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Impartiality of civil service questioned

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Carwyn Jones: Knew nothing of friend and colleague's health issues

THE CONTINUING wrangle over an inquiry into the circumstances which led to the death of former AM Carl Sargeant has intensified this week after a suggestion that evidence to the QC-led inquiry was being ‘filtered’ by Welsh Government civil servants.

In the meantime, the Coroner’s Inquest into Mr Sargeant’s death opened in a way which raised a series of questions about the tactics adopted by the legal team representing First Minister Carwyn Jones and threw doubt on Mr Jones’ public statements about his knowledge of his late Cabinet colleague’s mental health.

Conservatives in the Assembly pounced on a leaked Welsh Government email which showed the Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government, Dame Shan Morgan, telling Welsh Government staff to share evidence for the Carl Sargeant inquiry with senior civil servants first. Paul Bowen QC is investigating Carwyn Jones’s handling of the sacking of the Alyn and Deeside AM from his cabinet and in an email to Welsh Government staff entitled “support to staff”, the Permanent Secretary, Dame Shan Morgan, asks “those who believe they have evidence relevant to the investigation should bring this to the attention of David Richards, Director of Governance; Peter Kennedy, HR Director; or my office”.

Only a subsequent ‘clarification’ after the email’s leak suggested that employees could give their evidence direct to the Independent Inquiry Team without it being looked over by their senior managers.

Questioning the Permanent Secretary’s latest involvement, Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies said: “This once again raises serious concerns over the conduct of the Welsh Government and calls into question the independence of this whole process.

“If the inquiry is to be fully independent then all potential evidence should be handed over to the QC leading the investigation, not pre-vetted by the Permanent Secretary or her minions.

“This latest communication shines a light into the dark tactics being deployed by certain individuals in the Welsh Government to influence and control the upcoming inquiry, and that is simply unacceptable.

“Carl Sargeant lost his life in incredibly tragic circumstances, and there is a responsibility on everyone involved to ensure this process is fully independent and transparent so that the family can find the answers they need to find peace with what has happened.

“The Welsh Government must apologise and immediately withdraw this instruction so people can provide evidence to the inquiry free from bully-boy tactics and intimidation.”

A spokesperson for the permanent secretary said: “We have been clear that as a civil service we will fully co-operate with the work of the IQCI [independent QC investigation], and any evidence held by staff on Welsh Government systems will be collated and transferred to the investigation in its entirety and without redaction.”

A request by The Herald for an explanation as to WHY the Permanent Secretary issued the email remains unanswered and the prospect of Wales’ leading civil servant acting ‘on behalf of the Welsh Government’ raises a substantial question about whether the right distance is being maintained between the sectional interests of the party in government and the national role of the Welsh Government as an institution.

A Plaid Cymru spokesperson responded: “This email raises serious questions about the internal processes of the Welsh Government and risks jeopardising the independence of the inquiry.

“It is vital that this inquiry remains independent, transparent and fair.

“Plaid Cymru will be urgently raising questions about this matter with the Welsh Government.”

Dame Shan Morgan has also come under significant pressure following her decision to deny lawyers acting for the Sargeant family the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry.

The family of Carl Sargeant has threatened legal action after claims they had been excluded from a probe into the late minister’s sacking by Carwyn Jones.

A solicitor acting for the family, Neil Hudgell, said: “The grieving Sargeant family are losing patience and faith in the inquiry and are hurt and upset that everything they have asked for has been ignored.

“Mr Bowen can only go as far as the permanent secretary will allow and we currently have an inquiry process where there will be no effective involvement from the family. How can that be fair?”

A spokesman for the Welsh Government said: “The protocol (agreed between the Welsh Government and the Inquiry) sets out the basis on which the investigation will be conducted and enables the family and any other participant to put forward questions they wish to be asked by the investigator.”

A spokesperson for the independent investigator said: “Mr Bowen QC confirms that the independent QC Investigation will continue to run under the published Operational Protocol while this is resolved.

“Mr Bowen QC is committed to conducting a thorough and independent investigation,” the spokesperson added.

Meanwhile at the inquest into Carl Sargeant’s death, a QC representing Carwyn Jones has claimed that other women have come forward with allegations of inappropriate behaviour against the late Alyn and Deeside AM.

Those allegations, as those supposedly made before Mr Jones sacked Mr Sargeant, all have the inestimable benefit of not being subject to challenge or proper investigation. Moreover, taking the First Minister’s lawyers claims at face value leads to a substantial question of how – if the allegations have substance – Carwyn Jones remained unaware of any issue with his close friend and former colleague’s supposed conduct.

Moreover, the attempt to publicly smear Mr Sargeant, who –as before his death – has no opportunity to defend himself is, Coroner John Griffiths observed unlikely to be relevant to the Inquest process, which raises the obvious question of why it was raised at all by the First Minister acting through his lawyers.

As it is, Mr Jones’ claims to have been a close friend of Mr Sargeant, those were thrown into even deeper question by the QC acting for the Sargeant family.

Leslie Thomas QC told the inquest that the first minister must have been fully aware of Mr Sargeant’s personal issues when he sacked him, as they had been friends for 16 years.

In a statement the first minister and Welsh Labour leader said he had not been aware of any mental health illness or vulnerabilities at the time.

Carwyn Jones is due to give evidence to the inquest, an event that should provide some insight into his ability to reconcile his public and personal pronouncements with information set to be laid before the Coroner.

A request for information as to who is paying for Mr Jones’ representation at the Inquest was unanswered.

Politics

Disabled people hit hardest by changes to benefits

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CHANGES to the welfare system over the past ten years have left disabled adults four times worse off financially than non-disabled adults, according to new research commissioned by the Disability Benefit Consortium, a coalition of over 80 UK disability organisations.

While many people who receive welfare support have experienced cuts of an average of £300 as a result of changes to the welfare system, disabled people have typically lost around £1,200 per year.

. The research, funded by the Three Guineas Trust, is the first comprehensive study looking specifically at the cumulative impact of welfare changes on disabled people, and conducted by the University of East Anglia, the University of Glasgow and Landman Economics.
The research also found:

. The more disabilities you have the more you lose out, for example someone who has six or more    disabilities loses over £2,100 each year on average, whereas someone with one disability loses around £700 each year.

Households with one disabled adult and one disabled child lose out the most, with average losses of over £4,300 per year.

Today’s report by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC), ‘Has welfare become unfair – the impact of changes on disabled people’, which is based on this research, looks at the financial impact and lived experiences of welfare reform on disabled people over the past ten years.

As part of the research, 50 people living with a variety of conditions and disabilities were interviewed about their experiences. People said that they found the application and assessment processes highly stressful, and that they did not feel trusted, and constantly challenged.

The DBC also state that the current system has become so complex and dysfunctional, that many disabled people have found it has had a devastating impact on their wider health and wellbeing.

Pam McGee, 48, from Kent, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1994, which severely impacts her mobility. After a PIP assessment in 2017 she lost the higher rates for both the mobility and daily living components, which means her support was cut by £290 a month and she no longer qualifies for a Motability car. She’s now appealing the decision and says the stress caused by this process has impacted her health. She said: “If I lost my car, I don’t know how I’d carry on. I’m terrified I’ll be out of a job because without the car I won’t be able to get anywhere. If I can’t work at the age of 48, I would lose all of my pride. People always ask ‘What’s your name and what do you do?’ My job is what defines me.

“In the last 10 weeks I’ve had a massive relapse. I went dizzy and lost all feeling in my left leg. When I spoke to my neurologist he said the relapse was probably caused by stress. I’ve also been depressed and eating less.

“PIP has caused me and my family a lot of anxiety and stress. It’s caused my MS symptoms to worsen, which has reduced my mobility, confidence, and ability to take care of myself physically as well as mentally.”

The DBC say that the failure to include disability premiums as part of Universal Credit, and poorly designed assessment criteria are just two examples of the problems that are leaving disabled people worse off and is calling on the Government to make urgent improvements to the welfare system to ensure it works for everyone.

Michael Griffin, Research Lead for the DBC and Senior Policy Adviser at Parkinson’s UK, said: “For the first time, our research has shown just how much disabled people are bearing the brunt of the disastrous changes to welfare.

“Many disabled people have not yet even experienced the full extent of the cuts because they are still waiting to be moved over to Universal Credit. However, when this happens there will be a surge in poverty among those who are already at a crisis point.

“This is simply disgraceful and cannot be allowed to continue. The Government must make urgent improvements to the application processes and assessment criteria, and resolve the flaws in Universal Credit before more people are denied the support they desperately need to live independently.”

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Politics

Carers Week: Eluned Morgan AM says thanks to carers everywhere

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by Eluned Morgan AM

WE’VE just celebrated ‘Carers Week’; an opportunity to say a massive ‘Thank You’ to all carers everywhere. No matter what age you are, who you care for and support, where you live or how much time it takes, every act of caring matters and deserves to be recognised.

Every day, people start caring for the first time. Carers are often hidden from view – putting their own health and wellbeing to the back of the queue. Many can become socially isolated, and some face financial pressures as a result of juggling work life with caring responsibilities.

We know that there are at least 370,000 carers in Wales (that’s more than the population of Cardiff) and that three in five of us will undertaking a caring role at some point in our lives. The latest census revealed that there were at least 15,000 carers in Pembrokeshire, a figure that probably underestimates reality.

I had the opportunity to meet carers from across the region in an event organised by Carers UK at the National Assembly. It became apparent from my conversations that, for many, it is a challenge to know how or where to get help. Caring can creep up unnoticed: for many, it begins with parents suddenly being unable to manage alone, or a partner’s health gradually becoming worse.

But it is important to know that there is support available and people shouldn’t put off asking for help. Organisations like Carers UK are there to listen, to give expert information and advice, tailored to your situation, to champion your rights and support you in finding new ways to manage at home, at work, or wherever you are.

If you know someone who could benefit from some help, please spread the word. We can all play our part in recognising and celebrating the essential contributions carers make, sharing information about caring support services within our local communities.

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Pembrokeshire Liberal Democrats wants more pensioners to keep their free TV Licences

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Pembrokeshire Liberal Democrats have expressed their concern at the decision taken by the BBC to save £450m a year from 2020, to remove the free TV licence for those over 75 years of age from those pensioners not in receipt of Pension Credit.

This could see 3.7m pensioners currently benefitting from a TV licence, having to start paying from 2020. The decision was made by the BBC following the government’s decision to transfer the funding of licences from the government to the BBC.

Liberal Democrat Department of Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson Jane Bonham-Carter said “Concessions for over 75’s are a social cost which should not be paid from the licence fee, but from central Government funding.

Government, not the BBC should be responsible and accountable for their social policies. If the Conservative Government does not want to pay for free licences for over 75’s then they should be upfront about their policy. However, passing the buck onto the BBC is underhand and risks undermining the BBC’s financial viability to provide what the license fee payer expects.”

Age UK have said that 1 in 4 over the age of 65 say that TV is their main form of companionship.

Alistair Cameron, the Welsh Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire said “There has been much coverage of this issue on TV and social media since the BBC made the announcement that it was withdrawing free TV licences from all pensioners except those on Pension Credit.

Many pensioners over the age of 75 are not able to get out a lot. For them, the TV is a really important part of their lives.

A lot of pensioners have to survive on a low income, including those who do not claim pension credit. Having to pay for a TV licence will be very hard on them.”

Andrew Lye, the Chair of Pembrokeshire Liberal Democrats said “Many people are annoyed at the decision and rightly so.

I can appreciate that the wealthy over 75 currently receive a free TV licence as do those on a basic state pension. We must remember that there are many pensioners not in receipt of pension credit and struggle to manage on their pension. MP’s need to remember that the Conservative 2017 Manifesto committed them to free TV licenses for the over 75’s for the duration of this Parliament, and the ‘grey vote’ will remember this broken promise at the next General Election.”

Andrew Lye went on to say, “Of course with the latest released figures showing £3.1bn of unclaimed Pension Credit in the UK, I would call upon pensioners in Pembrokeshire to phone 0800-991234 as the website https://www.gov.uk/pension-credit/how-to-claim states that phoning them is the quickest way to find out if you qualify. Who knows, you may get money that you are entitled to”.

Andrew Lye added, “We call upon the Government to resolve this issue as it is unfair that it will affect millions of pensioners and we hope that Pembrokeshire MP’s, Stephen Crabb and Simon Hart will make representations to the Prime Minister. Just because you do not claim or get Pension Credit, you cannot automatically assume that they are all well off on their pension. With the growing problem of loneliness in the elderly, especially where a partner has died, the TV is a vital lifeline and we should treat our pensioners better”.

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