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Politics

Start of Term Report: Labour in Wales

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PROFESSOR Roger Awan-Scully writes:
I have used this point in the political calendar – the return after the summer recess – to assess the current electoral standing of the main parties in Wales.

Over the next couple of weeks, I intend to revive this custom, and address a single, simple question: with just a few months until the Senedd election, where do each of the main parties stand?

I begin this series of pieces with an assessment of the position of Wales’ long-dominant party, Labour.
A good place to start assessing the immediate prospects for a party is to review its immediate past. For Labour that recent past has been problematic. The December 2019 general election saw the party once again come first in Wales in both votes and seats – for the 27th general election in a row. But such an outcome has rarely felt less victorious.

Across the UK, Labour suffered their worst post-war general election defeat. Even in its ultimate bastion of Wales, Labour lost six parliamentary seats, thus achieving their lowest number of Welsh MPs since the debacle of 1983; the party also saw its vote share drop by a full eight percentage points on 2017 – a decline that was actually slightly worse than their Britain-wide average.

The closer you looked at the general election result for Welsh Labour, the worse it got.

Labour’s vote share fell in 39 of the forty Welsh seats (with exception being Montgomeryshire, where they were never remotely in the running).

In north Wales, only Mark Tami hanging on by a whisker in Alyn and Deeside prevented a complete Labour wipeout, and even seats like Wrexham that had been Labour for decades were lost.

Yet while north Wales was where the map changed colour most obviously, in other places Labour’s decline was even starker.

There were seven seats, all in south Wales, where the fall in Labour vote share was greater than in any of the six seats that were lost. Even in many places where the electoral map remained red, Labour was in significant retreat.

And the December disaster was not a one-off.

In the unplanned for European election earlier in 2019, Welsh Labour accrued their lowest vote share at any Wales-wide election since before World War I, and finished behind Plaid Cymru in such a contest for the first time ever.

The months that followed saw Welsh Labour’s opinion poll ratings, for both Westminster and the Senedd, reach the lowest levels ever recorded; they also saw the Labour candidate barely saving his deposit in the Brecon and Radnor by-election.

Since the general election, of course, an enormous amount has changed. One thing that will surely be of long-term importance is that the UK party is now led by Sir Keir Starmer, not Jeremy Corbyn.

While the circumstances of recent months have limited Starmer’s ability to reach out to the British public, the polling evidence already indicates him doing better with them than his predecessor ever managed. But those circumstances – the Covid-19 pandemic and its manifold implications – have become the defining political reality of the present.

In Wales, as across Britain as a whole, Labour’s poll ratings have largely been driven by public evaluations of the Conservative UK government’s handling of Covid. In the first few weeks of the crisis (as was seen in the April Welsh Political Barometer poll), the public largely ‘rallied to the flag’; these tendencies were reinforced for a while by personal sympathy extended to a severely unwell Prime Minister Johnson. As public evaluations of the UK government’s handling of Covid-19 have subsequently worsened, the electoral position of Labour has improved.

It has long been the case that Welsh devolved elections are influenced by the Britain-wide political context. But to an even greater extent than usual, Welsh Labour’s electoral prospects for May 2021 are likely to be shaped by factors wholly out of its control.

The most obvious of these factors is Covid – the development of the disease and treatments for it, the manifold social and economic implications of the crisis, and public evaluations of how the UK government addresses these problems. But another important issue will likely be Brexit, a project that is, of course, very closely identified with Prime Minister Johnson.

Having formally left the EU at the end of January 2020, the UK is due to depart the union’s economic space by the end of this calendar year; how smoothly that occurs will do much to shape public reactions to the Conservatives and, in consequence, the political fortunes of Labour.

One Britain-wide factor that is surely positive for Welsh Labour is that they are no longer shackled to the electoral corpse of Corbynism. Yet even that positive may be limited in value: in Wales, as across Britain, it is likely to take some time for damage done to the Labour brand to be repaired.

When you have been publicly punching yourself in the face for nearly five years, it takes a while for voters to forget.

Having said all that, Welsh Labour can still shape its own electoral fate.

How the Welsh Government has handled Covid within Wales will surely be subject to extensive scrutiny over the next few months. The outcome to the Senedd election will also affected by the effectiveness of campaigning and leadership within Wales. In these respects, things are looking rather better for Labour than they were. Mark Drakeford’s first year as Welsh Labour leader could scarcely have gone much worse: not only were there the election and polling results for the party discussed above, but public evaluations of him personally were similarly dreadful. Large proportions of Welsh voters didn’t know who he was, and those who did were generally unimpressed.

But the Covid crisis has substantially enhanced the First Minister’s public visibility, and the seriousness of the crisis has played to his strengths. Mark Drakeford will never be a natural at ‘retail politics’, but the most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll suggested, for the first time ever, that he could become an electoral asset for his party next May rather a significant liability.

The electoral battleground onto which Welsh Labour and their opponents will march is one defined by the 2016 result. That constituted an overwhelmingly successful rearguard action by Welsh Labour: against a difficult UK-wide context their vote share fell substantially on 2011, yet the party lost only one seat.
Many seats that Labour had won very comfortably in 2011 became significantly more marginal in 2016, whereas seats they had come close to gaining five years previously now receded from view. Thus, the results from 2016 show that there are nine Labour-held constituencies that could fall on a lower swing than would needed for Labour to gain their most marginal target seat of Aberconwy (where Labour would need a 3.35 percent swing to gain the seat, coming from third place).

While some of the apparently marginal seats from 2016 (such as Cardiff West and Blaenau Gwent) may present a misleading picture due to specific local circumstances, the overall picture suggested by the above statistic is surely correct: Welsh Labour in 2021 have much more potential to lose seats than to gain them.

Some geographical nuance is needed, however. In the North Wales electoral region, two Labour seats – Vale of Clwyd and Wrexham – are obviously marginal. However, on a difficult night for Labour where they lost both to the Conservatives, they might well gain a list seat in partial compensation, limiting their overall losses to one.

In Mid and West Wales, Labour’s potential losses are probably also capped at one seat: if Lee Waters were to be defeated in perennially-marginal Llanelli that would solidify even further the party’s two regional list seats.

It is in south Wales were the potential action lies.

Labour’s continued dominance of the Senedd is based on their grip over the constituency seats in the three southern electoral regions. The majority of these seats have been uninterruptedly Labour for the entire lifetime of the Senedd; indeed in South Wales West the total number of constituency contests Labour have ever lost is zero.

The limited number of regional list seats here is wholly insufficient to compensate the other parties proportionally for Labour’s constituency dominance. The converse of this is that any Labour losses here would be pure losses: the party would need to sustain multiple constituency defeats in any one region before it became likely to gain any list seats in compensation.

If the non-Labour forces in the Senedd are ever to crack Labour’s dominance of the chamber (at least under the current electoral system) then they have to make serious inroads into the south Wales constituencies: there is simply no alternative.

The next Welsh Political Barometer poll (coming soon!) will provide the latest evidence on how Labour and their opponents are currently doing.

But no party has yet finished within ten seats of Labour at a Senedd election. It would take a brave or foolhardy person to bet against their dominance of devolved politics ending in May 2021.

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Politics

Plaid proposes second home restrictions

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THE TIME has come for the Welsh Government to take firm actions to protect communities and first time buyers against the economic oppression of runaway second home purchases, according to Plaid Cymru.
On Wednesday (September 23) the party published a 16-page report containing five main recommendations ahead of a debate in the Senedd the same afternoon.
The proposed measures include:
• Changing planning laws to allow councils to impose a cap on the number of second homes, refuse permission for changing a dwelling from being from a primary to a secondary residence and disallow new properties from being purchased in areas where second homes make up to 20% of the local market
• Allowing council to charge council tax premiums of up to 200% on second homes and having the Welsh Government bring forward regulations to treble the LTT (Land Transaction Tax) charge on the purchase of second properties.
• Close the loophole that allows second home owners to register their property as “businesses” in order to avoid paying the council tax premium.
• Look at bringing in a licencing scheme for renting properties through companies such as AirBnB to control the amount of properties that can be used as a cash cow in popular holiday destinations where house prices are high.
• Proposals to empower councils to build houses with a local conditions on them, make it easier to bring empty properties back into use and redefine the term ‘affordable home’ (which currently includes properties worth over £250,000).
There were 4,000 in Pembrokeshire in 2018 (source PCC). In 2016 in Tenby, 35% of all homes were second homes/holiday lets (source PCC).
Lexden Terrace off St Julien Street, Tenby has six dwellings, five of which are second homes; in Harding Street, eight of eleven houses are second homes; in yet another street in central Tenby, 22 out of 31 houses are second homes.
Across West Wales, there are considerable fears that one of thecoronavirus pandemic has fuelled a housing ‘bubble’ due to the disease’s relatively low rate of infection and transmission in the locality.
“The proliferation of second homes in seaside towns and villages has been driving up property prices and driving away our young people for some time,” said Pembrokeshire County Councillor Mike Williams of Tenby.
“Unless action is taken to regulate the second home market, out coastal communities will become a playground for people who are rich enough to own more than one home. What use is the Future Generations Act if young people have no chance of having a future in their communities?”
Speaking to another local councillor last week, The Herald was told of one house which went on the market on a Friday this month and was sold to buyers from outside Pembrokeshire by the following Monday for £70,000 over its asking price.
When we spoke to a county councillor in Ceredigion, we were told a similar story: properties going onto the market are being snapped up over their asking price as second homes by outsiders attracted by the county’s excellent record handling the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking about the publication of the report and ahead of the Senedd debate, Plaid Cymru’s shadow housing minister Delyth Jewell MS said: “People all over Wales have heard the cry of pain coming from the North West over the past few months, as the already unsustainable holiday homes situation spirals further out of control.
“The main purpose of devolution was so that we in Wales would have the powers to fix our problems ourselves, but the situation isn’t improving with over a third of homes sold in Gwynedd and Ynys Môn in the last financial year being purchased as second properties.
“12% of Gwynedd’s housing stock consists of second homes owned by people outside the county, this is among the highest in Europe and the subsequent price inflation in a low-wage area means that people are simply unable to buy a home within their own community.
“The series of measures proposed by Plaid Cymru today are designed to bring the situation under control and empower communities through targeted, proportional interventions and I hope the Welsh Government will consider them seriously.”
Ms Jewell added: “Countries all over the world have taken action in the face of similar circumstances, for example New Zealand and Denmark have simply banned property sales for non-citizens, and the Bolzano region is Italy has restricted the sales of holiday homes to people outside the region.
“We can’t go on like this, it’s not fair that people who are living in areas already disadvantaged in terms of a lack of work opportunities have to see their communities slowly being transformed as locals have to move away in order to find a house to live in.
“I am deeply concerned about the effect this will have on the Welsh language, it will be a stain on the conscience of the nation if the language is allowed to wither away in its heartlands simply because the Welsh Government doesn’t want to act.
“But this is an issue that affects the whole of Wales as house prices keep inflating – the measures on affordable housing, LTT rates and the localism clause would benefit first-time buyers all around the country.”

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Politics

Home Office wings it on immigration

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A KEY House of Commons Select Committee’s report has savaged the Home Office’s inability to provide information about immigration.
The Public Accounts Committee says the Department’s policy is informed less by hard evidence than by anecdote.
In its report, the Committee acknowledges that immigration ‘has always been a cause of public and political debate’. However, it expresses concern that, after many years of addressing the issue the Home Office can provide little evidence to inform that debate.
Despite previous enquiries and reports into the Home Office’s handling of immigration, the Committee says: ‘[T]he Department is still not sufficiently curious about the impact of its actions and the underlying reasons for the challenges it faces’.
The report criticises the Home Office for having no idea what impact it has achieved for the £400 million spent each year by its Immigration Enforcement directorate.
It continues: ‘There are major holes in the Department’s understanding of the size and scale of illegal immigration and the extent and nature of any resulting harm. It does not understand the support people need to navigate its systems effectively and humanely, or how its actions affect them’.

HOME OFFICE POLICY NOT BASED ON EVIDENCE

The Committee flays the Department for appearing to formulate policy on “anecdote, assumption and prejudice” and criticises it for showing ‘far too little concern’ over the consequences of its failures on both the illegal and legitimate migrant populations.
Despite years of public and political debate and concern, the Department still does not know the size of the illegal population in the UK.
It does not know what harm the illegal population causes.
It does not know how many people come to the UK legally and do not renew their visa, or how many deliberately come illegally.
The Home Office has not estimated the illegal population in the UK since 2005. It had no answer to the Committee’s concerns that potentially exaggerated figures calculated by unofficial sources could inflame hostility towards immigrants.
The Home Office does not know whether policies introduced to create what the then Home Secretary dubbed a hostile environment to deter illegal migration.
The lack of evidence base and “significant lack of diversity” at senior levels has created organisational “blind spots”, with the Windrush scandal a damning indictment of “the damage such a culture creates”.
In 2019, 62% of immigration detainees were released from detention because the Department could not return them as planned to their country of origin – up from 58% the year before. The Department doesn’t know why this figure is so high, or what it can do to ensure these returns are completed as planned.

‘INSUFFICIENTLY PREPARED’

The Home Office is unprepared for the challenges the UK’s exit from the EU presents to its immigration enforcement operations. In evidence to the Committee in mid-July it could provide no evidence that it had even begun discussions with the EU partners it relies on to support its international operations, including the return of foreign national offenders and illegal migrants.
The Home Office has belatedly accepted a previous Committee recommendation that it must extend its “lessons learned” review of Windrush Department beyond Caribbean Commonwealth nationals to include nationals from other Commonwealth countries.
The Committee is not convinced that the Department is sufficiently prepared to properly safeguard the existing, legal immigrant population in the UK, while also implementing a new immigration system and managing its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CHAIR’S COMMENTS

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The Home Office has frighteningly little grasp of the impact of its activities in managing immigration. It shows no inclination to learn from its numerous mistakes across a swathe of immigration activities – even when it fully accepts that it has made serious errors.
“It accepts the wreckage that its ignorance and the culture it has fostered caused in the Windrush scandal – but the evidence we saw shows too little intent to change, and inspires no confidence that the next such scandal isn’t right around the corner.
“15 years after the then Home Secretary declared the UK’s immigration system “not fit for purpose” it is time for transformation of the Immigration Enforcement into a data-led organisation. Within six months of this report we expect a detailed plan, with set priorities and deadlines, for how the Home Office is going to make this transformation.”
A Home Office spokesperson responded to the report, saying: “We have developed a balanced and evidence-based approach to maintaining a fair immigration system. Since 2010, we have removed more than 53,000 foreign national offenders and more than 133,000 people as enforced removals.
“On a daily basis we continue to tackle those who fail to comply with our immigration laws and abuse our hospitality by committing serious, violent and persistent crimes, with immigration enforcement continually becoming more efficient.”
Why the Home Office could not provide proof of that ‘balanced and evidence-based approach’ to the Public Accounts Committee remains a mystery.

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News

Council workers criticise bumper pay-off for chief executive

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COUNCIL workers employed by Pembrokeshire County Council have expressed their shock at the bumper pay-off for the authority’s out-going chief executive, according to the public services union.
UNISON says it is outraged such an enormous sum has been agreed at a time when Pembrokeshire residents face the greatest social and economic uncertainty of recent times.
The trade union has criticised council executives for a lack of transparency in the decision and said paying thousands of pounds was offensive to low paid care workers, school support staff and others, who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic.

Jonathan Lewis, UNISON Pembrokeshire branch secretary, told The Pembrokeshire Herald: “£95,000 is a lottery-size win and an incomprehensibly large amount of money for the thousands of low paid council staff who have continued to serve their community throughout the lockdown in very difficult circumstances.
“This deal was agreed behind closed doors and gives the impression the council is awash with money when the reality is key community services have been reduced by spending cuts.
“Council executives need a reality check. Their decision represents a crass lack of awareness for what their employees and local people have been going through for the last six months. UNISON is calling for an immediate review of the pay-off.”
Pembrokeshire County Council’s Conservative Group said would be the first to thank and acknowledge the huge contribution of Mr Ian Westley in nearly two decades of service to the Council.

In a statement, the group said: “£95,000 is being reported as a settlement which has been authorised by the Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, Cllr David Simpson. Clearly the council tax payers of Pembrokeshire will want to know, and deserve to know, why the Leader agreed this.

“Since the current political leadership of Pembrokeshire County Council took office in May 2017, they have presided over an inflation busting Council Tax increase of 27.4% over just 3 years, and this settlement again prompts serious questions about their spending priorities that are being paid for by the hard-working tax payers of Pembrokeshire.”

As we reported in our print version of The Herald on Friday (Sept 11), the agreement for the payoff was reached through negotiation and is the maximum pay-out available for departing public sector employees.
Mr Westley’s payment was a matter delegated through the Council’s internal procedures to its leader, Cllr David Simpson, who authorised the agreement – executed by Director of Finance and Transformation Jon Haswell on Tuesday, September 1.
Settlement agreements are legally binding contracts which can be used to end an employment relationship on agreed terms. They are voluntary and parties do not have to agree to them or enter into a discussion about them. There can be a process of negotiation during which both sides make proposals and counter-proposals until an agreement is reached or both parties decide no agreement can be reached.

Negotiations regarding settlement agreements are confidential and neither party can disclose their content.

The existence of a Settlement Agreement works both ways. They are not proof of any legally actionable misconduct by either party and can be used to end employment for a variety of reasons, whether proposed by the employer or employee.
Speculation about what led to the negotiation is just that; although, as we reveal in this week’s paper, there were problems between Mr Westley and several members of the Cabinet and a blistering row between Mr Westley and another member of the Council’s senior management in the last few months.
In Mr Westley’s case, the Council – as Mr Westley’s employer – disclosed both the payment and settlement agreement’s existence (though not its other content or the negotiations) voluntarily at the time it was entered into.
Previous practice at Pembrokeshire County Council was to disclose the sums subject to such agreements either in response to a general request under the Freedom of Information Act or buried in the Council’s annual accounts – as was the case regarding the former Director of Education Graham Longster amongst other officers who left before 2017.
The case of previous CEO Bryn Parry Jones, and the amount of money sought by Carmarthenshire’s former CEO Mark James when he volunteered for redundancy directly contributed to the Welsh Government’s decision to cap senior staff’s pay-outs.

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