PEOPLE across Wales are being encouraged to respond to new proposals to reshape Welsh democracy published by the Assembly Commission.
The consultation has been drawn up in anticipation of new powers given to the Assembly in the Wales Act 2017.
The Act gives the Assembly the power to make decisions in relation to the institution’s size and how Members are elected.
Last week, the Assembly voted in favour of the Commission’s decision to consult on the recommendations of the Expert Panel’s report on Assembly Electoral Reform, ‘A Parliament that Works for Wales’.
Speaking in the debate, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire AM Angela Burns emphasised the importance of effective scrutiny of government business and the need for more Assembly members to discharge that duty.
She also said that it was important to ensure that the Assembly listened to the people of Wales: “The call to review the tools we have at our disposal, is of great, great importance now. But it’s a difficult one to explain to people, and we’ve got to make very, very clear that the people of Wales understand that, and then, once they’ve made their decision, we must absolutely listen to it and abide by it, because, after all, this is nothing if not their Parliament.”
Anticipating the criticism that more AMs meant ‘more politicians’, Simon Thomas, Plaid’s Mid and West AM, observed: “I would like to describe it as more politicians but less power for the Government, because the Government that has to face a more powerful Parliament is a Government that can be more accountable—that has to be more accountable—to the people of Wales. We are also losing politicians in Wales. We’ll be losing Members of the European Parliament, and we’re talking about losing Members of Parliament at Westminster through parliamentary reform.”
Simon Thomas continued: “It’s important to Plaid Cymru that we strike the right balance between local accountability and the fact that votes across Wales should be reflected as much as possible in this place in the way that people vote.”
That enthusiasm for increased proportionality was more muted in the response of Vikki Howells who, while welcoming the recommendation for greater equality of the genders in the Senedd’s make-up, remarked: “The Labour group has had an initial discussion on other areas of the report, and we will continue these. We will also feed into the consultation that our party has committed to during 2018 before reporting to our conference in 2019.”
The Labour Party is, not unreasonably from its point of view, determined not to have any dilution of its grip on power undermined by a more proportional system of voting.
Gareth Bennett for UKIP suggested that any change to the numbers of Assembly Members should not proceed without the benefit of a referendum, suggesting that: “It would be unwise to proceed, particularly with the expansion of the Assembly, without securing that popular consent by means of a referendum.”
Mr Bennett also rejected any idea of gender quotas and votes for 16 and 17 year-olds.
Elin Jones AM, Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales said: “I welcome the unanimous support of the Assembly this afternoon, which enables the Commission to consult on a series of possible reforms to the electoral system, capacity and organisation of the Assembly. I would like to thank my fellow Members for the positive nature of our discussion on a series of complex and challenging issues.
“The powers that will be transferred from Westminster to the Assembly by the Wales Act 2017 will enable us to make our own arrangements for elections and the legislature for the first time. Now, we will start a conversation with the people of Wales about their hopes and ambitions for their Parliament.
“I heard a strong message from Members about the importance of explaining the plans thoroughly and clearly to the people of Wales, and about the importance of creating a Parliament which reflects the communities we represent, including the voices of young people and women. Our consultation reflects these priorities.”
Following a detailed analysis of evidence, the Panel recommended that the Assembly needs between 20 and 30 additional Member selected through a more proportional electoral system with diversity at its heart. It also recommended lowering the minimum voting age for National Assembly elections to include sixteen and seventeen year olds.
The consultation on the recommendations will run from 12 February for an eight week period ending on 6 April.
In addition to the recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform the consultation also includes other potential changes to who can vote in Assembly elections and who can be an Assembly Member, as well as changes to the law relating to electoral administration and the Assembly’s internal arrangements.
The Commission has already consulted on changing the Assembly’s name, and as a result of that consultation the name will be changed to Welsh Parliament.
The Llywydd, Elin Jones AM said: “The Wales Act 2017 marks the start of a new phase of devolution in Wales, giving us the opportunity to make profound changes to our legislature. We now have the opportunity to forge the national parliament that the people of Wales deserve to champion their interests.
“This consultation is the beginning of a conversation with the people and communities of Wales about the institution that they want their Welsh Parliament to be. I look forward to hearing their views.”
Fear and loathing in Cardiff Bay
THE MURKY world of Welsh Government communications has come under increasing scrutiny since the refusal to publish a report into the way in which former Communities Secretary Carl Sargeant’s sacking was leaked to at least one journalist, to at least one Labour MP, and to Lee Waters the AM for Llanelli.
The terms for a Welsh Government inquiry into the leak were set by the First Minister himself and some increasingly shifty-appearing equivocations by Carwyn Jones have only served to provoke further questions from a Conservative group in the Assembly which plainly senses that the First Minister’s unwillingness to give a direct and straight answer to some direct and straight questions is doing him political damage.
With Jack Sargeant lately taking up his father’s Assembly seat and saying that he would continue to fight to get to the truth about the circumstances leading to his father’s death, it is unlikely that Mr Jones is going to be able to get away from further scrutiny.
A statement by the First Minister that ‘no unauthorised leaks’ took place regarding Carl Sargeant’s dismissal from the Government left the prospect hanging that an ‘authorised leak’ took place.
A subsequent claim by the First Minister than no leak took place was effectively exposed as factually questionable (at the very least), when Llanelli AM Lee Waters revealed that he had received a text before Carl Sargeant’s sacking which told him the late Alyn and Deeside AM would be dismissed.
The First Minister has rejected the opportunity to confirm that he did not authorise any briefing or sharing of information before his cabinet reshuffle in November.
The actions of the Welsh Government’s so-called ‘Special Advisors’ – SpAds – political operatives paid for by public money have been called into question.
Former Cabinet minister Leighton Andrews, who has been described to The Herald as very likely to have kept meticulous records, alleges that a culture of bullying and back-biting briefing surrounded the First Minister’s office. One SpAd – Huw Price – made the news last week when it emerged that he had engaged in repeated party political activity and political briefing using a Welsh Government email address and Welsh Government IT facilities. A Welsh Conservative press release redacted the name of the journalist who received Mr Price’s enthusiastic briefings and party political spin. The Welsh Government was not so careful and exposed the name of a senior Western Mail reporter as receiving briefings from ‘a government spokesman/Labour Party source’.
The Welsh Government is to introduce new email guidelines following the exposé by the Welsh Conservatives over the First Minister’s use of a personal email address whilst handling government business.
In a letter to Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies, Carwyn Jones also confirmed ‘that the majority of Cabinet Secretaries do not use personal e-mail addresses’ with only two members of the cabinet doing so on a ‘few occasions’.
Following pressure from the Welsh Conservatives, the First Minister has asked the Head of Cabinet Division to provide clear guidelines for the Cabinet and Ministers on email communications – and according to Carwyn Jones this will be done as soon as possible.
To date, the First Minister has refused to publish the government emails from his personal account, and the Welsh Conservative leader has again called for the full catalogue of correspondence to be made available. A written question and freedom of information request has also been submitted asking for the information.
Commenting, Andrew RT, said: “The First Minister has been caught out and the fact he admits the use of personal email addresses is not standard practice for his colleagues shows that in the Welsh Government there is one rule for him, and one rule for others.
“Given the inquiries that have finished and are ongoing, we again reiterate our call to Carwyn Jones to make available and publish all government correspondence sent and received on his personal email account.”
In addition, an answer to a further written question from the Conservative Party has suggested that Carwyn Jones is also using a Welsh Government mobile phone to transact personal and party business.
Written questions from Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies asked Mr Jones whether he had ever used a government-issued phone to communicate about Labour Party matters with Ministers, special advisers or Labour Party officials; and whether he had ever conducted government business from a personal phone.
Mr Jones’ response was: “I do not possess a personal mobile phone.”
The Welsh Government’s Ministerial Code states that Ministers must not use the Welsh Government’s resources for party-political purposes.
Mr Jones has claimed to the Assembly that his apparent inability to formulate straight answers is a result of his legal training and ‘lawyerly way’. Quite how that explains his current inability to answer questions without adding to an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion is unclear.
UK Government’s ‘considerable offer’ not enough
IN A speech delivered at Airbus’ Broughton HQ, Theresa May’s effective deputy, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, has attempted to allay fears of a Westminster power grab of devolved powers following the UK’s departure from the EU.
Mr Lidington, claimed the UK Government had made a ‘considerable offer’ to the devolved administrations with a commitment that the ‘vast majority’ of powers returning from Brussels will start off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast rather than Whitehall.
Mr Lidington, said his plans marked “a very big change to the EU Withdrawal Bill that is before Parliament and a significant step forward in these negotiations.”
He continued: “If accepted, this offer puts beyond doubt our commitment to a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union, in a way that doesn’t just respect the devolution settlements, but strengthens and enhances them.”
Mr Lidington warned that a “divided country at home” would be “weaker, less secure and less prosperous overseas.”
The problem with Mr Lidington’s words is that ‘the vast majority’ is not all powers currently vested in the UKs’ devolved administrations within the EU. Moreover, the clear message that the Westminster government wanted to maintain the unity of an internal market within the UK suggests that powers will have to be taken from the devolved governments and retained permanently by the UK parliament in order to make that arrangement work. However, the UK government’s stance on agriculture, a key issue for the Welsh Government, has been extensively trailed by Michael Gove and Defra ministers for months and cannot have taken it by surprise.
Mike Russell, the Scottish Brexit minister, said: “However they try to dress this up, the UK government is using Brexit to try to take control of devolved powers without the agreement of the Scottish parliament. It is totally unacceptable for the Tories to unilaterally rewrite the devolution settlement.”
First Minister, Carwyn Jones, said: “As currently drafted, the Bill allows the UK government to take control of devolved policy areas, such as farming and fishing, once the UK has left the EU. This is an unacceptable attack on devolution in both Wales and Scotland.
“We now need further progress that goes beyond warm words and I hope the ‘very big changes’ promised in the speech equate to sensible amendments to the bill which respect devolution. We will continue to work with the UK and Scottish governments to that end.”
Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds commented: “Common frameworks in certain areas will certainly be important after Brexit and we would never want to put the UK’s common market at risk. However, it must be up to devolved Governments to decide if they want to enter common frameworks in devolved areas and to negotiate suitable frameworks. The UK Government cannot and must not impose frameworks on devolved Governments.
“Brexit will have huge implications for sectors such as agriculture. Brexit will cut our farmers off from their key markets and dismantle the financial support they rely on. Decisions on these vital areas must be made in Wales and address the unique needs of Welsh farmers.”
The Welsh Conservative spokesman on Europe, Mark Isherwood AM, said: “Welsh Conservatives have been steadfast in our belief that the devolution settlement must be respected with the necessary changes made to the EU Withdrawal Bill.
“As we’ve stated from the outset, we would also expect that leaving the European Union would not undermine the devolved settlement and would result in more powers making their way to the Welsh Assembly.
“It is vital that we now protect the UK’s single market and that’s why it is imperative the Welsh Government engages positively with the UK Government in this process to ensure the frameworks relating to devolved matters are agreed by all parties.”
Wales’ housing adaptation system ‘unfair’
THE CURRENT system for delivering housing adaptations needs to change in order to meet the needs of older and disabled people in Wales. That’s the conclusion of a report by the Auditor General for Wales.
Roughly, 70 agencies deliver housing adaptation services assisting over 32,000 people a year. Annually, over £60 million of public money is spent on these services to older and disabled people. They help restore or enable independent living, privacy, confidence and dignity for individuals and their families. Adaptations also offer an efficient and effective way of making the best use of the existing housing stock in Wales by supporting people to live independently.
The report concludes that high satisfaction ratings mask a hugely ‘complicated, reactive and inequitable system’.
The conclusions include:
Assessment processes are not streamlined or efficient, which lead to delays which can be the difference between people staying in their own homes or moving into specialist care;
The complex systems used to deliver adaptations make it difficult for people to get the help they need and often stops health professionals from using adaptation services;
There is not enough joined up working between agencies and local authorities which is making it harder for those in need to access services; and
The adaptations disabled and older people can receive are often determined by where they live in Wales and who they seek help from rather than their need;
Public bodies are not improving performance because of limited oversight of performance across Wales.
The Auditor General, Huw Vaughan-Thomas said: “Demand for housing adaptations is projected to rise. That’s why it’s so important that public bodies improve how they deliver adaptations and address the many weaknesses in the current complicated and inefficient system.
“People deserve the very best standard of service to help them live independently. Unfortunately, public bodies have failed to address some long standing weaknesses in current arrangements and disabled and older people are the ones losing out. This needs to change. My recommendations are aimed at helping kick-start much needed improvement.”
The Chair of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM, said: “Housing adaptations are important in helping older and disabled people maintain their independence, but today’s report shows that due to the complexity of the current delivery system, people get very different standards of service because of where they live and not what they need.
“The report’s findings highlight a range of weaknesses and highlights that the Welsh Government, local authorities, housing associations and their partners need to improve how they deliver services to some of the most vulnerable people in society.
“It is critical that action is taken now to ensure public money is spent wisely and vulnerable people are provided with the help they need.”
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