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.
Committee to examine post-Brexit funding
A NEW inquiry will examine how funding which currently flows to Wales through the EU will be replaced or reshaped after the UK leaves the EU.
The National Assembly’s Finance Committee intends to look at what preparations the Welsh Government is making for different scenarios and which funding models could deliver the best possible benefits for Wales.
Currently more than £2 billion is allocated to Wales through EU Structural funding between 2014 and 2020. The money is targeted at:
- Research and Innovation (funding of £239 million for West Wales and the Valleys and £71 million for East Wales);
- SME Competitiveness (funding of £166 million for West Wales and the Valleys and £32 million for East Wales);
- Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (funding of £137 million for West Wales and the Valleys and £18 million for East Wales); and
- Connectivity and Urban Development (funding of £401 million for West Wales and the Valleys and £38 million for East Wales)
Further funding comes from the Common Agricultural Policy, the Rural Development Programme, the Ireland-Wales European Territorial Co-Operation Programme, the European Maritime Fisheries Fund, and Horizon 2020.
In total Wales receives more than double the amount of money per person than any other region of the UK: “Wales is a net beneficiary of European funding, but when the UK leaves the EU in 2019 all that will come to an end,” said Simon Thomas AM, Chair of the Finance Committee.
“We accept that Brexit negotiations are ongoing but Wales can’t just sit and wait to find out what happens. People and businesses need to know what will or could replace the funding we currently benefit from.
“We will be asking the Welsh Government what plans they have in place, how much is it going to take and are there alternatives which would suit Wales better in the long term.”
The terms of reference for the inquiry are:
- To assess the financial planning for replacing EU funding streams in Wales, and what is being done to prepare for different potential scenarios around levels of funding and administrative responsibility; and,
- To explore what approaches to administering replacements for current EU funding streams might deliver best for Wales, and to what extent these might replicate or differ from current arrangements.
A public consultation will be open until May 118. Anyone wishing to contribute should visit the Finance Committee’s webpages for more information.
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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