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£600,000 to improve accessibility to National Parks

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Epic view: Snowdon mountain railway

Epic view: Snowdon mountain railway

NATURAL RESOURCES Minister Carl Sargeant has announced funding of £600,000 to support a range of projects that will improve accessibility in Wales’s three National Parks and to help Natural Resources Wales repair storm damage on the Wales Coast Path.

The Minister has allocated £126,000 for the improvement of two sections of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail and £104,500 to a further seven sections of the Wales Coast Path to repair damage that was caused during the winter and make the routes more sustainable for future years.

The remaining £369,500 is split between the three Welsh National Park Authorities as follows:

  • Brecon Beacons National Park Authority (BBNPA) will receive £157,500 for a package of projects to improve access in the east Beacons which will secure the protection of peat land in a number of SSSIs in the area.
  • Snowdonia National Park Authority (SNPA) will receive £107,000 for a package of work on some of the National Park’s most popular and iconic sites. The works include the further development of the four different sections of the Snowdon circular route, improving accessibility to Cadair Idris and Snowdon’s Miners track.
  • Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (PCNPA) will receive £105,000 to support a range of projects which focus on developing disability access to a number of the Park’s most popular sites as well as some new ones. These projects will provide wheelchair access to a number of flagship sites, such as Abereiddy, Freshwater East and St David’s.

Natural Resources Minister Carl Sargeant said: “Our world renowned National Parks and Wales Coast Path attract millions of visitors to Wales every year, and help create and support many jobs in the rural economy. It’s vital that the National Park Authorities and Natural Resources Wales continue to maintain and improve their popular paths. This funding will help ensure that essential work can take place so local communities and visitors to Wales can continue to enjoy everything they have to offer.”

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Conservatives take aim at own Achilles Heel

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by Jon Coles

ANDREW RT DAVIES, the new and combative Conservative Shadow Health Minister, stepped into new territory for him and the Conservatives in Wales this week.
In recent weeks, the Conservative group in the Senedd has stepped up its attacks on the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting instances where Wales has failed to follow the Westminster Government’s lead on policy decisions.

TURNING A BLIND EYE

With Westminster’s current response to the COVID crisis at sixes-and-sevens, the Shadow Health Minister put in his boot to criticise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead on a contentious policy decision.
In March, the Westminster Government – followed by the UK’s devolved administrations – began discharging hospital patients into care homes. Discharged patients were not tested for coronavirus.
The Herald reported on the scandal at the time. We highlighted instances where care providers, in both Wales and England, were pressurised by health boards and trusts to take untested patients into closed residential settings.
The outcome of that disastrous policy decision was easily predictable. Its likely consequences were well-known – at least by the Westminster Government – at the time it made that decision.
Introducing a virus known to be lethal to vulnerable and elderly patients caused a wave of deaths in care homes across the UK. The virus spread among an isolated and largely defenceless population.
The foreseeable result was a calamity.
Deaths in social care settings spiralled. They remain high even after the first spike of the virus in the general population and its decreasing incidence across the UK.
Wading into the scandal this week, Andrew RT Davies criticised Welsh Government without a moment’s apparent reflection on the wider context of his words.
In a press release, Mr Davies commented: “There can be no excuse for such an ill-thought decision which, of course, will have had a profound impact on some of our most vulnerable in care homes. I cannot comprehend where the government’s thought process was in pushing care homes to accept hospital patients who had not received a COVID-19 test.
“The bullish act by the Welsh Labour-led Government in applying pressure is truly scandalous and as a result, the people of Wales deserve an apology.
“The most pressing question now is to address how many patients were infected after being admitted and then discharged from the hospital. To address people’s serious concerns, this must be a priority for the Welsh Labour-led Government.”
On receipt of the press release, we replied and asked whether Mr Davies wished to extend his tart observations about the discharge of untested hospital patients to include the Westminster Government.
After recent press releases in which the Conservatives have not hesitated to compare Wales unfavourably with England, we believed Mr Davies might reflect and provide a balanced response: possibly to praise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead; possibly to take the chance to even-handedly criticise the Westminster Government’s policy which the Welsh Government followed.
We did not receive a reply.

POLITICISING A PANDEMIC

Over recent weeks, the Conservatives have ramped up partisan rhetoric over the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns, managed to navigate a path between scoring political points and attacking the Welsh Government for its multiple early failings in Wales’ response to the virus.
Those failings include setting a testing target, failing to secure the testing kits necessary to meet the target, saying a testing target didn’t exist, announcing a revised testing target, and then abandoning testing targets altogether.
On each of those, Mrs Burns made telling points and held Wales’ Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, to account – often leaving him wriggling on a hook made of his own contradictions and evasions.
Similarly, when Wales entered the strictest phases of lockdown, Paul Davies was able to highlight the enormously disproportionate impact of them on Wales’ rural economy without indulging the fantasy that somehow things were any rosier over the border.
As the Westminster Government began to ease lockdown restrictions in England, and under pressure from both the Westminster Government and Conservatives on either side of Wales’ border with England, the tone of Conservative briefings changed sharply.
Repeated releases from the Conservatives demanded that the Welsh Government lift the lockdown in Wales in step with England. The Welsh Government was accused of ‘dither and delay’, the phrase ‘catch-up Cymru’ began to appear. Fighting talk appeared in the names of shadow ministers who previously expressed themselves cautiously, occasionally critically, and usually constructively.
With one eye on the next round of elections to the Senedd, the Conservatives moved away from consensus and criticism to outright attack.
Having watched the reopening of schools in England unravel into chaos, Conservative attacks on the reopening of Wales’ schools lost step with reality. Now, the Welsh Government was criticised for taking steps that England failed to take to keep schools open there. The desperate floundering of Westminster’s Conservative Education Minister, Gavin Williamson, stood in stark contrast to the determined and unflustered approach of his Welsh counterpart, Kirsty Williams.
Darren Millar, the Senedd Member charged with speaking for the Conservatives on COVID in Wales, began to speak of Wales’ failings – and particularly those of the Welsh Government – for not reopening pubs, restaurants and holiday accommodation. With Wales’ hospitality and tourism industries on their knees, it appeared that approach would serve the Conservatives well.
As the easing of lockdown in parts of England has unravelled, however, Mr Millar has gone noticeably quiet as Wales continues to lift restrictions now re-imposed in significant areas of England’s north-west.
The Prime Minister’s warnings of the risks of a second wave of the virus should focus Conservatives in Wales’ attention on what preparations the Welsh Government is making to head-off that eventuality or at least ease its impact if or when it arrives. Instead, Andrew RT Davies is fighting four-month-old battles seeking headlines.

CONSERVATIVES NOT ALONE

One of the features of the crisis has been how Plaid Cymru has used it to propel its own message for an independent Wales – or at least a Welsh legislature with far stronger powers than the current arrangements.
‘Westminster doesn’t work for Wales’ is how Plaid has pitched its message. Its fire is concentrated on the shambolic approach of the Westminster Government’s response to the crisis. The Prime Minister’s endless capacity to make up policy on the hoof when caught out or tell outright lies when questioned about details has given Plaid Cymru ample opportunity to illuminate the gap between Westminster’s rhetoric and reality.
The Westminster Government’s hectoring approach to the UK’s devolved administrations, which includes gazumping the Welsh Government on a deal for testing kits with pharmaceutical giant Roche, and its constant inconstancy and inconsistency has also allowed Plaid to deploy
its choir of voices demanding more autonomy – preferably independence – for Wales.
When attacking the Welsh Government, however, Plaid has taken a different approach to the Welsh Conservatives. It has clamoured to keep restrictions in place – for example on schools – and for existing restrictions to be strengthened and reinforced – for example on face coverings, a policy on which it is eerily close to the Conservatives’.
However, Plaid – and the Conservatives – have fallen well short of saying what they would have done differently in the same situation and what they would do now to improve things during the continuing COVID age.

ONE EYE ON THE ELECTION

By the time next May comes around, both of Wales’ principal opposition parties need to set out defined messages that are both less negative and more grounded in current reality if either is to shift Labour from power in Cardiff Bay.
For the Conservatives, the challenge is finding a voice for Wales which is not an echo of Westminster. The events of recent weeks demonstrate that efforts to reform the Conservatives in Wales to forge a distinct identity from the UK party are likely to be seed falling on stony ground. Darren Millar is Boris Johnson’s representative on Earth and Simon Hart his rock. A more constructive approach from the Conservatives is, therefore, highly unlikely.
For Plaid Cymru, the challenge is moving beyond dreams of jam tomorrow in favour of policies for today. Plaid need to focus less on what Westminster isn’t doing for Wales but what Plaid CAN deliver for the whole of Wales and not just its existing voters. Plaid’s problem is systemic. It lacks resources and, while it well-organised in pockets of Wales outside ‘Y Fro’, it has not found the key to unlock monoglot Anglophone voters in sufficient numbers across Wales.
As for Labour in Wales, all it can promise is more of the same. It’s been in power for over twenty years and it isn’t likely to change a formula that’s kept it in power for so long. And, when it comes to the economy, Labour can point out that the big levers are held by the Exchequer in London.
The Conservatives and Labour have the advantage of a large electoral base across most of Wales. If they can energise those voters to turn up and vote next May in anything like the numbers they did in the General Election, Plaid will have to watch out for a massive squeeze on their far smaller electoral base

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Russia Report flays government inaction

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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.

KEY FINDINGS
• 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.

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Sooner or later the Conservative Party must talk about poverty

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FROM David Cameron’s focus on life-chances to Theresa May’s burning injustices and now Boris’s vision for levelling up, building a fairer society has been a central theme for my party over the past decade.

But, as last week’s row over free school meals illustrated, we are not always comfortable speaking in direct terms about poverty and hardship.
Some Conservatives prefer the aspirational language of opportunity and social mobility; others choose broader phrases such as social justice or the banner of One Nation. There is a lot of overlap of course.

But when it comes to discussing the problem of families not having enough money to get by, we sometimes struggle to find the vocabulary. Language matters and if we can’t find the words, we probably won’t find the solutions.

The UK has yet to feel the full force of the economic storm that Covid-19 has unleashed but there are already signs it will cause lasting damage to vulnerable communities, undoing much of the progress achieved in cutting unemployment over the past decade.

The speed and scale of the government’s intervention to protect workers during the lockdown has been unprecedented. But paying the wages of nine million people is not sustainable. As the furlough scheme begins to unwind, unemployment will rise with potentially millions of people losing jobs – pulled into poverty through no fault of their own.

Many have already been forced to turn to the benefits system. The most recent figures show a staggering 2.3 million new universal credit claimants. This will grow further.

The system itself has handled the increased caseload remarkably well. But many families will find the change from the emergency parachute of furlough to the longer-term safety net of universal credit a very hard landing indeed.

Worryingly, areas that were already struggling before the pandemic, such as ex-industrial and coastal towns, are likely to be the places hardest hit. These are the very communities at the heart of the levelling-up vision. But the full gains from increasing investment in poorer regions won’t be seen for years. It is not the answer to the question of how we support those families being pushed into poverty right now.

Even before the virus struck there were signs that too many families were struggling to make ends meet, including large numbers of working families also living in poverty.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that nearly two-thirds of families on universal credit have been forced to borrow money since the start of this crisis. As the economic fallout from coronavirus grows, many families will be plunged deeper into debt. In April the government increased the universal credit standard allowance by £20 a week, recognising the extra pressures millions are now facing.

But to prevent further hardship, as more people fall out of work and for longer periods, there is a case for strengthening our system of social security. The political choices of the past decade that saw working-age benefits squeezed while the state pension was boosted by the triple lock are not the ones for this new period we are entering.

So, what steps can we take? Firstly, we could implement the recommendation of the work and pensions committee this week and uprate the legacy benefits.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is also calling for a temporary increase of £20 per week in the child element of universal credit and child tax credits to prevent families being pulled further into poverty. Compared with the eye-watering costs of the furlough scheme, this measure could represent a reasonable price to pay to hold families steady during this crisis.

As the government turns its attention to a growth strategy to fire up the economy, with a focus on jobs, apprenticeships and infrastructure, we should not forget our mission to support families facing hardship at this time.

This would reflect the best of all Conservative traditions.

This article was first published in The Times on Thursday, June 25 and is reproduced by kind permission of Stephen Crabb MP

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