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Politics

Trust between AMs and Board plummets

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Smirking: Vaughan Gething (front) as Adam Price protests at cheap shot

LOCAL AMs have expressed strong reservations about the confidentiality and security of their communications with Hywel Dda UHB.

Their concerns have been sparked after bitter recriminations following First Minister’s Questions on Tuesday, January 30 (see our News section), when information regarding communications between the Board and Adam Price AM were used by First Minister Carwyn Jones in a clumsy attempt to smear the Carmarthen East and Dinefwr representative. That information had been provided to the First Minister by the Health Board.

The Herald understands that following communications between the Board and Mr Price’s office on Tuesday afternoon, the Health Board’s Chief Executive, Steve Moore, met with Mr Price at the Senedd building in Cardiff where an explanation was sought for the disclosure of communications information to the Welsh Government.

At that meeting, Mr Moore was confronted with evidence of communications between the AMs office and the Board in which meetings had been requested.

That information either was not provided to the Welsh Government or the First Minister has been caught out playing fast and loose with the truth.

A spokesperson for Shadow Health Secretary Angela Burns told The Herald: ​”​In light of the concerns raised in Tuesday’s First Minister’s Questions Angela has written formally to both the Health Board and the Welsh Government seeking assurances over the use of her communications.

​”​She is very conscious of the confidentiality of patient data and considers there to be a principle at stake in this matter​.”​

Meanwhile, Simon Thomas AM expressed his concerns in questions to the Leader of the Assembly, Julie James AM on Tuesday.

Amid barracking from Labour AMs, who regard the use of information held on others by public bodies with an equanimity they do share when it comes to their own communications, Mr Thomas said that he had serious concerns on joining a proposed cross party group to discuss a transformation agenda with the Health Board: “I have serious concerns now to join any such group, knowing that what I say, and what I e-mail them, will be revealed to the First Minister, and will then be used as political attacks on me in this Chamber.”

The Plaid AM, continued: “Is there a protocol regarding the way health boards deal with Assembly Members looking at serious reconfigurations of hospital services in their area? If such a protocol does not exist, will the Minister—the Cabinet Secretary concerned—ensure that such a protocol is in place, because, without such a protocol in place, I do not feel I can engage with Hywel Dda?”

Mr Thomas’s disquiet echoed that of Elin Jones, the Assembly Presiding Officer and Ceredigion AM, who commented from the chair earlier in the day that she would not want information of communications between the Health Board disclosed or used in such a way.

As it stands, Adam Price and his Westminster colleague Jonathan Edwards are in talks with lawyers regarding the Health Board’s conduct.

Legal advice sought by the Plaid Cymru AM notes that the health board is may have breached Mr Price’s data protection rights, and those of his parliamentary colleague, Jonathan Edwards MP.

Speaking after the exchange, Adam Price AM said: “The First Minister’s actions during today’s questions session bring his office and his Government into disrepute. His comments in the Chamber today are factually incorrect, and the First Minister has therefore misled the Assembly.

“It wasn’t that long ago a Welsh Government Minister was sacked for trying to access information that could have been used for political purposes to discredit political opponents. On the face of today’s exchange it would appear the First Minister and/or his team have tried to do the same thing. This is clearly a breach of both the Civil Service and Ministerial Code.”

Mr Price continued: “The legal advice I have been given notes that Hywel Dda Health Board is potentially in breach of the data protection rights granted to myself, my parliamentary colleague Jonathan Edwards, and our staff members.

“At my request, the Chief Executive of the Health Board came to Assembly to meet with me this evening in which I presented evidence of correspondence between our offices and my requests to meet with him.

“In an endeavour to restore trust I am sure the Health Board will now wish to correct the record.”

Adam Price’s parliamentary colleague, Jonathan Edwards MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr added: “This is the latest reminder that there is something rotten at the core of this Labour Welsh Government.

“Either they are soliciting information from a independent health board for political purposes, or the health board has been compromised in a manner which sees it comfortable referencing correspondence between elected representatives.

“The First Minister’s claims that Adam Price and I ignored Health Board requests for are meeting are manifestly untrue and we have written evidence to prove that.”

The Herald asked the Board whether it had provided details of communications between it and other AMs to the Welsh Government.

At the time of writing, the Board has failed to answer either that enquiry or a request for a statement from its Chief Executive explaining the Board’s role in feeding – possibly selective – information to the Welsh Government.

Politics

Action to tackle homelessness

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Homelessness: Minister sets out new approaches for WG

REBECCA EVANS, Minister for Housing and Regeneration, has published new policy documents which set out new approaches to tackling homelessness in a statement to the Assembly.

Rebecca Evans said: “Talking to those I meet, I often hear distressing accounts of family breakdown, domestic violence, mental health problems, financial problems, substance misuse and bereavement.

“These issues can lead to some people losing their homes and create a vicious cycle leading to rough sleeping.

“The recent increase seen in the National Rough Sleeper Count is disappointing in the face of our efforts and investment but I believe it largely reflects the increasing effects of continued austerity, increasing in-work poverty and welfare reforms”.

As well as new funding to their revenue settlements, councils in Wales will receive grant funding of £2.8m in 2018/19 to embed homelessness prevention best practice models which will help to reduce rough sleeping, prevent youth homelessness, improve access to the private rented sector and strengthen services for people with mental health and substance misuse problems.

Rebecca Evans AM also said: “Today I’m publishing a policy document which outlines how Housing First will be taken forward across Wales. There is strong evidence that Housing First works best where its core principles are followed – housing with no strings attached, ready and available support services and access to funds to help meet individuals’ needs.

“I’m also launching our Action Plan to reduce rough sleeping. Developed with organisations including Shelter Cymru, and members of Rough Sleepers Cymru, it covers a range of activity, supporting people to engage with services and get off the streets as quickly as possible. It also addresses wider issues such as a review of priority need and our guidance on cold weather plans.

“Rough sleeping is one aspect of homelessness. We can only truly address the issue if we have a system that offers secure housing for all. Building homes and expanding social housing stock can only go so far and I will work with the private rented sector to find innovative ways to harness their supply and meet demand. I will also be looking at how we continue to reduce the number of homes lying empty.

“The Welsh Government has a good track record of delivery on homelessness prevention and we will continue to provide the leadership to ensure we can end the need for people to sleep rough in Wales.”

Conservative Housing spokesperson David Melding welcomed the initiative, but, speaking outside the chamber, called for the Welsh Government to set a target for ending rough sleeping in Wales.

“We know that in Manchester they have set a highly ambitious target of eradicating rough sleeping by 2020, and the UK Government target is to halve rough sleeping by 2022 with targeted full eradication by 2027. I think that we should be aiming for a more ambitious target than that, perhaps somewhere in between.

“Wales has the potential to be a real leader in this area and so I do hope that the Welsh government step up and tackle this problem once and for all.”

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Politics

Call for Speaker’s conference on Brexit

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Brexit: Parliaments need to work together

THE LLYWYDD of the National Assembly for Wales Elin Jones AM and the Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, Mick Antoniw AM, have called for a review of the inter-parliamentary and inter-governmental arrangements relating to the UK’s exit of the EU to ensure that Wales’ voice is heard loud and clear.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) inquiry into devolution and Brexit, Mick Antoniw AM referred to the key findings of the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report “UK governance post-Brexit” published on 2 February. Specifically, he reiterated the report’s recommendation to establish a Speakers’ Conference to improve the way parliaments work together and hold governments of the UK to account.

Mick Antoniw AM said: “A conference involving Speakers and Presiding Officers from all UK legislatures would increase understanding and cooperation between UK parliaments at this crucial time in UK constitutional affairs. Similarly, we need to see a step change in the mechanics for inter-governmental relations. The Joint Ministerial Committee, established in the wake of devolution in the 1990s, simply hasn’t evolved in line with the depth and breadth of the constitutional settlements of the devolved nations. The Committee also wants to see the EU (Withdrawal) Bill amended to put inter-governmental relations on a statutory footing. Currently, the process is driven by personality and makes the Joint Ministerial Committee little more than a speakeasy for Ministers to discuss ideas behind closed doors without any transparency or accountability.

“Now is the time for reviewing these arrangements and to develop UK inter-parliamentary working fit for the purpose of scrutinising the impact of Brexit on the constitutional framework of the UK.”

Llywydd, Elin Jones AM, said “This unique moment in time calls for a unique inter-parliamentary arrangement to scrutinise our respective governments’ arrangements. I welcome and support the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee’s call for the establishment of a formal Speakers’ Conference focused on arrangements for Brexit. Considering the impact of exiting on the range of powers repatriated and then devolved to Wales is particularly crucial as it will determine how quickly we can make decisions for the benefit of our constituents. At a time when most Assembly committees are considering issues related to Brexit as part of their ongoing scrutiny programmes, this is the missing piece of the jigsaw – and one I will be raising with my counterparts in Scotland, Westminster and Northern Ireland at our next speakers’ meeting.”

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Politics

Conservatives claim email ‘cover up’

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Couldn't get a yes or no answer: Andrew RT Davies

A ROW over whether the First Minister permitted an inquiry into his conduct access to his personal emails during a leak inquiry has intensified.

An inquiry recently concluded into whether or not details of the Cabinet reshuffle which led to the dismissal and subsequent death of former Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary Carl Sargeant.

That inquiry found that there was ‘unauthorised’ leak of the reshuffle details, leading to the obvious question as to whether any leaks were ‘authorised’, as it appears beyond question that news of Mr Sargeant’s dismissal was provided to at least two Labour MPs and one journalist.

In addition, the First Minister has refused to confirm that the Permanent Secretary was granted access to his personal emails during the recent leak inquiry.

Last week, in a response to a written question from Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies, Mr Jones said that he did occasionally use a private email address to deal with diary issues and clearing urgent press lines.

On Tuesday, Mr Davies asked the First Minister whether the private email address was used at all to instruct or to brief staff as to press lines in relation to the reshuffle.

After responding ‘No’, Carwyn Jones said that ‘all relevant evidence was made available to the inquiry’.

Mr Davies pressed the point, asking whether access was given to the personal e-mail addresses that Mr Jones uses for Government business
Mr Jones avoided a direct answer, saying: “I can’t comment on what the evidence looked like. All I can say is that all relevant evidence was submitted to the inquiry.”

Responding that ‘it’s not unreasonable to assume that, if there’s an inquiry into leaks from Government, then all correspondence would’ve been made available to the person carrying out the inquiry’, Andrew RT Davies asked for a straight yes or no answer.

Mr Jones declined to give on, instead repeating ‘all relevant information was provided to the inquiry’.

The Conservative leader has now suggested that the inference to be drawn from the First Minister’s answers is that the decision as to which evidence was either relevant or irrelevant was down to the First Minister himself.

The Welsh Conservatives are now demanding that the Permanent Secretary re-opens the inquiry, with the Permanent Secretary given “unfettered access” to Carwyn Jones’ personal email address.

In a press statement after First Minister’s Questions, Mr Davies said: “This reeks of a cover up.

“Just last week the First Minister admitted that he uses his personal email account on ministerial business, and now we learn that it is left to him to decide which emails are in the public interest.

“It calls to mind the recent Presidential elections, where public confidence was seriously undermined after allegations relating to the use of personal emails.

“How on earth can we have confidence in the system if the First Minister is the only judge of his own conduct?

“The inquiry must be re-opened, with unfettered access granted to the two email accounts that we know he has used for ministerial business.”

Mr Davies also called for a transparent process to log the use of personal email accounts by Welsh ministers and their advisers.

At present, such correspondence is only picked up by Welsh Government logs where an official email account is ‘copied in to an exchange’ – or where a conversation starts or finishes with an official email account.

He added: “There is nothing to stop the First Minister from emailing advisers directly using private email addresses, and I have no doubt that we would learn a great deal about the way Welsh Government business is conducted if his emails were to be opened up to closer scrutiny.

“We need rigorous checks in place to stop ministers from conducting government business entirely through back channels.

“This kind of practice should be entirely outlawed, except in approved accounts where security is heightened and exchanges are open to scrutiny.”

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