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Politics

SpAds under attack

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SpAd-modic: King of the special advisors, Malcolm Tucker

WELSH Labour Special Advisers are once again under fire – this time for breaching the Special Adviser Code of Conduct by briefing on party political matters.

Labour SpAd – Huw Price – has been caught red-handed breaching the code of conduct, describing himself as a “Welsh Labour Spokesperson” and issuing overtly party political lines using his taxpayer funded Welsh Government email address.

Mark Reckless AM has called for the Code of Conduct to be applied and for disciplinary action to be taken.

Lee Canning of the Taxpayers Alliance warned that a private sector employee “would be disciplined and probably dismissed for such actions”.

Special Advisers are allowed to represent Ministers’ views on government policy to the media – but the Code of Conduct is explicit in its ruling that “briefing on purely party political matters must be handled by the Party machine.”

The Code of Conduct continues, stressing that “All contacts with the media should be authorised by the First Minister or his media advisor, and should be conducted with propriety and consideration for the reputation of the Government as a whole at all times.”

The request sought all emails between Welsh Government special advisers and email addresses ending with bbc.co.uk or mediawales.co.uk – and the correspondence can be read in full online – It includes an email in which Huw Price issues a party political quote criticising the Welsh Conservative local government launch – describing himself as a “Welsh Labour Spokesperson”.

He also appears to make implicit reference to Mark Reckless’ recent defection from UKIP to the Welsh Conservative Assembly Group in an exchange with a journalist, and in the quote itself – which is clearly party political in nature. A contention to which force is added by the response his remarks got from a Western Mail reporter.

  • He describes the Welsh Conservative manifesto as “a checklist of reckless failure”;
  • Claims that Wales’ only Conservative council has “failed” local people;
  • Claims that a Conservative council “took a knife to front line services”;
  • Calls on voters to vote for a “fair deal with Welsh Labour, or reckless failure with a Tory Party”.

In another email the Special Adviser shares a speech by Labour MP Keir Starmer which he says, is “broadly setting out Labour’s position”.

Commenting on the emails, Mark Reckless said: “At a time when the conduct of Labour Special Advisers is very much in the spotlight, this shows that they have been recklessly breaching the Code of Conduct since as far back as May.

“SpAds are there to support the conduct of government and are given dispensation to act in a more political manner than other civil servants, but the code of conduct explicitly forbids them from acting in an overtly party political manner.

“These emails are from a very tight time period and shine a light on the flagrant manner in which Labour advisers disregard this rule.

“This is a clear breach of Special Adviser employment terms and should have been handled by a Labour Party employee – not by a taxpayer funded civil servant.

“I expect the Code of Conduct to be applied and for disciplinary action to be taken.”

Lee Canning of the Taxpayers’ Alliance said: “The Welsh Labour Government should be promoting the best use of taxpayer funds, yet it appears that their abuse of the public purse is getting ever worse.

“For a Special Adviser to be using publicly funded facilities for party political activity is as close to personal use as it gets. In the private sector an employee would be disciplined and probably dismissed for such actions.

“It is time for politicians of all parties to understand that the money they spend is taxpayers’ money and not government money.”

The Welsh Government has been asked to comment on the allegations made by Mr Reckless and Mr Canning.

Politics

Johnson’s reshuffle throws up jokers

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IT WAS all about ‘The Saj’.
The shock departure of the former Chancellor from the government only a few weeks before his first Budget surprised media commentators and MPs alike.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s ‘did-he-fall/was-he-pushed’ resignation aside, the reshuffle was a return to the traditional way of Cabinet reshuffling Cabinet members. Out with the competent and argumentative and in with a collection of flunkies and stooges who owe everything to their loyalty to Brexit and Boris Johnson.
Julian Smith became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in July last year. In his brief tenure in that role, he managed to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly and a cross-party power-sharing executive after three years of constitutional limbo during its suspension. That is the sort of signal achievement which usually leads to promotion. However, Mr Smith was an advocate of a ‘softer’ Brexit than proposed by Number Ten. He had gone so far to comment, in October last year, a no-deal Brexit would be “a very, very bad idea for Northern Ireland”.
Competent and with a record of achievement in his brief Cabinet tenure, he had to go.
His replacement is former Conservative Party Chair, Brandon Lewis. Ironically, one of the Conservative MPs who broke pairing arrangements at Mr Smith’s direction when the latter was Chief Whip.
The reaction to Julian Smith’s departure was a series of aghast tributes by all sides in Northern Ireland and Mr Lewis’ appointment greeted by the sort of ‘dangerous indifference’, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested was behind his predecessor’s sacking.
Mr Lewis is as loyal as a loyal thing. You tell him what to be loyal to and he’ll be loyal to it. Rather like a cushion, he bears the impression of the last backside to sit on him. He will lead the nodding dog tendency in Cabinet meetings.
The only tension in the Cabinet with him in it will be whether he or Health Secretary Matt Hancock gets the first Boris Bonio after meetings.
There weren’t only high profile departures, though. Liz Truss remains in place as Secretary of State for International Trade. No. Don’t laugh. Ms Truss’ presence at the Cabinet table is a sign of hope and a beacon to others. Her continued tenure in government is evidence that no matter how dimwitted, mediocre or out-of-their-depth a person is, this is a government of opportunity for all. Her presence shows senior backbenchers with talent, intelligence, and ability that their gifts are no substitute for those qualities’ total absence. To new Conservative MPs with room temperature IQs, her example shows that they, too, can aspire to Cabinet status.
The same might be said for Matt Hancock. The Health Secretary, who’s behaviour in the election campaign marked him out as a man to watch – preferably while he sat in a padded cell rocking to himself and murmuring the words ‘forty new hospitals’ over and over – is the only person in the country to take what the Prime Minister says at face value. The incredibly credulous Hancock has chained himself to the wheel of misfortune and will spin every disaster into a triumph with puppy-like devotion. Like a whipped dog will try to make friends with its tormentor, Matt’s loyalty is endless.
The departure of Andrea Leadsom demonstrates that even Boris Johnson thinks a joke can be taken too far. Floundering in every position she ever occupied, it is difficult to conceive that she could have been the leader of her party, and subsequently PM, barely three years ago, Ms Leadsom’s legendarily argumentative nature ushered her to the Cabinet door.
Her replacement at the Department of Business, Energy, Investment and Skills (BEIS) is Ashok Sharma. Mr Sharma’s appointment is interesting. He might be dangerously half as clever as Boris Johnson thinks he is, which means he could run rings round the PM. His ability was rewarded in a particularly cunning way. Accepting a role turned down by a former PM and a former Foreign Secretary, Mr Sharma will coordinate and chair the government’s preparations for the next round of climate change talks, due to take place in Glasgow later this year.
If the conference achieves anything, highly unlikely as the US, China and India will stall any possible progress, the praise will be the government’s and therefore Boris Johnson’s. Like the Sun King, Boris is not only a state but the state. If it all goes the well-known shape of a pear, Mr Sharma gets to take the fall. Rewarding ability with a poisoned chalice: that’s the way of government these days.
Theresa Villiers’ departure from DEFRA and her replacement with George Eustice received a cautious but warm welcome from farming unions and rural organisations. Ms Villiers’ naked enthusiasm for the benefits of free trade and blindness to the consequences of it for UK agriculture did little to instil farmer with any confidence in her to do what was best for the industry. From a farming background himself, Mr Eustice is far better placed to sell any betrayal to those farmers who, free of the EU as they wished, find their businesses going down the pan if/when imports of lower quality and lower price undercut them after December 31 this year.
The Department of Culture Media and Sport (Don’t Care Much, Seriously) has a new Secretary of State in Oliver Dowden. Mr Dowden replaces Nicky Morgan, a minister you couldn’t possibly describe as two-faced as she wouldn’t wear the one she does if she was.
Mr Dowden’s main ministerial achievement in a brief parliamentary career was his replacement by Jonny (‘Did I mention I was in the Army?’) Mercer as a junior flunky in the Cabinet Office. His task is to put into place the Government’s policy of neutering the BBC and trashing public service broadcasting. A PR man before entering parliament and – as a special advisor to David Cameron – a PR man for a PR man, Mr Dowden will have to sell the Government’s plans to dismember the BBC to the public and MPs.
The appointment that caused most comment and concern was Suella Braverman’s promotion to replace Geoffrey Cox QC as Attorney General. Brexiteers hailed Mr Cox’s independence of mind and judgement when he declined to rubber-stamp Theresa May’s proposals for an Irish Backstop as part of her doomed attempts to force a Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. He also loudly – he doesn’t do quietly – laid into the High Court’s decision that Mr Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was unlawful. However, Mr Cox is also a person with a deep and abiding respect for the rule of law and the need for courts to act as a check and balance on poorly-made and ill-considered legislation. The growth of Judicial Reviews of governments’ laws can be partly laid at the door of those who prepare legislative measures in haste and then repent at leisure as the Court’s painstakingly explain why they are unenforceable or unlawful. Whatever his flaws as a Government minister, Geoffrey Cox is a proper lawyer with a keen understanding that bad laws and incompetently-prepared legislation are properly subjected to scrutiny by the Courts.
Suella Braverman has no such scruples. An advocate of increasing political vetting of judicial appointments, she also has no evident skills as either an advocate for sound law and sound law-making.
The role of the Attorney General is to advise the government, as impartially as possible in the circumstances, on a range of legal issues arising from its planned legislative programme. Ms Braverman’s appointment is a sign that what Boris Johnson wants most from his law officers is a nodding-dog approach, a readiness to sign-off on any crackpot plan, and knifing the Courts for doing their job properly in a plural democracy in which an overmighty executive needs curbing.
The most rabid of Brexiteers and an appalling media performer whose backside she often confuses with her humerus, Suella Braveman cannot be relied upon to do what’s right but can be relied upon to do what Boris Johnson tells her is right. Otherwise, her main qualification for her new role seems to be the gift of forgetting that she studied at the Sorbonne under the Erasmus programme and had her post-graduate studies in Paris funded by the French embassy. In other words, precisely the sort of exposure to continental education and cultural enrichment this Government is dedicated to ending.
And finally, we come to the new Chancellor. Rishi Sunak’s rise to power is proof that enormous personal wealth, a background as a merchant banker and having a job working for his indescribably wealthy father-in-law. All that might be unfair to Mr Sunak; however, replacing state-educated Sajid Javid with a privileged alumnus of Winchester could be easily interpreted as an attempt to broaden the government’s appeal to distressed billionaires.
Mr Javid’s loaded remarks around the circumstances of his dismissal, ‘no self-respecting minister would continue to serve’ (if ordered to sack his entire team of ministerial advisors) suggests Mr Sunak’s self-respect is in inverse proportion to his self-regard. It is also a sign that Mr Johnson has restored the long-forgotten tradition of the Exchequer as a money chest at the beck-and-call of a prime-ministerial whim. Mr Sunak’s one advantage is that he can scarcely be sacked after the manner of his predecessor’s leaving. At least for as long as he does what he’s told.
The cringe-worthy sight of Mr Johnson’s new Cabinet at its first meeting playing call and response with the class bully suggests that Boris Johnson now has a team he wants. More-or-less malleable office-holders who will do as they are told. Taking back control, it turns out, means an uncontrollable PM.

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Cabinet recommends 5% Council Tax rise

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AT ITS meeting on Monday this week, the Council’s Cabinet decided to recommend a Council Tax rise of 5% for the next financial year.

If the Full Council meeting agrees with its suggestion at its meeting on February 27, the rise will add £1.04per week to the average Band D household Council Tax bill.

Band D is the marker used by Councils across Wales to represent the average home.

Opening budget discussion, Cabinet Member for Finance Cllr Bob Kilmister, praised the level of scrutiny by Council committees and public engagement. The Facebook Live webcasts were particularly successful, the second reaching a record audience for such an exercise. Cllr Kilmister reported one engagement event at Llanteg produced high-quality questions, which demonstrated how the public had engaged with the process and the issues behind the Council’s budget. Cllr Kilmister also expressed satisfaction about engagement with the trades unions, whose written budget submissions are included in the consultation report for the first time.

Discussing the proposed Council Tax rise, Cllr Kilmister said where scrutiny committees expressed a preference, it was for a 5% rise. That figure also received the most support from the public who engaged in the consultation process. The unions wanted a 10% rise to preserve frontline services and avoid staff cuts.

He outlined amendments to aspects of the budgets had been made following committee scrutiny. However, he also reported a potential £1m item of additional expenditure due to the closure of Asian markets to recycling from overseas. The pressure, Cllr Kilmister reported, was UK-wide and resulted from a global reduction in recycling capacity.

Bob Kilmister said he accepted one particular request for amendment, which came from the Council’s Policy Overview Committee and related to funding climate change initiatives, but difficulties existed about the funding commitment without specific projects to which it could be allocated.

Accordingly, the Cabinet approved an amendment to the budget statement resolving to provide sufficient funding necessary to enable progress to be made and will make full use of any external funding opportunities. Sufficient resourcing will include the consideration of suitable Capital Bids and feasibility funding in line with the Capital Programme managed by the Capital Board and if necessary, revenue resource in the coming financial year, if it is necessary to support the work of becoming a Net Zero Carbon County by 2030.

Bob Kilmister underlined the Council’s commitment and his commitment but said a considered approach was needed. He was adamant he would not agree to the diversion of resources from core services, such as education and adult social care. He said projects needed a clear business plan and had to show how benefits would accrue from capital investment and revenue use. Cllr Kilmister said he suspected extra money would come forward once the UK Government set the budget in March, possibly – although not certainly – through grants from the Welsh Government. He cautioned against depending on those grants.

The cost of adult social care and the budget for it was the subject of an impassioned intervention from Cllr Tessa Hodgson. Cllr Kilmister responded that ‘we are at a crisis point in adult social care’. Proposals for funding had to come from central government and come quickly. The current funding model for social care, he said, was not working; central government knew it didn’t work; had known it didn’t work for some time; had done nothing about it.

Making a political point at the end of the discussion, Cllr Paul Miller noted last year, when Pembrokeshire had a poor budget settlement, Conservatives had rushed to condemn the Welsh Government. He cynically observed this year, when Pembrokeshire had one of the best budget settlements, there hadn’t been a positive response to the announcement.

Council Leader David Simpson wound up the debate with some strong words about those of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committees which refused to give the Cabinet a steer on its budget for the coming year. He reflected upon the lack of consultation before budgets under the previous administration where councillors were given information the day before cuts were due to place.

David Simpson said he was frustrated that Council committees and their members, presented with information, sat on their hands when offered the chance to input into the process of budget-setting positively. He made it clear that a steer given at the consultation stage was not a commitment to support the budget in the chamber but a response to the information given to the committee during its questioning of Cabinet members and officers about the coming year’s budget.

The Council Leader took time to single out Cllr Brian Hall for congratulations on seizing the chance as Chair of the Corporate Overview of Scrutiny Committee to give Cabinet a steer by asking members of his Committee to vote on a recommendation to give to Cabinet based on the information they had before them on the day they met. That was the sort of response the Cabinet wanted to help it set priorities for the budget.

Cllr Simpson said democracy was in a chamber of sixty people and not just to be doled out by Cabinet. The budget, he said, ‘is not a Cabinet decision’ and found councillors’ reluctance to participate when invited to do so ‘strange’.

‘That’s life!’ Cllr Simpson observed bitterly to close the discussion.

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Politics

Assembly Committees report on Welsh Budget

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'People are searching for clarity and certainty': Says Finance Committee Chair, Llyr Gruffydd

FOUR National Assembly committees have published reports examining how the Welsh Government intends to spend its £17 billion budget on schools, hospitals, the environment and local services.

EQUALITY, LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND COMMUNITIES COMMITTEE

The Committee is disappointed the Welsh Government’s commitment to ending homelessness in Wales is not backed up by the amount of money allocated to tackling the problem. In fact, under the draft budget, funding will stay the same which equates to a real term cut when taking inflation into account.
The Committee recommends that the Welsh Government increases the allocation of funding to the Housing Support Grant and the Homelessness prevention budget line in the 2020-21 budget to ensure that the Welsh Government’s ambition on reducing homelessness to be rare, brief and unrepeated can be delivered.

CHILDREN, YOUNG PEOPLE AND EDUCATION COMMITTEE

The Committee has raised again this year how vital it is to ensure that enough money is made available to fund schools in Wales. While it welcomes the increase in local authorities’ funding and the commitment given by local government to use it to prioritise school and social care funding, it remains very concerned about school funding in Wales.
The Committee’s report calls on the Welsh Government to robustly monitor this funding and to demonstrate to the Assembly that this money is reaching our schools.

CLIMATE CHANGE, ENVIRONMENT AND RURAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE

In the light of the Welsh Government declaring a climate emergency, the Committee was expecting a transformative budget showing how investment was being prioritised to address the issue. But members concluded the budget was business as usual and that it was unacceptable for the Welsh Government to continue to plead ignorance about the cost and potential benefits of its decarbonisation policies.
From next year the Committee expects the Welsh Government to change the way it does things – the draft budget should be accompanied by detailed information about the carbon impact of the allocations in it.

ECONOMY, INFRASTRUCTURE AND SKILLS COMMITTEE

The Committee‘s report looks to get beyond the headline figures of the Draft Welsh Budget by looking at issues including rail funding, research and development funding and how the Welsh Government is planning to support regional economies in Wales.
The Committee calls for greater transparency on the funding for KeolisAmy, the company who operates the Wales and Borders rail franchise as TfW Rail Services, as well as their performance targets and the penalties they face for poor service.
During the scrutiny process, Kirsty Williams AM, the Education Minister, admitted that the Welsh Government did not know how much it spent on research and development funding. The Committee has called for a review, especially as a significant amount currently comes from the EU.

The Committee has also called for the release of research behind the Welsh Government’s new Regional Economic Frameworks and Regional Indicative Budgets which will be used to develop regional economies across Wales.

HEALTH, SOCIAL CARE AND SPORT COMMITTEE

The Committee believes that this draft budget fails to show a shift towards mainstreaming prevention and service transformation. Going forward, the Welsh Government needs to demonstrate how its funding allocations will support long term sustainable change in the delivery of integrated health and social care services. The Committee expects to see a greater strategic focus on transformation and prevention in future budget rounds.
The reports follow an overview of the draft budget from the Finance Committee which raised concerns around climate change, poverty and Brexit.
Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd AM, said: “We are in unprecedented times as we approach Brexit and, risks and opportunities aside, what people are searching for most of all are clarity and certainty.
“The Welsh Government expects EU Structural funds will be replaced by the UK Government. But agriculture sits outside of this so the Committee would like assurances farming payments will continue as normal until a new funding structure is brought in.
“Nobody should be worse off as a result of leaving the EU.”

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