PARLIAMENTARY questions last Thursday (Oct 26) were not easy for Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis.
Nailed to the spot about pronouncements he had made to a committee of MPs the previous day which had rapidly been contradicted by the Prime Minister, he managed to combine apparent certainty that there was no tension between his position and government policy (whatever that turns out to be) with an unwillingness to acknowledge that anyone could conceivably be concerned about Parliamentary sovereignty being bypassed by the refusal to give it a vote on Brexit’s terms.
For those who backed Brexit on the principle that parliamentary sovereignty and the ability of the House of Commons to make and scrutinise legislation was of paramount importance, it was uncomfortable listening.
Bluster and bloody-mindedness, it is rapidly turning out, are no substitute for the ability to master a brief, understand it, express it, and stick to it.
In fact, the position was rendered even worse by statements made by the Ministers of State in Mr Davis’ own department the previous day that they had not even bothered to read, let alone understand, briefing papers prepared for them by their own civil servants on the potential impact of leaving the EU. You might suppose that ignorance is bliss and, if it is, the Minister wished to share its blessings widely by refusing others the opportunity to examine that of which they remain willfully – and, no doubt ecstatically, ignorant.
After being offered sympathy by Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Sir Kier Starmer for the difficulties in which he found himself, Mr Davis was successively hit by a series of exasperated questions – some from his own colleagues – to which he offered increasingly snappy and impatient answers.
Plaid Cymru’s Jonathan Edwards, who has the misfortune of seeming to be more familiar with Mr Davis’ brief than Mr Davis does himself and doomed to try to educate pork as a result, attempted to get a straight answer on whether or not the UK Government would seek endorsements for the Brexit deal – if any – from devolved administrations.
Jonathan Edwards reminded MPs that national and regional Parliaments within EU member states will all be consulted on the final withdrawal deal and that six months have been allocated for that process.
Mr Edwards asked Brexit Secretary David Davis that ‘in order to ensure that the future relationship works for every part of the British state’ did he agree that ‘the formal endorsement of the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly should be sought before any final deal is reached—or is it going to be a case of “Westminster knows best”?’
In response, Mr Davis again failed to guarantee Wales a voice in the deal, stating ‘this is a treaty for the United Kingdom’.
Bearing in mind the continued absence of any commitment to discuss with ministers within the devolved administration on any substantive points, it seems that the UK Government is increasingly determined to go its own way and drag the other nations of the UK along behind it.
Speaking after Mr Davis’ shambolic and ill-tempered performance, Jonathan Edwards said: “As I and my Plaid Cymru colleagues have said before: the British Government is using the Brexit process as a means of re-centralising power in Westminster, rolling back the progress we have made towards self-government in order to reinstate Westminster-rule.
“In his answer to me this week the Brexit Secretary once again fails to guarantee our democratically elected representatives in the Welsh Parliament a formal role in influencing the deal with the European Union. This is particularly concerning when we consider the profound economic differences between Wales and England.
“The position of the British Government is even more insulting when we consider that devolved governments within the other EU member states will have an opportunity to influence and effectively veto the deal. The British government needs to say why it refuses to afford the same right to the devolved governments here.”
However, on Monday (Oct 30) the UK Government made an effort to – at least partly – assuage those concerns.
First Minister Carwyn Jones met with Theresa May in Downing Street in an attempt to at least break down the conflict between the Senedd and Westminster on how a way forward might be found in relation to what Mr Jones had previously described as ‘a constitutional crisis’.
Speaking to BBC Wales after the meeting, Mr Jones said: “Progress is now being made in making sure there is agreement as to the way forward, not imposition. But that progress needs to continue. We’re not in a position yet to support the bill.
“The bill needs to change so the warm words that we hear are reflected on the face of the bill, and that means making sure that powers meant to come to Wales do come to Wales.”
Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns said: “I’m optimistic that the Welsh government will be able to respond to the new powers that they’ll get, but also that we’ll have a common framework around the UK that will work for business and for stakeholders and for investors.”
A No 10 spokesperson said Mrs May and Mr Jones ‘spoke about constructive dialogue at the recent Joint Ministerial Committee and the progress made on working together to establish principles on common frameworks’.
Carwyn talks Brexit in Dublin
WALES and Ireland need to work together to overcome post-Brexit trade challenges – that was the message from First Minister Carwyn Jones when he met with the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in Dublin on Monday, February 12.
The First Minister said the creation of a ‘hard’ maritime border between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, because of the UK government’s insistence on leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, would be a very real threat to the Welsh and Irish economies.
Ports make a huge contribution to the Welsh economy, supporting around 11,000 jobs and providing an economic hub and trade gateway with Europe and the rest of the world.
80% of goods carried in Irish registered HGVs between the Republic of Ireland and Europe pass through Welsh ports. In 2016, 524,000 lorries passed through major Welsh ports to and from the Irish Republic.
The First Minister recently launched the Welsh Government’s post-Brexit trade paper, which set out the challenges facing Welsh ports. It identified the most pressing issue for Welsh ports is maintaining the efficient movement of goods and people via seamless customs arrangements.
The First Minister said: “Changes to customs rules that add cost, time and regulation at Welsh ports would greatly reduce their efficiency and might encourage goods to be diverted away from the sea routes between Wales and Ireland. This would be hugely damaging to our economy.
“The Welsh Government is fully committed to playing its part in supporting the Good Friday Agreement, but I cannot support any outcome which would divert traffic away from Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock in favour of other parts of the UK.
“There must be a level playing field between Britain and Ireland. I don’t want to see a hard border on the island of Ireland but neither do I want to see customs posts at Welsh ports.
“That is why the best option is for the whole UK to have continued participation in the Single Market and membership of a customs union. This removes this problem entirely. It is also in the best interests of the Welsh and the Irish economies and, indeed, the economies of the whole of the UK. And, as we have been clear, leaving the EU must not affect the arrangements for the Common Travel Area.
“I have looked forward to meeting with the Taoiseach to discuss this issue, as well as the importance of maintaining close links between Wales and Ireland as the UK prepares to leave the EU.”
Ireland holds a key position in terms of Welsh inward investment, with over 50 Irish-owned companies in Wales employing 2,500 people. Ireland is also a top Welsh export destination with Welsh exports to Ireland worth £902m in 2016.
While in Dublin, the First Minister attended a round table on Infrastructure and Brexit chaired by the British Irish Chamber of Commerce and hosted by Trinity College Dublin Business School, visited Irish Ferries and met with British Ambassador, HE Robin Barnet CMG and British Irish Parliamentary Association Members.
Consultation opens on Welsh Parliament’s future
PEOPLE across Wales are being encouraged to respond to new proposals to reshape Welsh democracy published by the Assembly Commission.
The consultation has been drawn up in anticipation of new powers given to the Assembly in the Wales Act 2017.
The Act gives the Assembly the power to make decisions in relation to the institution’s size and how Members are elected.
Last week, the Assembly voted in favour of the Commission’s decision to consult on the recommendations of the Expert Panel’s report on Assembly Electoral Reform, ‘A Parliament that Works for Wales’.
Speaking in the debate, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire AM Angela Burns emphasised the importance of effective scrutiny of government business and the need for more Assembly members to discharge that duty.
She also said that it was important to ensure that the Assembly listened to the people of Wales: “The call to review the tools we have at our disposal, is of great, great importance now. But it’s a difficult one to explain to people, and we’ve got to make very, very clear that the people of Wales understand that, and then, once they’ve made their decision, we must absolutely listen to it and abide by it, because, after all, this is nothing if not their Parliament.”
Anticipating the criticism that more AMs meant ‘more politicians’, Simon Thomas, Plaid’s Mid and West AM, observed: “I would like to describe it as more politicians but less power for the Government, because the Government that has to face a more powerful Parliament is a Government that can be more accountable—that has to be more accountable—to the people of Wales. We are also losing politicians in Wales. We’ll be losing Members of the European Parliament, and we’re talking about losing Members of Parliament at Westminster through parliamentary reform.”
Simon Thomas continued: “It’s important to Plaid Cymru that we strike the right balance between local accountability and the fact that votes across Wales should be reflected as much as possible in this place in the way that people vote.”
That enthusiasm for increased proportionality was more muted in the response of Vikki Howells who, while welcoming the recommendation for greater equality of the genders in the Senedd’s make-up, remarked: “The Labour group has had an initial discussion on other areas of the report, and we will continue these. We will also feed into the consultation that our party has committed to during 2018 before reporting to our conference in 2019.”
The Labour Party is, not unreasonably from its point of view, determined not to have any dilution of its grip on power undermined by a more proportional system of voting.
Gareth Bennett for UKIP suggested that any change to the numbers of Assembly Members should not proceed without the benefit of a referendum, suggesting that: “It would be unwise to proceed, particularly with the expansion of the Assembly, without securing that popular consent by means of a referendum.”
Mr Bennett also rejected any idea of gender quotas and votes for 16 and 17 year-olds.
Elin Jones AM, Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales said: “I welcome the unanimous support of the Assembly this afternoon, which enables the Commission to consult on a series of possible reforms to the electoral system, capacity and organisation of the Assembly. I would like to thank my fellow Members for the positive nature of our discussion on a series of complex and challenging issues.
“The powers that will be transferred from Westminster to the Assembly by the Wales Act 2017 will enable us to make our own arrangements for elections and the legislature for the first time. Now, we will start a conversation with the people of Wales about their hopes and ambitions for their Parliament.
“I heard a strong message from Members about the importance of explaining the plans thoroughly and clearly to the people of Wales, and about the importance of creating a Parliament which reflects the communities we represent, including the voices of young people and women. Our consultation reflects these priorities.”
Following a detailed analysis of evidence, the Panel recommended that the Assembly needs between 20 and 30 additional Member selected through a more proportional electoral system with diversity at its heart. It also recommended lowering the minimum voting age for National Assembly elections to include sixteen and seventeen year olds.
The consultation on the recommendations will run from 12 February for an eight week period ending on 6 April.
In addition to the recommendations made by the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform the consultation also includes other potential changes to who can vote in Assembly elections and who can be an Assembly Member, as well as changes to the law relating to electoral administration and the Assembly’s internal arrangements.
The Commission has already consulted on changing the Assembly’s name, and as a result of that consultation the name will be changed to Welsh Parliament.
The Llywydd, Elin Jones AM said: “The Wales Act 2017 marks the start of a new phase of devolution in Wales, giving us the opportunity to make profound changes to our legislature. We now have the opportunity to forge the national parliament that the people of Wales deserve to champion their interests.
“This consultation is the beginning of a conversation with the people and communities of Wales about the institution that they want their Welsh Parliament to be. I look forward to hearing their views.”
Jacob’s dream’s crackers
WAS it just his imagination running away with him? Was there a ball of confusion instead of clarity? Whatever it was, Jacob Rees Mogg succumbed to the temptations of the television cameras in the House of Commons and gave an insight into the thought processes in the Brexiteers’ psychedelic shack.
In what was a clearly planted question intended to elicit a scripted response from a government minister, Mr Rees Mogg – leader in waiting, evangelist of the Brexit-ultras, and all-round cult – asked his fellow Brexit enthusiast Steve Baker, a minister in the Department for Exiting the EU, to confirm that a Europe expert had told him Treasury officials ’had deliberately developed a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union were bad, and that officials intended to use this to influence policy’.
Mr Baker enthusiastically confirmed his fellow-believer’s contention.
The Minister said he was sorry to say the account of the conversation was ’essentially correct’.
There are two issues in tandem here: the first is that a minister of the Crown should not impugn the impartiality of civil servants upon whose advice he depends, for the very good reason they are no free to answer back in public.
The second is more fundamental. Mr Rees Mogg’s account was not ‘essentially correct’. It was a total fabrication.
The expert was, it transpired, a very senior expert in Europe indeed, Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform and an expert on EU negotiations. And the conversation referred to was one between Charles Grant and Mr Baker which others witnessed.
An audio recording of the conversation was released which totally refuted Mr Baker’s response and undermined the credibility of Mr Rees Mogg’s suggestion of Civil Service bias. As he was not a party to the conversation between the minister and Mr Grant, the interpretation upon which Mr Rees Mogg’s relied to frame his question could only have been fed to him by someone who was.
That person could not have been Mr Baker, of course, who stood before the despatch box the following day and sort of apologised for being caught out misleading the House. He would not, of course, have done so intentionally and, of course, nor would Jacob Rees Mogg.
Mr Rees Mogg is not required to apologise. Which is just as well. In the days of yore, after which Mr Rees Mogg hankers (he has been described as the MP for the 18th Century), he would have been left in a room with a glass of scotch and a revolver and expected to do the decent thing. Instead, in the teeth of being caught out as party to what was – putting it exceedingly generously – an error of memory and what could be – putting it more contentiously – an outright lie, Jacob Rees Mogg did the gentlemanly thing.
He doubled down and repeated the slur.
He claimed: “With the referendum and with the EU, the Treasury has gone back to making forecasts. It was politically advantageous in the past. It is the same for them now. I do think they are fiddling the figures.”
In an atmosphere when words such as ‘treason’ and ‘treachery’ are common currency, the power of words cannot be underestimated. When it comes to Mr Rees-Mogg’s affectation of being an old-fashioned gentleman, one very old-fashioned word stands out when it comes to describing his conduct in continuing to attack those who are not allowed to defend themselves.
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