AFTER nine months of delay, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the embarrassment its content could have caused to successive Conservative Prime Ministers, the long-awaited Intelligence Services Committee report into Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes was published on Tuesday, July 21.
The Committee delivered its report to the UK Government last autumn, well before the announcement of December’s General Election. However, the Government delayed its release indefinitely.
PUBLICATION AFTER GRAYLING FAILED AGAIN
The report’s publication on Tuesday followed an attempt by Number 10 Downing Street to rig the election of a new Chair for the Committee. Former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve QC stood down at the last election.
Last week, Number 10 attempted to parachute in a patsy to replace Dominic Grieve, former Cabinet Minister Chris Grayling, hoping to kick the report even further into the long grass. The effort failed comically when the Government’s nominee lost a rigged election. The new Chair, Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP, had the Conservative whip withdrawn from him as a result of ‘disloyalty’ to Number 10.
The attempt to thwart the report’s publication – or to neuter its already heavily redacted form – rebounded badly on Boris Johnson and draws attention to some of the report’s more uncomfortable conclusions regarding the extent of Russian infiltration into the UK’s public life.
The report is a scathing assessment of the UK Government’s continued failure to either adequately assess or even investigate how Russia, or those associated with the Putin regime, attempted to influence the UK electorate.
• Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures.• This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.
• It clearly demonstrates the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. While we cannot now shut the stable door, greater powers and transparency are needed urgently.
• UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation. While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action to influence our democratic processes.
• Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. This must change.
• Social media companies must take action and remove covert hostile state material: Government must ‘name and shame’ those who fail to act.
• We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions. [The Russian state’s coordination of the Novichok attack in] Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high watermark in international unity over the Russia threat.
Several issues addressed in the published version of the Russia Report are covered in more depth in a Classified Annex which is unavailable for public scrutiny.
GOVERNMENT DIDN’T RECOGNISE THREAT
A statement by the Committee said: “There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence.
“The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove. However what is clear is that the Government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014 (when Russia attempted to interfere in the Scottish Independence Referendum). As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016.”
“The Committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In our view, there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.”
In a press conference following the report’s publication, Chair of the Intelligence Services Committee, Julian Lewis recused himself from commenting on the report. He told media as he was not a member of the committee when it drew up the report, he would leave answers on its contents to two MPs who were members of it at the relevant time.
NO EFFORT TO INVESTIGATE
Members of the Intelligence Select Committee (ISC) said there was ‘no evidence’ that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum, but only because the government did not try to find out if it had.
One member, Stewart Hosie MP (SNP) said: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.
“The UK Government has actively avoided seeking evidence as to whether Russia interfered.”
The report notes: “For example, it was widely reported shortly after the Scottish referendum that Russian election observers had suggested that there were irregularities in the conduct of the vote, and this position was widely pushed by Russian state media.
“We understand that HMG viewed this as being primarily aimed at discrediting the UK in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience.”
Russian propaganda was widely shared and effective in Scotland.
Over 87,000 people signed a petition demanding a re-vote following the Russian allegations of electoral fraud.
Kevan Jones, a former Labour defence minister, said all the evidence of Russian interference was there from the Scottish referendum
He said: “Short of a large van outside Downing Street, with a billboard on it saying, ’this is what was going on’, what more did the government need? Why was the decision taken not to look at the (Brexit) referendum?”
He said the Government lied about why Russia report couldn’t be published before the election.
Commenting on the report the Shadow Home Secretary, Kit Thomas-Symonds, said: “The report outlines a litany of hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance. On every level, the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat. While on key issues it is clear that there is no overall strategic response to this challenge – little wonder the government has been so keen to delay the publication.”
MONEY TALKS REALITY BITES
The Committee’s reports and its members’ comments leave little doubt that Theresa May actively declined to start an investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 Referendum campaign.
In a section about the referendum, the report says: “The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”
While any number of conspiracy theories swirl about her failure to at least ask GCHQ, MI6 or MI5 to look into the allegations, it is entirely likely that Mrs May’s decision was based in cold, hard realpolitik.
If an investigation had uncovered evidence of Russian interference, the consequences for the UK potentially outweighed any effect the interference had on the Referendum’s outcome.
Brexit hardliners within her party and fringe figures such as Nigel Farage would never have accepted any finding which undermined the legitimacy of the Referendum result. The result could have been political chaos and – quite possibly – civil disruption.
An investigation would also have provided an impetus for defeated Remain campaigners to challenge the result through the Courts.
The scope for revelations about prominent Conservative figures’ connection with Russia and Russian money might have caused severe embarrassment at a time the Government was trying to set the Brexit agenda.
For example, Alexander Termerko is a former senior apparatchik in the Russian Ministry of Defence. He is among the Conservative’s largest donors (£1.3m over seven years). Born in Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mr Termerko rose to prominence during the Yeltsin era. He became involved in manufacturing arms and an oil tycoon under Vladimir Putin. He fled to the UK when threatened with a politically-motivated prosecution. Mr Termerko has donated generously to several Conservative MPs, including Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP Simon Hart.
None of the above excuses the failure to investigate but, as one possible reading of events, it offers a compelling rationale for Mrs May’s and Mr Johnson’s reluctance to look too deeply into any foreign interference in the Brexit Referendum.
Covid-19 restriction relaxations in Wales brought forward
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT will be accelerating elements of its programme to relax Covid-19 restrictions as cases of new infections continue to fall across Wales, the First Minister today announced.
People will be able to form an extended household, visit the gym or take part in organised outdoor activities a week earlier than planned, as the public health situation – and vaccination rates – continue to improve.
The First Minister last week set out a detailed timetable for moving Wales firmly into alert level three. But some of these measures will now be introduced sooner than planned as cases have fallen markedly from 37 cases per 100,000 people to fewer than 21 per 100,000 this week.
The pressure on hospitals also continues to ease. Confirmed cases in hospital beds continue to reduce, and now stands at 89. This is 26% lower than last Thursday and is the lowest position since 22 September 2020.
The planned opening date for organised outdoor activities and outdoor wedding receptions will be moved forward to Monday 26 April from 3 May.
And, from Monday 3 May, a week earlier than previously signalled, gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities will be able to reopen for individual or one-to-one training. Extended households will also be allowed again, enabling two households to meet and have contact indoors.
First Minister, Mark Drakeford said:
“The public health situation in Wales continues to improve thanks to everything you are doing to help us control this awful virus. Cases of the virus are falling and our incredible vaccination programme continues to go from strength to strength.
“Last week, we set out our programme to further re-open the economy and relax the restrictions we have lived with for so long, as part of our careful, step-by-step approach to keeping everyone safe. This week, because of the improvements we continue to see, we can bring forward some of our plans.
“This is only possible because of the efforts everyone is making to protect themselves and their loved ones.”
From Monday 12 April, the following relaxations will go ahead:
- The full return of children to schools for face-to-face education, all post-16 learners will return to further education and training centres, and university campus’ will be able to open for blended face-to-face/online learning for all students;
- All remaining shops will reopen, completing the phased reopening of non-essential retail;
- All remaining close contact services will open, including mobile services;
- Travel restrictions on traveling into and out of Wales will be lifted. However, restrictions on travel to countries outside the Common Travel Area without a reasonable excuse, remain in place. The Common Travel Area means the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland;
- Wedding ‘show-arounds’ by appointment are allowed;
- Restrictions on political canvassing are removed, subject to canvassers doing so safely.
- Further easements to restrictions in the coming weeks will be subject to the public health situation remaining favourable. These will be confirmed at the next three-weekly review of the coronavirus regulations on 22 April.
On Monday 26 April:
- Outdoor attractions, including funfairs and theme parks, would be allowed to reopen;
- Outdoor hospitality can resume, including at cafes, pubs and restaurants. Indoor hospitality will remain closed except for takeaways;
- Organised outdoor activities for up to 30 people can again take place (previously Monday 3 May);
- Weddings receptions can take place outdoors for up to 30 people (previously Monday 3 May).
On Monday 3 May (previously Monday 10 May):
- Gyms, leisure centres and fitness facilities can reopen. This will include individual or one-to-one training but not exercise classes;
Extended household will again allow two households to meet and have contact indoors.
- As set out in the revised Coronavirus Control Plan, a small number of outdoor pilot events of between 200 and 1,000 people are also being planned.
Criticism of Labour’s water pollution policy grow
JANET FINCH-SAUNDERS MS – the Shadow Environment and Rural Affairs Minister – has backed a call from rural economy agency Country Land and Business Association (CLA) Cymru for a targeted response to water pollution in Wales.
Last week, a motion to annul the regulations narrowly failed to pass after Labour used its bloc vote.
Labour has twice voted against rescinding the Welsh Government’s NVZ policy and used a procedural ruse to ram the legislation through without scrutiny.
Among those aiding and abetting Labour was the outgoing MS for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Dafydd Elis Thomas. He was joined by Caroline Jones, formerly of UKIP, who is odds-on to lose her regional seat at May’s election. Education Minister Kirsty Williams, the Senedd’s sole Liberal Democrat MS, did not vote at all, not even to abstain.
Despite notionally representing a rural area of Wales, Eluned Morgan and Joyce Watson backed the controversial rules, which could drive Pembrokeshire’s small local dairy farmers out of business.
RIGHT OBJECTIVE WRONG METHOD
Fraser McAuley, CLA Policy Advisor, said: “The Government’s laudable objectives can be better met by an approach which focuses attention where it’s most needed. Where a problem doesn’t exist, we should not be imposing unnecessary costs on a hard-pressed sector in a future of uncertainty.
“The crude closed-periods for nutrient-spreading will do everything to encourage more intense spreading in the open-periods. This limits farmers’ capacity to choose the right ground-conditions to add nutrient. In some instances, this could make matters worse!”
Mr McAuley continued: “We really don’t believe the Welsh Government has allocated sufficient resource to do the job. We will be pressing-hard for more capital support through the Farm Business and Sustainable Production Grants. Penalising hard-stretched farmers will lead to more departures from the business by small operators. The livelihood of many small family farms is at-stake.
“We’ve got a great opportunity to get this right in the White Paper on Agriculture. Here, we can create a solution that fits into the big picture: creating a prosperous farming sector based on sustainable land management principles. This is the real goal.”
WG HASN’T LISTENED TO THE SCIENCE
Janet Finch-Saunder said: “CLA Cymru is bang on the money here over Labour’s unfair stance on nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZ).
“As Welsh Conservatives have repeatedly said, a blanket NVZ policy discriminates against farmers who are abiding by the regulations. A targeted approach focused on where it’s most needed means resources can be better and more efficiently applied.
“Unlike Labour, which is peddling a myth that the voluntary approach has failed, I would look to back the Blue Flag Farming approach. We should pursue the Water Standard and work to deliver on the 45 recommendations by the Wales Land Management Forum Sub-Group on agricultural pollution., They have been entirely ignored by the Welsh Government.
“The pandemic hasn’t helped, but farmers in Wales have had a tough time under Labour. Imposing unnecessary costs on this vital sector of the Welsh economy helps no-one and won’t solve the problem.”
Preseli Pembrokeshire MS Paul Davies said: “These excessive and disproportionate proposals will have a massive impact on the viability of many farms across Wales. Even then, Natural Resources Wales has warned that the proposed new rules will have the perverse outcome of making water quality worse.
“The regulations will threaten the sustainability of many farms in Pembrokeshire and have a serious impact on farmers’ mental health. And they will do this while there is still no clear evidence that this action will actually deliver the improvements in water quality that they have set out to achieve.”
Carmarthen East & Dinefwr’s MP, Jonathan Edwards, went further and accused the Welsh Government of stoking a ‘culture war’ between farmers and the environmental lobby for electoral advantage.
Mr Edwards said: “There is nothing new surrounding issues of slurry management. I am, therefore, baffled as to why the Labour Government are so intent on bringing forward this poorly thought out measure a month before an election.
“Creating an all-Wales NVZ seems completely ham-fisted. A more subtle policy would have concentrated on problematic geographical areas instead of a blanket all-Wales policy.
“The Labour Government have also failed to consider the emergence of innovative slurry management technology.
“Coleg Sir Gar Gelli Aur campus has been working on a dewatering and purification system for slurry resulting in zero waste. The Labour Government should be using its environmental budget to help the industry make the transition to the use of new technology.”
Jonathan Edwards concluded: “Unfortunately, the Labour Government have decided to engage in the politics of culture war. Its creating division between farmers and the environmental lobby instead of working collaboratively on areas of mutual interest.
“Instead of using farmers as a political football, the Labour Government should be working with our agricultural sector. Its members are already having to contend with the huge challenges created by the Tory British Government’s Brexit policy.”
Plaid Cymru’s candidate for Preseli Pembrokeshire, Cris Tomos, said: “It is concerning that the Labour Welsh Government continues to ignore farmers and the farming unions.
“These regulations could be detrimental to the farming community, especially to the Welsh family farm.
“The Labour Welsh Government should be making every effort to work with farmers.”
Cris Tomos added: “It is also concerning that, on the one hand, Labour has pledged to fulfil its ‘One Million Welsh Speakers’ promise, and on the other, it continues to betray the industry with one of the highest rates of Welsh speakers.”
A TIGHT TIMETABLE
If Labour intends to plough on with its legislation, it really has to get its skates on.
The Senedd term ends soon. After that point, Labour will not be able to lay its new regulations.
It has not even published them yet. And that leaves farmers in limbo.
Farmers will not know the detail of the divisive and costly new rules until days before they are due to come into force.
How the Welsh Government can ask a regulator to enforce those rules without a lengthy lead-in is something the Welsh Government has not set out. It has also provided no extra funding to its environment watchdog, NRW, to deal with the rules’ impact and enforcement.
Having promised a Clean Air Act for Wales in its 2016 manifesto, it is nowhere near bringing any such legislation forward. It appears it’s more in the presentation and consultation than in the statute book.
Labour Senedd members and ministers who have been remarkably silent on agriculture for the last five years now express a deep and abiding interest in the topic.
As Jonathan Edwards notes above: you’d think there was an election coming.
In contrast to its green branding, Labour withdrew business rates support from small hydropower businesses. It claimed the cost of rates relief to them could not be afforded due to the Covid pandemic. It saved under £1m.
Regardless of when the Welsh Government publishes its regulations, it faces a potential legal challenge from NFU-Cymru. NFU-Cymru says the Welsh Government failed to follow its own rules on the rules’ impact before forcing them through the Senedd.
Labour ministers pressed on without knowing what would happen in practice or, worse, simply turned a blind eye to the consequences. They also ignored the Impact Assessment of the Welsh Government’s own regulator.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths, broke repeated promises made to the Senedd and farming unions about the regulations’ introduction during the pandemic.
Unfunded, unenforceable rules of unknown impact are unlikely to achieve their aim: that’s not a compelling legislative legacy.
Suppose Labour cannot form a majority government propped up by votes from individuals like Dafydd Elis Thomas. In that case, it will need to haggle over its future plans or face legislative deadlock. Anyone would think there was an election coming.
Senedd approves Wales’ National Curriculum
MEMBERS of the Senedd voted to pass the National Curriculum Bill’s final text, meaning the Curriculum for Wales will now be introduced in 2022.
Throughout the debate on its final stage, which took place on Tuesday (March 9), opposition members praised Wales’ Education Minister, Kirsty Williams. Members from all sides saluted her patience and diligence in guiding a significant piece of legislation onto the statute book.
Even members who disagreed with the Bill’s content and opposed its passage highlighted the Minister’s personal contribution and commitment to creating Wales’ first national Curriculum.
A NATIONAL MISSION
The Bill was the subject of intensive scrutiny and broad consultation.
Speaking in the Senedd, Mrs Williams said the Bill’s passage was ’a national mission’.
“It would have been simpler to cook up plans in Cathays Park in a back office and issue a ‘take it or leave it’ offer,” the Education Minister said.
She continued: “But our combined efforts with teachers, academics, parents, and many organisations here and abroad is worth so much more because of that ‘national mission’ spirit.”
Kirsty Williams paid a personal tribute to Labour MS Lynn Neagle, Chair of the Children’s and Young Persons’ Committee.
Under Lynn Neagle’s leadership, the Committee rigorously scrutinised the Bill and made a series of recommendations in its text.
Of the Labour backbencher, Kirsty Williams said: “I conclude by thanking Lynne Neagle for her tough, astute, tenacious, sometimes bloody-mindedness in her approach to this legislation. I mean that as a compliment, Lynne.
“As I said earlier, the results of the committee’s work have made this a better Bill.”
She had similarly warm words for her Conservative opposite number, Suzy Davies.
Mrs Williams acknowledged: “She has worked incredibly hard on this Bill, and I know that she’s been fully committed to the scrutiny process. As I said in opening my comments today, I think we have a better Bill due to the CYPE committee’s efforts. I have gone to great lengths to try and respond positively to the cross-party report that the Committee published to try and meet those aspirations.”
Like Mrs Williams, Suzy Davies steps down as an MS in May. She was unable to attend the debate.
Despite the Minister’s warm words, the new Curriculum’s journey to the statute book has not been without controversy.
Activists railed against the Curriculum’s Religion Values and Ethics element and its focus on Welsh language teaching’s importance to all of Wales’ pupils. The inclusion of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in the Curriculum provoked vituperative responses from a small group of parents. They opposed children receiving what they’ve claimed will be inappropriately explicit sexual education.
Senior Policy Researcher for NSPCC Cymru/Wales, Dr Sarah Witcombe-Hayes says: “The strength of support for mandatory relationships and sexuality education to be included in the new Curriculum for Wales by leading child protection experts and charities highlights what a game-changer this is.
“The changes are long overdue, but in passing this Bill Senedd members are helping to protect children and young people from abuse – making sure every child and young person in Wales can access high quality RSE that is relevant, sensitive and appropriate to their own capacities and needs.
“It will help all learners understand their rights to safe, healthy and fulfilling relationships throughout their lives, and schools must now be supported and fully resourced to deliver inclusive and high quality RSE from September 2022.”
Regarding Welsh Language teaching and RSE, those with genuine concerns had those worries preyed upon to grandstanding political effect by fringe political movements, such as Ukip and Abolish the Assembly (sic.)
Speaking for the latter group, Gareth Bennett said: “The downgrading of English teaching in the interest of immersion in Welsh is a sinister development. It will surely disadvantage Welsh schoolchildren who are not from a background of speaking Welsh at home.”
Dr Felix Aubel, a noted controversialist, said: “UKIP would divert millions of pounds by abolishing the legal requirement to forcibly impose the Welsh language on people.”
Like Abolish, UKIP will campaign on a platform of abolishing Welsh parliamentary democracy.
Those organisations’ concerns on Welsh language education ignore the fact Welsh is the national language of Wales. Every credible educational study underlines how children benefit from bilingual education.
HISTORY TEACHING CONCERNS PLAID
On Tuesday, further and concerted criticism of the new Curriculum came from Plaid Cymru.
Perturbed by the absence of Welsh history’s teaching, Plaid’s Sian Gwenllian announced the party would vote against the Bill in its final stage.
Plaid’s Shadow Education Minister said that, although her party supported the Bill’s direction of travel: “Plaid Cymru argued for the inclusion of two other mandatory elements that could also contribute towards creating that social, far-reaching transformation that we want to see, namely the history of Wales in all of its diversity, including black and people of colour history, and environmental education, including climate change.
“There is no assurance [these subjects] will be given due attention, and for me, that is a fundamental flaw within the Bill. Guidance simply isn’t enough. It’s easy to scrap guidance or change it, unlike issues that have a statutory basis and are included on the face of the Bill.
“We will, therefore, vote against the legislation today.”
In response, Kirsty Williams said: “For the absolute avoidance of any doubt, Welsh histories and the story of Wales will be a compulsory part of this Curriculum. It is included in the statutory guidance that has already been issued and will have a statutory underpinning.
“There will be no way a school cannot teach the history of Wales. Indeed, every single area of learning and experience must have a golden thread of a celebration of Welsh identity in all its diversity in every area.”
The Minister observed acidly: “I accept it’s election time, and there are petitions and e-mails to be sent, but it’s regrettable, as I said, on this historic day, with the opportunity for the first time in our nation’s history to have our own curriculum, that The Party of Wales will choose to vote against.”
TIME TO PREPARE
The Bill passed by 32 votes to 18 with one abstention. Four Conservative Senedd Members voted with the Government, including Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies.
Following Royal Assent, which is anticipated in April, the Bill will become the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021.
Last year, the Minister published an updated action plan setting out the next steps in Wales’ reform journey, ahead of the new Curriculum’s introduction.
Alongside the updated ‘Our National Mission’ action plan, the Welsh Government also published a document setting out shared expectations of what curriculum realisation means for practitioners and schools from 2022. Curriculum for Wales.
The journey to 2022 has been created to help schools prepare for designing and implementing their Curriculum. In January, the Welsh Government published the Curriculum Implementation Plan, which will steer its work with partners to deliver the Curriculum for Wales.