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Politics

It shouldn’t happen to a Health Minister

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Abandoned to his fate: Cabinet Secretary cuts an isolated figure

IT’S NOT easy being a Welsh Government Minister.

There are so many new words to learn when you get into office and so many old ones to forget.

For example, take the word ‘cut’. It’s a very simple three letter word. But once you become a Welsh Government Minister, you are not allowed to use it.

Instead, at least as far as Welsh Government policies go, the word ‘cut’ has to be replaced with the far more unwieldy ‘transformation’ or the two-word mouthful ‘transformational change’.

ANGRY ANGELA ATTACKS

As you will see elsewhere in this newspaper, Hywel Dda UHB – to nobody’s surprise – has been caught on the hop by people discovering that when it talks about ‘transforming clinical services’ it means ‘cuts and closures’. You could argue that cuts are in themselves transformational, at least in the same way that being guillotined was transformational for the French aristocracy.

On Wednesday​ (Jan 24)​, Vaughan Gething was faced with a barrage of topical questions, which he confronted with the enthusiasm and delight of Louis XVI on his final journey to Place de la Révolution.

You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Angela Burns, the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire AM who speaks for her party on Health in the Senedd.

Crikey Moses! After a brief initial question, she tore into the Health Board, the Welsh Government, the First Minister, Labour backbenchers, Mr Gething and almost managed to get to Uncle Tom Cobley and all in a positively breathless display of genuine outrage.

Picking up a copy of the Parliamentary Review of Welsh Health Services, unanimously backed by Senedd members the previous week, she handled it between two fingers as though it was a particularly badly soiled nappy.

It was quite bad enough, Mrs Burns said, for the First Minister and his backbenchers to behave in a supercilious and arrogant fashion towards members raising their constituents’ concerns, it was quite another to obtain cross party agreement on the strategic direction of Welsh health services and then ignore the very principles that underpin it.

Mr Gething got to his feet and momentarily looked shell-shocked. Unlike the First Minister, there were almost no Labour members present to prop him up, bray, and snipe at the opposition with sarcastic remarks. However, the Cabinet Secretary is nothing if not smooth and polished. More than capable of bandying around banal generalities, Mr Gething soon adjusted himself into his usual smooth delivery of assurances about ‘meaningful consultations’.

Demonstrating the same sort of faulty memory that could yet come to unglue his leader, Vaughan Gething continued by saying that his boss had not been in any way supercilious.

Mr Jones’ stock in trade is supercilious.

Perhaps Mr Gething had not been paying attention; because having watched the previous day’s First Minister’s Questions and the business statement which preceded Mrs Burns’ questions, you would have to say that Mrs Burns had it pretty much nailed on.

ASK ME NO QUESTIONS

It didn’t get much better for Mr Gething, despite his stream of soothing words and assurances of good intentions. There used to be a saying that you couldn’t knit fog. Well, you certainly couldn’t weave whole fabric out of Mr Gething’s non-answers.

Mr Gething was very clear that he couldn’t answer direct questions because of protocol and the risk that he might have to make final decisions on a consultation which had not yet started. Which was very odd, because the previous day Carwyn Jones had decided he wouldn’t comment because the consultation was ‘open’. Open or closed, Mr Gething was prepared to fall back on the ‘all changes are difficult’ line. As an alternative tack, he attempted a switch to ‘difficult choices have to be made’.

So often did he repeat these lines, or variations on them, that it appeared as though poor Mr Gething had got stuck in one of those time loops beloved of science fiction programmes that need to create a cheap episode to make up for blowing the make-up budget on Slurb the Invincible or some such in a preceding one.

WHERE’S HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT?

Paul Davies had a go after Mrs Burns. Mr Davies doesn’t really do splenetic outrage, but he was clearly peeved – testy even. In a calm and measured way, he berated the Health Board for even proposing, never mind contemplating the closure of Withybush Hospital.

In response, Mr Gething tried a different tactic. While he appreciated that local sentiment was strong, it would be the same across Wales as tough decisions – hard choices – had to be made everywhere across the nation. This was, Mr Gething suggested, a national issue.

Mr Gething’s words would have had more weight on that score had he been accompanied by members of the Welsh Assembly from his own party. Apart from Mark Drakeford seated to his right, Mr Gething appeared terribly alone. The rest of the chamber was devoid of a Labour presence, demonstrating just how seriously west Wales’ concerns were being taken by all those south Wales AMs upon which the party depends for its majority.

Simon Thomas, incongruously seated next to Neil Hamilton, was next to tackle Mr Gething’s dead bat defence.

Pointing out the way in which the First Minister had sought to use the Parliamentary Review in an effort to deflect either criticism or inquiry, Mr Thomas told the Cabinet Secretary that the review was published too late to influence any proposals advanced by Hywel Dda.

After ungallantly pointing out that Labour’s candidate in the 2015 General Election, Paul Miller, had stood on a platform of restoring the paediatric services to Withybush – which had been removed temporarily without consultation – and had still not returned, he suggested this was the opportunity to test the strength of the Parliamentary Review’s framework.

NO STOPPING A CONSULTATION

Mr Gething lost his way a little as he said it wouldn’t be right for him ‘to attempt to instruct’ the health board to stop its consultation now. That would be the consultation that has not started, as the Cabinet Secretary had previously made clear just minutes before.

Difficult conversations needed to be had, tough choices had to be made, and the public would be properly engaged in the process of helping to make those tough choices after taking part in those difficult conversations.

You could see the cogs clicking away as Mr Gething spun new golden platitudes out of old strawmen.

Joyce Watson, whose support for retaining services in the past was less than fulsome, said it was very important that the public was told Withybush was not closing immediately. As this had never been suggested anywhere, it was hard to see what point Joyce Watson was trying to make; but having been thrown a life preserver, Mr Gething clung to it. He agreed that there was no plan to close Withybush in the immediate future. A relief for those attending outpatients next week to have their bunions filed.

Mr Gething then proceeded to point out that other hospitals were also mentioned in the options that had been leaked and that there could be those hard conversations and tough choices to be made in respect of them. But never mind, there would be a genuine and meaningful consultation and, if not, there would be a meaningful and genuine one. That’s what he expected the Board to do. Although, of course, he couldn’t tell them that was what was needed, because he might end up having to make one of those difficult choices after hard and tough conversations.

HAMILTON’S FORK

Neil Hamilton was next. Reaching for his pantomime pitchfork, he rather nastily skewered the Cabinet Secretary on its tines.

Remarking on Mr Gething’s status as the government’s fire blanket for successive health board failings everywhere, he posed the rather more difficult question of whether the threat to Withybush could be boiled down to death by a thousand cuts?

Tellingly, he suggested: “It must be regarded as a ridiculous proposal to close Withybush—even in contemplation in the medium term, let alone the short term. The health board should, when it produces the list of options for people to discuss, avoid causing unnecessary alarm and consternation by producing extreme proposals that are not going to be followed through.”

He then rather neatly suggested the real problem was a complete lack of accountability in the health service. Community Health Councils, Health Boards, were not elected bodies and the truth was that everything ended up on the Health Secretary’s desk. ‘People on the ground feel they have no voice at all,” Mr Hamilton said.

Vaughan Gething could see the home stretch coming.

There would be a meaningful conversation about tough choices in a difficult consultation, in which the views of clinicians would be heard as well as those of the public. It would be rather mean to point out that there is a difference between hearing and listening.

Particularly as those conversations will be tough, difficult, hard, meaningful, and genuine.

Then Mr Gething concluded on a point that he must now be grateful he did not open with.

Concluding he volunteered​,​ he didn’t want to be in the position in the future where the Government will be asked​:​ ‘Why didn’t you do something about a part of the service that really has gone wrong?’

That remark rather fortunately leaves the question unasked as to what all the previous tough choices after hard conversations and meaningful consultations over the last twelve years were actually for.

That would be a difficult – if not unanswerable – question.

Politics

Action to tackle homelessness

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Homelessness: Minister sets out new approaches for WG

REBECCA EVANS, Minister for Housing and Regeneration, has published new policy documents which set out new approaches to tackling homelessness in a statement to the Assembly.

Rebecca Evans said: “Talking to those I meet, I often hear distressing accounts of family breakdown, domestic violence, mental health problems, financial problems, substance misuse and bereavement.

“These issues can lead to some people losing their homes and create a vicious cycle leading to rough sleeping.

“The recent increase seen in the National Rough Sleeper Count is disappointing in the face of our efforts and investment but I believe it largely reflects the increasing effects of continued austerity, increasing in-work poverty and welfare reforms”.

As well as new funding to their revenue settlements, councils in Wales will receive grant funding of £2.8m in 2018/19 to embed homelessness prevention best practice models which will help to reduce rough sleeping, prevent youth homelessness, improve access to the private rented sector and strengthen services for people with mental health and substance misuse problems.

Rebecca Evans AM also said: “Today I’m publishing a policy document which outlines how Housing First will be taken forward across Wales. There is strong evidence that Housing First works best where its core principles are followed – housing with no strings attached, ready and available support services and access to funds to help meet individuals’ needs.

“I’m also launching our Action Plan to reduce rough sleeping. Developed with organisations including Shelter Cymru, and members of Rough Sleepers Cymru, it covers a range of activity, supporting people to engage with services and get off the streets as quickly as possible. It also addresses wider issues such as a review of priority need and our guidance on cold weather plans.

“Rough sleeping is one aspect of homelessness. We can only truly address the issue if we have a system that offers secure housing for all. Building homes and expanding social housing stock can only go so far and I will work with the private rented sector to find innovative ways to harness their supply and meet demand. I will also be looking at how we continue to reduce the number of homes lying empty.

“The Welsh Government has a good track record of delivery on homelessness prevention and we will continue to provide the leadership to ensure we can end the need for people to sleep rough in Wales.”

Conservative Housing spokesperson David Melding welcomed the initiative, but, speaking outside the chamber, called for the Welsh Government to set a target for ending rough sleeping in Wales.

“We know that in Manchester they have set a highly ambitious target of eradicating rough sleeping by 2020, and the UK Government target is to halve rough sleeping by 2022 with targeted full eradication by 2027. I think that we should be aiming for a more ambitious target than that, perhaps somewhere in between.

“Wales has the potential to be a real leader in this area and so I do hope that the Welsh government step up and tackle this problem once and for all.”

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Politics

Call for Speaker’s conference on Brexit

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Brexit: Parliaments need to work together

THE LLYWYDD of the National Assembly for Wales Elin Jones AM and the Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, Mick Antoniw AM, have called for a review of the inter-parliamentary and inter-governmental arrangements relating to the UK’s exit of the EU to ensure that Wales’ voice is heard loud and clear.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) inquiry into devolution and Brexit, Mick Antoniw AM referred to the key findings of the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report “UK governance post-Brexit” published on 2 February. Specifically, he reiterated the report’s recommendation to establish a Speakers’ Conference to improve the way parliaments work together and hold governments of the UK to account.

Mick Antoniw AM said: “A conference involving Speakers and Presiding Officers from all UK legislatures would increase understanding and cooperation between UK parliaments at this crucial time in UK constitutional affairs. Similarly, we need to see a step change in the mechanics for inter-governmental relations. The Joint Ministerial Committee, established in the wake of devolution in the 1990s, simply hasn’t evolved in line with the depth and breadth of the constitutional settlements of the devolved nations. The Committee also wants to see the EU (Withdrawal) Bill amended to put inter-governmental relations on a statutory footing. Currently, the process is driven by personality and makes the Joint Ministerial Committee little more than a speakeasy for Ministers to discuss ideas behind closed doors without any transparency or accountability.

“Now is the time for reviewing these arrangements and to develop UK inter-parliamentary working fit for the purpose of scrutinising the impact of Brexit on the constitutional framework of the UK.”

Llywydd, Elin Jones AM, said “This unique moment in time calls for a unique inter-parliamentary arrangement to scrutinise our respective governments’ arrangements. I welcome and support the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee’s call for the establishment of a formal Speakers’ Conference focused on arrangements for Brexit. Considering the impact of exiting on the range of powers repatriated and then devolved to Wales is particularly crucial as it will determine how quickly we can make decisions for the benefit of our constituents. At a time when most Assembly committees are considering issues related to Brexit as part of their ongoing scrutiny programmes, this is the missing piece of the jigsaw – and one I will be raising with my counterparts in Scotland, Westminster and Northern Ireland at our next speakers’ meeting.”

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Politics

Conservatives claim email ‘cover up’

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Couldn't get a yes or no answer: Andrew RT Davies

A ROW over whether the First Minister permitted an inquiry into his conduct access to his personal emails during a leak inquiry has intensified.

An inquiry recently concluded into whether or not details of the Cabinet reshuffle which led to the dismissal and subsequent death of former Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary Carl Sargeant.

That inquiry found that there was ‘unauthorised’ leak of the reshuffle details, leading to the obvious question as to whether any leaks were ‘authorised’, as it appears beyond question that news of Mr Sargeant’s dismissal was provided to at least two Labour MPs and one journalist.

In addition, the First Minister has refused to confirm that the Permanent Secretary was granted access to his personal emails during the recent leak inquiry.

Last week, in a response to a written question from Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies, Mr Jones said that he did occasionally use a private email address to deal with diary issues and clearing urgent press lines.

On Tuesday, Mr Davies asked the First Minister whether the private email address was used at all to instruct or to brief staff as to press lines in relation to the reshuffle.

After responding ‘No’, Carwyn Jones said that ‘all relevant evidence was made available to the inquiry’.

Mr Davies pressed the point, asking whether access was given to the personal e-mail addresses that Mr Jones uses for Government business
Mr Jones avoided a direct answer, saying: “I can’t comment on what the evidence looked like. All I can say is that all relevant evidence was submitted to the inquiry.”

Responding that ‘it’s not unreasonable to assume that, if there’s an inquiry into leaks from Government, then all correspondence would’ve been made available to the person carrying out the inquiry’, Andrew RT Davies asked for a straight yes or no answer.

Mr Jones declined to give on, instead repeating ‘all relevant information was provided to the inquiry’.

The Conservative leader has now suggested that the inference to be drawn from the First Minister’s answers is that the decision as to which evidence was either relevant or irrelevant was down to the First Minister himself.

The Welsh Conservatives are now demanding that the Permanent Secretary re-opens the inquiry, with the Permanent Secretary given “unfettered access” to Carwyn Jones’ personal email address.

In a press statement after First Minister’s Questions, Mr Davies said: “This reeks of a cover up.

“Just last week the First Minister admitted that he uses his personal email account on ministerial business, and now we learn that it is left to him to decide which emails are in the public interest.

“It calls to mind the recent Presidential elections, where public confidence was seriously undermined after allegations relating to the use of personal emails.

“How on earth can we have confidence in the system if the First Minister is the only judge of his own conduct?

“The inquiry must be re-opened, with unfettered access granted to the two email accounts that we know he has used for ministerial business.”

Mr Davies also called for a transparent process to log the use of personal email accounts by Welsh ministers and their advisers.

At present, such correspondence is only picked up by Welsh Government logs where an official email account is ‘copied in to an exchange’ – or where a conversation starts or finishes with an official email account.

He added: “There is nothing to stop the First Minister from emailing advisers directly using private email addresses, and I have no doubt that we would learn a great deal about the way Welsh Government business is conducted if his emails were to be opened up to closer scrutiny.

“We need rigorous checks in place to stop ministers from conducting government business entirely through back channels.

“This kind of practice should be entirely outlawed, except in approved accounts where security is heightened and exchanges are open to scrutiny.”

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