Today’s Senedd Roundup: Brexit Party group formed after Mark Reckless defects again

Mark Reckless. Picture by the National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Yesterday (May 15th), four AMs defected to the Brexit Party following days of speculation which peaked after Mark Reckless AM left the Conservative group.

Last week, The Western Mail’s Martin Shipton reported that Reckless, along with Caroline Jones AM, Mandy Jones AM and UKIP’s David Rowlands were in discussions with the Brexit Party – which later turned out to be true. Reckless is set to be the leader of the new group, earning an additional £17,000 a year and also earning the privilege to ask questions without notice during FMQs.

Michelle Brown AM (Ind, North Wales) was reportedly barred from joining.

While the Brexit Party group still requires official recognition by the Llywydd, there are seemingly few barriers to prevent it.

The announcement will also have a knock-on impact elsewhere. As a result of David Rowlands’ defection, UKIP will no longer be an official party group in the Senedd meaning they can no longer ask questions without notice at ministerial questions and will also lose funding and staff.

When the Llywydd announced the Brexit Party’s request to form a group to the chamber, Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) accused Brexit Party AMs of being “chancers” who “did not stand for election under any party label they are using today. They are using this in order to access public resources and public money without standing for election or seeking the consent of anybody in any constituency or region in any part of Wales.”

As for Senedd Home, I can’t determine yet whether to put the Brexit Party under the same soft cordon sanitaire as UKIP (which remains in place and has successfully denied them oxygen) because they don’t have any policies and haven’t said or done anything – but I’ll be keeping the situation under close review, in particular, their support (or not) for devolution.

I’ll probably have more to say on this next week.

The Senedd. Picture: Smoobs (CC BY 2.0)

Committee Chair tells AMs that leaks impact confidence in complaints system

In an oral statement to AMs in the Senedd chamber, the Chair of the Standards Committee, Jayne Bryant AM (Lab, Newport West) warned AMS that leaks to the media during standards investigations threatened to undermine confidence in the system.

She cited two examples of leaks being made before investigations had even started and meant those investigations take place amidst external speculation. She reminded AMs that they shouldn’t disclose the details of standards investigations until the Committee’s report is published.

HMRC tax cock-up results in Welsh taxpayers paying Scottish income tax

A blunder by HMRC has resulted in Welsh taxpayers paying a (higher) Scottish rate of income tax. Prior to the devolution of income tax-varying powers, Welsh taxpayers had a “CR21; affixed to the start of their tax code, but some had the Scottish “S” affixed instead. It’s unclear how many people were affected, but they’re eligible for a refund from HMRC.

Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) said: “HMRC’s admission is deeply disappointing as this Committee was repeatedly given assurances that mistakes like this would not happen….We are seeking an immediate explanation of how this has happened and will be asking representatives from HMRC to appear before this Committee in the near future.”

Child playing on a beach. Picture by Damian Gadal (CC BY 2.0)

44 Blue Flags awarded to Welsh beaches

Wales continues to have more Blue Flags per mile than any other part of the UK following the latest round of awards. Blue Flags are awarded to beaches that reach exceptional standards in terms of cleanliness, facilities and water quality.

Three beaches – Aberdaron, Tywyn and Whitmore Bay (Barry Island) – lost blue flag status. The latter has well-publicised problems with littering by day-trippers.

Doctor shortage risk to child health

A shortage of consultant paediatricians could put children’s health at risk in Wales according to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. They estimate 73 consultants are needed in Wales to meet requirements – an increase of 42%. There were particular concerns about the number of general paediatricians.

The Welsh Government said the number of paediatricians had increased by just under 19% between 2015-2018 and an international recruitment campaign was focusing on paediatricians.

Carl Sargeant (1968-2017) . Picture by National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Sargeant evidence challenge rejected

Former First Minister, Carwyn Jones AM (Lab, Bridgend), had an appeal to force the Coroner to accept evidence from two Flintshire councillors rejected by the High Court on 9th May. Mr Jones’ legal counsel believe the evidence was necessary to give a full picture of Carl Sargeant’s state of mind and the allegations made against him.

A judge said the Coroner had acted correctly by not allowing the evidence submission, with a spokesperson for the Coroner saying: “The inquest is a limited fact-finding inquiry to answer four questions: Who, when, where, how.”

Minister doesn’t believe a law is needed to speed up transition to Electric Vehicles

Rhun ap Iorwerth. Picture by Plaid Cymru.

Yesterday, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) put forward a proposal for a law on electric and zero-emissions vehicles – holding a demonstration even outside the Senedd building itself and publishing a report based on the evidence surrounding Scotland’s electric vehicle policy.

Taking action on climate change

As expected, Rhun raised the recent Senedd vote to declare a climate emergency, but this requires concrete action. The summary aims of his proposed Bill would be to encourage the use of electric and zero-emission vehicles and place a duty on the Welsh Government to develop a strategy to speed up the transition from petrol and diesel vehicles within the public sector.

While it was all well and good discussing active travel, cars, vans and lorries will remain part of the transport mix for the foreseeable future.

“Therefore, we have to make them cleaner. Outside the Senedd earlier today it was wonderful to welcome Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan and Renault, who were demonstrating their latest electric vehicles. The technology is making progress very quickly, with wholly-electric vehicles being able to travel further – 200 miles and more on one charge, and 300 for some.”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth AM

While there were signs of good practice emerging in some local authorities, this has to be lead from the top and where the Senedd has the power to legislate to make the lives of the people of Wales better – such as by addressing climate change and air pollution – it must.

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), offered the Conservative’s support. His committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into electric charging and heard evidence from the Economy Minister yesterday. One of the emerging themes was that Wales is a “charging desert” with a poor spread of charging points.

Also, while the Welsh Government has committed £2million towards the transition to low-carbon transport, the Scottish Government were investing £14million.

Michelle Brown AM (Ind, North Wales) – while supporting the principle – raised an important point that the materials used to manufacture electric vehicles weren’t exactly environmentally or socially friendly:

“Batteries require cobalt, and the vast majority of that is sourced from
Congo – an area rife with conflict. Furthermore, children are exploited to work in the cobalt mines for slave wages, and much of the profits the companies make is used to fund civil war. The term ‘blood batteries’ has now entered the lexicon of those talking about the development of electric vehicles, and we must ensure that we’re no part of it.”
– Michelle Brown AM

Little evidence legislation is needed

Although the Welsh Government weren’t minded to oppose the motion as it was tabled, the Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) didn’t see any evidence that legislation was needed on this.

“We’re planning for publicly available charging infrastructure to meet the demand that will be created by the large-scale uptake of electric vehicles, but I expect the private sector and electric vehicle charging providers to deliver the vast major
ity of infrastructure. Our role is to assess where there are gaps in provision and to act to address market failure. Our strategy….will utilise the same approach that we took in procuring the operator and development partner for the new rail franchise….”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates

Despite this, the motion supporting the proposed law was approved unanimously.

AMs demand concrete chips & soggy semolina are banished from school menus

The motion said that the Senedd:

Believes healthy school meals can make an essential contribution to pupils’ wellbeing, attainment, and positive behaviour. Notes a Children’s Commissioner’s report provides worrying evidence that a significant number of pupils are not getting their entitlement set out in the healthy school meals guidance. Calls on the Welsh Government to: clarify whether school meal standards are the responsibility of governors, local authorities or the Welsh Government and what action is being taken to ensure they’re being monitored; outline what action is being taken to increase the amount of locally-sourced school food.

Where’s our ambition?

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) started off in a positive tone. Two years ago, she visited Cornist Park Primary School in Flintshire – the only local authority in Wales to achieve Soil Association “Food for Life” certification, meaning it has high standards for food quality: no additives, one-quarter of all food has to be freshly prepared and suppliers have to meet animal and marine welfare standards.

Every child chooses their meal at registration, the cook has skills to meet healthy meal guidelines and family members are invited in to join them for lunch once a month. This Flintshire example has to be something the rest of Wales can learn from, as well as Oldham:

“The most ambitious school caterers….have gone further to achieve the gold standard: at least 20% of the money spent on ingredients has to be organic, including organic meat. ‘Oh, that’s unaffordable’, I hear people say. No, it’s not; they still only spend 67p per-pupil per-meal….Research into these Food for Life menus proves that for every £1 spent locally, it delivers a social return on investm
ent of over £3 in the form of increased jobs and markets for local food producers.”
– Jenny Rathbone AM

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), suggested many schools were bending the healthy meal guidance; “you still can get a cookie the size of your head, so long as it’s full of raisins rather than chocolate”. She believed Finland was one to emulate, where children fill up their own plates but are encouraged to use a sample plate to get an idea of how to balance the food. There’s no “slopping stuff into plastic trays” and the food must be well presented and at a minimum temperature.

“Children will attend school in the morning having not eaten properly since their school meal the day before. This is not bad parenting, this is poverty, the result of austerity and the cruelty of universal credit….By improving school meals, we are not only providing impo
rtant nutritional assistance, but we are also helping kids to be better equipped to feed their minds and learn.”
– Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East)

Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) reflected on the increase in vegetarianism and veganism amongst young people; plant-based options should be on school menus by default, not by request. Plant-based meals could also provide opportunities for children to grow some of their own food in school gardens (which some schools already do).

Minister will consider updating health school guidance

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), was in no doubt healthy school meals can help behaviour and attainment, but there remain challenges – such as one in four children starting primary school being overweight or obese and general declines in physical activity.

While she was willing to update school meal guidelines, ultimately it was the responsibility of councils and governing bodies to ensure guidelines are stuck to:

“But let me be clear: local authorities and governing bodies are responsible for complying with the regulations, and anyone involved in providing food and drink in maintained schools should be aware of the statutory requirements….Local authorities are responsible for the procurement of food in schools, and current legislation on procurement already allows schools and local authorities to procure Welsh produce, but it doesn’t impose a requirement to do so.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

The government was also committed to supporting free school breakfast schemes and the Minister said free and easy access to drinking water was “non-negotiable”.

The motion was unanimously approved.

Young carers ID card set to be phased in by the end of the year

The motion said that the Senedd:

Notes that there are more than 21,000 carers in Wales aged 14-25. Is deeply concerned that young carers have significantly lower educational attainment than their peers and are three times more likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET). Calls on the Welsh Government to urgently address the support needs of young carers, as well as barriers to education and employment they face, including: early identification of young carers; bringing forward national introduction of ta young carers’ ID card; increasing awareness of local authorities of their duties under the Social Services and Wellbeing Act to promote the wellbeing of carers; helping young carers access post-16 education; ensuring respite provision improves so young carers can have a break.

Furthering the rights of children

Shadow Social Care Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy), said it was time that young carers – some as young as 8-years-old – are officially recognised and supported to look after their own health and needs to flourish elsewhere in life.

“….we are proposing that the Welsh Government introduce (mandatory) ID cards for carers. This will benefit them by preventing them from repeating their circumstances, which find them so disaggregated from normal life in school or other forms of education, and help them to enhance communication with educational and health professionals.”
– Shadow Social Care Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM

Up to a quarter of young carers experience bullying and abuse, whether because of poor academic performance, poverty and having a different personality to others around them. Also, up to 50% of young carers have mental health problems which weren’t being addressed.

Chair of the Health Committee, Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West), said his committee are undertaking an inquiry into the impact of the Wellbeing Act on carers. He went on to say that the number of young carers and the complexity of the care they provide are both increasing, but assessments of the needs of young carers by local authorities are variable. Many young carers also don’t feels supported at school.

Don’t expect; insist

Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) was growing frustrated at the Welsh Government’s setting of expectations instead of demanding action.

“You don’t have to expect; you can insist. I find it hugely frustrating….to know that Government, when there is complete agreement on a policy on all sides in the Chamber, can do something but chooses not to….You can promote this ID card through network partners and social media as much as you like, but if you leave this to
the discretion of councils….then your expectations will not be met.”
– Suzy Davies AM

Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn) praised some of the investment and actions taken by the Welsh Government to date, but the Social Services & Wellbeing Act was still in its early days of implementation.

Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East) described it as “totally unacceptable” for young people’s life chances to be so dramatically effected by caring for someone. David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) spoke of what the Welsh and UK governments can do to ensure young carers have full access to financial support – such as carers allowance – when undertaking full-time study.

“We can cure all sorts of illnesses that couldn’t be cured 50 years ago, all sorts of technological advancements, and yet we still have children who are forced to care because the state isn’t providing the support they need.”
– Michelle Brown AM (Ind, North Wales)

Work underway to identify and support young carers

Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services, Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North), said Wales has the highest proportion of carers aged under-18 of the UK’s nations.

The Deputy Minister “didn’t recognise” that Wales had a problem with young carers becomeing “NEETs” and the number of school leavers who weren’t in some form of education or employment has halved.

“….we fully recognise the need for young carers to be identified and supported in education to achieve their best outcomes. Work is under way in partnership with Carers Trust Wales to support schools to identify and better support their young carers.”
– Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services, Julie Morgan

She announced a phased introduction of a carers ID card is due before the end of 2019.

AM calls for compulsory school age to rise To 18

Ysgol Bro Teifi, a Welsh-medium school in Ceredigion. Picture: Llinos Dafydd

This week’s short debate was lead by Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) on the school leaving age.

The damaging, long-term effect of NEETs

Lynne Neagle said that previous debates on raising the school leaving age were based on economic necessity – such as raising skills to create more white-collar workers. This time, however, it was more about personal resilience and preventing young people becoming NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) – which comes with a range of mental health and wider socio-economic issues.

A Swansea University review from 2014 recommended the Welsh Government ensure that all 16-18-year-olds were supported in education or work-based training, which could be enabled by raising the school leaving age to 18. There was a particular problem with the estimated third of Year 11 pupils who leave school without 5 good GCSEs (grades A*-C).

The options that face those young people are too confusing, limited and not fit for purpose. The report, again based on young people’s actual lived experience, says that the current plethora of courses and programmes means that a minority simply bounce around different schemes before becoming long-term NEET, with negative consequences for the rest of their lives.”
– Lynne Neagle AM

All this confusion justifies a move to extend compulsory education to age 18. This has happened in England and the proportion of NEETs has dropped. However, England adopted the policy without considering the additional support pupils who would’ve otherwise left school at 16 and become NEETs actually need.

In her opinion, there were clear advantages in Wales compared to England: a clear comprehensive education system with minimal market involvement (making an increase in the compulsory school age easier to implement across different settings) as we
ll as current curriculum reforms.

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), said continuing and adult education shouldn’t be ignored; the over-50s were one of the largest groups of unemployed. Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) added the importance of apprenticeships.

No policy doesn’t mean a lack of provision

Deputy Minister without portfolio, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), said that while there was no official policy to raise the compulsory education age to 18, that didn’t mean nothing was available:

“We are ambitious in our agenda to reform the post-16 strategic funding and planning context through our post-compulsory education and training proposals, including a new commission for tertiary education and research.”
– Deputy Minister without portfolio, Jane Hutt

The Welsh Government were yet to be convinced that compulsory education to 18
was a better option that generally improved post-16 education. All young people at post-16 are offered a minimum of 30 academic and vocational choices.

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