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?

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Senedd/Election Watch - March 2016



  • Celebrations were held to mark the tenth anniversary of the official opening of the Senedd building on March 1st. Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) said the Senedd hasestablished itself as a central part of Welsh public life".
  • The Communities and Local Government Committee recommended the BBC spend an additional £30million on Welsh programming, that an Assembly media committee be established and that S4C's funding and remit be considered separate from the BBC as part of its recommendations on BBC Charter renewal.
  • In their report on the draft Local Government Bill, the Communities Committee recommended the Welsh Government provide loans of up to £246million to councils to cover the upfront costs of proposed mergers. The Committee said it was, "unrealistic....to expect authorities to meet upfront costs without....assistance."
  • Plaid Cymru criticised cuts to schools careers advice with the budget and workforce for Careers Wales halving since 2010-11, leaving as few as 40 careers advisers for Welsh secondary schools by the end of 2016. Rhun ap Iorweth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said, "There’s a danger that pupils can go through school with....no careers support.”
  • On March 7th, the First Minister unveiled the Welsh Government's “alternative draft Wales Bill”, which included proposals such as : a formal name change of the National Assembly to Welsh Parliament, devolution of criminal justice in 2026, the creation of a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction and the creation of a Welsh Law Commissioner.
  • The Public Services Ombudsman said out-of-hours NHS services needed a systemic review after a number of cases highlighted “inadequate standards of care” and were not “one off incidents”. The Welsh Government said it took the issue seriously, but wanted more focus and cooperation instead of a “diktat”.
    • The Finance Committee recommended the Fifth Assembly introduce a law to strengthen the powers of the Public Services Ombudsman, including investigatory powers, complaints handling across public services and extending jurisdiction to private health providers.
  • A report for the Welsh Government – coinciding with International Womens' Day – said more women needed to be encouraged into science and engineering and that a “critical shortage” of female scientists and engineers was hampering the Welsh economy. Also, prominent present and former women athletes called for more coverage of womens' sport.
  • The Environment Committee said Wales should produce 100% of its energy requirements from renewables following their inquiry into the future of energy production. They also recommended setting annual targets to reduce energy demand, reviewing building regulations on energy efficiency and establishing a not-for-profit “umbrella company” for locally-produced energy.
  • The National Assembly unanimously approved the Tax Collection & Management Bill on March 8th. The Act will create a Welsh Revenue Authority to collect devolved taxes – such as landfill tax and stamp duty - from 2018.
  • AMs voted in favour of a partial ban on the use of e-cigarettes in some public places – notably schools, places where food is served and public transport – as part of Stage 3 amendments to the Public Health Wales Bill. However, the Bill was rejected by the Assembly on March 16th by 27 votes to 26 after Plaid Cymru were derided as a “cheap date” earlier in the day by Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), for reaching easy agreement on the Local Government Act.
    • Dafydd Elis Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) felt “personally betrayed” by Plaid's sudden u-turn whilst he attended the House of Lords, describing it as one of the lowest points of his time in office. Plaid were also ridiculed by the Liberal Democrats for voting down the law for “farcical” reasons, though the u-turn was welcomed.
  • A report on the M4 Newport relief road suggests it could cost as much as £1.1billion, despite the First Minister's previous claims the project would cost “nowhere near” £1billion. Draft orders for compulsory purchase of land were issued on March 24th, though no official go ahead can be given until after the Assembly election.
  • The Welsh Government started legal action against Lambert Smith Hampton as a result of the RIFW scandal. The National Assembly debated the Public Accounts Committee report on March 16th and unanimously agreed to note its recommendations.
  • The Finance Committee's inquiry into how Wales is funded recommended a “long-lasting” commitment to fair funding, and said arrangements for fair funding needed to be finalised before taxes are devolved. They also recommended this be put on a statutory basis and an independent body be formed to create a transparent system for funding the devolved administrations.
  • In his UK Budget on March 16th, UK Chancellor George Osborne announced : Severn Bridge tolls would be halved in 2018, tax breaks for a proposed Port Talbot enterprise zone and the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks from 2018. An extra £3.5billion in spending cuts were also announced.
    • In addition, a £1.2billion “city deal” covering 10 local authorities in south east Wales was signed on March 15th. The money will be used to develop the south Wales metro, establish a semi-conductor cluster and create an innovation district.
  • Iain Duncan Smith resigned as UK Work and Pensions Secretary after opposing cuts to disability benefits. The Prime Minister was “puzzled and disappointed” by the decision. Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.) was appointed as his replacement, while Alun Cairns MP (Con, Vale of Glamorgan) was promoted to Welsh Secretary.
  • The Enterprise & Business Committee recommended a deadline of 2018 be set to introduce an all-Wales travel smart card as part of its inquiry into buses and community transport. Chair William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) said, “It is technologically possible and passengers want it. The incoming transport minister will need to drive this initiative from day one."
    • On March 23th, Economy and Transport Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) announced a Transport Commissioner for Wales – one of the recommendations of the report – would be created, subject to UK Government approval.
    • A second Enterprise and Business Committee report into rail infrastructure recommended a business case be drafted to electrify the north Wales mainline, enhanced services between Aberystwyth and the English Midlands and the redevelopment of Cardiff Central station.
  • Education Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), launched new teacher training guidelines for university courses, including new two-year postgraduate courses and greater specialisation for primary school teachers. The intention is to create the “toughest and best” teacher training system in the UK.
  • A Public Accounts Committee report into Cardiff Airport criticised the lack of a “long-term growth plan” and a lack of progress against business plans. The Welsh Government said passenger satisfaction levels were at an all-time high and passenger numbers were increasing.
  • On March 30th, Tata's executive board announced it would consider selling its UK steel-making business – which includes plants in Port Talbot, Newport, Llanelli and Shotton – after rejecting a restructuring plan.
    • The UK Government and Welsh Government issued a joint statement saying they were “considering all the options” for the Port Talbot plant in particular, including a management buy-out - though the Prime Minster ruled out nationalisation on March 31st. The Llywydd recalled the National Assembly  from Easter recess to discuss the issue on April 4th.

Projects announced in March include : A £26million Welsh Government-EU investment in a solar energy research centre in Port Talbot; a new £6million National Autism Service to be rolled out over the next three years; the launch of a transgender action plan; a £3.2million upgrade to three sports sites in north Wales; a new IT system to track hospital infections in “real time”; £12.8million for regeneration projects and £10.3million for 94 new ambulances.



  • The Welsh Conservatives pledged to start construction of an M4 Newport bypass “within 12 months” should they form the next government, but will review all options beforehand. They accused Labour of “dithering” on the issue and later said a Labour-Plaid coalition would lead to the project's cancellation.
  • The Lib Dems pledged to include a carbon impact assessment on every new piece of legislation and would submit a carbon budget alongside annual budgets. William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales) said, “It is only the Welsh Liberal Democrats who have the ambition....that Wales needs to tackle climate change and grow our green economy.”
  • At Plaid Cymru's spring conference in Llanelli, Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, South Wales Central), said voters has been “taken for granted” by Labour and repeated key campaign pledges such as recruiting an extra 1,000 medical staff, scrapping home care charges for the elderly and the creation of a economic development agency.
  • Plaid also ruled out making a coalition with Labour if the latter press ahead with plans to construct an M4 Newport bypass. Leanne Wood said, “focusing spending on one small corner of the nation is completely unacceptable.”
  • The Green Party in Wales outlined their housing proposals, including a commitment to building 12,000 new homes a year, guarantees that a minimum proportion of those would be social housing and extra help on fuel efficiency.
  • The Conservatives unveiled proposals for a hospital rating system and measures to “boost patient choice” such as giving patients a right to choose their GP and hospital. They also proposed an NHS Safety Bill. Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West) said, “We want to see an NHS underpinned by patient responsibility and choice - supported by record levels of funding and investment.”
  • UKIP unveiled their regional candidates on March 7th, which includes former MPs Neil Hamilton and Mark Reckless. Nathan Gill MEP – who topped the list in North Wales - said, “The Welsh membership have now had their say....Now is the time for all of us to move forward united and to campaign to bring real change to the political establishment in Cardiff Bay.”
  • The Conservatives would treble the number of hours of free childcare from 10 hours a week to 30. Shadow Education Minister, Angela Burns (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) said “It is currently very difficult for working parents to take advantage of....free childcare, especially as provision frequently has to spread over five days.” UKIP would increase the number of child minders by allowing them to work without regulatory approval.
  • At their spring conference in Llangollen, the Conservatives unveiled key policies, such as capping residential care costs at £400 a week, guaranteeing extra funds for the NHS and directing more money to classrooms. Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said he also wanted to make Wales the UK's “low tax capital”.
  • The Lib Dems pledged to extend the Nurse Staffing Levels Act to cover maternity wards, mental health wards and community nurses. Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) said, “We all want NHS staff to have the time to care for our loved ones, which is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats will deliver safe staffing levels across the NHS.”
  • The Wales Green Party launched its election campaign on March 21st, pledging to scrap tuition fees for Welsh-domiciled students, end school closures and “protect front line public services”. Party leader, Alice Hooker-Stroud, said “From public transport to our health care, to our education, it's time to put the public first.”
  • Plaid Cymru's PCC candidate for Dyfed Powys, Dafydd Llywelyn, said the new EnglandandWales helicopter service was letting down the force area after a FOI request revealed 86% of requests for air support beween 8pm and 8am weren't honoured, despite promises of 24-hour cover.
  • Plaid Cymru pledged to reform the “regressive” council tax which could result in those in the lowest council tax bands paying up to £400 a year less, while they also pledged not to change income tax rates during the Fifth Assembly. They also called for civil service reform to fix a “conservative and risk-averse” culture.
  • The Conservatives would make 70,000 extra homes available for rent or purchase and would retain the “right-to-buy” as well as scrap stamp duty for first time buyers who buy homes worth less than £250,000.
  • Plaid Cymru would offer education, employment or training to everyone under the age of 25 who's been seeking work for four months as part of plans for “cradle to career” support – which would also see the creation of 50,000 apprenticeships. Llanelli candidate, Helen Mary Jones said, “We will work to ensure that no young person in Wales is left behind.”
  • Labour's PCC candidate for North Wales, David Taylor, was criticised by civil justice campaigners for stigmatising the unemployed and mentally ill after pledging a “war on wasters” and zero tolerance towards anti-social behaviour, vandalism and public drinking.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Election 2016 - State of the Parties : Greens & UKIP



They were once pretenders, however their presence has grown to such an extent that the two largest parties outside the "Big Four" now warrant close examination as Wales edges towards "five/six party politics".

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Election 2016 : The Key Issues



With the 2016 National Assembly election campaign about to kick into full swing, it's worth taking a look at the key issues over which the parties will be fighting for our votes.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Fourth Assembly Review : End of Term Awards

The stage is (not) set, the red carpet is (not) laid out....
(Pic : modified via Shutterstock)

After focusing on what they've collectively done or haven't done, it's worth turning attentions to AMs themselves and being "nice to them".

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Fourth Assembly Review : Final Verdict

(Pic : The Guardian)

Here's a final round-up of how the Welsh Government and opposition party leaders have performed as the Fourth Assembly draws to a close.



Office of First Minister; Constitutional & Legislative Affairs

  • First Minister : Carwyn Jones (2011-2016)
  • Counsel General : Theodore Huckle QC (2011-2016)

C+

Does Carwyn display leadership credentials? I say yes on the whole and it's hard to picture anyone else on the Labour front bench being able to replace him. Carwyn also thinks very carefully before acting – which should be considered a good trait in a political leader – but he seems to be a bit slow to move from talking about doing something to actually doing something.

I wouldn't say he's smug, but it's clear Carwyn thinks he's above the opposition leaders and finds FMQs a chore; in all honesty, you can't blame him. He finds it all too easy to bat off questions – presumably because of his background as a barrister – and he'll often find agreement with Plaid and Lib Dems on certain matters of policy. As a result he's rarely put under any pressure at all, but comes across as a bit too laid back.

The Counsel General had a more prominent role this term and racked up a 2-1 victory over the UK Attorney General after three Welsh laws were challenged in the Supreme Court. He did his job – nothing good or bad you can say about that. He could well play a key role in the argument for some sort of Welsh legal jurisdiction in the future, but AMs seem reluctant to ask him questions – Simon Thomas and Mick Antoniw aside.

Finance & Leader of the House

  • Minister : Jane Hutt (2011-2016)

B-

Finance Minister is one of the duller postings in the Welsh Government, but it requires a strong hand and a cool head to deal with competing priorities. Jane might not have set the world alight in other roles down the years, but I'd say she's found her niche and that could stand her in good stead if she decides to make a leadership bid in the future. Maybe she's shown a bit too much favouritism to the NHS in her budgets, but I'd say her overall management of the nation's finances has been sound, with cautiously sensible proposals for the management of devolved taxes in the Fifth Assembly.

Considering the time and manpower constraints, the Assembly's calendar has been well-managed, with the introduction of topical individual members debates bringing more relevant discussions into the chamber. However, the weekly business statement announcements verged on pointless as Jane always has an excuse on hand not to hold a debate or support a ministerial statement - which clearly frustrated many AMs over the last five years.

Economy, Science & Transport

  • Ministers : Edwina Hart (2011-2016),
  • Deputy Ministers : Jeff Cuthbert (2011-2013), Ken Skates (2013-2014), Julie James (2014-2016)

B

It started very wobbly indeed, but in the end – and with evidence to back it up – it's hard to argue against Edwina Hart's stint here being anything other than a success and she's leaving the Assembly on a high.

Unemployment's down, there are some big schemes on the table on in the pipeline and the Welsh economy has been through a period of growth. The only real criticisms would be her department's failure to properly implement reforms to business rates while it's clear that some of Edwina's actions have been unnecessarily combative – the closure of Junction 41 in Port Talbot, for example.

Ken Skates' brief stint as Deputy Minister for Skills was a rare ministerial highlight as he oversaw the rapid expansion of Jobs Growth Wales, which made the decision to move him in 2014 all the stranger.

Health & Social Services

  • Ministers : Lesley Griffiths (2011-2013), Mark Drakeford (2013-2016),
  • Deputy Ministers : Gwenda Thomas (2011-2014), Vaughan Gething (2014-2016)

D

Health is the big area of policy failure for Labour, mainly due to service failures rather than their intent to make improvements. They've passed three significant laws on health and social services this term – Hygiene Ratings Act, Human Transplantation Act, Social Services & Wellbeing Act – but not without controversy or incident, such as the original proposals for vaping in the Public Health Bill (which ultimately failed) and the smacking ban.

I've said enough about their policy performance, so I'll focus on the ministers themselves. It was quite clear that Lesley Griffiths was out of her depth and lost control of matters at times. While Mark Drakeford brought a more considered intellectualism to the post he's hardly set the world alight either. There's a real danger that Health Minister is going to become the post nobody wants.

Although he was perhaps too slow to act on the McClelland review's recommendations on ambulance services, Vaughan Gething has, at times, shown why he's so highly thought of and it's a racing certainty he'll become a full minister in the Fifth Assembly.

Education & Skills

  • Ministers : Leighton Andrews (2011-2013), Huw Lewis (2013-2016)
  • Deputy Ministers : Jeff Cuthbert (2011-2013), Ken Skates (2013-2014), Julie James (2014-2016)

C+

A mixed bag though, broadly-speaking, Huw Lewis is leaving the Assembly on a political high. This area of policy hasn't perhaps got the critical attention it deserves in the Welsh media – aside from the PISA results and big changes like the Donaldson Review. It's fair to say there've been a number of big policy announcements through the Fourth Assembly, and exam results have gradually improved.

The Lib Dems can take some credit here for their Pupil Deprivation Grant – though it's probably going to be some time until the effectiveness of it is properly analysed. Money in education has been a major theme, with Labour committing to keeping schools budgets at 1% above any changes to the block grant (and it's believed they didn't keep that promise over the whole term). Meanwhile, the increasingly controversial tuition fee policy, while being well-meant, seems financially damaging in the medium to long term.

So although the raw numbers point towards improvement of sorts, there's been a bit too much knee-jerk tinkering – though the difference in attitudes between Leighton Andrews (more proactive and directly-influential) and Huw Lewis (more collaborative) was marked.

Environment, Natural Resources & Rural Affairs

  • Ministers : John Griffiths (2011-2014), Alun Davies (2013-2014), Carl Sargeant (2014-2016)
  • Deputy Ministers : Alun Davies (2011-2013), Rebecca Evans (2014-2016)

C+

The intentions are good but, as always with Welsh Labour, the actions weren't there in abundance. Wales' excellent record on recycling has held up, but there were a number of issues – particularly open-cast mining and fracking – where Carl Sargeant was very good at talking the talk but lacking any real bite.

The Welsh Government passed landmark legislation on planning and the environment – the latter committing Wales to meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets. Also, the intent of another "landmark" law on future generations/sustainable development was welcomed, but the implementation was a damp squib.

On rural affairs, there were several major developments with the first Deputy Minister, Alun Davies, picking a fight with the Supreme Court over agricultural wages, forcing a law through the Assembly using emergency legislation powers; a fight he ultimately won. Then he finally oversaw action on stray horses – which has been a particular problem in south west Wales – though again he used emergency powers to see the law though. His stint in the job – which polarised the farming community – came to a rather ignominious end.

His replacement, Rebecca Evans – one of the quietly impressive performers this term - faced with her own immediate problems, particularly a crisis in milk prices which prompted a very quick and efficient review of the dairy sector. It come up with a number of ideas such as a new leadership board and possible milk processing facility in south west Wales.

Local Government, Communities, Housing & Regeneration

  • Ministers : Carl Sargeant (2011-2014), Huw Lewis (2013), Lesley Griffiths (2013-2016), Jeff Cuthbert (2013-2014), Leighton Andrews (2014-2016)
  • Deputy Ministers : Vaughan Gething (2013-2014)

C+

The overarching issue here has been local government reorganisation as facilitated by the Williams Commission. As mentioned earlier this week, what the whole process has failed to do is properly determine what local government is and what is should be responsible for. The map should've been an after thought.

This group of ministers also oversaw one of the worst scandals of the term in the form of RIFW, though they made up for that somewhat with the less ambitious replacement scheme, Vibrant & Viable Places.

For the first time in post-devolution Wales a minister was given specific responsibility to address high levels of relative poverty, and to date – in the absence of any meaningful level to make an impact, like the benefits system – little progress has been made.

However, several major laws relating to housing have been passed, one of which makes major changes to homelessness provision, while the other outlines significant reforms to the private rental market. Whether there are enough houses being built in the first place is another matter. Also, Labour kept one of their key 2011 manifesto pledges by recruiting at least 500 extra PCSOs.

Culture, Heritage, Welsh Language & Sport

  • Ministers & Deputy Ministers : Huw Lewis (2011-2013), John Griffiths (2013-2014), Carwyn Jones (2013-2016), Ken Skates (2014-2016)

C

Another area where, while not really doing anything wrong, the Welsh Government probably could've done more. There's provisional evidence that 2012 London Olympics have had a positive knock-on impact on sports participation, but whether that lasts without proper funding is up for debate. It's a similar situation with the arts in Wales; as it's seen as "low hanging fruit" by local authorities many arts schemes, particularly music, have been victims of cuts.

Elsewhere, concerns have been raised about Wales' place in the new BBC Charter and future of public service broadcasting – particularly the long-term future of S4C – as the decline in the Welsh print media continues. A lot's been said but, as it typical, very little has happened with the Welsh Government appearing toothless as broadcasting  powers are non-devolved.

One area where they've bared their teeth this term is heritage, with the passing of the Historic Environment Act being an attempt to afford more protection to monuments and historic buildings – though perhaps not going as far as it should've, with ministers wimping out of a merger between Cadw and the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments.

The position of the Welsh language has been awkward – particularly since the 2011 census findings, as well as the decision by the First Minister to take direct responsibility for Welsh language policy in 2013. Nevertheless, Welsh was made an official language in the National Assembly (with equal status to English) for the first time, while a (large and perhaps pedantic) number of standards for Welsh in public services were introduced.

Opposition Leaders

Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central)

B- personally; B- party

It's been a clear period of personal and professional growth, and despite some suspect moments of his leadership, Andrew took to the role of Leader of the Opposition pretty well and can be relatively pleased with his performance this term. He isn't perfect, but he does occasionally rile the First Minister – though it's sometimes hard to tell whether he's a mouthpiece for the UK Government or not.

The Tories have gone big on health and have, in some parts of Wales, managed to sew some doubts in people's minds on certain aspects – though it all seems a little repetitive. Following the Wales Bill(s) and future devolution of income tax they can, to a certain degree, say they are a pro-devolution party, though the EU referendum perhaps threatens to cause divisions. After a good result at the 2015 Westminster election, both Andrew himself and his party have reason to be upbeat going into the Assembly election....that still doesn't mean Andrew's coming out of it as First Minister.

Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central)

B+ personally; C+ party

This term has seen Leanne Wood rise from being part of the fringe of Plaid's backbenches to one of the more well-known politicians in Wales. At a personal level that's an incredible achievement. Leanne has always come across as down to earth, if a little self-righteous, so I don't believe there's any overconfidence there and she has every reason to believe in herself considering her political journey. The real danger is if the rest of her party believe their own hype. That's only going to end in tears.

Plaid haven't set the world alight over the last five years. Despite worthy attempts to professionalise their front bench, the positive reforms have occurred behind the scenes with the development of a strong "Brand Plaid". I'll come back to this in more detail later on in the campaign, but the good news is that Plaid haven't gone backwards and have stopped the rot from 2011. Their problem is a lack of demonstrable forward momentum.

Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)

A personally; B party

Kirsty Williams is, without doubt, an excellent AM and excellent party leader. She managed to draw some significant concessions from the Welsh Government and the Lib Dems have passed two laws, including the Nurse Staffing Levels Act. That should count as a real triumph considering Labour's reluctance to take on board any suggestion on health and it's something Lib Dem activists can take to voters.

The party do genuinely punch above their weight – I'm tired of saying that, but it's the truth – and they can be proud of their record in the Fourth Assembly. Hand on heart I say that none of the Lib Dems AMs deserve to be on the end of a kicking in a few weeks time, but it's coming and I doubt I'll be the only one wincing when steel-toe boot makes contact with Lib Dem backside.

Overall Verdict

If the big theme of next term will be the devolution of taxes, the big theme this term was the Assembly's new law-making powers following the 2011 referendum. By and large, AMs and Assembly staff have proven they're more than capable of handling those powers.

The laws themselves, however, have been a mixed bag, with some genuinely groundbreaking legislation introduced alongside some very vague or downright useless laws which will probably be repealed sooner rather than later – the Future Generations Act somes to mind. I would prefer a focus on quality over quantity of legislation next term; it's better to have 10-12 good laws than the 30 or so glib laws we've seen over the past five years.

Although the opposition have certainly caused problems for Labour this term, their fractured and disunited nature - mainly due to big ideological differences - has given Labour an easy ride. That looks set to continue in the Fifth Assembly. Until Labour's "right to rule" is properly challenged (as it was, but for the wrong reasons on Wednesday), the Assembly's stuck in a rut. Maybe, for the good of the country and the future of democracy in Wales, the main opposition parties will have to put some of their differences aside and work together on some aspects.

Lack of ambition, micromanagement, laziness, cronyism – Welsh Labour have them all in spades and displayed them all this term.

Their rule of Wales over the last five years - while not being a complete catastrophe, more a cosy marriage that neither partner has the guts to call off – can be summed up as, "not good enough". The problem for the rest of us - unless you actually support Labour - is that we seem depressingly comfortable with "not good enough."


Tomorrow, I'm going to "do something nice" (or perhaps not so nice) and conclude my look back at the Fourth Assembly by handing out my end of term "awards".

Friday, 18 March 2016

Senedd on the Buses

(Pic : greentraveller.co.uk)

I couldn't let the Assembly term come to an end without giving "my favourite committee" – Enterprise and Business – a proper send off; and it could well be the last time I do this anyway.

In what's likely to be amongst the last official business of the Fourth Assembly, the Committee today launched their report on buses and community transport (pdf). It's a sequel of sorts to their excellent integrated transport inquiry from 2013.

Buses could be seen as the "Cinderella service" of public transport, with falling passenger numbers (-19% between 2008-2015), falling routes (-46% reduction between 2005-2015) and cuts to funding. The Assembly's Petitions Committee also received three petitions concerning bus services during the Fourth Assembly, receiving a combined 914 signatures.

In addition, while 58% of urban responders to the Committee's survey and consultation said they could go anywhere by bus, just 48% of rural responders agreed.

There were 12 recommendations, summarised as :
  • The Welsh Government should develop a community transport strategy in co-operation with the sector.
  • The Welsh Government should take note of good financial and policy practice elsewhere in the UK, particularly the adoption of an English-style "Total Transport" policy.
  • The Welsh Government should ensure concessionary fares are targeted at those who most need them so increasingly scarce resources aren't diverted. They should also review how community transport operators are reimbursed.
  • The Committee supports calls for greater powers over bus services, but as "a matter of urgency" Wales should establish its own Traffic Commissioner.
  • The Welsh Government should ensure the introduction of Bus Quality Standards is well-resourced.
  • The Welsh Government should set a deadline of 2018 to introduce an integrated ticketing system (i.e. "Welsh Oyster Card") for use on all rail, commercial bus and Metro services.

The State of the Industry

The picture for bus services outside Greater London is described as "not good". In 2015-16 alone, 53 services were withdrawn, reduced or altered by Welsh local authorities – some local authorities, like Neath Port Talbot and Wrexham have ended all subsidies to bus companies.

The Welsh Government's Bus Service Support Grant has been frozen at £25million since 2013-14, while bus fares rose 1% above inflation in 2014, compared to 0.6% in England and 0.3% in Scotland.

Despite the introduction of free bus passes for over-60s, the Older People's Commissioner said cuts to bus services had a real impact on people, leaving older people in particular "more susceptible to loneliness and social isolation" which impacts their physical as well as mental health.

Despite the gloomy picture, nobody said the bus industry was in "crisis", with a number of new and old operators continuing to thrive and some genuinely good service performances in some parts of Wales.

"Total Transport" is the latest buzz-word/initiative in England, and means bus contracts for school and health transport are procured alongside mainstream commercial services to prevent replication and waste of funding.

In Wales, the Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) and her department have actively explored the introduction of voluntary Bus Quality Standards which will set out a number of essential service requirements prospective bus operators will have to meet to receive grants.

Community transport is different to commercial bus transport in that it tends to operate on lesser-used routes as a not-for-profit public service based on a community's needs - sometimes run by volunteers. The trends are positive with the number of journeys increasing from 1.2million in 2010 to 2million in 2013.

These services are in danger of becoming a victim of their own success, being described as "stretched", while the ring-fenced portion of Welsh Government bus funding was reduced from 10% to 5%. There were particular concerns about capital funding for new vehicles and changes to driver licensing which mean drivers who passed their test before 1997 no longer have the paperwork to drive smaller 9-16 seat buses.

Concessionary Fares

(Pic : Wales Online)

As mentioned, the Welsh Government provides concessionary fares – in this case free bus travel - for the over-60s as well as the disabled. This was recently extended to 16-18 year olds, who get a third off fares. Welsh bus operators have become so dependent on concessionary fares it's said to make up 46% of their income.

Some witnesses said users of concessionary fares should make a small annual contribution of between £10-20 to provide extra income for bus services – a £20 fee could raise £15million a year.

Edwina Hart opposed to the idea because it's often cheaper to give away something for free than it is to administer an annual charge (like free prescriptions). However, Prof. Stuart Cole said admin would be easier via an all-Wales travel smart card (like the Oyster Card).

As a compromise, Age Cymru suggested that the age for eligibility should rise with the pension age whilst maintaining free transport. Meanwhile, community transport operators called for concessionary fares to be extended to their services, whose users often have to pay anyway despite being eligible for free travel.

Powers & Governance

Outside Greater London there are a number of options for regulating the bus industry : voluntary partnership schemes, statutory quality partnership schemes and quality contract schemes. Franchising powers for local authorities (including Wales) are expected to be introduced as part of a Buses Bill being introduced in Westminster.

Bus operators generally oppose any re-regulation of the industry and prefer voluntary partnership agreements instead, with some difficulties experienced in England when statutory contracts etc. were attempted. They consider London to be "a special case".

The Welsh Government has called for powers over bus regulation to be devolved as part of the Wales Bill process, but the UK Department of Transport believe the National Assembly already has the power to introduce franchising. A legal briefing to the Committee suggested that powers under Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 might prevent statutory/quality contracts being amended, while some proposed reserved matters in the draft Wales Bill also cause problems.

In addition, the Traffic Commissioner responsible for Wales is currently based in Birmingham and serves both Wales and the West Midlands. The Committee heard that low levels of enforcement meant operators who have had their licenses revoked have continued in Wales, which could impact safety standards – a situation the Minister described as "absolutely ridiculous".

So there were calls for Wales to have its own Traffic Commissioner as we currently get a bad deal out of EnglandandWales arrangements.

The dissolution of the regional transport consortia is said to have caused problems, with further uncertainty caused by local government reorganisation proposals. Policy is now decided by short-term Welsh Government working groups, which has resulted in a lack of progress on integrated transport. The Transport for Wales company could be an avenue for proper planning of public transport if it's properly resourced and empowered.

Bwcabus, Integrated Transport & Accessibility


Bwcabus is a commercial service (not community transport) run in Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion whereby users pre-book their pick up and drop off times - but they also run a number of fixed routes. The service has been widely-praised for its innovative approach in connecting sparsely-populated areas.

However, Committee members were unable to come to a conclusion on whether Bwcabus – which receives a subsidy – was value for money or not. Despite that they recommend that if cost-effective, the service should be extended to other parts of rural Wales.

The Committee didn't want to repeat what they said in their integrated transport inquiry, but instead wanted to provide an update on what's happened since then. The answer : "disappointingly slow".

There are said to be significant issues in timetabling, co-ordination of services and the impact of cuts to local authorities. Again, progress has been slow on introducing an all-Wales transport smart card.
In terms of accessibility, Disability Wales said access to buses is "improving", but some issues remain like lack of assistance, poor staff attitudes and inconsistency in what different bus operators provide. In addition, the RNIB said 81% of people with sight problems were said to have issues when travelling by bus, with some preferring to stay home than use a bus.

All single and double decker buses over 7.5 tonnes need to be fully-accessible by January 2017 via UK regulations – the clear deadline was welcomed by Disability Wales.

In addition, there were calls for public transport to be considered in development plans and for public transport to be considered in tandem with other areas of public policy, like education, health and equality of opportunity.

Conclusions

If you get the reference, go make some porkchop sandwiches.

Although the Assembly term ended under a cloud, AMs of all colours do some excellent work at times and deserve praise when they do. Yet again the Enterprise & Business Committee have delivered what's likely to be an influential report.

A smart card is probably the single biggest thing that would reverse declines in bus passenger numbers. One of the most off-putting things about using buses is the need to faff about looking for exact change when you often don't even know what the fare will be before travelling. Some companies have introduced mobile tickets etc. but they're not useful if you have to change buses.

Flat fares (or a cap on the amount you would pay in a single day) for travelling within a local authority area/region would probably be another useful addition, but whether bus companies would be on board with that and how it would work in practice are for someone smarter to decide. Some companies already do this to an extent with day tickets, but the principle should be extended to single and return fares too (i.e. £2 for a single journey regardless of length; it's £1.50 in London).

Whether the Bwcabus service needs to be extended to other parts of Wales is open to debate, particularly how it fits in with community transport schemes. It's not just rural Wales either. I can think of places in this area (which probably counts as urban) where a Bwcabus service would be well-received, particularly if commercial bus services by big operators like First Group are threatened – parts of the Vale of Glamorgan, Afan Valley etc.

It's a shame there's been a lack of progress on the recommendations from the integrated transport inquiry though this report will hopefully keep some of the main proposals on the table and in ministers/civil servants minds.



Thursday, 17 March 2016

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap VI : The Debate

Apart from recently announced legal action, the curtain comes down on
the RIFW scandal on the last day the Fourth Assembly met in plenary.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Yesterday, I covered some of the failures over the course of the term, as well as a last-minute "special performance" by Cirque du Plaid. I couldn't let the Assembly go without revisiting one of the Welsh Government's biggest "whoopsies" - the RIFW scandal - one last time.

Most of the time AMs are capable of acting like grown-ups, and a debate was held on the findings of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report into the scandal (Part V). Some credit has to go to the Business Committee for squeezing in a debate before the election – they could've easily let it slide.

Jac o' the North wrote more on this a few days ago and it's well worth a read as always, while in the last few days the Welsh Government announced they'll start legal action against one of the key protagonists in the saga, Lambert Smith Hampton (which was actually one of the recommendations of the committee's report).


Starting off, the Chair of the Committee, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) described it as one of the most significant and deeply concerning inquiries undertaken by his committee (clip). He said it was "inexcusable" and subsequently outlined the findings of the report (which I've already covered in detail).

Although the idea behind RIFW was innovative, it was poorly executed due to flaws in Welsh Government's oversight, as well as the fact RIFW was poorly-served by the professionals who were supposed to offer expertise. It exposed numerous flaws in government procedures, line accountability, record-keeping and data retention.

Darren welcomed the First Minister's apology and the Welsh Government's positive response to the report. It was vital that future Welsh governments recognise all of the recommendations to ensure necessary improvements are made to their handling of arms-length bodies, and to ensure such losses to the public purse are never repeated.

Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) said the tragedy for him was the number of different parts of Wales affected by the scandal (clip). When it emerged land in Monmouth which was earmarked for a controversial housing development was sold for fraction of market value, the local reaction "bordered on disbelief". The legacy could undermine trust constituents have in government's ability to handle large financial issues – particularly in light of future tax devolution - as ownership and management of land is a key responsibility of government.

Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon) said it was a damaging chapter for government and people's perceptions of the Assembly (clip), particularly the perception that government isn't careful with its own money and not worried about getting the best value. He found it difficult to believe that no minister was aware of what was happening and was disappointed that nobody's taken responsibility for the fiasco.

Alun said nothing summarised the scandal more succinctly than the 180 degree turn the board made – one moment they agreed to sell the land separately, the next they agreed to sell them in one package. Alun said if even a community council did this "it would raise chuckles" (Oh, the irony! Coincidentally, this appeared to take place at the same time as Plaid's emergency meeting on the Public Health Bill.). He believed it was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy, but it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) accepted it was a great idea to invest in urban regeneration during recession (clip). However, she felt sorry for the RIFW board members who were like "lambs to the slaughter" and knew nothing about how to handle land sales. Instead, the Welsh Government should've disposed of the own land then handed the proceeds to RIFW.

It was "unfortunate" that the Welsh Government wasn't tracking what was going on, which meant that the whole thing was out of sight and out of mind. The decision over the land parcel should've been made by ministers, particularly as the "jewel in the crown" Lisvane site would obviously be used for housing as Cardiff expands. In closing, Jenny believed the Welsh Government had learned their lesson.

Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem, North Wales) was disappointed that the debate was scheduled for the last day, but it was an eye-opener regardless (clip); he doubted whether even a community council would've done some of the things outlined in the report. There was no criticism of the idea, but everything after that was poor, with Aled expressing surprise that the Welsh Government thought just four people meeting for four days a year could discuss these sorts of issues and make decisions – he could only come to the conclusion that board members had been let down.

However, he believed the main weakness was that a civil servant was put in as an observer when it wasn't clear what his role was, with no guidance issued by ministers. Also, the issue of poor record-keeping appears time and time again in these inquiries. This is unacceptable and he wasn't hopeful that the Welsh Government had learned any lessons.

Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said the whole situation unfolded from a genuinely sincere attempt to unlock assets (clip), but it was "incomprehensible" that nobody would've realised that some of the land would've increased in value, particularly in Lisvane – it's "not rocket science". Lack of communication appeared time and time again and board members had been cast adrift. The suggestion that the recession meant there needed to be a rush to raise funds for projects was a "red herring" as there was clear evidence that land was already being sold for more than the RIFW valuations at the time.

Responding for the Welsh Government, Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) shared frustrations with AMs and the Committee (clip). RIFW was much needed in 2010, and funding regeneration through recyclable loans was worthwhile during a recession. She shared frustrations that projects weren't brought forward and apologised for that, reiterating the First Minister's apology too.

The delivery was flawed despite the good concept. The government outlined a range and measures to improve oversight of arms-length bodies, though the valuable work and contributions of independent experts on boards and working groups should be acknowledged. The fund was brought under direct ministerial control in 2013 and in January 2016 the Minister said the remaining funds from RIFW would be made available for regeneration projects.

Lesley confirmed that legal proceedings have started against Lambert Smith Hampton, and further legal steps are being kept under review. The Welsh Government accepted all the Committee's recommendations, and said the government will continue to learn lessons and improve policies.

Summing up, Darren Millar repeated that the scandal reflects on the Welsh Government and Assembly as a whole (clip). Due to the significant sums of money involved it was important to rebuild trust – though he appreciated the government's positive response to the recommendation and said their overall response was appropriate. Ministers should've been informed of significant decisions, particularly those involving public assets, and the fact there was no feedback on decisions being made on ministers behalf was "absolutely astonishing".

He shared the opinion that there should be sympathy with board members. He also said the overage clauses were inadequate. However, he spared his ire for the poor record keeping, saying that the fact diaries were deleted after 12 months, so nobody had any idea where key people where and at what meetings, was "appalling and disgusting".

The findings of this report had been echoed in many other PAC reports down the years - AWEMA, grants management and Betsi Cadwaladr board arrangements were mentioned. Something's wrong if lessons aren't learned and he hinted that some of these issues have appeared in their ongoing Life Science Fund inquiry.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

What the fuck was that!?

(Pic : Wales Online)

I usually only post this often when something serious has happened. To say I'm angry and disappointed right now is an understatement and I've had to restrain my response to the utterly inexplicable clusterfuck that took place on the Assembly's last day in session.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Fourth Assembly Review : Key Achievements



Although the National Assembly doesn't officially dissolve until April 6th, as this week is the last sitting week the election campaign will soon ratchet up a gear or two.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Bridgend Bin Bags & Blue Badge Update

(Pic : Local Government Chronicle)

There are important updates on two controversial recommendations which are expected to be approved by Bridgend Council's (BCBC) cabinet tomorrow afternoon.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Fourth Assembly In Focus : Education




Following the economy and health, my final in-depth look at policy during the Fourth Assembly goes into our classrooms and lecture theatres.

Major Policy Initiatives of the Fourth Assembly

The Donaldson Review – A major review, led by Prof. Graham Donaldson, into the national curriculum in Wales. The proposals mirror those applied in Scotland in 2010, though they're not expected to be fully rolled-out until 2021. They include the scrapping of key stages, the creation of six learning areas and requiring all teachers to have cross-curriculum competences in literacy, numeracy and IT (see also : Detention for Donaldson?). The goal is to create "ambitious, capable learners" who are "healthy and confident".

Schools Challenge Cymru & Regional Consortia – If there's one thing Huw Lewis likes it's new schemes and organisations. The first was aimed at raising standards at the 40 worst-performing schools in Wales by applying additional resources; indications from 2015's GCSE results are that there's been an improvement in the number of pupils achieving 5 good grades. The second scheme is supposed to lead school improvement and share best practice, but reports from Estyn and Wales Audit Office have painted a mixed picture due to uncertainty over their role and a lack of monitoring.

Literacy & Numeracy Tests/Framework & School Banding – Wales was one of the first home nations to scrap the controversial end of key stage SATS tests in 2004 alongside school league tables. Leighton Andrews effectively reintroduced them in 2013 as compulsory literacy and numeracy tests. This was joined by colour-coded school rankings. Both have been criticised by teaching unions; the first for marking rows and statistical issues, the second for causing school rankings to fluctuate wildly year-to-year. A report earlier this year also suggested the improvements sought by the framework could take several years to permeate through, with few indications of an impact so far.

Reorganisation of Colleges & Universities – A Welsh Government-led rationalisation of the further and higher education sectors resulted in several mergers which have created, amongst others, the University of South Wales, Trinty St Davids University (UWTSD), NPT Group, Coleg y Cymoedd and Cardiff & Vale College. It's unclear whether the upheaval caused by mergers has impacted staff or student morale, but it has prompted major capital investments in new campuses, such as Cardiff & Vale College in Butetown or the proposed new UWTSD campus in Swansea SA1.

Education Funding

Pupil spending per head - source


One of Labour's key election manifesto commitments in 2011 was to keep school spending at 1% above any changes to the block grant Westminster uses to fund Wales.

It's quite clear that although spending-per-head has risen over the course of the Fourth Assembly, in the last two years or so Labour probably didn't keep their promise, presumably as more money was diverted to the NHS or by double counting the pupil deprivation grant. Although there have been "real terms" cuts to the block grant, in cash terms it's increased modestly. Therefore, you would've expected schools spending to have risen in line with that throughout the term – but it's unclear whether it has or hasn't.

Elsewhere, the 21st Century Schools programme has been maintained through the Fourth Assembly, though it's been scaled back and delayed from the original £1.4billion six-year programme announced in 2011, with the Finance Minister seeking non-profit distributive finance in 2014.

The other major scheme is the Liberal Democrats' Pupil Deprivation Grant (PDG), which pays schools £1,050 every pupil aged 5-15 who's eligible for free school meals. It's due to be increased again to £1,150 from 2016-17. There are also smaller payments for Foundation Phase pupils. In 2015-16 the grant totalled £72.4million. Although independent reviews have shown that the PDG has made a difference there've been concerns about how it's being spent.

I'm yet to be convinced that throwing money at problems actually fixes anything. The only area of government policy where that genuinely works is infrastructure, and we've been throwing money at the NHS for the best part of a decade without it really getting us anywhere. The same goes for schools; it comes down to the quality of teachers, class sizes, teacher workloads and the curriculum.

Exam Results

Key exam pass rates - source (GCSE), source (FSM), source (A-Level)


I suppose this is the key measure and there's clear good news, with pass rates steadily rising over the Fourth Assembly at GCSE level, while A-Level pass rates remain relatively high. The next round of PISA results are unlikely to be released before the end of the year, but that's where attentions were focused on a few years back and will be again for whoever succeeds Huw Lewis (see also : A slice of frozen PISA).

The percentage of pupils getting 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, including either English or Welsh and mathematics (Level 2 threshold), is close to hitting 60%. Meanwhile, the functionally useless pass rate marker for A-Level remained at around 97%.

The link between poverty and poor educational attainment has been well established and, not unsurprisingly, the GCSE Level 2 pass rate for those eligible for free school meals remains significantly below average – although Level 2 pass rates have increased in line with GCSE passes for everyone else, and the gap has closed by around 2-3% over the last five exam cycles (see also : AMs demand action to close education gap).

Schools Challenge Cymru was established provide extra help to those schools which are defined as struggling for whatever reason, and some of these 40 schools selected for the programme have seen progress on GCSE results. It's too early to tell whether the scheme as a whole will be a success or not, but there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

Further Education

With the ever growing emphasis on work-based learning/apprenticeships this term, you would've thought that the further education sector will be going through a period of growth and investment. In many respects it has – but unfortunately the relevant statistics have only been collected/reported for two years.

What they point to is a decreasing number of college students but an increase in the number of work-based learners and apprenticeships (source). Behind the scenes, however, there's been quite a bit of upheaval (as touched on earlier) with college mergers being pushed through and sizable cuts to the further education budget in some of the budgets passed by the Assembly this term.

So the future looks like being one of fewer, bigger colleges and that brings into question the future of some of Wales' smaller institutions, like Coleg Ceredigion and perhaps even the likes of Bridgend College and Coleg Sir Gar. With some local authorities actively, or actively considering, closure of sixth forms then the role of FE colleges could be about to become greater. Any incoming government will have to ensure there's some focus on the knock-on impact such policies might have on the sector in terms of things like staff, facilities and transport.

Universities

One of the headline, and most contentious, policies of the Fourth Assembly is the tuition fee subsidy, where Welsh-domiciled students only pay up to £4,000 a year regardless of where they choose to study, with the Welsh Government making up the rest. Means-tested living grants have also been made available to those from low income families.

The spirit of the policy is perfectly correct, but ever since the previous Conservative-Lib Dem UK Government lifted the cap on tuition fees, it's clear the policy is becoming increasingly burdensome on the Welsh budget, and is widening the university funding gap between Wales and England – currently estimated to be as high as £115million – while the policy itself was recently estimated to have cost £235million (see also : Welsh tuition fee policy under scrutiny).

Nonetheless, the wrangling over fees and university finance hasn't deterred people from going to university. The number of Welsh-domiciled undergraduates has stayed broadly at the same level of around 78,000 a year since 2011-12 (source), however, while in 2011/12 46% of Welsh-domiciled students studied at a Welsh university, that's dropped slightly to 45% in 2013/14 – presumably because of the tuition fee policy.

It's also worth pointing out that the vast majority of Welsh-domiciled postgraduates who are still based in the UK study in Wales (67%).

Welsh-medium Education

Labour set no concrete targets for the number of pupils educated in Welsh in their 2011 manifesto and they're lucky they didn't.

Percentage of pupils taught mainly or wholly in Welsh - source


Broadly-speaking the numbers of pupils educated in Welsh has increased over the last five years, but there was a surprise dip in the number of secondary school WM pupils in 2014-15, presumably because of a general drop in roll numbers at that age group. Unsurprisingly, most WM pupils live in Y Fro Gymraeg (Gwynedd, Anglesey, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire), with only Rhondda Cynon Taf and Cardiff having any significant figures outside this area.

There are 36 fewer Welsh-medium schools in 2015 than in 2010. Meanwhile, the number of teachers qualified to teach through Welsh over the same period has remained relatively stable (source)– so it's safe to say Welsh-medium education has expanded at the bottom, but contracted at the top.

Welsh language exam results - source (full course), source (short course)


Next, it's performance in Welsh. The most notable surprise is that GCSE A*-C pass rates in Welsh second language have overtaken Welsh first language. There are a number of possible explanations. Pupils taking the second language full course are going to be more committed than short course students, while as it's taught as a second language it's going to be easier than being taught as a first language (which will be more in-depth). However, pass rates for Welsh first language are, generally, higher than English language (which is also taught in WM schools).

The Education Workforce

The education workforce - source

The only things really worth taking from this are the decrease in the number of headteachers and the growing numbers of teaching assistants.

The latter can probably be explained by the roll out of the Foundation Phase (see also : Foundation Fazed) where a lower staff:pupil ratio is mandated – so these figures aren't unexpected. The problems will start to arise when teaching assistants start teaching, and trade unions have claimed assistants have been asked to stand in for fully-qualified teachers.

Like other parts of the public sector, the teaching workforce is ageing and it's unclear whether there are enough new teachers coming through to take their place. Teaching has an increasingly bad reputation because of the pressures of the job and bureaucracy. Judging by the number of vacancies advertised there appears to be particular problems in recruiting English, maths and (what I presume is Key Stage 3) science teachers (source).

The fall in the number of headteachers could be explained by a simple fall in the number of schools – through closure of small rural schools, mergers or "federated schools". Nevertheless, schools need some sort of leadership and it's slightly worrying that, with the falling number of headteachers, the careers of some promising leaders might stall.

Conclusions

If Labour's record on the economy is broadly "good", and their record on health is broadly "bad" then their education record is mixed with clear good and bad points.

In terms of the good news, exam pass rates are improving year on year, a healthy proportion of young people are going to university and there's been extra help to close the gap in performance between poorer and wealthier pupils.

The PISA scores in 2012 (A slice of frozen PISA) perhaps caused some unnecessary panic – though we're unlikely to find out 2015's results until the end of 2016. The other bad news would be that the Welsh Government haven't really lived up to any non-binding promises they made on Welsh-medium education, while the gap between the best-performing and worst-performing pupils remains dauntingly large. It's also becoming clear current tuition fee policy is untenable.

Like health, the last thing teachers are going to want to hear are more proposals from political parties for "major reforms"; the Donaldson reforms are going to be significant in their own right.

Teachers need to be given a bit of breathing room and existing reforms need a chance to properly bed in; but I'm worried that if there's another set of bad PISA results – or some knock on impact on schools as a result of local government reorganisation - we're going to end up with politicians running around like headless chickens again demanding answers and immediate action on issues that often take years, if not decades, to resolve themselves. We deserve cool heads on this.