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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.

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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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News

Review of polling districts and places

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL has launched a review of polling districts and polling station locations across the county.

The aim is to ensure that all polling districts and polling places are, as far as possible, suitable and accessible to all voters.

The Council welcomes comments from those satisfied with the present arrangements but is also keen to hear from those with a different view.

Suggestions on more suitable premises for polling stations than the current ones would be appreciated, as would any specific issues relating to access.

To find out more and pass on views visit: here

Alternatively, telephone the Council’s Customer Contact Centre on 01437 764551 for hard copy documents.

The review runs until 26th July.

Representations received will be considered and final recommendations will be discussed at Full Council on 10th October.

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First Minister calls for a second EU referendum

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THE FIRST MINISTER of Wales, Mark Drakeford, has called for a second EU referendum in response to the imminent change in Conservative leadership.

After the results of the European Parliamentary Elections were announced, Mr Drakeford issued a statement, saying: “I warmly congratulate Jackie Jones on her election as a member of the European Parliament. Jackie, along with Matthew [Dorrance], Mary [Wimbury] and Mark [Whitcutt] served our party as candidates in what has been the most challenging of circumstances.

“Ever since the referendum in 2016, the Welsh Government has respected the result by arguing for a form of Brexit which would protect Welsh jobs and our economy. Labour colleagues in Westminster have done the same, most recently in negotiations with the UK Government.

“The election of a new Conservative leader changes all of that. It eliminates the chances of any agreed form of Brexit and it hugely increases the very real danger of a catastrophic no-deal exit from the EU. We cannot and will not stand by while that takes place.

“Faced with the damage of a hardline Tory Brexit, Welsh Labour believes that the final decision must be made by the public in a referendum. And, for the avoidance of any doubt, a Welsh Labour Government would campaign, in such a vote, for Wales to remain in the EU.

“We will work with any others who seek the same outcome.”

Last Thursday (May 24), Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she will quit as leader of the Conservatives on June 7, with it thought that a new leader could be in place by the end of July.

Many believe the party will elect a right wing leader who would be willing to propose a no deal Brexit, although there has been a majority against that option when Parliament voted on it before. Brexit policy was also key to the European Parliamentary Elections, where the Labour Party failed to attract votes, with its lead candidate Jackie Jones narrowly taking the final MEP seat in Wales.

The party claimed just 15.3% of the vote in Wales and 14.1% UK wide, with many pointing at the party’s indecision regarding its stance over Brexit as the reason for the loss of voters.

Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has been criticised by many in his party over his reluctance to openly support another referendum, as he attempted to appease both remain and leave voters with his Brexit policy. Mr Drakeford had been similarly reluctant to definitively back another referendum, but with this statement has gained the support of many in the party who wish for a second vote.

The European election results were also poor for the Conservatives, getting just 6.5% of the vote in Wales, and 9.09% across the UK. Governments often perform poorly in European elections, as the public express their disappointment with the ruling party, but this was the Conservatives’ worst ever result in a nationwide election by some way.

The party did not manage to come first in a single council area. The Brexit Party gained 32.5% of the vote in Wales, with Nathan Gill and James Wells claiming two of the country’s four MEP seats for Nigel Farage’s party. Plaid Cymru won 19.6% of the vote, with Jill Evans retaining her seat as Plaid beat Labour for the first time in a Wales-wide vote.

Andrew RT Davies, AM for South Wales Central and former leader of the Welsh Conservative Party, said: “The European Elections proved extremely difficult for the two major parties, but a second referendum is certainly not the answer. Labour promised to respect the Brexit vote, but rerunning the referendum would completely tear up this pledge.

“Regrettably, the First Minister has buckled at the first sign of discontent from his Labour colleagues who have been in denial ever since the people of Wales voted to leave the European Union back in 2016. That’s not leadership.

“People in Wales voted to leave and that should be respected and now delivered – anything else will have severe consequences for democracy as we know it in this country.”

In the 2016 referendum, Wales saw a turnout of 71.7% of its eligible voters, with 52.53% voting to leave and 47.47% voting to remain.

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