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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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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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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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Businesses’ Brexit fears dismissed

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Airbus: Warned of risk of capital flight

THE RECENT conduct of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has led to fears that the future of the UK’s business relationships with Europe are of secondary interest to senior government ministers.

A strongly-worded statement from the CBI, warning policy makers to ‘focus on business priorities and put evidence above political ideology’ was greeted with Mr Johnson remarking ‘f**k business’.

Those remarks were preceded by the Foreign Secretary being recorded saying that the border with Ireland was a minor issue of little consequence in the context of Brexit.

The CBI subsequently suggested that it will ensure negotiators on both sides ‘are well equipped with the unequivocal economic facts’.

Whether the facts fit the Foreign Secretary’s preconceptions of what Brexit might mean for the UK’s businesses is open to question.

AIRBUS RAISES STAKES

A similar gap between reality and ideology was exposed by the warning from Airbus that – in order to continue to comply with the European regulatory framework – it might have to move its base of operations from Broughton in Clwyd, where it supports 6,500 directly employed jobs and businesses and the economy over a much wider area.

In the absence of a Brexit agreement, UK aerospace companies will not be covered by existing approvals. More than 10,000 original aircraft parts originate in the UK, the manufacture of which is covered by tight regulations requiring certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency. Should a single parts supplier not be certified, its parts cannot be installed and aircraft will not be delivered.

If a supply chain agreement is not reached with the EU, the consequences for the aviation industry selling into the EU trading bloc will be a disaster for the UK.

BUSINESSES TOLD TO BUTT OUT

However, the unwelcome intervention of facts in the Brexit narrative roused Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to tell the BBC’s Andrew Marr that talking about job losses risked undermining the government in its negotiations with the EU.

“It was completely inappropriate for businesses to be making these kinds of threats, for one simple reason. We are in a critical moment in the Brexit discussions. We need to get behind Theresa May to deliver the best possible Brexit, a clean Brexit.”

Mr Hunt’s comments were supported by leading Brexit enthusiast Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, who also suggested that businesses warning the government based on their own detailed knowledge of the regulatory regimes under which they work were somehow placing the UK Government’s negotiating position – which is as yet both unknown and possibly undetermined – at risk.

The key economic issue for businesses is ensuring the sort of continuity in trading arrangements which secures jobs and encourages investment. Large businesses need a significant amount of time to make decisions on the allocation of resources, particularly in the face of unpredictable trade policy by twitter approach of the US Government. Short of certainty, and faced with a capricious transatlantic trading partner which scraps trade agreements and treaties at short or no notice, businesses are understandably twitchy about their inability to plan and the absence of meaningful interaction with them by the UK Government’s crack Brexit team.

In a carefully-phrased statement to MPs, Business Secretary Greg Clark told MPs: “Any company and any industry that supports the livelihoods of so many working people in this country is entitled to be listened to with respect.

“The government has been clear that we are determined to secure a deal with the EU that meets the needs of our aerospace firms and the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on them.”

IRISH TRADE KEY FOR WEST WALES

Meanwhile, businesses have struck back at the apparent indifference of the UK Government’s key Brexit ministers to the interests of businesses which stand to be affected directly should the UK reach no regulatory deal – or a poor regulatory deal – with the EU.

Business groups the CBI, Chambers of Commerce, Federation of Small Business, the Employers’ Federation, and the Institute of Directors are placing pressure on the government to reach agreement on trade, customs, and immigration.

Pembrokeshire’s MPs, Simon Hart in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and Stephen Crabb in Preseli Pembrokeshire, are in an intriguing position over the issue of Irish trade.

With major ferry ports in Pembroke Dock and Fishguard, both Conservatives have a dog in the race to ensure that trade with the Republic of Ireland is at least maintained at current levels.

100,000 lorries were carried to Ireland via ports in Pembrokeshire in 2015. Any disruption of that trade, by the introduction of customs and immigration checks for example, would significantly reduce the attractiveness of west Wales’ ports to businesses trading with Ireland. That is not, however, a one way street. The Irish Government is also keen to maintain access to the UK as an access point to mainland Europe.

While the ports are not in themselves major employers, the ‘ripple effect’ of any loss or reduction in through traffic and any subsequent job losses could be significant. And concerns have been magnified by Stena’s decision to scrap a significant investment plan in Fishguard.

When we asked to respond to the Foreign Secretary’s views on the Irish Border issue and the importance of trade with Ireland to Pembrokeshire, Simon Hart said: “I have spoken (very informally) to [Boris Johnson] to make that point, which he says he recognises. The border issue might be minor in the overall context of Brexit but it is nonetheless very important.”

Stephen Crabb told us: “I have said right from the start that the issues over trade between the UK and Ireland, including the question of the Northern Ireland border, are some of the most complex and important of the Brexit negotiations.

“For us in Pembrokeshire it is important because of our trade links with Rosslare and I have raised this matter with Ministers in Ireland, the Cabinet in Westminster. The commitment that the Prime Minister has given that there will be no additional trade barriers for East-West trade between the UK and Ireland is crucial and reflects the points that I and others have been putting to her.”

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