1. A road to nowhere

    Brenig Davies takes notes at a rare interview Wales Eye were granted with the Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones.

     

    WE - “It took me almost two hours to drive to the Senedd from Pontypridd this morning first minister.

    "It is only 11 miles.

    "When are you going to fulfill your commitment to improve transport links for our valley communities?"

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    CJ - “You know as well I do, that this is not a simple matter to solve.

    "But I’ve always said that if valley residents were a little poorer they would not be able to own a car -  let alone two in many cases.

    "Problem solved."

    WE - “Yes but I thought your policy was to reduce the level of poverty in the valleys, first minister.”

    CJ - “You are absolutely right.

    "We have had three bountiful bags of European funding to do just that.

    "I often wonder where all the money went to be honest with you."

    We - “Why didn’t you go to the party yesterday in London marking 50 years since the establishment of the Welsh office? (see  ).

    "This was surely an important event."

    CJ - (coughs and looks at feet) “I had a packed diary didn’t I?

    "I had to go to a black history project in Butetown.

    "And anyway - have you seen the traffic on the M4 at that time of day?

    "It’s murder.

    "As for the trains - don’t ask".

    WE - “But you have strongly emphasised Welsh Labour’s success in wisely-spending large amounts of money on infrastructure projects.”

    CJ - “But we HAVE spent the money wisely.

    "Only last week our minister for the economy opened a new slip-road in Pontypridd.

    "Indeed I have forgotten how many slip-roads she has opened.

    "We owe her a great debt of gratitude for so willingly leaving her comfortable room in the bay to open so many new roads.

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    "It is vital we relieve congestion on our roads, and it is the minister’s skill at opening new ones that gave me so much confidence in her brave decision to decide on the new M4 relief road at Newport.

    "She had two other options.

    "Be in no doubt the black route is the correct decision."

    WE - “But is it not the case that the price of the M4 black route around Newport makes it the most costly option?

    "Already there are rumours that the capital budget is being withdrawn, if not cut, from more pressing infrastructure projects.

    "Education is being squeezed even more as a result of the black route, many are already saying." 

    CJ - “Well people say that.

    "But it is just not true.

    "Let me come back to the Pontypridd to Cardiff travel to work route.

    "We are committed to a new metro system.

    "One day in the future it will be built.

    "My main concern is not the cost of this piece of infrastructure.

    "No - my main worry is whether our present economy minister will still be in her job to open it."

    WE - “I would like to stay with transport infrastructure projects if you don’t mind.

    "I was listening to first minister’s questions.

    "You will recall that the leader of Plaid Cymru asked you when the Cardiff to Aberdare railway line was going to be extended to Hirwaun.

    "After all the track is still there.

    "And until recently it was used to carry coal from Tower pit."

    CJ - (angrily) “Well, I’m fed up with people going on about this.

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    "I know we aren’t living in the age of the horse and cart any more.

    "People in Hirwaun stop me in the street to ask me about re-opening that line all the time.

    "Although in fact because we haven’t reopened the line I have had little time recently to go to Hirwaun (whispers) no hang on, I didn’t mean to say that.

    (Coughs again) "Anyway, it is not that I am without sympathy.

    "But if the truth be known, all my time is taken up in trying to screw down Westminster, or more to the point that lovely new Secretary of State for Wales, to make sure he coughs up the money to pay for the electrification of the valleys lines.

    "He is such a nice man - and young - compared to that Jones man from north Wales."

    WE - “Would the electrification of the valley lines be extended to Maesteg?

    "After all the early valley lines franchise did not include the line to Maesteg."

    CJ - “Well can I speak to you in absolute confidence?

    "Can I trust you?"

    WE - “Yes, of course you can.” 

    CJ - “Well the truth is - and this must not get out - I have had an absolute commitment from that young, nice and naive - sorry I didn’t mean to say naive  - Welsh secretary, that the electrification will start on the Maesteg to Bridgend branch line.”

    WE - “Why the need for secrecy?”

    CJ - “And I thought you were a well-informed reporter.

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    "Didn’t you used to work for the South Wales Echo?

    "Well it must be kept under-wraps because - you fool - the newly-electrified trains will run first through my constituency, won’t they?

    "Brand new, shiny electric trains.

    "Just think of those extra journeys - they equal extra votes, don’t they?

    "The other valleys will have their electric trains eventually.

    "But I’m afraid to say, they will only get them after our minister for the economy has opened the M4 relief road around Newport. 

    "Who knows, by that time I might be back being a barista - sorry - a  barrister in Cardiff. 

    "It will be so easy to travel from Maesteg to work in Cardiff at one of those expensive legal practices, on one of those nice clean and reliable trains once it is electrified.

    "That is why - and this is the truth - I was so keen on the electrification of the main line going beyond Cardiff and through to Bridgend and Swansea.

    "It was a hard fight to get the extention to Swansea approved, let me tell you.

    "I think by know you can see the distance travelled by my infrastructure projects."

     
  2. In the mind’s eye part two

    A Welsh local authority have broken the law and are guilty of maladministration for their treatment of a disabled child, Wales Eye can disclose.
     
    Pembrokeshire council have not given the parents of a teenager, who suffers from mental health problems, a carer’s assessment and legal experts say the authority have breached rules on services for the disabled.
     
    The Elliot family, of Camrose near Haverfordwest, have struggled for more than a year to secure a full assessment for Mair, aged 17, but they have been told the service cannot be provided in the legal time frame.
     
    Mair, who is classed as a child in need, experienced mental health problems after her asperger’s syndrome went undiagnosed.
     
    She suffers with anxiety and depression.
     
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    Her mother Tracy and husband Geoff travelled to London after their daughter was admitted to the Royal Maudsley hospital, where she spent three and a half months.
     
    The news of the local authority case, comes amid growing concern about the support for people with mental health problems in Wales.
     
    The system is described as being in crisis.
     

    Before Christmas a report by Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and the Wales Audit Office found that safety concerns raised about the service for children more than five years ago had not been properly addressed.

    It said children were being inappropriately admitted to adult mental health wards.

    Health professionals were also failing to share information and act on their safeguarding duties.

    Furthermore the report raised serious concerns about patients being discharged after treatment (see ).

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    Mair is in the care of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS).
     
    Her mother told Wales Eye:  "We expected help from our local authority but didn’t get it.
     
    "I have written countless emails to them trying to get an assessment for Mair, but it has been like banging my head against a brick wall.
     
    My life as the parent of a teenager with a mental illness has been a difficult road.
     
    "I succumbed to parent-stigma and guilt along the way, fed by a health system that excluded me and social care services that couldn’t care less.
     
    "We were not a priority."
     
    Mair spoke movingly of the daily struggle with her mental health problems.
     
    "I can get up some mornings but the huge amount of effort put into getting out of bed means I have no energy to do anything else, so I go back to bed.
     

    "I find it very difficult to see the positive things in my life.  

    "Anxiety is like normal anxiety that everyone feels occasionally, but double it and it’s there almost all the time.
     
    "School is a big obstacle on my bad days, mainly because I don’t have the energy."
     
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    Now Pembrokeshire council too have been castigated in a legal opinion, seen by Wales Eye, for failing in their duties.
     
    The opinion states:  ”It is unlawful for the local authority to advise carers that an assessment cannot be carried out, but might be at some future time.
     

    "The local authority should make expedited arrangements to confirm (eg within 3 working days) that it will undertake a carer’s assessment of (Mair’s) parents.

    (They must) complete these assessments within a short period (eg within 15 working days).

    "The family is due an apology for the delay and the maladministration that has characterised the local authority’s approach to this issue"

    Disabled children and their parents deserve better than this.

     
  3. Snub nose

    The Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, has opted to visit a small cultural scheme in Cardiff tomorrow instead of a major Whitehall event marking the start of devolution of powers to Wales, but officials insist it is not a snub, Wales Eye can reveal.

    A party in London, where Mr Jones will not appear, commemorates 50 years of the Welsh office, and those attending includes all past and present Wales office ministers still living. 

    But officials say Mr Jones has a long-standing commitment to see a black history project instead.

    The ceremony at the Wales office in Westminster, Gwydyr house, will force the right-wing former minister Rod Richards, who recently joined the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) (see ) to rub shoulders with the disgraced Labour ex-Welsh secretary Ron Davies.

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    But Mr Jones has turned down an invitation to go to the event blaming a full diary in Wales.

    A formal statement on behalf of the Welsh first minister was released to The Western Mail but was not given to websites, who must rely on requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act (see ).

    The statement said:   (There is) no snub for Thursday.

    "FM has a number of engagements in South Wales, including a long-standing commitment to a Black History Month event in Butetown (Cardiff).

    But the backdrop to this decision may be seized on by critics.

    Relations between the Labour Welsh government and the Conservative-led Wales office are notoriously strained.

    Two years ago the supreme court was forced to rule in a legal dispute focused on laws in Cardiff bay.

    The Welsh government was adjudged correct.

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    More recently the Welsh government and Westminster have locked horns over a number of issues.

    Huge disputes have emerged about the state of the health service in Wales, and who should ultimately pay for electrification of the valleys railway lines.

    This summer during the shock re-shuffle which saw David Jones lose his job as Conservative Welsh secretary, Carwyn Jones said the Wales office should change their attitude.

    He went on record to voice his frustration over David Jones last year, saying he could not name a "single thing" that had benefited Wales since Mr Jones had assumed the role of Welsh secretary and that he pursued a policy of "constant blocking".

    "I hope that the relationship improves, whatever happens, in the months to come," he said.

    50 years ago tomorrow the first Welsh secretary, Jim Griffiths Labour MP for Llanelli, took up his post.
     
    The move marked the beginning of formally devolving powers to Wales.
     
    But it seems a history project in Butetown is far more important.
     
     
  4. Extramural

    A senior council official at the centre of a storm of controversy over the destruction of an important mural was presented with a plaque containing a piece of the artwork at his leaving party, Wales Eye can reveal.

    The presentation was apparently designed to make light of the concern over destroying the mural, which commemorated the Chartist uprising of 1839.

    Social media pages are ablaze with condemnation of the act, which took place during a celebration marking the departure of an officer from Newport council.

    One critic described it as disgraceful, while another questioned whether those responsible for the destruction of the mural had an ounce of decency in them.

    A further comment said the mural was iconic, and the individual queried why traditional media outlets had not reported the story in full.

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    The demolition of the mural sparked huge protests.

    It was pulled down a year ago to make way for a multi-million pound shopping centre in Newport.

    A Facebook post described "the destruction of democracy".

    Wales Eye revealed how internal documents showed the mural could have been saved at a fraction of the cost publicly offered for moving it.

    A consultation exercise was conducted only over days when guidelines suggest it should have been far longer (see  ).

    Official UK Government guidance dictates that public consultation on controversial issues should take place for several months before policy is enacted.

    Figures indicate only 50 visitors attended the brief consultation.

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    The Chartist mural was in a key Newport underpass, and the demolition took place two days before a protest was planned to save it.

    Builders moved in amid huge protests as work began to clear the site owned by the council and make way for the re-development of the city centre.

    Families gathered spontaneously and shouts of "vandals" were heard in the crowd.

    The Journal of Victorian Culture described the mural as "arguably the best known tribute to the political rising of 1839".

    They said the destruction was "clandestine cultural violence".

    Wales Eye also disclosed how the council borrowed £90 million to ensure developers would begin work on the Friar’s Walk centre.

    After the demolition one member of the public said:  "Hearing the Chartist mural in Newport was under threat my wife and I travelled from Devon to see (it) sadly arriving too late”.

    Investigations by Wales Eye have revealed the mural could have been saved for as little as £250,000.

    This is no laughing matter - even in a leaving do.

     
  5. The numbers stack UKIP

    By Daran Hill of Positif Politics

    Last Friday I was struck by an acerbic Facebook update which said it looked forward to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) getting the same amount of media coverage as the Green party, now they too had one MP.

    This comparison was striking because it spotlighted the absolute truth of UKIP - that they have been immensely helped in their advance through a sustained amount of media attention. 

    The 14 appearances by Nigel Farage on television’s Question Time between 2009 and 2014 prove that.

    This concept of a media-created opposition has a resonance because I have seen it before at close quarters.

    In 1997 the BBC single-handedly supported the creation of the Just Say No campaign in the referendum to create the assembly.

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    The absence of a coherent campaign as a counterpoint to Yes for Wales, incentivised the BBC to instead focus on two ”old Labour” valleys stalwarts, Carys Pugh and Betty Bowen, and make them the alternative to the established politics.

    Roll on to Saturday and the BBC were reporting as a main story that UKIP were likely to” take seats in the National Assembly for Wales http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-29582324

    Some people greeted this on social media as another case of the BBC puffing up UKIP.

    For once, I thought they were actually doing the exact opposite.

    My own view is that UKIP are not just likely to take an assembly seat, but they are guaranteed to have a significant assembly presence.

    At the moment, I think they are on course to elect not only one assembly member, but a minimum of five.

    The way they can do this is by focusing ruthlessly on the regional list system in the assembly, which is not difficult to penetrate.

    Looking at the assembly election results of 2011 we can even see quite clearly how many votes UKIP would need to pick up a regional list seat in every part of Wales – just one more than the lowest-ranking elected member from each region.

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    So to put those figures into votes:

    • 11,508 would see a UKIP member ahead of Aled Roberts for the Liberal Democrats in North Wales - and a little over 23,000 votes across the region could see two UKIP members being returned there, as Antoinette Sandbach from the Conservatives would have been overtaken too.
    • 13,424 sees UKIP being returned in Mid & West Wales in place of William Powell from the Lib Dems on 2011 voting patterns, with around 27,000 votes returning a second UKIP member there too, in place of Labour’s rising star Rebecca Evans.
    • 10,684 would see UKIP beat Liberal Democrat Peter Black in South Wales West, and Conservative Byron Davies would also not be elected if UKIP took 27,500 votes.
    • In South Wales Central 16,515 would see a UKIP member replace the Lib Dems’ Eluned Parrot.
    • And in South Wales East just 10,926 would see Plaid Cyrmru’s Lindsay Whittle out, and UKIP in.

    This, of course, is not an absolute science but it is strongly indicative, since it sets out clearly the type of thresholds that UKIP can, and need, to overcome to enter the assembly.

    It also shows UKIP taking seats from every one of the four parties in the assembly – exactly the sort of rhetoric they are continually reiterating.

    If we look at the last all-Wales poll, 201,983 people voted UKIP in this year’s European election.

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    (Colours - Labour, red.  Conservative, blue.  Liberal Democrats, yellow.  Plaid Cymru, green.  List seats at the last assembly election, additional member voting system - four seats per region.)

    That is approximately 40,000 for each electoral region in Wales.

    If that sort of voting share was achieved again, UKIP would be returning about three out of four regional list seats in every single assembly region.

    This would put it clearly as the second party in the assembly, behind only Labour.

    Having said that, UKIP always do better in European elections - and voting patterns from one election never replicate at another.

    But, even with those big caveats, anyone with a serious interest in politics who does not expect UKIP in the assembly, is kidding him or herself.

    It is clearly not any sort of absurdity to suggest that UKIP will win a seat in the assembly in 2016. 

    The absurdity is to imagine that, with anything like current voting trends, there will not be a significant number of UKIP members sitting in the assembly in eighteen months time.

    Get used to it.

     
  6. Playtime

    Overheard by Brenig Davies - the Welsh assembly presiding officer, Rosemary Butler, tells members she is planning an away-day.

     

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    "Thank you very much for responding to my request to meet at such short notice.

    "You are so busy and have worked so hard all year that I would like to reward you, even though you have only just come back from your party conferences.

    "I know you will be getting it in the neck from councils in your area about yesterday’s news they’re going to get £146 million a year less from us, so you deserve a treat.

    "Now what I have in mind is an away-day.

    "There is a problem with an away-day, and that is the term itself.

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    "It sounds like we are planning a jolly.

    "Well of course, that is exactly what I have in mind to be quite honest.

    "But the voters will not wear that idea.

    "So we must come up with a more acceptable phrase to describe our well-earned jolly.

    "Now as you would expect of me - I have come up with such a term.

    "A phrase that will be acceptable to the voters, and perhaps more importantly the media.

    "When thinking about an appropriate term I thought of Edwina.

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    "The last thing you or I want is for our government’s economy minister to answer to the media for everyone in the Senedd taking a day off for a jolly.

    "So this is the phrase I have come up with.

    "When I tell you, you will see how cunning, sorry, ingenious I have been - brilliant subterfuge if you don’t mind my saying. 

    "The term for our jolly is a ‘site visit’.

    "What could be more boring than that?

    "No one should be alerted to what I have in mind.

    "In this case it is a site visit to study the impact of European money on leisure facilities.

    "But what is it really?

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    "An away-day to Rhyl funfair!

    "Or rather an evening.

    "Unfortunately the fair closed seven years ago and was demolished, and they refuse to re-build it for us.

    "So we will have to go to the one in Towyn instead.

    "Two ‘site visits’ will be included in the day.

    "But we need more than this - just wait.

    "There will have to be a press release of course.

    "And to ensure we are water-tight - I’m thinking about the seaside already! - I have pre-written the press release.

    "So if you don’t mind I would like to share it with you.

    "Here it is.

    "First of all the heading: ‘Senedd decamp to North Wales’

    "Now my thinking behind this is to demonstrate once and for all that as AMs we represent the whole of Wales.

    "Got it?

    "Nice one, you must agree?

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    "Colwyn Bay is a far more sedate town, so we also need to be photographed there.

    "The plan for the day is this: ‘site meeting’ in Colwyn Bay on the bridge overlooking the A 55.

    "A de-camped Senedd meeting in the afternoon.

    "The day out will be Wednesday, so that the Senedd meeting will be for first ministers questions.

    "It will be nice for the good people of the north to see the cut-and-thrust of FMQs.

    "Now comes the exciting bit.

    "In the evening we will go to Towyn funfair.

    "Here’s the press-release.

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    "Just to remind you of the heading for our friends in the media: Senedd decamps to North Wales

    “‘In a clear demonstration of the inclusive nature of the Senedd the Presiding Officer, Rosemary Butler, has arranged for a First Minister’s Questions session to take place in North Wales.

    “‘For those wishing to observe the workings of the Senedd, tickets are available from the National Assembly for Wales, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, CF99 1NA.

    “‘Please mark the envelope with the heading ‘Day Trip’.

    “‘The  FMQ session will begin at 2.00 p.m. - the same time as in Cardiff Bay.

    “‘In the morning the AMs will take CO2 meter readings overlooking the A 55 in Colwyn Bay.

    “‘This forms part of the Welsh government’s commitment to their green agenda.

    “‘Following FMQs assembly members will move to Towyn where they will inspect the use of European money on leisure facilities in the town.’

    “‘This will be a closed session and not open to the media.’

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    "Now to come back to the travel arrangements.

    "We will go up the evening before and return after breakfast following our evening at the funfair - sorry I mean our site visit which will review a European-funding project.

    "We have all worked so hard this year that as a reward I have booked us into a five star hotel in Rhos-on-sea.

    "Now I am fully aware that some of you are more used to staying in five star hotels than others.

    "To avoid any embarrassing incidents I would ask  you mention to your colleagues, who are familiar with the code of behaviour in five star hotels, to brief their fellow AMs of expectations in a high class establishment.

    "So to come back again to the transport arrangements.

    "There are sixty AMs.

    "That is too many for all of us to get into one coach.

    "So we will need to hire a mini-bus also.

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    "As you all know I can spot a bit of luxury when I see it - and I have always wanted to travel in one of those buses.

    "Now this leads me to a ticklish matter.

    "Who goes in the mini-bus?

    "Well, I thought I would leave that decision to you.

    "Now I know you don’t get on as a rule, but on this occasion I ask you to come to a sensible arrangement.

    "I will not get involved in the mini-bus arrangemens, for such decisions are too political - I am after all the presiding officer.

    "There are three options it seems to me.

    "Option one: The frst minister and his cabinet take the mini-bus on their own.

    "Option two: A place for your four party leaders, and their deputies or one of his or her best friends if it is not a deputy.

    "Option three: You select three of your trouble-makers from each of the four parties.

    "So finally I would like to turn to our evening at Towyn fairground.

    "All AMs must remember why officially we are there as I mentioned earlier.

    "We are reviewing how well European money is being spent on projects, in this case leisure facilities.

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    "So it is important we are not seen to be having too much fun.

    "With this in mind, I have come up with what I call the ‘respect list’.

    "1. No screaming on the big dipper,
    2. Single sex only on the waltzer.
    3. Only bump the opposition on the dodgems.
    4. No horseplay on the carousel. 
    5. Same party members on each of the big wheel chairs.
    6. Do not look as if you are enjoying yourself on the water slide.
    7. Keep a note book with you on all rides to evaluate the ‘thrill factor’ i.e.  a cost-benefit analysis for the evaluation report on a European-funding project.
    8. Ride tokens are not transferable for past or future favours.
    9. You are not allowed on the coconut stall due to health and safety legislation. 
    10. Ties must be worn by men at all times.

    "Just to close the meeting - if you are wondering how I have managed to make sure the funfair at Towyn is open, and in the Autumn too.

    "It’s simple - I’m a friend of the fairground owner."

     
  7. Educating England

    Actions by a Welsh government minister were ‘irritating’ according to a senior official in England, during an extraordinary row over regrading English exams, Wales Eye can disclose.

    Internal emails released under a Freedom of Information request, reveal the extent of a huge dispute between Leighton Andrews, then Welsh education minister, and OFQUAL an examination standards body based in Coventry.

    The minister demanded English GCSE results for some pupils in Wales should be upgraded substantially after they apparently fell sharply in just a year due to OFQUAL’s appraisal.

    The standards body had effectively said results in English exams in Wales had suddenly become far worse but Mr Andrews disagreed.

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    He ordered a report and instructed the Welsh exam body WJEC to re-grade English results.

    The row happened in 2012.

    But now internal emails secured by Mr Andrews cast a new light on what really happened.

    Details have been revealed in his new book ‘Ministering to Education’.

    The row exposed in the book, and release of the documents, were widely reported, but the emails have not been closely examined.

    Dennis Opposs, the head of standards at OFQUAL, wrote in one of them:  "This is beginning to irritate.

    "If we had any discussions with WJEC they were on the basis of what we agreed in advance with the Welsh Govt.

    "Let’s not give the impression this was all about the evil Ofqual actions alone.”

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    But the statements by Mr Opposs and officials in OFQUAL were unacceptable to the Welsh government.

    Mr Andrews, now minister for public services in Wales, said they regarded the body as "having abandoned impartiality and having made a series of incompetent errors" at a parliamentary select committee investigation into the affair. 

    He took action after the percentage of pupils from Wales gaining the all-important A* to C grades in GCSE English language fell dramatically from 61.3 per cent to 57.4 per cent.

    A report commissioned by Mr Andrews recommended English language papers should be re-graded, in order to achieve outcomes as similar as possible to those the year before.

    He instructed the WJEC to carry out the regrading in Wales.

    The backdrop to this row is the long drawn-out controversy over reducing the number of councils in Wales from 22 to about 12, as first revealed by Wales Eye (see ).

    Mr Andrews is overseeing the shake-up in his present role.

    He has pledged "appropriate financial resources" for local authorities willing to merge voluntarily.

    But the pledge has proved more persuasive to some councils than to others.

    Earlier this week it was reported that Anglesey are preparing to resist the advances of Gwynedd.

    The chief executive of Gwynedd, Dilwyn Williams, said their "main responsibility is to safeguard the interests of Gwynedd residents and the services provided for them."

    Anglesey appear unimpressed.

    Officials and councillors there have said the move towards merger would have a detrimental effect on services, local democracy, the island’s economy and council tax.

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    A top-level meeting at Gwynedd council is due to be held today which could begin the merger process.

    Elsewhere in Wales, Conwy and Denbighshire have indicated they are ready to start talks on joining together, while Rhondda Cynon Taf have said they are prepared to discuss a merger with Merthyr Tydfil.

    In a situation that parallels Gwynedd and Anglesey, Pembrokeshire have announced they are ready to discuss merging with a neighbour, but Ceredigion have balked at the idea.

    Caerphilly, too, have rejected the Williams Commission’s proposal that they should merge with Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen.

    Yesterday the Welsh government made clear that their draft budget for 2015/16 will see councils facing an overall cut of 3.4 per cent.

    Councils in Wales have been told they will get £146 million less next year.

    The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) said some local services in Wales. will be "crushed" by further cuts.

    Mr Andrews - who announced the settlement in his position as public services minister - admitted the deal was "challenging", but came as a result of the level of funding from Westminster.

    In June, Welsh ministers had written to local authorities warning them to prepare for the cuts.

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    The history of local government in Britain, and reforming it, has not been a good one - but now a wholesale change is about to happen in Wales.

    The row over overhauling councils here appears to mirror the controversy which has now been revealed about re-grading English GCSEs.

    It has emerged OFQUAL’s chairwoman Amanda Spielman had been highly critical of Mr Andrews’ actions at the time he was Wales’ education minister.

    Ms Spielman claimed he had demanded the re-grading, because of the "political difficulty" of students in Wales under-performing in tests compared with their counterparts in England.

    She suggested to the parliamentary committee in Westminster, that evidence of sliding educational performance was "a very difficult conclusion for the Welsh to accept politically".

    But Mr Andrews has described the comments as "outrageous".

    He said:  "the jaw-dropping factor was that this was said by someone who was in a position that was supposed to be politically impartial".

    Jaw-dropping or not, the depth of the hostility that has now been exposed, reveals there is nothing so explosive as the accusation ‘standards are slipping’ - in education or local government.

     
  8. Fighting in the line out

    The battle to become the new chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) looks like being a straight fight between Gareth Davies and either Martin Davies or Alan Jones, it has emerged.

    Gareth Davies - who is also chief executive of the Newport Gwent Dragons - was voted onto the board of directors in elections last month.

    His appointment represented a victory for member clubs who had grown weary of the corrosive battle between the four professional regions and the governing body which has dragged on for almost two years.

    In a rare act of defiance, the clubs backed the call by Mr Davies for reform at the top and turned their backs on the union’s current chairman, David Pickering, who was heavily beaten in the ballot for national representatives.

    image

    Mr Pickering lost his seat on the board and must therefore stand down as WRU chairman after 11 years in the role.

    But the union are not taking Mr Davies’ ascent lying down.

    They intend to keep their grip on the board by putting forward their own nominations for chairman after the union’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) on October 19.

    Both Martin Davies and Mr Jones are viewed as loyalists of the old regime and if either were elected chairman it would ease some of the pressure on current WRU chief executive Roger Lewis.

    On the other hand, if the board were to choose Gareth Davies then it would signify a new era and leave Mr Lewis even more isolated.

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    One board member told Wales Eye:   "David Pickering’s defeat came as a real surprise to most people and so there hadn’t been much thought given to the next chairman.

    "The truth is that there are not that many suitable candidates who could do the job, or want to do the job.

    "Gareth is a very capable administrator and if he stands as chairman there are a number of people who would view him as a new broom, someone to offer a fresh start."

    One of Mr Pickering’s final acts as chairman will be to introduce new governance measures at the AGM - including the appointment of independent non-executive directors and a woman’s seat on the board for the first time.

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    For rugby followers it is the game which is important and the changes at the top are meaningless.

    Yet still the union plough on - they have also recently fulfilled a pledge to operate a fully bilingual policy.

    But all these measures have arrived too late for the clubs who were angered by plans to restructure the leagues without their consultation, as Wales Eye have reported (see ).

    Whether Mr Lewis now follows Mr Pickering through the exit door is now a topic occupying the minds of many in the game.

    Although the chief executive is thought unlikely to move on before next year’s World Cup, one board member told Wales Eye: "Roger has been through a long fight with the regions, he’s got a few scars, and he could well consider that the World Cup would be a good point at which to move on."

    This may not be the end of the story as the fight between the regions and the WRU goes on.

     
  9. Money talks

    The weekly political column by Daran Hill of Positif Politics returns after the recess

    And the winner is…

    The budget round in the assembly is always a bit of medium drama, veering to the high if we observers are lucky.

    This year we have been denied eleventh hour deal-making in December but we did get a moment to savour last week when the Liberal Democrats proved they are not as irrelevant in Wales as their critics sometimes allege.

    When Plaid Cymru excluded themselves from the budget process in July, thereby preventing a repeat of the deal from last year when the two smaller parties formed a common negotiating position to ensure Labour won, it was clear that the Welsh government could only make a deal with the Lib Dems.

    After all, Westminster considerations prevent any such alliance between Labour and the Conservatives.

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    In such circumstances it was thus almost inevitable that Labour and the Lib Dems had to somehow make a deal.

    The fact they did so is no surprise.

    But there are four stand-out elements. 

    The first is that it is a two year deal.

    Such an arrangement between Labour and the Lib Dems was a tactically clever move for both parties, giving the government financial stability, and the Lib Dems something to smile about for a change.

    Secondly, the value of the Lib Dems extraction from Labour at £223m over two years, is considerably more than they might have got considering Labour were only actually negotiating with them this time around.

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    Money is a key factor.

    In 2011 they only secured a little over £50m, which was comparable with the £35m gained by Plaid in their 2012 deal with Labour.

    Indeed, it was only last year, when Plaid and the Lib Dems worked together, that they secured a six figure concession, or around £100m from Labour.

    The fact that the Lib Dems have exceeded this previous high watermark, and done so for the next two years, is a significant achievement.

    The third noticeable element is that the money is to be spent on further increasing the Pupil Deprivation Grant for Wales.

    This is exactly the same priority as that set out in 2011 and 2013, meaning that for four out of five years of the current assembly the Lib Dems can point to a single policy initiative they have consistently funded.

    This narrative is one they are now able to return to time and time again.

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    The fourth and final point, is the non-money pledge which the Lib Dems screwed out of the Welsh government.

    As part of their 2014-16 budget deal with Labour, the Lib Dems secured the following commitment: "an agreement that no construction of the M4 relief road will start before the next assembly elections and a detailed Environmental Impact Study into the project will be commissioned"

    The official party press release issued to coincide with the budget announcement also reiterated their unhappiness.

    Finance spokesperson Peter Black AM said: "If the Welsh government wants its preferred route for the M4 to be built, then it must survive a legal challenge, produce a convincing environmental assessment, win a majority at the next assembly elections and then face a public inquiry.

    "The Welsh Liberal Democrats will not support a scheme that blows such a large proportion of the Welsh Government’s borrowing powers on one single road.

    "That is irresponsible."

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    This is hard language.

    It is also pretty damn close to Plaid’s own position on the issue.

    But by not walking away and instead playing the game, the Lib Dems have managed to put the brakes on an initiative which aims to alleviate the use of breaks.

    As I predicted in this column in July (see  and ), the issue of the M4 relief road has not departed with the summer and is now a major dividing line in assembly politics.

     
  10. Eyepod

    The Three Muckrakers podcast.

    Putting the world to rights from Wales.

    Every Thursday.

    http://youtu.be/DUPmvunZRds