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BBC’s Betsan Powys talks to Theory of Devolution

January 14, 2011

Before Christmas the Theory of Devolution team headed to Cardiff Bay to talk to BBC Wales’ Political Editor Betsan Powys about the WAG, covering devolved politics and the things to come in Welsh politics in 2011.

Covering devolution

Betsan talks about the BBC, its coverage of Welsh politics and how the WAG compares to Westminster.

The referendum on Welsh Assembly powers

On the 2011 referendum and campaigns for it.

The 2011 election

The May election and the issues around it.

Academics advise Scottish Government on Scotland Bill

January 11, 2011

The Scottish Parliament’s Scotland Bill Committee is hearing evidence from a range of constitutional academics on its adoption of the Scotland Bill, which will grant more powers to the devolved institution.

The Scotland Bill Committee discusses Scotland's tax-raising powers.

As The Herald reported earlier today, Oxford’s Professor Iain McLean has said that rejecting the Bill would be pointless, and would damage the SNP at the forthcoming election. He warned of increasing problems of compliance costs and tax avoidance if the Scottish Parliament was to have full tax raising powers, as the SNP is pushing for. Professor McLean said the ‘no detriment’ guarantees of the Bill would protect Scotland from losing out from changes to taxation around the UK, a key worry of the SNP’s.

The Committee will hear later today from Professor Drew Scott, Professor of European Union Studies at the University of Edinburgh and Professor Andrew Hughes Hallett, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at George Mason University. If they are similarly supportive of the Scotland Bill, the SNP will be under further pressure to accept the Bill.

Alex Salmond gave an interview to the revamped Sunday Herald this weekend in which he spoke of turning the Scotland Bill ‘from a mouse to a lion‘ if the SNP wins the Scottish election in May.

UPDATE

Devolution Matters’ post on the Bill’s passage through three different legislative chambers, which I somehow missed earlier, is well worth a link.

Launch of Yes campaign kicks off Wales referendum

January 4, 2011

Today saw the launch of the Yes campaign for the upcoming referendum on further legislative powers for the Welsh Assembly.

With the referendum scheduled for March 3, and True Wales expected to launch its No campaign imminently,  it looks like everything is in place for battle to finally commence.

Could the WAG get more powers?

The polls seem to show that the Yes campaign has  the early advantage at this stage, with 48% saying they want “the Assembly now to be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas it has powers for”.

It seems that 30% will be voting No at this juncture, with 8% not voting and 14% still to decide.

At the moment, the Assembly can only pass laws if the UK Parliament grants it the power to do so in specific devolved areas, a process that can take months or even years. This referendum could change all that.

A lot depends on the tactics that the two camps use. The Yes campaign, which is backed by all four major parties, is being run by Roger Lewis, the Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Union. Mr Lewis has said that he wants to run a “people’s campaign”, taking the case for a Yes vote in the “four corners of Wales”.

The details of the No campaign will almost certainly emerge when its campaign is launched, but True Wales are making much of the fact that they represent “ordinary people” from “all walks of life”, and that their website is “financed, produced and maintained by volunteers”.

The outcome will almost certainly depend on capturing the grass-roots imagination, and a high turnout could be key. Failure to get the people of Wales to the polling booths in March could spell ignominy for whoever is victorious.

St Athan and other costs

December 29, 2010

British Army in IraqMuch of today’s media coverage has been dedicated to weather-related mayhem in the devolved nations, from crippling water shortages in Northern Ireland to similar issues in Wales.

Already, brows are raised over the potential fate of those responsible for dealing with the crises and whether, as in snowed-under Scotland a few weeks ago, heads will have to roll.

Bar this, political news from the devolved nations has been rather thin on the ground.

St Athan and the costs of cancellation

So, today’s report in the Western Mail on the full costs of the now-ditched plan to concentrate UK Armed Forces training at RAF St Athan, in the Vale of Glamorgan, makes for interesting reading for starved politics bods.

The revelations, brought about by a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, are of spending on the project reaching £32.4m before its abrupt cancellation. Of this, £18.7m was spent on consultants.

The decision to cancel the project was announced in October’s Comprehensive Spending Review, though a scaled-down version of the programme may still go ahead.

Those behind the cancellation may argue finishing the project would need funds a cash-strapped Westminster currently lacks. But the revelation may reignite debate over this and other failed projects, including the Severn Estuary Barrage and thwarted ambitions to electrify the railway line from London to Swansea, both likely to bring employment across the border.

A very devolved Christmas…

December 25, 2010

We at Theory of Devolution would like to wish all our followers a very devolved Christmas and a Happy New Year!

We’re looking forward to an exciting 2011, with elections galore just over the horizon, and we hope to be able to provide some interesting coverage of all of them.

So, spread the devolution word and have a merry Christmas!

Neil, Dave & Damian

WAG staff move out of Chrysler Building

December 24, 2010

The Welsh Assembly government has decided it will be moving its “mini-embassy” out of the expensive Chrysler Building and into cheaper offices with the British consulate, based on Third Avenue.

The iconic Chrysler Building

The offices, with boasted eight employees, reportedly cost the WAG £1.97m for 2009/10. The move will save £62,000 over the next six months.

The assembly government says that its offices in New York allow it to promote Wales and Welsh interests in North America.

It also allows them to seek out investment for the nation: it has worked with Amazon, Virgin Atlantic, IBM and others to expand their operations in Wales.

Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, has said: “This move is a win-win situation, strengthening our ability to attract investment and business to Wales and save money.”

The WAG will also be reviewing its overseas offices in Europe, China, Australia, Dubai, Hong Kong, Dehli, Tokyo and Bangalore.

PISA report shows Welsh pupils slide down the global education league tables

December 17, 2010
a warning for educators

A new OECD education report shows UK pupils falling behind in the global tables, and pins the blame on Welsh students, writes guest blogger Richard Welbirg.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) surveys 15-year-old pupils every three years, testing their ability to “address real-life challenges” in the areas of reading, maths and science, so removing any possibility of teaching to the test.

PISA Facts

  • 65 countries surveyed
  • Half a million children tested
  • Started 2000
  • Wales first surveyed 2006
  • 132 Welsh schools tested in 2009

The 2009 report, published on December 7 this year, showed the UK stagnate or decline in all three areas, and perform much worse than the 2000 cohort.

The Economist says the disappointing results are “almost entirely to do with poor performance in Wales.”

Dashed Hopes

After a disappointing performance in the 2006 survey, politicians had hoped 2009 would show the devolved government’s policies taking hold.

“Sadly, that is not the case,” said Leighton Andrews, Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning.

“The 2009 figures paint an even more disappointing picture of our performance and progress.”

  • Wales scored well below the OECD average and the rest of the UK in reading and maths
  • England, Scotland and Northern Ireland scored significantly higher in science
  • Wales’ mean score in all three areas was less than in 2006.
  • Wales’ ranking among the 65 countries fell in each area.
Welsh PISA Scores 2006 & 2009

Wales declined in all three disciplines

Unsurprisingly, the opposition were quick to attack the coalition’s policies.

“Labour-Plaid’s overly-centralised and bureaucratic management of schools is letting down a generation of pupils, parents and teachers,” claimed Conservative Shadow Education Minister Paul Davies.

Leighton Andrew’s statement admitted the PISA results were a blow for education policy: “Our young people deserve better but I am confident that I can rely on the whole sector to support the actions necessary to bring about sustained, positive change.”

The honesty of Mr Andrews’ statements is “a bold political strategy,” says Sally Power, Professor of Social Sciences at Cardiff University.

“But he also shifts much of the responsibility onto the teaching system.”

The Learning Country?

Published in 2001, The Learning Country (TLC) document defined a 10-year comprehensive philosophy for education and lifelong learning.

Since then, the Welsh curriculum has moved away from the test-oriented strategy used elsewhere in the UK, toward a holistic strategy rooted in the (perhaps vague) idea of Welsh citizenship.

Mal Davies, headteacher at Willows High School in Cardiff, points out that the devolved education policy draws on the Finnish education system, which has delivered consistent results (this year the country is second for reading, mean score 536).

“We have moved away from teaching to the test, to a curriculum for preparing versatile, adaptive children not scared of new knowledge,” said Mr Davies.

What’s the problem?

In November, researchers from Bristol University claimed the decision to abolish league tables in 2001 had led to a decline in secondary school performance in Wales.

The study found the average English student would outperform their Welsh counterpart by two GCSE grades, growing to three in the poorest-performing quartile of schools.

Prof. Sally Power: Why have we declined?

With similar PISA results to Latvia and Lithuania, at far greater cost, some parties have argued that inefficiency is a de facto outcome of a bilingual education system.

Dr Phillip Dixon, director of ATL Cymru, believes Scotland’s improved performance is proof devolution itself is not to blame, but its inarguable that Welsh language education imposes additional costs on the system.

Welsh politicians have shown no inclination to address this particular minefield.

Professor David Egan was the Assembly’s special adviser for education during the last round of PISA assessments. He said: “In essence if we want to explain the PISA outcomes, a large part of that will lie in the insidious effect which poverty continues to have on our nation and its people, particularly our children.

Money is undoubtedly a factor. A child in Wales receives £527 per year less than their English equivalent, and the country has disproportionate number of rural schools that are too small to be cost-effective.

There is no single explanation, and a complex cocktail of unripe policies and socio-economic factors are to blame. “We need more research!” says Prof. Power.

Clouds on the Horizon

PISA recommendations:

  • raise the status of teachers by making it harder to become one
  • publish schools results
  • give the best schools more independence

Paul Davies says the Welsh Conservatives would fund schools directly from the Assembly purse, “to allow parents and head-teachers to run schools as they see fit –because they know what they need”.

Education Minister Leighton Andrews

Education Minister Leighton Andrews

He estimates direct funding would cut 4% from the schools budget: £102 million. That could be reinvested, but Mr Davies makes no promises.

Mr Andrews has also not ruled out direct funding for schools, and his department would welcome after November’s budget imposed swingeing cuts.

From a front-line perspective, Mal Davies urges caution: “These programs are still very young and they take time to grow through a system. It would be a great folly to change the strategy now”.

Blaming TLC policies is misleading when its first ‘subjects’ are still at Key Stage 2. It may be ten years until we see meaningful results.

But politicians are fair-weather creatures, and the PISA report has put the cat among the Assembly pigeons. The once-strong relationship between government and educators is strained, and the authority of TLC is in doubt.

Mr Davies summed up the new landscape: “I’m confident we are on the right track, but not that politicians have the courage to see these strategies to fruition.”

Prof. Sally Power: the end of a special relationship

Weekend Review

December 12, 2010

Here’s an idea of what’s been going on this week in the world of devolved politics.

1) WAG passes new language law

The Welsh Assembly unanimously passed a law this week which made Welsh an official language in Wales, putting it on an equal footing with English. It also means that public bodies and some private companies will have to provide some services in it.

The measure was part of the One Wales Agreement between Labour and Plaid and has already been described as “historic” and “momentous”.

It certainly wasn’t easy: more than 70 amendments were proposed and the debate was expected to last four hours. In any event, it didn’t and the AM’s got off lightly, coincidentally in time for the Welsh Political Awards that evening.

Scottish Parliament

2) Scottish transport is snow joke

Apologies for that. It had to be done.

Stewart Stevenson resigned this week over the handling of the severe weather in Scotland, despite having the backing of First Minister Alex Salmond.

Stevenson had been under pressure for his handling of the crisis and he said: “I could have done much more to ensure the public, who were caught up in a difficult and frightening set of circumstances, were better informed”.

Labour leader Iain Gray claimed that Scotland had lost confidence in Stevenson.

Salmond says that Stevenson was wrong to quit but that Stevenson, who had offered to resign earlier in the week, was worried about becoming a “weapon” for the opposition. Keith Brown has since been named as his replacement.

3) Should corporation tax be cut in Northern Ireland?

David Cameron has been urged to cut corporation tax in Northern Ireland alongside the bailout that is being given to the Republic.

The UK will be giving £7bn to the Republic of Ireland as part of an international bailout package, but some, particularly First Minister Peter Robinson, have said that this is unfair given the Republic’s much more competitive corporation rates.

As the Belfast Telegraph points out, it boils down to the fact that British taxpayers’ money could be used to kick start an economy that has a major tax advantage over a region of the UK on its border.

However, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson has warned this week that cutting corporation tax could mean a cut in the block grant to Northern Ireland of £310m.

This led to Northern Irish Finance Minister Sammy Wilson describing such a cut as “totally unattractive” and Wilson said that the government would have to come up with other ways of dealing with the budget shortfall of a tax cut.

Sammy Wilson, Northern Irish Finance Minister

4) Wales is UK’s poorest nation

Figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown this week that Wales is bottom of the prosperity pile in the UK.

Wales has a Gross Added Value (GVA) per head of £14,842, which is down 2.5% from last year and is 74.3% of the UK average.

Scotland’s GVA is 98.8% of the UK average, while Northern Ireland’s is 79.1%.

Ieuan Wyn Jones, the Welsh Deputy First Minister and Minister for Economic Development and Transport wants to transform the business in Wales and said: “What we want to do is create the right conditions for the private sector to flourish”.

The figures mean that Wales might qualify once again for the highest level of European funding.

5) Irwin Armstrong resigns

The Chairman of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland resigned this week following the announcement that his party will not be fielding any candidates in the upcoming Assembly elections.

The decision not to field any candidates comes as part of an agreement with the Ulster Unionist Party, and the statement from the UUP can be read here.

Armstrong claimed that he had been assured by Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that the Conservative Party would fight the election, but when it became apparent that wouldn’t be the case, Armstrong came to the conclusion that his position was no longer tenable.

Scottish Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson resigns after snow fiasco

December 11, 2010

Stewart Stevenson

Despite earlier winning the support of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s transport minister Stewart Stevenson has tendered the First Minister his resignation letter. Stevenson has faced mounting criticism this week over his response to the heavy snowfall which paralysed parts of Scotland.

The Herald’s Ian Macwhirter offered a defence (of sorts) in his column titled: ‘There are aspects of the big freeze that warm your heart‘, but on the whole Stevenson was becoming a media and political liability for the SNP, as he all but admitted in his letter. Salmond hit out at the political game-playing by opposition parties at Holyrood last week, but Brian Taylor’s blog suggests Stevenson was running low on allies in any party.

Scottish Labour have said the resignation should have come sooner, and will see this as a significant scalp. Iain Gray summed up the gist of the criticism here, mostly referring to the situation last Monday:

  • Why was nothing done to stop more traffic joining motorways already blocked?
  • Why were motorways not closed to get them cleared?
  • Why at 4.30pm was the minister saying roads were clearing when they were not?
  • Why no emergency meeting until 9pm, when some people had been stuck for 12 hours?
  • Why take until 11.15pm to announce a helpline number, do it on TV and then get the number wrong anyway?
  • Why is Mr Stevenson still the Transport Minister?

(There we go, a whole post on snow without one pun about being ‘cast adrift’ or ‘snowed under’!)

The Welsh Conservative shadow budget

December 9, 2010

Followers of Welsh politics may be forgiven for missing the rather underwhelming unveiling of the Tory shadow budget today.

In a curiously quiet fashion, the party revealed what would be cut or protected under its governance.

As promised, the key Conservative priority is health spending, which will be ring fenced, leading to higher cuts in all other areas than in the Labour-Plaid draft budget. The differences between the two spending plans are laid out here:

WAG’s plans/Welsh Conservative Alternative

Health and Social Services                                        -7.6%                           NIL

Social Justice and Local Government                       -7.4%                          -12.5%

Education, Children & Lifelong Learning                -8%                              -12%

Economy and Transport                                               -21.3%                         -30%

Environment, Sustainability and Housing               -21%                            -25%

Rural Affairs                                                                     -12.7%                       -15%

Heritage                                                                             -13%                          -20%

Public Services and Performance                               -24.4%                        -30%

Central Services and Administration                         -19.1%                         -25%

This is largely what was expected, but figures at the WAG may now be gleefully rubbing their hands at the prospect of pointing out deeper cuts to be suffered in all departments bar health under a Conservative administration.

Battle lines

There are some other key differences which may feature heavily in debates in the coming months.

  • A public sector pay freeze for salaries over £21,000.
  • Further postponements in the Trunk Road building programme.
  • A further reduction of 1.5% in the local government settlement.
  • The replacement of Communities First with a voluntary sector “Big Society” programme.
  • No further increase to offset student fees.

The arguments

Seeing how these decisions play in an electoral campaign will be interesting. In austere times, the public sector pay freeze may go down well with much of the electorate. Similarly, a reduction in the local government settlement may be easy to defend.

But further postponements to road building, already a bleak prospect after the slashing of capital spending, may be harder to advocate.

Similarly, the choice to both embrace the “Big Society” and scrap the Communities First project, and to leave students at the mercy of fee-raising universities may bring the party some vocal critics. It may also leave them open to comparisons to their already unpopular Westminster counterparts.

This, at least, gives the parties some clearly contrasting platforms to campaign on come election time.