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Liberal Democrat Conference review

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Jane Dodds: Leader addresses conference

THE WELSH L​IBERAL DEMOCRATS gathered at The Village Hotel, Cardiff over the weekend, vowing to foster ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’ and to campaign to bring about a Ratification Referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal.

While the party has had a punishing time in the most recent round of elections, retaining only a single AM in the 2016 National Assembly Election and losing their final Welsh MP in Theresa May’s snap General Election, the prevailing mood at this weekend’s conference was upbeat.

A PARTY ON THE WAY BACK?

There was an appeal for traditional, Welsh Liberal values by Party President, Cllr William Powell, Mid and West Wales AM between 2011 – 16. Cllr Powell also paid an emotional tribute to his friend, party stalwart and former Preseli Parliamentary Candidate Nick Tregoning, leading to a short silence and round of applause. The former Swansea Council Cabinet Member and Presiding Officer, who died recently, represented the best in the Welsh Liberal tradition, and ‘thought and fought more for others than for himself.’

A keynote speech by new Welsh Lib Dem leader, Jane Dodds, who was elected in November last year, replacing Mark Williams, former Ceredigion MP, was particularly well received. Not shying away from the party’s recent challenges, Ms Dodds said: “There’s no denying we’ve had a difficult few years. While the wounds of the last few years are still visible, we are still fighting.”

Ms Dodds emphasised that the party’s top priorities must be to battle homelessness and poverty, as ‘The nasty party in Westminster doggedly pursues deeper cuts in public finances, vulnerable people scraping by to survive, without access to public services, with no hope for their future”

Turning to the Party’s signature policy on Brexit, the new leader continued: “We have to be clear in our opposition to the UK government’s disastrous handling of the biggest decision our country has faced in a generation… Whether we like it or not, Wales voted to leave the EU. But – and it’s a big but – it was not on the basis that we would leave under any circumstances.”

Concluding, she said: “We need to make sure we have the ideas in place that address the needs of communities and people living in Wales, and we have to translate these ideas into winning votes. Not power for the sake of power, but power so we can change people’s lives for the better, putting us back at the heart of Welsh politics, where we belong.”

A FREE AND FAIR WALES

Ms Dodds also presented a motion calling for the creation of ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’, emphasising that the party’s mission for the immediate future should be to develop new policies to work towards this goal.

“We need to make sure we have an economy and a society which offers opportunities to all…A Wales of hope and optimism.”

Cardiff Councillor Rhys Taylor was amongst those to speak in favour of the motion, stating: “We know what we stand for, but we’re not always very clear about articulating that. It’s an aspirational vision for Wales and our society.’

Veteran Ynys Mon Councillor and former Cabinet Member, Aled Morris Jones, also spoke in favour of the motion, saying: “Never has there been a time when there has been a greater need for liberalism. We must stand up for moderation because it is under threat, both here and across the world.”

Summating the motion, Party President William Powell said: “It is ambitious, it will need a lot of work and I sense that people in this room and in our local parties are up for that. It is central to rebuilding our party and to our resurgence.”

The motion was supported unanimously.

Party Members and supporters also had the opportunity to quiz Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM, and to debate motions on plans to bury radioactive waste off the coast of Wales. There was also a passionate appeal for legal clarity over access to waterways for water sports enthusiasts from Welsh Paralympian and first time conference speaker, Frances Bateman.

BREXIT, SYRIA, EQUALITY DEBATED

The weekend also included an expert panel discussion on Brexit with Ms Dodds, Ms Williams, Liberal Democrat Federal President, Baroness Sal Brinton and former MEP Peter Price, chaired by Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Lib Dem activist and Newbie Hilton Marlton. During the session, members agreed to keep battling Brexit, working across party lines with all Remain supporters, which was confirmed by an explicit #ExitFromBrexit motion on the Sunday morning.

Baroness Sal Brinton also gave a keynote speech, in which she criticised Theresa May for not giving MPs a vote on military action against Syria, saying that to do so was “further diminishing the standing of Britain in the world”. And she was optimistic about the party’s future prospects, saying: “I know the future of the Welsh party is in good hands.’

The second day of the conference also included a motion on the Welsh Government’s new plans to reform local government in Wales. Although the motion agreed with the principle of cutting the number of councils in Wales, it suggested the final number should be 14 or 15 – and emphasised the importance of respecting localism and democratic structures to reflect that.

Members also backed a motion calling for schools in Wales to introduce gender-neutral uniforms. Presenting the motion, Cllr Rhys Taylor of Cardiff said: “We should not dictate to young people what they should wear outside religious codes.” He added more support and training should be offered to teachers in supporting LGBT pupils.

Amy Gaskin of Swansea University’s branch of the party also spoke in support of the motion, saying: “There’s increasing evidence that male and female brains just don’t exist. It’s more of a mosaic”.

“What right do we have to tell kids they should wear trousers or a skirt, or a tie or no tie?” she asked.

Sunday also saw Baroness Christine Humphreys of Llanrwst, North Wales AM from 1999 until 2001, appointed as the party’s new Deputy Leader. She was the only nominee.

Closing the conference, Welsh Party President William Powell said: “We’ve got a rich vein of new talent emerging in the party.”

Saying he felt a sense of “optimism and positivism, Mr Powell called for: “A kinder, gentler and more inclusive values-based politics – that is what Jane (Dodds) and our wider leadership want to introduce.”

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Politics

Conservative Assembly Leader Quits

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Did he fall or was he pushed?: Davies quits as Tory leader

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!”

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Impartiality of civil service questioned

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Carwyn Jones: Knew nothing of friend and colleague's health issues

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.

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Tory NHS funding pledge ‘a stunt’

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Tory claim 'a cheap stunt': Eluned Morgan dismisses spin machine

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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