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Politics

A safe return for students

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THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has announced plans for the safe return of students to Welsh universities after the Christmas break.

Students will be invited to return to campus over a four week period, starting from 11 January, with a phased return to in-person teaching.

Universities will prioritise students who most need to return early, such as those studying in healthcare professions, those on placements or who need access to campus facilities.

The safe return of students will be supported through the continuation of the lateral-flow testing pilots, for asymptomatic students, which began at Welsh universities in late November.

Students will be asked to take a lateral-flow test when they return to their university accommodation, before being asked to avoid meeting socially for three days. Those students will then take a second test. Students not taking a test will be advised to lay low and not mix for 14 days.
The Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, said: “I know students will be eager to return to their university campus after the Christmas break, but will want to do that in a safe way.

“Students will also want to return to learning in person, where it’s safe to do so. We’re putting these measures in place to ensure confidence in a return to learning in-person and minimise the risk of large numbers of students needing to self-isolate during the term.

“A managed, phased return will help meet demand, so that all students can access two tests. This will help break chains of transmission, as anyone unknowingly infectious can self-isolate and reduce the risk of passing the virus to others.

“It’s important that, in addition to accessing the testing programmes in place at our universities, students continue to act responsibly to keep themselves, and others, safe.

Becky Ricketts, NUS Wales President, said: “Students now have the certainty they need to plan their return to campus in the New Year. The continued use of lateral-flow asymptomatic tests will help safeguard students and university staff, and give local communities confidence that the return of students will be managed safely.”

Politics

Complaints against Senedd members leap by 167%

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THE STANDARDS commissioner received 190 complaints against Senedd members in 2023/24 – an annual increase of more than 167% and 331% over two years.

Douglas Bain, who investigates complaints against misbehaving members, said the number of complaints received is the highest since 2020/21.

In his 2023/24 report, which was published this week, Mr Bain put the avalanche partly down to two unnamed Senedd members – who were subject to 58 complaints between them.

He added that one member of the public made a further 26 complaints.

“Nonetheless, it is clear that even without these individual contributions there was a very significant increase,” he warned.

“I do not believe that this increase in the number of complaints received indicates any reduction in the generally high standard of conduct of Members of the Senedd.”

Mr Bain, who was appointed in 2021 after a stint as acting commissioner, pointed out that the number of inadmissible complaints was the highest in the past four years at 84.

He wrote: “On one view, the increase in the number of complaints is to be welcomed as demonstrating a greater public interest in and closer scrutiny of the work and conduct of MSs. That public scrutiny plays an important part in our democratic process.”

Mr Bain received 53 complaints relating to conduct on social media, three on misuse of resources, 17 on the standard of services and 24 on the register of interests.

The commissioner also dealt with 29 complaints on ministerial conduct or behaviour in plenary with 64 complaints classified as “other”.

Mr Bain, who is based in Northern Ireland, said: “Comments made by Members on social media were … by far the most common subject for complaints.”

The commissioner said many were inadmissible but he urged Senedd members to take great care when posting, sharing or liking anything on social media.

He told the Senedd a high proportion of his time was taken up by a complaint against Rhys ab Owen and grievances surrounding the change to a 20mph default speed limit.

Mr ab Owen, who sits as an independent, was given a 42-day suspension in March for breaching the code of conduct by bringing the Senedd into disrepute.

The commissioner said he received a complaint that a “very drunk” Mr ab Owen twice called a woman a bitch after leaving the Wetherspoons in Cardiff Bay on June 30, 2021.

Mr Bain said the complainant said the former Plaid Cymru MS placed his hand on her thigh near her groin in the back of a taxi – an allegation Mr ab Owen denied.

He wrote that Mr ab Owen raised concerns about the fairness of the complaints process, claiming the investigation contravened his human rights.

Mr Bain said he received 30 complaints relating to the 20mph default speed limit, evenly split between people opposed to the new limit and those in favour.

The standards commissioner cleared Andrew RT Davies – leader of the Tory group in the Senedd – of breaching the code of conduct for describing 20mph as a “blanket” policy.

He was satisfied that the “blanket” description was “imprecise and inaccurate” but he concluded that that is not synonymous with being untruthful.

Calling for more powers, Mr Bain raised concern about the rules governing the standards commissioner which have not been updated in 15 years.

“During that period a number of deficiencies have been identified,” he wrote. “Amongst the most important of these is the absence of a provision empowering the commissioner to initiate an investigation without the need for a complaint.”

He warned this renders rules around lobbying the commissioner and making frivolous, vexatious or manifestly unfounded complaints of little value.

Mr Bain said: “Whilst I appreciate the pressures on Senedd time, I do not consider that reform of the measure should remain on the ‘back burner’.”

In the annual report, the total cost of the standard’s commissioner’s office was £133,992 in 2023/24 – a near-25% increase on 2021/22.

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Community

Petitions against Pembrokeshire day care centre closures to be discussed

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TWO PETITIONS calling on Pembrokeshire County Council to reverse its decision to close day care centres in Pembroke Dock, Crymych and Narberth are to be heard at County Hall later this week.

The two petitions, on the council’s own e-petitions webpage, drew nearly 3,400 signatures between them.

Earlier this year, senior councillors backed plans to close two of the county’s centres for older adults and those with learning disabilities, Portfield SAC, Haverfordwest, and Avenue SAC, Tenby; service users moving to other centres in the county.

The county council is currently changing care provision for older adults and those with learning disabilities, and fears have been raised recently that Pembroke Dock’s Anchorage day care centre is to close.

A series of engagement events have taken place at The Anchorage recently, outlining the reasons and the options in continued service.

One parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “One young woman who attends ran out of the first meeting sobbing when she was told it was going to close.

“Another, at the second meeting, tried to address the meeting, but was so choked up at the thought of not seeing her friends any more she could hardly speak.”

It now is feared Narberth’s Lee Davies Day Care Centre and Crymych’s Bro Preseli Day Centre could also close, with concerns it is due solely to budgetary reasons.

An e-petition on the council’s own website, by John Llewellyn of Living Memory Group, entitled against the closure of the Lee Davies and Bro Preseli day care centres.

The two petitions, which have now both closed, attracted 1,701 and 1,675 signatures respectively.

As they have both met the threshold for debate at council, they will both be heard at the July 18 meeting of full council.

Peter Welsh, in his petition for Pembroke Dock’s The Anchorage, says: “We call on Pembrokeshire County Council to reverse its decision to close the Anchorage Social Activity Centre based in Pembroke Dock as part of the council’s reduction in services being imposed following the recent budget approval.”

Mr Llewellyn’s petition for the Lee Davies and Bro Preseli day care centres reads: “We call on Pembrokeshire County Council to Review the closure of the Lee Davies Day Care Centre at Bloomfield’s and the Bro Preseli Day Centre at Crymych.

“Staff at both Day Care Centres were informed in Mid-March that both facilities would be closing due to PCC budget cuts. Both centres are an essential outlet for the well-being of the attendees and their families.”

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Politics

Council slammed for pension funds invested in companies connected with Israel

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A CALL is to be made for Pembrokeshire County Council to end its involvement in a pension fund that has invested millions with companies connected with Israel, which objectors say makes the authority “complicit in the genocide in Gaza”.

At the July 18 meeting of Pembrokeshire County Council, two related, submitted, questions will be asked by members of the public.

Both are asking for the council to divest its involvement in the local government pension scheme the Dyfed pension fund, which they say has more than £60m invested in companies connected with Israel.

In a question which includes a statement written by Palestine Solidarity Campaign with full details, Suzanne Radford-Smith will ask: “I am writing to draw attention to the fact that Dyfed pension fund has £64m invested in companies that are connected with Israel and to ask that Dyfed pension fund divests from these companies.

“Many of these companies are making arms and weapons being used by the Israeli army in the war on Palestine which makes them complicit in the genocide in Gaza.

“I believe this makes PCC also complicit in that genocide.

“Will Pembrokeshire County Council divest the pension fund from these companies?”

A similar question by Marjorie Hawkins will ask: “I receive a pension from Dyfed Pension Fund and have recently found out that Dyfed pension fund has £64m invested in companies that are connected with Israel.

“Many of these companies are making arms and weapons being used by the Israeli army in the war on Palestine which makes them complicit in the genocide in Gaza.

“I am very dismayed to find out this information and feel that this makes PCC (as one of the county councils in Dyfed Pension Fund) also complicit in that genocide.

“I spent over 10 years working as a social worker in Pembrokeshire. 10 years before this I was a social worker in Swansea and also worked for the NHS previously. I chose to work in jobs that were not involved in making profits or exploiting other people. I am very upset and outraged to find that the pension I receive is complicit in a genocide that is ongoing and we witness daily.

“Will Pembrokeshire County Council divest the pension fund from such companies that are complicit in this genocide?”

Both questions, and their call, will be heard at the full meeting of Pembrokeshire County council today (July 18).

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