Today’s Senedd roundup: Conservative AM called for disgraced candidate to be dropped last summer

Darren Millar. Picture by the National Assembly.Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Conservative AM called for disgraced candidate to be dropped last summer

Ross England – whose deliberate collapsing of a rape trial eventually resulted in the resignation of former Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns – has been officially dropped as a candidate for the Vale of Glamorgan at 2021’s Senedd election.

A transcript of the moment the trial collapsed was published on Wales Online, which showed that England brought up the sexual history of a rape victim without prompting, resulting in the judge and barristers reacting with disbelief at his “stupidity”.

A Conservative source has supplied an email from Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) to the chair of the Welsh Conservatives, Byron Davies – dated 14th June 2019 – in which the AM says England’s social media output had become an embarrassment, including messages supporting the abolition of the Senedd and opposing bilingualism.

The source said: “Darren Millar AM, on behalf of the Welsh Conservative Group, called on Byron Davies to deselect Ross England over six months ago. He expressed grave concerns about Mr England’s suitability as a candidate and highlighted issues which demonstrated that Mr England’s values were not compatible with modern Wales and those of the Welsh Conservative Group.”

 

Support for people bereaved by suicide “not good enough”

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Recognises that losing someone to suicide is a uniquely devastating loss for families, friends and whole communities.
  • Notes the limited support available in Wales to support those bereaved by suicide.
  • Notes that losing someone to suicide is a major risk factor for dying by suicide and that support for those bereaved is a vital part of suicide prevention.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to urgently ensure there is support for those bereaved by suicide available across Wales. In doing so, the Welsh Government must ensure that improvements to services and the new pathway are co-produced by those with experience of suicide bereavement.

A uniquely devastating loss

Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) described losing someone to suicide as uniquely devastating, often leaving people in a “deeply dark place”. While this in no way minimised the impact of other types of bereavement, suicide comes with stronger feelings of guilt, isolation and sometimes stigma.

There was no need for constant reviews to tell us that bereavement services are woefully inadequate. Wales is behind other parts of the UK on this; new guidance in England has stated a single suicide in a school population should be treated as a potential cluster requiring urgent intervention.

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) said that often the first time the bereaved talked to someone outside their family about suicide is when they would come to elected representatives about the difficulties they were having accessing support. Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) added that Cruse Bereavement Care has called for a minister with named responsibility for bereavement services.

Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) described what it’s like for someone going through a suicide bereavement, including post-traumatic stress – loss of sleep, nightmares, flashbacks – and a realisation that your life will never quite be the same again. He called for more empathetic reporting on suicide:

“Deputy Llywydd, awareness of behaviour can impact on those that have lost someone has to improve. The reporting of suicide is a particular example and those that seek to inform this type of reporting should answer this very simple question: what effect will my actions have on the bereaved?”
– Jack Sargeant AM

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) said that while we’ve come a long way in terms of the stigma around suicide – when her grandfather took his own life in 1928, churches would refuse to bury suicide victims – more needed to be done in terms of prevention, particularly properly identifying self-harming behaviour amongst young people such as alcohol and substance abuse.

“There were 360 deaths by suicide a couple of years ago in Wales; that’s one a day. If anything else was causing one death a day in Wales, people would be out there protesting and stuff, we’d have urgent questions here every other week saying, ‘What’s happening?’ I hear the Minister saying there is a lot of stuff happening, and I commend the approach of the Government, but we need so much more because there is an opportunity.”
– Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West)

Understanding circumstances key to prevention

Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), told AMs that while nobody can easily predict how people may react to losing someone to suicide, understanding the complex risk factors and circumstances was key to prevention. Research in this area was improving.

More money for mental health has been promised in the draft budget, while both suicide prevention and self-harm are priorities over the next three years in the new mental health strategy due to be published shortly.

“As an interim measure, I’ve agreed additional in-year funding to strengthen existing suicide bereavement support provided by the third sector. Five organisations have been supported. In addition, Welsh Government regional funding is being used to create a new bereavement support service for north Wales. I’ll make a written statement before the half-term recess to outline our longer-term plans.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

Photo by Vance Osterhout on Unsplash

Investment in further education vital for post-Brexit workforce skills

The Motion (Final/Amended Version)

The Senedd:

  • Recognises the importance of further education in developing the skills of the Welsh workforce to meet the demands of the Welsh economy post-Brexit.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to: increase funding for further education; expand the number of degree apprenticeships; create an adult learning allowance and working with higher and further education institutes and employers ensure provision meets evolving technological needs of the economy.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to recognise the importance of Erasmus+ in attracting people to Wales via the further education and higher education sectors and commit to opposing any attempt by the UK Government to exit the programme in 2021.

Skills shortages harming the Welsh economy

Shadow Skills Minister, Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East), said skills shortages were costing the Welsh businesses £155 million a year and Open University research found that 54% of businesses had problems recruiting workers with specific skills – mainly in engineering.

“Wales is behind the curve in rolling out degree apprenticeships. In response to increasing employers’ demands for higher-level skills and work-based learning routes to a degree, degree apprenticeships have become an increasingly desirable mode of delivery.”
– Shadow Skills Minister, Mohammed Asghar

Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West) found it ironic that the Conservatives were concerned people weren’t fulfilling their potential when the Erasmus student exchange scheme was set to be lost after Brexit – and with it some funding for FE colleges. She called for a more uniform arrangement for apprenticeships with all apprentices under the age of 21 being partnered to an FE college to ensure they were provided with appropriate support.

Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) said the flexible learning hours provided by FE colleges were essential for those in full or part-time employment to learn new skills. Also, every £1 invested in further education results in £7.90 being generated for the economy. FE colleges deserved to be put on a stronger financial footing with long-term budgets as opposed to year-by-year settlements.

Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) was saddened that just 1% of apprenticeships in Wales offered over the last two academic years are in agriculture. Improving agricultural skills may be one way to address the stagnant economic productivity in rural areas.

Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) supported an adult learning allowance – particularly in light on the economy becoming more dependent on older workers.

Wales is “leading the way”

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) believes Wales was already well on the way to delivering many of the things the Conservative motion set out.

Personal learning accounts have been piloted at two FE colleges for people earning less than £26,000-a-year and there’s no distinction in Wales between full-time and part-time degrees when applying for student support. There’s even a scheme to support the over-60s to study for master’s degrees.

“I’m proud that, unlike in England, we’re providing investment to ensure that FE lecturers in Wales have pay parity with their colleagues in schools. I’m proud that we continue to provide investment to support colleges with financial pressures that fall upon them as a result of pensions. As I said: £2 million for mental health; £5 million for professional learning; and £10 million for the skills development fund. We are supporting our FE institutions, supporting our students and learners, and we’re developing the skills Wales needs to meet the demands of our economy.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

Vote

The Conservative motion was carried by 38 votes with 9 abstentions. The Tories abstained on their own motion.

An EU flag with a star missingImmigrants to Wales “should get extra points” under post-Brexit points-based system

Yesterday, AMs debated the External Affairs Committee report on changes to freedom of movement after Brexit – summarised here.

Biggest change to immigration rules in decades

Chair of the Committee, David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said proposed post-Brexit immigration changes were some of the biggest policy shifts in decades – namely the creation of a points-based system and a minimum salary threshold for prospective immigrants of £30,000-a-year.

“There is clearly a role for both Governments to play here in providing not only advice and support to EU citizens accessing the scheme, but also in providing reassurance that their status will be secure and permanent after Brexit. It is for this reason that we call upon the Welsh Government to provide a stronger lead in signposting citizens to the package of measures it has in place to support them and to reiterate its messages of support loudly to EU citizens here.”
– Chair of the External Affairs Committee, David Rees AM

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) picked out the salary threshold as the major issue arising from the inquiry and it would have a negative impact on recruitment in sectors which pay mainly below £30,000-a-year – such as social care. He suggested amending any future points-based system so new immigrants seeking work in Wales receive more points.

Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) later pointed out that while the average Welsh salary was below the proposed salary cap, there was very little concern over “golden visas” granted to high earners and investors in London – a system which has been linked to money laundering.

Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) described the “devastating” testimony from EU citizens the Committee talked to during the inquiry and the sense that the rhetoric around Brexit and the bureaucracy around the settled status scheme had made them feel unwelcome – including those who have children born in the UK.

While David Rowlands AM (BXP, South Wales East) agreed that the rights of EU citizens permanently resident in the UK should be respected, his claim that “indigenous population” had their rights eroded by the exploitation of immigrants didn’t go down well with the rest of the chamber. Both himself and Mandy Jones AM (BXP, North Wales) said uncontrolled immigration was one of the main reasons people voted Leave in 2016.

“Our common European home, so often the place where we fought our civil wars, became a place where we could reach out and not build further walls. It’s no coincidence that those border posts also were marked by the images of warfare. Moving beyond those borders and looking at a world through the spectacles of, ‘Are you indigenous? Am I indigenous? Is somebody else indigenous?’, has led to one of the greatest freedoms that we have all enjoyed.”
– Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent)

There’ll always be a welcome for EU citizens in Wales

Speaking directly to EU citizens, Counsel General & Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles (Lab, Neath), said their contributions were appreciated and there would always be a welcome for them here.

“….throughout the last three and a half years, I’ve been shocked by some of the occasionally thoughtless language that politicians have used, particularly in relation to EU citizens in this country, and I’ve been appalled to hear the use of language such as ‘indigenous populations’ and ‘mass immigration’, which are well-established dog-whistle terms, and we’ve heard them today in this Chamber from politicians in a way that is not thoughtless, actually, but deliberate.”
– Counsel General & Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles

There was still a level of uncertainty over how immigration will work after Brexit, other than a date of it coming into force being 1st January 2021. The Welsh Government continues to oppose the £30,000 salary threshold and didn’t believe any points-based system was compatible with salary requirements.

He took up David Melding’s suggestion of making a case to London for additional points for immigrants seeking to work in Wales or any other part of the UK where migration levels are low.

“Unplugged” debate on anchor towns

While the topics of short debates are usually more interesting that the main plenary debates, they usually follow a tried an tested formula of a pre-prepared speech from a backbench AM followed by a pre-prepared response from the relevant government minister with a minute here and there for other AMs to contribute.

Dr Hefin David AM’s (Lab, Caerphilly) short debate on anchor towns didn’t apply any of these conventions and with agreement no scripts were prepared – what he described as “unplugged”.

Working with what we’ve got

The debate revolved around a Bevan Foundation report on anchor towns (pdf) – the satellite towns outside of the main areas of employment but which provide regionally-important jobs, services and transport hubs.

Better support for anchor towns provided an opportunity to change transport and commuting patterns and take pressure off Cardiff. Anchor towns also stood to benefit from being bases for things like hospitals, government offices and housing associations – though in his constituency, only Ystrad Mynach (not the largest town, Caerphilly) would qualify by definition as being an anchor town. There was also a tendency to look north-south instead of east-west.

“….if we were building new towns, we’d build them like anchor towns, but we aren’t; we’re working with what we’ve got, and what we’ve got maybe isn’t conducive to creating that. It requires transport infrastructure and connectivity to succeed. Ystrad Mynach has that, but we are a long way from an effective public transport system yet.”
– Dr Hefin David AM

Dealing with “us and them” attitudes

Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), believed there was a paradox in that people say their love their local towns but people were using them less and less. The Welsh Government were doing a lot to support town centre regeneration, but there was always a question as to whether it was properly targeted at the right places.

The former Minister in charge of the Valley strategy – Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) – intervened, saying that following criticisms that Welsh Government support has been spread too thinly a “hub” approach has been taken.

The Deputy Minister said there has been a problem with “parochialism”; he felt the seven strategic hubs in the Valleys was too many, while civil servants were glad to get it down to that figure.

The discussion then moved on to the proposed congestion charge in Cardiff and it prompted some frank views being expressed, particularly on funding for bus services and plans for a congestion charge in Cardiff:

Approach road to the Ford Engine Plant, Waterton Industrial Estate, Bridgend. Copyright Mick Lobb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Timetable for Bridgend Ford engine plant closure revealed

The process of closing the Bridgend Ford engine plant has started, with the workforce set to gradually reduce in phases before a complete closure in September 2020.

350 workers have already left, with another 150 set to leave when production of the Dragon engine ceases in February 2020. Further waves of 300 and 800 redundancies will occur in July and September.

task force set up to deal with the closure has proposed three projects to economically support Bridgend in the coming years including an enterprise hub, a town centre development programme (including the possible relocation of Bridgend College) and tourism-related investments in Porthcawl.

It’s been reported than 20 companies have expressed an interest in taking over the Bridgend plant, though some are said to be concerned about the physical size of the factory.

UK Justice Minister supports new prison in Wales

UK Justice Minister, Robert Buckland MP, has said plans for a new prison in Wales are still on the table. Proposals for a “super-prison” in Port Talbot were withdrawn in 2019, but the comments were interpreted as a sign the plans could be revived.

The Minister also suggested the opening of a women’s custody facility in Wales; currently all women prisoners from Wales serve sentences in England.

A report from the Wales Governance Centre has suggested Wales has one of the highest imprisonment rates in western Europe, but the Minister ruled out devolving criminal justice in line with the Thomas Commission recommendations.

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Paul Young

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