THE LEADER of the Welsh Conservatives managed the notable feat of criticising a party which sided with his own to vote down a major piece of legislation last week.
As The Herald reported, the Public Health (Wales) bill failed to pass after voting was tied at 26 apiece, and the Presiding Officer, following tradition, cast her deciding vote against.
It was widely thought that Plaid Cymru would offer AMs a free vote, especially given that Elin Jones and Llyr Gruffydd had been instrumental in altering the original draft bill into a form which would be acceptable, with compromises on the controversial ‘e-cig ban’ being the most notable changes.
However, following a spectacularly mistimed jibe by Leighton Andrews, Plaid voted against the bill.
In doing this they joined the Welsh Conservatives and the Lib Dems, both of which had made Mark Drakeford’s approach to ‘vaping’ their main point of opposition.
However, Andrew RT Davies’ response was notably lacking in gratitude. Referring consistently to an ‘e-cigarette ban’ when the modified bill restricted vaping in playgrounds, nurseries, restaurants and public transport, he accused Plaid, who he described as ‘Labour’s little helpers’ of acting through wounded pride.
Mr Davies said: “We learnt two valuable lessons in the chamber yesterday evening as opposition parties came together to vote down Labour’s ill-judged e-cigarette ban.
“First, that Labour’s arrogance and sense of entitlement knows no bounds; co-operation to them amounts to getting their own way, and they’re more than happy to treat Plaid and Liberal AM’s as pawns on a chess table.
“But we also learnt something even more significant – Plaid’s biting point.
“Let’s be clear, Plaid’s decision to join us in opposing this legislation had nothing to do with the bill itself. They were motivated by pride, not principle.
“On numerous occasions throughout this Assembly term they have dutifully lined up to help Labour pass budgets and bills, starving the Welsh NHS of a billion pounds in the process.
“Plaid’s change of heart yesterday came about because they were embarrassed by Leighton Andrews’ arrogant jibe, not because they recognised the harm that a ban on e-cigarettes could have on those trying to quit smoking.
“And that’s why there has been something of a backlash from the organisations involved in drafting this legislation.
“We stood firmly opposed to the measures on e-cigs throughout the bill’s passage, and indeed we offered the Health Minister numerous opportunities to withdraw the section on e-cigarettes and proceed with a number of other important measures contained in the bill.
“Unfortunately, Labour’s arrogance was their un-doing, and you cannot allow poor legislation to pass – however well-meaning the rest of the measures in a Bill are.
“As for where this leaves us as we enter into the election period, it’s hard to say.
“Leighton Andrews embodies the contempt with which Labour hold Welsh democracy, and it’s high time that arrogant sense of an entitlement was cut down to size.
“Plaid were stung into action by a wounded sense of pride, but it remains to be seen whether Leighton’s jibe will have any meaningful long-term impact on their long-standing role as Labour’s little helpers.”
It remains to be seen whether these remarks will have any impact on the likelihood of a post-election alliance between Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives, which was hinted at by the new Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns this week.
First Minister agrees to investigate hold-up in new school
THE FIRST MINISTER of Wales has agreed to make inquiries about a delay in the building of a new school in Llanelli. The Welsh Government called in the Ysgol Dewi Sant project earlier this year.
Mid and West AM Helen Mary Jones said:“I’d like to draw attention to the situation faced by pupils and staff at Ysgol Gymraeg Dewi Sant in Llanelli, which as the First Minister will know is Wales’s oldest Welsh-medium school, where publicly funded Welsh-medium education began. He may also recall that the situation faced by pupils and staff in the school is serious. Whole classes are being taught in corridors and the physical state of the building is extremely poor. Staff and pupils and parents were very grateful to receive funding through the twenty-first century schools programme, but the scheme has been called in by another part of Welsh Government due to issues in relation to the planning system and some concerns about flooding potential.
“I would not suggest for a moment, Llywydd, that I’d ask the First Minister to interfere in any way in the due process that needs to be gone through around the planning issue, but it is my understanding that the initial deadline for that decision to be made has passed, and I would like to ask the First Minister today to speak to the relevant Ministers—the Minister for Education, the Minister with responsibility for planning—so that the pupils and families and teachers in that school can be told when this process will be over, and with a view to ensuring that the Welsh Government’s proposed investment is not lost because of the delay in the planning system.”
First Minister Mark Drakeford, during questions in the Senedd said: “I thank Helen Mary Jones for that supplementary question and for drawing attention to the history of Dewi Sant school and the place it holds in the history of Welsh-medium education here in Wales. I’ll certainly make inquiries, as the Member says, not to interfere in any way in the process, but to make sure that information about it is properly known to those who have a direct interest in it.”
Speaking after the exchange in the Senedd chamber Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Helen Mary Jones added: “I’m glad I had the opportunity to raise concerns in the Senedd. I’m pleased that the First Minister appreciates the frustrations around this issue and has agreed to speak to the relevant Ministers to ensure there is no unnecessary delay.”
Snap election builds in unfairness
A SNAP General Election is unlikely to break the break deadlock, the Electoral Reform Society has warned
The ERS says results are likely to be ‘clear as mud’ when it comes to translating voters’ preferences, with ‘vote-splitting, wasted votes and unfair results on an industrial scale’.
One in four (24%) voters are planning on voting ‘tactically’ – rather than for their first choice – increasing the likelihood of random results under Westminster’s winner-takes-all voting system, according to BMG polling for the Society.
When the same question was asked before the 2017 general election, 20% of people said they’d opt for someone who was not their first choice.
Westminster’s voting system rests on a handful of marginals changing hands: “Eleven seats were won by less than 100 votes in 2017. North East Fife was held by the SNP by just two votes. Such are the vagaries of the system that the Conservatives could have won an absolute majority based on just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies.
“A working majority could have been achieved on just 75 additional votes in the right places. Two very different outcomes based on less than 0.0017 per cent of voters choosing differently,” the Society’s 2017 election report noted.
Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “Few believe a third General Election in the space of four years will ‘fix’ the current impasse: the only agreement seems to be that there is yet more volatility coming our way, with parties hoping to gain from the chaos.
“It’s amusing to remember that Westminster’s voting system is supposed to deliver ‘strong and stable’ government. It has totally failed to do what it says on the tin, and no wonder – people are rightly shopping around, but this two-party system is totally unable to cope.
“This election is likely to see ‘tactical’ voting on a scale never seen before, alongside widespread ‘vote-splitting’ and candidates getting in on fractions of the vote.
“First Past the Post voting is now an engine of volatility, which could make the current problems even worse. We could see a ‘wrong winner’ election – where the biggest party did not win the most votes – another hung parliament, and wasted votes in the millions. It’s time to join other advanced democracies in backing a fair voting system where seats match votes.
“This must be the last election conducted using Westminster’s scandalously unfair electoral system. It’s time for Westminster catch up with the rest of the world, with proportional representation and an end to the disaster of winner-takes-all voting.
“Whatever the case, this election will be a ‘hold your nose’ ballot, with one in four feeling forced to vote tactically for their second or third choice.
“A snap election guarantees nothing but an unfair lottery for voters. Let’s build a democracy fit for the 21st century, with an electoral system that encourages cooperation, not gridlock.”
ERS analysis of the 2017 election found that millions of people’s votes were thrown on the electoral scrapheap. 68% of votes had no impact on the result – representing 22 million votes going to waste.
Professor Sir John Curtice told LBC today that this election is likely to see a very high number of votes for parties other than the traditional ‘big two’.
In June, he told the ERS: “There is little doubt that Britain’s traditional two-party system is facing its biggest challenge yet in the wake of the Brexit impasse. If that challenge persists it would seem inevitable that there will renewed debate about the merits of the first-past-the-post electoral system.”
The latest YouGov poll puts Labour and the Conservatives on joint support of 59% – far below their 82% reached in 2017.
The ERS is calling for a proportional voting system for Westminster, the Single Transferable Vote system used for Scotland’s local elections and elections in Ireland.
The warped nature of the system is reflected by the fact that in 2017 it took 43,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, 49,000 for Labour, nearly 200,000 per Lib Dem and over 500,000 votes for the Greens’ single MP. It took just 28,000 votes per SNP MP and 29,000 per DUP MP. The SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrats support PR.
Time for Welsh justice for Wales
A MAJOR report into the Welsh justice system calls for radical change.
The report, ‘Justice in Wales for the People of Wales’, says the administration of justice needs to be devolved so that justice in practice aligns with the growing body of Welsh law on social, health and education policy and other services.
Prepared by a Commission chaired by the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the Report says: ‘Major reform is needed to the justice system and to the current scheme of devolution’.
The Commission found ‘under the current scheme of devolution there is no properly joined up or integrated approach, as justice remains controlled by the Westminster Government’. It says to ensure consistent treatment of the UK’s devolved administrations, Wales should have the same powers over its justice system as Scotland and England, particularly as Wales increasingly diverges from England in key areas of policy, for example on housing.
The reductions in the justice budget made by the Westminster Government since 2010 have been amongst the most severe of all departmental budget cuts.
The Commission is highly critical of the Westminster-centric nature of law-making, which largely ignores Wales’ interests and Wales’ challenges. It points out the Welsh Government has used its own money, in addition to permitting rises in council tax, to try and mitigate the damaging effects of these policies.
The result is almost 40% of the total funding for Wales’ justice system originates in Wales. This is above other tax revenue that is raised from Wales and then allocated by the Westminster Government to Wales.
The report’s authors unanimously conclude: “This position is unsustainable when the Welsh Government has so little say in justice policy and overall spending.”
Crucially, the report also says restrictions on the Senedd’s powers to legislate over policing, offender management, and rehabilitation should be removed. Such an arrangement would align the Senedd’s powers with those of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.
On two areas of policy, the Report is particularly critical of Wales’ treatment within the current justice system.
The significant cuts to legal aid made in 2012 have hit Wales hard. Proper access to justice is not available with the consequent threat to the Rule of Law.
The report says Westminster’s approach to legal aid has created:
• ‘advice deserts’ in rural and post-industrial areas where people struggle to receive legal advice;
• a serious risk to the sustainability of legal practice elsewhere, especially in traditional ‘high street’ legal services; and
• increasing numbers of people representing themselves in courts and tribunals with a consequential adverse impact on outcomes and the efficient use of court resources.
The report says although the Welsh Government spends its own funds on advice services it lacks the resources to bridge the gap caused by the cuts to legal aid.
Prosecution lawyers and prosecuting authorities are funded from the public purse. Individuals just over the legal aid limit are doubly penalised by the inability to access legal advice. If they do and are acquitted, individuals face the infamous ‘innocence tax’. Self-funding defendants in criminal prosecutions who are acquitted very seldom – if ever – recover the whole costs of their defence, leaving them often massively out of pocket.
On criminal law, the report finds, unlike in England, the number of police officers in Wales has not reduced. It explains this is because the Welsh Government provides further funds and allowed council tax rises to provide extra money to forces.
However, a significantly greater proportion of the spending on justice is now on prisons rather than crime reduction. Wales has one of the highest, if not the highest, prison populations per head in Western Europe, even though the evidence is that robust community sentences achieve better outcomes in many cases.
The lack of integration between health policy, over which Wales has powers, and policing, reserved to Westminster, means the current devolution scheme has created problems in terms of providing health services for prisoners, as well as other services such as housing which are necessary for rehabilitation on release.
The report calls for a single Minister to be given responsibility for justice in Wales and establishing problem-solving criminal courts and Family Drug and Alcohol Courts in Wales.
Predictably, the UK Government has dismissed the plans as creating over-complexity; brushed aside increasing legislative differences between English and Welsh law; and turned its back on equal treatment of Wales within the UK.
Questioned on Radio 4’s ‘Law in Action’ whether the plans would speed up the break-up of the United Kingdom, Lord Thomas gave a vigorous denial that would be the case.
He pointed out provisions within the document for a UK-wide Supreme Court with judges appointed to it from each jurisdiction. Saying the different treatment of Wales was ‘unsustainable’, he repeated the proposals within the report needed only changes to the existing devolution settlement to recognise Wales’ circumstances and to create a level playing field between the nations of the UK.
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