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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

Public feel ‘disengaged’ from Parliament

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RESEARCH by The Hansard Society suggests that the public is increasingly disenchanted with the UK’s system of government.

Founded in 1944, the Hansard Society is dedicated to expounding the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy and its challenges. It is widely recognised as the Westminster Parliament’s ‘critical friend’.

Contrary to a belief peddled by some commentators, the research, published in the 16th Audit of Public Engagement, finds that the public care about political issues. However, the research also shows that many are unhappy and frustrated about the way in which Parliament works. As a result, a significant proportion of voters are ready to consider a radical change to our system of government.

Over one-half of the Audit’s respondents think that what the country needs is a ‘strong’ leader, prepared to break the rules. Around 40% think that the government could better deal with the country’s problems if it was not tied to parliamentary votes.

72% say the system of governing needs ‘quite a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of improvement. That figure is a significant increase on the previous year, itself at a worrying level of 67%. The number of people who say the system needs ‘a great deal’ of improvement has risen eight points in a year, to 37%.

Asked whether the problem is the system or the people, the largest group (38%) say ‘both’.

When asked which institutions are most likely to act in the public interest, UK citizens have more confidence in the military and judges than in politiciansPoliticians will be pleased to see that they still rank ahead of political parties, big business and newspapers as more likely to act in the public interest.

Strikingly, only 25% of the public have confidence in MPs’ handling of Brexit. People were asked whether key groups’ and institutions’ handling of Brexit had given them more or less confidence in these groups and institutions to act in the public’s best interest. 60% said they had less confidence in political parties, 60% in the government and 57% in MPs as a result of their handling of Brexit. Confidence had been driven down the least in civil servants (41%) and judges (35%) as a result of their handling of Brexit.

75% say the main political parties are so divided within themselves that they cannot serve the best interests of the country. 50% say the main parties and politicians don’t care about people like them.

Well over half the public are downbeat about the state of Britain – 56% think Britain is in decline, 63% think Britain’s system of government is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful, and 66% think most big issues facing the country today don’t have clear solutions.

The public is evenly split between those who prefer politicians who make compromises with people they disagree with (48%) and those who prefer politicians who stick to their positions (45%). 66% think politicians should be able to say what’s on their mind regardless of what anyone else thinks about their views.

Despite the legislative chaos following the last Brexit referendum, 55% still think that big questions should be put to the public in referendums more often than today.

The Audit suggests a dissolution of the ties between the governed and their representatives. Although core indicators of political engagement remain stable, beneath the surface the strongest feelings of powerlessness and disengagement are intensifying. The number who ‘strongly disagree’ that political involvement can change the way the UK is run (18%) has hit a 15-year high. 47% feel they have no influence at all over national decision-making – a new high for the Audit series.

At the national and local levels, the numbers of those feeling they have no influence at all have jumped by seven and nine points in a year, respectively. This intensification of the strongest feelings of powerlessness has occurred even as the overall measures of people’s sense of influence, which include those who feel less strongly, have declined only slightly since last year.

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Politics

Generation gap spells trouble for Tories

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ON MONDAY, the Conservative think-tank Onward published a report into generational voting patterns, policy priorities and political values.

The report considers why age has become the key dividing line in British politics, what has happened since the last general election, and what can be done to win over millions of younger people deserting the centre-right in considerable numbers.

The report follows a detailed 10,000 sample poll, conducted by Hanbury Strategy. It is the largest study of the generation gap since age became the key political dividing line in British politics.

Younger and older voters have always been politically different, but never by this much

In 2017, the gap between younger and older voters was 50 points larger than the post-war average since 1945 and five times higher than in 2010. It started, in 2015 before Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour Party. This gap has grown, not narrowed, since the last General Election.

In 2017, “the tipping point age” – the median age at which a voter is more likely to vote Conservative than Labour – was 47 years old. The report establishes that, since the election, “the tipping point” has risen by 4 years to 51 years old.

The Conservative age curve is getting steeper. Among 18–24-year-olds, 14% said they would vote Conservative if there was an election today. 62% said they would vote Labour. 9% of this group said they would vote for the Liberal Democrats.

Among those over 65 years old, the opposite was true, 56% of respondents said they would vote Conservative, against 24% for Labour. The only groups with a net positive vote for Conservatives are 55–64s and voters over the age of 65.

Projecting the results of the survey forward to 2022 shows that the Conservatives face a wipeout in Wales.

If age continues to be a predictor of vote intention, the Conservatives are also in trouble in London. For example, Putney, which has a majority of just 3.3%, has 2.6 younger people for every older person. Other Conservative seats potentially affected by the demographic shift include the Cities of London and Westminster, Hendon, Chelsea and Fulham, and Uxbridge and South Ruislip (currently held by would-be PM Boris Johnson).

According to Onward, the dissonance between different age groups largely down to the Conservatives’ failure to win over younger voters. 28% of under-35s would consider voting Conservative, but fewer than 17% say they would do so if an election were held today. Onward says that this amounts to 3 million voters young Conservative considerers which could be won over but currently would not vote for the party.

Polling among the younger age group suggests that on some policies, the Conservatives could be knocking on an open door. 18-24s are most in favour (63%) of keeping more of their own money and paying less tax. However, they also favour making the economy fairer, not just bigger. Nearly two-thirds of people favour “reducing the gap between rich and poor” over “working to create faster economic growth”, with 18-24s most in favour (67%).

On immigration, there is net support for reducing immigration in every age bracket, within every ethnic group, and among Remain voters.

In terms of priorities, the environment is the third top issue for 18-24-year-old voters and younger voters.

Notably, immigration is of far lesser importance to younger voters than older ones, a reverse of the position on welfare benefits, about which older voters are far less exercised. All age groups regard the NHS and Brexit as the top two priorities.

A disconcerting gap is rising in the Conservatives’ appeal to female voters. Only 8% of 18-24-year-old women would vote Conservative today, which correlates heavily with pessimism: 56% of women think the next generation will be worse off than their own. Meanwhile, Asian voters (42%) are nearly as likely to consider voting Conservative as White voters (44%), but only half as many would do so today.

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Chairs want impact assessment reform

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SIIAs, or Strategic Integrated Impact Assessments, to give them their full name, can affect everyone in Wales.

The Welsh Government publishes SIIAs alongside its draft budgets to show how funding allocations will affect particular services or sections of society.

An SIIA could show the impact a particular health programme is expected to have on young people, or how money dedicated to a work programme will benefit people from poorer areas affected by poverty.

In 2015-16 the Welsh Government consolidated a number of different types of impact assessments into one. An SIIA assesses the impact of budget decisions on:

• Equalities and human rights;
• Children’s rights;
• The Welsh language;
• Climate change;
• Rural proofing;
• Health;
• Biodiversity; and,
• Economic development.

Concerns have been raised in previous years about the quality and detail of impact assessments, which is what prompted a concurrent inquiry by three National Assembly committees.

Among the concerns was a belief that, in some cases, there is a lack of clarity about what has actually been assessed. The Welsh Government also only publishes the results of impact assessments but not the detail from which their conclusions are drawn.

There are further concerns the current process is the ‘wrong way round’, with factors such as children’s rights and equalities appearing to be used as tools to justify spending, rather than demonstrating how those factors influenced decision-making.

The Children, Young People and Education Committee, Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee and the Finance Committee looked at how the Welsh Government plans for future spending and how it assesses the impact of its budgetary decisions.

The Committees jointly concluded that the Welsh Government should go back to fundamental principles. That the focus should be ‘what approach will be most effective’, rather than ‘which element of the assessment is the most important?’

The Committees agreed the Welsh Government needs to be clear about why it conducts an assessment, who uses it and what they hope to understand from it.

They believe for impact assessments to have any value, they must meaningfully inform how funding is allocated to which areas. The Committees did not believe that there was sufficient evidence of this happening at the moment.

The Committees also want to see a transparent account of the negative, as well as the positive impacts of budget allocations, so a full picture can be considered. They stated that honesty about the difficult trade-offs that have to be made is essential for public confidence in decision-making, especially in the current economic climate.

In a joint statement, the three Chairs of the Committees, Lynne Neagle AM, John Griffiths AM and Llyr Gruffydd AM said: “In recent years each of our committees has had something to say about budget impact assessments. We felt the time had come to work together to shine a joint spotlight on this, with a particular focus – given our respective remits – on the impact of budget decisions on equalities, children and young people.

“We believe SIIAs should be used to inform, steer and influence change. We are concerned that they appear to be used currently to reflect or justify decisions which have already been made.

“Furthermore, we are concerned by what appears to be a growing tendency to pass responsibility for impact assessments to local bodies such as health boards or local authorities, for which there is no legislative basis.

“We recognise that assessing the impact of budget discussions is no mean feat, but for impact assessments to have any value, they must meaningfully inform financial allocations – as things stand, it is not clear to us that the way in which they are undertaken delivers that aim.”

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