A NEW report by a think tank has assessed the potential of a public development bank for Wales to boost lending to firms and promote economic development locally.
The report by the Public Policy Institute for Wales describes evidence that ‘bank branch closures are having a negative impact on individuals and businesses in Wales, but more specific research is need to ascertain what impact bank branch closures is having on individuals and communities. Finding out the extent to which vulnerable areas are affected by bank branch closures can also help identify which specific services can be provided in the future.’
The report states: “However, even the most extensive public banking model, opening community banks would not be able to replace the branches that have been closed in Wales in recent years.”
On ways to protect banking services it comments: “A public development bank is potentially useful option, but not a guaranteed solution.”
Plaid Cymru Mid and West AM Simon Thomas said: “We need action from Governments in Westminster and Wales on bank branch closures.
“It is unacceptable that the bank network is being stripped from rural Wales. We cannot have a gap in the banking services available to rural and urban Wales.
“Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts has called for a change in the law to protect the last bank in town. We are now seeing often in our communities from Llandysul to Llanidloes towns left without a bank.
“While bank branches are expensive to maintain and are used by fewer people in the past they are still an important resource. The report highlights research by the Federation of Small Businesses that bank branch closures affect small businesses in rural communities, as they are more likely to require cash purchases than in urban areas.
“High street banks have a duty to consult effectively with the local community over closures. While banks are private companies making commercial decisions, in effect access to banking is essential for modern life and participating in democracy.”
“The Labour Government in Cardiff Bay should be looking at how other financial institutions like Finance Wales and credit unions have a role to play. Other ways to protect banking services for small businesses and individual customers like developing the services provided by the Post Office will be hampered by the closure programme of successive Westminster governments of different political colours.”
The report identifies problems with lending to small and medium sized businesses, automation has made banks more geographically and operationally distant from small businesses.
Bank closures contribute to this problem according to the Federation of Small Businesses.
Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, said: “The rapid pace of bank branch closures across the UK presents some very real and tough challenges for small businesses. FSB members highly value the face-to-face interaction they receive in-branch, particularly when making complex financial transactions, with staff who often have a greater understanding of their business and the local economy. In addition, many of our members deal heavily in cash and cheques and need access to over-the-counter banking facilities on a regular basis.
“Small businesses are keen to embrace the opportunities of the digital economy. However, barriers towards digital inclusion, such as unreliable broadband connectivity, and a lack of confidence in using digital services creates serious challenges. These are some of the reasons which explain why the protection of in-branch banking is so important for financial inclusion.”
Large banks were three times more likely to shut a branch in Wales than in London and the south east of England, and five of the top ten areas affected by the 600 branch closures in Britain in 2015-2016 were in Wales – Powys, Denbighshire, Gwynedd, Conwy, and Carmarthenshire.
The FUW is particularly concerned as internet banking is not always an option in rural areas; many people will not have an appropriate internet connection- if they have a connection at all, and especially the elderly may not be familiar with IT and the process of doing their banking online.
Speaking earlier this summer, FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “The closure of rural banks has a detrimental effect on rural areas, as they serve not only villages and small towns but many of the neighbourhoods in surrounding areas, as well as providing employment to local people.
“Closures are a great loss to residents and local businesses, particularly the elderly or residents who are unable to travel to the nearest town. The closures will of course also affect small businesses, as they will have to travel further afield for their banking needs.
“In addition, internet banking is not always an option in rural areas; many people will not have an appropriate internet connection if they have a connection at all, and especially the elderly may not be familiar with IT and the process of doing their banking online.
“For many telephone banking is impractical, as they prefer to deal with their personal finances on a one-to-one basis and mobile banking is limited in many rural areas. It is worth considering as well that some people may not be able to get to mobile banks during the short time they are present in villages.
“With more and more rural services and businesses being closed down, we must also acknowledge that it is becoming less and less attractive for young families and indeed business owners to remain in the countryside.
“If the problem of rural depopulation is not addressed with some urgency it could have severe consequences for our rural communities and with that also our rural economy.
“It is clear that if we want to ensure that Wales develops its full potential in being a rural economic powerhouse, we must make it attractive for working families to stay and also encourage vital services like business banking to remain available in our countryside.
“The provision of acceptable broadband services is an increasingly critical part of meeting the needs of rural Wales.”
A report from the British Infrastructure Group found nearly a quarter of Welsh constituencies appear in the worst 20 constituencies in the whole of the UK for broadband speed.
Conservative Assembly Leader Quits
ANDREW RT DAVIES has stood down as leader of the Welsh Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly.
Mr Davies made his announcement following a meeting of the Conservative Assembly group on Wednesday morning (June 27).
ANDREW RT DAVIES’ STATEMENT
“It is with deep regret that I announce that I have today tendered my resignation as leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly. This was done in a letter to our Group Chairman following a meeting this morning of all group members.
“It has been a huge privilege to serve in this position since 2011, after securing the mandate of the party in a ballot of the membership. It is my firm belief that any Leader of the Assembly Group should secure the same mandate in a full ballot of the grassroots, and I hope that my successor will emerge in that manner.
“I would like to thank the Group for their support throughout my leadership, and in particular to express my gratitude to the many dedicated and professional staff I have had the privilege to work with – and for.
“I look forward to supporting whoever emerges from the contest to replace me, and I will continue to place all of my efforts into advancing the Welsh Conservative cause both here in Wales and Westminster.
“As a party we would achieve nothing without the hard work and dedication of our grassroots and I would like to thank them all for the support they have given me in Wales. Nothing could make me prouder than to have enjoyed their backing throughout this journey.
“I would like to thank the Prime Minister for her support and I wish her the very best in delivering for the country and the Conservative Party moving forward.
“And finally, thanks to my family, particularly my wife Julia who has supported me each and every step of the way.”
ANOTHER LEADERSHIP CONTEST
Although the Conservatives are the second largest party group in the Senedd, they have failed to make progress at the ballot box under Andrew RT Davies leadership, losing ground at Westminster in 2017 and failing to capitalise on a collapse in Labour’s share of the vote in the Assembly elections in 2016. It is noteworthy that he only rose to leadership of the Assembly group when good results achieved under his predecessor, Nick Bourne, meant that Mr (now Lord) Bourne lost his regional seat in the 2011 elections.
Mr Davies’ departure means that there is likely to be a contest for the leadership of each of the main Assembly parties over the coming months. Carwyn Jones is due to step down in the autumn, while Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood faces a potential challenge from Adam Price and/or Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Paul Davies, the Preseli Pembrokeshire AM, will be interim leader of the Assembly group and is a likely candidate for the permanent job. The narrowness of the field, previous contender Nick Ramsay has ruled himself out of the running, suggests few challengers to Paul Davies in the event he wants the job.
In a parting shot, the departing leader made it clear that he wanted a grassroots election and not a coronation by the Assembly Group.
Although Andrew RT Davies had repeatedly indicated a willingness to work with other parties to oust Labour from Government, there were no takers among other Assembly parties. In a speech at Ffos Las in May, he offered to stand aside if another candidate came forward who could unite the Assembly’s opposition parties against Labour.
CLASHES WITH WESTMINSTER
Mr Davies’ willingness to embrace Mark Reckless’ return to the Conservative fold as a member of the Assembly group caused friction both between him and both the Westminster Conservatives and his Assembly colleagues. Party activists were also unimpressed, bearing in mind Mr Reckless’ resignation as a Conservative MP in 2014 – which was carefully timed to cause maximum embarrassment to then-Tory leader David Cameron.
Shortly after his leader’s resignation, Mark Reckless tweeted that Mr Davies had been ‘pushed out’ by remainers in the Conservative Assembly group.
Andrew RT Davies had also recently been heavily criticised, both in public and in private about his statement that Airbus’ warning on its Welsh operations were ‘scaremongering’. And while his remarks might have been otherwise unremarkable, the fervid and foetid atmosphere in the Conservative party over the Brexit issue meant they struck precisely the wrong note with AMs trying to ensure that the Conservatives in Wales are seen as responsive to the needs of Welsh businesses over the shape of any eventual Brexit deal.
Mr Davies’ spiky relationship with Westminster Conservatives was also thrown into sharp relief by a very public slap down delivered by Guto Bebb, Minister of Defence Procurement following comments regarding Airbus.
Mr Bebb pointedly said that Mr Davies was not the leader of the Conservatives in Wales and called for him to retract his ‘inflammatory comments, continuing: “Shooting the messenger is an unworthy position for a politician to take not least when that politician aspires to lead a government in Wales.”
A row between Mr Davies and Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns led to neither appearing in a televised debate during last year’s General Election, with Darren Millar AM appearing instead.
Although Mr Davies has been constant and consistent in his support for the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, he was left high and dry by his Westminster colleagues’ decision on the issue. The failure of the UK Government to support the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project ate into Mr Davies’ political capital as capable of exercising even minimal influence over the way the UK Government treats Wales.
That problem was compounded by the increasing sense among the Welsh public that the UK Government has placed the demands of a dozen DUP MPs in Westminster over the interests of Wales.
TRIBUTES LED BY FIRST MINISTER
On Wednesday there was the usual round of warm tributes from Mr Davies’ political opponents.
Outgoing First Minister Carwyn Jones said: “Despite our obvious political differences, I always found Andrew to be good company, and he never broke the confidences I shared with him as Leader of the Opposition. That is the sign of a decent and honest politician.
“Andrew has made his mark in Welsh politics and his jovial and larger than life personality has always been a breath of fresh air during Assembly proceedings. I wish him well in the future.”
The Welsh Liberal Democrats thanked Andrew RT Davies for his contribution to Welsh politics and wished him the best for the future.
Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds commented: “I’d like to thank Andrew RT Davies for the contribution to Welsh politics he’s made as Leader of the Welsh Conservatives since 2011. I wish Andrew the best as he returns to the backbenches and hope he enjoys having a little more time to spend with family and friends.
“Whilst we disagree on many issues like Brexit, any leader who puts their time and energy into trying to make Wales a better place deserves respect. I’m sure Andrew will now put all that time and energy into representing his constituents.”
UKIP’s Neil Hamilton mourned the loss of a fellow staunch Brexiteer: “I am sorry that Andrew RT Davies resigned this morning as Leader of the Welsh Conservatives. Andrew is a combative Brexiteer in a Tory group which is dominated by Remainers.”
Mr Hamilton then turned his attention to the fate of employees of the Conservative group in the Assembly, whose futures he called into question: “Andrew RT is not the only one out of a job. According to the Assembly Commission, the Tory group staff are all now out of a job too, as their contracts automatically end without notice when a group leader resigns.
“This was the Commission’s argument before the Employment Tribunal last week to justify Caroline Jones’ sudden dismissal of UKIP’s former Chief of Staff, Robin Hunter-Clarke, after she became UKIP Group Leader. They argued in court that the contracts were personal to the group leader in whose name the contracts were signed.
“I challenge the Assembly Commission to justify publicly their disgraceful policy of deliberately depriving political group staff of their job security and employment protection rights.”
Llywydd Elin Jones, said: “We come from different political traditions, but you have served your party with energy and integrity. I now look forward to a lively contribution from the backbenches!”
Impartiality of civil service questioned
THE CONTINUING wrangle over an inquiry into the circumstances which led to the death of former AM Carl Sargeant has intensified this week after a suggestion that evidence to the QC-led inquiry was being ‘filtered’ by Welsh Government civil servants.
In the meantime, the Coroner’s Inquest into Mr Sargeant’s death opened in a way which raised a series of questions about the tactics adopted by the legal team representing First Minister Carwyn Jones and threw doubt on Mr Jones’ public statements about his knowledge of his late Cabinet colleague’s mental health.
Conservatives in the Assembly pounced on a leaked Welsh Government email which showed the Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government, Dame Shan Morgan, telling Welsh Government staff to share evidence for the Carl Sargeant inquiry with senior civil servants first. Paul Bowen QC is investigating Carwyn Jones’s handling of the sacking of the Alyn and Deeside AM from his cabinet and in an email to Welsh Government staff entitled “support to staff”, the Permanent Secretary, Dame Shan Morgan, asks “those who believe they have evidence relevant to the investigation should bring this to the attention of David Richards, Director of Governance; Peter Kennedy, HR Director; or my office”.
Only a subsequent ‘clarification’ after the email’s leak suggested that employees could give their evidence direct to the Independent Inquiry Team without it being looked over by their senior managers.
Questioning the Permanent Secretary’s latest involvement, Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies said: “This once again raises serious concerns over the conduct of the Welsh Government and calls into question the independence of this whole process.
“If the inquiry is to be fully independent then all potential evidence should be handed over to the QC leading the investigation, not pre-vetted by the Permanent Secretary or her minions.
“This latest communication shines a light into the dark tactics being deployed by certain individuals in the Welsh Government to influence and control the upcoming inquiry, and that is simply unacceptable.
“Carl Sargeant lost his life in incredibly tragic circumstances, and there is a responsibility on everyone involved to ensure this process is fully independent and transparent so that the family can find the answers they need to find peace with what has happened.
“The Welsh Government must apologise and immediately withdraw this instruction so people can provide evidence to the inquiry free from bully-boy tactics and intimidation.”
A spokesperson for the permanent secretary said: “We have been clear that as a civil service we will fully co-operate with the work of the IQCI [independent QC investigation], and any evidence held by staff on Welsh Government systems will be collated and transferred to the investigation in its entirety and without redaction.”
A request by The Herald for an explanation as to WHY the Permanent Secretary issued the email remains unanswered and the prospect of Wales’ leading civil servant acting ‘on behalf of the Welsh Government’ raises a substantial question about whether the right distance is being maintained between the sectional interests of the party in government and the national role of the Welsh Government as an institution.
A Plaid Cymru spokesperson responded: “This email raises serious questions about the internal processes of the Welsh Government and risks jeopardising the independence of the inquiry.
“It is vital that this inquiry remains independent, transparent and fair.
“Plaid Cymru will be urgently raising questions about this matter with the Welsh Government.”
Dame Shan Morgan has also come under significant pressure following her decision to deny lawyers acting for the Sargeant family the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry.
The family of Carl Sargeant has threatened legal action after claims they had been excluded from a probe into the late minister’s sacking by Carwyn Jones.
A solicitor acting for the family, Neil Hudgell, said: “The grieving Sargeant family are losing patience and faith in the inquiry and are hurt and upset that everything they have asked for has been ignored.
“Mr Bowen can only go as far as the permanent secretary will allow and we currently have an inquiry process where there will be no effective involvement from the family. How can that be fair?”
A spokesman for the Welsh Government said: “The protocol (agreed between the Welsh Government and the Inquiry) sets out the basis on which the investigation will be conducted and enables the family and any other participant to put forward questions they wish to be asked by the investigator.”
A spokesperson for the independent investigator said: “Mr Bowen QC confirms that the independent QC Investigation will continue to run under the published Operational Protocol while this is resolved.
“Mr Bowen QC is committed to conducting a thorough and independent investigation,” the spokesperson added.
Meanwhile at the inquest into Carl Sargeant’s death, a QC representing Carwyn Jones has claimed that other women have come forward with allegations of inappropriate behaviour against the late Alyn and Deeside AM.
Those allegations, as those supposedly made before Mr Jones sacked Mr Sargeant, all have the inestimable benefit of not being subject to challenge or proper investigation. Moreover, taking the First Minister’s lawyers claims at face value leads to a substantial question of how – if the allegations have substance – Carwyn Jones remained unaware of any issue with his close friend and former colleague’s supposed conduct.
Moreover, the attempt to publicly smear Mr Sargeant, who –as before his death – has no opportunity to defend himself is, Coroner John Griffiths observed unlikely to be relevant to the Inquest process, which raises the obvious question of why it was raised at all by the First Minister acting through his lawyers.
As it is, Mr Jones’ claims to have been a close friend of Mr Sargeant, those were thrown into even deeper question by the QC acting for the Sargeant family.
Leslie Thomas QC told the inquest that the first minister must have been fully aware of Mr Sargeant’s personal issues when he sacked him, as they had been friends for 16 years.
In a statement the first minister and Welsh Labour leader said he had not been aware of any mental health illness or vulnerabilities at the time.
Carwyn Jones is due to give evidence to the inquest, an event that should provide some insight into his ability to reconcile his public and personal pronouncements with information set to be laid before the Coroner.
A request for information as to who is paying for Mr Jones’ representation at the Inquest was unanswered.
Tory NHS funding pledge ‘a stunt’
THE ANNOUNCEMENT by the UK Government that it is to release funding for the NHS, claimed hilariously as a ‘Brexit Windfall’, will result in funding being cut in other spending departments and is – as yet – wholly unfunded.
The 3.4% rise is funding over each of the next four years from 2019 is less than the 3.7% average annual rise the NHS budget has received since 1948 and is likely to come with significant strings attached before any of the claimed increase reaches frontline services.
In addition, a disingenuous claim by the UK Government that £1.2bn of the new funding is set aside for NHS services in Wales is nonsense as the UK Government cannot hypothecate money out of the financial settlement it provides to the Welsh Government to fulfil its own UK-wide party-political objectives.
Indeed, the pressing social care disaster in England will not even be addressed by the increased spending, leading to criticism that the announced notional ‘increase’ will do little more than entrench continuing failure in that field.
The Welsh Conservatives have not hesitated to jump all over the opportunistic announcement, made in a speech by Theresa May to healthcare leaders in London, usefully made to coincide with the UK Government’s ongoing humiliation over Brexit, and which has not even been subject to parliamentary scrutiny or approval.
Details of the funding have not even been released to the Welsh Government which Theresa May is seeking to bind to a spending commitment which might never happen.
Angela Burns AM, said: “This is a hugely welcome announcement by the Prime Minister, one which will help secure the future of our most treasured public service for generations to come.
“Conservatives in Government have increased the NHS budget every year, whilst Labour in Wales remain the only party across the UK to have cut an NHS budget, which has put the Welsh NHS under ever-increasing pressure.
“This long-term funding boost must now be invested wisely by the Labour Government in Wales – ensuring the challenges in health and social care can be planned for with confidence, clarity and competence.”
However, the Conservatives’ claims have been dismissed as a ‘stunt’ by Assembly Member Eluned Morgan.
Ms Morgan has pointed out that independent experts – including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Channel 4’s FactCheck – called out the so-called ‘Brexit Dividend’ funding commitment which will ultimately have to be paid through higher taxes as any savings from leaving the EU will have to meet our ‘divorce bill’ and other costs.
Eluned Morgan AM said: “In reality, Theresa May has announced that we’ll all be paying more to fund our NHS through increased taxes and additional borrowing. There is no Brexit dividend, just a Tory spin machine on overdrive attempting to hide the divisions in her own party. The Institute of Fiscal Studies have been brutal in their assessment of this announcement, it is a shame that the Prime Minister and her colleagues in the Assembly haven’t been clear with the public about the detail.
“Any extra spending in England will mean more money for Wales, but when you put the £1.2billion into context, this announcement only goes to replace what Wales has lost over the last 8 years of crippling Tory austerity. Pembrokeshire, like every other county in Wales has seen the impact of Tory austerity resulting in job losses, public services under pressure and increasing poverty for those in and out of work. I know the people of Pembrokeshire will see through this cheap stunt for what it is.”
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We welcome the UK Government’s belated decision to mitigate their austerity policies on our NHS, which we have long been calling for.
“While we welcome any additional funding, we await details of what that additional funding for Wales will be. However, it cannot be forgotten that had the Welsh Budget seen real terms growth between 2010-11 and 2019-20, the budget would be some £4bn higher than it is today.
“Decisions on the allocation of additional funding will be made by the Welsh cabinet in the usual way.”
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