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Politics

Russia Report flays government inaction

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AFTER nine months of delay, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the embarrassment its content could have caused to successive Conservative Prime Ministers, the long-awaited Intelligence Services Committee report into Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes was published on Tuesday, July 21.

The Committee delivered its report to the UK Government last autumn, well before the announcement of December’s General Election. However, the Government delayed its release indefinitely.

PUBLICATION AFTER GRAYLING FAILED AGAIN
The report’s publication on Tuesday followed an attempt by Number 10 Downing Street to rig the election of a new Chair for the Committee. Former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve QC stood down at the last election.

Last week, Number 10 attempted to parachute in a patsy to replace Dominic Grieve, former Cabinet Minister Chris Grayling, hoping to kick the report even further into the long grass. The effort failed comically when the Government’s nominee lost a rigged election. The new Chair, Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP, had the Conservative whip withdrawn from him as a result of ‘disloyalty’ to Number 10.

The attempt to thwart the report’s publication – or to neuter its already heavily redacted form – rebounded badly on Boris Johnson and draws attention to some of the report’s more uncomfortable conclusions regarding the extent of Russian infiltration into the UK’s public life.
The report is a scathing assessment of the UK Government’s continued failure to either adequately assess or even investigate how Russia, or those associated with the Putin regime, attempted to influence the UK electorate.

KEY FINDINGS
• Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures.• This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.
• It clearly demonstrates the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. While we cannot now shut the stable door, greater powers and transparency are needed urgently.
• UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation. While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action to influence our democratic processes.
• Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. This must change.
• Social media companies must take action and remove covert hostile state material: Government must ‘name and shame’ those who fail to act.
• We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions. [The Russian state’s coordination of the Novichok attack in] Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high watermark in international unity over the Russia threat.
Several issues addressed in the published version of the Russia Report are covered in more depth in a Classified Annex which is unavailable for public scrutiny.

GOVERNMENT DIDN’T RECOGNISE THREAT
A statement by the Committee said: “There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence.

“The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove. However what is clear is that the Government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014 (when Russia attempted to interfere in the Scottish Independence Referendum). As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016.”

“The Committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In our view, there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.”

In a press conference following the report’s publication, Chair of the Intelligence Services Committee, Julian Lewis recused himself from commenting on the report. He told media as he was not a member of the committee when it drew up the report, he would leave answers on its contents to two MPs who were members of it at the relevant time.

NO EFFORT TO INVESTIGATE
Members of the Intelligence Select Committee (ISC) said there was ‘no evidence’ that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum, but only because the government did not try to find out if it had.

One member, Stewart Hosie MP (SNP) said: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.

“The UK Government has actively avoided seeking evidence as to whether Russia interfered.”

The report notes: “For example, it was widely reported shortly after the Scottish referendum that Russian election observers had suggested that there were irregularities in the conduct of the vote, and this position was widely pushed by Russian state media.

“We understand that HMG viewed this as being primarily aimed at discrediting the UK in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience.”
Russian propaganda was widely shared and effective in Scotland.

Over 87,000 people signed a petition demanding a re-vote following the Russian allegations of electoral fraud.

Kevan Jones, a former Labour defence minister, said all the evidence of Russian interference was there from the Scottish referendum
He said: “Short of a large van outside Downing Street, with a billboard on it saying, ’this is what was going on’, what more did the government need? Why was the decision taken not to look at the (Brexit) referendum?”

He said the Government lied about why Russia report couldn’t be published before the election.

Commenting on the report the Shadow Home Secretary, Kit Thomas-Symonds, said: “The report outlines a litany of hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance. On every level, the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat. While on key issues it is clear that there is no overall strategic response to this challenge – little wonder the government has been so keen to delay the publication.”

MONEY TALKS REALITY BITES
The Committee’s reports and its members’ comments leave little doubt that Theresa May actively declined to start an investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 Referendum campaign.

In a section about the referendum, the report says: “The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”

While any number of conspiracy theories swirl about her failure to at least ask GCHQ, MI6 or MI5 to look into the allegations, it is entirely likely that Mrs May’s decision was based in cold, hard realpolitik.

If an investigation had uncovered evidence of Russian interference, the consequences for the UK potentially outweighed any effect the interference had on the Referendum’s outcome.

Brexit hardliners within her party and fringe figures such as Nigel Farage would never have accepted any finding which undermined the legitimacy of the Referendum result. The result could have been political chaos and – quite possibly – civil disruption.

An investigation would also have provided an impetus for defeated Remain campaigners to challenge the result through the Courts.
The scope for revelations about prominent Conservative figures’ connection with Russia and Russian money might have caused severe embarrassment at a time the Government was trying to set the Brexit agenda.

For example, Alexander Termerko is a former senior apparatchik in the Russian Ministry of Defence. He is among the Conservative’s largest donors (£1.3m over seven years). Born in Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mr Termerko rose to prominence during the Yeltsin era. He became involved in manufacturing arms and an oil tycoon under Vladimir Putin. He fled to the UK when threatened with a politically-motivated prosecution. Mr Termerko has donated generously to several Conservative MPs, including Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP Simon Hart.

None of the above excuses the failure to investigate but, as one possible reading of events, it offers a compelling rationale for Mrs May’s and Mr Johnson’s reluctance to look too deeply into any foreign interference in the Brexit Referendum.

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Drakeford says Wales is not immune to Indian coronavirus

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MARK DRAKEFORD,  First Minister for Wales, has warned that Wales will not be immune from the Indian coronavirus variant as it becomes the dominant strain in England and Scotland.

He was speaking at the Welsh Government’s coronavirus briefing as he detailed the results of the latest three-weekly lockdown review and announced that large outdoor events are set to go ahead once again.

He also urged people to come forward to get vaccinated, even if they had missed their appointment, saying it remained the best defence against the virus – even the new variant.

He said: “It is never too late to be vaccinated in Wales – if you are not yet one of the millions of people to have had a vaccine, you can still arrange an appointment. There are details on our website about how to do that.”

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wales remain at less than 10 cases per 100,000 people, which continues to be the lowest rate in the UK. This reflects the hard work of people throughout Wales to keep themselves and their families safe.

Our vaccination programme also continues to make extraordinary progress. More than85% of the adult population has now received their first dose of the vaccination and nearly half have completed the two-dose course.

However, the emergence and the spread of the more transmissible delta variant in parts of the UK – most notably in North West England – is a cause for concern. There are just under 100 cases in Wales, including a cluster in Conwy but we expect these numbers will increase.

We have the headroom to move to alert level one but we will do this in a phased way, focusing on outdoor events and activities in the first step. This phased approach will provide time for more data on the impact of this variant to become available and for more people to be vaccinated.

The changes to coronavirus regulations from the 7 June will therefore include:

  • Up to 30 people can meet outdoors, including in private gardens, outdoor hospitality and public places.
  • Larger outdoor organised gatherings and events, such as concerts, football matches and sporting activities, like organised running groups, will be able to go ahead for up to 4,000 people standing and 10,000 people seated. All organisers planning events and activities must undertake a full risk assessment and put in place measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including social distancing.
  • Up to three households can form an extended household.

We will consider further changes to the regulations on indoor activity later in the three-week cycle, if public health conditions allow. These will include:

  • The rule of six for meeting indoors in private homes and holiday accommodation.
  • Increasing numbers for indoor organised gatherings and restarting indoor events.
     
  • Opening ice skating rinks.

We have reviewed the Public Health (Protection from Eviction) (No.2) (Wales) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2021 and decided these will remain in place up for the time being but not exceeding June 30. We are considering further options to strengthen support for tenants. In the meantime, we would urge all tenants struggling to pay their rent to speak to their landlord and contact Citizen’s Advice Cymru or Shelter Cymru for further help and support.

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Politics

Budget cuts: Social Services and education take two-thirds of all councils’ money

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Pembrokeshire County Council: Pandemic has forced through change to digital services

How will local government services change?

THE FUNDING pressures on local government over the last decade have been a catalyst for change in local service delivery. Increasing costs and lower revenue for local authorities means some services have reduced or are being run differently.The pandemic put significant new demands on local government, exacerbating existing pressures. The future of local government services is uncertain. How it responds to the challenges will shape those services for years to come.
The shape of local authority services has changed significantly over the last decade.

Overall local authority spending has decreased by around 7% since 2013-14 (in real terms). In contrast, expenditure on social services has increased by over 10%. Spending in most other service areas has been cut, including in education.


Planning and economic development services have been hit particularly hard, as have libraries, culture, heritage, sport and recreation services.

WHERE THE MONEY GOES

Together, social services and education made up over two-thirds of total expenditure on services by the 22 local authorities in 2019-20.


But while social services have been protected from the most severe spending reductions, this won’t be enough to ensure its sustainability for the future


A 2017 report by Wales Public Services 2025 found that spending through local authorities on social care for the over 65s is not keeping pace with the growth in the population of older people. Spending may need to have increased by at least £129 million (23%) between 2015-16 and 2020-21 to get back to the equivalent spend per head in 2009-10.


The ONS estimates that, between 2021 and 2031, the population of Wales will grow by just over 60,000 (1.9%). Within that population growth, there’s a projected increase in the proportion of older people. The population of over 65s is due to increase by around 119,000 (17.5%).


Wales Fiscal Analysis notes that, while future demand for care can’t simply be linked to growth in older populations, projected growth in older people with complex care needs is highly likely to mean increased pressure on care services.


It details that the number of older adults living with severe dementia is expected to double to 53,700 by 2040.
The Inter-Ministerial Group on paying for social care estimated that in a ‘high-cost’ scenario, between 2019-20 and 2022-23, the net costs of social care could increase by almost £400 million.
Wales Fiscal Analysis projects that by 2025-26, social services could account for 55% of all local government spending pressures, with school pressures accounting for a further 21%.

INCREASED RELIANCE ON COUNCIL TAX?

Where local authorities get the money to spend on services has also started to shift. There’s been a reduction in grant funding to local authorities over the period 2013-14 to 2019-20, some of which has been mitigated by local taxes. Grant funding still makes up most local authority income.


The amount to be collected from council taxpayers (excluding council tax benefit/reduction scheme funding) was up by almost 30% over the same period.


The overall increase reflects annual increases in council tax paid by residents over the period. Average Band D council tax (excluding the police element) increasED in real terms by £186.


However, local authorities have consistently warned that raising council tax is not enough to fill future funding gaps

Following the UK Budget 2021, Wales Fiscal Analysis notes that “the UK government’s medium-term spending plans make for a more austere outlook for the Welsh budget and Welsh public services” and outlines the possibility of a return to austerity for parts of the Welsh budget.


The financial impact of the pandemic on local government is likely to be felt for many years.
Audit Wales notes that, even in local authorities generating a budget surplus in 2018-19, some had significant overspends in demand-led services like social services. It suggests those pressures are likely to intensify because of the pandemic.

TRANSFORMINGPUBLIC SERVICES:

Local government has embarked on a journey to transform how it delivers services.
Local authorities are thinking differently about improving services for users while reducing the cost of running them.


An example of this is one-stop-shops or ‘hubs’. These hubs host multiple council services under one roof, such as libraries, money advice and adult learning services.

One of the most significant aspects of the transformation programme is to make better use of technology and digital tools.


The Digital Strategy for Wales, launched in March 2021, sets out a national vision for digital transformation. The Strategy seeks a cultural shift in how public bodies “deliver and modernise services” designed around user needs.
Over the past year, local authority resources have been diverted from some of this transformational work. Anticipated financial savings are now uncertain.
The WLGA recently suggested there’s doubt about when, and indeed if, some of those savings will now happen.

MIND THE GAP

Corporate Joint Committees (CJCs) are bodies designed to enable greater regional working and collaboration in areas like education and transport.


However, questions remain about how these new bodies will operate.

Responses to a recent consultation on CJCs by the previous Welsh Government show there’s still uncertainty about how they’ll function and their associated costs and benefits.


Despite the recent increase in the local government settlement for next year and the substantial funding support in response to the pandemic, significant challenges remain.

Wales Fiscal Analysis suggests that to meet cost pressures over the next few years, spending on local services needs to increase, on average, by 3.4% a year (in cash terms) between 2020-21 and 2025-26.


The WLGA recently reported that core pressures, the financial gap in money coming in, and what’s needed to pay for services could amount to £822 million by 2023-24.

Leaning on local taxation, such as council tax, to support critical services like social care and education won’t stem the demand for and cost of providing those services.

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Politics

Voter registration opens for Welsh Youth Parliament elections

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YOUNG people across Wales are being encouraged to get involved with their Welsh Youth Parliament by registering to vote in the 2021 Elections in November.

The registration process opened yesterday, Thursday, June 3, on the Welsh Youth Parliament website.

It takes just 5 minutes, and registration will remain open until November 12.

This is an opportunity for Wales’ young people, aged 11 – 18 years old, to use their voice in choosing the Members who will represent them and their area in the next Welsh Youth Parliament.

This will be the second Youth Parliament, made up of 60 young people in Wales to represent different areas and backgrounds.

By meeting regularly, consulting with young people and conducting inquiries, they discuss the issues that matter most to young people to bring their views to the attention of the elected politicians of the Welsh Parliament.

The online election in November will choose 40 Members to represent all regions of Wales, the other 20 Members will be put forward by partner organisations to ensure a diverse representation.

The application process for interested partner organisations is also now open.

Organisations and charities are invited to apply to work with the Youth Parliament and to have a representative among the 60 Members.

Talulah Thomas and Cai Thomas Phillips, former members of the Welsh Youth Parliament, hosted an online panel discussion to mark the opening of voter registration which coincided with the Urdd’s Eisteddfod T.

The panel session focused on the importance of young people’s relationship with democracy.

A month since 16- and 17-year-olds were able to vote in the Senedd 2021 Election for the first time, getting involved with the Welsh Youth Parliament is one way that young people can make sure their voices continue to be heard.

Talulah Thomas, former Member for Clwyd South, says; “Be part of a Youth Parliament which gives us a voice on the issues that matter now and in our future. Register now to be able to vote in the Election, send in your ideas for topics and I also encourage you to consider standing to be a member too. When the opportunity comes. Go for it – be part of something great!”

YOUR FUTURE –  THE ISSUES THAT MATTER

With the opening of voter registration, young people are also asked to put forward their suggestions for topics they would like to be prioritised by the next Youth Parliament. A form is available online for young people to contribute to the conversation and highlight the issues that matter most to them and their communities.

Last time, the Youth Parliament chose to prioritise three topics: Mental Health, Life Skills in the Curriculum, and Littering and Plastic Waste, holding inquiries and publishing reports to present to the Welsh Government.

Cai Thomas Phillips, former Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire says; “Young people’s voices need to be at the heart of important decisions as we emerge from the pandemic; a better way of working, economic recovery after COVID and tackling environmental degradation. I really hope the next Youth Parliament will take their chance to look at these issues and much more. It’s an amazing opportunity for anyone to give new ideas and opinions to the decision makers.”

Llywydd of the Senedd, Elin Jones MS encouraged Wales’ young voices to get involved in their Welsh Youth Parliament; “The first Welsh Youth Parliament showed us how passionate young people are about the issues which matter to them and their communities. Their voices need to be heard now more than ever.

“I encourage young people across Wales to get involved, to register to vote and be part of the conversation about the topics that should be prioritised by the next Youth Parliament. Your voice is powerful, and your views are important to us all.”

More information about registration, topics and how to be part of the Welsh Youth Parliament are available on the website – https://youthparliament.senedd.wales/

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