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Politics

Short Circuit for Wales

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Moto GP: Hosting agreement in place

THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has been accused of misleading the public, ambushing investors, and using the Circuit of Wales project as a political football intended to shore up its vote in the South Wales Valleys after refusing to back the project last week.

NO TO GUARANTEE

The Welsh Government had been asked to provide a loan guarantee of £210m to private investor, the insurance giant Aviva. Had the Circuit gone bust, the Welsh Government would have been left liable for the loan balance but Aviva would have retained ownership of the Circuit.

Last week, Economy Secretary Ken Skates announced that the Welsh Government had decided against backing the project by providing a guarantee to key investor Aviva, claiming that late in the day the Welsh Government had received advice from HM Revenue and the Office of National Statistics that financing the deal would amount to state aid and affect Wales’ capital grant from the Westminster Government.

Mr Skates claimed that the presence of the Circuit of Wales on the books would have meant education and health services would have had their budgets squeezed.

However, Mr Skates’ version of events has been met with withering scorn from opposition parties who say that the Welsh Government’s version of events is disingenuous nonsense and that the Welsh Government has twice delayed pulling the plug on the project for Labour’s own electoral benefit .

INDEPENDENT INQUIRY CALL

Both the Conservative Party and Plaid Cymru have called for an independent inquiry into the Welsh Government’s conduct of the Circuit of Wales deal.

Andrew RT Davies, the Conservative leader in the Assembly said: “The Circuit of Wales has been a Welsh Labour car crash of epic proportions.

“After so many years of uncertainty and false hope, it’s clear that Welsh Government have plenty of questions to answer.

“Whilst I have had longstanding concerns that the Heads of the Valleys Development Company may not be right vehicle for this project, it is hugely disappointing to see it crumbling away in such dramatic and overnight fashion.”

Plaid Cymru Shadow Cabinet Secretary Adam Price claimed that evidence has come to light that the First Minister may have misled the public.

Adam Price said there was ‘compelling evidence the Welsh Government has been guilty of serial mendacity ‘.

“Sadly this project has been characterised by a series of inaccurate and misleading statements made by the Government, ostensibly to justify its own position in the face of potential criticism ,” he added.

“An email written by an Aviva senior director – dated 14th July last year – pointed to the false assertion by the Welsh Government ‘that we requested a 100% underwrite a few days before the rejection (of the first proposal in April 2016), when in fact this deal had been worked up with the Welsh Government (through civil servants) for many months and nothing in our funding structure changed in the run up to the announcement’.”

Mr Price continued: “I have an email from Welsh Government presenting a proposal based on a Welsh public sector guarantee of the debt dated January 26th 2016, confirming Aviva’s assertion. And yet speaking in Ebbw Vale on April 11th last year, as reported by the Western Mail, Carwyn Jones repeated the falsehood when speaking about the rejection of the proposal: ‘It was in the last few days beforehand. We weren’t to know the guarantee would be inflated’.

“These are not isolated instances. They are part of a pattern of duplicity that have characterised the Welsh Government’s approach to this project throughout, constantly shifting goalposts and covering their tracks.”

Mr Price called for an independent inquiry to investigate the matter: “Since the First Minister himself can now be shown also to have misled the public on the Circuit of Wales – all the more pointedly as it was in Blaenau Gwent and in the middle of a keenly fought election campaign – it’s no longer appropriate that he makes this decision as he will now need to be a subject of that investigation, not its judge and jury.

“As things currently stand no-one – business, media, Parliament or public – can be confident our Government is being straight with us. Only a full independent inquiry can begin to rebuild public trust. “

HAMILTON SLAMS GOVERNMENT INSULT

Neil Hamilton AM, UKIP Group Leader in the National Assembly for Wales stated in the Senedd chamber: “Are we really expected to believe, that the government accounting conventions about whether something should be classified as public expenditure or private by the ONS and the Treasury have come as a blinding revelation yesterday, and the cabinet was totally unaware of these conventions hitherto?

“It is an insult to the people of Blaenau Gwent that such a shoddy excuse has been used and a disgrace that so much public money and time was wasted on this decision.

“The Welsh Government now plans to build a £100m automotive business park in Ebbw Vale. What we have now is a proposal from the government to spend £100 m over ten years. Shedloads of money to build a series of empty sheds,” continued Mr Hamilton

“Interestingly the Welsh Government announced this decision after the election; a decision beforehand would clearly have damaged Labour in the polls. What a cynical political decision, a terrible betrayal of the people of Blaenau Gwent and a shoddy excuse for what amounts to the replacement of the Circuit of Wales with a Scalextric set.”

Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee the day before the Welsh Government pulled the plug, a senior Welsh Government civil servant, James Price, told Committee members that he regarded the £9.3m as a fair price to pay for the due diligence that it had enabled the Welsh Government to undertake and suggested that the Auditor was wrong to decide that business risk assessments carried out before providing the money were deficient.

One thing that emerged from that Committee meeting was the broad agreement that due diligence had to take place before the Welsh Government exposed itself to further risk. It was surprising, therefore, that the following day in the Assembly one of those members who had been singing the praises of due diligence taking place committed a complete about face.

Deriding the Welsh Government’s involvement as being an exemplar of ‘the dead hand of government’, UKIP’s leader in the Assembly Neil Hamilton appeared to have forgotten his words of little over twenty four hours earlier: ‘Personally, I think it was a very reasonable punt you took (with the grant and loan). Now we’re talking about much, much larger sums of money, it’s right that a considerably greater degree of examination be undertaken’.

COMPANY DENIES GOVERNMENT CLAIMS

A spokesperson for the Heads of the Valleys Development Corporation (HVDC), the company behind the Circuit of Wales, said: “Along with my team and commercial partners, I am hugely disappointed and saddened that the Welsh Government has failed to support The Circuit of Wales, what would be a game changing development for Wales and in particular the people of Blaenau Gwent.

“We strongly disagree with the decision and the rationale behind it.

“We have always believed passionately, and continue to do so, in this project’s ability to transform and provide opportunities and hope to one of the poorest parts of the UK, not just Wales. The project is totally defined, finance is in place, and construction and hiring could start immediately.

“My team and I will now analyse the Welsh Government’s reasons not to support the development and are actively seeking additional clarification from them. We will then very shortly issue a detailed response before deciding on our next course of action.”

That detailed response, when it arrived, savaged the Welsh Government’s reasoning and claimed that the reasons given to the Senedd for refusing to back the deal were either wrong, specious, or had not been raised with the developer or its investors. In addition, the statement revealed that the Economy Secretary had not met with representatives of the company for over twelve months before making his decision.

A spokesperson for HVDC said: “ This is a real loss for the people of Ebbw Vale, the immediate community and a missed opportunity for Wales as a whole. This is a project that has been totally defined; it is fully financed (with finance in place) with construction and hiring ready to start immediately.

“At a time when the Welsh Government is trying to demonstrate that Wales is ‘ppen for business’, the rejection of this significant infrastructure project will do little to breed confidence within the private sector for future investment in the country.”

Most tellingly, perhaps, HVDC made a concerted attack on the Cabinet Secretary’s assertion there was a very significant risk that the full £373million debt of the entire Circuit of Wales project would be classified against Welsh Government capital spending.

The statement from the Company expressed amazement at the lack of notice given to it that any problem had arisen: ‘The company was never informed or made aware of this ONS and HM Treasury advice during the due diligence process. We were promised by Welsh Government officials that we would be consulted if any significant issues arose during due diligence and given an opportunity to respond.

‘We were not notified that this was a serious roadblock prior to Tuesday’s meeting and never given a chance to respond.

‘The Welsh Government has known about the latest structure of this project since well before February 2017 and could easily have obtained clearer guidance from Treasury and ONS prior to Tuesday’s meeting and informed us’.

The spokesperson continued: “We believe it is important for the people of Blaenau Gwent to have the details of these discussions with ONS and HM Treasury disclosed to the public. What were these discussions, who were they with and when were they undertaken?

“ We wholeheartedly disagree that the support for The Circuit of Wales would be on balance sheet and would require the Welsh government to limit its budget and compromise the building of schools and hospitals .”

The company also claimed that the £100m technology park – funded by public money – announced by Ken Skates as a sop to Blaenau Gwent was scheduled to cost £150m of wholly private money and be delivered in two years: not the ten announced by the Cabinet Secretary in the Senedd.

SCHEME UNDER SCRUTINY

However, the scheme has been the subject of scepticism for some time.

A BBC investigation for soon to be scrapped current affairs programme Week In Week Out, cast doubts on whether or not the company could achieve anything like the promises it had made either in terms of regeneration of Blaenau Gwent or in relation to delivering on its promises regarding the proposed facilities within the time and budget specified. Moreover, the same documentary revealed that £35,000 from HVDC – a company partly funded by the Welsh Government – had been used on landscape gardening on the home of the person fronting the scheme, Michael Carrick.

An investigation by the Auditor-General for Wales criticised the Welsh Government both for a loan guarantee a £7.3m provided to HVDC and a £2m grant provided as seed money. The Auditor discovered that part of the money had been used to acquire a small motorcycle manufacturing business in England and ruled that there had been insufficient regard as to whether the uses to which public money were being put were delivering value for money for the public.

Initial claims that 6,000 jobs would be created and claims of businesses flocking to set up working partnerships on the Circuit of Wales site had also come under scrutiny.

A reassessment of the project carried out by the University of South Wales as part of the due diligence process suggested that 2,000 jobs fewer than claimed would be created. In addition, jobs during the construction phase of the project would be temporary, with the Circuit ultimately employing around 150 full time staff, while the remainder of jobs would be created in spin-off enterprises over a longer period of time.

As this article was being prepared for publication, Michael Carrick, told BBC News: “We haven’t given up on it and I’m hoping government hasn’t.

“The project is too important to walk away. We’ve got the support of our investors, we’ve got the support of our development partners and we want to make it work for government and for the valleys.”

Whether Mr Carrick will be able to overcome the deep reservations of the Welsh Government and proceed with the scheme with their backing is open to question.

Whether the HVDC will be able to develop the Circuit of Wales on the scale planned – or at all – without that backing, is highly unlikely.

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Politics

MS summoned to Court over tweet

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PLAID CYMRU’s Mid & West Wales Regional Senedd Member Helen Mary Jones has been summoned to appear at Swansea Crown Court.

HHJ Paul Thomas QC ordered Ms Jones to court after she retweeted a third-party’s post which expressed the hope a defendant in an ongoing murder trial would be convicted.

The tweet referred to the trial of 70-year-old Anthony Williams, who killed his wife shortly after the start of the first lockdown in March last year.

Mr Williams had pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter.

However, while the trial was ongoing, a domestic violence campaigner tweeted:: “Another perp using the ‘I just snapped’. It is complete b******t! As so many of us will know, there would have been history of domestic abuse.
“I hope this jury finds him guilty of murder. Rest in peace, Ruth.”
On Saturday, before the jury returned its verdict, Ms Jones shared the tweet.

There was no history of domestic abuse and no suggestion of it was raised during Mr Jones’ trial.

When the Jury returned to Court on Monday, HHJ Paul Thomas said: “It’s come to my attention that, over the weekend, there have been some highly inappropriate comments made on social media about this case.
“I should make it abundantly clear that those comments have not come from anybody connected with the case and, having been shown the contents of one such piece of social media, they clearly don’t have any idea about the evidence in this case or the issues in this case.”
None of the jurors saw the offending post and continued their deliberations.

On Monday afternoon, the jury acquitted Mr Williams of murder.

By retweeting the remarks made by a third party, the risk existed that the jury could have been influenced and their decision-making compromised.

On Thursday, Helen Mary Jones will have the chance to explain her actions to Judge Thomas in person.

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Welsh budget ‘very much a draft’

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THE SENEDD’s Finance Committee’s report on the Welsh Government’s Draft Budget for 2021-22, voices serious concerns for public services, inequality and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Committee is clear that the need to address and alleviate poverty is more critical than ever, with the pandemic deepening the problems already faced by low-income and disadvantaged households.

HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE

The Finance Committee is worried about the impact of the pandemic on non-COVID care, due to sustained pressure on the NHS and its healthcare workers. The Finance Committee also believes the impact of the pandemic on mental health will be considerable over the next year and beyond.

The Health, Social Care and Sport Committee agrees that the public health emergency Wales is facing should not be underestimated, either in terms of responding to the immediate challenges of the pandemic, or the need to do what can be done to maintain the vital non-COVID services on which people rely.

The Committee believes the true scale of the implications for the health and wellbeing of people in Wales, may not become clear for years. The crisis has also exacerbated underlying issues, including the fragility of the social care sector, the ongoing health inequalities across Wales, and the need for a clear strategic vision to drive health and social care integration and service transformation.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND EDUCATION

The Finance Committee is concerned that increased funding in the local government settlement will not cover all cost pressures, such as social care, childcare, and education.

The Finance Committee is deeply concerned about the risks to children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those in early years, falling behind in their education as a result of the pandemic. The Finance Committee is calling for more information about how funding will support learners to ‘catch up’ while also delivering the current ways of learning.

ECONOMY, SKILLS & REGENERATION

The Finance Committee heard evidence that the Draft Budget does not provide a coherent approach to supporting businesses through the pandemic. While recognising that it may be sensible to allow some degree of flexibility, the Committee is concerned that the implementation of the business support packages has been “patchy” with smaller businesses finding it harder to access funds. This has been further complicated by the different approaches to business support from different Governments within the UK.

The Committee believes the Draft Budget could have been clearer in outlining the Welsh Government’s long-term approach to potential shifts in consumer behaviour towards online retailers and the effect on local economies. The Welsh Government should rethink previous policies on revitalising town centres in light of the pandemic.

CHALLENGES NEED LONG-TERM APPROACH

Llyr Gruffydd MS, Chair of the Finance Committee said: “This is the final Draft Budget of the Fifth Senedd. This year the pandemic has delayed UK fiscal events, resulting in delays to publication of the Welsh Government’s Draft Budget. This has reduced our time for scrutiny which is particularly concerning given that COVID-19 will have an impact on public spending for years to come.

“This Draft Budget is very much a draft. A lack of forward-funding figures with only a one- year revenue funding settlement, and the timing of the UK Government’s Budget set later for 3 March has made budget-setting even more challenging for the Welsh Government.

“Much of our work is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst welcoming the extra money for health and social services, the Committee is concerned about the long-term impacts on non-COVID care. We also have serious concerns over workforce capacity and mental health.

“Our businesses need support more than ever, with many being forced to close. For them to have a future after this pandemic, we support calls for the simplification and consolidation of the financial assistance schemes available.

“COVID-19 has brought many serious challenges and the financial impact on health, the economy and public services will be felt by society for years to come. While there is a need to respond to the immediate situation we are hopeful that there is an opportunity for longer-term planning to ensure that Wales can recover strongly.”

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Politics

UKIP politicians vow to overturn new smacking ban in Wales

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UKIP Wales has announced that it is committed to repealing the Welsh Government’s controversial ‘Smacking Ban’ ahead of the Senedd Elections, and that this will become part of its manifesto in Wales.

The ban on reasonable chastisement was introduced in January 2020 by Labour’s Deputy Minister for Social Services, Julie Morgan. The legislation removes the defence of “reasonable punishment” in cases of common assault.

UKIP Leader and Member of the Senedd for Mid & West Wales, Neil Hamilton, said: “Parents know what is best for their children, not politicians. Members of the Senedd need to get a foot in the real world, outside the Cardiff Bay Bubble and listen to the public.

“[The ban] received huge criticism when it was railroaded through the Senedd against public opinion. When consulted, up to 75% of parents in Wales opposed the restrictions that prohibited them from reasonably disciplining their children.

“The policy is practically impossible to enforce and is estimated to cost the taxpayer £8 million. It is another example of the Cardiff Bay politicians overextending themselves and forcing their own virtue-signalling morality on to the people of Wales.

“Senedd politicians from all parties have forgotten they are not the boss – the public are. As Members of the Senedd, their job is to represent their constituents not police how parents bring up their children.

“The Government must do everything possible to protect children from physical and psychological abuse. But this legislation has done, and will continue to do, nothing to stop cases of serious abuse. Instead, it penalises parents who take reasonable steps to discipline their children.

“In this year’s Senedd Elections, UKIP is standing up for parents to raise their children free from interference from an overarching, self-righteous political class in Cardiff.”

Pembrokeshire-based UKIP councillor Paul Dowson said: “In my opinion this is plain and simple common sense. It has cost the taxpayer 8 million pounds for a bill which is simply unenforceable.

“This over-woke labour Welsh government made up of out of touch ministers have no right to tell the public how to discipline their children.

“The latest generation have recently gone through the education system where there are no serious consequences for bad behaviour, the parents have been restricted regarding punishing bad behaviour, and the curriculum promotes 99 different genders along with a whole host of other WOKE topics above common sense and basic respect.
“Our future begins with our children and we need to be allowed to discipline our kids in a way which we see fit even if it does include a smack on the ass when required.

“The sooner we regain control of society the better.

“No better place to start than with bringing our children up properly instead of following the Drakeford formula. His own son is a prime example of poor parenting.”

Cllrs Dowson’s view is at odds with the NSPCC. The children’s protection charity said in a press release: “This is a remarkable achievement which closes an outdated loophole and finally gives children in Wales the same legal protection from assault as adults.”

Conservative AM Ms Finch-Saunders said: “With this bill the state is now stepping into the private lives of families”.

She added: “Through the involvement of the police and social services… this smacking ban this will potentially have far reaching consequences for us all.”

Julie Morgan, Deputy Social Services Minister, said it was a “historic day” after members passed the law with 36 votes for, 14 against.

Ms Morgan had campaigned for years for a ban and had broken the Labour whip over the issue when the Welsh Government did not support it, in 2015.

She said at a press conference after the vote: “This is not about the government telling parents how to raise their children or about criminalising loving parents,”

She added the government had listened to the “vocal minority” who opposed the move, but that removing the defence of reasonable punishment “is the right thing to do”.

“The children of Wales now have the same protection as adults in Wales have.”

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