Senedd roundup: 28 further deaths linked to Cwm Taf Morgannwg outbreak

Merthyr’s Prince Charles Hospital. Picture from Google Maps

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

A further 28 people deaths in the last week have been linked to the Covid-19 outbreak at  four Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board hospitals.

Eighteen of those were at the Princess of Wales hospital in Bridgend, where 40 deaths have been recorded since the outbreak was declared last month

In total 127 deaths have been reported, including 56 at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Llantrisant, 25 at Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil and six at Maesteg Hospital

Altogether, Cwm Taf Morgannwg has recorded 531 cases of Covid-19 inside its hospitals.

The Royal Glamorgan Hospital has had 195 positive tests for the virus so far, the highest in the health board area.

Medical director Dr Nick Lyons said: “As we come out of the firebreak in Wales, the rate of Covid-19 infection in our communities remains worryingly high.

“Each day, more Covid patients are being admitted to our acute hospitals which are already very busy at this time of year.

“Please think carefully about your actions and adhere to the restrictions still in place.”

Meanwhile, NHS Wales chief executive Dr Andrew Goodall has revealed a significant drop in the number of Covid-19 patients requiring intensive care treatment during the current wave of the pandemic but confirmed critical care units are busier than normal due to the number of Covid and non-Covid patients requiring treatment.

Dr Goodall told the Senedd’s health committee this morning that during the first wave in spring it had been calculated that around 30% of patients admitted to hospital with the virus would require intensive care but at present the levels across Wales ranged from 7-12%.

Highlighting “treatments and interventions that can make a difference” he added: “…ultimately, the fewer patients who will end up in a critical care environment, we would therefore expect mortality to be much improved and therefore we are saving lives”.

But he added critical care was now “busier than it normally is”, with the combination of Covid and non-Covid patients.

A further 45 people have died with coronavirus according to the latest figures.

Public Health Wales has also reported 928 more people have tested positive for Covid-19 since yesterday.

13 of the deaths reported today were in the Aneurin Bevan health board area, and 10 in both Cwm Taf and Swansea Bay. There were also five deaths in the Betsi Cadwaladr area.

Rhondda Cynon Taf had 158 new cases, the highest in Wales, followed by Swansea with 91 and Cardiff with 82

Angela Burns AM. Picture by the National Assembly (CC 2.0).

Government criticised over land sale “debacle”

The Welsh Conservatives have slammed the government following the announcement yesterday that legal action against two firms that advised Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales over a controversial land sale has been settled out-of-court.

The government took action against Lambert Smith Hampton and Amber Fund in January 2018 for breach of contract and professional negligence

The companies advised Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) over the deal in 2012 which resulted in the sale of 15 publicly owned sites for £21 million.

The Wales Audit Office subsequently criticised the deal for undervaluing the land by £15 million.

Announcing the legal settlement in a written statement to the Senedd, Housing and Local Government Minister Julie James said: “I am pleased that I can now confirm that this dispute has been resolved without the need to incur the significant costs associated with a trial.

“This settlement has been reached on a commercial basis and without any admission of liability by any party.

“The detailed terms have been incorporated into a confidential settlement agreement between the parties.”

Angela Burns MS, the Shadow Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency described the deal as a “debacle” and accused the government of an inability to be “fiscally prudent”.

“The Fund was established to sell valuable packages of Welsh Government land, with the money used to support regeneration schemes. However, evidence has since emerged that shows that the sale of RIFW’s assets was undertaken at a loss of tens of millions of pounds. A loss borne ultimately by the Welsh Taxpayer and yet another example of the complete inability of this Labour led Welsh Government to be fiscally prudent,” she said.

“Millions of pounds have been squandered, millions that could have been invested in our education and health systems or spent building Wales’ economy or supporting some of our more vulnerable citizens. It’s an absolute scandal and the real scandal is the Welsh Government are able to slide out of their responsibility for this debacle”

Gym closed due to pandemic. Photo by Queven from Pixabay

A further phase of pandemic business support funding expected in the near future

With the third phase of the Welsh Government’s economic resilience fund having closed due to an application surge, Helen Mary Jones MS (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) asked about the future of the programme and whether – once current applications are processed – it may be reopened.

Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), didn’t want to raise any expectations that the third phase would be reopened, but all but confirmed that a fourth phase was in development and any underspends and alike would be redirected towards that.

“…. as part of the ERF phase three, a total of 14,000 awards have been made, amounting to more than £43 million. So, speed is of the essence. We’re meeting the demand in terms of speedy payments of emergency cash. But of course, I do recognise that the demand for development grants was overwhelming, which is why we’re learning as fast as we possibly can so that we can shape the next round of support according to what businesses really need.”– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates

He went on to add that any fourth phase of the ERF would aim to “bridge” the gap between now and whenever businesses are able to run successfully again (hinting this was somewhat dependent on the successful roll-out of a Covid-19 vaccine).

Welsh Government “holding back £1 billion worth of unallocated funding”

Pointing out the recently-announced £600 million worth of Barnett Formula consequentials for Wales as a result of spending decisions in England related to the pandemic, Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George MS (Con, Montgomery), hoped as much money as possible was going to businesses.

“Cardiff University has estimated more than £1 billion remains unallocated from existing Welsh Government budgets, so I’m hoping that the Welsh Government, in terms of whether it’s yourself or the Finance Minister can confirm if this is the case, why the Welsh Government is not committing this money now to support businesses rather than holding it back.”

– Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George MS

The Minister described the pandemic as a marathon and mentioned the levels of uncertainty over the next Welsh budget. It was “right and responsible” to hold back some funding as a contingency as pretty much all public services will face increased costs for the immediate future.

Image by communication-76 from Pixabay

£10 million boost for struggling arts and culture sector

The government has made additional funding available to organisations and individuals across the arts and cultural sectors that have been suffering due to the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

A further £10.7 million will be made available, taking the total funding package offered  through the Cultural Recovery Fund to £63.7 million.

This is in addition to an £18 million portfolio package provided in April, which was delivered by Welsh Government, Arts Council of Wales, Creative Wales and Sport Wales.

The funding will be used to open a third phase of the Freelancer Fund which will see a further £3.5 million being made available nationwide across all local authority areas from 10am on Monday 23 November to freelancers in the creative sector.

Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, Lord Elis-Thomas, said: “In Wales, we want to do everything possible to ensure our arts, culture, heritage and creativity survive this pandemic. In recognition of how hard the sector has been hit, we’re investing an additional £10.7 million to provide further help to reach as many parts of the sector as possible.

“This takes us well beyond the £59 million consequential received from the UK Government in July highlighting the value we put on the sector’s contribution to Welsh life and the wider economy – and that must continue in the future.

“We recognise that we’ll need the professionalism, experience, enthusiasm and vison of these professionals to help us come together and rebuild after the public health crisis has abated.”

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Councils won’t be forced to introduce single transferable vote for local elections

Yesterday, one of the final pieces of legislation of the Fifth Senedd – the Local Government & Elections Bill – reached Stage 3, which is the point where the Senedd (as a whole) tables and debates amendments. The Stage 3 session lasted just under five hours.

At a Glance Guide

Stage 1 report (summary)

The Bill, as introduced:

  • Reduces the voting age in local elections to 16 and changes the voter registrations and candidate disqualification criteria for council candidates broadly in line with the Senedd & Elections Act 2020.
  • Gives local councils the power to choose whether to change their electoral system to single transferable vote (this is subject to a number of amendments as you’ll see later).
  • Introduces a general power of competence for local authorities (the 22 unitary authorities) and community councils and introduced new requirements for governance arrangements.
  • Local authorities will need to introduce public petitions schemes and webcast all meetings.
  • Sets out the arrangements for voluntary mergers between two local authorities and also regional/collaborative working (i.e. joint committees).

Major Changes at Stage 2

Stage 2 proceedings were undertaken by the Communities Committee alongside the Member in Charge, Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West).

Hundreds of amendments were tabled, though the main changes include:

  • Council cabinet/executive members and non-executive office holders (i.e. committee chairs) will be able to job-share.
  • The Welsh Government will have the power to create regional corporate bodies for economic wellbeing, transport and education.
  • Certain types of regional joint committee will be legally required to prepare a strategic development plan in alignment with the National Development Framework.
  • People can no longer face imprisonment for non-payment of council tax.
  • There’s a clearer definition of what “improving public engagement” means in practical terms, such as candidate recruitment drives and the use of social media to promote a council’s work.

The Key Amendments at Stage 3

Amendment 15 – Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James
Sets out the arrangements and requirements for remote/virtual attendance of council meetings.
Vote: Agreed – 45 for, 3 against, 3 abstentions

Amendment 33 – Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James
Grants the Auditor General power of entry and inspection to the 22 unitary authorities.
Vote: Agreed – 43 for, 4 against, 4 abstentions

Amendment 87 – Mark Isherwood MS (Con, North Wales)
Requires headteachers to promote politics and democracy in schools.
Vote: Rejected – 19 for, 28 against, 4 abstentions
Reason for Rejection: A similar duty on local authorities is included in the Curriculum & Assessments Bill.

Amendment 94 – Mark Isherwood MS
Requires a local referendum before a council changes the voting system to single transferable vote (STV).
Vote: Rejected – 11 for, 36 against, 4 abstentions
Reason for Rejection: Local consultation is more cost-effective.

Amendment 114 – Mark Isherwood MS
Requires a threshold to be set before a public petition received by a council triggers a debate.
Vote: Rejected – 18 for, 30 against, 3 abstentions
Reason for Rejection (if applicable): Guidance will be issued on how councils should introduce petitions schemes and there were concerns over how the amendment was worded.

Amendment 119 – Mark Isherwood MS
Requires local authorities to undertake annual performance monitoring of chief executives.
Vote: Rejected – 20 for, 27 against, 3 abstain
Reason for Rejection: A similar clause in the draft Bill was removed at Stage 2 because of concerns within local government that it was too prescriptive.

Amendment 143 – Mark Isherwood MS
Places a duty on the Welsh Government to compensate councils for any additional costs resulting from the Act.
Vote: Rejected – 18 for, 29 against, 3 abstentions
Reason for Rejection: It doesn’t acknowledge any cost benefits and would mean spending “forever and a day” trying to identify any additional costs, no matter how small, after the Bill becomes law.

Amendment 152 – Delyth Jewell MS (Plaid, South Wales East)
Changes the local government voting system for principal councils (the 22 unitary authorities) to single transferable vote (STV).
Vote: Rejected – 11 for, 37 against, 2 abstentions
Reason for Rejection: It would deny individual councils a choice over their own electoral system.

Amendment 158 – Delyth Jewell MS
Places Welsh language duties on returning officers and regional/joint committees.
Vote: Rejected – 9 for, 31 against, 11 abstensions
Reason for Rejection: An Electoral Administration Bill would be introduced in the next Senedd term and address this (depending on the election outcome), though discussions will continue with local authorities ahead of the 2021 election.

Amendment 162 – Delyth Jewell MS
Extends job-sharing to all councillors, not just executive/cabinet members.
Vote: Rejected – 9 for, 37 against, 5 abstentions
Reason for Rejection: While the Minister supports it in principle, it requires further public consultation to see whether the electorate would accept it.

Amendment 163 – Delyth Jewell MS
Places a requirement on registered political parties standing candidates in local elections to keep and publish diversity statistics (subject to regulations).
Vote: Rejected – 17 for, 31 against, 3 abstentions
Reason for Rejection: Councils are already required to survey successful and unsuccessful candidates and this includes Independents too.

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