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Welsh Health Minister defends retail restrictions

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THE WELSH Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, faced stiff today (Monday, Oct 26) questioning over retail restrictions during the current ‘firebreak lockdown’.

The Minister ducked a question from ITV Wales’ Adrian Masters.

That question asked whether trust in the Welsh Government’s handling of COVID-19 had been harmed by the row over supermarket chains sectioning off areas of ‘non-essential’ goods in their stores.

Instead of answering directly, Mr Gething carefully set out what he termed ‘a balance of harms’.

Vaughan Gething explained that the Welsh Government accepted the lockdown would cause some harm to Wales, to Welsh businesses, and individuals. However, he said, those harms had to be offset against the harm to public health and longer-term more adverse economic outcomes if the Welsh Government did nothing.

The BBC’s Dan Davies tackled Vaughan Gething again on the topic. In response, Mr Gething claimed that ending the rules on non-essential retail would both penalise small retailers and lead to greater community transmission of the virus.

Asked about remarks made by Lee Waters MS, Wales’ Deputy Economy Minister, that a further lockdown was ‘likely’ in the New Year, Mr Gething could not guarantee that one would not happen.

He said: “Measures are possible for the future but that depends on how successful we are in coming together as a nation to act in a way which means coronavirus is less likely to spread in the future.”

The Minister next received direct questions about the Government’s communications and messaging following a row over what were essential and non-essential goods.

This morning, Andrew RT Davies capitalised on a mistake by Tesco, which claimed the Welsh Government classified period products as non-essential. By the time Mr Davies tweeted his outrage and released a statement to the media, Tesco confirmed it was in the wrong and deleted its tweet. As Tesco has since acknowledged, period products – which are for sale in pharmacies – are classed as essential goods.

However, by then the damage had been done to the Welsh Government’s image.

Mr Gething said meetings had taken place with major retailers last Thursday, between ministers over the weekend, and there would be a further meeting this afternoon.

“The conversation we’re having with supermarkets today [about non-essential retail],” said the Minister, “will discuss limited circumstances [in which sales can take place].”

However, Vaughan Gething continued: “Much of what we have seen over the weekend is about the ‘what-if scenarios’ unlikely to come up over the next two weeks.”

Mr Gething continued to try and get the message over about a balance of harms and tried to explain why the Welsh Government imposed the retail restrictions it chose.

He stressed the Welsh Government decided to stop supermarkets selling goods otherwise available in small retailers who were compelled to close during the current lockdown.

The Welsh Conservative Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM, asked Mark Drakeford for a specific reassurance on that point – to protect small businesses compelled to close – last Thursday (Oct 22).

Loud Conservative voices, particularly those of Simon Hart and Andrew RT Davies, have condemned the Welsh Government for doing what their own Shadow Economy Minister asked.

The impression, however – of a ban on the sale of books and baby clothes – does not look good for the Welsh Government.

And neither does the confusion among large retailers.

That criticism was the subject of further direct questioning by journalists who asked Mr Gething how, if major businesses could misinterpret the guidance, how the public could possibly interpret it.

Vaughan Gething remained adamant guidance was clear but would be further clarified with major retailers.

Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price MS said: “The important thing for the Welsh Government to acknowledge is that they have made a complete mess of the messaging. Humility is important in admitting that you have got it wrong. They should have focused very clearly and very simply on the public health message.

“The objective of closing non-essential retail for this period is to try to limit the number of contacts so they can limit the number of infections – and that’s somehow got completely lost in the messaging which has then eroded public trust over the weekend.”

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Councils warned they have two years to improve local elections

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COUNCILS across Wales have been warned they have just two years to improve local democracy, after a new report has highlighted major issues with the most recent elections in May.

Time for Change: The 2022 Welsh Local Elections and the case for STV, published by campaigners ERS Cymru, has highlighted a slew of uncontested seats and disproportionate results under the current first past the post system [1]. 

It comes as local councils in Wales have the chance to change voting systems, with each council now able to vote to move to a fairer system, the single transferable vote (STV). However, councils will have to vote to move to STV by the 15th November 2024, two years from today in order for this to take effect for the next elections in 2027 [2]. 

Analysis of the 2022 Welsh local elections found that 74 seats in Wales were uncontested, meaning over 100,000 potential voters in Wales had no choice on who represents them in their local council. 

Furthermore, there are eight councils in Wales with ‘unearned majorities’ where a party holds over 50% of the seats on less than 50% of the vote, a third of all councils. 

The report also compares the Welsh local elections in 2022, with the Scottish local elections, where STV has been in place since 2007. It finds that Scottish election results are dramatically more proportional, with only two local authorities in Scotland with ‘unearned majorities’ – , just 6% of councils compared with over one third in Wales.

It also finds that uncontested seats have vastly reduced in Scotland under a fairer voting system, with just 27 uncontested seats in total in the four elections since the voting system change, compared with 61 in just the final First Past the Post election alone. 

Commenting on the report Jess Blair, Director of ERS Cymru, said:

“Our research shows a stark picture of a voting system that does not deliver for voters in Wales. Everyone should be able to go into a polling station on election day knowing their vote will count. But for over 100,000 people their elections were cancelled this May with the winners declared without a single ballot cast. For millions more there was no guarantee that their vote would matter or be reflected in the result.

“The good news is that there is an alternative. This report highlights how much of an improvement moving to STV has been in Scotland, reducing uncontested seats and making votes count so much more. 

“We have the chance to follow Scotland’s lead and for each council in Wales to vote to move to STV. Councillors must grasp the nettle and vote for this much-needed change in the next two years to really ensure a strong local democracy for Wales”. 

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CIEH joins over 60 charities calling for measures to tackle fuel poverty this winter

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THE CHARTERED INSTITUTE OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH (CIEH) has joined over 60 charities in their call for the UK Government to implement a suite of measures to prevent millions of households falling into fuel poverty this winter.

CIEH have signed a joint letter released last week as part of our involvement in the ‘Warm this Winter’ campaign. Warm This Winter is a new campaign demanding the government acts now to help people struggling with energy bills this winter and to ensure we all have access to affordable energy in the future.

The Government has already introduced a number of measures designed to support households with soaring energy bills, namely the Energy Price Guarantee. Originally introduced by Liz Truss, freezing the price cap on energy for two years, it was then reduced to 6 months by the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. Secondly, the Energy Bills Discount Scheme introduced by Boris Johnson, which offers £400 to households, spread over 6 months from October to March.

However, even with the Government’s support package this winter, 7 million UK households will still be in fuel poverty and forced into making impossible choices. This will rise to 11 million households – over a third of UK households – next Spring without additional targeted support.

Warm This Winter are seeking to put pressure on the Government by making the following asks:

  • Urgently expand the support available to people this winter, including confirming that benefits will be rise in line with inflation as normal, and clarify the future of financial support from April 2023
  • Rapidly embark on a national programme of insulating homes, schools, hospitals and workplaces, which could save households on average around £500 on their bills each year
  • Implement a plan for a rapid roll-out, in harmony with nature, of clean, renewable energy to move the UK beyond expensive, volatile fossil fuels and enhance UK energy security

CIEH has consistently supported calls for the Government to both increase financial support for households facing fuel poverty this winter as well as calling for the rollout of a national programme of insulation measures.

Ross Matthew, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said: “CIEH are delighted to lend our support to the Warm This Winter campaign.

“We have been consistent in our calls for the UK Government to provide greater support to households who are being faced with the impossible choice of turning on their heating or putting food on the table.

“While current government measures may prevent a full-blown crisis this winter, we are concerned that there is no long-term plan beyond Spring. That is why we also support Warm this Winter’s calls for the rollout of a national programme of home insulation as well as greater investment in renewable sources of energy in the long term.

“We urge the UK Government to recognise the severity of the situation many households face and to take urgent action.”

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Plaid to investigate ‘very serious’ allegations against top party bosses

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HERALD EXCLUSIVE

TWO senior figures in the Party of Wales face an internal investigation following allegations of serious misconduct.

A former Plaid Cymru employee made the allegations via Twitter yesterday (Tuesday, November 1).
The Herald has screenshots of the allegations. However, we cannot detail the allegations or identify the persons they relate to for legal reasons.

We spoke with the complainant and respect their request for their identity to remain anonymous.

The former employee has now deleted their tweets and locked their Twitter account.

The tweets allege a toxic culture within Plaid Cymru, echoing the “Pestminster” scandal that engulfed the House of Commons in 2017/18.

We approached Plaid Cymru on Tuesday, November 1. We asked them to respond to the serious allegations, including one of sexual assault. We provided details of the tweets and asked for a response before publication.

A Plaid Cymru spokesperson told The Herald: “Plaid takes all allegations very seriously, and the party has processes in place to investigate them.

“At present, the allegations in question remain just that.

“We ask for everyone to respect the process the party must follow in this situation, and to guard against making any comments that may be considered to be baseless insinuations, or indeed defamatory about the situation or the individuals involved in it.”

The Herald believes the Chair and the Head of the Disciplinary Committee discussed the allegations in a meeting yesterday.

Plaid Cymru came under scrutiny earlier this year for the National Executive Committee’s attempt to rewrite its disciplinary procedure after one completed that did not lead to the result some on the NEC wanted.

As a result, Plaid Cymru said it would revisit and strengthen its disciplinary procedures to provide more protection to those making allegations of abuse.

A Plaid Cymru insider told The Herald: “These are extremely serious allegations.

“The party has covered up other incidents of this nature; however, in this case, the victim going public means that those who have covered up in the past cannot hide from this issue any longer.

“The only way for the party to restore public confidence is through a transparent investigation and, if necessary, strong disciplinary action against those concerned.
“While the investigation takes place, those concerned should not participate in the party’s activities and the party must safeguard the complainant.”

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