PLAID CYMRU’S status as the official opposition to Labour in the Senedd was cast into uncertainty last Friday (Oct 14) after one of their most senior figures left the party less than six months after fighting an election as a Plaid AM.
Dafydd Elis Thomas, who has represented Plaid Cymru for 18 years at Westminster, 17 years in the Senedd, and four years in the House of Lords, informed his local party that he would subsequently sit as an independent in the Welsh Assembly. He is the second AM to leave their party group this year, following the prolonged saga of UKIP’s Nathan Gill.
Sources close to Lord Elis Thomas have suggested that he felt Plaid Cymru should have been more supportive of the Welsh Labour Government. Following his departure, the two parties agreed a draft budget which included £119m allocated to Plaid Cymru priority areas of spending.
Speaking to the BBC, Lord Elis Thomas said: “It was clear to me that the Plaid group in the National Assembly was not willing to seriously participate in government and to give Wales a stable government, particularly after the decisions taken in Wales and elsewhere about our future relationship with the European Union.
“There is a serious constitutional challenge now and we might well lose powers from Wales,” he added.
“I think all pro-devolutionists should be working together to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
The peer’s relationship with Leanne Wood, who defeated him in a 2012 leadership election, was also thought to have contributed to his decision. As Presiding Officer, Lord Elis Thomas ordered Ms Wood to leave the Chamber after the republican referred to Queen Elizabeth as ‘Mrs Windsor’. Ms Wood sacked Lord Elis Thomas from the front bench in 2014 after he publicly criticised the party’s stance on UKIP.
Plaid Cymru lost no time in calling for a by-election following Lord Elis-Thomas’ announcement. A party statement released shortly afterwards said: “Plaid Cymru will begin the process of selecting a new candidate in Dwyfor Meirionnydd following Dafydd Elis-Thomas’s decision to leave the Plaid Cymru Assembly group.
“Constituents, who Dafydd Elis- Thomas misled in the recent Assembly election, will expect a by-election to be held at the earliest convenience.”
A petition was also launched calling for him to resign and call a by-election. It claimed that Lord Elis-Thomas was ‘elected through the hard work and financial resources of Plaid Cymru’s local activists.
‘The electorate of Dwyfor Meirionnydd deserve the opportunity to voice their opinions on this through the ballot box’, the petition added. This was supported on social media by Dwyfor Merionnydd MP Liz Saville Roberts.
However, as UKIP found out, Lord Elis-Thomas is under no obligation to resign, and has said that he will be better-placed to serve his constituency now that he no longer has to toe the party line. Given that toeing the party line was hardly one of his strong points, it would be fair to suggest that Plaid Cymru’s Senedd group will not receive a great deal of support from their former colleague.
The question which has been asked by several political commentators is which party now holds the role of official opposition in Wales. Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives now have 11 seats apiece – compared to six UKIP AMs, two independents, and one Lib Dem.
The answer is that no one seems quite sure. A Plaid Cymru source suggested that, while the parties had the same number of seats, the Party of Wales had registered more votes. However, it is unclear whether this will make any difference.
The Welsh Conservatives, on the other hand, made light of the official opposition title they proudly held during the Fourth Assembly, with one source memorably describing it as ‘bald men fighting over a comb’.
However, they suggested that this would be a fight the party would be willing to participate in, by calling for the title to be shared or dropped.
Given that joint official opposition in a legislature which contains three major parties and UKIP is hardly a title worthy of boasting, it could well be the case that both parties refer to themselves as the opposition, while the official aspect is quietly dropped.
Of far more importance to the day-to-day running of the Assembly will be the changes made to committee place and chair allocations, but at the time of going to press, this had not been resolved.
Plaid warns of Brexit threat to latest medicines
WELSH patients could have to wait longer for access to the latest medicines as a result of a hard Brexit, Plaid Cymru has warned.
The party’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs Steffan Lewis warned that leaving bodies such as the European Medical Agency and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will also mean less medical research will happen in the UK, and that the UK will not be privy to the latest information about disease prevention and control.
Plaid Cymru Shadow Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs Steffan Lewis said: “It’s crucial that we explore ways of maintaining our membership of European medical bodies after Brexit. The UK’s current membership of the European Medical Agency means that hundreds of clinical trials are held in the UK every year, including trials into the use of radiotherapy which is currently being carried out in Velindre, and a trial into the use of local anaesthetic by Aneurin Bevan Health Board.
“If we lose access to the EMA and other bodies such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, this would mean that we no longer receive the latest information about disease control, we will have less access to medical trials and research, and that drug companies are less likely to try to register their drugs in the UK when a bigger market exists in the EU.
“We need to consider how we overcome these problems to ensure that patients in Wales will continue have the same access to new medical treatment as they do now. This may mean establishing sister organisations affiliated with the EMA and ECDPC so that we can continue to co-operate, and it means that we need to invest in our universities’ research capacity so that we can continue to play a full part in research and development.”
Plaid Cymru Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Public Health Dai Lloyd AM said: “We are only beginning to fully understand the implication that leaving the EU will have on our NHS. We know that we are likely to lose medical staff because of the uncertainty caused by Brexit, and now we see that we will have to wait longer for access to new medicines and be involved in less medical research.
“It’s crucial that we retain our links, so that patients in Wales will not miss out.”
Senedd tributes to Carl Sargeant
THE NATIONAL Assembly for Wales held a minute silence at the Senedd on Tuesday (Nov 14) in memory of former Assembly Member Carl Sargeant, who died last week.
The Llywydd, Elin Jones AM, opened Plenary by saying: “His death has shaken us to our core, and his absence from our midst pains us today. But our loss pales in comparison to that felt by his community, his friends, his staff, and especially his family.”
After a minute’s silence, Elin Jones invited party leaders and Assembly Members to speak.
A MAN OF MANY TALENTS
First up was an ashen-looking Carwyn Jones, who expressed the wish to speak of his deceased former Cabinet colleague as ‘a politician, as a colleague, and as a friend’.
The First Minister highlighted Mr Sargeant’s contribution to the Assembly: “He took more legislation through here than any other Minister. And he had a knack of turning difficult pieces of legislation into something worthwhile.
Mr Jones continued to observe that Mr Sargeant was: “A man of many talents. In all the years I knew him, we never had a cross word.
“He was ever-present in the Cabinet, and with good reason. I appointed him because he was good at legislation, he was good with people.
“Well-liked and committed, jovial but determined, firm but fun, and he will be missed by his family, by those in this Chamber, and by the nation.”
Andrew RT Davies was notably warm in his tribute: “Very often, politicians are lucky if they get one piece of legislation through in their lifetime; Carl put four pieces of legislation through. For a man to come from the factory floor and wake up each morning to put a collar and tie on and put the cufflinks in, and have that as a legacy—each piece of legislation will have a massive impact on the outcomes here in Wales about improving people’s lives.
“You speak as you find, but I have to say he is one of the most genuine men that I’ve had the privilege to meet.”
BETHAN JENKINS ‘DEVASTATED’
That warmth was noticeably absent from Leanne Wood’s brief speech. The Plaid leader described Mr Sargeant’s loss as a blow, but who left the warmth to her absent colleague Bethan Jenkins, whose words she read out.
Ms Jenkins, absent through injury, said: “’Carl Sargeant was a friend of mine from across the political divide. Despite many people telling me that I should not have friends from different parties, I’ve always been of the belief that we are human first.
“All I know was that whenever I needed support or someone to speak to about anything, Carl was at the other end of the phone. We joked after I would raise questions in Plenary with him that even though we clashed politically he still respected me, and vice versa.
“I can say for the record that I am devastated. My support rock in that place has gone. Gorwedd mewn hedd, Carl.”
After pointedly remarking on the way with which Carl Sargeant was dealt, Neil Hamilton said: “Carl and I were diametrically opposed politically, and we cheerfully hurled verbal bricks at each other across the Chamber, but he was a civilised and decent man, and big enough to recognise an opponent’s sincerity, and he didn’t allow political differences to preclude cordial relations outside the Chamber
“I didn’t know him very well, but I liked him for his avuncular geniality, his friendliness and his authenticity—above all for his authenticity. He was a genuine man of the people, never lost touch with his roots.”
HUMOUR AND ACHIEVEMENT
Following the party leaders’ tributes, there was a succession of earnest, heartfelt, and occasionally emotional contributions from Mr Sargeant’s fellow AMs.
Many of their reminiscences were tinged with humour, describing a man who never failed to see the funny side of things but who was a committed and dedicated public servant.
Lesley Griffiths’ deeply personal tribute mentioned Mr Sargeant’s sense of mischief: “One of Carl’s most important jobs was to ensure our shared drawer always had a good supply of sweets. One day, he brought some new ones in and told me just to try one, but I in my usual style grabbed a handful, only to find on eating them they were hot chilli sweets. He could barely contain his gleefulness at my discomfort.”
That humour was made more poignant by her recollection that: “Carl was one of the most generous people I have ever met, particularly with his time, and he loved socialising with his family and friends. Behind his burly and jovial exterior was a beautiful, sensitive and vulnerable soul. He always told people how special and unique they were, because he cared how people felt. He was kind to people, and being kind to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”
Her North Walian Cabinet colleague Ken Skates observed: “I think if there is to be a legacy, a lasting legacy, to Carl, it should be that we should all show a little more love and care for one another, that we should be kinder and more respectful to one another, not just in here but across our society, to change our culture for the better.”
ASSURANCE OF FAIR PLAY
Alun Davies, the newly-appointed Cabinet Secretary for Local Government, appeared on the verge of tears throughout an emotional address.
Describing Mr Sargeant as ‘a very, very decent and honourable, authentic friend and a mate of mine’, he continued: “You’d never have guessed that he had the achievements behind him that he had. But he cared deeply and all of us who worked alongside him know how deeply held his convictions were, and how deeply he cared about what he was doing and how deeply he believed in fair play and social justice.”
Mr Davies concluded his remarks by addressing them directly to Mr Sargeant’s family, present in the public gallery: “We’ll always make sure that Carl has fair play.”
Paul Davies said: “Every time I was with him, we would laugh. But he was a serious and committed politician who cared about his constituents, and he got people. He understood people. After all, politics is about people and Carl definitely got that.”
Joyce Watson remembered his contribution to clamping down on domestic violence and said: “In all the coverage of the loss of our friend Carl, one word and one word alone keeps getting repeated, and that is the word ‘authentic’. Everything about Carl rang true. It was obvious to everyone who met him that Carl was in politics for the right reasons. Intellectually, instinctively, head and heart, he understood and he cared deeply about the people and places he represented.”
GREATLY ADMIRED, GREATLY MISSED
Rebecca Evans, who worked in Mr Sargeant’s office when he was first elected to the Assembly, remembered a working atmosphere filled with humour and music, but recounted that: “ Behind the jokes and behind the laughter was a deep seriousness about making life better for his constituents and a driving passion for social justice.”
Former Finance Minister Jane Hutt said that Carl Sargeant was: “Loved and respected by us all here today, a man and a Minister who served Wales so well, greatly admired and greatly missed.”
Simon Thomas recalled Mr Sargeant’s generosity with his time and the pains he took to attend to small details. After covering Carl Sargeant’s frequently remarked upon talents at karaoke and on the dancefloor, the Mid and West AM observed that although humour was part of his success as a legislator: “He was very serious about what he was achieving, and his ability to have passed the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is, I think, one of the crowning achievements of any legislature, and he took it through here and did that work for and on behalf of all of us.”
Nick Ramsay remarked: “We know that politics can be a cold business, but, in contrast, friendships go to the heart of what it is to be human, and Carl was one of the most human souls I’ve ever met. He was unique—a one-off. He was friendly, warm, engaging, and supportive. He was always supportive when you needed help. He was a sensitive man, and he had turned his hands to most things in his full life.”
Dafydd Elis Thomas, former Presiding Officer and recently appointed to the culture portfolio, told AMs: “I want to celebrate and thank him for what he did for the environment of Wales, and in particular for the designated landscapes, because he understood, as someone who was a proper north Walian, who loved both the industrial areas, and the rural areas and the national parks, and the areas of outstanding natural beauty, that it was important that these areas should learn to live together and share their delight.”
‘A CHAMPION OF WOMEN’S RIGHTS’
Darren Millar said: “Remembrance Sunday has just passed, and it reminded me not just of the sacrifice of the fallen, but also of what a fantastic champion the armed forces community and veterans across Wales had in Carl Sargeant, holding that portfolio, representing their views around the Cabinet table, and across the country.
“And, of course, he wasn’t just a friend to the armed forces, he was a tremendous friend of faith communities as well, across Wales. I know how greatly faith communities, faith groups—of all religions—appreciated his work and engagement through the faith communities’ forum.”
Mr Sargeant’s achievements and legacy were summed up by Rhianon Passmore, past chair of the Welsh Labour’s Women’s Committee & Policy Forum, who said: “There are many Members of this National Assembly for Wales who loved and respected Carl.
“As a proud feminist, I want it stated on the record that no other Assembly Member, in the two decades of Welsh devolution, has been as passionate to champion the progress of women’s and children’s rights and causes through legislation than Carl Sargeant. As Minister for social justice, he became known as champion of equality and women’s rights.”
A book of condolence has been opened for visitors to the Senedd.
Halfway to Paradise
PARLIAMENT had its first opportunity to discuss the unsurprising revelation that the seriously wealth retain their serious wealth by means of aggressive tax avoidance schemes on Monday (Nov 6).
With the Chancellor of the Exchequer engaged elsewhere, questions were fielded by Financial Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Mid Devon, Mel Stride.
It appeared that Mr Stride was unprepared to admit that anything was at all untoward with tax avoidance schemes that only the rich and shameless can afford.
Adopting a startling line – prefigured by briefings to the right wing national media – Mr Stride averred that there was no ethical difference between a retail investment available to all UK residents, namely the ISA, and Apple sending out a questionnaire to British Crown Dependences asking them whether or not they would be so kind as to allow Apple to use a brass plate in one of them to ensure it did not have to pay that pesky tax on hundreds of billions in profits.
Never mind brass plate: Mr Stride’s stance had the appearance of brass neck.
In fact, he made great play of the fact that Labour – last in government seven years ago – had done nothing to close the tax loopholes the party now complained of during thirteen years in power. And he was helped in repeatedly avoiding – or perhaps evading – the main issue by being given the opportunity to underline that point by a number of tame questions posed by Conservative backbench stooges.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, presented with the opportunity to make a decent and succinct point on the subject attempted to ask questions of Mel Stride, specifically with regard to investments made by the Duchy of Lancaster – whose current chancellor is Conservative MP Patrick Loughlin – on the Queen’s behalf in offshore tax vehicles.
He may as well have tried nailing jelly to the wall.
David Lammy invited the minister to explain the legitimate reasons for funnelling money offshore to avoid tax, when two-thirds of UK taxpayers are subject to PAYE and have no choice in the matter.
Mr Stride’s response was as remarkable for ducking the question as it was for its content.
“It may be that I want a trust for my children and I do not want it to be known publicly exactly how that trust will operate, for reasons of confidentiality,” Mr Stride suggested, indicating that all was preventing the average worker from availing themselves of the opportunity was a lack of ingenuity and the odd £10m knocking around to make such a vehicle worthwhile.
Jonathan Edwards’ question and its answer deserve full repetition to underline the extent to which the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was prepared to be candid.
Jonathan Edwards asked: “After nearly a decade of austerity, and with living standards facing their biggest squeeze in nearly a century, the public will, quite rightly, be outraged by the most recent revelations. The Treasury cannot run with both the foxes and the hounds on this, so will it back either the ordinary working people or the super-rich? Which will it be?”
So, the question is whether the government back the wealthy over the poor and acknowledge the outrage of those with no choice but to hand over their money to the Treasury.
Mr Stride’s response suggests he heard an entirely different question.
“The hon. Member talks about our having to live within our means, and it is, of course, right that we do that. He talks about the amount of money we need to bring in. What has been most unhelpful is that the previous Labour Government were so ineffective at bringing in tax, the tax gap became so high they cost our country over £40b. If they had had the same average level of tax gap in their last seven years in office as we have had in our seven years, we would be about £45 billion better off.”
An answer to the question actually posed was absent.
It was that sort of performance. Brazen, shameless, partisan, and deliberately obstructive.
Mr Stride will go far on that sort of form.
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