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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

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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