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Politics

Impact of Brexit on Wales discussed

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Progress being made: Carwyn Jones

PARLIAMENTARY questions last Thursday (Oct 26) were not easy for Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis.

Nailed to the spot about pronouncements he had made to a committee of MPs the previous day which had rapidly been contradicted by the Prime Minister, he managed to combine apparent certainty that there was no tension between his position and government policy (whatever that turns out to be) with an unwillingness to acknowledge that anyone could conceivably be concerned about Parliamentary sovereignty being bypassed by the refusal to give it a vote on Brexit’s terms.

For those who backed Brexit on the principle that parliamentary sovereignty and the ability of the House of Commons to make and scrutinise legislation was of paramount importance, it was uncomfortable listening.

Bluster and bloody-mindedness, it is rapidly turning out, are no substitute for the ability to master a brief, understand it, express it, and stick to it.

In fact, the position was rendered even worse by statements made by the Ministers of State in Mr Davis’ own department the previous day that they had not even bothered to read, let alone understand, briefing papers prepared for them by their own civil servants on the potential impact of leaving the EU. You might suppose that ignorance is bliss and, if it is, the Minister wished to share its blessings widely by refusing others the opportunity to examine that of which they remain willfully – and, no doubt ecstatically, ignorant.

After being offered sympathy by Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Sir Kier Starmer for the difficulties in which he found himself, Mr Davis was successively hit by a series of exasperated questions – some from his own colleagues – to which he offered increasingly snappy and impatient answers.

Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards, who has the misfortune of seeming to be more familiar with Mr Davis’ brief than Mr Davis does himself and doomed to try to educate pork as a result, attempted to get a straight answer on whether or not the UK Government would seek endorsements for the Brexit deal – if any – from devolved administrations.

Jonathan Edwards reminded MPs that national and regional Parliaments within EU member states will all be consulted on the final withdrawal deal and that six months have been allocated for that process.

Mr Edwards asked Brexit Secretary David Davis that ‘in order to ensure that the future relationship works for every part of the British state’ did he agree that ‘the formal endorsement of the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly should be sought before any final deal is reached—or is it going to be a case of “Westminster knows best”?’

In response, Mr Davis again failed to guarantee Wales a voice in the deal, stating ‘this is a treaty for the United Kingdom’.

Bearing in mind the continued absence of any commitment to discuss with ministers within the devolved administration on any substantive points, it seems that the UK Government is increasingly determined to go its own way and drag the other nations of the UK along behind it.

Speaking after Mr Davis’ shambolic and ill-tempered performance, Jonathan Edwards said: “As I and my Plaid Cymru colleagues have said before: the British Government is using the Brexit process as a means of re-centralising power in Westminster, rolling back the progress we have made towards self-government in order to reinstate Westminster-rule.

“In his answer to me this week the Brexit Secretary once again fails to guarantee our democratically elected representatives in the Welsh Parliament a formal role in influencing the deal with the European Union. This is particularly concerning when we consider the profound economic differences between Wales and England.

“The position of the British Government is even more insulting when we consider that devolved governments within the other EU member states will have an opportunity to influence and effectively veto the deal. The British government needs to say why it refuses to afford the same right to the devolved governments here.”

However, on Monday (Oct 30) the UK Government made an effort to – at least partly – assuage those concerns.

First Minister Carwyn Jones met with Theresa May in Downing Street in an attempt to at least break down the conflict between the Senedd and Westminster on how a way forward might be found in relation to what Mr Jones had previously described as ‘a constitutional crisis’.

Speaking to BBC Wales after the meeting, Mr Jones said: “Progress is now being made in making sure there is agreement as to the way forward, not imposition. But that progress needs to continue. We’re not in a position yet to support the bill.

“The bill needs to change so the warm words that we hear are reflected on the face of the bill, and that means making sure that powers meant to come to Wales do come to Wales.”

Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns said: “I’m optimistic that the Welsh government will be able to respond to the new powers that they’ll get, but also that we’ll have a common framework around the UK that will work for business and for stakeholders and for investors.”

A No 10 spokesperson said Mrs May and Mr Jones ‘spoke about constructive dialogue at the recent Joint Ministerial Committee and the progress made on working together to establish principles on common frameworks’.

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Politics

Manifesto Destiny #2: The Conservatives

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THE WELSH Conservatives have delayed their Manifesto’s launch for May 6’s elections to the Welsh Parliament.

After the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, the Conservatives delayed their Manifesto’s launch for a week.

The UK Government announced eight days of national mourning leading up to and including the day of Prince Philip’s funeral on Saturday, April 17.

The Manifesto will launch on Wednesday, April 21, in North Wales. In this area, the Conservatives hope to make significant gains at Labour’s expense.

Although political campaigning continued between Tuesday, April 13 and Friday, April 16, the Conservatives’ decision gives the Party the best chance to trail its Manifesto in the period after Saturday the 17th.

It will also give Labour and Plaid Cymru less time to take pot-shots at it before polling day.

WHAT’S IN IT SO FAR?

Before the announcement of the Manifesto’s delay, the Conservatives gave a good idea of some of the policies it is likely to contain.

An underlying thread of the Manifesto, and the Conservative campaign, will be the length of time Labour has been in power in Wales. Either on its own, in combination with others, or propped up by rag-tag and bobtail, Labour has held power in Cardiff Bay for twenty-two years.

Both the Conservatives and Plaid have homed in on Labour’s ever-presence in government. To date, both principal opposition parties suggest Labour is tired and warming over old pledges without any sense of direction.

On policy, the Conservatives’ most significant risk is allowing Labour and Plaid to box them in on the charge of ‘for Wales, see England’. Labour needs to tread carefully on that point. One of the criticisms both Plaid and the Conservatives have made is that the Party has cut and pasted Westminster legislation into its own proposals for the much-talked-about and constantly delayed Agriculture Bill. Agriculture is an area of policy on which both Plaid and the Conservatives call for bespoke Welsh legislation.

On Tuesday (April 13), the Conservatives placed even more clear blue water between their proposals for Wales and those pursued by the Westminster government.

A PLAN FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

The Conservatives’ plan for Wales’ young people includes a promise to deliver 150,000 apprenticeships by 2026 and scrapping the Welsh Baccalaureate. Those are long-term ambitions flagged previously; however, the Conservative proposals contain radical changes to higher education and access to training, education and employment.

Those changes include:

  • Helping young people access education, training and employment with free bus travel and discounted rail travel for 16-24-year-olds
  • Refunding tuition fees for those who choose to work for at least five years as doctors or nurses in the Welsh NHS, or as teachers in Welsh Schools after their studies; and
  • Cutting tuition fees in half for Welsh students studying STEM and modern foreign language subjects at Welsh universities in recognition of their value to the Welsh economy

Looking at the lessons learned throughout the pandemic, the Conservatives also plan to ensure all of Wales’ schools, colleges and universities have mental health services for learners to access.

OLDER PEOPLE

At the other end of the age spectrum, Welsh Conservatives will introduce an Older People’s Bill in the next Senedd. That proposal includes a legal requirement for public sector bodies to consult with older people when making decisions that affect their lives.

The Party’s pledges of support for older people in Wales include:

  • Maintaining free prescriptions.
  • Keeping Free bus travel.
  • Promote Free entry to CADW sites for the over 75s.
  • Pilot free rail travel for over 75s.
  • Run annual national awareness campaigns against elder abuse, age discrimination and scams and swindles; and
  • Ensuring older people can access Welsh Government-funded work programmes.

THE WELSH NHS

On the Welsh NHS, the Conservatives announced plans to put into law fundamental guarantees through an NHS Covenant.  

The Covenant would ensure that Welsh NHS staff and volunteers are treated with fairness and respect by future Welsh Governments.

The Conservatives say the NHS Covenant would provide guaranteed support in several ways, including:

  • Increased investment in the NHS, with at least an extra 2% uplift in the NHS budget each year
  • Staff receive the pay as recommended by the independent NHS Pay Review Body
  • Guaranteeing the NHS remains in public hands and is free at the point of use
  • Improved staff well-being with more flexible working hours, increased holiday, greater access to childcare and mental health provision
  • Stamping out abuse of NHS staff

The NHS Covenant Bill would also put an NHS Reservists programme in place to enable public and former healthcare professionals to volunteer at their local NHS team during periods of high demand.

The NHS Reservists would operate on a part-time basis and create a structured environment for people to give back to the NHS, enabling the NHS to call up reservist skills when needed, including non-clinical roles such as drivers, electricians and people to be there to ensure no-one faces the end of their life alone.

COUNCIL TAX

The Conservatives – like Plaid Cymru – have promised to freeze Council Tax for the first two years of the next Senedd term. However, and like Plaid Cymru, the promise of tying Council funding to the headline rate of inflation ignores the fact that costs to Council increase at a compounding rate far beyond the Consumer Price Index.

Freezing Council Tax – unless the whole shortfall is made up by the Welsh Government (unlikely given the NHS spending pledge) – will mean cuts in Council services and a reduction in local authorities’ ability to bankroll the Conservatives’ other pledges.

THE CLEAREST OF BLUE WATER

The one element of any Conservative Manifesto upon which the clearest blue water will be evident relates to the Senedd, its powers, its make-up, and the question of further or total Welsh autonomy. In a speech delivered on April 7, the Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies could not have been clearer. He pledged, ‘no more powers, no more politicians, no more taxes, no more constitutional chaos’.

He continued: ‘Independence would put our recovery after coronavirus at risk.

‘A strong economic recovery is dependent on being part of one strong United Kingdom.

‘And home rule is just another excuse to mask Labour’s failings.

‘A referendum would plunge Wales into chaos at a time when we need to focus on recovery.

‘We already have the tools to change course and build a better Wales.

‘After the devastation of covid to our economy and people’s livelihoods we can’t afford to focus on the constitution’.

That’s not only turning his Party’s back on any change to the current constitutional arrangements; it hits at Labour’s windy wish to renegotiate Wales’ status within the UK and a rejection of a critical element of Plaid’s appeal to voters. As a proposition, it’s carefully calibrated to suggest that Cardiff Bay’s parties’ priorities don’t match voters’ needs. It’s an either/or line: concentrate on rebooting the Welsh economy or focus on Wales’ and the UK’s constitutional settlement.

The water couldn’t be clearer or bluer. The open question is how many voters are prepared to take the plunge and whether Labour – on the hottest political issue in Wales – will end up stranded on a shrinking and increasingly untenable middle ground between Plaid and the Conservatives.

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Politics

Dowson dissents on new CEO

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A PEMBROKESHIRE county councillor has come forward to oppose the appointment of the authority’s new Chief Executive despite not voting against it when an Extraordinary Meeting of the Council considered.

Controversial Pembroke Dock Central county councillor Paul Dowson issued a press release in which he said that the new CEO had ‘no track record’ in the role.
Last Wednesday (March 31) Pembrokeshire County Council overwhelmingly voted in favour of Major-General Will Bramble’s appointment.

Councillors voted 48 votes for with two abstentions and one against.

Milford Central councillor Stephen Joseph’s was the sole vote against the appointment.

Cllr Joseph is a noted booster of former CEO Ian Westley, whose departure with a £95,000 pay-off caused controversy.

An Audit Wales investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr Westley’s pay-off is due to report within a few weeks.

Major-General Bramble is currently the Senior British Officer in Italy and Deputy Commander of the NATO Corps in Italy.

His track record was not enough to impress Cllr Dowson, however.

Cllr Dowson said:  “He has no experience in a local authority having spent his career entirely in the military.

“I felt that the massive responsibility that comes with this role and the salary level requires more than just one candidate at final stages.

“Cllrs Josh Beynon and Di Clements both stated, ‘give him a chance”.

“I’m afraid at this level you don’t give someone a chance,especially one with no track record in the job.

“He was a very good candidate but I’m not prepared to make a decision on an option already chosen by the senior staff committee and presented to the full council for approval.

“The candidate was strong but the post should have been readvertised and he should have been put forward for the final round when others were competing for the job too.”

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Politics

Manifesto Destiny

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BY the time you read this article, each of the main parties contesting the Welsh Parliamentary election will have published their manifestos.

Virtually nobody will read them.

Instead, the public will be drip-fed press releases by the respective parties. Then the parties will take it in turns to take pot-shots at each other’s proposals.

That predictable back-and-forth means voters will hardly be one jot wiser when they cast their ballots than they were before the manifestos’ publication.

As Labour has been in power in Wales for twenty-two years, there is only its track record to assess.

Predictably, and as with every government anywhere, Labour’s record on actual delivery is mixed.

In the last few months of the last Welsh Parliamentary session, Labour appeared to realise pointing to banning two circuses from Wales was not much of a legislative record. 

In response, it took to promising to deliver in the future what it promised in the past.

Labour’s totemic Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is a monumental piece of legislation. It cuts across government policy, but it’s become more of a Christmas tree the Welsh Government has placed ill-matched baubles on since its inception.

The Act’s aims are praiseworthy. Its execution – in practice – is a shambolic mess of box-ticking compliance and aspirational thought in place of solid leadership and rigorous decision-making.

Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner (no, nor me) recently outlined the problems following the Act’s aims. 
Sophie Howe said: “Welsh Government must stop introducing new policy, legislation, guidance and reviews that overlook the Act and create new layers of complexity and governance.”

Sophie Howe continued: “There is a lack of clarity over how they interact with each other and a tendency to bypass existing boards that have already been set up.

“For example, to deliver on a wellbeing objective to ‘give every child the best start in life’ a public body would need alignment between Public Services Boards (PSBs), Regional Partnership Boards, Area Planning Boards, Community Safety Partnerships, Regional Skills Partnerships and City/Regional Growth deals.

“The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill potentially adds to an already complex and crowded partnership environment by creating statutory regional Corporate Joint Committees and proposes they will also be subject to the wellbeing duties of the Act.”

It all sounds a bit like having a working group of a sub-committee to advise a committee to inform a management team to consider the conclusions before setting up a working group to report to another committee where a decision might be taken or sent back to another sub-committee to view.

What it is not is democratic decision-making intended to address problems swiftly or with any sense of urgency.

The Act means well, but its aims are lost in a morass of bureaucracy.

The first policy priorities for any incoming Welsh Government must be to stabilise the economy and health service before moving on to longer-term objectives. 

Its first administrative priorities must be to unpick bureaucracy-for-the-sake-of-it. Decision-making must be streamlined, so manifesto commitments materialise as policies to be voted on during a Senedd term and not as White Papers produced at its end.

The last Labour Government had lamentable form for doing that. 

Promises made in 2016 emerged only as White Papers for consultation just before the end of the Senedd term.

In the ten years since the Welsh Government gained the power to pass Acts of the Assembly as primary legislation, it passed 49 Acts. Its most significant pieces of legislation were passed between 2013 and 2015.

Even accepting the pandemic’s disruption to everyday politics, the legislative return from the last five years of government is sparse.

After 2016, Welsh Government ministers frequently popped up to trumpet one initiative or another. It is no wonder that the Welsh Cabinet apparently consists of the First Minister and a dozen or so deputy Ministers for Announcements.

That is not to doubt the previous Welsh Government’s commitment to put flesh on the bones of their predecessors’ legislation and set about making it work. 

Lee Waters, for example, has tirelessly worked on the Active Travel Act. But the Act was passed in 2013, three years before he joined the Welsh Parliament and almost six years before he became a Minister in the Labour Government.

Only now are ‘active travel zones’, which encourage commuters to ditch their cars, coming into play across Wales.

You can tell.

There are consultations taking place about them. Eight years after the primary legislation passed.

As for Labour’s last manifesto:

  • It didn’t deliver the M4 relief road it promised.
  • It barely scratched the surface of resolving Wales’ long-term transport infrastructure problems.
  • It didn’t reach its own child poverty targets.
  • It hasn’t improved health service.
  • It failed to introduce either an Agriculture Bill or Clean Air Act.

The education system’s results are improving. The Minister in charge was a Liberal Democrat.

You can’t say that’s all down to a failure of political willpower. It’s an oversupply of hot air: over-promising and underdelivering. For the first three years of the last Senedd term, the Welsh Government spent time firefighting problems hanging over from the previous Welsh Government. Itself.

Less talking about doing and more doing would be a fresh start – indeed, a novel approach – for the next Welsh Government.

It’s a chance for the Senedd to dispel the notion it’s just a talking shop for politicians’ pet peeves and crack on with delivering for Wales.

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