FOLLOWING the publication in late 2017 of its State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain report, all four members of the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission decided to stand down from their roles on the Commission, citing concerns about the lack of progress towards a ‘fairer Britain’.
The State of the Nation report warned that: ”Britain is a deeply divided nation. Those divisions take many forms. Class, income, gender, race. In recent years, each has been the subject of much scrutiny. But one form of division that has received far less attention is that based on geography.”
Almost a quarter (23%) of all individuals in Wales live in poverty – ‘higher than in all regions in England and Great Britain, except London and the West Midlands’.
While the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2017 report, explains that of the four UK nations, Wales consistently has the highest levels of poverty, and these levels are only slightly lower than London, and similar to those of England’s North East.
Looking at early years’ education, west Wales fares conspicuously well, with over 80% of children in receipt of school meals in Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion meeting and exceeding the targets set for their personal development.
However at Key Stages 2 & 3, while Carmarthenshire retains mid table status and Ceredigion tops the attainment table, Pembrokeshire slides down the table to 16th out of 22 Welsh local authorities.
A more worrying underlying trend across all Welsh local authority areas is that in no Welsh local authority area do more than half of pupils eligible for free school meals attain the equivalent to A* to C grades at GCSE level.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2017 report, the attainment gap between children from richer and poorer backgrounds at the age of 11 years old has fallen in recent years from 26% to 14%. However, by the age of 16 years old (Key Stage 4) the attainment gap is 31%. A huge amount depends on how well a young person does at school in year 11. Whether they can go on to study A levels or even do an apprenticeship often depends on getting the golden ticket of 5 A*-C GCSEs.
Yet the latest 2016/17 GCSE Examination results show that a huge proportion of our young people are not getting to this level, with those who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) doing much worse.
The cohort sitting their GCSE exams last year were the first to take the new versions of GCSE Maths and English. The overall proportions of year 11’s achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs including maths and English/Welsh first language have dropped from 60.3% in 2015/16 to 54.6% in 2016/17. There is also a dramatic drop in students achieving any 5 GCSEs A*-C, from 84% to 67%.
Many more young people who are eligible for FSM are leaving school without the qualifications they need. The proportion of year 11’s that were eligible for FSM who achieved 5 A*-C GCSEs including maths and English/Welsh language dropped by 7 percentage points since 2015/16, and more worryingly have dropped by 30.3% for any 5 A*-C GCSEs, compared to 5.8% and 15.4% for those who were not eligible.
The State of the Nation report explains that at Key Stage 4 the biggest attainment gaps are to be found in some of the least deprived areas of Wales. Monmouthshire has the lowest concentration of deprived areas in Wales but has an attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils of over 41%. But even if good educational outcomes are achieved, across west Wales the opportunities to earn more than the Living Wage are limited.
Over a quarter of people employed in Carmarthenshire earn below the Living Wage and the figures for Ceredigion (29%) and Pembrokeshire (32%) is even worse. While the unemployment rates across Wales are falling, increasing employment – often insecure, seasonal, or low-paid – is not creating greater prosperity.
In addition, the ratchet effect of low wages over a longer period of time combined with poor education outcomes at Year 11 for those from the poorest families suggests that low-earning is likely to continue.
As increasing numbers of workers fail to earn a basic living wage, the gap between those who have and those who have not is both wide and getting wider.
Action to tackle homelessness
REBECCA EVANS, Minister for Housing and Regeneration, has published new policy documents which set out new approaches to tackling homelessness in a statement to the Assembly.
Rebecca Evans said: “Talking to those I meet, I often hear distressing accounts of family breakdown, domestic violence, mental health problems, financial problems, substance misuse and bereavement.
“These issues can lead to some people losing their homes and create a vicious cycle leading to rough sleeping.
“The recent increase seen in the National Rough Sleeper Count is disappointing in the face of our efforts and investment but I believe it largely reflects the increasing effects of continued austerity, increasing in-work poverty and welfare reforms”.
As well as new funding to their revenue settlements, councils in Wales will receive grant funding of £2.8m in 2018/19 to embed homelessness prevention best practice models which will help to reduce rough sleeping, prevent youth homelessness, improve access to the private rented sector and strengthen services for people with mental health and substance misuse problems.
Rebecca Evans AM also said: “Today I’m publishing a policy document which outlines how Housing First will be taken forward across Wales. There is strong evidence that Housing First works best where its core principles are followed – housing with no strings attached, ready and available support services and access to funds to help meet individuals’ needs.
“I’m also launching our Action Plan to reduce rough sleeping. Developed with organisations including Shelter Cymru, and members of Rough Sleepers Cymru, it covers a range of activity, supporting people to engage with services and get off the streets as quickly as possible. It also addresses wider issues such as a review of priority need and our guidance on cold weather plans.
“Rough sleeping is one aspect of homelessness. We can only truly address the issue if we have a system that offers secure housing for all. Building homes and expanding social housing stock can only go so far and I will work with the private rented sector to find innovative ways to harness their supply and meet demand. I will also be looking at how we continue to reduce the number of homes lying empty.
“The Welsh Government has a good track record of delivery on homelessness prevention and we will continue to provide the leadership to ensure we can end the need for people to sleep rough in Wales.”
Conservative Housing spokesperson David Melding welcomed the initiative, but, speaking outside the chamber, called for the Welsh Government to set a target for ending rough sleeping in Wales.
“We know that in Manchester they have set a highly ambitious target of eradicating rough sleeping by 2020, and the UK Government target is to halve rough sleeping by 2022 with targeted full eradication by 2027. I think that we should be aiming for a more ambitious target than that, perhaps somewhere in between.
“Wales has the potential to be a real leader in this area and so I do hope that the Welsh government step up and tackle this problem once and for all.”
Call for Speaker’s conference on Brexit
THE LLYWYDD of the National Assembly for Wales Elin Jones AM and the Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, Mick Antoniw AM, have called for a review of the inter-parliamentary and inter-governmental arrangements relating to the UK’s exit of the EU to ensure that Wales’ voice is heard loud and clear.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) inquiry into devolution and Brexit, Mick Antoniw AM referred to the key findings of the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report “UK governance post-Brexit” published on 2 February. Specifically, he reiterated the report’s recommendation to establish a Speakers’ Conference to improve the way parliaments work together and hold governments of the UK to account.
Mick Antoniw AM said: “A conference involving Speakers and Presiding Officers from all UK legislatures would increase understanding and cooperation between UK parliaments at this crucial time in UK constitutional affairs. Similarly, we need to see a step change in the mechanics for inter-governmental relations. The Joint Ministerial Committee, established in the wake of devolution in the 1990s, simply hasn’t evolved in line with the depth and breadth of the constitutional settlements of the devolved nations. The Committee also wants to see the EU (Withdrawal) Bill amended to put inter-governmental relations on a statutory footing. Currently, the process is driven by personality and makes the Joint Ministerial Committee little more than a speakeasy for Ministers to discuss ideas behind closed doors without any transparency or accountability.
“Now is the time for reviewing these arrangements and to develop UK inter-parliamentary working fit for the purpose of scrutinising the impact of Brexit on the constitutional framework of the UK.”
Llywydd, Elin Jones AM, said “This unique moment in time calls for a unique inter-parliamentary arrangement to scrutinise our respective governments’ arrangements. I welcome and support the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee’s call for the establishment of a formal Speakers’ Conference focused on arrangements for Brexit. Considering the impact of exiting on the range of powers repatriated and then devolved to Wales is particularly crucial as it will determine how quickly we can make decisions for the benefit of our constituents. At a time when most Assembly committees are considering issues related to Brexit as part of their ongoing scrutiny programmes, this is the missing piece of the jigsaw – and one I will be raising with my counterparts in Scotland, Westminster and Northern Ireland at our next speakers’ meeting.”
Conservatives claim email ‘cover up’
A ROW over whether the First Minister permitted an inquiry into his conduct access to his personal emails during a leak inquiry has intensified.
An inquiry recently concluded into whether or not details of the Cabinet reshuffle which led to the dismissal and subsequent death of former Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary Carl Sargeant.
That inquiry found that there was ‘unauthorised’ leak of the reshuffle details, leading to the obvious question as to whether any leaks were ‘authorised’, as it appears beyond question that news of Mr Sargeant’s dismissal was provided to at least two Labour MPs and one journalist.
In addition, the First Minister has refused to confirm that the Permanent Secretary was granted access to his personal emails during the recent leak inquiry.
Last week, in a response to a written question from Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies, Mr Jones said that he did occasionally use a private email address to deal with diary issues and clearing urgent press lines.
On Tuesday, Mr Davies asked the First Minister whether the private email address was used at all to instruct or to brief staff as to press lines in relation to the reshuffle.
After responding ‘No’, Carwyn Jones said that ‘all relevant evidence was made available to the inquiry’.
Mr Davies pressed the point, asking whether access was given to the personal e-mail addresses that Mr Jones uses for Government business
Mr Jones avoided a direct answer, saying: “I can’t comment on what the evidence looked like. All I can say is that all relevant evidence was submitted to the inquiry.”
Responding that ‘it’s not unreasonable to assume that, if there’s an inquiry into leaks from Government, then all correspondence would’ve been made available to the person carrying out the inquiry’, Andrew RT Davies asked for a straight yes or no answer.
Mr Jones declined to give on, instead repeating ‘all relevant information was provided to the inquiry’.
The Conservative leader has now suggested that the inference to be drawn from the First Minister’s answers is that the decision as to which evidence was either relevant or irrelevant was down to the First Minister himself.
The Welsh Conservatives are now demanding that the Permanent Secretary re-opens the inquiry, with the Permanent Secretary given “unfettered access” to Carwyn Jones’ personal email address.
In a press statement after First Minister’s Questions, Mr Davies said: “This reeks of a cover up.
“Just last week the First Minister admitted that he uses his personal email account on ministerial business, and now we learn that it is left to him to decide which emails are in the public interest.
“It calls to mind the recent Presidential elections, where public confidence was seriously undermined after allegations relating to the use of personal emails.
“How on earth can we have confidence in the system if the First Minister is the only judge of his own conduct?
“The inquiry must be re-opened, with unfettered access granted to the two email accounts that we know he has used for ministerial business.”
Mr Davies also called for a transparent process to log the use of personal email accounts by Welsh ministers and their advisers.
At present, such correspondence is only picked up by Welsh Government logs where an official email account is ‘copied in to an exchange’ – or where a conversation starts or finishes with an official email account.
He added: “There is nothing to stop the First Minister from emailing advisers directly using private email addresses, and I have no doubt that we would learn a great deal about the way Welsh Government business is conducted if his emails were to be opened up to closer scrutiny.
“We need rigorous checks in place to stop ministers from conducting government business entirely through back channels.
“This kind of practice should be entirely outlawed, except in approved accounts where security is heightened and exchanges are open to scrutiny.”
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