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Politics

Assembly Kippers shrink again

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On Tuesday (March 26) Michelle Brown became the fourth assembly member to leave the group since UKIP won seven Senedd seats in 2016.

UKIP HEADING RIGHT TO THE EXTREMES

Leaving the Assembly group, the North Wales AM pointed to the increasingly close relationship between UKIP’s leader, Gerard Batten, and Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson).

Mr Batten’s appointed Yaxley-Lennon as an ‘adviser’, even though he is not a UKIP member. Under Gerard Batten, UKIP increasingly panders to a racist and ultra-nationalist agenda similar to that of the extremist English Defence League, of which Yaxley-Lennon is a former leader.

Batten has proposed a halt on immigration from Islamic countries and separate jails for Muslim prisoners. He has also compared Yaxley-Lennon to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

Quitting UKIP, Ms Brown said: “While it is clear that the UK needs a plan to defeat extremism and fundamentalism in all its forms and identities, I fear that the current UKIP leadership believes the best way to do that is to incubate and cultivate a rival fundamentalism.”

A PARTY EASIER TO LEAVE THAN JOIN

Ms Brown’s tenure as an AM has not been without controversy. She was censured and suspended from the Assembly for describing the then-Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, as a “f**king coconut….black on the outside, white on the inside” in a secretly recorded phone call.

Meanwhile, UKIP claims she resigned from the Party to avoid internal disciplinary processes relating to what it claims is poor attendance in Plenary sessions in the Senedd.

Whatever the truth of the situation is, Ms Brown’s departure from UKIP since Gerard Batten began cosying up to ‘Tommy Robinson’ is one of a number of high profile departures from the party including former leader Nigel Farage, MEP Patrick O’Flynn, UKIP’s Scottish leader David Coburn, and members of the Party’s National Executive.

One member of the NEC who quit, former parliamentary candidate Michael McGough said Ukip had become a “national socialist, authoritarian party” run by “fundamentalist Christians and ex-convicts”.

Current NEC rules prevent Yaxley-Lennon from joining the party.

COUNTING DOWN

The election of seven UKIP AMs in 2016 is a gift which keeps on giving for lovers of low farce.

First of all the leader of UKIP in Wales, Nathan Gill, was removed as leader of the UKIP Assembly Group. He subsequently sat as an independent. That reduced UKIP’s number to six before the Fifth Assembly even convened.

When Mr Gill eventually vacated his seat, his replacement – Mandy Jones – was excluded from the UKIP group because she continued to employ Mr Gill’s staff. Some of those staff members were unpopular for criticising the UKIP group in the Senedd in briefings delivered on Mr Gill’s behalf.

In Nathan Gill’s place as leader, UKIP AMs placed the former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton. The colourful and controversial Mr Hamilton has assiduously cultivated a pantomime villain public persona which is not necessarily always an act.

Thereafter, the UKIP numbers shrank to five, when the former Conservative MP Mark Reckless semi-defected to the Conservatives. Excluded from sitting as a Conservative AM, he is nonetheless counted in as a member of the Conservative group in the sort of arrangement that left the Conservatives’ UK leadership exasperated.

With UKIP down to five AMs, there came another coup. This time, Caroline Jones was installed as leader and Mr Hamilton set aside. Mr Hamilton was not happy and a poll of the membership took place to determine who should be party leader; but only in the Senedd.

The strength of UKIP’s support in Wales was underlined by the announcement of the result of a poll of its mass membership base. Of its 876 members in Wales, 514 voted in the leadership election that returned Gareth Bennett as the Party’s leader in the Senedd with a whopping 269 votes.

Exit Caroline Jones, leaving UKIP with four AMs.

Mr Bennett’s gift for finding his mouth with his foot has been an uplifting feature of Welsh public life since his rise to prominence. A phenomenon which one Conservative AM suggested is proof that it is not only cream which rises to the top.

Aligning himself to the leadership direction of Gerard Batten, Mr Bennett’s determination to offend anyone and everyone has lowered his Party to depths previously thought of as unreachable by normal means.

Last weekend, a meeting devoted to abolishing the Assembly due to be addressed by Mr Bennett was abandoned when only three people turned up.

It appears there is further to go on UKIP’s journey before it hits the bottom.

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Politics

WG settles ‘scandalous’ land sale case

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THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has settled a claim against its former advisors about land sales which took place under a purported regeneration scheme.

The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) had issued proceedings against Amber Fund Management and Lambert Smith Hampton concerning the portfolio sale of 15 properties in 2012.

The settlement has been reached on a commercial basis and without any admission of liability by any party.

The detailed terms have been incorporated into a confidential settlement agreement between the parties.

The Welsh Government Minister for Local Government, Julie James, said the £40.7 million tied up in the Fund can now be made available to support future investments across Wales.

RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to allow the Welsh Government to raise money which could then be used to fund regeneration and investments in Welsh businesses.

It was a complete shambles.

One of the advisors appointed had previous connections with one of the parties which bought some of the land at an undervalue.

Vital information was not relayed to the RIFW’s board by the Welsh Government and Board members were kept in the dark about transactions carried out in their name.

Under the oversight of their appointed agents and Welsh Government civil servants, RIFW sold publicly owned assets by private treaty and without prior valuation at a price that reflected the assets’ existing use, under sale terms that provided only limited protection to the public interest in their significant future development values, and via a negotiation process that left RIFW lumbered with undesirable assets.

The Chair of the Senedd Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay MS, said: “The out of court settlement between the Welsh Government and the former advisors of RIFW effectively brings a curtain down on a very sorry and lamentable episode.

“The hasty sell-off of publicly-owned land at bargain-basement prices effectively deprived Welsh taxpayers of tens of millions of pounds which could’ve been used for essential services.

“We look forward to examining matters further with the Permanent Secretary and Head of the Welsh Government Civil Service, Shan Morgan, at our next meeting on Monday, November 23.

“We will be asking what robust steps have been taken to avoid history repeating.”

RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to sell off land around Wales including in north Wales, Monmouthshire and Cardiff, and use the money, in conjunction with European funding, to reinvest in areas in need of regeneration.

But the Public Accounts Committee found that the body was poorly managed, poorly overseen by the government, and that, because of a change in the direction of RIFW, from one of regeneration to property asset disposals, some of the Board members felt they lacked the necessary knowledge and expertise to fulfil their roles.

It also learned that the Board was not presented with key information regarding the value of the land in its portfolio, or of expressions of interest from potential buyers.

Fifteen plots of land, originally supposed to be sold separately, were instead sold as a single portfolio at a price which did not take into account potential use of the land in the future. This decision resulted in Welsh taxpayers missing out on tens of millions of pounds of funding.

The Committee learned that one of the organisations charged with offering expert advice to the Board, Lambert Smith Hampton Ltd, had previously acted on behalf of a director of the buyer of the land, South Wales Land Developments Ltd (SWLD), and signed an agreement to do so again one day after the sales went through.

The Committee concluded that the RIFW Board had been poorly served by its own expert advisors.

Angela Burns MS – Shadow Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency – said: “The Fund was established to sell valuable packages of Welsh Government land, with the money used to support regeneration schemes. However, evidence has since emerged that shows that the sale of RIFW’s assets was undertaken at a loss of tens of millions of pounds. A loss which was borne ultimately by the Welsh Taxpayer and yet another example of the complete inability of this Labour Government to be fiscally prudent.

“Millions of pounds have been squandered, millions that could have been invested in our education and health systems or spent building Wales’ economy or supporting some of our more vulnerable citizens. It’s an absolute scandal and the real scandal is the Welsh Government can slide out of their responsibility for this debacle”

Included in the scandal are:

  • Fifteen sites sold for £21 million; with the taxpayer missing out on staggering sums of money
  • A site in Rhoose purchased from RIFW for less than £3m – sold on for almost £10.5m South Wales Land Developments Ltd. Taxpayers losing out
  • An Abergele site purchased from RIFW for £100,000, without overage, and sold for £1.9million. Taxpayers losing out
  • Land in Lisvane sold for £1.8million – worth £39million.

 

Welsh Conservatives also claim the Welsh Government has squandered £1 billion on other projects, including:

  • £221m on uncompetitive Enterprise Zones
  • £9.3m on flawed initial funding of the Circuit of Wales
  • £97.9m on delays and overspend on the A465 Heads of the Valleys Road
  • £157m on the M4 relief road inquiry
  • Over £100m propping up Cardiff Airport
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Politics

UK not ready for Brexit

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A REPORT published last week by the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) says that although government departments have made progress in recent months implementing the changes required to systems, infrastructure and resources to manage the border at the end of the post-EU Exit transition period, it is still likely that widespread disruption will occur from January 1, 2021.
In its fourth report assessing government’s preparations at the border, the NAO highlights that planning for 1 January 2021 has built on work done for previous EU Exit deadline.
The report says COVID-19 has exacerbated delays in government’s preparations and significant risks remain, particularly in relation to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol and trader readiness more generally.
Departments have made progress towards implementing the systems, infrastructure and resources required to operate the border in relation to Great Britain at “minimum operating capability” by January 1 and are reasonably confident most will be ready, but timetables are tight.
The ability for traders to move goods under transit arrangements is a key element of the government’s plans but some elements will be challenging to deliver in their entirety.
HMRC currently estimates that there will be around 6.3 million movements of goods under transit arrangements in the year following the end of the transition period. If all the planned arrangements are not ready, this could have an impact on the ease with which traders can import and export goods.
There is little time for ports and other third parties to integrate their systems and processes with new or changed government systems, and contingency plans may need to be invoked for some elements.
In part as a result of the delays caused by COVID-19, there is limited time to test individual elements and resolve any emerging issues; ensure elements operate together; familiarise users with them in advance and little or no contingency time in the event of any delays.
Even if the Westminster government makes further progress with its preparations, there is still likely to be significant disruption at the border from January 1, as traders will be unprepared for new EU border controls which will require additional administration and checks.
The government’s latest reasonable worst-case planning assumptions, from September 2020, are that 40% to 70% per cent of hauliers will not be ready for these new controls and up to 7,000 lorries may need to queue at the approach to the short Channel crossings,6 such as Dover to Calais.
The government’s plan for reducing the risk of disruption at the approach to the short Channel crossings is still developing, with various issues yet to be resolved. It intends to launch a new GOV.UK web service called ‘Check an HGV is ready to cross the border’ for hauliers to check and self-declare that they have the correct documentation for EU import controls before travelling and obtain permits to drive on prescribed roads in Kent.
However, there is more to do on how ‘Check an HGV’ will be enforced and how it will work together with traffic management plans for Kent.
Government is preparing civil contingency plans, such as to ensure continuity of the supply of critical goods and medicines in the event of any disruption to supply chains.
On October 13, the Department for Transport announced it had awarded contracts to provide additional freight capacity for over 3,000 lorries a week on routes avoiding the short Channel crossings.
However, COVID-19 is making civil contingency plans more difficult to enact, with local authorities, industry and supply chains already under additional strain.
The UK Government will also need to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol from January 1. However, due to the scale and complexity of the changes, the lack of time and the impact of ongoing negotiations, there is a very high risk it may not be implemented in time.
The government has left itself little time to mobilise its new Trader Support Service (TSS), in which it has announced it is investing £200 million, to reduce the burden on traders moving goods to Northern Ireland and to help them prepare.
It will be challenging to establish the TSS by 1 January 2021. Work needs to be done to identify NI traders and sign them up to use the service; recruit and train the staff required; develop software to enable traders to connect to HMRC’s systems; and deliver educational activities to traders.
There is also ongoing uncertainty about the requirements for the movement of goods under the Protocol. Therefore, there is still a high risk that traders will not be ready.
The government is spending significant sums of money preparing the border for the end of the transition period and, in 2020 alone, announced funding of £1.41 billion to fund new infrastructure and systems, and wider support and investment.
Despite this, there remains significant uncertainty about whether preparations will be complete in time, and the impact if they are not. Some of this uncertainty could have been avoided, and better preparations made, had the government addressed sooner issues such as the need for an increase in the number of customs agents to support traders.
The NAO says that government must continue to focus its efforts on resolving the many outstanding issues relating to the border and develop robust contingency plans if these cannot be addressed in time for the end of the transition period.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The January 1 deadline is unlike any previous EU Exit deadline: significant changes at the border will take place and government must be ready.
“Disruption is likely and the government will need to respond quickly to minimise the impact, a situation made all the more challenging by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
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Politics

Pembrokeshire County Council considering ‘Fire-break’ implications

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FOLLOWING the First Minister’s announcement at lunchtime today (Oct 19) of an all-Wales ‘firebreak’ commencing on Friday, Pembrokeshire County Council is currently assessing the impact this will have on its services.

Council Leader, David Simpson, said: “I can provide assurance that detailed planning arrangements both internally, and externally with our partner agencies, are underway to ensure that we are well placed to meet any challenges which may arise.

“We will be issuing further updates over the coming days.”

Councillor Simpson added: “The First Minister has clearly said the ‘firebreak’ has been put in place due to the increasing level of cases across Wales.

“Although the restrictions do not come into force until Friday we all have to act now – early prevention can make a huge difference.”

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