PEOPLE across Wales are being encouraged to respond to new proposals to reshape Welsh democracy published by the Assembly Commission.
The consultation has been drawn up in anticipation of new powers given to the Assembly in the Wales Act 2017.
The Act gives the Assembly the power to make decisions in relation to the institution’s size and how Members are elected.
Last week, the Assembly voted in favour of the Commission’s decision to consult on the recommendations of the Expert Panel’s report on Assembly Electoral Reform, ‘A Parliament that Works for Wales’.
Speaking in the debate, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire AM Angela Burns emphasised the importance of effective scrutiny of government business and the need for more Assembly members to discharge that duty.
She also said that it was important to ensure that the Assembly listened to the people of Wales: “The call to review the tools we have at our disposal, is of great, great importance now. But it’s a difficult one to explain to people, and we’ve got to make very, very clear that the people of Wales understand that, and then, once they’ve made their decision, we must absolutely listen to it and abide by it, because, after all, this is nothing if not their Parliament.”
Anticipating the criticism that more AMs meant ‘more politicians’, Simon Thomas, Plaid’s Mid and West AM, observed: “I would like to describe it as more politicians but less power for the Government, because the Government that has to face a more powerful Parliament is a Government that can be more accountable—that has to be more accountable—to the people of Wales. We are also losing politicians in Wales. We’ll be losing Members of the European Parliament, and we’re talking about losing Members of Parliament at Westminster through parliamentary reform.”
Simon Thomas continued: “It’s important to Plaid Cymru that we strike the right balance between local accountability and the fact that votes across Wales should be reflected as much as possible in this place in the way that people vote.”
That enthusiasm for increased proportionality was more muted in the response of Vikki Howells who, while welcoming the recommendation for greater equality of the genders in the Senedd’s make-up, remarked: “The Labour group has had an initial discussion on other areas of the report, and we will continue these. We will also feed into the consultation that our party has committed to during 2018 before reporting to our conference in 2019.”
The Labour Party is, not unreasonably from its point of view, determined not to have any dilution of its grip on power undermined by a more proportional system of voting.
Gareth Bennett for UKIP suggested that any change to the numbers of Assembly Members should not proceed without the benefit of a referendum, suggesting that: “It would be unwise to proceed, particularly with the expansion of the Assembly, without securing that popular consent by means of a referendum.”
Mr Bennett also rejected any idea of gender quotas and votes for 16 and 17 year-olds.
Elin Jones AM, Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales said: “I welcome the unanimous support of the Assembly this afternoon, which enables the Commission to consult on a series of possible reforms to the electoral system, capacity and organisation of the Assembly. I would like to thank my fellow Members for the positive nature of our discussion on a series of complex and challenging issues.
“The powers that will be transferred from Westminster to the Assembly by the Wales Act 2017 will enable us to make our own arrangements for elections and the legislature for the first time. Now, we will start a conversation with the people of Wales about their hopes and ambitions for their Parliament.
“I heard a strong message from Members about the importance of explaining the plans thoroughly and clearly to the people of Wales, and about the importance of creating a Parliament which reflects the communities we represent, including the voices of young people and women. Our consultation reflects these priorities.”
Following a detailed analysis of evidence, the Panel recommended that the Assembly needs between 20 and 30 additional Member selected through a more proportional electoral system with diversity at its heart. It also recommended lowering the minimum voting age for National Assembly elections to include sixteen and seventeen year olds.
The consultation on the recommendations will run from 12 February for an eight week period ending on 6 April.
In addition to the recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform the consultation also includes other potential changes to who can vote in Assembly elections and who can be an Assembly Member, as well as changes to the law relating to electoral administration and the Assembly’s internal arrangements.
The Commission has already consulted on changing the Assembly’s name, and as a result of that consultation the name will be changed to Welsh Parliament.
The Llywydd, Elin Jones AM said: “The Wales Act 2017 marks the start of a new phase of devolution in Wales, giving us the opportunity to make profound changes to our legislature. We now have the opportunity to forge the national parliament that the people of Wales deserve to champion their interests.
“This consultation is the beginning of a conversation with the people and communities of Wales about the institution that they want their Welsh Parliament to be. I look forward to hearing their views.”
Conservative Assembly Leader Quits
ANDREW RT DAVIES has stood down as leader of the Welsh Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly.
Mr Davies made his announcement following a meeting of the Conservative Assembly group on Wednesday morning (June 27).
ANDREW RT DAVIES’ STATEMENT
“It is with deep regret that I announce that I have today tendered my resignation as leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly. This was done in a letter to our Group Chairman following a meeting this morning of all group members.
“It has been a huge privilege to serve in this position since 2011, after securing the mandate of the party in a ballot of the membership. It is my firm belief that any Leader of the Assembly Group should secure the same mandate in a full ballot of the grassroots, and I hope that my successor will emerge in that manner.
“I would like to thank the Group for their support throughout my leadership, and in particular to express my gratitude to the many dedicated and professional staff I have had the privilege to work with – and for.
“I look forward to supporting whoever emerges from the contest to replace me, and I will continue to place all of my efforts into advancing the Welsh Conservative cause both here in Wales and Westminster.
“As a party we would achieve nothing without the hard work and dedication of our grassroots and I would like to thank them all for the support they have given me in Wales. Nothing could make me prouder than to have enjoyed their backing throughout this journey.
“I would like to thank the Prime Minister for her support and I wish her the very best in delivering for the country and the Conservative Party moving forward.
“And finally, thanks to my family, particularly my wife Julia who has supported me each and every step of the way.”
ANOTHER LEADERSHIP CONTEST
Although the Conservatives are the second largest party group in the Senedd, they have failed to make progress at the ballot box under Andrew RT Davies leadership, losing ground at Westminster in 2017 and failing to capitalise on a collapse in Labour’s share of the vote in the Assembly elections in 2016. It is noteworthy that he only rose to leadership of the Assembly group when good results achieved under his predecessor, Nick Bourne, meant that Mr (now Lord) Bourne lost his regional seat in the 2011 elections.
Mr Davies’ departure means that there is likely to be a contest for the leadership of each of the main Assembly parties over the coming months. Carwyn Jones is due to step down in the autumn, while Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood faces a potential challenge from Adam Price and/or Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Paul Davies, the Preseli Pembrokeshire AM, will be interim leader of the Assembly group and is a likely candidate for the permanent job. The narrowness of the field, previous contender Nick Ramsay has ruled himself out of the running, suggests few challengers to Paul Davies in the event he wants the job.
In a parting shot, the departing leader made it clear that he wanted a grassroots election and not a coronation by the Assembly Group.
Although Andrew RT Davies had repeatedly indicated a willingness to work with other parties to oust Labour from Government, there were no takers among other Assembly parties. In a speech at Ffos Las in May, he offered to stand aside if another candidate came forward who could unite the Assembly’s opposition parties against Labour.
CLASHES WITH WESTMINSTER
Mr Davies’ willingness to embrace Mark Reckless’ return to the Conservative fold as a member of the Assembly group caused friction both between him and both the Westminster Conservatives and his Assembly colleagues. Party activists were also unimpressed, bearing in mind Mr Reckless’ resignation as a Conservative MP in 2014 – which was carefully timed to cause maximum embarrassment to then-Tory leader David Cameron.
Shortly after his leader’s resignation, Mark Reckless tweeted that Mr Davies had been ‘pushed out’ by remainers in the Conservative Assembly group.
Andrew RT Davies had also recently been heavily criticised, both in public and in private about his statement that Airbus’ warning on its Welsh operations were ‘scaremongering’. And while his remarks might have been otherwise unremarkable, the fervid and foetid atmosphere in the Conservative party over the Brexit issue meant they struck precisely the wrong note with AMs trying to ensure that the Conservatives in Wales are seen as responsive to the needs of Welsh businesses over the shape of any eventual Brexit deal.
Mr Davies’ spiky relationship with Westminster Conservatives was also thrown into sharp relief by a very public slap down delivered by Guto Bebb, Minister of Defence Procurement following comments regarding Airbus.
Mr Bebb pointedly said that Mr Davies was not the leader of the Conservatives in Wales and called for him to retract his ‘inflammatory comments, continuing: “Shooting the messenger is an unworthy position for a politician to take not least when that politician aspires to lead a government in Wales.”
A row between Mr Davies and Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns led to neither appearing in a televised debate during last year’s General Election, with Darren Millar AM appearing instead.
Although Mr Davies has been constant and consistent in his support for the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, he was left high and dry by his Westminster colleagues’ decision on the issue. The failure of the UK Government to support the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project ate into Mr Davies’ political capital as capable of exercising even minimal influence over the way the UK Government treats Wales.
That problem was compounded by the increasing sense among the Welsh public that the UK Government has placed the demands of a dozen DUP MPs in Westminster over the interests of Wales.
TRIBUTES LED BY FIRST MINISTER
On Wednesday there was the usual round of warm tributes from Mr Davies’ political opponents.
Outgoing First Minister Carwyn Jones said: “Despite our obvious political differences, I always found Andrew to be good company, and he never broke the confidences I shared with him as Leader of the Opposition. That is the sign of a decent and honest politician.
“Andrew has made his mark in Welsh politics and his jovial and larger than life personality has always been a breath of fresh air during Assembly proceedings. I wish him well in the future.”
The Welsh Liberal Democrats thanked Andrew RT Davies for his contribution to Welsh politics and wished him the best for the future.
Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds commented: “I’d like to thank Andrew RT Davies for the contribution to Welsh politics he’s made as Leader of the Welsh Conservatives since 2011. I wish Andrew the best as he returns to the backbenches and hope he enjoys having a little more time to spend with family and friends.
“Whilst we disagree on many issues like Brexit, any leader who puts their time and energy into trying to make Wales a better place deserves respect. I’m sure Andrew will now put all that time and energy into representing his constituents.”
UKIP’s Neil Hamilton mourned the loss of a fellow staunch Brexiteer: “I am sorry that Andrew RT Davies resigned this morning as Leader of the Welsh Conservatives. Andrew is a combative Brexiteer in a Tory group which is dominated by Remainers.”
Mr Hamilton then turned his attention to the fate of employees of the Conservative group in the Assembly, whose futures he called into question: “Andrew RT is not the only one out of a job. According to the Assembly Commission, the Tory group staff are all now out of a job too, as their contracts automatically end without notice when a group leader resigns.
“This was the Commission’s argument before the Employment Tribunal last week to justify Caroline Jones’ sudden dismissal of UKIP’s former Chief of Staff, Robin Hunter-Clarke, after she became UKIP Group Leader. They argued in court that the contracts were personal to the group leader in whose name the contracts were signed.
“I challenge the Assembly Commission to justify publicly their disgraceful policy of deliberately depriving political group staff of their job security and employment protection rights.”
Llywydd Elin Jones, said: “We come from different political traditions, but you have served your party with energy and integrity. I now look forward to a lively contribution from the backbenches!”
Impartiality of civil service questioned
THE CONTINUING wrangle over an inquiry into the circumstances which led to the death of former AM Carl Sargeant has intensified this week after a suggestion that evidence to the QC-led inquiry was being ‘filtered’ by Welsh Government civil servants.
In the meantime, the Coroner’s Inquest into Mr Sargeant’s death opened in a way which raised a series of questions about the tactics adopted by the legal team representing First Minister Carwyn Jones and threw doubt on Mr Jones’ public statements about his knowledge of his late Cabinet colleague’s mental health.
Conservatives in the Assembly pounced on a leaked Welsh Government email which showed the Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government, Dame Shan Morgan, telling Welsh Government staff to share evidence for the Carl Sargeant inquiry with senior civil servants first. Paul Bowen QC is investigating Carwyn Jones’s handling of the sacking of the Alyn and Deeside AM from his cabinet and in an email to Welsh Government staff entitled “support to staff”, the Permanent Secretary, Dame Shan Morgan, asks “those who believe they have evidence relevant to the investigation should bring this to the attention of David Richards, Director of Governance; Peter Kennedy, HR Director; or my office”.
Only a subsequent ‘clarification’ after the email’s leak suggested that employees could give their evidence direct to the Independent Inquiry Team without it being looked over by their senior managers.
Questioning the Permanent Secretary’s latest involvement, Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies said: “This once again raises serious concerns over the conduct of the Welsh Government and calls into question the independence of this whole process.
“If the inquiry is to be fully independent then all potential evidence should be handed over to the QC leading the investigation, not pre-vetted by the Permanent Secretary or her minions.
“This latest communication shines a light into the dark tactics being deployed by certain individuals in the Welsh Government to influence and control the upcoming inquiry, and that is simply unacceptable.
“Carl Sargeant lost his life in incredibly tragic circumstances, and there is a responsibility on everyone involved to ensure this process is fully independent and transparent so that the family can find the answers they need to find peace with what has happened.
“The Welsh Government must apologise and immediately withdraw this instruction so people can provide evidence to the inquiry free from bully-boy tactics and intimidation.”
A spokesperson for the permanent secretary said: “We have been clear that as a civil service we will fully co-operate with the work of the IQCI [independent QC investigation], and any evidence held by staff on Welsh Government systems will be collated and transferred to the investigation in its entirety and without redaction.”
A request by The Herald for an explanation as to WHY the Permanent Secretary issued the email remains unanswered and the prospect of Wales’ leading civil servant acting ‘on behalf of the Welsh Government’ raises a substantial question about whether the right distance is being maintained between the sectional interests of the party in government and the national role of the Welsh Government as an institution.
A Plaid Cymru spokesperson responded: “This email raises serious questions about the internal processes of the Welsh Government and risks jeopardising the independence of the inquiry.
“It is vital that this inquiry remains independent, transparent and fair.
“Plaid Cymru will be urgently raising questions about this matter with the Welsh Government.”
Dame Shan Morgan has also come under significant pressure following her decision to deny lawyers acting for the Sargeant family the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry.
The family of Carl Sargeant has threatened legal action after claims they had been excluded from a probe into the late minister’s sacking by Carwyn Jones.
A solicitor acting for the family, Neil Hudgell, said: “The grieving Sargeant family are losing patience and faith in the inquiry and are hurt and upset that everything they have asked for has been ignored.
“Mr Bowen can only go as far as the permanent secretary will allow and we currently have an inquiry process where there will be no effective involvement from the family. How can that be fair?”
A spokesman for the Welsh Government said: “The protocol (agreed between the Welsh Government and the Inquiry) sets out the basis on which the investigation will be conducted and enables the family and any other participant to put forward questions they wish to be asked by the investigator.”
A spokesperson for the independent investigator said: “Mr Bowen QC confirms that the independent QC Investigation will continue to run under the published Operational Protocol while this is resolved.
“Mr Bowen QC is committed to conducting a thorough and independent investigation,” the spokesperson added.
Meanwhile at the inquest into Carl Sargeant’s death, a QC representing Carwyn Jones has claimed that other women have come forward with allegations of inappropriate behaviour against the late Alyn and Deeside AM.
Those allegations, as those supposedly made before Mr Jones sacked Mr Sargeant, all have the inestimable benefit of not being subject to challenge or proper investigation. Moreover, taking the First Minister’s lawyers claims at face value leads to a substantial question of how – if the allegations have substance – Carwyn Jones remained unaware of any issue with his close friend and former colleague’s supposed conduct.
Moreover, the attempt to publicly smear Mr Sargeant, who –as before his death – has no opportunity to defend himself is, Coroner John Griffiths observed unlikely to be relevant to the Inquest process, which raises the obvious question of why it was raised at all by the First Minister acting through his lawyers.
As it is, Mr Jones’ claims to have been a close friend of Mr Sargeant, those were thrown into even deeper question by the QC acting for the Sargeant family.
Leslie Thomas QC told the inquest that the first minister must have been fully aware of Mr Sargeant’s personal issues when he sacked him, as they had been friends for 16 years.
In a statement the first minister and Welsh Labour leader said he had not been aware of any mental health illness or vulnerabilities at the time.
Carwyn Jones is due to give evidence to the inquest, an event that should provide some insight into his ability to reconcile his public and personal pronouncements with information set to be laid before the Coroner.
A request for information as to who is paying for Mr Jones’ representation at the Inquest was unanswered.
Tory NHS funding pledge ‘a stunt’
THE ANNOUNCEMENT by the UK Government that it is to release funding for the NHS, claimed hilariously as a ‘Brexit Windfall’, will result in funding being cut in other spending departments and is – as yet – wholly unfunded.
The 3.4% rise is funding over each of the next four years from 2019 is less than the 3.7% average annual rise the NHS budget has received since 1948 and is likely to come with significant strings attached before any of the claimed increase reaches frontline services.
In addition, a disingenuous claim by the UK Government that £1.2bn of the new funding is set aside for NHS services in Wales is nonsense as the UK Government cannot hypothecate money out of the financial settlement it provides to the Welsh Government to fulfil its own UK-wide party-political objectives.
Indeed, the pressing social care disaster in England will not even be addressed by the increased spending, leading to criticism that the announced notional ‘increase’ will do little more than entrench continuing failure in that field.
The Welsh Conservatives have not hesitated to jump all over the opportunistic announcement, made in a speech by Theresa May to healthcare leaders in London, usefully made to coincide with the UK Government’s ongoing humiliation over Brexit, and which has not even been subject to parliamentary scrutiny or approval.
Details of the funding have not even been released to the Welsh Government which Theresa May is seeking to bind to a spending commitment which might never happen.
Angela Burns AM, said: “This is a hugely welcome announcement by the Prime Minister, one which will help secure the future of our most treasured public service for generations to come.
“Conservatives in Government have increased the NHS budget every year, whilst Labour in Wales remain the only party across the UK to have cut an NHS budget, which has put the Welsh NHS under ever-increasing pressure.
“This long-term funding boost must now be invested wisely by the Labour Government in Wales – ensuring the challenges in health and social care can be planned for with confidence, clarity and competence.”
However, the Conservatives’ claims have been dismissed as a ‘stunt’ by Assembly Member Eluned Morgan.
Ms Morgan has pointed out that independent experts – including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Channel 4’s FactCheck – called out the so-called ‘Brexit Dividend’ funding commitment which will ultimately have to be paid through higher taxes as any savings from leaving the EU will have to meet our ‘divorce bill’ and other costs.
Eluned Morgan AM said: “In reality, Theresa May has announced that we’ll all be paying more to fund our NHS through increased taxes and additional borrowing. There is no Brexit dividend, just a Tory spin machine on overdrive attempting to hide the divisions in her own party. The Institute of Fiscal Studies have been brutal in their assessment of this announcement, it is a shame that the Prime Minister and her colleagues in the Assembly haven’t been clear with the public about the detail.
“Any extra spending in England will mean more money for Wales, but when you put the £1.2billion into context, this announcement only goes to replace what Wales has lost over the last 8 years of crippling Tory austerity. Pembrokeshire, like every other county in Wales has seen the impact of Tory austerity resulting in job losses, public services under pressure and increasing poverty for those in and out of work. I know the people of Pembrokeshire will see through this cheap stunt for what it is.”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the UK Government’s belated decision to mitigate their austerity policies on our NHS, which we have long been calling for.
“While we welcome any additional funding, we await details of what that additional funding for Wales will be. However, it cannot be forgotten that had the Welsh Budget seen real terms growth between 2010-11 and 2019-20, the budget would be some £4bn higher than it is today.
“Decisions on the allocation of additional funding will be made by the Welsh cabinet in the usual way.”
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