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Politics

Andrews blames media for ‘information deficit’

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THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY must look beyond the fragmented media in Wales to better communicate its work to a wider audience and address the democratic information deficit, at least that’s the claim of the Digital News and Information Taskforce report presented to the Assembly last week.

The report encourages the Assembly to lead the way and establish an integrated content service using social media and other channels to engage directly with the people of Wales. It recommends placing people, rather than the institution and its processes at the heart of topical news stories as it looks to build citizen engagement.

Chaired by Leighton Andrews, the former Welsh Government Minister who lost his seat to Leanne Wood, who was then appointed to a publicly-funded post which never previously existed, and who has now turned up as ‘Professor of Practice in Public Service Leadership and Innovation’ with Cardiff University’s Business School, the Taskforce also recommends:

The Assembly reimagines itself as a content creator, pushing content directly to the platforms that audiences are already consuming

Designing all communications with the user at its heart, taking every opportunity to consider the impact of the Assembly’s work on people of Wales when explaining Assembly business, structures or policy making

A presumption of Open Data, so that others can freely use, re-use and redistribute Assembly data

Providing open access to the Assembly’s resources for teaching via the Hwb platform, which is accessed by over half a million young people, and all schools in Wale s

Leighton Andrews said: “These are radical proposals to use modern digital communication to better understand what people are thinking and concerned about, to engage in real-time with people and to share with them how their representatives are responding to these issues, and I want to thank the members of the Digital News and Information Taskforce for their work.

“Assembly Members and staff must recognise their role as content creators, and see the Assembly as a content platform which should reflect the nation’s conversations about the issues which are of most concern to it.

“The Assembly has done much to embrace digital communication, but in an age where increasing numbers of people are looking to social media for news, and traditional media outlets are providing less political coverage than ever, the Assembly must provide the people it serves with engaging content, delivered in formats that they wish to use.”

The report prepared by the Taskforce does not consider whether the Welsh Government – as opposed to the Assembly – in which Mr Andrews played such a boisterous and controversial part, might be to blame for alleged public ignorance and indifference to its activities.

The report instead appears to countenance blaming the institution itself, as opposed to its distinguished current (and former) political occupants.

When Mr Andrews refers to ‘traditional media outlets providing less political coverage than ever’, it is interesting that a supporting example given in the report refers to Trinity Mirror’s decision to cease the Daily Post’s dedicated Assembly coverage. It does not reference other local media, shows no sign that other local media have been considered, and does not mention the coverage of local and national politics by other newspaper groups in Wales.

Mr Andrews failed to mention that many members of the panel advising him were drawn from a narrow cohort of ‘digital media consultancy’ firms, who might be considered to have an interest in boosting the claimed effectiveness of the strategy he now propounds.

Leighton Andrews’ announcement was also given enthusiastic coverage by the BBC, for whom he was formerly Head of Public Affairs.

Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales Elin Jones AM said: “I want to thank the Digital News and Information Taskforce panel for their work. They have provided us with thought provoking, practical proposals to strengthen the way we communicate as we seek to become an open, digital parliament which engages with all the people of Wales.

“We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Assembly, which is an opportunity to refresh the way in which the Assembly presents itself and to build a deep and genuine dialogue with the people of Wales. I look forward to discussing the report, and how we take it forward, with Assembly Commissioners.”

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Politics

Communities First had impossible task

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THE WELSH Government should ensure councils identify all programmes currently being delivered by Communities First that should be delivered by other public services and that they are transferred across to the relevant public service as soon as possible, according to a National Assembly Committee.

The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee also found it has been difficult to make an overall assessment of the success of the 15-year, £432m Communities First tackling poverty programme because of insufficient performance management.

Communities First was the Welsh Government’s flagship tackling poverty programme. The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children Carl Sargeant AM announced that the programme would be wound down in February this year.

The report also highlights that uncertainty for staff caused by the way in which the announcement was made has had a detrimental impact on their work, and affected the people using the services.

The Committee also recommend that the Welsh Government outline how long legacy funding will be available for as soon as possible.

Committee Chair John Griffiths AM said: “For many people, Communities First has had a life-changing impact, and we know it has done great work in communities across Wales.

“We are concerned that the Welsh Government must learn lessons for future tackling poverty activities, ensuring progress is measurable, based on evidence of what works, and that the successful elements of Communities First, which could be delivered by other public bodies and are valued locally, are transferred to other public services to deliver.

“The need for these services hasn’t disappeared, but faced with uncertainty, we have heard that Communities First staff are already leaving for other jobs. Their expertise and relationships cannot easily be replaced.”

A key criticism in the report is that the Welsh Government had no baseline from which to assess success and without such a measure, it was impossible for Communities First’s successes – if any – to be adequately measured as delivering anything like value for the money invested in the scheme.

Evidence from Carmarthenshire County Council not only makes that criticism express, but continues: ‘Measuring the long term impact that the programme had on the individuals was not carried out in the initial years of the programme. As a result, there was limited recording of statistics and outcomes achieved during this period’.

Indeed, the committee states that its own work was hampered by lack of transparency by the Welsh Government. ‘On the day that it was announced the programme would definitely be ending (14 February 2017), all performance measurement data was removed from the Welsh Government’s website’.

The report mordantly notes that: ‘However, we were told in very stark times by a witness that having 102 performance indicators means in practice you have no performance indicators’. It goes on to warn that new indicators put in place by the Welsh Government are so broad as to be almost meaningless and recommends that the Welsh Government adopt the approach recommended by the Bevan Foundation, a social welfare think-tank.

The report notes that the Communities First programme was set the ‘near impossible task’ of reducing poverty, which could never be achieved through one single programme.

In written evidence to the Committee, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, Carl Sargeant said that “….the underlying premise of the programme that it was possible to improve area characteristics by influencing individual-level outcomes – was (and remains) untested.”

In addition to the broad aims of the programme, it remains unclear and un-evidenced as to whether interventions to improve individual circumstances lead to changes in a geographical area’s characteristics. This was accepted by the Cabinet Secretary in his written evidence.

Although it is unclear how well a place based approach works and it remains the approach for some other programmes such as Communities for Work, Flying Start, Lift, and others. The committee recommends review of these programmes ‘to ensure they are working to optimum benefit’.

The Committee expresses concern that Communities First programmes were used to deliver services that statutory bodies should have delivered, noting that Communities First schemes ‘were delivering projects and support in important areas, including health and education’.

As Herald readers in Carmarthenshire will recall, it is almost impossible to conceive that a local authority would misuse funds for a targeted project to subsidise delivery of its own services.

Other recommendations include:

• That the Welsh Government considers removing postcode barriers to families accessing Flying Start where there is an identified need and capacity to support them

• That the Welsh Government ensures that all advice and guidance to local authorities is available in written form to supplement information that is provided in person or orally

• That the Welsh Government That the Welsh Government makes it clear in guidance to local authorities that employability support should encompass all stages of the employment journey, including support to a person once they are in employment

Mark Isherwood, the Conservative spokesperson for Communities, joined in the Committee’s criticism.

“Despite repeated warnings, the Welsh Government has failed to deliver what the Communities First programme originally intended, which was to deliver community ownership and empowerment to drive positive change.

“An article by the Bevan Foundation achieved a far more perspicacious insight into why Communities First achieved such little success, by stating that community buy-in is essential and that if people feel that policies are imposed on them, then policies simply don’t work. The Cabinet Secretary should take note.

“However, it is not too late to do things differently. We can still unlock human capital in our communities and places to develop solutions to local issues, improve wellbeing, raise aspirations and create stronger communities.”

The Bevan Foundation has welcomed the recommendations of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee’s report.

In particular, it welcomes the Committee’s inclusion of the Bevan Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s proposals to reduce poverty through a whole government strategy for reducing costs and raising incomes, rather than its current focus on employability, early years and empowerment.

The Bevan Foundation also welcome’s the Committee’s adoption of other Bevan Foundation proposals including:

• The recommendation that the Welsh Government work with the Bevan Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Foundation on a dashboard of indicators,

• The recommendation that the Welsh Government explore further the role of assets in generating income and wealth

• The comment that the Welsh Government needs to provide a robust framework for local action

Director of the Bevan Foundation, Victoria Winckler, said: “We were delighted that the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee has listened carefully to our written and oral evidence and included so many of ideas in its recommendations. The Committee’s inquiries into poverty are vitally important, and we hope that the Welsh Government heed the Committee’s recommendations. We look forward to working with the Welsh Government and the Committee in taking them forward.”

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Politics

Aber academic to advise on Brexit

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Professor Nicholas Perdikis: Advising on Brexit

A LEADING expert on international trade policy from Aberystwyth University is providing specialist research advice to the National Assembly for Wales on how Brexit is likely to impact the Welsh economy.

Professor Nicholas Perdikis has taken up a five month Academic Fellowship with the National Assembly for Wales Research Service to explore the potential implications of the UK’s departure from the EU on key sectors of the economy.

His appointment is part of a pilot Fellowship scheme that enables senior academics at Welsh universities to spend time at the Assembly Commission working on a project of mutual benefit.

Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales, Elin Jones AM, said: “I am very pleased that the considerable expertise and experience of Aberystwyth University has joined the fellowship programme. This will help Assembly Members to gain a better understanding of the implications of Brexit for key sectors of the Welsh economy, which will be vitally important so that they can scrutinise the policies of the Welsh and UK Governments.”

From August 2017 until January 2018, Professor Perdikis will divide his time between the National Assembly’s home in Cardiff Bay and Aberystwyth University.

As part of his brief, he will examine how a range of scenarios could impact on trade in Wales, including no deal or trading on World Trade Organisation terms as well as membership of the European Economic Area as a transitional arrangement.

Professor Nicholas Perdikis, who is Professor of International Business and a specialist in International Trade and Trade Policy at Aberystwyth Business School, said: “Nobody yet knows how leaving the EU will affect trade in Wales or the UK as a whole and Brexit remains the focus of political debate and discussion. This fellowship is a fantastic opportunity to work in an advisory capacity to the National Assembly for Wales at a time of significant change to Wales’ international economic environment.”

In addition to his academic research on trade, integration and the European Union’s trade policy, Professor Perdikis has acted as a consultant to international and national organisations.

These include the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and British High Commission in India.

Professor Perdikis is also co-author of a report on the proposed EU-India Free Trade Agreement.

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Politics

Calls to suspend ‘racist’ UKIP member

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A UKIP Assembly Member has been heavily criticised after a recording of a phone call in which she called a prominent Labour MP ‘a coconut’ was released.

A Labour Assembly Group spokesperson called for Michelle Brown, who represents the North Wales region, to be suspended immediately after the tape was released by her former senior adviser Nigel Williams.

During the course of the conversation, in which she also referred to former Labour MP and current Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum Tristram Hunt as a ‘t**t’, Ms Brown said: “Chuka Umunna is a f***ing coconut.

“He’s got as much understanding of an ordinary black man’s experience as I have.

“He may be black but his mother or his father was British from a very, very influential family.

“He is a coconut – black on the outside, white on the inside, and Barack Obama’s exactly the same.”

Former detective Nigel Williams, who was sacked by Ms Brown in May this year after working for her since her election, told the Daily Post that he had been ‘appalled’ by the recording, which he discovered in his records a year after the conversation took place.

“It’s bad enough coming from anybody, but to come from a newly appointed Assembly Member is absolutely appalling,” he added.

“I’ve seen swearing and I’ve been called all sorts of names myself, but I’ve actually never seen it from somebody in such a position.

“This wasn’t a meltdown. This was just a conversation that Michelle Brown was having, which she thought was OK.”

Labour and Plaid Cymru AMs led criticism of Ms Brown. A spokesperson for the Labour group said: “This is absolutely outrageous language and lays bare the disgusting racism at the heart of UKIP.

“Anything less than immediate suspension would be a clear endorsement of Michelle Brown’s racist slur.”

Plaid leader Leanne Wood said: “This racism reflects poorly on our parliament – the National Assembly for Wales – and that’s why her party should take action on this.”

Speaking to the BBC, Leader of the Welsh Conservatives Andrew RT Davies said: “The language is completely unacceptable and it’s regrettable in the second decade of the 21st Century that that type of language is held by people who hold public appointment.

“From my view, if that person was in the Conservative Party – they would be suspended.

“As I said – it is completely unacceptable language.”

UKIP Chair Paul Oakden said UKIP ‘obviously does not condone the personal views expressed by Michelle Brown’.

“We will conduct an investigation into this matter, the findings of which will be passed through to our National Executive Committee so that they might consider disciplinary action,” he added.

However, Mr Oakden also noted that the party would also be investigating ‘whether a UKIP member and official surreptitiously recorded a private telephone conversation with Michelle Brown and then disseminated it without her consent, more than a year after the event’.

In the meantime, two of UKIP’s remaining five AMs criticised Ms Brown’s language.

Caroline Jones said that ‘inappropriate language is not condoned by myself or anyone else in the party,’ while David Rowlands ‘thought we’d put that racist language behind us as a party’.

Responding, Ms Brown said: “The point I was making is that, because of his considerable wealth and privilege, Chukka Umunna cannot possibly understand the difficulties and issues that the average black person faces in this country any more than I can, and I stand by that assertion.

“I do however accept that the language I used in the private conversation was inappropriate and I apologise to anyone that has been offended by it.”

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