Today’s Senedd Roundup: Rugby and the devolution of broadcasting

The Siambr at the Senedd building

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

I’ve always believed politics and sport shouldn’t mix, but it was inevitable recent “issues” arising from the proposed reorganisation of regional rugby (“Project Reset”)– particularly a mooted merger between Ospreys and Scarlets (which appears to be off) – would be taken up in the Senedd.

The Welsh Government does have a stake in the issue as they provide some funding to the WRU and sport falls under their remit even though rugby is self-governing.

Deputy Minister for Culture, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd), told AMs he held regular meeting with the WRU and discussed their business model and reorganisation – however, the Welsh Government has no intention of getting directly involved in Project Reset.

Fans left “punch drunk”

“I think many fans are punch-drunk by many of the developments that have happened, and I saw just a couple of minutes ago a news report saying that the merger is off the table. But from the grassroots right up to international level, there is grave concern over the current proposals that have been put forward whether they would be lasting, whether they would be durable….I would have thought the Welsh Government would have a view as to how they would like to see the Welsh game develop given the strength of grass-roots rugby and, obviously, the implications for many of the messages that Welsh Government brings out about sport and inclusivity.”
– Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central)

The Deputy Minister was willing to admit that he likes the idea of a professional team based in north Wales and there may be a call for the Welsh Government to contribute towards infrastructure improvements – as they already have done at Colwyn Bay’s Eirias Park.

“What I would like also to say, of course, is that the seventy-fifth biggest company in the SA (postcode) region is the Ospreys. The eighty-fourth biggest company in the SA region is the Scarlets. We’re talking about major employers. Many of my constituents have been worried since it was talked about that they would not have a job.”
– Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East)

Ospreys have “embraced the regional concept”

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said the Ospreys have embraced the regional concept more fully than any of the other teams. They were heavily involved in local communities and were involved in education and physical activity programmes. He believed the Welsh Government needed to look very carefully about what a merger might mean to local communities.

Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) – an Ospreys season ticket holder – concurred, saying there was a “whole umbrella” of teams from under-8s upwards for both genders. The creation of the Ospreys was a painful process (ask anyone in Bridgend that) and people were “in a state of bewilderment” that this proposal has come forward.

The Deputy Minister appreciated the forceful way members made their point. The government has commitments from the WRU that community programmes which have received some form of public investment would be maintained.

While he acknowledged the wider economic concerns– promising to take the matter up with the WRU at the earliest possibility – he understood the need for reform of the game.

“We need to have a serious look about what structure is required to make rugby in Wales, at whatever level, at the community level, at the youth level, at the women’s level – which I, obviously, strongly encourage – but also at the international level, the Six Nations, which we are now doing really well at that level.”
– Deputy Minister for Culture, Dafydd Elis-Thomas

Shouting up for Wales

Shadow International Relations & Brexit Minister, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), asked about post-Brexit trade deals and what the Welsh Government were doing to make the most of the opportunities.

“Now, my party….has put forward a suggestion that there ought to be trade envoys in many different parts of the world, shouting up for Wales….working very closely with British embassies in those nations of the world where trade opportunities are there for Welsh businesses. What consideration have you given as a Welsh Government, not just to supporting the infrastructure that you have already in the Welsh Government offices in different nations, but supporting the infrastructure within British embassies too, to make sure that the Welsh voice….is heard?”
– Shadow International Relations & Brexit Minister, Darren Millar AM,?

Echoing comments made at the External Affairs Committee earlier in the week (above), the Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales), said discussions have been held with the UK’s Department for International Trade with a view to setting up a more formal structure for Welsh involvement.

“In terms of trade envoys, I think you’re absolutely right – there’s a real opportunity. One of the things that I’m clear about is that, actually, we have Welsh people all over the world who have great expertise in a lot of areas, and we need to be using that expertise in a way that some of our generalist officials can’t get us into the kind of top-level companies.”
– Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan

Deputy Minister refuses to budge on the devolution of broadcasting

Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) asked a second question on the state of broadcasting. Heart and Capital radio recently scrapped regional broadcasts and have centralised them in London due to Ofcom relaxing the rules, while Pitching In recently portrayed a view of Anglesey which was “foreign to local residents”.

Deputy Minister for Culture, Media & Sport, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) didn’t believe the current regulatory regime was particularly supportive of Welsh broadcasting and further discussions with Ofcom were needed. Delyth offered a solution:

“Devolution of broadcasting would enable us as a nation to tell our own stories from our own point of view, giving a better understanding to our citizens of our cultural wealth and the reality of life in modern Wales. This would be the most effective way of getting to grips with the democratic deficit because recent evidence shows that around half of the people of Wales still believe that in Westminster, decisions about health services are controlled, even though the powers have been devolved for 20 years.”
– Delyth Jewell AM

The Deputy Minister flatly rejected devolution of broadcasting – and not for the first time – believing not enough was being made of existing accountability structures. He also thought there needed to be a broader regulatory perspective than just broadcasting, it has to include Welsh and English digital media as broadcasting couldn’t be treated in isolation.

Austerity needs to end before another Commonwealth Games bid

Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) asked for a statement of bids for major sporting events. Wales has had a number of successes in recent years, though one of the “blips” was a withdrawal of a Commonwealth Games bid. Would this be re-considered in the future?

The International Relations Minister had discussed the matter with her officials this week. The problem with the Commonwealth Games bid was the costs involved and, realistically, only Cardiff has the infrastructure to host it. “Maybe when austerity ends, it’s something we could consider”.

Welsh position unclear following “Brexit bungs” for England and Northern Ireland

Here’s a round-up of this afternoon’s Finance Questions.

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) asked about the recently-announced £1.6billion package for investment in English provincial towns. Were any Barnett consequentials for Wales expected? Was there the potential for any additional money for Wales from a port town fund and an additional £140million for Northern Ireland?

The Minister said the town fund announcement caused some confusion:

“This announcement came out of nowhere to us and we’re still trying to work through with the UK Government to what extent the funding is new money. I understand that around £1 million (sic, I think it was supposed to be billion) of that is potentially new money. So, I think we would be looking at consequentials of around the region of £50 million if our understanding is confirmed to be true. The other £600 million I understand would be for towns to bid in to, and we would be able to bid into that, or potentially have consequential funding from that but, unfortunately, it’s proving extremely difficult to get clarity from the UK Government.”
– Finance Minister & Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower)

The Minister confirmed there’ll be no new money for Wales from the port town fund, and while Wales will have expected £256million as a result of the Northern Irish announcement, nothing has yet been forthcoming. The Minister, however, rejected any suggestion the Welsh Government weren’t doing their best to fight Wales’ corner.

Public procurement “should benefit local communities”

Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) asked about the future of public procurement in light of the winding-up of the National Procurement Service.

The Minister said the Welsh Government were now operating a “smaller unit” and the number of contracts involved has been halved from 60 to 30, with a much greater regional focus.

Nick Ramsay asked how the Minister envisaged that regional model working? He cited the fact that in 2018, 22% of contracts worth £500,000+ went to non-Welsh companies. The Minister replied:

“We’ll be considering the observations that (Public Accounts Committee) has to make in terms of helping us shape our way forward…..The example of Preston has often been given as one that has been seen as particularly successful in terms of ensuring that procurement benefits the local community.”
– Finance Minister & Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans

Local Government “given best possible settlement”

Local government funding has been a popular topic for a number of AMs this year and both Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) and Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) tabled questions on it as local authorities set their council tax rates – Torfaen’s has increased by 5.9%, while Mick Antoniw argued for a change in policy on leisure centres to protect them:

“What I’m asking you, Minister, is to consider this: there is an opportunity, by removing the obligation in respect of council tax on local authority leisure centres, to actually put them on a level playing field with trusts. That would save, certainly in my council of Rhondda Cynon Taff, in the region of £800,000 a year.”
– Mick Antoniw AM

Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) suggested hypothecated grants be folded into councils’ revenue budgets to provide them with more flexibility – something the Minister was willing to take up with the local government finance group.

Opposition AMs were less kind. Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East) dismissed the Welsh Government’s 5% council tax increase cap as a PR exercise, while Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) yet again accused the Welsh Government of favouritism.

The Minister told AMs:

“I think the brass neck on the Conservative benches is quite incredible this afternoon. If public spending had kept pace with growth in the economy, we would have an extra £4 billion to spend next year….there’s absolutely no truth whatsoever that there is any politics involved in the local government funding formula. The local government funding formula is developed in collaboration with local government.”
– Finance Minister & Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans

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