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New row over Circuit of Wales

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Circuit of Wales: Welsh Government 'did not tell' company of moved goalposts

THE WELSH Government has been accused of leading Circuit of Wales promoters ‘up the garden path’ by UKIP Leader Neil Hamilton.

Mr Hamilton’s words followed the revelation that the Welsh Government were not prepared to offer the level of guarantee which it had told the Heads of the Valley Development Corporation it would consider.

In evidence before the Welsh Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee on Monday, the Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government told surprised AMs that the amount of the guarantee the Welsh Government was actually prepared to consider offering was under one half of that it had told the company it would consider.

In addition, under stiff questioning from Adam Price AM and Neil Hamilton, it emerged that the Welsh Government had ignored advice from the UK Treasury to seek advice from the UK Government infrastructure advisory service and had also failed to tell the company of its bottom line position.

The cross examination of two of the Welsh Government’s most senior civil servants also uncovered that the Welsh Treasury, despite ample notice of the evidence session, were unable to answer the most basic of questions – such as whether officials advising the Welsh Government were aware that the Welsh Government’s guarantees only came into play on completion of the project and whether or not officials handling the project for the Welsh Government had told the Heads of the Valleys Corporation about its changed position on the guarantee.

And the matter was made no clearer by questions directed to the Welsh Government’s Economy and Infrastructure Secretary, Ken Skates on Wednesday (Feb 7). Despite two days having elapsed since senior officials had fobbed off Adam Price and Neil Hamilton with a promise to provide the answers to questions they had failed to address, Mr Skates found himself in the identical position – kicking the can further down the road in the direction of civil servants in Mark Drakeford’s Finance Department.

In addition, despite holding out hope last year that a re-tooled project could receive support in the future, Mr Skates rather firmly closed the door on any prospect of the Welsh Government becoming involved in any racing circuit development.

The lack of preparation in response to questions for which both civil servants and Mr Skates should have been prepared is, perhaps, startling. It would certainly be unfair to suggest that neither civil servants nor Mr Skates wanted to give a straight answer to a straight question because they did not fancy the row that might follow.

Following Mr Skates’ performance, Mr Hamilton said: “Now we know the Labour Government never intended to give the kiss of life to this visionary scheme and transform the poorest part of Wales. They deceived the Circuit’s promoters into spending millions on a finance package that never had a chance of success.

“They deceived the voters of Blaenau Gwent and the northern valleys in last year’s General Election by delaying until after polling day the announcement of their decision to pull the plug.”

Mr Hamilton continued: “Welsh Government constantly moved the goalposts on their proposed guarantee. First, they told the Circuit they wouldn’t guarantee more than 80% of total project costs. That was reduced to 50% but, in truth, they were never prepared to guarantee more than 25%. Their deception is a major scandal. £9.3 million of Welsh taxpayers’ money was wasted because of the Government’s bad faith in negotiations. Worse still, was encouraging false hopes of economic revival in the heads of the valleys only to dash them after the General Election votes were counted.

“Labour politicians should hang their heads in shame and voters should take revenge on these cynics at the next election. UKIP will continue to fight to get the Circuit back on the road. We will fight for the true interests of working people against a Labour Party which has lost touch completely with its roots.”

Business

Workplace inequality affects economy

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Workplace equality: Could grow economy by 10%

INFLEXIBLE workplace structures, gendered assumptions about childcare, and wide-scale discrimination mean mothers are more likely to be trapped in part-time, low-paid work with fewer opportunities for career progression.

Those are the findings of a National Assembly committee which has been looking at the issue.

The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee believe such factors are key causes of gender inequality and represent a loss to the economy.
The UK Government’s Women’s Business Council estimates that equalising the employment rates of women and men could grow the UK economy by more than 10% by 2030.

The employment rate for women with dependent children in Wales is 75%, compared to 91% for men with dependent children.

The gender pay gap between men and women in Wales is 15% for all employees (full and part time).

A 2016 survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed that Welsh employers lag behind England and Scotland in offering flexible working.

The same survey found that 87% of employers in Wales feel it is in the best interests of organisations to support pregnant women and those on maternity leave. But it also found that 71% of mothers reported negative or discriminatory experiences as a result of having children.

Employment law isn’t devolved to Wales but the Committee focused on the levers at the Welsh Government’s disposal including employment of public sector workers and businesses and organisations in receipt of public funding,

“During the course of our inquiry we heard some shocking individual experiences: women who lost their jobs during maternity leave, careers derailed because of the lack of flexible work, and fathers prevented from taking on caring responsibilities because of cultural attitudes,” said John Griffiths AM, Chair of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee.

“These stories have directly influenced our conclusions and recommendations.

“Preventing a large proportion of the population from contributing their skills and experience to the workforce is not fair and does not make economic sense.

“In light of technological, social and economic changes, now is the time to modernise workplaces so that they are fit for the future for everyone, not just parents.

“We believe the Welsh Government can set a standard in promoting flexible working, ensuring organisations in receipt of public funding are flexible by default and by reassessing its new childcare offer.”

The Committee makes 34 recommendations in its report, including:

  • That the Welsh Government should advertise public sector jobs (including teaching posts) as ‘flexible by default’, and lead the way by allowing senior roles like Ministers and councillors to be job-shared;
  • Strengthening the obligations on organisations receiving public funding to provide flexible working and report on the retention rates of staff returning from maternity leave;
  • The Committee heard that the Welsh Government’s new Childcare Offer was unlikely to achieve its main aim of increasing maternal employment in the most effective way. It recommended the Government reconsider the target age group and the income threshold; and,
  • the Welsh Government improve advice services in Wales, and that information about rights and obligation at work should be provided to women at an early stage of pregnancy.

The report will now be considered by the Welsh Government.

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Business

Skates makes case for rail

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Rail investment inequitable: Ken Skates demands action

TRANSPORT S​ECRETARY Ken Skates has cited slow speeds, manual Victorian signalling and level crossings bringing traffic to a standstill up to 200 times a day in his call on the UK Government to make available an equitable level of funding for rail infrastructure enhancements in Wales.

In May, Ken Skates announced Cardiff University’s Professor Mark Barry would lead on the case for investment in rail infrastructure in Wales, against the backdrop of the UK Government’s £50bn investment in HS2.

The Transport Secretary summarised the case in the Senedd on Tuesday​ (Jul 17)​.

Ken Skates told Assembly Members: “The initial findings of this work are stark. Wales has not received an equitable share of UK rail investment over a sustained period, denying us the economic benefits enjoyed elsewhere in the UK.

“Network Rail’s Wales Route, which makes up 11% of the network, has received little more than 1% of total spend on enhancements in England and Wales.

“This has resulted in low lines speed on the South Wales Mainline, capacity and speed constraints along the North Wales Coast, infrequent commuter services for the Swansea Bay city region, and inadequate cross-border services in both North and South Wales.

“I continue to support HS2, but call once again on the UK Government to make the right choices to benefit north Wales, and exert pressure on them to mitigate against the probable impact of HS2 on the economy in South Wales.”

The work carried out by Professor Barry highlights the use of old, inefficient, and unreliable infrastructure constraining the number, speed, and quality of services.

“These constraints dampen demand, restrict economic growth, and increase costs to passengers and tax-payers.

“I will continue to set out a broader vision for a successful rail network. One that helps us meet our obligations to the environment, responsibilities for Well-being and Future Generations, delivers the goals of the Economic Action Plan, and meets the UK Government’s commitment to rebalance the economy.

“The work undertaken has identified direct transport user benefits of at least £2bn, generated by reducing journey times for rail passengers. Additional benefits also arise from reduced road congestion leading to environmental and safety improvements.”

James Price, Chief Executive, Transport for Wales said: “The success of the Wales and Borders rail service relies on efficient and reliable infrastructure with the ability to transport more people more efficiently. We look forward to working with the Welsh and UK governments to deliver improvements that meet the needs of passengers in Wales and across the border.”

Cardiff University Professor of Practice in Connectivity, Mark Barry said: “Wales’ railways are stuck in second gear. Long-term under-investment compared to the UK as a whole has left them unfit for purpose.

“It’s no great surprise fewer people in Wales choose to use the train than in the rest of the UK, leading to less efficient rail operations, higher subsidies per passenger and more road congestion. This is a brake on our economic growth, improvement of air quality and carbon reduction.”

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Kidwelly firm is Responsible Business Champion

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Award winner: John Burns with Llanelli MP Nia Griffith

BURNS P​ET NUTRITION has been nominated for responsible business award.

The Kidwelly-based natural pet food company Burns Pet Nutrition has been nominated for a National Responsible Business Champion award in Parliament.

John Burns, who owns Burns Pet Nutrition and the Parc y Bocs Farm Shop, attended the ceremony in Westminster last week with local MP Nia Griffith. Mr Burns was nominated for his community outreach work, paying all his staff the Living Wage and providing the only fully-accessible disabled toilet in the Llanelli area.

At the awards ceremony, Mr Burns was congratulated by Andrew Griffiths MP, the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility. He also spoke with Baroness Greengross, who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Corporate Responsibility Group (APCRG) that runs the award.

Nia Griffith MP said, “It was fantastic to welcome John Burns to Parliament last week, and to celebrate all the wonderful things he is doing for the local community in Kidwelly.

“Burns Pet Nutrition is a vibrant and innovative business that provides excellent local job opportunities and work experience placements for young people. It is a genuine Living Wage employer, and does a huge amount of work with local community groups… in particular providing transport for the senior citizen Kidwelly Luncheon Club.

“John’s farm shop at Parc y Bocs is also a huge asset to the community, and astonishingly the ONLY place in the Llanelli area with a fully accessible disabled toilet. This is a model for other businesses and also Carmarthenshire County Council, who need to step up and provide some of these facilities themselves.”

John Burns said “I was delighted to attend Parliament last week with Nia Griffith MP and have my company nominated for a National Responsible Business Champion Award.

“This means a lot to me, as I have always thought it vital that businesses have a connection with the communities they serve. That’s why we strive to provide good job opportunities for local people and pay our staff a proper Living Wage. We also try to help local community groups in any way we can, through our Burns in the Community programmes and donations to good causes.

“We are also very happy to be able to provide a fully-accessible Changing Places toilet at our farm shop. We know the difference this can make for disabled people and those who care for them, so it is important to us that we cater to the whole of the local community and everyone passing through.”

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