendments 5, 13, 28, 30 and 31 – all introduced by Peter Black AM
  • Proposes the electoral system for local government be changed to Single Transferable Vote, where voters rank candidates in order of preference.

These are probably the most important ones, or the amendments I was most interested in.

Peter Black AM said Leighton Andrews understands STV as he fought an election in Gillingham in support of introducing it, adding that it produces a fair outcome for election. Creating larger authorities with fewer councillors should mean ensuring elections reflect how people vote. It would lead to a more transparent, more accountable local authority that's representative of its communities.

Simon Thomas AM offered Plaid Cymru's support to the amendments, saying STV had been introduced with little difficulty in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and at local elections in Scotland. He said it was a far more effective way of "opening up the electoral process" by ending unopposed elections, adding that one thing that stops people standing against incumbent councillors in rural areas was a "personal element" which is interpreted as a grudge. Simon said STV would challenge all parties, but they have to decide what's best for the whole nation, and ensure every vote counts.

In response, the Minister said Labour were elected on a platform of opposing any change to the local government election system, and the rejection of the Alternative Vote in a 2011 referendum reflects that voters don't want to change the system either.

14 AMs voted in favour of Amendment 5, 40 voted against, so all the amendments were rejected.