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.
Liberal Democrat Conference review
THE WELSH LIBERAL DEMOCRATS gathered at The Village Hotel, Cardiff over the weekend, vowing to foster ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’ and to campaign to bring about a Ratification Referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal.
While the party has had a punishing time in the most recent round of elections, retaining only a single AM in the 2016 National Assembly Election and losing their final Welsh MP in Theresa May’s snap General Election, the prevailing mood at this weekend’s conference was upbeat.
A PARTY ON THE WAY BACK?
There was an appeal for traditional, Welsh Liberal values by Party President, Cllr William Powell, Mid and West Wales AM between 2011 – 16. Cllr Powell also paid an emotional tribute to his friend, party stalwart and former Preseli Parliamentary Candidate Nick Tregoning, leading to a short silence and round of applause. The former Swansea Council Cabinet Member and Presiding Officer, who died recently, represented the best in the Welsh Liberal tradition, and ‘thought and fought more for others than for himself.’
A keynote speech by new Welsh Lib Dem leader, Jane Dodds, who was elected in November last year, replacing Mark Williams, former Ceredigion MP, was particularly well received. Not shying away from the party’s recent challenges, Ms Dodds said: “There’s no denying we’ve had a difficult few years. While the wounds of the last few years are still visible, we are still fighting.”
Ms Dodds emphasised that the party’s top priorities must be to battle homelessness and poverty, as ‘The nasty party in Westminster doggedly pursues deeper cuts in public finances, vulnerable people scraping by to survive, without access to public services, with no hope for their future”
Turning to the Party’s signature policy on Brexit, the new leader continued: “We have to be clear in our opposition to the UK government’s disastrous handling of the biggest decision our country has faced in a generation… Whether we like it or not, Wales voted to leave the EU. But – and it’s a big but – it was not on the basis that we would leave under any circumstances.”
Concluding, she said: “We need to make sure we have the ideas in place that address the needs of communities and people living in Wales, and we have to translate these ideas into winning votes. Not power for the sake of power, but power so we can change people’s lives for the better, putting us back at the heart of Welsh politics, where we belong.”
A FREE AND FAIR WALES
Ms Dodds also presented a motion calling for the creation of ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’, emphasising that the party’s mission for the immediate future should be to develop new policies to work towards this goal.
“We need to make sure we have an economy and a society which offers opportunities to all…A Wales of hope and optimism.”
Cardiff Councillor Rhys Taylor was amongst those to speak in favour of the motion, stating: “We know what we stand for, but we’re not always very clear about articulating that. It’s an aspirational vision for Wales and our society.’
Veteran Ynys Mon Councillor and former Cabinet Member, Aled Morris Jones, also spoke in favour of the motion, saying: “Never has there been a time when there has been a greater need for liberalism. We must stand up for moderation because it is under threat, both here and across the world.”
Summating the motion, Party President William Powell said: “It is ambitious, it will need a lot of work and I sense that people in this room and in our local parties are up for that. It is central to rebuilding our party and to our resurgence.”
The motion was supported unanimously.
Party Members and supporters also had the opportunity to quiz Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM, and to debate motions on plans to bury radioactive waste off the coast of Wales. There was also a passionate appeal for legal clarity over access to waterways for water sports enthusiasts from Welsh Paralympian and first time conference speaker, Frances Bateman.
BREXIT, SYRIA, EQUALITY DEBATED
The weekend also included an expert panel discussion on Brexit with Ms Dodds, Ms Williams, Liberal Democrat Federal President, Baroness Sal Brinton and former MEP Peter Price, chaired by Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Lib Dem activist and Newbie Hilton Marlton. During the session, members agreed to keep battling Brexit, working across party lines with all Remain supporters, which was confirmed by an explicit #ExitFromBrexit motion on the Sunday morning.
Baroness Sal Brinton also gave a keynote speech, in which she criticised Theresa May for not giving MPs a vote on military action against Syria, saying that to do so was “further diminishing the standing of Britain in the world”. And she was optimistic about the party’s future prospects, saying: “I know the future of the Welsh party is in good hands.’
The second day of the conference also included a motion on the Welsh Government’s new plans to reform local government in Wales. Although the motion agreed with the principle of cutting the number of councils in Wales, it suggested the final number should be 14 or 15 – and emphasised the importance of respecting localism and democratic structures to reflect that.
Members also backed a motion calling for schools in Wales to introduce gender-neutral uniforms. Presenting the motion, Cllr Rhys Taylor of Cardiff said: “We should not dictate to young people what they should wear outside religious codes.” He added more support and training should be offered to teachers in supporting LGBT pupils.
Amy Gaskin of Swansea University’s branch of the party also spoke in support of the motion, saying: “There’s increasing evidence that male and female brains just don’t exist. It’s more of a mosaic”.
“What right do we have to tell kids they should wear trousers or a skirt, or a tie or no tie?” she asked.
Sunday also saw Baroness Christine Humphreys of Llanrwst, North Wales AM from 1999 until 2001, appointed as the party’s new Deputy Leader. She was the only nominee.
Closing the conference, Welsh Party President William Powell said: “We’ve got a rich vein of new talent emerging in the party.”
Saying he felt a sense of “optimism and positivism, Mr Powell called for: “A kinder, gentler and more inclusive values-based politics – that is what Jane (Dodds) and our wider leadership want to introduce.”
What’s in a name?
QUITE a lot, actually, as Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns found out last week. The announcement that the Second Severn Crossing would henceforth be known as the Prince of Wales Bridge in honour of HRH Prince Charles was met with a somewhat equivocal response from the population of Wales.
The name change, agreed by the Queen and Theresa May, was timed to mark Prince Charles’s 70th birthday, and the 60th anniversary of his investiture as Prince of Wales.
At the time of going to print, around 30,000 people had signed a petition calling for the name change to be scrapped. Plaid Cymru, as might perhaps be expected, were among the more vociferous objectors, with leader Leanne Wood asking whether or not this was a late April Fool prank.
Mr Cairns invoked the Conservative Party’s secret weapon – the ‘silent majority’ – which he suggested gave the name change their full, if silent, backing.
Speaking to the BBC, he implied that a small group of republicans were behind the opposition: “We knew that public opinion would be broad,” he remarked. “Of course there will be some republicans who dislike it, but I think that they should at least have respect for the Prince of Wales because of the work he does in the community.
“I know some republicans who strongly support the charities that he stands for – the Prince’s Trust, Prime Cymru, Business in the Community – and the fantastic work that they do. And I would hope that they would at least look at the work of those charities and recognise that this is a fitting title – for that work if nothing else.”
While the work carried out by groups such as the Prince’s Trust is indeed laudable, it would surely have made more sense to call it The Prince’s Trust Bridge, or indeed the Prime Cymru Crossing, if the name change was meant to celebrate Prince Charles’ charitable works.
The Welsh Labour Government was conspicuously silent on the matter, and it emerged shortly afterwards that Mr Cairns had informed them of the plans some time previously. They raised no objections. This led Plaid Cymru AM Adam Price to accuse the Welsh Government of taking its eye off the ball.
“It’s rare in Wales for tens of thousands of people to sign a petition on an issue like this, with such an emotional and defiant reaction,” he added.
“Of course it’s not just about the name of the bridge, but the symbolism, and the way the decision was made.
“Attention will rightly turn to the Labour Welsh Government and the first minister in the coming weeks, as they failed to raise objections or to recommend that the public’s views were sought.
“We potentially have a position where Labour politicians, as well as Plaid Cymru, will be disappointed in their own first minister, and will be left scratching their heads about why some kind of wider consultation wasn’t proposed.
“Serious questions need to be asked of why the Labour Government took its eye off the ball and, given the strong public reaction, we should now at the very least expect the Welsh Government to make formal representations to the UK government in favour of public consultation.”
This was the cue for UKIP AM Gareth Bennett to enter the fray, with an insightful analysis of the situation, and a solution which would satisfy all concerned: “Rather than getting into a row about a name, Welsh Labour and their bedfellows in Plaid Cymru should be working to build bridges with the Government in Westminster to secure the Brexit that the people of Wales voted for,” he insisted.
“Coupled with their bogus legislation on a supposed ‘power grab’, the people of Wales will see this for what it is; a cynical attempt by Plaid and Welsh Labour to claim they’ve been hard done by yet again.
“The people of Wales voted by a clear majority for Brexit, far more than the very few who cling on to a vain hope of a ‘Welsh Republic’. It’s time the establishment in Cardiff Bay and London got on with the day job and stopped their pointless virtue signalling.”
This statement, while proving conclusively that no topic cannot be linked – at least in the mind of a UKIP AM – to Brexit, did little to indicate the party’s stance on the matter.
The comments sections of any article concerning the subject were an education, in the loosest sense of the word. Responses ranged from calling those in support of the change gutless appeasers, to others suggesting that Welsh Nationalist outbursts like this were the reason that Wales can’t have nice things.
Enter Rod Liddle.
In his column for the Times, the former Today Programme editor wrote: ‘The Welsh, or some of them, are moaning that a motorway bridge linking their rain-sodden valleys with the First World is to be renamed the Prince of Wales Bridge. In honour of the venal, grasping, deranged (if Tom Bower’s new biography is accurate) heir to the throne. That Plaid Cymru woman who is always on Question Time has been leading the protests. They would prefer it to be called something indecipherable with no real vowels, such as Ysgythysgymlngwchgwch Bryggy. Let them have their way. As long as it allows people to get out of the place pronto, should we worry about what it‘s called?’
This 100 word snippet has so far led to at least 19 complaints to Ofcom – or one for every five words – and in fairness it is difficult to see how Mr Liddle could have managed to insult or denigrate more aspects of Welsh life and culture in such a short article.
Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts, told Radio Cymru’s Post Cyntaf: “The two things in particular which incensed me were his attempts to belittle the Welsh language, and to compare poverty in Wales with England’s wealth as a first world nation as something amusing.
“We have to ask when we should put up with this and whether or not the Sunday Times cares about readers here in Wales.”
Carmarthen Mayor and veteran journalist Alun Lenny said: “As a supposedly highly-experienced journalist Rod Liddle has let himself down badly by writing such puerile stuff. His sneering comments about ‘rain sodden’ Wales not belonging to the First World and his attempt to get a cheap laugh at the expense of the Welsh language is the basest racial stereotyping.
“At a time when anti-Semitism dominates the political agenda, it’s deeply disappointing that the Sunday Times allowed such a nasty and offensive little article to be published. You must not be nasty to the Jews, but it seems we Welsh are fair game.”
Moving forward, in the somewhat unlikely event that the massed discontent surrounding the name change in Wales has any effect on the UK Government and Royal Family, several suggestions for a new name have been floated.
Pont Arthur – thus referencing the Prince of Wales’ middle name and a national hero – was one suggestion. Given that the tolls are due to be abolished this year, the Rebecca and her Daughters Bridge has a certain ring to it.
If a royal reference was a requisite, Carmarthen East AM Adam Price provided one: “If we must name this bridge after a prince let it be Owain, surviving son of the last real Prince of Wales (pre-Glyndwr) who, arrested at age eight, spent his entire adult life in a wooden cage in Bristol Castle so the Welsh would know their place. If only we knew our own history,” he remarked.
Aberaeron’s Lib Dem County Councillor perhaps hit the nail on the head. “Can’t decide which comes first in my train of thought – offence? certainly, Anger? most definitely, or should indifference top my list? Because in Wales, it will always be the Severn Bridge – and a mighty fine name that is!”
Carwyn Jones to step down as row over Sargeant inquiry intensifies
THE FIRST MINISTER of Wales and leader of the Labour Party in Wales, Carwyn Jones, has announced he is to step down from both roles in the autumn.
Carywn Jones, who succeeded Rhodri Morgan as First Minister in 2009, made the announcement at Labour’s Spring Conference in Llandudno earlier today (Saturday, April 21).
Mr Jones was widely expected to step down during the current Assembly, but the timing of his resignation statement has come as a surprise.
Carwyn Jones has exercised power as First Minister for almost nine years in spite of having either no majority or only the slenderest of majorities in the Welsh Assembly. During his period in office he has been embroiled in a number of controversies; however, the last few months of his time in office have been dogged by a series of scandals surrounding the circumstances of the dismissal and subsequent death of former Cabinet Secretary for Communities, Carl Sargeant.
Mr Sargeant’s dismissal from office was leaked before the official announcement was made, with Llanelli AM Lee Waters revealing that he knew of Mr Sargeant’s sacking before the official announcement. A well-known Welsh journalist was also told of Mr Sargeant’s dismissal before the First Minister met with Mr Sargeant to inform him of it, as were at least two Labour MPs.
Following Mr Sargeant’s sudden death – a few days after his sacking by Mr Jones – a series of awkward questions about due process arose. Mr Sargeant was dismissed without being given the chance to respond to the allegations and the details of the allegations were not made available to him; allegations of leaking of confidential information from sources within the Welsh Government followed; and allegations of a toxic bullying culture at the heart of the Welsh Labour administration, were made.
Although questions regarding those issues focussed on the actions of politically appointed civil servants, those issues cast a long shadow over Carwyn Jones.
Yesterday, solicitors acting for Jack Sargeant, Carl Sargeant’s son who was elected to his late father’s Alyn & Deeside constituency, released a strongly-worded letter which took the Welsh Government to task for continuing delays in setting up an inquiry.
In a subsequent interview, Jack Sargeant’s lawyer – Neil Hudgell – suggested that: ‘[I]t’s been dehumanised within the first minister’s office: there’s some game-playing going on and some deliberate stalling tactics’.
Mr Jones acknowledged the pressure exerted by Carl Sargeant’s death and the subsequent furore about the involvement of civil servants both in bullying and in leaking information.
“There are people I haven’t been fair to in recent times, and that’s my family,” he said.
“In any normal political career you expect to be put through the wringer and have your everything challenged. I don’t think anyone can know what these last few months have been like, other than Lisa and the kids. They have helped me through the darkest of times. I have asked too much of them at times and it’s time for me think about what’s fair to them.”
While no direct allegations of wrongdoing were ever made against Mr Jones personally, the suspicion that something was rotten among civil service political appointees became increasingly hard to dispel. And there have been increasing signs in the First Minister’s responses to questions that he is feeling the pressure, as the Olympian sarcasm he often uses to cross-cut opposition AMs has degenerated to personal attacks on those questioning him.
Evidence of that was the abortive attempt to smear Adam Price in exchanges over the healthcare reorganisation in Hywel Dda.
A Freedom of Information Act request made by The Herald to the Health Board uncovered that civil servants working for the Welsh Government had asked for details of Mr Price’s correspondence from the Health Board and after receiving it had gone back and asked for details other AMs’ and MPs’ correspondence.
That led to an angry exchange in the Senedd last week, when Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire AM Angela Burns, referring to The Herald’s article about our Freedom of Information Act request and the Health Board’s response, questioned the First Minister why she was still waiting for an answer to her own request from the Welsh Government on the same lines. When Adam Price raised the spectre of a ‘smear machine’ staffed by civil servants to assist Labour in making personal attacks on opposition AMs, Mr Jones responded with a personal attack on Adam Price.
The field of candidates to replace Mr Jones is likely to number no more than four, thanks to the nomination procedure for leadership of the Assembly group. Likely runners include Ken Skates, the Economy Secretary, Health Secretary Vaughan Gething, and possibly Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford – likely to be popular with a grass-roots membership significantly more left wing than the party in the Assembly.
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