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Welsh Government wrong to blame EU for its decisions to abandon Welsh hill farmers

The Welsh Government’s 25th September statement that it will unilaterally end dedicated Uplands support for farmers during the next CAP period will come as a great disappointment for Wales’ hill farmers.

Throughout the CAP reform process, I have consistently argued that a dedicated Uplands scheme (formally known as LFA payments) should be retained under the European Union’s new ANC definition.

The Welsh Government’s decision not to do so throughout the 2014 – 2020 Rural Development Programme will substantially reduce Upland farm incomes and will critically weaken the viability of many farm businesses. This is potentially devastating to our Upland sheep farming industry which continues to be a source of great national pride. It will also act to weaken the wider rural economy, as so many supply chain businesses will also suffer a hammer blow.

What is especially disappointing is that the Welsh Government has tried to blame EU regulations for its own flawed decisions.

Contrary to what the Welsh Government claims, there is no reason why a dedicated Uplands scheme could not be delivered in Wales. This has been confirmed on a number of occasions by EU officials and is further proven by the majority of other EU states continuing to run such a programme.

It is no wonder that there is so much ill feeling towards the European Union across our country when our own Government is happy to blame it for their own errors, whenever it suits them to do so.

Not having an equivalent scheme here in Wales will put our own farmers at a competitive disadvantage to farmers across the UK and the wider EU and will have far reaching effects into the future.

I am deeply disappointed that the Welsh Labour Government have chosen to let down farmers in this way.

They have strung this decision out for well over a year, and as such it will come as a bitter disappointment to our hill farmers that the door has finally been slammed shut.

This decision will have lasting impacts for many years and could very well result in a significant number of our hill farmers going out of business.

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Changes to Wales Bill announced

The Western Mail reports that the Secretary of State for Wales has announced important changes to the Wales Bill that have been agreed by the Coalition Government.

Legislation now going through parliament has been slammed by opponents for only allowing the Assembly – subject to a referendum – to shift rates up or down in unison. The so-called “lockstep” would stop, for example, a penny being added or taken away from the top rate of income tax.

But Mr Crabb used his conference speech in Birmingham to announce a major change in policy. He claimed tax devolution would “end the politics of the begging bowl in Wales”.

He also pledged to push for a new devolution settlement for Wales, one that would give the Assembly greater freedom to make laws in different areas unless these had been specifically “reserved” by Westminster.

Making the case for the transfer of new powers, he said: “Every time the people of Wales are asked, they vote for more devolution not less. But they want a devolution that is stronger, that works for them.

“They want a devolution which is fairer, more balanced and more accountable, too. The truth is that all Labour’s devolution created was an over-sized Welsh spending department with votes tacked on, where the core of the political debate is about how to spend money granted from Westminster, and with the loudest cry always being that the money is never enough.

“As a Government we’ve been changing this. In 2011 we asked the people of Wales for their view on the move to a full law-making Assembly.

“By a majority of two to one they said yes and so we have given it full law-making powers. But I am very clear that a law-making body which hasn’t got powers to raise a strong portion of its own revenue is not a proper accountable legislature.”

Welsh Liberal Democrats have been making the case for these changes for some time so it is good to see these policies now gaining some traction in government.

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Swansea Bay can be centre for tidal energy technology

The Western Mail reports that the new chair of the Swansea Bay City Region Sir Terry Matthews believes the area could become a world leader in the development of tidal energy technology:

Sir Terry, who was asked by Business Minister Edwina Hart to chair the city region , said it was important that as many people as possible contributed to new ideas aimed at driving the competitiveness of the region – which covers the unitary authorities of Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire, Swansea and Pembrokeshire.

Newport-born Sir Terry said the region could also look to become a world-leading location in the development of tidal energy technology.

The Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project is being considered by the Planning Inspectorate and a new company is looking to secure finance for a tidal barrage.

Sir Terry said: “From the get-go you recognise you can generate power from the tide. How much further could that go? I think it could go a lot further personally.

“It [Severn Estuary] has the second highest tidal rise and fall in the world. Could we take South Wales and part of this region and be doing some work to show how we capture power from the Bristol Channel?

“If you could can become recognised worldwide as the source of the technology to create power from the tide, without disturbing fish and other wildlife, you would become world-famous.”

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Welsh bus costs will hit students

The BBC report on claims that new and increased transport costs for sixth formers could force those from the most deprived backgrounds to give up school altogether.

They say that third of councils are charging students over the age of 16 for transport, whilst another eight are considering changes, with local authority leaders warning councils face difficult choices:

One project manager said bus charges could make the difference between staying on or leaving education.

The costs vary from authority to authority, ranging from £60 to £418 per year.

Seven Welsh councils currently charge students to travel for post-16 education.

But at least a further eight are considering making changes which could involve introducing a fee, BBC Wales has found.
The People and Work Unit works with people from disadvantaged of Wales to help them gain academic qualifications and skills for work.

Project manager James Hall said he was worried it could make the difference between would-be students deciding whether to continue in education.

“For families on a two week benefit cycle who are struggling to keep homes warm in the winter, food on the table, an extra £10/£20 a week on some of these bus routes could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said.

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Schools need stability and support after banding fiasco

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have been calling for the flawed banding system to be replaced since it was first introduced in 2011. The Welsh Labour Government got this system seriously wrong and again it is Wales’ education system that pays the price.

The fact that the school banding system is at last being replaced by one based on monitoring individual pupils, their characteristics and their attainment is to be welcomed. The Welsh Lib Dems have been calling for this for over the last two years and the issue was highlighted in the recent OECD report.

The Welsh Labour Government must now concentrate on the capacity of the Regional Consortia through their Challenge Advisers to tackle the issues in schools where the attainment of individual pupils is causing concern.

Political stability will be essential to the success of the new system and we owe it to everyone involved in the profession to make sure that the new categorization model is given time to bed down.

All our efforts must now be concentrated on putting this system into effect and making it work.

The Welsh Government must also detail the support that will be provided to schools where individual pupil attainment still needs to be raised.

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Establish a Commission to plan for future Welsh NHS

An all-party and no-party Commission must be created to ensure Wales has an NHS that is clinically and financially sustainable.

The Labour Health Minister said in an Assembly debate this week that the Welsh Lib Dem idea of a Commission was worth considering.

The Welsh NHS has been used as a political football by people from all parties. But whatever side of the debate you’re on, it’s clear that there are significant challenges and pressures in our health services that need to be dealt with.

We need to go further than an inquiry. The Welsh Government needs to establish a Commission to secure a historic and long-term plan for health and social care in Wales. We need to look at what kind of services we need to meet the needs of our ageing population, where these services should be, how they should be staffed and how it would be funded.

A Commission with cross-party, professional and patient representatives would be able to work together and deal with the strategic problems facing our NHS in Wales. Involving doctors, nurses and patients from the outset would ensure that the experiences of those using our front-line health services feed into the efforts to reform our NHS.

Cross-party Commissions have been used for a number of issues, from higher education funding to bringing powers back to Wales. It’s clear to me that the future of our NHS in Wales is an issue so pressing that it’s bigger than the views of political parties. Let’s come together and plan for the future of our health and social care services, so we can create an NHS fit for the people of Wales.”

Details on the proposed Commisson

We want the government to establish a cross-party Commission to develop the long term plan for an NHS in Wales that is clinically and financially sustainable. The Commission would look at what kind of services we will need to meet population needs, where the services should be, how it would be staffed and how it would be funded.

It should have an independent chair. It should have representatives of the Welsh political parties, and substantial representation from the healthcare sector, research, and patients themselves.

Its first task should be to detail the challenges facing Wales in supporting a health population over the next few decades. We need to understand the future of healthcare in Wales, in terms of an aging population, a rural population and rising levels of chronic conditions and mental health issues. We will also need to forecast the future impact of technology and new developments on our NHS and ensure we can keep up with the speed of progress. It would produce recommendations regarding what kind of services we must provide to meet population needs, where the services should be, how these services should be staffed, and how these services would be funded.

It should examine examples from the other three NHS systems in Britain, and healthcare systems abroad, in order to understand what works and what doesn’t.

It should produce recommendations by the end of the next Assembly term.

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