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Draft Welsh Budget probed



Finance Chair Simon Thomas: Committees hold WG to account

COMMITTEES of the National Assembly for Wales have reported on the Welsh Government’s draft budget 2018-19. The Finance Committee has published its findings, alongside reports from six other Assembly Committees.

Concerns have been raised about the progress of transformation of NHS Services by two Assembly Committees.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee noted that significant change is needed to transform NHS services and improve outcomes, but it is not clear that the Welsh Government budget is targeted to achieve this. The Committee also highlighted that extra funding is sustaining the current position rather than driving improvements, whilst the Finance Committee agreed there is limited evidence of improvement in financial planning in local health boards.

The Health Committee warned that escalating social care costs coupled with rising demand require urgent attention and a whole-system approach to health and social care. The Finance Committee also recognised that an increase in funding for the Health Service results in a cut in other areas, most notably local government, bodies often responsible for the majority of social care provision.

The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee recommend that the Welsh Government explains how outcomes will be monitored to ensure that the removal of ring-fenced budgets does not lead to vulnerable people falling between gaps in services.

The Finance Committee identified:

  • That despite a recommendation from last year’s budget scrutiny, there has been only limited progress in linking the budget to the goals and ways of working laid out in the Well-being of Future Generations Act
  • Future draft budgets should also demonstrate how the Government’s allocation of funds will meet the priorities outlined in its Programme for Government and national strategy, Prosperity for All

The Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee also raised concerns about the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, warning that the Welsh Government is yet to demonstrate the transformative change promised in the legislation and expressing disappointment at the lack of progress in embedding it in policy. The Committee also warned about the impact of funding reductions on Natural Resources Wales, including a £10m reduction in staff costs.

Concerns have been raised by the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee in their report that the £1b dispute with the UK Government over the rail franchise remains unresolved in this budget. The Committee noted that this money could be used to make a real difference to services that could be provided to rail passengers in Wales.

The Children, Young People and Education Committee has concerns about a lack of transparency in relation to the funding available for schools in Wales, particularly the confusion surrounding the amount of additional funding being provided compared to last year. The Committee calls on the Welsh Government to work closely with local government to ensure that protection for school budgets translates from budget calculations to the chalkface.

The Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee raised concerns that scale of the resources needed to deliver the Cymraeg 2050 strategy, which aims for a million Welsh speakers by 2050, has yet to be fully considered. The Committee would like to see greater clarity over the resources that will be needed over the medium and longer term.

Simon Thomas AM, Chair of the Finance Committee, said: “Scrutinising this budget has been a change for all the Committees in the Assembly – the Finance Committee has developed its role into holding the Government to account on its high level and strategic priorities, whilst examining the Government’s intentions with regards to raising revenue and borrowing.

“However, it is good to see that some of the issues coming from the policy committees are resonating with our findings; concerns have been raised around the continued prioritisation of health, often at the expense of local government.

“Additionally, we are still struggling to see the impact of the Future Generations Act, which was raised by the Members of Finance Committee and the Environment Committee.”


Committee to examine post-Brexit funding



Wales can't sit and wait: Simon Thomas AM launches inquiry

A NEW inquiry will examine how funding which currently flows to Wales through the EU will be replaced or reshaped after the UK leaves the EU.

The National Assembly’s Finance Committee intends to look at what preparations the Welsh Government is making for different scenarios and which funding models could deliver the best possible benefits for Wales.

Currently more than £2 billion is allocated to Wales through EU Structural funding between 2014 and 2020. The money is targeted at:

  • Research and Innovation (funding of £239 million for West Wales and the Valleys and £71 million for East Wales);
  • SME Competitiveness (funding of £166 million for West Wales and the Valleys and £32 million for East Wales);
  • Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (funding of £137 million for West Wales and the Valleys and £18 million for East Wales); and
  • Connectivity and Urban Development (funding of £401 million for West Wales and the Valleys and £38 million for East Wales)

Further funding comes from the Common Agricultural Policy, the Rural Development Programme, the Ireland-Wales European Territorial Co-Operation Programme, the European Maritime Fisheries Fund, and Horizon 2020.

In total Wales receives more than double the amount of money per person than any other region of the UK: “Wales is a net beneficiary of European funding, but when the UK leaves the EU in 2019 all that will come to an end,” said Simon Thomas AM, Chair of the Finance Committee.

“We accept that Brexit negotiations are ongoing but Wales can’t just sit and wait to find out what happens. People and businesses need to know what will or could replace the funding we currently benefit from.

“We will be asking the Welsh Government what plans they have in place, how much is it going to take and are there alternatives which would suit Wales better in the long term.”

The terms of reference for the inquiry are:

  • To assess the financial planning for replacing EU funding streams in Wales, and what is being done to prepare for different potential scenarios around levels of funding and administrative responsibility; and,
  • To explore what approaches to administering replacements for current EU funding streams might deliver best for Wales, and to what extent these might replicate or differ from current arrangements.

A public consultation will be open until ​May 118. Anyone wishing to contribute should visit the Finance Committee’s webpages for more information.

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Fear and loathing in Cardiff Bay



Ty Hywel: Briefing and leaking allegations continue

THE MURKY world of Welsh Government communications has come under increasing scrutiny since the refusal to publish a report into the way in which former Communities Secretary Carl Sargeant’s sacking was leaked to at least one journalist, to at least one Labour MP, and to Lee Waters the AM for Llanelli.

The terms for a Welsh Government inquiry into the leak were set by the First Minister himself and some increasingly shifty-appearing equivocations by Carwyn Jones have only served to provoke further questions from a Conservative group in the Assembly which plainly senses that the First Minister’s unwillingness to give a direct and straight answer to some direct and straight questions is doing him political damage.

With Jack Sargeant lately taking up his father’s Assembly seat and saying that he would continue to fight to get to the truth about the circumstances leading to his father’s death, it is unlikely that Mr Jones is going to be able to get away from further scrutiny.

A statement by the First Minister that ‘no unauthorised leaks’ took place regarding Carl Sargeant’s dismissal from the Government left the prospect hanging that an ‘authorised leak’ took place.

A subsequent claim by the First Minister than no leak took place was effectively exposed as factually questionable (at the very least), when Llanelli AM Lee Waters revealed that he had received a text before Carl Sargeant’s sacking which told him the late Alyn and Deeside AM would be dismissed.

The First Minister has rejected the opportunity to confirm that he did not authorise any briefing or sharing of information before his cabinet reshuffle in November.

The actions of the Welsh Government’s so-called ‘Special Advisors’ – SpAds – political operatives paid for by public money have been called into question.

Former Cabinet minister Leighton Andrews, who has been described to The Herald as very likely to have kept meticulous records, alleges that a culture of bullying and back-biting briefing surrounded the First Minister’s office. One SpAd – Huw Price – made the news last week when it emerged that he had engaged in repeated party political activity and political briefing using a Welsh Government email address and Welsh Government IT facilities. A Welsh Conservative press release redacted the name of the journalist who received Mr Price’s enthusiastic briefings and party political spin. The Welsh Government was not so careful and exposed the name of a senior Western Mail reporter as receiving briefings from ‘a government spokesman/Labour Party source’.

The Welsh Government is to introduce new email guidelines following the exposé by the Welsh Conservatives over the First Minister’s use of a personal email address whilst handling government business.

In a letter to Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies, Carwyn Jones also confirmed ‘that the majority of Cabinet Secretaries do not use personal e-mail addresses’ with only two members of the cabinet doing so on a ‘few occasions’.

Following pressure from the Welsh Conservatives, the First Minister has asked the Head of Cabinet Division to provide clear guidelines for the Cabinet and Ministers on email communications – and according to Carwyn Jones this will be done as soon as possible.

To date, the First Minister has refused to publish the government emails from his personal account, and the Welsh Conservative leader has again called for the full catalogue of correspondence to be made available. A written question and freedom of information request has also been submitted asking for the information.

Commenting, Andrew RT, said: “The First Minister has been caught out and the fact he admits the use of personal email addresses is not standard practice for his colleagues shows that in the Welsh Government there is one rule for him, and one rule for others.

“Given the inquiries that have finished and are ongoing, we again reiterate our call to Carwyn Jones to make available and publish all government correspondence sent and received on his personal email account.”

In addition, an answer to a further written question from the Conservative Party has suggested that Carwyn Jones is also using a Welsh Government mobile phone to transact personal and party business.

Written questions from Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies asked Mr Jones whether he had ever used a government-issued phone to communicate about Labour Party matters with Ministers, special advisers or Labour Party officials; and whether he had ever conducted government business from a personal phone.
Mr Jones’ response was: “I do not possess a personal mobile phone.”
The Welsh Government’s Ministerial Code states that Ministers must not use the Welsh Government’s resources for party-political purposes.
Mr Jones has claimed to the Assembly that his apparent inability to formulate straight answers is a result of his legal training and ‘lawyerly way’. Quite how that explains his current inability to answer questions without adding to an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion is unclear.

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UK Government’s ‘considerable offer’ not enough



Breaking up's so hard to do: A UK single market on Westminster's terms

IN A speech delivered at Airbus’ Broughton HQ, Theresa May’s effective deputy, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, has attempted to allay fears of a Westminster power grab of devolved powers following the UK’s departure from the EU.

Mr Lidington, claimed the UK Government had made a ‘considerable offer’ to the devolved administrations with a commitment that the ‘vast majority’ of powers returning from Brussels will start off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast rather than Whitehall.

Mr Lidington, said his plans marked “a very big change to the EU Withdrawal Bill that is before Parliament and a significant step forward in these negotiations.”

He continued: “If accepted, this offer puts beyond doubt our commitment to a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union, in a way that doesn’t just respect the devolution settlements, but strengthens and enhances them.”

Mr Lidington warned that a “divided country at home” would be “weaker, less secure and less prosperous overseas​.”​

The problem with Mr Lidington’s words is that ‘the vast majority’ is not all powers currently vested in the UKs’ devolved administrations within the EU. Moreover, the clear message that the Westminster government wanted to maintain the unity of an internal market within the UK suggests that powers will have to be taken from the devolved governments and retained permanently by the UK parliament in order to make that arrangement work. However, the UK government’s stance on agriculture, a key issue for the Welsh Government, has been extensively trailed by Michael Gove and Defra ministers for months and cannot have taken it by surprise.

Mike Russell, the Scottish Brexit minister, said: “However they try to dress this up, the UK government is using Brexit to try to take control of devolved powers without the agreement of the Scottish parliament. It is totally unacceptable for the Tories to unilaterally rewrite the devolution settlement.”

First Minister, Carwyn Jones, said: “As currently drafted, the Bill allows the UK government to take control of devolved policy areas, such as farming and fishing, once the UK has left the EU. This is an unacceptable attack on devolution in both Wales and Scotland.

“We now need further progress that goes beyond warm words and I hope the ‘very big changes’ promised in the speech equate to sensible amendments to the bill which respect devolution. We will continue to work with the UK and Scottish governments to that end.”

Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds commented: “Common frameworks in certain areas will certainly be important after Brexit and we would never want to put the UK’s common market at risk. However, it must be up to devolved Governments to decide if they want to enter common frameworks in devolved areas and to negotiate suitable frameworks. The UK Government cannot and must not impose frameworks on devolved Governments.

“Brexit will have huge implications for sectors such as agriculture. Brexit will cut our farmers off from their key markets and dismantle the financial support they rely on. Decisions on these vital areas must be made in Wales and address the unique needs of Welsh farmers.”

The Welsh Conservative spokesman on Europe, Mark Isherwood AM, said: “Welsh Conservatives have been steadfast in our belief that the devolution settlement must be respected with the necessary changes made to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

“As we’ve stated from the outset, we would also expect that leaving the European Union would not undermine the devolved settlement and would result in more powers making their way to the Welsh Assembly.

“It is vital that we now protect the UK’s single market and that’s why it is imperative the Welsh Government engages positively with the UK Government in this process to ensure the frameworks relating to devolved matters are agreed by all parties.”

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