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Politics

​​Budget agreement could be the last​

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Deal secures whole of budget: Mark Drakeford

THE WELSH GOVERNMENT and Plaid Cymru have agreed a ​two-year, £210m Budget agreement.

The deal includes ensuring no cuts to the Supporting People grant​,​ £15m to improve vital north and south links on the A487 and A470​,​ and a £40m boost for mental health funding over ​two years.

There is an extra £20m-a-year for higher and further education and £6m for a young farmers’ grant scheme over ​two years.

There is additional funding for the Welsh language; for Wales to deal with the impact of Brexit, including support for businesses and for music in schools. The agreement builds on the one struck between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru last year.

It also includes:

  • ​A £7m development fund for undergraduate medical training in North Wales
  • £2m to remove the tolls on the Cleddau bridge in Pembrokeshire in 2019-20
  • £3m to support the design and development of a third Menai bridge crossing
  • ​A further £2m for the secretariat and investment support for a new ‘Arfor’ economic region in west Wales

Welsh Government Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford said: “We are pleased we have been able to agree this ​two-year deal with Plaid Cymru, which secures the whole of our Budget.

“This agreement builds on the one reached between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru last year and includes a series of recurrent allocations for the Welsh language, arts, end-of-life-care, mental health, higher education and Visit Wales.

“We have also been able to agree capital funding to take forward the new integrated healthcare centre in Cardigan and the results of the feasibility studies into a national art gallery and football museum in North Wales, which were agreed as part of last year’s agreement.”

Adam Price, Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for finance, business and the economy, said: “This is a Budget Agreement that will deliver for people and communities in all parts of Wales.

“It protects the vulnerable, invests in our young, and innovates for all our futures. This is a pan-Wales budget agreement, from the Cleddau to the Menai from Wrexham to the Rhondda, from culture to agriculture, from energy and transport to education and health – new ideas for a new Wales.”

In an effort to deflect from the idea that Labour had made concessions to Plaid Cymru, and after the announcement of the Budget agreement, Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford said in a BBC Wales interview that there was nothing in the Budget that Labour would not have delivered and that Plaid’s support was a matter of Assembly arithmetic.

And if that appeared more than a tad graceless, the brittle nature of any accord was underlined when Adam Price pointed out that Plaid had not managed to obtain everything it had wanted, including an agreement on tuition fees and public sector pay, and commented: “This is Labour’s budget and it will have to answer to the people of Wales as to why it is failing to deliver on its manifesto commitments such as lifting the pay cap and stopping the rise in tuition fees.

“Plaid Cymru secured a deal that would deliver benefits to communities in every part of Wales. Our budget deal will mean investment in the things that matter to people, including employing 80 new district nurses, £40m for improving mental health services, an additional £40m for our universities and colleges, a Brexit Preparedness Fund for businesses, a young farmers’ entrant’s scheme and a major £3​m investment in a power station for our steel industry.

“But we are frustrated that the Labour government failed to implement important policy matters such as the pay cap and rising tuition fees, particularly as they were commitments made in Labour’s 2017 manifesto. Indeed, what is not included in this budget has made the void between Plaid Cymru and Labour more and more apparent and has made future co-operation between the parties more and more unlikely.

“We will be robustly scrutinising the details of this budget when they are announced, and we will hold the Labour government to account on the decisions it takes.”

The Conservative Party in Wales attacked the agreement.

Andrew RT Davies, said: “This budget deal is the latest charade in the Plaid-Labour love-affair and significantly sees both parties break a number of election promises to the people of Wales.

“Despite the well-publicised vows to the electorate only three months ago and being in government in Wales, the Labour Party has once again failed to take any action on public sector pay or tuition fees.”

All in all, the draft Budget seems to be a document with few close friends, even among those responsible for its content; while the Conservatives are yet to put forward any positive alternatives instead of criticising from the side-lines and carping at Plaid Cymru.

Margaret Thomas, UNISON Cymru Wales Secretary, said: “The Welsh Government is being creative in their budgeting in order to protect public services across Wales.

“UNISON welcomes the additional funding for the NHS in Wales, as well as the pledge to build more affordable homes.

“We are also pleased to hear plans around additional childcare. The majority of UNISON members are women, many work part-time, and we know women still fulfil most of the child care responsibilities in the home – so this will hopefully be of great benefit to them.

“We also recognise the Cabinet Secretary’s attempt to protect Welsh local government budgets and offer a more favourable settlement than in England.

“But the point must be made that this innovative budgeting will not protect our essential public services from further drastic UK government imposed cuts to the Welsh Government block grant, anticipated in their Autumn Statement.

“This budget comes at a time of unprecedented austerity. Public services should be properly invested in, and Wales deserves to be properly funded.​ ​The fact also remains that public sector workers across Wales, and the rest of the UK, have already suffered ​seven, long​,​ hard years of pay restraint.”

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Politics

Lib Dems slam ‘botched’ scheme

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THE WELSH Liberal Democrats have slammed the Conservative Government for their “hapless treatment” of EU citizens after the Home Office released guidance on the new EU Settlement Scheme.

The Home Office has confirmed that for the duration of the trial period, until 30 March, EU citizens applying to stay in the UK must either use an Android phone or travel to one of 13 ‘document scanning’ centres instead.

For Holyhead, the closest ‘document scanning’ centre is Trafford.

According to an analysis by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, EU citizens travelling from Holyhead would face costs of £55 on the train for at least a six and a half hour round trip. The drive would be a 224-mile round trip costing around £56 in fuel.

The only document scanning centre in Wales is in Caerphilly. Travelling from Pembroke to Caerphilly and returning the same day by rail would cost £32.10 (the cheapest available fare at the time of enquiry), the cheapest off-peak fare from Aberystwyth would be £77.10 return. By car at an average of 40mpg, the cost of travel would be at least £27 to and from Pembroke, while from Aberystwyth the cost would be at least £25. Both car journeys represent round trips of over 180 miles.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds said: “Too many people in Wales are deeply anxious about their right to stay. Many of them fill vital roles in the health service, our schools and the tourism sector. They want to register as soon as possible, but Theresa May’s hapless treatment of EU citizens could result in a new Windrush scandal.

“For anyone who doesn’t have an android phone, this botched scheme means they will have to travel. For people in Holyhead, that means facing a 224-mile round trip and paying over £50 for the privilege. This postcode lottery is simply unacceptable.”

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson Ed Davey MP said: “Following significant pressure, the Prime Minister said there will be no financial barrier for any EU nationals who wish to stay. How long did that commitment last?

“It is Conservative Ministers who have made a mess of Brexit. They should either pay the cost for EU citizens or change the application system and ensure EU citizens are made to feel welcome in the UK.

“Ultimately, the best way to avoid all of this mess is by giving the people the option to remain in the EU with a final say on Brexit.”

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Politics

Retailers’ no deal reality check

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THE HEADS of the UK’s major food retailers, including McDonald’s, M & S and Asda, have written to MPs and dramatically spelt out their view of the risks of leaving the EU without an agreement.

The warning comes shortly after the revelation that Britain has begun stockpiling food, fuel, spare parts and ammunition at military bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus and the Falklands in case of a no-deal Brexit.

With all contingency plans routinely labelled ‘Project Fear’ by those Brexiters stuck on transmit instead of receive, the retailers have taken a significant risk in sticking their collective head above the parapet by trying to address a substantial issue which is rather glossed by those proclaiming the benefits and underplaying the downside of a crash out Brexit.

The letter is backed by the British Retail Consortium, which represents over 70% of Britain’s retailers by turnover.

The Government said that it was taking special measures to minimise the impact of a no-deal Brexit on supermarkets’ suppliers and insisted that food was not going to run out as a result.

“The government has well-established ways of working with the food industry to prevent disruption and we are using these to support preparations for leaving the European Union.”

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents thousands of food processors and manufacturers, has said a no-deal Brexit would be a “catastrophe”, with uncertainty undermining investment and constraining businesses’ ability to plan and export.

DEAL OR NO DEAL: THE LETTER

On behalf of our businesses and the wider food industry, we want to highlight to you the challenges for retailers and the consequences for millions of UK consumers of leaving the European Union without a deal at the end of March. While we have been working closely with our suppliers on contingency plans it is not possible to mitigate all the risks to our supply chains and we fear significant disruption in the short term as a result if there is no Brexit deal. We wanted to share with you some practical examples of the challenges we are facing.

Our supply chains are closely linked to Europe – nearly one-third of the food we eat in the UK comes from the EU. In March the situation is more acute as UK produce is out of season: 90% of our lettuces, 80% of our tomatoes and 70% of our soft fruit are sourced from the EU at that time of year. As this produce is fresh and perishable, it needs to be moved quickly from farms to our stores.
This complex, ‘just in time’ supply chain will be significantly disrupted in the event of no deal. Even if the UK government does not undertake checks on products at the border, there will still be major disruption at Calais as the French government has said it will enforce sanitary and customs checks on exports from the EU, which will lead to long delays; Government data suggest freight trade between Calais and Dover may reduce by 87% against current levels as a result. For consumers, this will reduce the availability and shelf life of many products in our stores.

We are also extremely concerned about the impact of tariffs. Only around 10% of our food imports, a fraction of the products we sell, is currently subject to tariffs so if the UK were to revert to WTO Most Favoured Nation status, as currently envisaged in the no-deal scenario, it would greatly increase import costs, which could in turn put upward pressure on food prices. The UK could set import tariffs at zero but that would have a devastating impact on our own farmers, a key part of our supply chains.

Our ability to mitigate these risks is limited. As prudent businesses we are stockpiling where possible, but all frozen and chilled storage is already being used and there is very little general warehousing space available in the UK. Even if there were more space it is impossible to stockpile fresh produce, such as salad leaves and fresh fruit. Retailers typically store no more than two weeks’ inventory and it becomes difficult to restock stores if the supply chain is disrupted. We are also attempting to find alternative supply routes but there are limited options and not enough ferries, so this could only replace a fraction of the current capacity.

We are extremely concerned that our customers will be among the first to experience the realities of a no deal Brexit. We anticipate significant risks to maintaining the choice, quality and durability of food that our customers have come to expect in our stores, and there will be inevitable pressure on food prices from higher transport costs, currency devaluation and tariffs.

We are therefore asking you to work with your colleagues in Parliament urgently to find a solution that avoids the shock of a no deal Brexit on 29 March and removes these risks for UK consumers.

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Politics

WG votes down another rights Bill

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THE WELSH Government has voted down a second Private Members Bill in a week, leading to an angry reaction from the Welsh Conservative Party.

Welsh Conservative AM – Darren Millar – slammed the Welsh Governments ‘tribalism’ as a key contributor to its failings in Wales, and described its rigid approach to politics as ‘comparative of an authoritarian regime’.

Last week, The Herald reported on opposition AMs’ fury that the Welsh Government voted against Assembly Member Paul Davies’ private bill which aimed to ensure increased support for autistic people of all ages, by addressing issues such as health and social services, educational outcomes, access to housing, and employment and providing rights of statutory redress when services fail.

The Older People’s Rights Bill was proposed by Mr Millar, and designed to ensure that older people in Wales were protected, promoted and respected by public sector decision makers.

The Bill was backed by the Older People’s Commissioner, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Age Cymru, Age Connects, and the Cymru Older People’s Alliance, amongst others.

Proposals for Mr Millar’s Bill had previously received cross-party support, and the Welsh Government supported a motion which was agreed by the National Assembly for Wales on 12th January 2016 to bring forward legislation to protect and promote the rights of older people.

GOVERNMENT REJECTS STATUTORY RIGHTS

Notwithstanding the Welsh Government’s previous position, it once again waved the shroud of wanting to deal with issues in a holistic way without resorting to legislation ‘at this stage’.

Fear is growing that the Welsh Government is fearful of enacting legislation that confers rights to individuals, preferring instead to listen to service providers whose services might not withstand close scrutiny and a rights-based approach to ensuring compliance with standards.

Speaking in the Assembly, Darren Millar said: “The purpose of the Bill is to build on Wales’s excellent track record to date by embedding a rights-based approach in the development, planning and delivery of public services that affect older people in Wales.

“If given permission, I will seek to consult with stakeholders to develop a Bill that will further enshrine the rights of older people within Welsh law, by placing a duty on Welsh Ministers to have regard to the United Nations Principles for Older Persons when making decisions that may impact upon older people in Wales; that will provide for the ability to extend that due-regard duty to local authorities, health boards and other Welsh public authorities; that will place a duty on Welsh Ministers to promote knowledge of and understanding of the UN Principles for Older Persons; and that will require Welsh Ministers to publish annual reports on their compliance with their older people’s rights schemes—something that doesn’t happen at the moment.”

The proposed legislation was very similar to the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. A Bill which passed the Assembly with little controversy.

Mr Millar continued: “We embarked upon this journey a number of years ago and we can deliver and pioneer a new rights-based approach for older people’s rights here in Wales. We’ve got an opportunity to develop legislation that will result in practical improvements in the decision making and delivery of public services, that will raise awareness of older people’s rights and give them recognition and status, and that will empower those hundreds of thousands of older people across Wales to access those rights.”

THE TIME IS NOT RIGHT

Responding on behalf of the Welsh Government, Minister for Local Government Julie James suggested that older persons’ rights are already sufficiently protected by a range of Welsh Government measures, including its totemic Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

In any event, the Welsh Government did not regard the time had yet come for legislation – rather ignoring the point that the current First Minister supported such legislation when he was Health Minister.

Ms James concluded: “While I strongly support the sentiments behind this Bill, the time is not right for this particular bit of legislation. When we do legislate, we should do that holistically for the whole of society and in a way that identifies the needs of all disadvantaged groups.”

Supporting Darren Millar’s bill and suggesting that it should progress to the next stage so elements of it could be incorporated into future Welsh Government legislation, Plaid Cymru’s Helen Mary Jones pointed out: “Unless individuals have mechanisms they can use which don’t depend on the Government and that do not depend on an independent commissioner, but that they can use themselves to enforce those rights, those rights at their very end may not be enforced.”

David Rowlands (UKIP) said: “It is incumbent on statutory authorities to ensure that the core mainstream services are available to older residents in the same way that they are for other people… If children are protected in law, why not the other most vulnerable group, the old?”

THE PAYROLL VOTE VOTES

Concluding the debate, Darren Millar noted that an invitation extended to both himself and the older people’s commissioner to meet with the Government on February 6 to discuss its ‘holistic’ plans for the future was made only the day before the scheduled debate.

As usual, Labour AMs, including ‘independent’ government minister Dafydd Elis Thomas and Lib Dem Kirsty Williams, followed the government line. Two members abstained, Bethan Sayed and Jenny Rathbone. Apart from Ms Sayed, all other opposition parties supported the Bill.

It fell by 27 votes to 21.

Speaking after the vote, Darren Millar said: “This is not the way politics should be handled in this country, and it’s not the footing that the First Minister should start on with his new Government. It’s a tribal attitude and it is holding Wales back.

“The Welsh Government does not have a monopoly on good ideas. Both this Bill – and last week’s Autism Bill – are non-contentious proposals which had widespread cross-party and stakeholder support.

“We are supposed to be a democracy where the ideas of all elected representatives, regardless of their party politics, can be treated with respect, but in Wales, under this regime, that clearly isn’t the case.”

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