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Politics

Fear and loathing in Cardiff Bay

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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.

Politics

Greens reject Welsh party

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Grenville Ham: Green Party voted down leader's plea

THE WALES G​REEN PARTY has rejected the opportunity to reconstitute itself as a Welsh Green Party, as opposed to a branch of the Green Party for England.

Members of the party rejected the proposal to strike it out on their own in a poll of members.

Current Green Party of Wales leader Grenville Ham was in favour of disentangling from the party in England.

Rather like other political parties –Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrat – the prefix ‘Welsh’ does not denote any separate legal existence from parties England.

Scotland has a separate Green Party, but the Wales Green Party has decided against independence.

Last weekend, the Green Party of Wales held a vote to decide whether or not it should remain a regional outpost of the Green Party in England.

In a poll of the Party’s membership of 1,500 in Wales, 64.8% decided to remain attached to the current party structure.

That figure appears overwhelming, but is rather less impressive when the turnout for the vote is factored in.

Of 1,500 Green Party members in Wales, only 20% turned out to vote.

A turnout of 300 means that around 194 Green Party members held sway over around 106 of their fellow party members in a vote which 1,200 members could not even be bothered to cast a ballot.

Where this leaves the Green Party as a relevant political entity in Wales is open to question; the argument could be advanced that if 80% of its members did not care enough about the party’s identity in Wales to register a vote either for or against forming a party with a specific Welsh focus, there have to be doubts about its long term commitment to formulating policies which address specifically Welsh issues instead of goals shared with the party in England.

Critics of the vote’s outcome have suggested that its result represents a missed opportunity for the Greens in Wales to address two separate problems which have persistently bedevilled the party in recent years: firstly, the perception that the Green Party has a ‘Lady Bountiful’ attitude to Wales and the Welsh; secondly, it’s failure to make any meaningful electoral progress.

On the upside, at least the Greens held a vote.

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Politics

Labour’s legislative plans announced

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Final programme for departure: Carwyn Jones unveils legislative aims

DEPARTING First Minister Carwyn Jones has announced the Welsh Government’s legislative programme for the Assembly’s term following the summer recess.
The programme makes good on the Welsh Government’s policy promise of ending the physical punishment of children in Wales. The measure, which has been opposed by the campaign group ‘Be Reasonable’, is one of a package of members aimed at promoting child welfare.

Commenting on the move, an NSPCC Cymru spokesperson said: “The NSPCC has long campaigned for children in Wales to have the same protection against assault as adults so the Welsh Government’s intention to remove the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ in the coming year is hugely welcome.

“It is a common-sense move which is about fairness and equality for children.

“It is wrong that a legal defence which does not exist in a case of assault against an adult can be used to justify striking a child.

“Closing this loophole will bring Wales in line with dozens of countries around the world and finally give our children equal protection under the law.”

A bill will also be brought forward to establish duties of quality and candour in health and social care. This will place statutory obligations on all health organisations in Wales to be open and transparent and will ensure lessons are learned and improvements made where necessary. A new independent body will be created to give people a stronger voice for their experiences of health and social care services.

The government will bring forward a local government bill, which will include reform of local authority electoral arrangements, including reducing the voting age to include 16 and 17-year-olds.

The way animals are treated is an important reflection of society and over the next 12 months, a bill will be introduced to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses on welfare grounds.

The government will also introduce a bill to make Welsh law more accessible. The Legislation (Wales) Bill will be the first major step towards achieving a clear and well-organised statute book.

First Minister Carwyn Jones said: “The year ahead will be one of the busiest for us in legislative terms since Wales gained primary law-making powers.

“Making our statute book ready for EU exit is a big challenge for the Welsh Government and the National Assembly but we must not let this limit our ambitions. We will keep driving forward progress and delivering for the people of Wales.”

In addition to the Welsh Government’s legislative programme, the National Assembly will be asked to undertake a substantial programme of correcting regulations under the EU (Withdrawal) Act between October and March in preparation for EU exit.

However, Carwyn Jones’ final statement on the Welsh Government’s law-making priorities for the year ahead have been branded “unambitious, last-minute scribblings of a tired administration” by the Welsh Conservatives.

One of the proposals to be brought forward is a ban on wild animals from performing in travelling circuses, something Welsh Conservatives have been calling for in recent years.

Legislation to merge councils is likely to face much contention following fierce opposition from the Welsh Local Government Association over the past few months after being told they will have to merge voluntarily, or have t imposed upon them.

Interim leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Paul Davies AM, said: “After nearly 20 years at the helm, the Welsh Labour Government have been proven to be unimaginative and tired.

The headline bills to be announced today is typical Welsh Labour: tinker at the edges, but do nothing to resolve the fundamental challenges to Welsh society and its economy.

“We have an underperforming health service, a health board in special measures for three years, and an education system that ranks bottom of the UK nations.

“It is time to be more radical with public services – not only to deliver better value for money for taxpayers, but also better outcomes for everyone in all parts of Wales in health, education, and beyond.”

And Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood also expressed her and her party’s disappointment at Labour’s programme.

“I congratulate the First Minister on delivering his eighth and final statement on a future legislative programme.

“However, I am saddened to say this looks like a re-hash of a legislative programme we have seen before. At a time when our democracy, our nation, is in flux, we need ambition, vision and leadership. Values I do not see demonstrated by today’s statement.

“We can agree that Westminster is failing Wales. But this Parliament – the new home of Welsh democracy – was meant to give us the opportunity to do things differently. When they cancelled plans for a tidal lagoon, legislation should have been brought forward for a new nationalised Welsh energy company. We must take our future into our hands, not allow Westminster to tie them behind our back.

“We are leaving an environment that is increasingly inhospitable. Air pollution kills tens of thousands every year and plastic waste litters our coastline and countryside. But a Clean Air Act and bottle return scheme are nowhere to be seen in this statement. There is also no proposed legislation or laws to create a feminist Welsh government a reality as promised.

“Many key decisions have also been kicked into the long-grass. The size of our parliament and who can participate in our democracy, for one.

“There is not a single piece of legislation planned for education, transport, energy, the environment, housing, social care, farming and fisheries.

“This is a legislative programme of old ideas and no ambition. The Welsh Government can do better. The National Assembly can deliver better. Wales needs better.”

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Politics

Universal Credit’s Black Hole

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A Conservative success story: Foodbanks help both those in work and unemployed

THE UK Government’s drive to cut the benefits paid to those most in need through the introduction of Universal Credit has impoverished the most vulnerable in society and removed universal support from the disabled replacing them with a patchwork of make-do-and-mend solutions which rely on councils to bail out the Westminster Government for its own failings in delivering the new benefit system in a working form.

The series of failures has prompted the National Audit Office, which scrutinises public spending for Parliament, to call on the UK Government to pause Universal Credit’s roll out until it sorts out the mess the reform has caused and is causing.

That call was rejected by the UK Government and led to allegations that the minister responsible, Esther McVey, had misled Parliament both about the NAO report’s content and the success of the Universal Credit roll out.

WELSH GOVERNMENT WARNS ON UC

Plagued by IT issues, incompetence, and the sort of ministerial short-sightedness that regarded the Council Tax as an untrammelled success, Universal Credit’s roll out across Wales has caused Welsh Government Housing and Regeneration Minister Rebecca Evans to write to Esther McVey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to warn about the impact Universal Credit is having on some of the most vulnerable people in Wales.

Rebecca Evans said: “Foodbank use in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out has increased by 30% according to National Audit Office statistics, compared to a 12% increase in non-Universal Credit areas. This is extremely worrying.

“A Universal Credit claimant survey from Esther McVey’s own department shows that four in ten claimants were experiencing financial difficulties, and that 46% of new Universal Credit claimants need help to make their claim online.

“I have asked the Secretary of State to make Universal Support for people who claim Universal Credit available as widely as possible to help those people who are experiencing difficulties in managing their finances, and for those who are struggling with digital access.

“The recent National Audit Office report was clear; local authorities, housing associations and landlords are all seeing an increase in rent arrears since the introduction of Universal Credit.

“This chimes with many concerns raised and reported to me by the housing sector in Wales.

“The National Audit Office highlighted that the system is lacking in ways to identify vulnerable people, which makes it difficult to see how they are getting the right support, from the outset when they apply for Universal Credit. I have asked the Secretary of State to explain how she plans to rectify this.

“People who are more vulnerable can be offered alternative payment arrangements through Universal Credit, but we are seeing real inconsistencies in the way this is offered to claimants; the Department of Work and Pensions’ own claimant survey indicated that as many as 48% of those surveyed had to request this themselves, rather than being offered it proactively.

“I am deeply concerned about the flaws of Universal Credit, and its impact on the most vulnerable people in Wales, and I will continue to press the UK Government on addressing these.”

In Carmarthenshire, the Council has already set aside resources to help those plunged into uncertainty and financial chaos by the Tory policy, while across Wales Universal Credit recipients have experienced delays in payments and cuts to the benefits they receive leaving many in dire financial straits. In some cases, local authorities are stepping in to bridge the gap, but others are left unable to pay their rent and face eviction as a result. Some landlords are now refusing to take Universal Credit claimants owing to the defects in the payments system, penalising those in need for the incompetence of the DWP.

UNIVERSAL CREDIT FAILING

By the end of this parliament Universal Credit (UC) is expected to be fully rolled out. This new integrated benefits system for people both in- and out-of-work will shape the living standards of the lowest income families in the UK.

Part of the rationale for UC was making sure people are better off working. It is right that families should be able to better their living standards through work, yet in the UK today, the majority of people experiencing poverty live in working households.

Working poverty is highest among lone parents and couples with children with only one earner or where no one works full time.

Among households in working poverty that do not have all adults in full time work, over four in 10 have children of primary school age or below; two in 10 have children under the age of three. Some three in 10 contain a family member with a disability.

Bevan Foundation Director, Victoria Winckler, said: “Universal Credit has been in the pipeline for more than five years, but it is only now reaching all parts of Wales. The number of claimants is starting to go up quite quickly and we are beginning to see the impact of it on individuals, families and communities.”

Despite the number of people set to be affected, there’s been no up-to-date assessment of how the change will affect people in Wales.

Victoria Winckler continued: “The evidence from other parts of the UK is mixed. Some claimants cope well with the transition to monthly payments and the requirement to try to find work or increase the number of hours they work. But others struggle, getting into arrears with bills, debt and even having to rely on food banks.”

BENEFIT CHANGES HIT WORKERS HARD

Serious problems have now emerged in the treatment of the self-employed because of the way their earnings are recorded under universal credit. The issues have arisen because a “minimum income floor” (MIF), based on the national living wage, is used to calculate universal credit payments each month.

Because self-employed workers’ earnings fluctuate from month to month, they sometimes fail to meet the minimum figure and lose out compared with salaried counterparts. They are also only given a year to get their businesses off the ground before the MIF kicks in.

Ministers argue that the system has been designed to encourage people to increase their work and move into better jobs. However, the new report warns that some people have little choice other than self-employment. Ministers also ignore the fact that – for many – better jobs at higher wages are simply not available.

In addition, independent research has established that Universal Credit is – if anything – even worse value for money when it comes to administration costs than the system it replaced.

Having blown £817m on an IT infrastructure project which is unfit for purpose and now redundant, the current running costs per Universal Credit claim run at around £700. The claim made for Universal Credit was that it would reduce costs per claim to £173. There is no sign and little prospect of that target being hit.

DWP DEAF TO REASON

The National Audit Office report into Universal Credit is even more damning.

The NAO says: ‘We think that there is no practical alternative to continuing with Universal Credit. We recognise the determination and single-mindedness with which the Department has driven the programme forward to date, through many problems. However, throughout the introduction of Universal Credit local and national organisations that represent and support claimants have raised a number of issues about the way Universal Credit works in practice.

‘The Department has responded to simple ideas to improve the digital system but defended itself from those that it viewed as being opposed to the policy in principle.

‘It does not accept that Universal Credit has caused hardship among claimants, because it makes advances available, and believes that if claimants take up these opportunities hardship should not occur. This has led it to often dismiss evidence of claimants’ difficulties and hardship instead of working with these bodies to establish an evidence base for what is actually happening. The result has been a dialogue of claim and counter-claim and gives the unhelpful impression of a Department that is unsympathetic to claimants’.

The report continues: ‘The Department has now got a better grip of the programme in many areas. However, we cannot judge the value for money on the current state of programme management alone. Both we, and the Department, doubt it will ever be possible for the Department to measure whether the economic goal of increasing employment has been achieved. This, the extended timescales and the cost of running Universal Credit compared to the benefits it replaces cause us to conclude that the project is not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven’.

A BLEAK PICTURE FOR THE POOREST

Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group Alison Garnham said: “It was sobering enough to learn from the DWP’s own survey last week that four in ten people claiming universal credit have financial problems many months into their claim. Now we have an NAO report confirming just how miserable the experience of claiming universal credit is for hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it. Organisations working with claimants have been saying the same to the DWP for many, many months.

“The picture the NAO presents is justifiably bleak. On the ground, new claimants can’t even be sure they will be paid in full and on time. And how many people will be helped into work by the benefit is far from clear.

“There are clearly fundamental design and delivery problems in universal credit which must be fixed but it has also had its funding dramatically reduced so its capacity to deliver on the original aims has been compromised. The big work allowance cuts in particular have made it harder for claimants to increase the rewards from work.”

Joseph Rowntree Foundation Chief Executive Campbell Robb said: “We all want to live in a society where everyone receives support when they need it, and where there is an anchor to keep people from being swept into poverty. Universal Credit should, in principle, offer that support.

“The UK already has a problem with destitution, with more than one and a half million people in 2017 left unable to feed themselves, stay warm and dry, keep a roof over their heads and keep clean.

“There are major design flaws in the rollout of Universal Credit which have been left unfixed. Delays and sanctions leave people without enough to live on, and they struggle to pay off debt from advance payments. That’s not right. This system needs an urgent overhaul so that people’s essential needs are met without trapping them in long-term poverty.

“It is also concerning that the NAO can find no clear evidence that Universal Credit will help to boost the number of people finding work. The system needs to support people experiencing in-work poverty too, which is currently rising for families with children. By increasing work allowances, the Government can help 2.5 million working families and prevent a further 310,000 people from being pushed into poverty.”

As Labour MP, and veteran campaigner for the rationalisation of welfare benefits, Frank Field pointed out to Esther McVey in the House of Commons last week: ‘40% of claimants finding themselves in financial difficulty, 25% unable to make a claim online, and 20% overall, but two thirds of disabled claimants, not being paid on time and in full’.

Accusing Ms McVey of ‘dissembling’ to Parliament, further probing revealed that Ms McVey had not even bothered to read the NAO report which she had so assiduously rubbished and which had been signed off by her own Department.

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