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Politics

20 years since Wales said ‘yes’

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We popped in to admire the architecture and stayed for the debate: Unnamed tourist couple review the Assembly

TWO decades since Wales said ‘yes’ in the referendum to create the National Assembly, a group of young people for whom the institution has always been a feature of their lives, visited the Senedd on Monday (Sept 18) and met the Llywydd, Elin Jones AM.

Representatives of the ‘devolution generation’ took part in a Question and Answer session with the presiding officer and were given a tour of the National Assembly building in Cardiff Bay.

SUPPORT FOR DEVOLUTION GROWS

In 1997 Wales went to the polls and voted to establish the National Assembly for Wales.

Since then the Assembly gained primary law-making powers through the Government of Wales Act 2006 before Wales voted again in 2011 to unlock further powers from Westminster.

Wales Acts in 2014 and 2017 have seen the Assembly’s responsibilities widen further to include tax-raising powers for the first time in almost 800 years.

Landmark laws passed by the Assembly include adopting a system of presumed consent for organ donation and minimum staffing levels on hospital wards, while a petition calling for a ban on single-use carrier bags led to a 5p charge which has greatly reduced their use and been adopted across the UK.

To mark the occasion around 70 young people took part in a question and answer session with the Llywydd of the National Assembly, Elin Jones AM, where topics including voting age, a youth parliament and the future of the Assembly were discussed.

Elin Jones AM said: “Support for devolution and the National Assembly has grown significantly in Wales. In 1997 the vote in favour was very close, but a BBC Wales St David’s Day poll in 2017 had 73% of people either saying the Assembly’s powers should be increased or were sufficient.

“Our priority for the future is to ensure that we have a parliament that is well-equipped to represent the interests of Wales and its people, make laws for Wales and hold the Welsh Government to account; a parliament that is an equal of its counterparts across the UK.”

How Assembly legislation has changed Wales and the UK:

  • Wales was the first UK nation to restrict smoking in enclosed public places
  • Wales was the first UK nation to have a national conversation about changing organ donation law and to pass legislation bringing in the soft-opt-out system. Now Scotland and England are looking to follow
  • The Nurse Staffing Act, introduced by Kirsty Williams AM was the first legislation of its kind in the UK and Europe, requiring the NHS to take steps to calculate and maintain nurse staffing levels in adult acute medical and surgical inpatient wards
  • A member-proposed measure by Ann Jones AM, now Deputy Presiding Officer, required all new homes built in Wales to be fitted with a sprinkler system
  • The 5p charge on single use carrier bags was originally proposed via the Petitions Committee process and went on to become legislation through the Assembly. Wales went on to become the first country in the UK to introduce a charge on single use carrier bags in October 2011. Others have followed
  • At a time when public confidence in politicians was at its lowest, the Assembly took the radical step in 2008 to review its arrangements for determining Members’ pay and allowances. The independent Remuneration Board was established in 2010 to determine the remuneration and allowances for Members of the National Assembly for Wales
  • In 2013 the Assembly passed a law that cemented both English and Welsh as the Assembly’s official languages placing a statutory duty on itself to provide services to Members and the public in the official language of their choice

20 YEARS AND 20 QUOTES

“Devolution is about harnessing the power of community – the diverse community that is the United Kingdom, and the national communities that through devolution can take their futures in their own hands.”

A quote from Tony Blair who in 1997 led Labour back to power for the first time since 1979 in a landslide victory. The Labour manifesto included a commitment to holding a referendum on the creation of a Welsh Assembly.

“There are some variations across social groups in Wales. Women clearly support a Welsh Assembly – by 37 to 29 – while men oppose one by 43 to 38.

“There is strong majority support for devolution among those aged 18 to 34, while a majority of those voters aged over 65 oppose an assembly.”

An extract from the results of a Guardian/ICM poll taken a week before the referendum vote.

“Good morning, and it is a very good morning in Wales.”

This is how Ron Davies, Secretary of State for Wales in 1997 and leader of the Yes campaign started his speech when the result was announced.

“When you win a national campaign by less than seven thousand votes it makes every last leaflet, every last foot-step, every last door knocked, worthwhile.”

Leighton Andrews, former Assembly Member and Welsh Government Minister, reflects on the Yes Campaign in a recent blog for the IWA. 50.3% of those who voted in the referendum supported devolution – a narrow majority in favour of 6,721 votes.

Following the referendum, the UK Parliament passed the Government of Wales Act 1998. The Act established the National Assembly as a corporate body – with the executive (the Government) and the legislature (the Assembly) operating as one. The first Assembly elections were then held on 6 May, 1999.

“The people of Anglesey in the slate quarries of Caernarfonshire used to be known as Pobol y Medra, because their answer to the question, ‘Can you do this?’ was ‘Medra’—‘I can. That must be our message throughout Wales. Let the whole of Wales become Pobol y Medra.”

Alun Michael, having just become the First Secretary of Wales on 12 May 1999.

“It is now the only legislature in the world that is perfectly balanced between men and women. We should note that. It is a message that should ring around the world.”

Rhodri Morgan, then First Secretary, following the 2003 Assembly elections when a world record was set by the Assembly through becoming the first legislative body with equal numbers of men and women.

“We popped in to admire the architecture and have a look around but were pleased to find that we could enter the public gallery and watch a live debate taking place. It was really interesting and enhanced our understanding of the place and the people working there. Definitely worth a visit.”

A review of the Senedd on TripAdvisor. The Senedd became the home of the National Assembly for Wales in 2006 and since then has welcomed more than one million visitors.

“We are moving into a new era, with new powers, and we have a wonderful opportunity to attempt to take the constitution of Wales forward in a new stage of devolution.”

Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM, then Presiding Officer, speaking in 2007 following the legal separation of the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government as the Government of Wales Act (2006) came into force.

The 2006 Act also gave a way for the National Assembly to gain powers to make laws without the need for the UK Parliament’s approval, through a yes vote in a referendum.

“The rest of the world can now sit up and take notice of the fact that our small nation, here on the western edge of the continent of Europe, has demonstrated pride in who we are, and what we all stand for.”

Ieuan Wyn Jones, then Deputy First Minister and leader of Plaid Cymru, following the 2011 referendum where the Welsh electorate voted in favour of further powers to the National Assembly.

“Just fifteen years ago, it would have been unthinkable for politicians, elected by Welsh voters, to draft such legislation and put it on the statute books within such a short space of time.”

Dame Rosemary Butler, then Presiding Officer, comments on the first Assembly act to become law following the new powers granted by the 2011 referendum. The law, introduced by the National Assembly’s Commission, officially recognised both the Welsh and English languages as the official languages of Assembly proceedings.

“Good laws need to be formed through contributions and opinions from the people of Wales if they are to be truly democratic, transparent and accountable.”

David Melding AM, then Deputy Presiding Officer and Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. Just like Select Committees in Westminster, Assembly Committees are an integral aspect of how the Assembly holds the Welsh Government to account.

“An impressive feature of this Chamber has always been your commitment to accountability and transparency through electronic communication and the broadcasting of your proceedings. I know that the way you have addressed this commitment has stimulated interest in other and older parliaments.”

HM The Queen Elizabeth II commenting on the technology of the Siambr during one of the five official opening ceremonies. The Siambr is a fully electronic debating chamber. Every Member has an individual computer terminal, to enable them to research subjects for debate and to undertake work when not being called to speak. They also have access to headphones to amplify the sound in the Siambr or to use the simultaneous interpretation services provided.

“It’s modern democracy. There aren’t traditions, we’re not bound by anything that’s gone before but we’re trying to create the right processes that suit a modern democracy – getting the business done, making things happen.”

Dame Claire Clancy, who was the Clerk and Chief Executive of the Assembly from 2007 to 2017.

“It is vitally important that people with autism are able to participate fully in civic life and in their communities. Training and awareness can make a huge difference and I hope that the Assembly’s example inspires more public buildings and other organisations in Wales to work with us to become more autism friendly.”

Mark Lever, Chief Executive for the National Autistic Society, on the Assembly’s work to make its work and buildings autism-friendly.

“We’ve got to be world class and we mustn’t settle for anything else.”

Peter Hain, a Welsh Officer Minister at the time of the 1997 referendum, comments on the progress of Welsh devolution in 2014.

“You don’t come out the one time, you have to do it over and over again because there is still that assumption you are straight. Like somebody once said about devolution, coming out is more of a process than an event.”

Hannah Blythyn AM is the first openly lesbian woman to be elected to the National Assembly for Wales. The 2016 Assembly election saw also saw two gay men elected – Jeremy Miles AM and Adam Price AM.

As an employer, the Assembly has been included in the top five of Stonewall’s UK-wide LGBT Workplace Equality Index for the last three years.

“Now is the time for Wales to unite and to think clearly about our future. Even before yesterday’s vote I said that no one party had the monopoly on good ideas, and now more than ever, we must rely on the abilities of all.”

Carwyn Jones AM, the current First Minister, following the result of the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

“I think young people should be involved in democracy, it will make so much difference to our country. We need to be progressive in our society, we need to make changes for the better – we can’t stay stuck in the past.”

Tooba Naqvi talking about why she believes there should be a Youth Parliament for Wales that works alongside the National Assembly.

Youth engagement has been a priority for the Assembly with 30,000 young people reached through school visits, outreach programmes and other activities.

“We are entering a period when fundamental changes will be made to the constitutional arrangements of the UK, the place of the devolved nations within it, and the ability of the Assembly to deliver for the people of Wales. As that process unfolds, I am determined to demonstrate and secure the Assembly’s role as a strong, effective Parliament for Wales.”

The current Llywydd, Elin Jones AM reacting to the UK Government triggering Article 50.

Let ‘difficult’ become simple,
and ‘challenging’ become fun;
and let us each day repeat the maxim:
that ‘two men will come together
sooner than two mountains.

An extract from ‘Y tŷ hwn’ (‘This House’) a poem by Ifor Ap Glyn commissioned by the National Assembly for Wales for the Official Opening of the Fifth Assembly.

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Politics

Councils’ budgets ‘war of attrition’

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The cost of cuts: Councils will lose 4.5% net

THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT settlement announced by Welsh Government continues an eight-year run of real term reductions to local government funding.

That’s according to the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) in response to Tuesday’s (Oct 10) announcement of the provisional budget for local government by Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford.

The Welsh Government claims the Budget will ‘protect key services’, as they continue to squeeze councils into devoting an ever-larger slice of an ever-diminishing budget to its core priorities.

‘COUNCILS PROTECTED FROM WORST OF CUTS’

While the Welsh Government claims that no council will have to cut more than 1% off its budget next year and 1.5% off the budget for 2019/20, when other costs are factored in all councils will be faced with a further significant cut above and beyond the headline claims. And taking Welsh government grants out of the final settlement suggests that cuts will be deeper still.

Announcing the provisional settlement, Mark Drakeford said: “Last year I told local authorities to prepare for the tougher times and harder choices that lay ahead as the flawed and failed policy of austerity continues to hit Wales hard.

“My priority, using a formula we have agreed with local government, is to try and protect councils from the worst of the cuts.

“Next year’s settlement might be difficult. We have done all we can to make it manageable. Councils must now use this time to plan ahead and ensure that funding goes to the services and people who need it the most.”

‘SERVICES HAVE BEEN PUMMELLED’

Professor Drakeford’s words got a stony welcome from the WLGA.

A statement from the body said: “In the context of ongoing and prolonged austerity, councils will view this as a very difficult and challenging settlement for supporting vital services that contribute to the education, health and well- being of our communities.

“Leaders across Wales have pushed for parity of funding and particularly sought new investment in a range of services, such as economic development, environmental health and transport, which have been pummelled by cuts.

“The headline reduction of 0.5% fails to recognise the full story; with service pressures that amount to £212m in 2018-19 alone, the sector will have to look for savings of nearly 4.5% of net budgets in the next financial year. This comes on top of cuts of over £1bn that have been made to date and 25,000 job losses across the sector. While the reduction is within the range predicted by the WLGA, local government is still bearing the heaviest burden of austerity.”

‘POSITION IS UNSUSTAINABLE’

Commenting on the draft settlement, Councillor Debbie Wilcox (Newport), WLGA Leader said: “The problem for local government is that we are now in a ‘war of attrition’. Services are wearing down to the point of collapse and the public are rightly growing frustrated in terms of paying council tax and yet seeing key community functions cut or closed.

“The whole position is unsustainable. Local authorities cannot go on to be expected to make the harshest of cuts whilst continuing to provide the same breadth and level of service; in short, something has got to give. “

‘WORKFORCE DESERVES A PAY RISE’

Councillor Emlyn Dole (Carmarthenshire), WLGA Plaid Cymru Group Leader said: “Welsh councils will still face severe financial pressures estimated to be over £200m for the next financial year alone due to demographic factors and workforce related pressures.

“I would urge the UK Government to use its Budget announcement in November to fully fund any relaxation of the pay cap. Every 1% increase in pay costs the public sector around £100m, and £35m of that is attributable to councils.

“Our workforce deserves a pay rise. In this context, local government funding must be more flexible and the transfer of nearly £100m of grants into the settlement is a positive step. I would urge Ministers to think about the other funding flexibilities for the other £700m in grants which put an additional administrative burden on the public services.”

UNDERFUNDED AND UNSUSTAINABLE

Councillor Hugh Evans OBE (Denbighshire), WLGA Independent Group Leader said: “The funding formula delivers a range of increases and decreases across the 22 local authorities. We need to make sure that the system takes account of the additional needs of providing services in communities with diverse needs and especially the additional costs of providing services in rural communities which are dramatically underfunded.”

Councillor Peter Fox OBE (Monmouthshire), WLGA Conservative Group Leader said: “Social services and education should be funded on equal terms with health, which means providing the £160m that both services need to stand still next year. There are also a range of preventative services within councils that will not survive unless the Welsh Government has a long hard look at the way it allocates money across the totality of public services. Ring-fencing small sums in the settlement for those services is like robbing Peter to pay Paul, as other services suffer.”

‘SERIOUS CASH INJECTION REQUIRED’

UNISON has also criticised the Welsh government’s budget for local authority spending as wholly inadequate. The trade union has warned thousands of jobs will be lost and local public services will be reduced or disappear completely because councils are under severe financial pressure.

UNISON also blasted Welsh Government’s failure to fund the implement of the Foundation Living Wage to lift thousands of council workers out of in-work poverty, something it says could have been achieved with a relatively modest injection of cash.

Dominic MacAskill, UNISON head of local government said: “Today’s news is grim indeed. People can’t understand why their library opening hours will have to be reduced or their youth club shut down in the name of austerity. Communities need quality local services otherwise they cease to be healthy and liveable places but councils are struggling to provide these and more – parks and leisure services, food hygiene and environment health services, on the meagre budgets Welsh Government has today granted.

“Savage spending cuts might be directed by Westminster Conservatives but the Welsh Government must see the lack of new money for local authorities in the announcement today will mean thousands more council jobs are lost and services at smaller councils might collapse altogether. Our warning couldn’t be starker: without a serious injection of cash, some councils will become unsustainable.”

Mr MacAskill added: “Public service workers will be incredibly frustrated their concerns are not being listened to. Welsh government has missed an opportunity to lift thousands of hard working council staff out of in-work poverty by failing to fund the Foundation Living Wage for all local government employees. They agreed this was necessary in the NHS and the Civil Service, why can’t they do it for all public service workers?”

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Carwyn slaps down Conservative race claim

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Conservative​s​ can't tell Wales and Scotland apart: Carwyn Jones

A CONSERVATIVE claim that the Welsh Government had refused to take part in a ‘race audit’ with the UK Government was given brutally short shrift by the First Minister at questions in the Senedd.

On Tuesday​ (Oct 10)​, the mainstream broadcast media were full of the UK Government’s announcement of the result of its ‘Race Disparity Audit’ and comment on its outcome.

The analysis helps to understand and assess differences between ethnic groups, and to identify those public services where disparities are diminishing and those where work is needed to develop effective strategies to reduce disparities between ethnic groups.

And what the audit revealed was a predictable disparity between White and Black and Minority Ethnic​ (BAME)​ experience of services such as housing, education, and health. It also revealed a far less anticipated huge variation between BAME experiences depending on region and significant regional variations within individual ethnic groups.

The Audit shows a complex picture and Damian Green, First Secretary of State, commented: ​”Although there are many areas where the gaps between groups have narrowed significantly, there is still a way to go before we have a country that works for everyone regardless of their ethnicity. [The report] also challenges us all to show leadership, take accountability and identify where we need to do things differently​.”

The Conservative Party in Wales, however, went on to the attack.

A press release from the Conservatives claimed the Welsh Government had refused to take part in the Audit and that refusal was ‘yet another example of the Labour Party putting party politics ahead of the good of hardworking families across Wales’.

The same release went on to provide a statement from Mohammed Ashgar, the Conservative regional AM for South East Wales.

Mr Ashgar was reported to have remarked: “People who have lived with discrimination don’t need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge. However, this audit will bring significant issues into the open and means that there is nowhere for the government or our public services to hide.

“The United Kingdom is one of the most tolerant countries in the world but this audit will undoubtedly shine a light into areas as a nation where we can improve – building on Theresa May’s pledge to build a country that works for everyone, regardless of their background.

“I would implore the Welsh Government to either conduct its own audit or reconsider its refusal to take part in the UK Government’s report – it’s the least people and communities across Wales deserve.”

At First Minister’s Questions, a question on the subject was posed by Angela Burns, who repeated the line adopted in the Conservative press release about the Welsh Government’s purported refusal to take part in the Audit.

Mrs Burns then went one step further, asking the First Minister: “Is your reluctance in releasing the data because you haven’t got it, or is it simply that you won’t get it?”

Continuing to observe: “And the reason why this is so important is because that data would help us to identify areas of poverty in black and minority ethnic communities, where we might actually be able to take some action and make some differences to those people’s lives.”

Dismissing the Conservative claim as ‘wholly untrue’, he continued: “Scotland has refused to co-operate; we have not.”

The First Minister proceeded to provide a blow-by-blow account of the Welsh Government’s extensive engagement with the UK Government’s Race Disparity Audit Unit (RDAU), which he explained came to a head when The UK Government team asked the Welsh Government to fund and resource data analysis of information it had requested for its own purposes.

With the deadline for the audit fast approaching, Carwyn Jones mordantly observed: “RDAU acknowledged the lateness of that request.

“We made it clear that we didn’t have the resources to support that work at that time, and expressed concern about being asked to undertake such a large exercise before the launch date in July. At that point, we were informed that the Scottish Government had decided not to engage with the project.

“On May 26, RDAU responded to a letter from us with a provisional list of data that would be on the website. On June 2, again we agreed to continue working with the unit, by providing advice on the Welsh data sources, and providing data sets for the RDAU to analyse.

On October 4, a third meeting between officials and RDAU took place. They gave us a glimpse of the content of the website, but did not provide us with a copy of the 45-page report.”

Rounding on the claims of a refusal to participate, Carwyn Jones concluded by remarking: “Perhaps it shows the shambles at the heart of the UK Government that they cannot tell Wales and Scotland apart.”

It is also arguable that the exchange demonstrates the danger of relying on partisan briefings before asking questions of a well-prepared Carwyn Jones.

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Politics

Four to tender for rail franchise

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Wales and Borders franchise: New ideas being explored

WALES’ Economy Secretary Ken Skates has confirmed final tenders have been invited for the next Wales and Borders Rail Service, the Welsh Government’s first.

The new rail service will deliver a step-change in the quality of rail travel in Wales. Since January 2017, officials and bidders have been discussing a range of innovative solutions to find those which best meet the needs of people in Wales and the border regions.

Rather than follow the traditional model for procuring a rail service, with the issue of a set specification that companies bid for, this approach has allowed new ideas to be explored and collaborative working relationships to be developed – setting the tone for the new service.

Proposals for the South Wales Metro are being developed alongside the Wales and Borders service to aid development of an integrated transport system in the region. The deadline to submit final tender is December 21.

Economy Secretary, Ken Skates said: “I’m delighted to confirm that Abellio Rail Cymru, Arriva Rail Wales, KeolisAmey and MTR Corporation (Cymru) Ltd have all been invited to submit final tenders for the next Wales and Borders Rail Service. From rolling stock to frequency of services, Metros to profit thresholds, this final tender will provide the blueprint for what these four giants of the rail industry are bidding to provide Wales.

“Detailed discussions with all four of the shortlisted potential operators have only served to reinforce our optimism that the next service will see big improvements. I look forward to seeing how the detailed tenders tackle our ambitious requirements for the next 15 years before making a decision on the successful operator in early 2018.

“We intend to create a rail service that benefits the whole of Wales, communities along the border and in England. One with passengers at its heart and today’s announcement is another important step towards that.”

In inviting final tender for the franchise, the Economy Secretary provided an update on progress with UK Government on fair funding. He said: “There is will on both sides to ensure that the settlement works for Wales and the Border and, following positive talks, a resolution is near. It’s great news for rail users across Wales that this ensures the services modern Wales expects and have been promised, will be fully delivered.”

Conservative Transport spokesperson, Russell George AM, said: “The Welsh public rightly expects a truly 21st century rail service that puts the passenger first. Commuters should be seeing the new rail service provide access to free Wi-Fi, built to serve the needs of local communities, and achieve high standards in relation to environmental sustainability.

“The experience of the previous franchise was an acute demonstration that it is absolutely vital to ‘get things right’ during the procurement of a major rail operating agreement, particularly to ensure that it delivers for passengers and taxpayers alike over the course of the entire franchise period.

“Welsh Conservatives are adamant the priorities of Welsh passengers should be at the very heart of the new Wales and Borders Rail franchise namely; an agreement that takes into account the commercial realities of expanding passenger numbers over time, and trains that are reliable, cost effective and contain enough seats to accommodate the travelling public.”

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