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Welsh budget ‘very much a draft’

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THE SENEDD’s Finance Committee’s report on the Welsh Government’s Draft Budget for 2021-22, voices serious concerns for public services, inequality and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Committee is clear that the need to address and alleviate poverty is more critical than ever, with the pandemic deepening the problems already faced by low-income and disadvantaged households.

HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE

The Finance Committee is worried about the impact of the pandemic on non-COVID care, due to sustained pressure on the NHS and its healthcare workers. The Finance Committee also believes the impact of the pandemic on mental health will be considerable over the next year and beyond.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee agrees that the public health emergency Wales is facing should not be underestimated, either in terms of responding to the immediate challenges of the pandemic, or the need to do what can be done to maintain the vital non-COVID services on which people rely.

The Committee believes the true scale of the implications for the health and wellbeing of people in Wales, may not become clear for years. The crisis has also exacerbated underlying issues, including the fragility of the social care sector, the ongoing health inequalities across Wales, and the need for a clear strategic vision to drive health and social care integration and service transformation.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND EDUCATION

The Finance Committee is concerned that increased funding in the local government settlement will not cover all cost pressures, such as social care, childcare, and education.

The Finance Committee is deeply concerned about the risks to children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those in early years, falling behind in their education as a result of the pandemic. The Finance Committee is calling for more information about how funding will support learners to ‘catch up’ while also delivering the current ways of learning.

ECONOMY, SKILLS  & REGENERATION

The Finance Committee heard evidence that the Draft Budget does not provide a coherent approach to supporting businesses through the pandemic. While recognising that it may be sensible to allow some degree of flexibility, the Committee is concerned that the implementation of the business support packages has been “patchy” with smaller businesses finding it harder to access funds. This has been further complicated by the different approaches to business support from different Governments within the UK.

The Committee believes the Draft Budget could have been clearer in outlining the Welsh Government’s long-term approach to potential shifts in consumer behaviour towards online retailers and the effect on local economies. The Welsh Government should rethink previous policies on revitalising town centres in light of the pandemic.

CHALLENGES NEED LONG-TERM APPROACH

Llyr Gruffydd MS, Chair of the Finance Committee said: “This is the final Draft Budget of the Fifth Senedd. This year the pandemic has delayed UK fiscal events, resulting in delays to publication of the Welsh Government’s Draft Budget. This has reduced our time for scrutiny which is particularly concerning given that COVID-19 will have an impact on public spending for years to come.

“This Draft Budget is very much a draft. A lack of forward-funding figures with only a one- year revenue funding settlement, and the timing of the UK Government’s Budget set later for 3 March has made budget-setting even more challenging for the Welsh Government.

“Much of our work is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst welcoming the extra money for health and social services, the Committee is concerned about the long-term impacts on non-COVID care. We also have serious concerns over workforce capacity and mental health.

“Our businesses need support more than ever, with many being forced to close. For them to have a future after this pandemic, we support calls for the simplification and consolidation of the financial assistance schemes available.

“COVID-19 has brought many serious challenges and the financial impact on health, the economy and public services will be felt by society for years to come. While there is a need to respond to the immediate situation we are hopeful that there is an opportunity for longer-term planning to ensure that Wales can recover strongly.”

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MS summoned to Court over tweet

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PLAID CYMRU’s Mid & West Wales Regional Senedd Member Helen Mary Jones has been summoned to appear at Swansea Crown Court.

HHJ Paul Thomas QC ordered Ms Jones to court after she retweeted a third-party’s post which expressed the hope a defendant in an ongoing murder trial would be convicted.

The tweet referred to the trial of 70-year-old Anthony Williams, who killed his wife shortly after the start of the first lockdown in March last year.

Mr Williams had pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter.

However, while the trial was ongoing, a domestic violence campaigner tweeted:: “Another perp using the ‘I just snapped’. It is complete b******t! As so many of us will know, there would have been history of domestic abuse.
“I hope this jury finds him guilty of murder. Rest in peace, Ruth.”
On Saturday, before the jury returned its verdict, Ms Jones shared the tweet.

There was no history of domestic abuse and no suggestion of it was raised during Mr Jones’ trial.

When the Jury returned to Court on Monday, HHJ Paul Thomas said: “It’s come to my attention that, over the weekend, there have been some highly inappropriate comments made on social media about this case.
“I should make it abundantly clear that those comments have not come from anybody connected with the case and, having been shown the contents of one such piece of social media, they clearly don’t have any idea about the evidence in this case or the issues in this case.”
None of the jurors saw the offending post and continued their deliberations.

On Monday afternoon, the jury acquitted Mr Williams of murder.

By retweeting the remarks made by a third party, the risk existed that the jury could have been influenced and their decision-making compromised.

On Thursday, Helen Mary Jones will have the chance to explain her actions to Judge Thomas in person.

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UKIP politicians vow to overturn new smacking ban in Wales

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UKIP Wales has announced that it is committed to repealing the Welsh Government’s controversial ‘Smacking Ban’ ahead of the Senedd Elections, and that this will become part of its manifesto in Wales.

The ban on reasonable chastisement was introduced in January 2020 by Labour’s Deputy Minister for Social Services, Julie Morgan. The legislation removes the defence of “reasonable punishment” in cases of common assault.

UKIP Leader and Member of the Senedd for Mid & West Wales, Neil Hamilton, said: “Parents know what is best for their children, not politicians. Members of the Senedd need to get a foot in the real world, outside the Cardiff Bay Bubble and listen to the public.

“[The ban] received huge criticism when it was railroaded through the Senedd against public opinion. When consulted, up to 75% of parents in Wales opposed the restrictions that prohibited them from reasonably disciplining their children.

“The policy is practically impossible to enforce and is estimated to cost the taxpayer £8 million. It is another example of the Cardiff Bay politicians overextending themselves and forcing their own virtue-signalling morality on to the people of Wales.

“Senedd politicians from all parties have forgotten they are not the boss – the public are. As Members of the Senedd, their job is to represent their constituents not police how parents bring up their children.

“The Government must do everything possible to protect children from physical and psychological abuse. But this legislation has done, and will continue to do, nothing to stop cases of serious abuse. Instead, it penalises parents who take reasonable steps to discipline their children.

“In this year’s Senedd Elections, UKIP is standing up for parents to raise their children free from interference from an overarching, self-righteous political class in Cardiff.”

Pembrokeshire-based UKIP councillor Paul Dowson said: “In my opinion this is plain and simple common sense. It has cost the taxpayer 8 million pounds for a bill which is simply unenforceable.

“This over-woke labour Welsh government made up of out of touch ministers have no right to tell the public how to discipline their children.

“The latest generation have recently gone through the education system where there are no serious consequences for bad behaviour, the parents have been restricted regarding punishing bad behaviour, and the curriculum promotes 99 different genders along with a whole host of other WOKE topics above common sense and basic respect.
“Our future begins with our children and we need to be allowed to discipline our kids in a way which we see fit even if it does include a smack on the ass when required.

“The sooner we regain control of society the better.

“No better place to start than with bringing our children up properly instead of following the Drakeford formula. His own son is a prime example of poor parenting.”

Cllrs Dowson’s view is at odds with the NSPCC. The children’s protection charity said in a press release: “This is a remarkable achievement which closes an outdated loophole and finally gives children in Wales the same legal protection from assault as adults.”

Conservative AM Ms Finch-Saunders said: “With this bill the state is now stepping into the private lives of families”.

She added: “Through the involvement of the police and social services… this smacking ban this will potentially have far reaching consequences for us all.”

Julie Morgan, Deputy Social Services Minister, said it was a “historic day” after members passed the law with 36 votes for, 14 against.

Ms Morgan had campaigned for years for a ban and had broken the Labour whip over the issue when the Welsh Government did not support it, in 2015.

She said at a press conference after the vote: “This is not about the government telling parents how to raise their children or about criminalising loving parents,”

She added the government had listened to the “vocal minority” who opposed the move, but that removing the defence of reasonable punishment “is the right thing to do”.

“The children of Wales now have the same protection as adults in Wales have.”

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Drakeford lands in the brown and smellies

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THAT was much better.
At least from Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies.
Last week, we reported on the difficulties Mr Davies got into when bandying around statistics with the First Minister. His performance fell flat and the subject didn’t play to his or his Party’s strengths. 

REGULATIONSBREACH PROMISES 

This week, Mr Davies was back on ground about which the First Minister knows little and couldn’t care less: agriculture, and a Minister’s breach of repeated promises not to enact costly and onerous legislation during the pandemic.
Mr Davies said Labour’s Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, betrayed farmers in Wales announcing the introduction of a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) across the whole country despite saying in the Senedd Chamber on seven separate occasions that she would not while the pandemic continues.
Mr Davies said: “We’re 10 months into this crisis, a crisis that has had a dramatic effect on all sectors of business including farming, and the Welsh Labour Government – propped up by the Lib Dem – decides to introduce a blanket NVZ across all of Wales when [Lesley Griffiths] had said she wouldn’t.
“Labour’s farming minister was quite clear throughout the course of 2020 and the pandemic. Labour promised farmersup and down Wales they wouldn’t look at introducing these regulations while we were still dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Labour has broken that promise.
“I asked Labour’s First Minister to personally intervene on behalf of farmers and rural communities across Wales and hold off introducing these regulations when we’re still in the grip of a pandemic. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t even acknowledge that his Minister broke a promise made seven times.
“It’s yet another broken promise by the Labour Party, and shows that farmers and the Welsh public at large can’t trust Labour when it comes to protecting livelihoods and the food security of Wales and our United Kingdom.” 

FIRST MINISTERDIGS A SLURRY PIT

While Mr Drakeford tried to bluster his way out of the corner by referring to the number of agricultural pollution incidents each week, he inadvertently dug himself deeper into the hole Lesley Griffiths prepared. Neither the number nor frequency of pollution incidents have increased and the majority of pollution incidents are both localised and minor. That can be shown by direct reference to the minuscule number of enforcement actions and the even smaller number of prosecutions arising from pollution incidents.
The Welsh Government’s claims that its environmental watchdog, Natural Resources Wales, has both the necessary powers and the necessary funding to tackle incidents. If the Welsh Government’s claims on either count stand up to scrutiny, the overwhelming majority of cases relating to agricultural pollution are of extremely limited impact. If the Welsh Government’s claims about NRW are an example of ‘gilding the lily’, the problem of agricultural pollution is one to which it has contributed by neutering its watchdog. It cannot have it both ways. But Mr Drakeford tried to, even after acknowledging there had been NO increase in alleged agricultural pollution incidents.
Mr Drakeford said: “The level of pollution incidents in the agriculture sphere is damaging the reputation of farmers, damaging our environment and damaging the ability of that industry, in the long run, to trade with other parts of the world. Given that the strength of our industry is the quality of the produce that it delivers, any delay would not be in the interests of the industry.”That last point begs the question that if a delay to the regulations is not in the industry’s interests now, why delay promised at all.
Mr Drakeford continued: “The implementation of the regulations will be done sensitively, they’ll be done alongside the industry.” 

GOVERNMENT IGNOREDOWN REGULATOR

That last point would make a welcome change.The largest source of river pollution in Wales has been pollution by water companies. Agricultural leaks are implicated in 15% of incidents.As long ago as 2018, The Herald probed the incidence of river pollution. A Freedom of Information Act request that year revealed there were 2,700 incidents of river pollution in the preceding three years. Fifteen percent of 2700 is 405: that equates to 2.6 incidents each week attributable to agricultural pollution. Those numbers, as Mr Drakeford said, have not changed. Of those 2,700 incidents, only ten resulted in civil sanctions.

At the time, Andrea Winterton of NRW told us: “We always seek to be proportionate in our enforcement, and the action we take will depend on the severity of the incident. Of the pollution incidents between 2013 and 2016, many of these were minor, small scale and short-lived, often making it difficult to find those responsible.”While one pollution incident is one too many, as Andrew RT Davies recognised in the Senedd, the Welsh Government is taking a large hammer to crack a relatively small nut while ignoring major pollution causes.
The Welsh Government has ignored both its own environmental watchdog over the scope of the regulations and the industry group it convened to review the new rules. The decision of the Welsh Government is also contrary to the recommendations of its own advisory panel.Natural Resources Wales warned the Welsh Government its pollution regulations could have the ‘perverse outcome’ of making water quality worse.
The official advice from the regulator was obtained as part of a freedom of information (FOI) request submitted by NFU Cymru. The advice also said NRW did not have enough resources to implement the new rules if they applied to all farm businesses across Wales.
NRW’s advice was given specifically on the Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) being carried out by the Welsh Government. That assessment should have assessed the impact on all farm businesses in Wales. The NRW advice suggests the Welsh Government did no such thing.
NRW also claimed the Welsh Government had ‘lost an opportunity’ in only considering two options – do nothing, or an all-Wales approach – and suggested the assessment did not follow the Welsh Government’s own RIA guidance on presenting a comprehensive range of implementation choices.
It also questioned the lack of analysis on water quality in the RIA and how proportionate the measures would be in areas where low nitrate concentrations are found, concluding the assessment would be ‘open to challenge’ from a number of stakeholders.
Legal action has already been threatened by NFU-Cymru.The Pollution Subgroup of the Welsh Land Management Forum facilitated by Natural Resources Wales has consistently argued for better enforcement and the promotion of good practice.Those facts alone show the emptiness of Mr Drakeford’s words on the topic. They are of the same value as Lesley Griffiths’ seven empty promises. 

MORE TARGETED APPROACH NEEDED

TFA Cymru Chairman, Dennis Matheson, said “The vast majority of farms across Wales operate to very high standards of pollution control. Sadly, a tiny number of operators continue to flout the existing regulations and deserve to be penalised. However, the Welsh Government is using this as an excuse to hit the whole of the industry with costly new regulations.
“Tarring the whole of the industry with the same brush is not appropriate. Increasing the regulatory bar will do nothing to improve compliance amongst the small number of individuals who wilfully ignore the existing rules. Instead, the Welsh Government should be stepping up its enforcement of the existing rules.”
Mr Matheson continued: “As a member of the Pollution Subgroup it feels like we have been wasting our time meeting, discussing, debating and providing advice to Government. The Government didn’t even have the decency to consult with the Subgroup before announcing its decision. This is not evidenced-based policy-making, it’s a knee-jerk reaction and completely wrongheaded.”
Tenant farmers may struggle to meet the new requirements due to the constraints of their tenancy agreements.
“For many years, TFA Cymru has been highlighting the statutory and contractual restrictions that impact tenant farmersto the Welsh Government and provided advice as to how this could be overcome. However, the announcement contains no details about how the Welsh Government expects tenant farmers to comply.
“Tenants that meet opposition from their landlords could end up having to cease farming altogether, despite already operating to extremely high environmental standards. That surely cannot be right,” said Mr Matheson. 

RURAL COMMUNITIES FACE BIG CHALLENGES

Cefin Campbell, Plaid Cymru’s lead candidate for the Mid and West Wales region, said: At a time when the UK Tory government has slashed £137 million from the support for Welsh agriculture, the Labour Welsh Government plans to make the whole of Wales a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ), despite fierce opposition from farming unions.
“When conditions are favourable, farmers usually spread slurry on their fields between October and March, but the NVZ will ban slurry spreading for five months over the winter period. Slurry will have to be stored at a time when most cattle are kept indoors, which could result in farmers having to invest heavily in huge slurry tanks to accommodate the increased waste.
“‘As agriculture and our rural communities in general face huge challenges following the Brexit agreement and the effects of the Covid pandemic, the Conservatives take millions of pounds of badly needed money away from farmers, and Labour bring in draconian measures that will have a devastating effect on small or medium-sized dairy farms,’ said Cllr Cefin Campbell who is also Executive Board member with responsibility for Rural Affairs on Carmarthenshire County Council.
“Although I fully understand the crucial importance of protecting our waterways from slurry pollution, the Welsh Government should have taken a more targeted approach by implementing restrictions in specific areas or on farms that have a history of poor practice – as proposed by the government body Natural Resources Wales,’ he said.
“This blanket ban will punish the 95% of farmers who’ve worked tirelessly for generations to maintain that delicate balance between making a living and protecting the environment. It’s a grossly disproportionate over-reaction by Welsh Government.
“The investment needed by family-run farms to comply with these new restrictions could put their businesses at risk and even result in many leaving the land. The financial support offered by the Welsh Government to help farmersadapt to these new conditions is pitiful. The increased costs, coupled with the Tories cutting millions from agriculture aid, clearly shows that neither of the main parties can be trusted to support the farming industry, which is the backbone of our rural communities across mid and west Wales,” he added.

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