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Politics

Liberal Democrat Conference review

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Jane Dodds: Leader addresses conference

THE WELSH L​IBERAL DEMOCRATS gathered at The Village Hotel, Cardiff over the weekend, vowing to foster ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’ and to campaign to bring about a Ratification Referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal.

While the party has had a punishing time in the most recent round of elections, retaining only a single AM in the 2016 National Assembly Election and losing their final Welsh MP in Theresa May’s snap General Election, the prevailing mood at this weekend’s conference was upbeat.

A PARTY ON THE WAY BACK?

There was an appeal for traditional, Welsh Liberal values by Party President, Cllr William Powell, Mid and West Wales AM between 2011 – 16. Cllr Powell also paid an emotional tribute to his friend, party stalwart and former Preseli Parliamentary Candidate Nick Tregoning, leading to a short silence and round of applause. The former Swansea Council Cabinet Member and Presiding Officer, who died recently, represented the best in the Welsh Liberal tradition, and ‘thought and fought more for others than for himself.’

A keynote speech by new Welsh Lib Dem leader, Jane Dodds, who was elected in November last year, replacing Mark Williams, former Ceredigion MP, was particularly well received. Not shying away from the party’s recent challenges, Ms Dodds said: “There’s no denying we’ve had a difficult few years. While the wounds of the last few years are still visible, we are still fighting.”

Ms Dodds emphasised that the party’s top priorities must be to battle homelessness and poverty, as ‘The nasty party in Westminster doggedly pursues deeper cuts in public finances, vulnerable people scraping by to survive, without access to public services, with no hope for their future”

Turning to the Party’s signature policy on Brexit, the new leader continued: “We have to be clear in our opposition to the UK government’s disastrous handling of the biggest decision our country has faced in a generation… Whether we like it or not, Wales voted to leave the EU. But – and it’s a big but – it was not on the basis that we would leave under any circumstances.”

Concluding, she said: “We need to make sure we have the ideas in place that address the needs of communities and people living in Wales, and we have to translate these ideas into winning votes. Not power for the sake of power, but power so we can change people’s lives for the better, putting us back at the heart of Welsh politics, where we belong.”

A FREE AND FAIR WALES

Ms Dodds also presented a motion calling for the creation of ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’, emphasising that the party’s mission for the immediate future should be to develop new policies to work towards this goal.

“We need to make sure we have an economy and a society which offers opportunities to all… A Wales of hope and optimism.”

Cardiff Councillor Rhys Taylor was amongst those to speak in favour of the motion, stating: “We know what we stand for, but we’re not always very clear about articulating that. It’s an aspirational vision for Wales and our society.’

Veteran Ynys Mon Councillor and former Cabinet Member, Aled Morris Jones, also spoke in favour of the motion, saying: “Never has there been a time when there has been a greater need for liberalism. We must stand up for moderation because it is under threat, both here and across the world.”

Summating the motion, Party President William Powell said: “It is ambitious, it will need a lot of work and I sense that people in this room and in our local parties are up for that. It is central to rebuilding our party and to our resurgence.”

The motion was supported unanimously.

Party Members and supporters also had the opportunity to quiz Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM, and to debate motions on plans to bury radioactive waste off the coast of Wales. There was also a passionate appeal for legal clarity over access to waterways for water sports enthusiasts from Welsh Paralympian and first time conference speaker, Frances Bateman.

BREXIT, SYRIA, EQUALITY DEBATED

The weekend also included an expert panel discussion on Brexit with Ms Dodds, Ms Williams, Liberal Democrat Federal President, Baroness Sal Brinton and former MEP Peter Price, chaired by Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Lib Dem activist and Newbie Hilton Marlton. During the session, members agreed to keep battling Brexit, working across party lines with all Remain supporters, which was confirmed by an explicit #ExitFromBrexit motion on the Sunday morning.

Baroness Sal Brinton also gave a keynote speech, in which she criticised Theresa May for not giving MPs a vote on military action against Syria, saying that to do so was “further diminishing the standing of Britain in the world”. And she was optimistic about the party’s future prospects, saying: “I know the future of the Welsh party is in good hands.’

The second day of the conference also included a motion on the Welsh Government’s new plans to reform local government in Wales. Although the motion agreed with the principle of cutting the number of councils in Wales, it suggested the final number should be 14 or 15 – and emphasised the importance of respecting localism and democratic structures to reflect that.

Members also backed a motion calling for schools in Wales to introduce gender-neutral uniforms. Presenting the motion, Cllr Rhys Taylor of Cardiff said: “We should not dictate to young people what they should wear outside religious codes.” He added more support and training should be offered to teachers in supporting LGBT pupils.

Amy Gaskin of Swansea University’s branch of the party also spoke in support of the motion, saying: “There’s increasing evidence that male and female brains just don’t exist. It’s more of a mosaic”.

“What right do we have to tell kids they should wear trousers or a skirt, or a tie or no tie?” she asked.

Sunday also saw Baroness Christine Humphreys of Llanrwst, North Wales AM from 1999 until 2001, appointed as the party’s new Deputy Leader. She was the only nominee.

Closing the conference, Welsh Party President William Powell said: “We’ve got a rich vein of new talent emerging in the party.”

Saying he felt a sense of “optimism and positivism, Mr Powell called for: “A kinder, gentler and more inclusive values-based politics – that is what Jane (Dodds) and our wider leadership want to introduce.”

Politics

WG ends right to buy

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HOUSING association and local authority tenants in some parts of Wales have until January 26 to use the Right to Buy and associated Schemes after which they will be abolished in Wales.

People who are eligible and wish to buy their own home must have completed an application form available from their landlord or the Welsh Government website and submitted it to their landlord before the upcoming deadline of 26 January 2019.

Housing and Local Government Minister Julie James said: “We passed the Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights Act to protect the stock of social housing in Wales from further reduction, so it is available to provide affordable housing for people who need it. This legislation is one of a range of actions we are taking to increase the supply of housing in Wales.

“Between 1981 and 2016, over 139,000 local authority and housing association homes were sold under the Right to Buy. This has led to many people, many of whom are vulnerable, waiting longer to access a home they can afford. Abolishing the Right to Buy is also giving social landlords more confidence to invest in building new social housing by removing the risk of these homes being sold after only a few years.

“We are committed to creating 20,000 more affordable homes by 2021 and we are supporting social landlords to help us to achieve this.”

Right to Buy has already been suspended in Anglesey, Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Powys, Swansea and Cardiff. Following the one year allowed under the Act to exercise their rights, the Right to Buy and associated rights will finally be abolished throughout Wales on the 26 January 2019.

Further information is available from housing associations and local authority housing teams. Information on the legislation and how it will affect tenants is available on the Welsh Government website

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Politics

Brexit bots increased division

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A RESEARCH collaboration from academics at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley suggests that information automated software agents or ‘bots’ were used to spread either ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ social media stories during and after the Brexit referendum which drove the two sides of the debate further apart.

Research by Professor Talavera Professor, and PhD student Tho Pham from the School of Management, in collaboration with Professor Yuriy Gorodnichenko, at University of California, Berkeley, focused on information diffusion on Twitter in the run-up to the EU Referendum.

Professor Talavera said: “With the development of technology, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are often used as tools to express and spread feelings and opinions. During high-impact events like Brexit, public engagement through social media platforms quickly becomes overwhelming. However, not all social media users are real. Some, if not many, are actually automated agents, so-called bots. And more often, real users, or humans, are deceived by bots.

TWITTER ANALYSIS
Using a sample of 28.6 million #Brexit-related tweets collected from 24 May 2016 to 17 August 2016, researchers observed the presence of Twitter bots that accounted for approximately 20 per cent of total users in the sample. Given the preponderance of re-tweets from bots by humans, a key question is whether human users’ opinions about Brexit were manipulated by bots.

Empirical analysis shows that information about Brexit is spread quickly among users. Most of the reaction happened within 10 minutes, suggesting that for issues critically important to people or issues widely covered in the media, informational rigidity is very small. Beyond information spread, an important finding is that bots seem to affect humans.

However, the degree of influence depends on whether a bot provides information consistent with that provided by a human. More specifically, a bot supporting leaving the EU has a stronger effect on a “leaver” human than a “remain” human.

‘ECHO CHAMBER’
Further investigation shows that “leavers” were more likely to be influenced by bots compared to “remainers”. These results suggest that dissemination of information is consistent with what is frequently referred to as an ‘echo chamber’ – a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system, revealing that the outcome is that information is more fragmented rather than uniform across people.”

Professor Talavera said: “Social bots spread and amplify the misinformation, thus influencing what humans think about a given issue. Moreover, social media users are more likely to believe (or even embrace) fake news that is in line their opinions. At the same time, these users distance themselves from reliable information sources reporting news that contradicts their beliefs. As a result, information polarisation is increased, which makes reaching consensus on important public issues more difficult.”

“It is now vital that policymakers and social media should seriously consider mechanisms to discourage the use of social bots to manipulate public opinion.”

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Politics

WG gets help on regional development

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THE ORGANISATION for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) will lead a new project to support the development of regional economic development policy in Wales, Economy Minister Ken Skates and Brexit Minister Jeremy Miles have announced.

The Paris-based experts will use their extensive international experience of regional economic development to provide rigorous challenge and advice to the Welsh Government as it implements its new Economic Action Plan and develops new plans for Regional Investment in Wales after Brexit.

As world leaders in their field, the OECD’s input will help ensure that Wales’ future regional economic development model embeds international best practice.

The internationally-renowned body has provided advice to the Welsh Government before. In 2014, it produced a major report to help improve schools in Wales. In subsequent years it has also supported Welsh Government work on schools reform.

This new project will see international experts visit Wales and discuss regional economic challenges and opportunities with partners. This, in turn, will help the Welsh Government to develop a new toolkit for action as well as clear international benchmarks to monitor performance.

Minister for Economy and Transport Ken Skates said: “Our new Economic Action Plan is a major public policy reform and I want to ensure we receive the very best advice and strongest international challenge to help us achieve our economic ambitions.

“The changes we have outlined through the Economic Action Plan to boost regional economies across Wales are profound, as is our ambition for stronger regional partnership working in Wales to boost inclusive and sustainable growth. There is no-one better to help us deliver this than the OECD.

“We have asked the OECD to advise us on ways to strengthen regional economic governance, build capacity, and support more joined up economic policymaking, including through developing a practical toolkit for both us and our partners to use to support those changes.
“We must ensure Wales remains competitive and that we benchmark ourselves against the best and learn from great ideas and new innovation across the world.”

Minister for Brexit Jeremy Miles said: “EU regional investment has helped improve our economy, but Wales needs further investment to address the structural economic challenges we continue to face. We continue to press the UK Government for the £370m annually we receive for our European Structural and Investment funds in Wales in keeping with promises made during the referendum campaign that Wales would not be worse off and for regional economic development in Wales to remain with the Welsh Government after we leave the EU.

“Our project with the OECD will play an important part in Wales’ development of the right policy and structures for a successor regional investment approach to replace EU regional funds, closely aligned to our Economic Action Plan. We are not looking to simply replicate the EU model in Wales, and are committed to creating a new, made in Wales approach that reflects international best practice, builds on Wales’ distinctive legislative and policy landscape, and delivers for our people, businesses and communities.

“This partnership with the OECD will help strengthen that work and give confidence to our partners that new and dynamic partnerships can be formed to innovate and link policies in fresh and imaginative ways.”

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