Today’s Senedd roundup: Labour’s infrastructure record under attack

Paul Davies. © Russell Hart/Alamy Live News.

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

First Minister’s questions

With news that A465 dualling between Gilwern and Brynmawr has been delayed again – and the First Minister blaming the UK Government for leaving funding gaps – the Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) gave it both barrels:

“It’s always somebody else’s fault, isn’t it, First Minister? You need to take some responsibility…. Your party’s manifesto in 2016 claims that you will already have delivered the Heads of the Valleys road dualling, and yet, the completion date….has been pushed back for the second time this year and at an eye-watering overspend, it’s hardly something for you to be championing, is it, First Minister? And, let’s look at the other proposals for infrastructure in your manifesto. Improvements to the A55 in north Wales: whilst repairs have been made, I think you’ll find it hard pushed to find anyone who would agree that significant improvements have been made. Improving the A40 in west Wales….and the M4 relief road.”
– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies

The First Minister said a delay to A465 dualling to an indeterminate date in 2020 has been on the cards since April this year. There’ve been clear environmental reasons why the project through the Clydach Gorge is taking longer than expected – and he won’t take any lessons on infrastructure delays and cost overruns from a Conservative party and government that’s responsible for the chaos of England’s High Speed 2.

Train trouble

Substituting for Adam Price, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn), moved away from roads and to the railways. The situation wasn’t acceptable with regular overcrowding and reports that some people have to watch four or more trains pass before being able to get on one. The situation could be about to get worse in the new year too:

“I’m sure you’ll understand the alarm at recent reports that if Transport for Wales don’t get the go-ahead from the (UK) Department for Transport to continue using old non-compliant Pacer trains before the end of the year, when new accessibility requirements kick in, the train operator will lose up to 30 trains or 60 carriages. This is half of their rolling stock on Valleys lines services.”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth AM

The First Minister confirmed discussions with the Department of Transport are ongoing and TfW wasn’t the only train operator finding itself in this position (Northern Rail is facing a similar problem as they use large numbers of “Pacer” trains too).

Rhun asked why this request for dispensation has been left till the last minute when a Senedd committee warned about possible rolling stock problems as far back as 2013? The Mayor of Greater Manchester and others have called for fare reductions to compensate passengers – will the Welsh Government consider this?

The First Minister told AMs the Welsh Government couldn’t follow the 2013 advice because Wales didn’t have powers over the rail franchise at the time. Fare reductions are due to come in any way across the Transport for Wales network from January 2020.

Mark Reckless “abuses opportunity” of FMQs

Having been denied the opportunity to ask questions on the spying scandal earlier, Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) decided to use FMQs to do it instead – except he didn’t ask a question, simply reading (what appeared to be) transcripts about a complaint involving the Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), and comments made about unethical relationship in the legal profession. He also accused the Llywydd of bias (again) – a comment he withdrew.

The First Minister considered the comments an abuse of opportunity:

“Llywydd, every week the Member has an opportunity to ask me questions about the many responsibilities that I exercise as head of the Government. Week after week he chooses to ask me things that are not part of my responsibilities as head of the Government at all. The choices that Members make in their individual AM capacities are for them to make, and where they have complaints to make, it is absolutely right that they should pursue those complaints, and should do it without any sense of being answerable to the Welsh Government.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

Picture by Richardjo53 licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Newport M4 bypass “would’ve cost £1.6 billion”

While there’s been some speculation over how much the scrapped Newport M4 bypass would’ve cost, some new information has been included in a report sent to the Senedd’s Public Accounts Committee by the Welsh Government’s Director General for Economy, Skills & Natural Resources, Andrew Slade (pdf).

The report confirms that since 2013, £114.1 million has been spent on bypass preliminary work, though this is expected to rise to £123 million with wind-up work included. As part of this preliminary work, just over £3.7 million worth of land was bought by the Welsh Government since 2013. Assuming this land was sold at some point, net expenditure on the bypass since 2013 would be around £119 million.

Estimates of the total construction cost range from £998 million (£1.13 billion inc. VAT) at 2010 base prices, to £1.11 billion (£1.26 billion inc. VAT) during a 2015 public inquiry, rising to £1.38 billion (£1.57 billion inc. VAT) at the point by which the project was cancelled.

Neil McEvoy’s covert recordings “included confidential evidence” regarding complaint against himself

Before this afternoon’s plenary session, the Llywydd and the Chair of the Standards Committee issued statements on the resignation of the former Standards Commissioner after it was revealed he and his staff had been secretly recorded by Neil McEvoy AM (Ind, South Wales Central). The recordings included embarrassing conversations which are described as “politically incorrect“.

Breach of trust

The Llywydd, Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion), said cover recordings of this kind were “a breach of trust” and she confirmed that the recordings included confidential evidence being given as part of an investigation into a complaint against McEvoy himself. BBC Wales reports that McEvoy is under investigation for two potential counts of misuse of Assembly funds relating to office expenditure and one of aggressive behaviour towards Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd).

The Llywydd also confirmed that the appointments process for a new Standards Commissioner has started and steps will be taken to ensure that information now in the public domain but “obtained through interference” will be protected.

Describing the incident as “a serious matter”, the Llywydd announced she will make a complaint to the new Standards Commissioner regarding the use of covert recording devices and the release of confidential information.

Standards Commissioner system “approved by all AMs”

Chair of the Standards Committee, Jayne Bryant AM (Lab, Newport West) said the creation of the post of an independent Standards Commissioner had the backing of all AMs during the Third Assembly.

“An effective standards regime cannot function without integrity and trust from all those involved in the system and process. And I would like to remind all Members of our need to maintain confidence in this independent system.”
– Chair of the Standards Committee, Jayne Bryant

The Llywydd turned down several requests to speak on the matter, believing the reputation of the Senedd was best upheld by continuing with tabled business as usual.

A Wales and Europe flag at a People’s Vote march. Picture by Ilovetheeu (CC 4.0)

Post-Brexit visa salary threshold “must be reduced” as EU residents face continued uncertainty

External Affairs Committee
Changes to Freedom of Movement after Brexit (pdf)
Published: 8th November 2019

“We have significant concerns about the implications of Brexit on our workforce in Wales. The ending of freedom of movement will have consequences for business and our economy if we lose vital workers. What’s more worrying is the impact that the loss of EU citizens could have on our NHS. We rely on EU citizens who work as nurses and carers.

“We heard some very concerning and emotional evidence from EU citizens and their families living and working in Wales. We must not forget the human impact that the ending of freedom of movement will have.”
– Committee Chair, David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon)

  1. The proposed UK-wide salary threshold for new immigrants after Brexit is set too high for Wales

At the moment, anyone living in the EU or EEA (single market, including Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland) area has a right to live and work in the UK for three months without any conditions, with a right to permanently live in the UK after three months on condition that they’ve found employment or have means to support themselves.

Non-EU and non-EEA citizens need work visas and the number of visas issued each year is capped at 20,700 – except for workers deemed to be “highly-skilled” (including doctors and nurses), who currently aren’t subject to the cap.

After Brexit, current plans will see the cap removed and all skilled workers who miss out on the “highly-skilled” category (Tier 1) – including EU and EEA citizens – will need to earn a minimum of £30,000 a year. The vast majority of EU residents living in Wales (including 53% of EU citizens employed in the NHS) earn below this and the median salary in Wales during 2018 was £21,630.

The £30,000 cap was roundly condemned by pretty much everyone who gave evidence across business, public sector and civil society. Concerns range from potential skills shortages to additional administrative costs for businesses.

The Committee concluded that the Welsh Government should “use all means at its disposal” to get the cap reduced.

  1. EU citizens living in Wales still face a great deal of uncertainty

An estimated 80,000 citizens from the EU and EEA live in Wales. With the exception of Irish citizens (due to the Common Travel Area), everyone else will need to apply for settled status if they’ve lived for a minimum of five continuous years in the UK, or are expected to live in the UK for at least five years.

At the end of September, just 41% of EU and EEA residents in Wales (excluding the Irish) had applied. At a focus group, participants told Committee members that they no longer felt welcome in the UK and it’s had an effect on their wellbeing. Having to apply for “status” felt like a downgrading of their rights.

The application process itself received a mixed reception, with concerns raised over the amount of evidence required, the digital-only nature of the application process and delays to receiving confirmation of settled status. The Committee recommended the Welsh Government “takes a stronger lead” in providing advice and support to EU residents and should also reiterate its message of support to EU citizens living in Wales.

  1. There’s an argument for Wales-only immigration policy, but it needs more work

King’s College London’s Prof. Jonathan Portes told the Committee that Welsh manufacturing, social care, hospitality, health and education were likely to be most affected by the UK Government’s immigration proposals, but he thought it was difficult to argue for a regional immigration system as migration in Wales wasn’t that different from the rest of the UK.

Wales’ population is expected to start decreasing from 2037 with a decline in the number of working-age people. Without migration, the over-65s are likely to become the largest age group amongst the population with a whole host of public policy, health and social impacts.

Labour shortages could lead to businesses relocating or deciding against investing in Wales, with no evidence suggesting that reduced immigration would result in pay increases for the lowest-paid employees.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Bevan Foundation both said there was a case for a Welsh immigration system based on regional systems in Australia and Canada. This could result in lower thresholds and relaxed restrictions on skilled EU migrants moving specifically to Wales as well as a Wales-only occupation shortage list – though the TUC warned that this could mean migrants losing rights if they moved within the UK.

While the Committee noted the potential challenges, they recommended the Welsh Government undertakes further work on developing a Wales-specific immigration policy, a Welsh list of occupations with labour shortages and demographic monitoring.

Minister for Housing and Local Government Julie James. Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Government publishes Social Partnership Bill white paper

Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West) has published a white paper setting out the Welsh Government’s plans to introduce a Bill to promote “fair work” (pdf).

“Fair work” includes things such as fair pair, employee voices in decision-making, job security and flexibility, safe and inclusive working environments and respect for legal rights.

“While work remains the best route out of poverty, more and more people in work are struggling to make ends meet. We cannot accept that rising inequality is inevitable as our national economy grows.

“This White Paper outlines proposals to strengthen our social partnership arrangements and deliver a renewed, more ambitious agenda for greater social equality that would be informed by the findings of the Fair Work Commission, which reported earlier this year.”
– Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James

The white paper proposes:

  • Establishing a Social Partnership Council with membership from trade unions, private employers and public bodies, chaired by the First Minister. The council will work to reach agreements on workforce issues and determine how employment policy can be used to improve general wellbeing.
  • Place a duty on the public sector to have due regard for social partnership principles and to promote “fair work”.
  • “Fair work” will be at the centre of a new procurement model for the public sector. Public bodies will be expected to explain themselves to the Social Partnership Council if they don’t meet “fair work” expectations.

Consultation on the white paper is open until 2nd January 2020 – all details are available here.

New guidance issued to tackle bullying

The  Government has issued new guidance to schools, parents, local authorities and teachers to clamp down on bullying (see also: Can we stop bullying becomng the Welsh disease?).

“We want our schools to be inclusive and engaging environments where priority is placed on well-being, so learners feel safe and are ready to learn.

“It is so important that children and young people are taught, both at home and in school, about building and maintaining respectful relationships and this new guidance will help achieve that”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)

The new guidance states that schools should:

  • Take note of definitions of types of bullying, including conditional friendship, prejudicial language and behaviour (i.e. homophobic abuse), sexual harassment and also recognises online bullying – but it doesn’t include friends falling out, one-off incidents or not wanting to be friends with someone.
  • Extend the definition of bullying to include incidents outside of school depending on the severity of any incidents and the direct connection to the school (i.e. abusing a member of staff at a weekend or bullying behaviour on a school trip has a stronger case than abusing someone with no connection to a school).
  • Appoint an anti-bullying lead and develop a new anti-bullying strategy with student and parent involvement.
  • Listen to targets of bullying respectfully, believed and, wherever possible, asked to record or note incidents as evidence.
  • Consider several types of intervention including mediation, building a target’s confidence to cope emotionally, peer support and traditional school sanctions.
  • Properly report and monitor bullying incidents and to closely identify trends and persistent perpetrators.

 

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