Toadying sycophancy

I've just seen the rather strange declaration signed by Rosemary Butler on behalf of the National Assembly:


One part of it reads:

Your Majesty's wisdom and devotion have provided the bedrock on which sustainable democratic institutions have been established and developed ...

Does anyone seriously believe that the establishment of democratic institutions has had anything to do with Elizabeth Windsor's wisdom or devotion? Our National Assembly is the result of the vision and hard work of many people over many years. It was established because we as a nation wanted it and voted for it; and it has developed because we as a nation wanted it to be better and voted for it to be better.

Yes, we have come a long way over the past sixty years; but we cheapen our own achievements as a nation if we give the credit for what we ourselves have done to someone who has done nothing to deserve it.

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I've just found out about this e-Petiton to the National Assembly:

The Welsh Language in our Assembly

"We call upon the Assembly Commission to accept the recommendation of the Official Languages Bill scrutiny committee to include an assurance on the face of the Bill that a fully bilingual Record of all Assembly proceedings be published."

Its recommendations reflect the wishes of the people of Wales to see the Welsh language being treated equally and to prevent discrimination against the Welsh language and its use.

Click here to view and sign the e-Petition

Perhaps a couple of things need a word of explanation.

•  First, the term "all Assembly proceedings" means not just plenary sessions but also the proceedings of committees and sub-committees of the Assembly, as officially defined in Part 1, Section 1(5) of the GoWA 2006.

•  Second, putting it on the "face of the Bill" – i.e. as opposed to putting it in the Official Languages Scheme that the Bill requires the Assembly Commission to produce and review on a regular basis – will make it impossible to renege on that commitment, as the Assembly Commission did in 2009, unless the primary legislation is re-enacted or amended. This will be a much more difficult thing to do than to simply change the OLS.

There are 590 signatures so far, and I'm sure most people reading this will want to add their names.

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The Big Debate

Anyone who has an hour to spare might like to spend it watching last night's Big Debate on Scottish independence. Just click the picture:


I guess this will be the first of several dozen such debates over the next two-and-a-half years. I think I'd award the first round to Patrick Harvie of the Green Party. On subjects like defence and who should be head of state, he was outstanding.

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The Race Begins

I'm glad to see that Yes Scotland, the campaign for a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum, is now up and running.


However I couldn't help but notice that the declaration which they aim to get a million people to sign by 2014 seems to be an amended version of our own:

The Yes Declaration

"I believe that it is fundamentally better for us all if decisions about Wales' Scotland's future are taken by the people who care most about Wales Scotland, that is, by the people of Wales Scotland.

"Being independent means Wales' Scotland's future will be in Wales' Scotland's hands.

"There is no doubt that Wales' Scotland has great potential. We are blessed with talent, resources and creativity. We have the opportunity to make our nation a better place to live, for this and future generations. We can build a greener, fairer and more prosperous society that is stronger and more successful than it is today.

"I want a Wales Scotland that speaks with her own voice and makes her own unique contribution to the world - a Wales Scotland that stands alongside the other nations on these isles as an independent nation."

Well, I guess they're welcome to it. Independence will be good for Wales, so it should be good for Scotland too.

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Failing to stimulate the Welsh economy

While some of the media have been looking to stir up a row over the relatively insignificant figure of less than £400,000, plans for spending a far greater amount were announced by the Welsh Government yesterday. This is from their news statement:

Capital investment for growth and jobs will accelerate in Wales, says Jane Hutt

"We remain a Government committed to the provision of infrastructure and the creation of jobs", Finance Minister Jane Hutt said ahead of the publication of the Wales Infrastructure Investment Plan for Growth and Jobs.

The Wales Infrastructure Investment Plan for Growth and Jobs – a commitment in the Programme for Government – will outline how the Welsh Government will invest more than £3.5bn over this Spending Review period and around £15bn over the next decade in capital projects.

Welsh Government, 22 May 2012

It's meant to sound impressive, but in fact isn't. In response to the criticism, Jane Hutt is reported as saying this about it:

Finance Minister Jane Hutt accepted a number of projects had already been announced or are already underway. But she stressed the plan was also designed to raise new money, potentially more than £1bn to cope with a 40% cut in the capital budget.

New sources of finance could involve specially-designed companies to borrow the money needed for specific projects.

BBC, 22 May 2012

When the ConDem coalition undertook its comprehensive spending review in 2010, it drastically cut (by 41%) that part of the Welsh block grant which is reserved for capital investment. In fact it cut it more severely than the equivalent figures for Scotland (a 38% cut) and Northern Ireland (a 37% cut) but that's a different story. The figures are in Table 2 of this document.

For the next three years the capital expenditure part of our block grant will be £1.2bn, £1.1bn and £1.1bn, and this accounts for the whole of the £3.5bn mentioned in yesterday's announcement after rounding. Although the devolved administrations are free to spend some of the revenue part of their respective block grants on capital projects, they are not allowed to shift any of the capital budget into revenue expenditure. So in blunt terms the Welsh Government is saying that it intends to spend the absolute bare minimum it is legally obliged to spend on capital projects, and no more. In essence, the plan just explains how the existing allocation of money in the block grant is going to be carved up. There's nothing in it that I can see (the full document is here) that will raise "potentially more than £1bn" of new money.

As for their ten-year projection, no-one is in a position to know what the next Westminster CSR will contain, but £11.5bn over the remaining seven years is only £1.65bn a year. As the baseline figure for 2010-11 was £1.7bn, they seem to be assuming that levels of investment won't return to what they were before for at least a decade.

So in short there is nothing ambitious or groundbreaking in the Welsh Government's investment programme, and absolutely nothing to justify the idea of "acceleration". It's just a lot of spin with no increase in speed.


It's a shame, for things could be very different. An ambitious Welsh Government—knowing that increased investment in infrastructure would be a very good way of protecting Wales from the worst effects of the cuts and do more than anything else to create jobs and help our economy become competitive—would surely have tried rather harder to find ways to invest more money in improving our infrastructure. An ideal way of doing it would be to use the Build for Wales model developed and advocated by Plaid Cymru, details of which are here.

It's not exactly as if this Labour government are lazy good-for-nothings, despite Carwyn Jones' natural propensity for taking things easy instead of standing up for Wales. In fact it recently put a lot of effort into an innovative way to increase borrowing by coordinating the existing borrowing powers of local authorities, as I mentioned in this post only last week. In principle it's a clever idea; except that it will misdirect this borrowing into revenue expenditure on road maintenance rather than capital expenditure on new infrastructure. This is exactly the sort of bad borrowing that was a major contributory factor to the debt crisis we now find ourselves in. Labour in Wales are doing exactly what Labour did when they were in power at Westminster.

This is a missed opportunity that will have severe long-term consequences for our economy. We have a passive and incompetent government that is more comfortable pointing the finger of blame at the Tories in Westminster rather than getting off its backside to take responsibility for stimulating our economy through increased capital investment.

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In the gutter, and heading down the drain

The only explanation I can think of for the disgraceful editorial in this morning's Western Mail is that its circulation must be falling like a stone, and the order must have come from on high to resort to cheap sensationalism to stave off seeing it reduced to a weekly.


I took a quick look at Wiki to see what its circulation figures were. Wiki still has the figure for August 2009, namely 32,926. But that figure has now dropped by more than 7,000 to 25,898, as we can see here.

It obviously can't go on like this, and desperate directors do desperate things. In fact the Monday to Friday circulation is an even more disturbing 23,777 so the paper relies very heavily on its Saturday sales of 36,015 ... and this explains why becoming a weekly is on the cards.

It's a shame, because if it were run in Wales, for Wales (perhaps amalgamated with the Daily Post to become a true national newspaper for the whole nation) it might rebuild itself into something we could respect.

Update - 17:55, 22 May 2012

Many thanks to Huw Aaron for this cartoon:


Update - 12:25, 24 May 2012

For future reference, I've embedded the BBC's news report (it was only on Newyddion, not Wales Today) and the Radio Wales phone-in:



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After nearly 20 years, it's time to get serious

I normally wouldn't comment on an organization's response to a formal consultation without reading the whole thing. But because the British Medical Association have gone to the media with the aim of publicizing the key points of their position on the Welsh Government's proposal to improve Welsh-language services in health, social services and social care, I feel justified in commenting on what they've said.

The BMA’s response to the consultation said: “While Welsh-language service provision for some patients is essential, and does need to be recognised and effectively supported, it should not be a one-size-fits-all policy. If the aim is to improve patients’ experience of care, government efforts and investment would be better placed in tackling waiting times and filling staffing vacancies with the best professionals to deliver the best care.

“Today, the NHS is at breaking point; everyday we hear the same warnings. Imposing duties to offer NHS services in Welsh in a sector which in some areas is struggling to offer any service at all to its population is quite another.

“The time, and financial situation, is not right for imposing language duties on NHS organisations aiming to deliver world-class healthcare, but which in reality are many light-years away from that.”

Western Mail, 14 May 2012

The first paragraph contains a typical straw man argument. Nobody is suggesting that there should be a "one-size-fits-all policy" in respect of the Welsh language. But if the BMA is in fact acknowledging that a Welsh-language service is, to use their own word, "essential" for some patients, then we should welcome their acceptance of that. It's a start.


Next, the BMA uses the argument that because the NHS is struggling, efforts to improve the service would be better directed elsewhere. The implication is that the standard of medical care is more important that the language in which it is delivered. My response is to point to the English NHS to see whether they accept that argument. Only a few months ago the UK government introduced new language rules on doctors working in the English NHS:

     Foreign doctors must prove they can speak good English

In essence, the GMC has been given explicit new powers to be able to take action against doctors when there are concerns about their ability to speak English, and at a local level "responsible officers" are to be appointed to ensure that doctors have adequate language skills. In practical terms, this means that even the very best doctors in the world will not be allowed to treat patients in England unless they have adequate language skills. It blows out of the water the BMA's silly suggestion that the "best professionals" should be appointed irrespective of their language skills.

Why should we accept lower standards in Wales? The same mechanism set up for assessing an employee or prospective employee's skills in English is just as appropriate for assessing an employee's skills in Welsh as well, so no additional administrative or cost burden would be imposed. Neither does it cost any more to employ someone who speaks both Welsh and English rather than just English. Nobody is advocating that every medical or care professional in Wales should speak both English and Welsh, but registering their language proficiency is an important step towards ensuring that sufficient Welsh-speaking health and care workers are employed and, more importantly, readily available to provide a service appropriate to the level of demand. This might well mean that Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor will need 70% of its front line staff to be able to speak Welsh, but that Nevill Hall Hospital in Monmouthshire would only need 10% of its front line staff to be able to.


Lastly, the BMA claims that "the time and financial situation is not right" to impose any language requirements on the NHS. My response to that is much more dismissive. The Welsh Language Act of 1993 imposed a duty on all public bodies to treat Welsh and English on the basis of equality. Almost two decades have now passed, including times of economic boom and an unprecedented amount of money being poured into all public services, but especially the NHS.

But how did the NHS in respond to its obligations under that Act? There are some honourable exceptions, but in the main the NHS in Wales did not take them seriously. Getting a service in Welsh, either in health or social care, is generally more a matter of luck than of planning or forethought by the organizations that should have been providing it.


As it happens, today marks the start of a non-statutory public consultation by the Welsh Language Commissioner about the new language standards which will be applied under the new Welsh Language Measure. The consultation documents are here but, as we can see in this news item, the media focus seems to be on the private bodies that have now come under the scope of the Measure.


For me, a more important aspect of the new Commissioner's role will be to get public bodies which largely ignored their obligations under the old Act to now start doing what they should have been working on for the last twenty years. The old Welsh Language Board did not have any way of enforcing the old Act, it could do little more than name and shame those bodies which failed to do what they agreed they would; but the new Commissioner now has powers to set standards and some powers to enforce them.

The standards haven't yet been finalized and there is no way of knowing to what extent the Commissioner will have the appetite to enforce those standards when they are—and of course the BMA were responding to a similar consultation exercise by the Welsh Government, which has a different and more direct responsibility for the standards of health and care services in Wales—but my advice to Meri Huws would be not to go gunning for the bodies newly brought under the scope of the Measure.

To start with, it will be better to use enforcement powers on those public bodies which should have been doing much more than they have over the last twenty years ... and the providers of health and social care services should be right at the top of that list.

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More Stations

It was good to see that the disused railway station at Wdig has been rebuilt. There are many people who can rightly take credit for this, but undoubtedly the main factor was the decision to increase the train service from just two trains a day timed to link with the ferry service to seven trains a day in each direction, which enabled the service to be used for by local people for commuting or shopping too.



Ben Davies of Arriva Trains Wales was excited and asked where else in the world a new station was being opened today. But in fact there are several more in various stages of planning that I can think of:

•  Energlyn in Caerffili is advanced enough for Network Rail to have produced a video of it.

•  Holywell/Greenfield, Queensferry and Broughton on Deeside are mentioned in this document from Network Rail.

•  Bow Street and Carno on the Cambria line to Aberystwyth when an hourly service is introduced, see this document.

•  In the SEWTA (south east Wales) area, this document mentions new stations at Brackla, Crymlyn, Pye Corner, Hirwaun, Trecynon, Albany Road/Crwys Road in Cardiff, Upper Boat, St Mellons, Coedkernow, Caerleon, Llanwern and Sain Ffagan.

Not all of these will come to fruition, but many of them have positive benefit-to-cost ratios, with some of them rated as good (i.e. a BCR of more than 2:1) particularly if the service frequency can be enhanced.

So yes, let's celebrate the opening of one new station ... but it's a celebration that we could repeat many times over in the next few years if we have the foresight and political will to press ahead with these plans. It's exactly the sort of capital investment we need.

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Borrowing money for the wrong things

I think most people reading this will know that the Welsh Government (unlike the Scottish Government) is not able to borrow any money, but that our local authorities can. So on the face of things it looks like the Welsh Government's decision to co-ordinate existing council borrowing powers, and specifically to pay the cost of that borrowing through its annual revenue grants to local authorities, is a clever idea.

     Welsh councils' £60m road repair borrowing could pave way for new money

And in principle it is ... but everything depends on what that money is spent on.


Borrowing to pay for capital investment projects is generally a good idea. We need things like new schools, new hospitals and new transport links, and it is simply a question of doing the sums to see if the benefit to cost ratio of any particular scheme is favourable. It very often is: especially if, for example, the new school or hospital replaces an old building that will cost more to maintain and provide energy for than a new building would, or if a new road or railway investment will save people and businesses time and money and thus boost the economy. In both cases the investment will pay for itself in the medium to long term.

But borrowing money simply to pay for the maintenance of existing infrastructure is something very different. It doesn't pay for itself, and never can. Even if this £170m over 3 years pays for some badly-needed repairs to our roads, no-one in their right mind could imagine that it will be 22 years (the time it will take to pay this loan off) before many of the very same roads will need repairing again. What will happen after five or ten years? Will the Welsh Government co-ordinate another round of borrowing on top of this one ... and yet another round of borrowing five or ten years after that? It is mad-house economics. It is a short-term fix at the expense of long-term planning.

Co-ordinating local authority borrowing powers is a good idea, but only if used for capital investment rather than maintenance.

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Four votes, or four "quarter-votes"?

I've been looking through the local election results, and have again been struck by how difficult it is to get an accurate overall picture of how people voted, either within a particular local authority or across Wales as a whole.

The main reason for this is that some wards return more than one councillor, and each voter in these wards has as many votes as there are seats to be won. This makes it almost impossible to meaningfully analyse how people voted, because different voters have different numbers of votes.

I have wondered if the best way to get a clearer picture would be to say that instead of having more than one vote, voters in a four-seat ward have four "quarter-votes", that voters in a three-seat ward have three "third-votes", and that voters in a two-seat ward have two "half-votes". This wouldn't affect the individual election results in any way, but would mean that each voter had only one vote in total.

This is just a question, but has anyone ever seen an analysis of local election results done on this basis?

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Sinking even lower

In response to the LibDems losing 48% of their council seats in Wales, 53% of their seats in Scotland and 40% of their seats in England—not to mention losing their deposit in the London mayoral election—Lembit Öpik has now told us that Nick Clegg can't be in government and leader of the party at the same time. He said,

"You can't do those two full-time jobs at once and get away with it."

BBC, 6 May 2012

That will be news to David Cameron, who would have to choose between being Prime Minister of the UK and remaining leader of the Tories; and to Alex Salmond, who would have to choose between being First Minister of Scotland and remaining leader of the SNP.

Just when we were left wondering if it's possible for the LibDems to sink any further, we get proof that they can.

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Silk and a possible referendum

There have been several comments in the last few days about the Silk Commission and specifically on whether a referendum would be needed before implementing any recommendation it might make on whether the National Assembly should have tax setting and borrowing powers. The situation is perhaps best summed up here:

     Silk Commission split on referendum about tax powers

Obviously the result of the Wales Governance Centre/YouGov poll is interesting. But I think there is a danger of focusing too much on details at the expense of the bigger picture. When presented with a "shopping list" of options it's easy to say you want items 1, 3, 6 and 7 but not items 2, 4 and 8 ... and that you don't care one way or the other about item 5. But sometimes it's impossible to have one thing without also having to accept another thing.


I've always seen the Silk Commission as a way to resolve a fundamental stand-off between Labour and the Tories.

Labour primarily want the borrowing powers (and a fairer funding formula, although this is not part of Silk's remit) but don't want to be held accountable for how money is raised. In general UK terms, their traditional electoral advantage/selling point is that they're good at spending money. To a large extent, this explains why Labour do well in Wales and in other peripheral parts of the UK that depend on a net fiscal transfer from the more wealthy parts. It's always easier to spend money that, to a degree, has come from somewhere else.

So Labour will obviously say Yes to borrowing and fair funding without a referendum, but are currently holding out for a referendum on tax setting powers (except for a few very minor taxes) because they think they'll be able to get a No in such a referendum. They could eat their cake and have it.

The Tories primarily want the Welsh Government to be responsible for raising some of the money it spends because, again in UK terms, their traditional electoral advantage/selling point is that they will lower taxes. If levels of taxation become a factor in Welsh elections, the Tories believe it will enhance their electoral prospects.


So the name of the game is to put together a package that includes both, which is what Plaid Cymru and the LibDems have consistently wanted. From my point of view, I want Wales to have some control (even if limited for now) over a wide range of economic levers, because it is by carefully balancing these levers that we can put Wales on course to become more prosperous. Having control of just one or two levers isn't much use. It's like flying a plane: you can't get where you want to go with control over only the ailerons; you need to control the flaps, rudder and throttle too.

If a balanced package can be hammered out and agreed by the Silk Commission—which includes a nominee from each of the four main parties in its seven member team—then there won't need to be a referendum. It would be no more than an expensive and time consuming rubber stamp.

Referendums are only useful if there is a reasonable degree of uncertainty about what the result would be.

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