Wales

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Conservative Anti-Strike Laws Condemned by Lords

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 19/07/2022 - 9:38pm in

Senior peers have slammed the Government’s attempts to sabotage strike action, reports David Hencke

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New proposed legislation to undermine strike action by recruiting agency workers has been condemned by peers as “government by diktat” and will not be effective.

Ministers from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have rushed through laws in the face of strike action by rail unions, with the growing prospect of widespread action by teachers, NHS staff, doctors, university lecturers and Royal Mail later this year. This threat will only be heightened by the announcements today by pay review bodies of settlements likely to be half the rate of inflation.

A report by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee is highly critical of the way ministers tabled new regulations without initially providing an impact assessment of the consequences, while overriding legislation in Wales – without consulting the Senedd – which bans using agency workers to curtail strikes.

After protesting to ministers, peers did get a late impact assessment and after studying it have decided that it is inadequate and does not provide “robust evidence of its effectiveness”.

The Government has also sneaked through a huge increase in the level of fines that trade unions will face if people take unlawful strike action – such as walk outs – if there is proof that the unions encouraged it.

These laws were first introduced in 1982 by Margaret Thatcher’s Government as part of an avidly anti-union agenda.

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The new regulations increase fines for unions with more than 5,000 members from £250,000 to £1 million and for small unions with under 5,000 members from £10,000 to £50,000. The Government is justifying the increase by saying the fines have been eroded by inflation over 40 years – but have used the higher retail price inflation index rather than the consumer price index to measure the increase.

“We have made the point repeatedly – most emphatically in our November 2021 special report ‘Government by Diktat’ – that it is imperative departments should provide sufficient explanatory material, including impact assessments where required, to allow Parliament to carry out thorough and effective scrutiny of secondary legislation,” said Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Mike German, member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

“It is highly regrettable that BEIS failed to provide an impact assessment when the draft regulations were laid before Parliament, and only complied two weeks later after being prompted to do so,” he added.

BEIS estimated that the savings to business would just be £5 million – a figure that peers declared was negligible.

The peers also say the that the Westminster Government should have conducted a proper consultation with the Welsh Government and Senedd about the change, given it was a “constitutionally sensitive matter”.

“The department only wrote to the Welsh Government on 24 June, which as we understand is after the date (23 June) on which the department originally intended to lay the draft regulation,” the peers state.

BEIS told the committee that it had given notice in 2017 about seeking to repeal the Welsh Act and that there had been a widespread consultation in 2015 about introducing laws to allow agency staff to be recruited during strikes. In the Government’s view, nothing materially had changed since that consultation.

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Without adjustment to the devolution settlement the devolved nations could suffer very badly because of inflation

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/07/2022 - 4:56pm in

For those with an interest in Scotland and its economy, I think what I had to say in The National yesterday was quite significant:

Without adjustment to the devolution settlement the devolved nations could suffer very badly because of inflation, and that matters.

The article is here.

 

The UK Has Been Captured by Conservative England

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 06/06/2022 - 11:45pm in

As Westminster waits on a no-confidence vote from Tory MPs, TJ Coles says the country is experiencing the tyranny of a Conservative minority

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The UK has a 68 million-strong population, yet its political path is being forged by the Conservative Party, that struggles to win 14 million votes.

It has been claimed that the UK has taken a rightward turn in recent years, but it would be more accurate to say that England has turned to the right, while the home nations – and even a few English regions – have clung on to progressive politics.

Indeed, although Wales voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it returned a Labour majority at the 2019 General Election, followed by a Labour majority at the 2021 Senedd Election. Meanwhile, Scotland consistently votes for the centre-left Scottish National Party (SNP), and Northern Ireland recently elected the social democratic party, Sinn Féin.

These parties stand well to the left of the ruling Conservative Westminster Government and would not be out of place alongside Europe’s social democracies.

It is England, therefore, that is dragging down the progressive countries of the UK. Politico’s poll of polls, a tool that collates all the current surveys of domestic voting intention, suggests that if we add up the support for left and centre-left parties in the UK (the poll excludes Sinn Féin and includes the Liberal Democrats), progressive parties have 62% of the potential vote share.

Labour stands on 40%, the Lib Dems 12%, the Greens 5%, the SNP 4%, and Plaid Cymru 1%. The right, by comparison, has just 38%: the Conservatives 33%, Reform 4%, and UKIP 1%.

The England Brexit Psycho-Drama

In 2010 and 2015 respectively, between 10 and 11 million Brits voted Conservative – not enough to give the party a majority in the former, but just enough to get it over the line in the latter.

As a result, successive Conservative-led governments adopted the policy of permanent austerity – from which Boris Johnson has distanced himself rhetorically, while (COVID aside) he still continues to carry out.

Concurrently, the Conservatives have slowly stolen the clothes of hard-right anti-EU provocateur Nigel Farage – who caused the Tories numerous headaches after 2010.

Fearing that the right-wing vote would be split at the 2015 General Election, David Cameron promised to hold the EU Referendum if he emerged victorious – settling the issue once and for all, he hoped, with Remain on the winning side.

Three years after the referendum, with Britain still in the EU and Parliament in paralysis, Brexit became a religion for a significant number of English voters.

By mid-2019, a majority of Conservative Party members said that they would rather see the party destroyed than lose Brexit. In order to retain these constituents, Johnson is now a political clone of Farage – waging a culture war against immigrants and liberals, trans people, students and standards of decency in public life.

Given the media’s focus on the Westminster psycho-drama, you could be forgiven for thinking that this state of affairs pervades throughout the UK. It does not.

Founded in 1905, the name of the secular party Sinn Féin translates from Irish-Gaelic to English as “Ourselves”. The party operates in two countries. It is a minority in the Republic of Ireland’s legislature (the Oireachtas) with 37 seats in the 160-member lower house (Dáil Éireann) and five out of the 60 seats in the upper house (Seanad Éireann, not including a recent resignation).

Sinn Féin seeks Northern Ireland’s reunification with the Republic of Ireland and – as such – it cannot be compared with too much precision to other UK political parties.

Sinn Féin recently won the plurality in the Northern Ireland Assembly (27 seats out of 90) and abstains from its seven out of potential 18 Northern Ireland constituency seats in the House of Commons.

However, many Sinn Féin supporters vote for the party’s left-wing social policies, not necessarily for reunification. The party’s manifesto pledges include injecting money into the health service, tackling the cost of living crisis by reducing consumer costs, building 100,000 homes over the next 15 years to tackle the affordability crisis, banning conversion therapy, and introducing a Bill of Rights.

The last several years in opposition have made Sinn Féin’s legislative victories all the more impressive. In 2018, it passed a bill in the Irish Dáil to increase the number of social and affordable houses. In 2021, a non-binding private members’ bill calling for 20,000 social homes a year to be constructed also passed. Similarly, in that year, a student renters’ bill enjoyed success. The Financial Times reports that the party’s focus on housing has led to its increase in support. It now leads the opposition in the Republic and is the leading party in Northern Ireland, though negotiations are still ongoing about the resumption of the Assembly after May’s election.

From Holyrood to Cardiff

The first elections to the Scottish Parliament took place in 1999, with Labour winning 53 seats and the SNP leading the opposition. In 2007, the pro-independence party beat Labour by one seat, and it has been the leading party in Scottish parliamentary elections ever since.

In 2016, Scots voted overwhelmingly for the UK to remain part of the EU – 62 to 38% – and as England has lurched to the right, Scotland has travelled in the opposite political direction.

Branded as the ‘Brexit election’, the SNP consolidated its support in 2019 – winning 48 of the available 59 House of Commons seats in the country – an increase of 13 from 2017.

Fearing a hard Brexit under Johnson, the SNP was given a significant mandate in Westminster and in Holyrood through subsequent Scottish elections.

Today, 16-year-olds can vote in Scotland – something for which Westminster refuses to legislate. In addition, anyone resident in Scotland, including refugees, can register to vote. By late-2021, more than 170,000 EU and other foreign nationals were registered to vote in the Scottish Parliamentary and local elections.

In contrast, Tory England is increasingly restricting the franchise, marginalising those already on the peripheries of the democratic system.

Echoing their Scottish counterparts, in 2020 the Welsh voted to expand the franchise to younger age groups.

The Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament, previously the National Assembly) is a unicameral assembly that has 60 seats and was established in 1999. Since its founding, the Welsh Labour Party has dominated, with consistently a quarter-to-one-third of the vote in constituency elections.

In the 2021 Senedd elections, Labour entrenched its support – gaining one seat and teetering on the edge of an overall majority, an impressive feat in both the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, by virtue of their proportional voting systems. The majority of people in Wales want Johnson to resign as Prime Minister, in line with the rest of the UK.

As polls and election results consistently show, the UK as a whole leans towards the centre-left – something that consistently converts to majorities for progressive parties outside Westminster.

Yet, the majority of people – and certainly those in the home nations – are forced to reckon with seemingly perpetual Tory rule, with its accompanying Brexit diversions and regressive economic policies.

Nevertheless, there is some reason for hope. There is a broad coalition capable of beating the Conservatives at the next election – if those involved can figure out a strategy for victory.

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A Nation Split on the Monarchy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/06/2022 - 9:17pm in

New polling by Omnisis for Byline Times shows a significant body of support outside England for an elected head of state

There are significant fissures within the UK about the future of the monarchy, an exclusive new poll commissioned by Byline Times can reveal.

Polling conducting this week by Omnisis shows that there is a significant body of support in Scotland and Wales for an elected head of state – with 44% of respondents in the former and 43% in the latter supporting the end of the constitutional monarchy. This compares to an England-wide average of 32% who support an elected head of state.

Comparative polling also suggests that respondents may have been influenced by the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, which is being celebrated this week.

Back in February, Omnisis asked respondents whether they supported the presence of a monarchy in Britain, with 47% of Scottish and 48% of Welsh respondents saying that they did not.

However, it doesn’t appear as though Boris Johnson can count on a bounce in support thanks to the Jubilee.

This week’s poll suggests that, while 83% of people think that the Queen embodies ‘British values’, only 31% of people think the same about the current Prime Minister. Strikingly, among the 55-to-64 age bracket – typically a reliable constituency of support for the Conservatives – only 22% of people believe that Johnson embodies British values.

Even 32% of people who intend to vote for the Conservatives at the next general election believe that Boris Johnson – who was found to have broken the law during the ‘Partygate’ saga – does not embody British values.

That said, people still appear to be widely optimistic about the future of the monarchy, with 72% believing that it will still be in existence in 20 years’ time, and 73% saying that they will continue to support its position after the Queen dies. Once again, this sentiment is stronger in England (74%) than in the other home nations (66%).

While these divides have not yet opened into a chasm, the presence of an ideological rupture between England, Scotland and Wales could further fuel independence movements.

Scotland in particular is disaffected with Westminster rule, forced into a departure from the European Union against its wishes, and governed by successive Conservative-led administrations that it did not vote for.

It is perhaps of little surprise that the Scottish National Party has strengthened its position in recent elections, winning 64 seats at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election – one short of an overall majority (a tricky feat under Scotland’s proportional electoral system).

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that civil servants are working on a renewed prospectus for independence and has said she wants a second independence referendum to take place by the end of next year – though this vote can only be granted by Westminster.

Finally, Omnisis asked respondents to guess who the Queen would vote for at the next general election, if she chose to vote (by convention, the Queen does not vote). 52% of those surveyed said that she would vote Conservative, 22% thought Labour, 11% thought the Greens, and 8% said the Liberal Democrats.

This is perhaps surprising, given that Boris Johnson unlawfully prorogued Parliament in 2020 and potentially lied to the Queen, while his staff members partied the night away on the eve of her husband Prince Philip’s (socially distanced) funeral.

The full tables and methodology can be found here

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North Loses Out as Government Replaces EU ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 20/04/2022 - 7:04pm in

Sam Bright and Tom Robinson calculate the reductions in UK regional development spending, compared to the equivalent EU scheme

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A UK Government fund designed to replace EU regional development grants will leave the north of England tens of millions of pounds worse off while maintaining or even increasing funding to wealthier southern areas, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal.

Oxfordshire will receive a 12% funding boost, funding for Hampshire and west Surrey will remain the same, while Berkshire faces a cut of just 4%. Meanwhile, Leeds will see a funding cut of 43%, Manchester 35%, Liverpool 34%, and the north-east of England 37% overall.

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, the largest per-person recipient of EU funding in England, also face a cut of 38%, from £214.4 million during the last three years of the EU fund to the £132 million planned for the next three years of the UK Government scheme.

The Shared Prosperity Fund, part of the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda – intended to reduce the disparities between different parts of the UK – will hand out £2.6 billion over the next three years, falling significantly short of the £1.5 billion per year the UK received from the EU to help its most deprived areas.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised “at a minimum” to match EU funding post-Brexit.

Under EU rules, funds were allocated according to an area’s deprivation in relation to the EU average. The new rules attempt to replicate this model, but also guarantee a minimum of £1 million for every borough and/or district in England.

The fund’s spending allocation has also ignited a row between the UK’s devolved nations and Westminster.

The Scottish Government has claimed that it will receive £337 million less over three years than it would have under the EU. The Welsh Government, meanwhile, has claimed that it is “facing a loss of more than £1 billion in un-replaced funding over the next three years”.

In a written statement, Welsh Minister for the Economy, Vaughan Gething, said: “The Welsh Government proposed an alternative formula which would distribute funding more fairly across Wales according to economic need, but this was rejected by the UK Government.”

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has stated that the UK fund would only match EU funding in 2024/25 – once remaining EU funds had been distributed – noting that previous EU grants had “ramped up and down”.

However, the Financial Times has reported that English regions will receive £78 million less in real terms than under the EU deal, even when the UK Government scheme ramps up in 2024/25.

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Levelling Down

Levelling up is one of the key policy planks of Boris Johnson’s Government, linked to the UK’s departure from the EU.

Brexit has been viewed as a rebellion among former industrial areas in the north of England, the midlands and north Wales – protesting against their relative deprivation compared to more affluent areas of the country, in particular London and other metropolitan hubs.

However, two-and-a-half years after Johnson won the 2019 General Election, there appears to have been little movement on the agenda.

The Government launched its levelling up white paper in February, sketching out the scope of its ambitions. Yet, ministers were criticised at the time for failing to match their grand rhetoric with funding commitments. In a recent report, the Institute for Government think tank concluded that the Government’s 12 levelling up missions – stipulated in the white paper – will not have a positive impact on regional inequality.

The Institute said that “only four of the 12 missions are clear, ambitious and have appropriate metrics – outcomes the Government will measure to demonstrate progress towards its 2030 target”.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has been accused of distributing levelling up funds to further political ends.

Analysing the Government’s four existing levelling up schemes, the Guardian found imbalances and irregularities – not least that Mid Bedfordshire, an area partly represented by Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, has received £26.7 million in funds despite being one of the fifth most affluent areas of the country.

Likewise, the constituency represented by Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid will receive £15 million despite being one of the wealthiest areas in England.

This situation appears to have been replicated in the case of the Shared Prosperity Fund, with some Conservative-dominated areas escaping the worst of the Government’s cutbacks. Indeed, Oxfordshire – set to receive a levelling up funding boost – has six parliamentary constituencies, four of which are represented by Conservative MPs.

Raw funding has also been lacking, with Johnson planning to spend less on English regional development than either of his immediate predecessors, Theresa May and David Cameron, according to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

The Byline Intelligence Team recently revealed how the Conservative Government has been encouraging repressive regimes – including Saudi Arabia – to invest in regional development projects in the UK, as a means of furthering the levelling up agenda, and potentially as a way of avoiding central government spending.

“Levelling up is about addressing deep structural challenges over the long-term and the white paper sets out a clear blueprint on how we will reduce regional inequalities,” the Government said, in response to the Institute for Government's levelling up report.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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Meet the ‘Future Generations’ Commissioner of Wales

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 05/04/2022 - 6:00pm in

Sophie Howe has a uniquely forward-looking job. Since 2016, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales has been tasked with ensuring her country’s public institutions are taking into consideration how their actions affect Welsh citizens who haven’t been born yet. In that time, Howe has intervened on transport planning, education reform, gender and racial equality, and climate change. She has called for a trial of the four-day working week and has been a vocal advocate for a Universal Basic Income, which will soon be piloted by the Welsh Government.

Howe’s role is thought to be the first of its kind worldwide, but after early promising signs other nations are following Wales’ lead. In September 2021, Scotland announced that it, too, was appointing a Future Generations Commissioner, and in November, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres endorsed a proposal for a Special Envoy for Future Generations, which could impact the 193 member states. We spoke to Howe about the impacts so far, and those still to come.

How did your role come about?

When the Welsh parliament was first established, there was something called the Government of Wales Act that had a clause in it that said sustainable development should be a “central organizing principle.” But what that meant in practice was not a lot. They were words, not action. The Environment Minister would present a report to the Senate once a year, and all we were really doing is standing still. 

Sophie Howe, Wales Commissioner for Future Generations. Credit: Matt Horwood

One minister was really frustrated by that and she managed to get commitments that there would be, in the next term, legislation for sustainable development. At the time, the UN Sustainable Development Goals were being developed and we held a conversation with people in Wales where we asked: “What’s the Wales you want to leave behind your children, your grandchildren, and future generations to come?” They came up with a set of long-term goals of what they wanted Wales to look like in the future. And then the act was developed around that. 

What is the crux of the problem you are trying to address?

You can’t have sustainability without looking at the long-term impact of the things that you do. It’s like applying a “good ancestor” test. Are the things we’re doing now going to screw over the next generation or the generation after?

We think Wales has got a model that the rest of the world should follow. It’s all about really addressing short-termism in governance and government. And that short termism is endemic in every government across the world. That’s why we’re in the climate crisis. It’s why you’ve got widening inequality and you’ve got life expectancy in many places plateauing. So we’re saying that we think, across the world, there needs to be stronger mechanisms to force governments to think long term.

What are the biggest issues that need to be tackled?

The big one, of course, is climate change. We’ve put more carbon into the atmosphere knowingly than any other time during human history. We haven’t cared, we’ve done it anyway, mainly because of economic benefits, and we haven’t wanted to make tough decisions. 

With the pandemic situation, we were all kind of surprised by this pandemic. But if you look at the global risk registers of future risk, the risk of a pandemic has been on there for quite a number of years. So we can’t say that we didn’t know it was a risk, but we were completely unprepared for it. We have to have a society that is prepared.

And if you think about the aging population: In Wales, by 2036, we’re going to have double the number of over 65, and over 80s, high numbers of people living with dementia, and so on. Yet we’ve got a care system which already can’t cope with that. Who is thinking about the long term? How are we going to make sure it’s not catastrophic in the future?

When you start joining all of those dots, we should be looking for solutions to these problems in an integrated way.

What exactly do you do day to day?

I spend a lot of time meeting with government ministers and officials to talk through new policy areas they might be exploring. I commission research, such as I’ve done on the reduced working week and universal basic income. Recently I’ve worked with housing associations to try and bring them together with the government to find a solution about how jointly they could fund decarbonization.

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A lot of it is building a movement. When the act first came in, not many people knew about it. They were like: “What is this?” But now, there’s an increasing number of organizations who aren’t even legally required by the duty, but are signing up to its principal. Even parts of the private sector want to get on board with it, because it’s a long-term plan. We’ll be working with the Welsh Football Association, because they want to build their strategy around football’s contribution to the wellbeing goals. A lot of it is providing advice. A local council might want to have a new strategy on food poverty — how would they do that through the lens of each generation back? It’s sort of promotional, a lot of advice and support.

Are current political systems inherently short-sighted?

That is the underlying problem. Politicians are interested in what they’re going to be able to do in the next five years in terms of how it’s going to get them elected or not. So in Wales, our act is trying to to accept that the seven long-term goals don’t change from one political cycle to the next. Our goal of a prosperous Wales takes us away from an obsession with GDP towards the focus on wellbeing.

It talks about a productive, innovative, low-carbon society, one that uses resources efficiently and acts proportionally on climate change. It talks about skills and access to decent work. There are legal obligations on Welsh Ministers to set these objectives which maximize their contribution to these goals. How they go about doing that is what changes during political cycles, but the goal itself doesn’t change. We’ve got as close as I think you possibly can, in a democratic system, to a long-term approach, and we think that’s what’s needed across the world.

What have you achieved since 2016?

The earliest test of the legislation was when the Welsh government got powers it didn’t previously have, like the ability to borrow money. There was a proposal to spend the entire borrowing capacity on building a 13 mile stretch of motorway to deal with the problem of congestion around a place called Newport. I intervened in that and asked how the interests of two generations had been applied to that decision. How was it in line with prosperous Wales? How is it aligned with our goals around ecological resilience? The road was going through a nature reserve. And 25 percent of the lowest income families in the region don’t even have access to a car. The government changed its mind on the basis of the Future Generations Act and stopped that road. Instead, what we’re seeing is a new transport strategy for Wales, which puts roads right at the bottom of the priority list. There’s a moratorium on all road building; every scheme that’s been approved has stopped. 

We’ve also reformed the school curriculum, so that it’s in line with the Future Generations Act. So the outcomes from our school curriculum are not to learn Latin, but to create healthy, active and confident learners, ethical and informed citizens, creative and enterprising individuals, because those are the sorts of skills that are going to be critical for the future. 

I’ve been advocating a universal basic income, which was seen as a kind of pie-in-the-sky idea two years ago. But when you start talking about the long-term health impacts of poverty, the changing nature of work, all these people working in the gig economy, and not having a safety net, then a UBI actually becomes quite a sensible conversation. And two weeks ago, the Welsh Government announced their first pilot on a universal basic income. 

We’ve massively increased investment in improving the quality of people’s homes to meet carbon emissions targets, and to improve people’s health and to create jobs in the low-carbon economy. We’ve got a strategy to be a zero-waste nation by 2050. I could go on and on.

What’s been difficult about the job?

I can’t force anyone to do anything or stop anyone doing anything. I’m unelected. My job is to hold to account, as far as the role can, how the act is being implemented. My role is to be their conscience, the conscience of future generations. And to call them out when they’re not thinking about future generations. I have powers of review. I can look at a particular public body or a particular issue, and give recommendations on ways that they should improve, which they are legally required to respond to. But ultimately, it’s up to politicians to operate within the legal framework that they have, because they are the ones who are elected.

What we’re trying to do here is the biggest cultural change program that Wales has ever seen. Everything gone in the past is almost the opposite of what we’re trying to do with the Future Generations Act. So what I’ve spent a lot of time doing is trying to unpick a lot of that stuff, which is the system, which works against us. That’s been the biggest challenge. But actually, we have these new obligations now, and we need to do things differently. That’s quite a slow process. But things are changing. You’ve got to start somewhere.

What’s next, after 2023? Will you run for re-election? Will the role develop?

My term comes to an end next year, and there’ll be a new commissioner. But part of our mission is to take the Future Generation concept to other parts of the world. So at the moment, there’s a private member’s bill going through the UK Parliament to have a Future Generations Act for the UK. There’s also legislation going through the Scottish Parliament. There’s interest from the Irish government in something similar. I’m in Germany at the moment talking to the regional government in Gutenberg about how they could do something similar and the UN Secretary General, we’ve been working with him around a UN declaration on a Special Envoy for Future Generations. I’ll continue on a mission to see how more countries across the world can adopt this approach and an increasing number are really interested.

The post Meet the ‘Future Generations’ Commissioner of Wales appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

It’s our money: HS2, the Barnett formula, and the threat to Welsh democracy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 12/02/2020 - 9:07pm in

Yesterday’s announcement from Whitehall that HS2 would proceed – at an estimated cost now of £100bn, a figure that seems likely to rise substantially – has opened a wide fault-line about the future of Wales and Welsh devolution.

As Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards argues persuasively in a piece in Nation Cymru, the issues for Wales are simple. HS2 is classified as a project that benefits both England and Wales, and therefore Wales will not receive any consequential funding as a result of the Barnett Formula, which provides that increasing public expenditure in England will be reflected in an increase in Westminster funding for Wales. This is despite the fact that not a centimetre of HS2 track will be laid in Wales and economists estimate that HS2 will actually damage the economy of South Wales – to the tune of £150m per year; the justification is that it will be possible to get a connecting service from Wrexham to Crewe, which some would regard as a pretty desperate piece of post-hoc rationalisation. It looks especially threadbare when one considers that Scotland – which will potentially benefit from substantially reduced travel times to London – will receive Barnett consequentials.

The loss in Barnett consequentials is likely to be around £5bn – assuming the £100bn overall cost of HS2 is correct (and it seems reasonable to expect it will come in above that).

All of this matters, not just because of the loss of £5bn of desperately needed funding in the poorest country in Northern Europe, whose economy is blighted by notoriously inadequate transport links. It throws into sharp relief issues that are beginning to emerge about the future of devolution itself.

First, it is a reminder that the Barnett Formula is no more than a convention. It has no force in law, and only exists as long as the Treasury in London allows it to exist. The Treasury could announce tomorrow that it was over and the Welsh Government could do absolutely nothing about it.

And politically, it’s essential to remember two things: first, that the new Tory government, faced with the austerity that will inevitably follow the hard Brexit it now appears to be pursuing, will be under huge pressure from its new North of England Tory MPs to protect spending in their areas, in line with Boris Johnson’s rhetoric about promoting the North of England. The convention that automatically uplifts Wales’ spending settlement is bound to be under political pressure in these circumstances.

Morevover, Wales has recently been granted tax-raising powers. There is a close fit with the Cameron governments’ localism agenda, which in theory granted extra revenue-raising powers to English local authorities through retention of business rates, but in practice became a rationale for cutting central Government funding: the message was, you can raise the money locally so we don’t need to fund you.

So there is a clear rationale emerging in which Welsh political institutions continue to take the responsibility for providing services but are systematically starved of the resources to do so; the scenario facing many English local authorities but from which Wales – has to a limited extent – been protected by the Barnett formula (although it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the ability of Welsh political institutions to deliver services like health is under huge and growing pressure).

And, second, it’s essential to understand the political context in which the HS2 decisions have been taken. It was instructive to hear Boris Johnson, yet again, using the HS2 announcement to attack the Welsh Government’s decision not to build the M4 relief road around Newport. The point is that whatever one might think of that decision, it was taken in Wales by our own government; Johnson and Westminster have absolutely no jurisdiction. here.

Added to that is the huge pressure that Brexit – especially the hard Brexit envisaged by Whitehall – will place on Wales: both on our economy and on our political autonomy. The effect of a hard Brexit will obviously be catastrophic for Wales; the Government’s own estimates suggest a 7% fall in GDP across the UK as a whole – similar to what Spain and Ireland experienced in the Eurozone crisis. Wales, because of our economic structures, is far more vulnerable than many parts of the UK. And the EU withdrawal legislation means that over areas determined by Whitehall fiat to be part of the UK single market, it will be far more difficult for the Welsh Government to act, least of all to mitigate the effects of Brexit on either the economy or essential quality-of-life issues like the environment or food standards.

In other words, the HS2 decision is a reminder that the cumulative effect of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party’s attitude towards Wales – including its attitude to Brexit – is to undermine fatally both our political institutions and our ability to finance our own public services; it is essentially a denial of service attack on Welsh democracy. And anybody on the progressive side of Welsh politics has to understand that the HS2 decision exposes clearly the ruthless determination of Tories, ultimately, to ensure that Wales learns its place and takes its medicine.

So where do progressives start to fight back? One of the complaints that one hears on the progressive side of politics is that we don’t have the three-word slogans that Boris Johnson and his minders used so devastatingly in the EU referendum: “take back control” and “get Brexit done”.

So here’s one for Welsh progressives: “its our money”. And let’s use this as a reminder that achieving progressive politics in Wales is intimately bound up with developing constitutional arrangements that are fit for purpose, robust and not subject to Whitehall whim.

Early days of a better nation: why progressive politics and Welsh independence are now inseparably linked.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/01/2020 - 9:49am in

Among the twenty-four inscriptions that line the walls of the Scottish Parliament, one – attributed to Alasdair Gray but, as he freely admitted, borrowed from the Canadian poet Dennis Lee, seems hugely apposite to the position of we in Wales who still have faith in progressive politics: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”.

It is particularly appropriate in Wales today, following the crushing win for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party at Westminster and the second electoral thrashing in less than a year suffered by Welsh Labour. Almost before the final election results were declared, Johnson was declaring that a way must be found for the M4 Relief Road – subject to possibly the longest-running political controversy in Wales – to be built, after the Welsh Government’s decision not to go ahead with the scheme.

One can argue the merits of the decision not to build the relief road endlessly – but the point is that it was a decision taken in Wales, by the Welsh Government, making use of the devolved powers it indisputably possesses; there is no question of a grey area here. And it needs to be taken in context with other key decisions taken by Westminster using its legitimate powers; not to proceed with the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, or to electrify the railway between Cardiff and Swansea: both Tory election promises in 2017 but subsequently binned, and both cited as examples of the contempt in which Tory governments in Westminster hold Wales as part of the growing groundswell of support for independence.

And then there is Brexit. Wales voted – narrowly – for Brexit in 2016; but opinion polls since then have shown a larger swing back towards Remain than in any other part of the UK; and, moreover, there is compelling evidence that those who identify as Welsh were far more likely to vote Remain than those who identified as British; it was English retirers who shifted the balance. With the rise in national sentiment in Wales, that seems to be as strong an indication as we are likely to get that Wales has become a Remain nation.

And the political implications of Brexit for Wales are clear; it represents a substantial power grab by Westminster that will crucially undermine Brexit. As part of the legislative process leading to Brexit, the Welsh Government has agreed that many powers currently devolved to Wales relating to EU matters will effectively be taken back to Westminster for a period of five years, insofar as they affect the single UK market; and that includes crucial areas of policy like agriculture and the environment. The guidelines for how those powers will operate are currently being drafted by officials without any democratic scrutiny. Quietly, with the collaboration of a Welsh Labour Government in Ty Hywel, the devolution settlement is being rewritten as a series of protocols between officials. There is no democratic scrutiny.

The ambiguous position of Welsh Labour become abundantly clear when it used its votes in the Senedd to vote down a Plaid Cymru motion that no part of the Welsh NHS should be subject to a trade agreement negotiated by Westminster; partly on the intellectually feeble grounds, according to one Welsh Minister, that the vote would be “misrepresented on social media”. There is obviously a dilemma; the NHS is devolved, trade agreements are not. But it is surely significant that on this massively important and emotive issue Welsh Labour took the side of Westminster.

By the same logic, Wales will be powerless to resist the imports of chlorinated chicken, or to oppose any measure that Westminster deems necessary to get its trade deals outside the EU. Drakeford and Welsh Labour have thrown in the towel before the fight has started.

Taken together, it is clear that Wales is facing a dedicated onslaught on its devolved settlement. And that matters because during his Welsh Labour leadership campaign, Mark Drakeford talked repeatedly of erecting a “bulwark of socialism” in Wales against austerity politics in Westminster; but, quite obviously, you cannot do that if you do not have powers. And all the evidence to date is that Labour is not prepared to defend those devolved powers.

But without those powers there is no way in which Wales will be able to resist Westminster’s agenda; Drakeford’s bulwark of socialism appears to be wholly imaginary.

So the logic appears relentless; it points firmly towards moving towards independence within the EU as the only option that would allow us to preserve a progressive agenda in Wales – to “take back control” as it were. The choice appears stark: for Welsh politics to be relegated to being no more than a talking shop with the big decisions being taken in a Westminster that shows no inclination to respect Wales, or to become an independent state within the EU, with a guaranteed seat at the top table. Boris Johnson’s determination to attack devolution and to ensure that the big decisions are taken in London means that there is no real prospect of a middle way; solutions such as a federal United Kingdom with looser political links and real autonomy for the constituent nations, just aren’t on the agenda. When Boris Johnson talks up the Union, he means control in London; a Union made up not of equals, but of supplicants.

And, as a powerful piece in Nation.Cymru argued today, there is no point in waiting for a Labour government across the UK. That piece argues that Labour must start arguing for independence; but with Labour’s history – starting with the fact that Mark Drakeford was elected as Welsh Labour leader barely a year ago with a substantial majority on a platform that firmly placed Labour’s approach in opposition to independence – it’s hardly likely.

Which brings us back to Alasdair Gray. The future of Wales lies in demonstrating that we can do better than the failing politics of Westminster; that we can be more optimistic, more forward-looking, more honest, more humane.

Moving towards independence is not an easy option. Welsh Nationalism needs to avoid the hubris, intolerance and governmental incompetence that has characterised the SNP in Scotland; but, nevertheless, the logic of the situation is overwhelming. Brexit and Tory government in London mean both economic trauma and political emasculation for Wales. And you cannot fight the one without opposing the other.

A question of balance: on what basis was last night’s Question Time audience selected?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/09/2019 - 8:12pm in

Last night, the BBC’s Question Time was broadcast from Cardiff. Events leading up to the programme – as well as the programme itself – give rise to further questions about audience selection; an issue that has given rise to considerable concern over a long period.

Inevitably, Brexit and the prorogation of Parliament were issues on the show. The city of Cardiff voted strongly remain in the 2016 referendum; by 60.02% to 39.98% on a turnout of 69.7%. More recently, although the Brexit party topped the poll in Cardiff in the 2019 European elections, it only did so by a whisker with 21% of the vote, with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru receiving similar shares of the vote; the majority of Cardiff voters backed Remain parties, to the tune of more than 70% if you include Labour, on a turnout of 41.6%.

In other words, Cardiff is a Remain city. But you might have been surprised to learn that if you watched the audience and listened to the questioning.

I applied for a ticket, as did many of my colleagues in the Cardiff for Europe group, one of the many local groups operating under the umbrella of Wales for Europe. Not one of us, having honestly answered the question on the application form that asks how you voted in the 2016 referendum, actually received a ticket – which suggests that, assuming the selection process was unbiased, the law of averages was having a week off. Similar experiences have been reported on Twitter from party political groups.

Moreover, the selection form gave rise to concern. As I mentioned, Plaid Cymru took 20% of the vote in the European elections in Cardiff – and a similar vote across Wales as a whole. Yet the question on the online application form asking which party one would vote for did not include Plaid Cymru. It included the Brexit Party (0 MPs) and the Green Party (1 MP) but not Plaid, with its four MPs and a substantial vote share across Wales, for a programme that was taking place in the capital of Wales – in the Senedd no less, where 10 Plaid AMs sit. Plaid supporters were required to tick the Other (please specify) box.

The BBC has refused to answer Freedom of Information requests for information on how Question Time audiences are selected. The FAQs on the programme website provide a handful of opaque generalisations that appear to have been drafted by Sir Humphrey Appleby. In the light of long-running controversies over the programme’s audience selection, surely a greater degree of openness would be sensible.

Bias is a serious allegation, and one that I am obviously not prepared to make without some pretty substantial evidence – although there is, as we have seen, a history of allegations. What I am willing to say is that this audience did not appear to reflect the City of Cardiff – certainly not the city that I know; that is a subjective view, obviously. But the marginalisation of Plaid Cymru – who, whatever you may think of them, are obviously an important part of the Welsh political scene – suggests at the very least a sloppy, ill-informed and cavalier approach to audience selection, one that paid little heed to the actual political balance in the city where the programme was recorded.

And, while the BBC continues as a national broadcaster funded by what is in effect a Broadcasting Tax, it needs to do a lot better than this.

Regulatory reform must prepare Welsh universities for Industry 4.0

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 29/06/2017 - 9:01am in

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Regulation, Wales

The new Welsh Government on White Paper on reforming regulation and encouraging more dynamic partnerships in the post-compulsory education sector is to be welcomed, says Universities Wales chair Colin Riordan.

The post Regulatory reform must prepare Welsh universities for Industry 4.0 appeared first on Wonkhe.

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