THE WESTMINSTER Government is undermining the devolution settlements of each of the UK’s nations according to opposition parties.
Just before the parliamentary recess, the Conservative Government published a White Paper on the future of the UK’s internal market. The same day, July 16, it opened a brief consultation. The Consultation lasted 28 days and ended yesterday, Thursday, August 13.
White papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation. White Papers are often published as Command Papers and may include a draft version of a Bill that is being planned. This provides a basis for further consultation and discussion with interested or affected groups and allows final changes to be made before a Bill is formally presented to Parliament.
The UK’s devolved administrations have reserved powers for a range of issues, including agricultural and animal welfare standards and building regulations.
The proposals advanced by Westminster would see powers of those two areas of policy removed from the devolved administrations’ control. Building regulations in England are both differently focused and of a lower standard than those in Wales. For example, harmonising building regulations around England’s lowest common denominator could scrap the Welsh Government’s regulation requiring sprinklers to be fitted in new homes.
The UK Government did not consult with any of the UK’s devolved administrations about its proposed legislation before publishing the White Paper and announcing an unusually brief consultation on such an important policy.
POWER GRAB? WHAT POWER GRAB? THAT POWER GRAB
When The Herald put the White Paper’s content to Conservative Shadow External Affairs Minister, Darren Millar, and asked about the change in powers over building regulations and animal welfare standards.
We received a furious response.
“To suggest that this is a power grab is utter nonsense,” fulminated Mr Millar.
We suggested no such thing. We asked only about two regulatory areas covered in a 104-page policy document.
Darren Millar continued: “As a result of the UK’s exit from the European Union scores of new powers are set to be transferred to the Welsh Parliament – so far from being a power grab, this is actually a significant power gain for Wales.
“These powers have never been held before by the Welsh Government and this legislation will give the Welsh Parliament additional levers which can be used to help ensure that economy of Wales recovers from the impact of Covid-19 while ensuring seamless trade across the UK.”
As Mr Millar said that ‘scores of new powers’ are heading the Welsh Parliament’s way, we invited him to identify some of them.
He did not answer in time for our deadline.
The problem for Mr Millar is Government line in the debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement set out that Westminster will take some powers from Wales, even as it provides additional powers over other areas of policy.
The position was set out by the current Minister of State at the Wales Office, David TC Davies.
In the Withdrawal Agreement debate, David TC Davies said the following: “The reality is that the change will be called a power grab. I did not hear the phrase used today, but it will be described as a power grab. Of course, it is a power grab, and what a wonderful power grab it is, too. We are grabbing powers from Brussels and bringing them back to London.”
He continued: “The Government’s whole purpose is to ensure there is a single market within the United Kingdom. We cannot have a situation where different nation-states within the United Kingdom go off and do their own thing.”
The powers being lost to Westminster over agriculture and building regulations are not examples of devolved administrations ‘going off to do their own thing’ in the future. They are examples of devolved administrations which had exercised their powers and face their policies roll-back.
WESTMINSTER CLAWINGBACK POWER FROM WALESOther Welsh parties are less impressed by the White Paper. Cllr William Powell, the Welsh Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said: “In my view, the manner and content of this consultation demonstrate a lack of respect by the UK Government for the Welsh devolution settlement.
“Under the cloak of enabling Westminster to create a new UK internal market at the end of the Brexit transition period, this most ideological of governments is effectively putting to the sword decades of devolution, validated by the Welsh people in two referenda.”
William Powell continued: “The Bill would allow the UK Government to set out how the devolved administrations would interact with Westminster post-Brexit, compelling Scotland and Wales to accept whatever new standards – in the field of animal welfare, environment and food are built into trade agreements of the future.
“Whereas vital areas of policy, such as agriculture, food safety and the environment are currently overseen by the governments at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, this UK government clearly wants to have ultimate control over issues previously determined by the EU. In other words, it represents a radical clawback of power, undermining Welsh democracy and giving Boris Johnson and his associates a free hand in post-Brexit negotiations with other countries.
“Welsh Liberal Democrats are committed to respecting the devolution settlement & the principle of Welsh Home Rule. Therefore we roundly condemn the UK Government’s cavalier tactics in this consultation.”
‘THIS IS A POWER GRAB’
For Plaid Cymru, Liz Saville Roberts MP said: “Four weeks and a series of loaded questions over the summer whilst Parliament isn’t sitting is all this Westminster Government has given people in terms of a consultation on a fundamental shift in the constitution of the UK.
“It is as if the Westminster Government cannot even hide its contempt for devolution.
“This is a power grab, plain and simple. From nakedly taking back competencies already held in Wales, to the fact that this legislation was not proposed jointly with the devolved administrations, the Westminster Government is chipping away at two decades of devolution.
“People will not fall for the Westminster double-speak of adding to devolution, these changes will only diminish Wales’s ability to carve its own path.”
NO DISCUSSIONS WITH WESTMINSTER
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We support having rules across the UK to regulate the internal market, but these rules must be agreed between the four Governments in the UK, each of which has their own responsibility for economic development. Any new system must have independent oversight and dispute resolution.
“Unfortunately, the UK Government did not manage to share the Paper with us, and Welsh Ministers have had no recent discussions with the UK Government on these issues. Any attempt to unilaterally impose a system will be deeply damaging.”
WG settles ‘scandalous’ land sale case
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has settled a claim against its former advisors about land sales which took place under a purported regeneration scheme.
The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) had issued proceedings against Amber Fund Management and Lambert Smith Hampton concerning the portfolio sale of 15 properties in 2012.
The settlement has been reached on a commercial basis and without any admission of liability by any party.
The detailed terms have been incorporated into a confidential settlement agreement between the parties.
The Welsh Government Minister for Local Government, Julie James, said the £40.7 million tied up in the Fund can now be made available to support future investments across Wales.
RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to allow the Welsh Government to raise money which could then be used to fund regeneration and investments in Welsh businesses.
It was a complete shambles.
One of the advisors appointed had previous connections with one of the parties which bought some of the land at an undervalue.
Vital information was not relayed to the RIFW’s board by the Welsh Government and Board members were kept in the dark about transactions carried out in their name.
Under the oversight of their appointed agents and Welsh Government civil servants, RIFW sold publicly owned assets by private treaty and without prior valuation at a price that reflected the assets’ existing use, under sale terms that provided only limited protection to the public interest in their significant future development values, and via a negotiation process that left RIFW lumbered with undesirable assets.
The Chair of the Senedd Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay MS, said: “The out of court settlement between the Welsh Government and the former advisors of RIFW effectively brings a curtain down on a very sorry and lamentable episode.
“The hasty sell-off of publicly-owned land at bargain-basement prices effectively deprived Welsh taxpayers of tens of millions of pounds which could’ve been used for essential services.
“We look forward to examining matters further with the Permanent Secretary and Head of the Welsh Government Civil Service, Shan Morgan, at our next meeting on Monday, November 23.
“We will be asking what robust steps have been taken to avoid history repeating.”
RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to sell off land around Wales including in north Wales, Monmouthshire and Cardiff, and use the money, in conjunction with European funding, to reinvest in areas in need of regeneration.
But the Public Accounts Committee found that the body was poorly managed, poorly overseen by the government, and that, because of a change in the direction of RIFW, from one of regeneration to property asset disposals, some of the Board members felt they lacked the necessary knowledge and expertise to fulfil their roles.
It also learned that the Board was not presented with key information regarding the value of the land in its portfolio, or of expressions of interest from potential buyers.
Fifteen plots of land, originally supposed to be sold separately, were instead sold as a single portfolio at a price which did not take into account potential use of the land in the future. This decision resulted in Welsh taxpayers missing out on tens of millions of pounds of funding.
The Committee learned that one of the organisations charged with offering expert advice to the Board, Lambert Smith Hampton Ltd, had previously acted on behalf of a director of the buyer of the land, South Wales Land Developments Ltd (SWLD), and signed an agreement to do so again one day after the sales went through.
The Committee concluded that the RIFW Board had been poorly served by its own expert advisors.
Angela Burns MS – Shadow Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency – said: “The Fund was established to sell valuable packages of Welsh Government land, with the money used to support regeneration schemes. However, evidence has since emerged that shows that the sale of RIFW’s assets was undertaken at a loss of tens of millions of pounds. A loss which was borne ultimately by the Welsh Taxpayer and yet another example of the complete inability of this Labour Government to be fiscally prudent.
“Millions of pounds have been squandered, millions that could have been invested in our education and health systems or spent building Wales’ economy or supporting some of our more vulnerable citizens. It’s an absolute scandal and the real scandal is the Welsh Government can slide out of their responsibility for this debacle”
Included in the scandal are:
- Fifteen sites sold for £21 million; with the taxpayer missing out on staggering sums of money
- A site in Rhoose purchased from RIFW for less than £3m – sold on for almost £10.5m South Wales Land Developments Ltd. Taxpayers losing out
- An Abergele site purchased from RIFW for £100,000, without overage, and sold for £1.9million. Taxpayers losing out
- Land in Lisvane sold for £1.8million – worth £39million.
Welsh Conservatives also claim the Welsh Government has squandered £1 billion on other projects, including:
- £221m on uncompetitive Enterprise Zones
- £9.3m on flawed initial funding of the Circuit of Wales
- £97.9m on delays and overspend on the A465 Heads of the Valleys Road
- £157m on the M4 relief road inquiry
- Over £100m propping up Cardiff Airport
UK not ready for Brexit
In its fourth report assessing government’s preparations at the border, the NAO highlights that planning for 1 January 2021 has built on work done for previous EU Exit deadline.
Departments have made progress towards implementing the systems, infrastructure and resources required to operate the border in relation to Great Britain at “minimum operating capability” by January 1 and are reasonably confident most will be ready, but timetables are tight.
There is little time for ports and other third parties to integrate their systems and processes with new or changed government systems, and contingency plans may need to be invoked for some elements.
Even if the Westminster government makes further progress with its preparations, there is still likely to be significant disruption at the border from January 1, as traders will be unprepared for new EU border controls which will require additional administration and checks.
The government’s plan for reducing the risk of disruption at the approach to the short Channel crossings is still developing, with various issues yet to be resolved. It intends to launch a new GOV.UK web service called ‘Check an HGV is ready to cross the border’ for hauliers to check and self-declare that they have the correct documentation for EU import controls before travelling and obtain permits to drive on prescribed roads in Kent.
Government is preparing civil contingency plans, such as to ensure continuity of the supply of critical goods and medicines in the event of any disruption to supply chains.
The UK Government will also need to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol from January 1. However, due to the scale and complexity of the changes, the lack of time and the impact of ongoing negotiations, there is a very high risk it may not be implemented in time.
The government has left itself little time to mobilise its new Trader Support Service (TSS), in which it has announced it is investing £200 million, to reduce the burden on traders moving goods to Northern Ireland and to help them prepare.
The government is spending significant sums of money preparing the border for the end of the transition period and, in 2020 alone, announced funding of £1.41 billion to fund new infrastructure and systems, and wider support and investment.
The NAO says that government must continue to focus its efforts on resolving the many outstanding issues relating to the border and develop robust contingency plans if these cannot be addressed in time for the end of the transition period.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The January 1 deadline is unlike any previous EU Exit deadline: significant changes at the border will take place and government must be ready.
Carmarthenshire Council meeting postponed
A MEETING of Carmarthenshire County Council scheduled for Wednesday (Oct 13) was abandoned after a number of councillors complained they were unable to access information relating to an item due for discussion.
The Council meeting was due to discuss the local authority’s much-delayed, controversial, and very expensive plans to construct a Wellness facility on a bog in Llanelli.
The Wellness Village scheme came within an ace of derailing the whole of the Swansea Bay City Deal, after it became engulfed in bribery allegations and a scandal involving the City Deal’s governance under the leadership of former Carmarthenshire CEO Mark James.
Mr James’ home was raided by Police from the regional fraud squad who were investigating the Council’s former development partner and bribery allegations relating to that company’s involvement in the scheme through Swansea University.
The project, rebranded Pentre Awel in an attempt to dispel the stench of corruption and sharp dealing surrounding it, has remained shrouded in secrecy as the County Council continues to try and drum up interest in the project with commercial and academic partners.
To date, no commercial partner has come forward. Attempts to get an academic partner on board are now focussed on universities outside Wales. In the current higher education market’s climate, with many universities claiming poverty, any financial input from an academic partner is likely to come on much-reduced terms.
As is usual with discussions surrounding the development, the Executive Board and officers sought to carry out any discussions behind closed doors and without public scrutiny. The extent of their secrecy appears to have extended to sharing information with councillors before the meeting was due to take place.
Around a fifth of councillors were unable to access the information the Council wanted to restrict from public examination. The meeting adjourned to see if a technical work-around could be found. When that failed, comedy descended into farce as the whole of the business scheduled for discussion on Wednesday was abandoned to make sure councillors could actually see documents upon which they were supposed to make an informed decision.
The rescheduled meeting will take place on October 22. At which point the Council will have managed to be as open and transparent as it claims to be.
At least as far as providing information to members goes.
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