PLAID CYMRU’S status as the official opposition to Labour in the Senedd was cast into uncertainty last Friday (Oct 14) after one of their most senior figures left the party less than six months after fighting an election as a Plaid AM.
Dafydd Elis Thomas, who has represented Plaid Cymru for 18 years at Westminster, 17 years in the Senedd, and four years in the House of Lords, informed his local party that he would subsequently sit as an independent in the Welsh Assembly. He is the second AM to leave their party group this year, following the prolonged saga of UKIP’s Nathan Gill.
Sources close to Lord Elis Thomas have suggested that he felt Plaid Cymru should have been more supportive of the Welsh Labour Government. Following his departure, the two parties agreed a draft budget which included £119m allocated to Plaid Cymru priority areas of spending.
Speaking to the BBC, Lord Elis Thomas said: “It was clear to me that the Plaid group in the National Assembly was not willing to seriously participate in government and to give Wales a stable government, particularly after the decisions taken in Wales and elsewhere about our future relationship with the European Union.
“There is a serious constitutional challenge now and we might well lose powers from Wales,” he added.
“I think all pro-devolutionists should be working together to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
The peer’s relationship with Leanne Wood, who defeated him in a 2012 leadership election, was also thought to have contributed to his decision. As Presiding Officer, Lord Elis Thomas ordered Ms Wood to leave the Chamber after the republican referred to Queen Elizabeth as ‘Mrs Windsor’. Ms Wood sacked Lord Elis Thomas from the front bench in 2014 after he publicly criticised the party’s stance on UKIP.
Plaid Cymru lost no time in calling for a by-election following Lord Elis-Thomas’ announcement. A party statement released shortly afterwards said: “Plaid Cymru will begin the process of selecting a new candidate in Dwyfor Meirionnydd following Dafydd Elis-Thomas’s decision to leave the Plaid Cymru Assembly group.
“Constituents, who Dafydd Elis- Thomas misled in the recent Assembly election, will expect a by-election to be held at the earliest convenience.”
A petition was also launched calling for him to resign and call a by-election. It claimed that Lord Elis-Thomas was ‘elected through the hard work and financial resources of Plaid Cymru’s local activists.
‘The electorate of Dwyfor Meirionnydd deserve the opportunity to voice their opinions on this through the ballot box’, the petition added. This was supported on social media by Dwyfor Merionnydd MP Liz Saville Roberts.
However, as UKIP found out, Lord Elis-Thomas is under no obligation to resign, and has said that he will be better-placed to serve his constituency now that he no longer has to toe the party line. Given that toeing the party line was hardly one of his strong points, it would be fair to suggest that Plaid Cymru’s Senedd group will not receive a great deal of support from their former colleague.
The question which has been asked by several political commentators is which party now holds the role of official opposition in Wales. Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives now have 11 seats apiece – compared to six UKIP AMs, two independents, and one Lib Dem.
The answer is that no one seems quite sure. A Plaid Cymru source suggested that, while the parties had the same number of seats, the Party of Wales had registered more votes. However, it is unclear whether this will make any difference.
The Welsh Conservatives, on the other hand, made light of the official opposition title they proudly held during the Fourth Assembly, with one source memorably describing it as ‘bald men fighting over a comb’.
However, they suggested that this would be a fight the party would be willing to participate in, by calling for the title to be shared or dropped.
Given that joint official opposition in a legislature which contains three major parties and UKIP is hardly a title worthy of boasting, it could well be the case that both parties refer to themselves as the opposition, while the official aspect is quietly dropped.
Of far more importance to the day-to-day running of the Assembly will be the changes made to committee place and chair allocations, but at the time of going to press, this had not been resolved.
WG settles ‘scandalous’ land sale case
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has settled a claim against its former advisors about land sales which took place under a purported regeneration scheme.
The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) had issued proceedings against Amber Fund Management and Lambert Smith Hampton concerning the portfolio sale of 15 properties in 2012.
The settlement has been reached on a commercial basis and without any admission of liability by any party.
The detailed terms have been incorporated into a confidential settlement agreement between the parties.
The Welsh Government Minister for Local Government, Julie James, said the £40.7 million tied up in the Fund can now be made available to support future investments across Wales.
RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to allow the Welsh Government to raise money which could then be used to fund regeneration and investments in Welsh businesses.
It was a complete shambles.
One of the advisors appointed had previous connections with one of the parties which bought some of the land at an undervalue.
Vital information was not relayed to the RIFW’s board by the Welsh Government and Board members were kept in the dark about transactions carried out in their name.
Under the oversight of their appointed agents and Welsh Government civil servants, RIFW sold publicly owned assets by private treaty and without prior valuation at a price that reflected the assets’ existing use, under sale terms that provided only limited protection to the public interest in their significant future development values, and via a negotiation process that left RIFW lumbered with undesirable assets.
The Chair of the Senedd Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay MS, said: “The out of court settlement between the Welsh Government and the former advisors of RIFW effectively brings a curtain down on a very sorry and lamentable episode.
“The hasty sell-off of publicly-owned land at bargain-basement prices effectively deprived Welsh taxpayers of tens of millions of pounds which could’ve been used for essential services.
“We look forward to examining matters further with the Permanent Secretary and Head of the Welsh Government Civil Service, Shan Morgan, at our next meeting on Monday, November 23.
“We will be asking what robust steps have been taken to avoid history repeating.”
RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to sell off land around Wales including in north Wales, Monmouthshire and Cardiff, and use the money, in conjunction with European funding, to reinvest in areas in need of regeneration.
But the Public Accounts Committee found that the body was poorly managed, poorly overseen by the government, and that, because of a change in the direction of RIFW, from one of regeneration to property asset disposals, some of the Board members felt they lacked the necessary knowledge and expertise to fulfil their roles.
It also learned that the Board was not presented with key information regarding the value of the land in its portfolio, or of expressions of interest from potential buyers.
Fifteen plots of land, originally supposed to be sold separately, were instead sold as a single portfolio at a price which did not take into account potential use of the land in the future. This decision resulted in Welsh taxpayers missing out on tens of millions of pounds of funding.
The Committee learned that one of the organisations charged with offering expert advice to the Board, Lambert Smith Hampton Ltd, had previously acted on behalf of a director of the buyer of the land, South Wales Land Developments Ltd (SWLD), and signed an agreement to do so again one day after the sales went through.
The Committee concluded that the RIFW Board had been poorly served by its own expert advisors.
Angela Burns MS – Shadow Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency – said: “The Fund was established to sell valuable packages of Welsh Government land, with the money used to support regeneration schemes. However, evidence has since emerged that shows that the sale of RIFW’s assets was undertaken at a loss of tens of millions of pounds. A loss which was borne ultimately by the Welsh Taxpayer and yet another example of the complete inability of this Labour Government to be fiscally prudent.
“Millions of pounds have been squandered, millions that could have been invested in our education and health systems or spent building Wales’ economy or supporting some of our more vulnerable citizens. It’s an absolute scandal and the real scandal is the Welsh Government can slide out of their responsibility for this debacle”
Included in the scandal are:
- Fifteen sites sold for £21 million; with the taxpayer missing out on staggering sums of money
- A site in Rhoose purchased from RIFW for less than £3m – sold on for almost £10.5m South Wales Land Developments Ltd. Taxpayers losing out
- An Abergele site purchased from RIFW for £100,000, without overage, and sold for £1.9million. Taxpayers losing out
- Land in Lisvane sold for £1.8million – worth £39million.
Welsh Conservatives also claim the Welsh Government has squandered £1 billion on other projects, including:
- £221m on uncompetitive Enterprise Zones
- £9.3m on flawed initial funding of the Circuit of Wales
- £97.9m on delays and overspend on the A465 Heads of the Valleys Road
- £157m on the M4 relief road inquiry
- Over £100m propping up Cardiff Airport
UK not ready for Brexit
In its fourth report assessing government’s preparations at the border, the NAO highlights that planning for 1 January 2021 has built on work done for previous EU Exit deadline.
Departments have made progress towards implementing the systems, infrastructure and resources required to operate the border in relation to Great Britain at “minimum operating capability” by January 1 and are reasonably confident most will be ready, but timetables are tight.
There is little time for ports and other third parties to integrate their systems and processes with new or changed government systems, and contingency plans may need to be invoked for some elements.
Even if the Westminster government makes further progress with its preparations, there is still likely to be significant disruption at the border from January 1, as traders will be unprepared for new EU border controls which will require additional administration and checks.
The government’s plan for reducing the risk of disruption at the approach to the short Channel crossings is still developing, with various issues yet to be resolved. It intends to launch a new GOV.UK web service called ‘Check an HGV is ready to cross the border’ for hauliers to check and self-declare that they have the correct documentation for EU import controls before travelling and obtain permits to drive on prescribed roads in Kent.
Government is preparing civil contingency plans, such as to ensure continuity of the supply of critical goods and medicines in the event of any disruption to supply chains.
The UK Government will also need to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol from January 1. However, due to the scale and complexity of the changes, the lack of time and the impact of ongoing negotiations, there is a very high risk it may not be implemented in time.
The government has left itself little time to mobilise its new Trader Support Service (TSS), in which it has announced it is investing £200 million, to reduce the burden on traders moving goods to Northern Ireland and to help them prepare.
The government is spending significant sums of money preparing the border for the end of the transition period and, in 2020 alone, announced funding of £1.41 billion to fund new infrastructure and systems, and wider support and investment.
The NAO says that government must continue to focus its efforts on resolving the many outstanding issues relating to the border and develop robust contingency plans if these cannot be addressed in time for the end of the transition period.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The January 1 deadline is unlike any previous EU Exit deadline: significant changes at the border will take place and government must be ready.
Campaigners Thank Local MP, Ben Lake, for Championing Community Energy
Today campaign group, Power for People, thanked local MP, Ben Lake, for holding a debate last night in the House of Commons to promote community renewable energy by creating a ‘Right to Local Supply’ in law.
Central to the debate was a proposed new law, known as the Local Electricity Bill, that Mr Lake is co-sponsoring and which is supported by 212 MPs. The Bill aims to help rebuild local economies whilst increasing clean energy generation.
If made law, the Bill would empower community-owned local energy companies to sell locally generated renewable electricity directly to local households and businesses.
Currently customers can only purchase electricity from nationally licensed utilities. The Bill’s supporters say this means money people use to pay their energy bills is not helping to rebuild local economies and local clean energy infrastructure.
Responding to the debate, Energy Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng MP, said, “It is certainly something that I as the Energy Minister will be willing to engage with and have a discussion about … I think that with a co-operative spirit, we can get very far.”
Campaigning group, Power for People, are calling for MPs and the government to make the Bill law and are leading a supportive coalition of organisations including Community Energy Wales, Community Energy England, Community Energy Scotland, WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB. 62 local authorities have also pledged their support.
Ben Lake, MP for Ceredigion, said, “A Right to Local Supply will empower and enable new community energy companies to sell energy that they generate directly to local people which will accelerate our transition to clean energy and help strengthen local economies. The Local Electricity Bill would enshrine this in law and I will do all I can to ensure it succeeds.”
Power for People’s Director, Steve Shaw, said, “We thank Ben Lake for holding a debate on the Local Electricity Bill in the House of Commons. If made law, the Bill would unleash the huge potential for new community-owned clean energy infrastructure and for this to boost local economies, jobs, services, and facilities in communities across Ceredigion, Wales and the rest of the UK.”
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