A contractor ... and a contradiction

Less than a fortnight ago, on 19 May to be precise, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee at Westminster decided to launch an investigation into prisons in Wales and the treatment of offenders, including the proposed new 2,000 place prison at Wrecsam. This is the Daily Post article about it.


     Wrexham: Investigation sparked by £250m North Wales super prison plan

The committee invited interested parties and the public at large to submit evidence to them, and details of how to do it are on this page. Submissions need to be made by 2 July.

When this announcement was made, there seemed to be a slight glimmer of hope that there might be a chance of modifying the proposal to make it more suitable for what north Wales needs. But the news today is that the UK government has announced that a contractor for the project has been appointed.

     Contractor selected to build super prison in North Wales

The contradiction is obvious. Now there is always—how shall we put it?—a "healthy tension" between the actions of government and the actions of the bodies in parliament that scrutinize what government does. But, in this case, it's hard to see today's announcement as anything other than the UK government putting two fingers up at the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and saying, in effect, "To hell with your inquiry, we're going to press ahead anyway irrespective of anything you might decide."

Of course, governments regularly ignore the findings and recommendations of committees; it's just that on this occasion they're showing their contempt for scrutiny in a rather more blatant and obvious way than usual.


At this stage, we probably have to accept a large measure of fait accompli. The site has been acquired, outline planning permission has been granted, and a contractor has now been appointed. So those of us who believe that this is the wrong sort of prison for Wales have to be realistic about what can now be changed.

We have to accept that a prison of some sort is going to be built on this particular site. The question is therefore whether the current proposal can be modified to better meet our needs. I think it can.

The main objection to the current proposal is that a 2,000 place prison is far too big. Therefore I think the first aim should be to reduce its size. Ideally, I'd like to see it house somewhere in the region of 500-700 inmates, but any reduction would help.

Linked with this, I think it might be fruitful to look again at what sort of prison accommodation we need. What is proposed is a Category C prison (one stage more secure than a Category D open prison). Wales, like any other country, will have its share of prisoners that need to be held more securely, so I think it would be a good idea to look at making part of the site into a Category B prison, or at least designing it in a way that would allow part of it to be easily converted into a Category B prison in future.

The second thing that Wales lacks is a women's prison. This topic was in the news recently, with The Wales Report on 21 May asking whether the lack of a women's prison in Wales is directly linked to an increase in repeat offending.


I have no doubt that the lack of a women's prison is a contributory factor in re-offending rates. It therefore strikes me that it would be a very good idea to use part of the Wrecsam site for this. As there are very few women prisoners, it would only need to be small, perhaps housing 25 or so women.

A third factor is the need for a unit to house youth offenders from north Wales. Again, this would only need to be small.


So, in short, I think there would be mileage in the WASC recommending a diversification of secure accommodation on the site that has been chosen. The main part of the site would house a smaller men's prison that would be designed in such a way as to allow for both Category B and Category C prisoners. But other parts of the site would house small units for women and youth offenders.

I'm sure that Lend Lease, the chosen contractor, wouldn't object; for the amount of building work and cost would probably be about the same. And three separate units on the site would probably provide the same amount of local employment as one huge unit, so the community in Wrecsam won't loose out either.

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European elections in other stateless nations

I thought it would be good to look at how other stateless nations on the path to independence voted in the European Parliament elections yesterday.


The big news in Catalunya is that the ERC, the Catalan Republican Left, has topped the poll in Catalunya for the first time in the post-Franco era, pushing CiU into second place.


On the right of the political spectrum, the Catalan nationalist (although only recently pro-independence) CiU has always been comfortably ahead of the Spanish nationalist PP. But on the left of the political spectrum ERC has generally played second fiddle to the Spanish nationalist PSC. Although they narrowly beat the PSC in the last Catalan parliament election, they came second to CiU.

So things still look good for the independence referendum on 9 November.

This is a picture of what I would like to see happen in Wales. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist left, is in a similar position to that which ERC used to hold: always playing second fiddle to Labour, the British nationalist left. Things have now swung the other way in Catalunya, and the same could happen in Wales with Plaid.


In the three provinces of the Basque Autonomous Community, the picture is similar, but with left and right reversed. The EAJ-PNV, the Basque nationalist right traditionally outperforms the Spanish nationalist right of the PP, and has done so again by 27% to 10%. It is only in the past few years that the pro-independence left has got its act together (under various names) but the current EH Bildu has comfortably outperformed the PSOE by 23% to 13%.


So things also look good for Basque independence, however I don't expect much to happen in the immediate future. It's probably best for the Basques not to make waves and wait to see what happens in Catalunya. But, besides that, it might well be counter-productive for the three provinces to make any move without first re-uniting with Nafarroa.

In Nafarroa, the fourth Basque province south of the Pyrenees, EH Bildu have done remarkably well with 20% of the vote. The Basque nationalist right in Nafarroa has never been particularly well-established, tending to be allied with the PP when not part of it, and preferring to paint itself as Nafarroan rather than Basque (the situation is similar in Galicia, Valencia and the Balearics). The EAJ-PNV did stand but only got 2% of the vote.

The Spanish State

In terms of these European elections, the Spanish State elects on the basis of a single list, therefore the situation is complicated by alliances that tend to change at each European election. But this is what happened this time round:


•  The ERC stood with other pro-self-determination parties of the left in Catalunya as L'Esquerra pel Dret a Decidir, and won 2 seats.

•  The Catalan and Basque nationalist parties of the right, CiU and EAJ-PNV stood as Coalición por Europa, and won 3 seats.

•  EH Bildu turned to BNG, the Galician nationalist left, to stand as Los Pueblos Deciden, and won 1 seat.

6 nationalist seats out of 54 in total is actually a very good performance; perhaps 7 if Primavera Europea, which includes Compromís, the small and relatively new Valencian nationalist party, is counted. This is much better than Plaid Cymru and the SNP's combined total of 3 out of 70 ... or 4 out of 73 if we include Sinn Féin's win in the Six Counties.


There were federal, regional and European elections in Belgium yesterday. The Flemish nationalist party, N-VA, did exceptionally well in all three. They got 32.6% of the Federal Parliament vote (up 4.4%), 31.9% of the Flemish Parliament vote (up 18.8%) and 26.7% (up 16.8%) of the European Parliament vote.




After the last federal elections in 2010 there was an impasse lasting 541 days before a federal government could be formed ... something which only went to show that Belgium doesn't really need a federal government to function, because so much of the real power is already exercised at regional level.

In the end, the N-VA, even though it was the largest party in 2010, was squeezed out of power by a coalition of nearly all the other parties. The N-VA took the view that it was better not to compromise on the more substantial constitutional reform they wanted, and let the other parties implement a modest sixth round of reform. Bart de Wever's stance appears to have been vindicated, and their success now will inevitably lead to a stronger seventh round of constitutional reforms which will further increase Flemish autonomy and weaken Belgium as a political entity. The idea is that, "Slowly but surely, Belgium will very gently disappear."

Constitutional reform (the N-VA's bottom line in forming a federal government) should be quicker this time round, not so much because other parties will be any more willing to work with the N-VA, but because they probably only need to hammer out a package with a couple of other parties, rather than with half a dozen of them.


We should bear in mind that although the N-VA is a nationalist party which wants to see the break up of Belgium, it is unashamedly a party of the right. So I support the first aim, even though I don't support the policies they would implement if they were in government in an independent Flanders. But that's democracy.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the gulf is to watch the video below.


Pass the sick bucket, please. Bart de Wever is pretty chummy with David Cameron too.


I wonder if the Tories realize the inconsistency of supporting the party which wants independence for Flanders and the break up of Belgium, while at the very same time being against independence for Wales and Scotland and the break up of the UK?

Actually, I'm sure they do; but reckon on nobody in the mainstream media being willing to hold them to account for it.

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The overwhelming feeling, both for me and for most people who support Plaid Cymru, after the announcement of the European Parliament election result will be relief that Jill Evans managed to hold on to her seat.

Plaid lost a lot of their support and were in a fairly miserable fourth place. In the end Jill's seat was saved by Labour's failure ... and by UKIP's success.


In the Welsh Political Barometer in February and YouGov poll in April, Labour were at 39% (details here) and in last week's Wales Political Barometer they were at 33% (details here). These percentages would easily have given Labour two seats. But in the end, Labour only managed to get 28.15% of the vote. This fall in support for Labour, and this alone, enabled Jill to squeeze in with 15.26%. If Labour had managed to get 30.6% of the vote, they would have won the fourth Welsh seat by getting more than twice Plaid's vote.


Looking back at the campaign, Labour did themselves no favours by not really contesting these elections. They kept a low profile, not really engaging in the fight in any meaningful way; probably thinking that this election didn't really matter and keeping their resources safe for fighting the 2015 Westminster election instead. So they've only got themselves to blame for not getting two Welsh seats.

The second factor was that UKIP did much better than even I imagined they would do. They were never in any danger of not winning a seat in Wales, but they probably picked up enough votes from people in Wales who would otherwise vote Labour to keep Labour below the magic 30.6% that would have squeezed Plaid out. Mark Hutchings tweeted it right: UKIP saved Plaid's bacon.

So Plaid owes UKIP a rather large thank you. Quite ironic really, as Plaid's main tactic in this election had been to single out UKIP for attack.

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Sad news from Scotland

Some things are rather more important than politics, and I've been saddened by the news that a fire has damaged a large part of Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art, one of my favourite buildings. Thankfully, no-one seems to have been injured in the blaze.


Lots of videos on this page.

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Protest at Aber

Here are some pictures of Cymdeithas yr Iaith's protest at the Welsh Government's Office in Aberystwyth this morning.




“The language won’t be lost overnight but over a number of years and decades.

"The latest census has shown a serious decline in the numbers of Welsh language speakers – a sign that, we as a nation, could actually lose a key part of our heritage over the coming decades.

"Only through civil disobedience is it possible for us to convey the seriousness of the situation. We are determined that our generation will not allow the language to decline and that's our main aim as campaigners today – to make a stand and to challenge Carwyn Jones' inaction.

“Like us, Carwyn Jones himself acknowledges his concerns about the state of the language. Unlike us however, he shows difficulty in thinking of a strategy that can stabilise the language. He has failed the citizens of Wales in that respect. We have outlined a strategy that goes to the heart of this crisis. All that we ask of Carwyn and the Labour-led Government is to show the leadership that reflects the seriousness of the present state of the Welsh language.

"With positive protest and political will, we can change the fate of the language, and ensure it flourishes over the years to come. At the moment, it seems courage is lacking. The government need to take brave and significant steps to ensure a fair and sustainable future for the Welsh language. This is what has brought us out as a group today to protest.”

Sioned Hâf, on behalf of Cymdeithas yr Iaith

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European Free Alliance election video

This is a video by the EFA, the European Free Alliance, for the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.


As this is an EU election, it's perhaps good to remind ourselves of the big picture issues to do with the nature of what the EU is, and the relationship of our countries to it. For me, the big picture is whether we want Wales to be an independent sovereign state with our own place at the table of the EU.

It is about whether countries like Wales, Scotland, Catalunya, Euskadi and Galicia are able to speak for ourselves, or whether we have no voice at all because the United Kingdom and Spain make decisions for us. This issue is now coming to a head with referendums in Scotland and Catalunya this year, and this will certainly be followed by feverish activity in the EU about exactly how to accommodate new members through internal enlargement.

This next few years will therefore be absolutely crucial in determining the shape of the EU. And although the EU Parliament probably won't have as much of a role to play as the governments of member states through the Council of Ministers, it is the only democratic institution in the EU where our voice and the voices of other stateless nations can currently be heard ... because the governments of the UK and Spain will be trying to hold on to a model that suits them rather than move on to a model where all the nations of Europe have an equal voice.

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Speak Welsh, be more physically active

I must admit to being very pleasantly surprised by the substantial increase in the percentage of adults in Wales who have taken up sport or other physical activity in the last few years. The increase of 34% between 2008 and 2012 is quite remarkable, particularly because of the contrast to what is happening in neighbouring countries.

     Fitness bug sees activity levels soar across Wales

As people might expect, I wanted to look at these figures more closely. The full report from Sport Wales is entitled The State of the Nation – although I'd have thought A Nation Fit for Purpose might be a little snappier – and the figures are available in spreadsheet form here.

It probably won't be much of a surprise that younger adults participate in sport more than older adults, males participate more than females, and those in richer households participate more than those in poorer households. It is one of the sad realities of life that richer people tend to be more active, tend to eat more healthy food, tend to be less prone to illness, and as a result tend to live longer than those who are poorer. This is the main reason why we, as a society, need to do much more to narrow the scandalous gap between rich and poor.


However there were three other groups in which participation rates in sport showed a more unexpected difference.

First, those who identify themselves as Christians are much less involved in sport than those who have no religion or are agnostic. The sample size for other religions was probably too small to be reliable. I'd be interested in people's opinions on why this might be.

Second, those who are gay, lesbian or bisexual are much more involved in sport than those who are straight. I think this might be explained by fewer gay people tending to have children, and therefore having more money to spend on themselves and more time to get involved in sporting and leisure activities.

But the third group is people that speak Welsh, who for some reason are much more involved in sporting activity than those who don't speak Welsh. These are the percentages, with Welsh-speakers in bold:

No frequent activity ... 32.45% ... 42.83%

Once a week ... 12.08% ... 11.89%
Twice a week ... 9.83% ... 8.67%
Three or more times a week ... 45.63% ... 36.62%

Any participation in last four weeks ... 78.74% ... 67.58%

Sports club member ... 31.33% ... 25.50%

Volunteer in sport ... 15.09% ... 8.95%

In every single positive category there is a markedly greater percentage of Welsh-speakers than non-Welsh-speakers. I have spent the last few hours trying to figure out what would explain this. There doesn't seem to be any geographical basis for the difference.

There are studies (for example here) which show that Welsh-speakers are likely to be better educated, less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be in poor health ... factors which would clearly seem to be linked with earning some 8-10% more than non-Welsh-speakers. But this difference in earnings alone would not account for why Welsh-speakers are more involved in sport.

If we look at the tables in detail, the percentage of Welsh-speakers who participate in sporting activity three or more times a week (45.63%) is roughly equal to the participation of people in households with an income of £31,200 to £51,999 (46.99%), and the percentage of non-Welsh-speakers who participate in sporting activity three or more times a week (36.62%) is roughly equal to the participation of people in households with an income of £15,600 to £20,799 (36.37%) ... but Welsh-speakers obviously don't earn twice as much as non-Welsh-speakers.

This means that speaking Welsh, in and of itself, strongly correlates with being more physically active in a way that can't easily be explained by other factors.

As I said, I'm at a loss to figure out why this is so, and would welcome people's thoughts on the subject. But if you are someone who wants to be more physically active, it looks like one answer is to learn Welsh ... or perhaps it's the other way round: if you're struggling to learn Welsh, the key might be to become more physically active.

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