IT’S NOT easy being a Welsh Government Minister.
There are so many new words to learn when you get into office and so many old ones to forget.
For example, take the word ‘cut’. It’s a very simple three letter word. But once you become a Welsh Government Minister, you are not allowed to use it.
Instead, at least as far as Welsh Government policies go, the word ‘cut’ has to be replaced with the far more unwieldy ‘transformation’ or the two-word mouthful ‘transformational change’.
ANGRY ANGELA ATTACKS
As you will see elsewhere in this newspaper, Hywel Dda UHB – to nobody’s surprise – has been caught on the hop by people discovering that when it talks about ‘transforming clinical services’ it means ‘cuts and closures’. You could argue that cuts are in themselves transformational, at least in the same way that being guillotined was transformational for the French aristocracy.
On Wednesday (Jan 24), Vaughan Gething was faced with a barrage of topical questions, which he confronted with the enthusiasm and delight of Louis XVI on his final journey to Place de la Révolution.
You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Angela Burns, the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire AM who speaks for her party on Health in the Senedd.
Crikey Moses! After a brief initial question, she tore into the Health Board, the Welsh Government, the First Minister, Labour backbenchers, Mr Gething and almost managed to get to Uncle Tom Cobley and all in a positively breathless display of genuine outrage.
Picking up a copy of the Parliamentary Review of Welsh Health Services, unanimously backed by Senedd members the previous week, she handled it between two fingers as though it was a particularly badly soiled nappy.
It was quite bad enough, Mrs Burns said, for the First Minister and his backbenchers to behave in a supercilious and arrogant fashion towards members raising their constituents’ concerns, it was quite another to obtain cross party agreement on the strategic direction of Welsh health services and then ignore the very principles that underpin it.
Mr Gething got to his feet and momentarily looked shell-shocked. Unlike the First Minister, there were almost no Labour members present to prop him up, bray, and snipe at the opposition with sarcastic remarks. However, the Cabinet Secretary is nothing if not smooth and polished. More than capable of bandying around banal generalities, Mr Gething soon adjusted himself into his usual smooth delivery of assurances about ‘meaningful consultations’.
Demonstrating the same sort of faulty memory that could yet come to unglue his leader, Vaughan Gething continued by saying that his boss had not been in any way supercilious.
Mr Jones’ stock in trade is supercilious.
Perhaps Mr Gething had not been paying attention; because having watched the previous day’s First Minister’s Questions and the business statement which preceded Mrs Burns’ questions, you would have to say that Mrs Burns had it pretty much nailed on.
ASK ME NO QUESTIONS
It didn’t get much better for Mr Gething, despite his stream of soothing words and assurances of good intentions. There used to be a saying that you couldn’t knit fog. Well, you certainly couldn’t weave whole fabric out of Mr Gething’s non-answers.
Mr Gething was very clear that he couldn’t answer direct questions because of protocol and the risk that he might have to make final decisions on a consultation which had not yet started. Which was very odd, because the previous day Carwyn Jones had decided he wouldn’t comment because the consultation was ‘open’. Open or closed, Mr Gething was prepared to fall back on the ‘all changes are difficult’ line. As an alternative tack, he attempted a switch to ‘difficult choices have to be made’.
So often did he repeat these lines, or variations on them, that it appeared as though poor Mr Gething had got stuck in one of those time loops beloved of science fiction programmes that need to create a cheap episode to make up for blowing the make-up budget on Slurb the Invincible or some such in a preceding one.
WHERE’S HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT?
Paul Davies had a go after Mrs Burns. Mr Davies doesn’t really do splenetic outrage, but he was clearly peeved – testy even. In a calm and measured way, he berated the Health Board for even proposing, never mind contemplating the closure of Withybush Hospital.
In response, Mr Gething tried a different tactic. While he appreciated that local sentiment was strong, it would be the same across Wales as tough decisions – hard choices – had to be made everywhere across the nation. This was, Mr Gething suggested, a national issue.
Mr Gething’s words would have had more weight on that score had he been accompanied by members of the Welsh Assembly from his own party. Apart from Mark Drakeford seated to his right, Mr Gething appeared terribly alone. The rest of the chamber was devoid of a Labour presence, demonstrating just how seriously west Wales’ concerns were being taken by all those south Wales AMs upon which the party depends for its majority.
Simon Thomas, incongruously seated next to Neil Hamilton, was next to tackle Mr Gething’s dead bat defence.
Pointing out the way in which the First Minister had sought to use the Parliamentary Review in an effort to deflect either criticism or inquiry, Mr Thomas told the Cabinet Secretary that the review was published too late to influence any proposals advanced by Hywel Dda.
After ungallantly pointing out that Labour’s candidate in the 2015 General Election, Paul Miller, had stood on a platform of restoring the paediatric services to Withybush – which had been removed temporarily without consultation – and had still not returned, he suggested this was the opportunity to test the strength of the Parliamentary Review’s framework.
NO STOPPING A CONSULTATION
Mr Gething lost his way a little as he said it wouldn’t be right for him ‘to attempt to instruct’ the health board to stop its consultation now. That would be the consultation that has not started, as the Cabinet Secretary had previously made clear just minutes before.
Difficult conversations needed to be had, tough choices had to be made, and the public would be properly engaged in the process of helping to make those tough choices after taking part in those difficult conversations.
You could see the cogs clicking away as Mr Gething spun new golden platitudes out of old strawmen.
Joyce Watson, whose support for retaining services in the past was less than fulsome, said it was very important that the public was told Withybush was not closing immediately. As this had never been suggested anywhere, it was hard to see what point Joyce Watson was trying to make; but having been thrown a life preserver, Mr Gething clung to it. He agreed that there was no plan to close Withybush in the immediate future. A relief for those attending outpatients next week to have their bunions filed.
Mr Gething then proceeded to point out that other hospitals were also mentioned in the options that had been leaked and that there could be those hard conversations and tough choices to be made in respect of them. But never mind, there would be a genuine and meaningful consultation and, if not, there would be a meaningful and genuine one. That’s what he expected the Board to do. Although, of course, he couldn’t tell them that was what was needed, because he might end up having to make one of those difficult choices after hard and tough conversations.
Neil Hamilton was next. Reaching for his pantomime pitchfork, he rather nastily skewered the Cabinet Secretary on its tines.
Remarking on Mr Gething’s status as the government’s fire blanket for successive health board failings everywhere, he posed the rather more difficult question of whether the threat to Withybush could be boiled down to death by a thousand cuts?
Tellingly, he suggested: “It must be regarded as a ridiculous proposal to close Withybush—even in contemplation in the medium term, let alone the short term. The health board should, when it produces the list of options for people to discuss, avoid causing unnecessary alarm and consternation by producing extreme proposals that are not going to be followed through.”
He then rather neatly suggested the real problem was a complete lack of accountability in the health service. Community Health Councils, Health Boards, were not elected bodies and the truth was that everything ended up on the Health Secretary’s desk. ‘People on the ground feel they have no voice at all,” Mr Hamilton said.
Vaughan Gething could see the home stretch coming.
There would be a meaningful conversation about tough choices in a difficult consultation, in which the views of clinicians would be heard as well as those of the public. It would be rather mean to point out that there is a difference between hearing and listening.
Particularly as those conversations will be tough, difficult, hard, meaningful, and genuine.
Then Mr Gething concluded on a point that he must now be grateful he did not open with.
Concluding he volunteered, he didn’t want to be in the position in the future where the Government will be asked: ‘Why didn’t you do something about a part of the service that really has gone wrong?’
That remark rather fortunately leaves the question unasked as to what all the previous tough choices after hard conversations and meaningful consultations over the last twelve years were actually for.
That would be a difficult – if not unanswerable – question.
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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