THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has been accused of misleading the public, ambushing investors, and using the Circuit of Wales project as a political football intended to shore up its vote in the South Wales Valleys after refusing to back the project last week.
NO TO GUARANTEE
The Welsh Government had been asked to provide a loan guarantee of £210m to private investor, the insurance giant Aviva. Had the Circuit gone bust, the Welsh Government would have been left liable for the loan balance but Aviva would have retained ownership of the Circuit.
Last week, Economy Secretary Ken Skates announced that the Welsh Government had decided against backing the project by providing a guarantee to key investor Aviva, claiming that late in the day the Welsh Government had received advice from HM Revenue and the Office of National Statistics that financing the deal would amount to state aid and affect Wales’ capital grant from the Westminster Government.
Mr Skates claimed that the presence of the Circuit of Wales on the books would have meant education and health services would have had their budgets squeezed.
However, Mr Skates’ version of events has been met with withering scorn from opposition parties who say that the Welsh Government’s version of events is disingenuous nonsense and that the Welsh Government has twice delayed pulling the plug on the project for Labour’s own electoral benefit .
INDEPENDENT INQUIRY CALL
Both the Conservative Party and Plaid Cymru have called for an independent inquiry into the Welsh Government’s conduct of the Circuit of Wales deal.
Andrew RT Davies, the Conservative leader in the Assembly said: “The Circuit of Wales has been a Welsh Labour car crash of epic proportions.
“After so many years of uncertainty and false hope, it’s clear that Welsh Government have plenty of questions to answer.
“Whilst I have had longstanding concerns that the Heads of the Valleys Development Company may not be right vehicle for this project, it is hugely disappointing to see it crumbling away in such dramatic and overnight fashion.”
Plaid Cymru Shadow Cabinet Secretary Adam Price claimed that evidence has come to light that the First Minister may have misled the public.
Adam Price said there was ‘compelling evidence the Welsh Government has been guilty of serial mendacity ‘.
“Sadly this project has been characterised by a series of inaccurate and misleading statements made by the Government, ostensibly to justify its own position in the face of potential criticism ,” he added.
“An email written by an Aviva senior director – dated 14th July last year – pointed to the false assertion by the Welsh Government ‘that we requested a 100% underwrite a few days before the rejection (of the first proposal in April 2016), when in fact this deal had been worked up with the Welsh Government (through civil servants) for many months and nothing in our funding structure changed in the run up to the announcement’.”
Mr Price continued: “I have an email from Welsh Government presenting a proposal based on a Welsh public sector guarantee of the debt dated January 26th 2016, confirming Aviva’s assertion. And yet speaking in Ebbw Vale on April 11th last year, as reported by the Western Mail, Carwyn Jones repeated the falsehood when speaking about the rejection of the proposal: ‘It was in the last few days beforehand. We weren’t to know the guarantee would be inflated’.
“These are not isolated instances. They are part of a pattern of duplicity that have characterised the Welsh Government’s approach to this project throughout, constantly shifting goalposts and covering their tracks.”
Mr Price called for an independent inquiry to investigate the matter: “Since the First Minister himself can now be shown also to have misled the public on the Circuit of Wales – all the more pointedly as it was in Blaenau Gwent and in the middle of a keenly fought election campaign – it’s no longer appropriate that he makes this decision as he will now need to be a subject of that investigation, not its judge and jury.
“As things currently stand no-one – business, media, Parliament or public – can be confident our Government is being straight with us. Only a full independent inquiry can begin to rebuild public trust. “
HAMILTON SLAMS GOVERNMENT INSULT
Neil Hamilton AM, UKIP Group Leader in the National Assembly for Wales stated in the Senedd chamber: “Are we really expected to believe, that the government accounting conventions about whether something should be classified as public expenditure or private by the ONS and the Treasury have come as a blinding revelation yesterday, and the cabinet was totally unaware of these conventions hitherto?
“It is an insult to the people of Blaenau Gwent that such a shoddy excuse has been used and a disgrace that so much public money and time was wasted on this decision.
“The Welsh Government now plans to build a £100m automotive business park in Ebbw Vale. What we have now is a proposal from the government to spend £100 m over ten years. Shedloads of money to build a series of empty sheds,” continued Mr Hamilton
“Interestingly the Welsh Government announced this decision after the election; a decision beforehand would clearly have damaged Labour in the polls. What a cynical political decision, a terrible betrayal of the people of Blaenau Gwent and a shoddy excuse for what amounts to the replacement of the Circuit of Wales with a Scalextric set.”
Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee the day before the Welsh Government pulled the plug, a senior Welsh Government civil servant, James Price, told Committee members that he regarded the £9.3m as a fair price to pay for the due diligence that it had enabled the Welsh Government to undertake and suggested that the Auditor was wrong to decide that business risk assessments carried out before providing the money were deficient.
One thing that emerged from that Committee meeting was the broad agreement that due diligence had to take place before the Welsh Government exposed itself to further risk. It was surprising, therefore, that the following day in the Assembly one of those members who had been singing the praises of due diligence taking place committed a complete about face.
Deriding the Welsh Government’s involvement as being an exemplar of ‘the dead hand of government’, UKIP’s leader in the Assembly Neil Hamilton appeared to have forgotten his words of little over twenty four hours earlier: ‘Personally, I think it was a very reasonable punt you took (with the grant and loan). Now we’re talking about much, much larger sums of money, it’s right that a considerably greater degree of examination be undertaken’.
COMPANY DENIES GOVERNMENT CLAIMS
A spokesperson for the Heads of the Valleys Development Corporation (HVDC), the company behind the Circuit of Wales, said: “Along with my team and commercial partners, I am hugely disappointed and saddened that the Welsh Government has failed to support The Circuit of Wales, what would be a game changing development for Wales and in particular the people of Blaenau Gwent.
“We strongly disagree with the decision and the rationale behind it.
“We have always believed passionately, and continue to do so, in this project’s ability to transform and provide opportunities and hope to one of the poorest parts of the UK, not just Wales. The project is totally defined, finance is in place, and construction and hiring could start immediately.
“My team and I will now analyse the Welsh Government’s reasons not to support the development and are actively seeking additional clarification from them. We will then very shortly issue a detailed response before deciding on our next course of action.”
That detailed response, when it arrived, savaged the Welsh Government’s reasoning and claimed that the reasons given to the Senedd for refusing to back the deal were either wrong, specious, or had not been raised with the developer or its investors. In addition, the statement revealed that the Economy Secretary had not met with representatives of the company for over twelve months before making his decision.
A spokesperson for HVDC said: “ This is a real loss for the people of Ebbw Vale, the immediate community and a missed opportunity for Wales as a whole. This is a project that has been totally defined; it is fully financed (with finance in place) with construction and hiring ready to start immediately.
“At a time when the Welsh Government is trying to demonstrate that Wales is ‘ppen for business’, the rejection of this significant infrastructure project will do little to breed confidence within the private sector for future investment in the country.”
Most tellingly, perhaps, HVDC made a concerted attack on the Cabinet Secretary’s assertion there was a very significant risk that the full £373million debt of the entire Circuit of Wales project would be classified against Welsh Government capital spending.
The statement from the Company expressed amazement at the lack of notice given to it that any problem had arisen: ‘The company was never informed or made aware of this ONS and HM Treasury advice during the due diligence process. We were promised by Welsh Government officials that we would be consulted if any significant issues arose during due diligence and given an opportunity to respond.
‘We were not notified that this was a serious roadblock prior to Tuesday’s meeting and never given a chance to respond.
‘The Welsh Government has known about the latest structure of this project since well before February 2017 and could easily have obtained clearer guidance from Treasury and ONS prior to Tuesday’s meeting and informed us’.
The spokesperson continued: “We believe it is important for the people of Blaenau Gwent to have the details of these discussions with ONS and HM Treasury disclosed to the public. What were these discussions, who were they with and when were they undertaken?
“ We wholeheartedly disagree that the support for The Circuit of Wales would be on balance sheet and would require the Welsh government to limit its budget and compromise the building of schools and hospitals .”
The company also claimed that the £100m technology park – funded by public money – announced by Ken Skates as a sop to Blaenau Gwent was scheduled to cost £150m of wholly private money and be delivered in two years: not the ten announced by the Cabinet Secretary in the Senedd.
SCHEME UNDER SCRUTINY
However, the scheme has been the subject of scepticism for some time.
A BBC investigation for soon to be scrapped current affairs programme Week In Week Out, cast doubts on whether or not the company could achieve anything like the promises it had made either in terms of regeneration of Blaenau Gwent or in relation to delivering on its promises regarding the proposed facilities within the time and budget specified. Moreover, the same documentary revealed that £35,000 from HVDC – a company partly funded by the Welsh Government – had been used on landscape gardening on the home of the person fronting the scheme, Michael Carrick.
An investigation by the Auditor-General for Wales criticised the Welsh Government both for a loan guarantee a £7.3m provided to HVDC and a £2m grant provided as seed money. The Auditor discovered that part of the money had been used to acquire a small motorcycle manufacturing business in England and ruled that there had been insufficient regard as to whether the uses to which public money were being put were delivering value for money for the public.
Initial claims that 6,000 jobs would be created and claims of businesses flocking to set up working partnerships on the Circuit of Wales site had also come under scrutiny.
A reassessment of the project carried out by the University of South Wales as part of the due diligence process suggested that 2,000 jobs fewer than claimed would be created. In addition, jobs during the construction phase of the project would be temporary, with the Circuit ultimately employing around 150 full time staff, while the remainder of jobs would be created in spin-off enterprises over a longer period of time.
As this article was being prepared for publication, Michael Carrick, told BBC News: “We haven’t given up on it and I’m hoping government hasn’t.
“The project is too important to walk away. We’ve got the support of our investors, we’ve got the support of our development partners and we want to make it work for government and for the valleys.”
Whether Mr Carrick will be able to overcome the deep reservations of the Welsh Government and proceed with the scheme with their backing is open to question.
Whether the HVDC will be able to develop the Circuit of Wales on the scale planned – or at all – without that backing, is highly unlikely.
Drakeford says Wales is not immune to Indian coronavirus
MARK DRAKEFORD, First Minister for Wales, has warned that Wales will not be immune from the Indian coronavirus variant as it becomes the dominant strain in England and Scotland.
He was speaking at the Welsh Government’s coronavirus briefing as he detailed the results of the latest three-weekly lockdown review and announced that large outdoor events are set to go ahead once again.
He also urged people to come forward to get vaccinated, even if they had missed their appointment, saying it remained the best defence against the virus – even the new variant.
He said: “It is never too late to be vaccinated in Wales – if you are not yet one of the millions of people to have had a vaccine, you can still arrange an appointment. There are details on our website about how to do that.”
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wales remain at less than 10 cases per 100,000 people, which continues to be the lowest rate in the UK. This reflects the hard work of people throughout Wales to keep themselves and their families safe.
Our vaccination programme also continues to make extraordinary progress. More than85% of the adult population has now received their first dose of the vaccination and nearly half have completed the two-dose course.
However, the emergence and the spread of the more transmissible delta variant in parts of the UK – most notably in North West England – is a cause for concern. There are just under 100 cases in Wales, including a cluster in Conwy but we expect these numbers will increase.
We have the headroom to move to alert level one but we will do this in a phased way, focusing on outdoor events and activities in the first step. This phased approach will provide time for more data on the impact of this variant to become available and for more people to be vaccinated.
The changes to coronavirus regulations from the 7 June will therefore include:
- Up to 30 people can meet outdoors, including in private gardens, outdoor hospitality and public places.
- Larger outdoor organised gatherings and events, such as concerts, football matches and sporting activities, like organised running groups, will be able to go ahead for up to 4,000 people standing and 10,000 people seated. All organisers planning events and activities must undertake a full risk assessment and put in place measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including social distancing.
- Up to three households can form an extended household.
We will consider further changes to the regulations on indoor activity later in the three-week cycle, if public health conditions allow. These will include:
- The rule of six for meeting indoors in private homes and holiday accommodation.
- Increasing numbers for indoor organised gatherings and restarting indoor events.
- Opening ice skating rinks.
We have reviewed the Public Health (Protection from Eviction) (No.2) (Wales) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2021 and decided these will remain in place up for the time being but not exceeding June 30. We are considering further options to strengthen support for tenants. In the meantime, we would urge all tenants struggling to pay their rent to speak to their landlord and contact Citizen’s Advice Cymru or Shelter Cymru for further help and support.
Voter registration opens for Welsh Youth Parliament elections
YOUNG people across Wales are being encouraged to get involved with their Welsh Youth Parliament by registering to vote in the 2021 Elections in November.
The registration process opened yesterday, Thursday, June 3, on the Welsh Youth Parliament website.
It takes just 5 minutes, and registration will remain open until November 12.
This is an opportunity for Wales’ young people, aged 11 – 18 years old, to use their voice in choosing the Members who will represent them and their area in the next Welsh Youth Parliament.
This will be the second Youth Parliament, made up of 60 young people in Wales to represent different areas and backgrounds.
By meeting regularly, consulting with young people and conducting inquiries, they discuss the issues that matter most to young people to bring their views to the attention of the elected politicians of the Welsh Parliament.
The online election in November will choose 40 Members to represent all regions of Wales, the other 20 Members will be put forward by partner organisations to ensure a diverse representation.
The application process for interested partner organisations is also now open.
Organisations and charities are invited to apply to work with the Youth Parliament and to have a representative among the 60 Members.
Talulah Thomas and Cai Thomas Phillips, former members of the Welsh Youth Parliament, hosted an online panel discussion to mark the opening of voter registration which coincided with the Urdd’s Eisteddfod T.
The panel session focused on the importance of young people’s relationship with democracy.
A month since 16- and 17-year-olds were able to vote in the Senedd 2021 Election for the first time, getting involved with the Welsh Youth Parliament is one way that young people can make sure their voices continue to be heard.
Talulah Thomas, former Member for Clwyd South, says; “Be part of a Youth Parliament which gives us a voice on the issues that matter now and in our future. Register now to be able to vote in the Election, send in your ideas for topics and I also encourage you to consider standing to be a member too. When the opportunity comes. Go for it – be part of something great!”
YOUR FUTURE – THE ISSUES THAT MATTER
With the opening of voter registration, young people are also asked to put forward their suggestions for topics they would like to be prioritised by the next Youth Parliament. A form is available online for young people to contribute to the conversation and highlight the issues that matter most to them and their communities.
Last time, the Youth Parliament chose to prioritise three topics: Mental Health, Life Skills in the Curriculum, and Littering and Plastic Waste, holding inquiries and publishing reports to present to the Welsh Government.
Cai Thomas Phillips, former Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire says; “Young people’s voices need to be at the heart of important decisions as we emerge from the pandemic; a better way of working, economic recovery after COVID and tackling environmental degradation. I really hope the next Youth Parliament will take their chance to look at these issues and much more. It’s an amazing opportunity for anyone to give new ideas and opinions to the decision makers.”
Llywydd of the Senedd, Elin Jones MS encouraged Wales’ young voices to get involved in their Welsh Youth Parliament; “The first Welsh Youth Parliament showed us how passionate young people are about the issues which matter to them and their communities. Their voices need to be heard now more than ever.
“I encourage young people across Wales to get involved, to register to vote and be part of the conversation about the topics that should be prioritised by the next Youth Parliament. Your voice is powerful, and your views are important to us all.”
More information about registration, topics and how to be part of the Welsh Youth Parliament are available on the website – https://youthparliament.senedd.wales/
Cummings slates Government, Johnson, and Hancock
“THE TRUTH is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its Government in a crisis like this.
“When the public needed us most, the Government failed.
“I would like to say to all the families of those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for themistakes that were made and for my own mistakes at that.”
Dominic Cummings’ opening statement to the Covid-19: Lessons Learned Committee of the House of Commons is an attention-grabbing one.
The rest of his evidence was no less damning of Westminster’s response in the early days of the pandemic.
It revealed a government in which discussions at Cobra meetings, supposedly the most secure and confidential of briefings, were routinely leaked to the media. It showed a PM who went away on holiday as the crisis broke. The Government failed to follow the logic of the science presented to it and took weeks to understand the pandemic’s capacity to overwhelm the NHS.
And – as Mr Cummings said – ‘unbelievably’ we have a government whose response to the crisis at a critical time was put on the back burner to deal with a complaint by the PM’s fiancé about a disobliging story about her dog.
CUMMINGS HAS PAPER TRAIL
Suppose Mr Cummings, like so many others, made his assertion without a paper trail. In that case, his remarks could be interpreted as so much self-serving nonsense and a study in revenge. However, he has the paperwork, the email trail, the journal entries, the secret WhatsApp chats to back up his account.
His story got extra heft by his clear expression of regret that he had not obtained an independent view of the Government’s data earlier. When he did deliver data to those outside Downing Street, the extent of the crisis became apparent.
He made it clear the Government could have got better insight sooner and taken steps towards lockdown six weeks before it did.
The Prime Minister maintained ‘this new swine-flu thing’ was less of a risk than economic damage from overreaction throughout February, even as infections and deaths escalated.
However, the data was wrong. According to Mr Cummings, had the models been checked against live data from Intensive Care Units concerning Covid infections, it would’ve been evident the models presented to the Government and upon which it based its decisions were totally flawed.
In a withering assessment, Dominic Cummings said the more people criticised the plan, or lack of one, the more people on the inside believed their critics lacked knowledge.
If there’d been proper scrutiny and interrogation of what Ministers were being told, “we would have figured out at least six weeks earlier that there was an alternative plan”.
The original plan, he said, was “complete garbage”.
More than that, the Department of Health’s ‘plan’ amounted to no more than a press release.
The Department of Health was ’a smoking ruin’, he claimed. There was no plan for shielding, support, emergency procurement. The Department of Health failed to appreciate the size of the crisis and stuck to its normal procurement channels until it was almost out of PPE. The Department of Health refused to buy ventilators because their price had risen.
He suggested a proposal – seriously advanced for consideration – that people hold the equivalent of ‘chickenpox parties’ was met with disbelief by scientists who had to point out that chickenpox was not killing hundreds of thousand people worldwide.
HANCOCK BRANDED A LIAR
Dominic Cummings turned personal fire onto Matt Hancock, who remains the Secretary of State for Health.
He accused Mr Hancock of lying and that the Health Secretary’s conduct merited his instant dismissal.
He had earlier mentioned the Health Secretary’s denial that the Government pursued a herd immunity policy that formed a vital element of the Government’s then-approach.
Dominic Cummings said Matt Hancock “for lying to everybody in multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly”.
Crucially, Mr Cummings said the Cabinet Secretary (Mark Sedwill, the UK’s most senior civil servant) told him and the Prime Minister that he did not trust Matt Hancock to be truthful. He had notes of the meeting in which that remark was made.
Mark Sedwill, Mr Cummings claimed, told Boris Johnson that the cabinet system was not set up to deal with a minister like Matt Hancock, who – he alleged Mr Sedwill said – repeatedly lied in meetings.
He alleged Mr Hancock deliberately delayed implementing a proper track and trace system to meet an arbitrary testing target.
JOHNSON DUCKS THE QUESTIONS
As the Committee took a break, Prime Minister’s Questions opened in the House of Commons.
Asked about Dominic Cummings’ evidence, the Prime Minister failed to deny key allegations from it when asked by opposition leader Kier Starmer.
Instead, Boris Johnson deflected the questions by referring to a public inquiry. Mr Johnson refused to give a date for that inquiry’s start.
Mr Johnson seemed to decide poking the hornets’ nest would invite further disclosures from Mr Cummings, more damning than the testimony already given.
The picture Mr Cummings painted was chaos at the heart of Government, institutional complacency, lack of expertise in the key departments, and – tellingly – a Prime Minister and Cabinet with only a tenuous grasp on the urgency of the situation.
Given a chance to plan for different scenarios and allocate adequate resources, the Prime Minister and other key ministers preferred to look on the sunny side, hope for the best, and expect something to turn up.
The PM took his opportunity to have a holiday.
Nothing Mr Cummings said was more telling than his revelation that the reason the UK did not enter lockdown sooner was the Government – including the civil service – did not have a plan. The part of the civil service supposed to deal with civil emergencies couldn’t cope because it lacked expertise in the response it was supposed to handle. Planning was always based on a peak of the virus twelve weeks in the future from the date of any meeting.
The pandemic’s first wave peaked in late April. The Government, as late as March 14, planned for a peak in June.
JOHNSON LIKE THE MAYOR IN JAWS
Mr Cummings’ account of a shielding plan drawn up over two all-night brainstorming sessions after the lockdown’s announcement was hair-raising. At the eleventh hour it emerged the UK hadn’t taken account of vulnerable groups’ protection.
As the pandemic raged and demands made to put a brake on overseas travel, Dominic Cummings claimed the PM didn’t want one. He painted a picture of a media-obsessed Boris Johnson swayed by press campaigns against taking preventative action.
Mr Cummings explained Mr Johnson’s behaviour was like the Mayor’s in Jaws. He wanted to keep the beach open, even as the shark ate the swimmers.
On a broader topic, Dominic Cummings criticised a ‘crackers’ political system that allowed people like him and Boris Johnson to exercise such power during an emergency when they were unqualified to deal with one.
Mr Cummings’ tarter observations about the ability of the UK’s political parties included a stinging attack on how political parties select and support their leaders.
To summarise his view: he suggested the problem with the political system in this country is that voters had a choice between people like Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson at the last election.
He concluded from that statement that the parties need to look at themselves to find out why they put ‘that sort of person’ forward for office.
That’s an issue beyond the current inquiry’s scope. ‘Teflon Al Johnson’ will be very grateful it is after Wednesday’s hearing.
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