Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Senedd Watch - February 2017

  • The UK House of Commons approved a Bill authorising the activation of Article 50 - granting the Prime Minister leave to the start the EU withdrawal process - by 498 votes to 114 on February 1st. 10 Welsh MPs from Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems and Labour voted against the Bill.
    • The UK Government published its Brexit white paper on February 2nd. Proposals include: migration controls, maintaining the Common Travel Area with Ireland, securing rights and status of EU nationals in the UK (and vice versa) and a bespoke UK-EU free trade agreement.
    • Finance & Local Government Secretary, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), called for Wales to retain access to the European Investment Bank saying, “We are facing unprecedented challenges in terms of public finances so it's vitally important we unlock all opportunities to boost investment.”
    • Eluned Morgan AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) warned that Welsh ferry ports could lose traffic to Irish Sea ports in Scotland and Northern Ireland if the UK leaves the EU customs union. She said it would require, “more money, more infrastructure and more red tape”.
  • Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), announced higher education funding body, HEFCW, will be scrapped following an independent review. A new organisation will be established to fund universities, further education colleges, research and skills.
  • The Assembly's Culture Committee's review of Welsh broadcasting recommended the BBC commit to spending £30million on English language broadcasting, that Welsh news opt-outs be provided on Radio 1 and Radio 2 and S4C's funding be protected. On 21st February, BBC Director-General Tony Hall announced an additional £8.5million towards English language programming in Wales.
  • The Llywydd, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion), admitted to BBC Wales that despite new powers “stretching” AM workloads, the argument for Assembly expansion was “difficult”. An expert panel chaired by Prof. Laura McAllister was established to explore electoral reform and is due to report in Autumn 2017.
  • A report by the think-tank Gorwel revealed 44% of AMs had previously been councillors, despite the proportion of the population who've done the same being less than 0.1%. Also, only 16% of sitting AMs had been employed in the private sector despite the sector representing 68% of the workforce.
  • UKIP leader, Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP, Mid & West Wales), wrote to the Llywydd saying it was "highly irresponsible" to block any Senedd visit by US President Donald Trump, as it could put investment at risk. He also warned her "display of impartiality" could lead to calls for her to stand down. It came as Elin Jones supported a ban on Trump speaking at Westminster on social media.
  • Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) introduced member's legislative proposal motion calling for life-saving skills to be compulsory in the Welsh curriculum. She said, "Schools can do this now....but take-up is not huge." The Assembly backed the proposal by 33 votes to 3 with 17 abstentions on February 8th.
  • The Welsh Government said they would look in detail at revised financial plans for the Circuit of Wales motor sports development in Blaenau Gwent before giving backing to the project, after the company behind the £425million scheme revealed the names of possible investors. A due diligence process lasting 6 weeks will be necessary before a final decision is made.
  • The UK High Court ruled a proposed £84million takeover of Dee Valley Water by Coventry-based Severn Trent could proceed following a dispute over a shareholder vote. Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) disagreed with the ruling saying, “Small shareholders have been disregarded.....while big corporate shareholders will be laughing all the way to the bank.”
  • Citizens Advice Cymru called for employers to end workplace discrimination against disabled people after it was revealed just 43% of people of working age Welsh people with a disability or long-term condition were employed compared to 79% of non-disabled.
  • The Public Accounts Committee criticised a Welsh Government decision to award Swansea-based Kancoat £3.4million between 2012 and 2014, despite warnings from financial advisers that the company was in serious trouble, later going into administration. The Committee recommended decisions that go against official advice be documented.
  • Minister for Public Health & Social Services, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), suspended the Chair and Vice-Chair of Sports Wales and reinstated the rest of the board following a ministerial review after a damning internal report in 2016. The Minister said the decision was due to a serious breakdown in inter-personal relations.
  • Communities Secretary, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), announced the process by which Communities First will be phased out. Funding will be cut by 30% until April 2018 with a £6million legacy fund for well-performing projects after that.
    • Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda), accused the Secretary of “walking away from our poorest communities”, while Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) said many schemes in his constituency would end - claims the Secretary rejected as “frightening people”.
  • Tata Steel employees backed a deal tabled by the company – which will involve a conditional £1billion investment and controversial changes to pension schemes – by 72% to 28% on February 15th. The General Secretary of the Community union said the vote, “provides a move forward in our discussions with Tata and find a sustainable solution for the British Steel Pension Scheme.”
  • A Freedom of Information request revealed Michelle Brown AM (UKIP, North Wales) asked the Assembly Commission if a job advert for a staff member could be altered to prevent her brother being sifted out of potential candidates. The job wasn't filled. It came weeks after it was also revealed the AM was fined for “illegally smoking” at a Cardiff hotel in May 2016.
  • A concessionary bus travel pilot scheme for 16-18 year olds, which was originally due to be scrapped in March 2017, was reinstated. Funding will be extended until 2018 when a new youth travel pass will be launched. The Conservatives said the “u-turn” was an example of Welsh Government mismanagement.
  • Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, said the proposed Newport M4 bypass shouldn't go ahead over concerns about the amount of borrowing required to fund the project and because it didn't provide a “long-term, sustainable solution” to problems resulting from Brynglas Tunnel congestion.
  • Ofcom were asked to investigate how a public affairs company, Deryn, were awarded a monitoring contract without prior tendering, and whilst having two directors sit on Ofcom's advisory board. Neil McEvoy AM (Plaid, South Wales Central) said, “It’s impossible to know whether Deryn offered the public value for money since no other companies were able to bid for the contract.”
  • The OECD backed reforms to the Welsh National Curriculum in a report released on February 28th. The new curriculum is set to be in place by 2021, with the OECD saying the changes should be underpinned by continued investment. The Education Secretary told the Senedd, “We can use our size as an advantage in ensuring coherence, confidence and a truly national commitment to reform”.

Projects announced in February include: a £10million loan scheme to bring derelict buildings back into use; the launch of £10,000 a year postgraduate student loans from August 2017; a £1million music endowment fund; a £104million programme to improve energy efficiency of 25,000 homes in deprived areas; a £10million business rate relief scheme; a £95million package for health care education and training and a £14million upgrade of A&E facilities at Ysbyty Gwynedd.


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