I LIKE to think that I’m not often lost for words in the Chamber. But during my oral questions session the other week, Plaid’s spokesperson, Sian Gwenllian, asked me a question that momentarily left me like a goldfish gasping for breath.
Sian asked me what would be my style as a minister. I guess that she wanted to know whether I’d be more Leighton or Mark. Whether I would seek to impose a policy or seek a consensus. I have no idea whether my response pleased her or not. But it was a good question and it has led me to think again how I would answer the question.
Over the years successive ministers have tried several different approaches and styles. Local government leaders have been flattered, cajoled, persuaded and been drawn into temptation by a whole feast of ministerial offerings. This is certainly one area of policy where there have been an embarrassment of riches with a whole government full of green papers, white papers, commissions and strategies and speeches and statements.
What all of this earnest activity has in common is that it has all failed to deliver any meaningful reform of either the structures or ways of working in local government. It has failed to deliver change or reform and it has failed to create a consensus on the shape of what any reform may actually look like. Maps have come and gone. Footprints debated and heads nodded. Within a month of my own appointment I was told at the WLGA’s seminar in Cardiff in no uncertain terms to put away the Bill and the policy that I had inherited only a couple of weeks previously.
And no report from the WLGA seminar would be complete without mention of Newport’s Debbie Wilcox who has taken the organisation by the scruff of the neck. Her powerful speech set the tone for the day and impressed all of us with her emphasis on the value and importance of localism within the devolved context.
And it was this speech which first helped me to understand that times are changing.
As well as telling me that the inherited policy of mandated regional working wasn’t a runner I was also told that the current shape and structure of local government is not sustainable. And it is this latter point that has dominated my conversations with local government leaders since November.
In my initial conversations I see a generation of leaders committed to their communities and to local government as a powerful and dynamic shaper of those communities. These are people that understand only too well that the failure to agree on an approach to local government policy reflects poorly on everyone – local government and Welsh Government. Repeating the word ‘no’ during difficult times engenders neither confidence nor conviction.
Since taking office I have tried to spend time talking with people. From the wonderful Guildhall in Swansea to the marvellous civic centre in Newport and a former cell in Caernarfon I have discussed and enjoyed the creative force of leaders with drive and energy and a determination to lead change. And I am left with the absolute belief that local government has the vision and the ambition to transform our communities. And to deliver on this vision they need the powers and the freedoms to chart their own courses.
So what is the role for Welsh Government? Great efforts have been made recently to re-build and re-set the relationship and there is certainly a sense that things have improved significantly. We need to build on these firm foundations. For me it is time that Welsh Government joined the debate over the future of local government with a degree of humility rather than an over-large helping of hubris. Too often in the past the tone from Welsh Government has been hectoring, arrogant and policy expressed in intemperate language with criticism that has been unwarranted and unjustified.
Perhaps it’s time for the Government to say sorry and to start again.
So this brings me to answer Sian’s question.
In resetting the relationship between the Welsh Government and local government we need to root our approach firmly in the values of local democracy. A belief in not only civic pride but in local government and local decision-making rather than the local administration of national priorities. A belief that local government leaders and strong councils are better able to deliver excellent public services and to protect the interests of public service workers than a series of instructions from the Bay.
So I have written to all local government leaders asking them for their ideas for powers that should be provided to local government. What are the freedoms and flexibilities that they need to deliver on their mandates and ambitions? I will publish the answers and will publish a route map to deliver those new powers.
But I cannot travel on this journey alone.
The new powers alone will not provide all the answers to the question of sustainability that were so powerfully put back in November. The leader of a rural authority told me last week of the reductions they were making – hundreds of jobs lost over the last few years. And it is this erosion of the public workforce with its inevitable impact on services provided and the terms of service for those who keep their jobs that worries me most. No-one is a winner today. And no-one that I have met wants more of the same.
So the Welsh Government needs to change its approach and to provide for a new relationship. And that also means a new tone. A tone rooted in the respect for local mandates and the pressures faced by local councillors and public service workers. A tone and an approach which seeks to build together a joint venture to provide local authorities with the new powers they need. And then we need to build together the structures that will enable authorities to deliver on those new powers.
It may well be the case that after nearly two decades of devolved government that our democracy is maturing and that the relationship between a more powerful Welsh parliament and more powerful local authorities will be one where we can learn to govern together as a single Welsh public service and leave the arguments and negative debates in the past.
I certainly hope so.
This article appeared originally on the personal blog of Alun Davies AM and is reproduced with his kind permission.
Alun Davies is the AM for Blaenau Gwent and the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services
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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