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Draft Welsh Budget probed

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Finance Chair Simon Thomas: Committees hold WG to account

COMMITTEES of the National Assembly for Wales have reported on the Welsh Government’s draft budget 2018-19. The Finance Committee has published its findings, alongside reports from six other Assembly Committees.

Concerns have been raised about the progress of transformation of NHS Services by two Assembly Committees.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee noted that significant change is needed to transform NHS services and improve outcomes, but it is not clear that the Welsh Government budget is targeted to achieve this. The Committee also highlighted that extra funding is sustaining the current position rather than driving improvements, whilst the Finance Committee agreed there is limited evidence of improvement in financial planning in local health boards.

The Health Committee warned that escalating social care costs coupled with rising demand require urgent attention and a whole-system approach to health and social care. The Finance Committee also recognised that an increase in funding for the Health Service results in a cut in other areas, most notably local government, bodies often responsible for the majority of social care provision.

The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee recommend that the Welsh Government explains how outcomes will be monitored to ensure that the removal of ring-fenced budgets does not lead to vulnerable people falling between gaps in services.

The Finance Committee identified:

  • That despite a recommendation from last year’s budget scrutiny, there has been only limited progress in linking the budget to the goals and ways of working laid out in the Well-being of Future Generations Act
  • Future draft budgets should also demonstrate how the Government’s allocation of funds will meet the priorities outlined in its Programme for Government and national strategy, Prosperity for All
    • The Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee also raised concerns about the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, warning that the Welsh Government is yet to demonstrate the transformative change promised in the legislation and expressing disappointment at the lack of progress in embedding it in policy. The Committee also warned about the impact of funding reductions on Natural Resources Wales, including a £10m reduction in staff costs.

      Concerns have been raised by the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee in their report that the £1b dispute with the UK Government over the rail franchise remains unresolved in this budget. The Committee noted that this money could be used to make a real difference to services that could be provided to rail passengers in Wales.

      The Children, Young People and Education Committee has concerns about a lack of transparency in relation to the funding available for schools in Wales, particularly the confusion surrounding the amount of additional funding being provided compared to last year. The Committee calls on the Welsh Government to work closely with local government to ensure that protection for school budgets translates from budget calculations to the chalkface.

      The Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee raised concerns that scale of the resources needed to deliver the Cymraeg 2050 strategy, which aims for a million Welsh speakers by 2050, has yet to be fully considered. The Committee would like to see greater clarity over the resources that will be needed over the medium and longer term.

      Simon Thomas AM, Chair of the Finance Committee, said: “Scrutinising this budget has been a change for all the Committees in the Assembly – the Finance Committee has developed its role into holding the Government to account on its high level and strategic priorities, whilst examining the Government’s intentions with regards to raising revenue and borrowing.

      “However, it is good to see that some of the issues coming from the policy committees are resonating with our findings; concerns have been raised around the continued prioritisation of health, often at the expense of local government.

      “Additionally, we are still struggling to see the impact of the Future Generations Act, which was raised by the Members of Finance Committee and the Environment Committee.”

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Ben Lake MP “disappointed” after Agriculture Bill amendment on the standard of food and agricultural imports is rejected by House of Commons

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The UK’s new Agriculture Bill was put before MPs on Wednesday (13 May) for the final time as it reached the Report Stage and Third Reading.

Alongside farming unions and campaign groups, Ben Lake MP has lobbied for the Bill to include a number of important amendments. One of the amendments sought to introduce a legal requirement that agricultural or food products imported into the UK under future trade agreements would need to be produced or processed according to equivalent animal health, welfare and environmental standards as those required of UK prodcuers.

This amendment, in the form of New Clause 2, and which was tabled by the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Neil Parish MP, was rejected by the Commons. All Plaid Cymru MPs supported the amendment and Ben Lake MP said he was “disappointed” that the house did not vote in favour of an amendment to prevent the importation of products produced to lower animal health and environmental standards, and which in turn would have supported the high standards of Welsh produce.

Ben Lake MP said:

“Without this amendment there remains no legal requirement for future UK trade agreements to ensure that any agricultural or food imports are produced to the same standards as those required of domestic producers.

“Farmers in Wales strive to produce quality food in a sustainable manner, but the failure to include this amendment to the Agriculture Bill risks undermining these efforts by keeping the door open to imports produced to lower environmental and animal welfare standards.

“I have always argued that in order to protect our own high standards it is crucial that a level playing-field is maintained in relation to imports, and that farmers in Wales are not put at a disadvantage by having to compete with imports that are produced to lower standards. I sincerely hope that this amendment will be adopted by the House of Lords, so that the House of Commons has another opportunity to support it.”

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£1 billion deal for ‘Shared Rural Network’ to improve mobile coverage goes ahead

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Ceredigion MP, Ben Lake says he is delighted that a scheme to extend mobile coverage in hard-to-reach rural areas making poor mobile phone coverage a thing of the past has been given the green light, thanks to a major new deal between the Government and UK mobile network operators.

The ‘Shared Rural Network’ will mean that high quality 4G coverage will be available for 95 percent of the UK by 2026 which means consumers will get good 4G signal wherever they live, work or travel. The new plans involves four operators (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) joining forces to create a new organisation to deliver the ‘Shared Rural Network’. Each will be able to make the maximum use out of existing and new phone masts by being able to host their own equipment on them allowing their customers to access a mobile signal. The scheme will cost more than £1billion made up of £530m from the mobile operators and a £500m investment from the Government.

Ben Lake MP, who was one of 78 cross-party MPs who wrote to the Secretary of State for Digital Culture, Media and Sport last year to ask for government support for the scheme, said:

“This is really good news for my constituents. Better mobile connectivity will make flexible working, access to education and leisure opportunities easier. It will boost regional economic growth and begin to close the digital divide that exists across the country. The mobile has become an essential tool for most of us. It will certainly come as a relief to many people living in my constituency who are frustrated by the persistent ‘not spots’ which prevent them from carrying out many tasks which other people take for granted”.

The ’Shared Rural Network’ will eliminate the substantial majority of the country’s partial not-spots with the added benefit of increasing competition for mobile services, especially in rural areas; deliver on the Government’s 95% coverage manifesto commitment to extend coverage across the country; improve road coverage by reaching a further 16,000 kilometres of roads; involve minimum environmental impact and reduce the need for duplicate infrastructure and ensure that the UK has one of, if not the best, mobile coverage in Europe.

The initiative, which is a world first, follows government proposals for an overhaul of planning rules and is part of the Prime Minister’s plan to level up the country with world-class digital infrastructure across the UK to make sure homes and businesses are better connected.

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Elin Jones welcomes speed reduction, but says it should be even lower

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Following a meeting and correspondence with the Welsh Government, Elin Jones AM has welcomed the confirmation of an initial reduction in the speed on the A487 between Bow Street and Aberystwyth.

This stretch of the A487 is particularly dangerous, and there were two fatal accidents there last year.

Ken Skates, the Welsh Government Minister for Economy and Transport, confirmed to Elin Jones via letter that the route between Waun Fawr to 300m beyond Dorglwyd Junction will be reduced to 50mph, with work taking place in the next financial year.

The reduction to 50mph has been initially welcomed by Elin Jones, however she has called for the speed limit to be reduced further to 40mph.

Elin Jones said:

“The need for a review of the safety on the A487 is clear, particularly following the two tragic accidents that took place last year. I was pleased to be able to discuss the issue directly with the Welsh Government Minister in Bow Street recently, and for him to see for himself why a speed reduction was needed.

“I’m also pleased that this has resulted in the safety and speed limit review concluding that a reduction was necessary.

“However, I and many constituents who regularly use this route feel that the speed limit could be reduced further to 40mph, which I will raise again with the Minister.

“I will also continue to call for upgrading safety at the Dorglwyd junction. There are also many areas on the A487 where safety can be improved, either with a speed limit reduction, or by providing cycle lanes and footpaths to remove pedestrians and cyclists from danger. I have called on the Welsh Government to consider all options.”

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