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Impartiality of civil service questioned

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Carwyn Jones: Knew nothing of friend and colleague's health issues

THE CONTINUING wrangle over an inquiry into the circumstances which led to the death of former AM Carl Sargeant has intensified this week after a suggestion that evidence to the QC-led inquiry was being ‘filtered’ by Welsh Government civil servants.

In the meantime, the Coroner’s Inquest into Mr Sargeant’s death opened in a way which raised a series of questions about the tactics adopted by the legal team representing First Minister Carwyn Jones and threw doubt on Mr Jones’ public statements about his knowledge of his late Cabinet colleague’s mental health.

Conservatives in the Assembly pounced on a leaked Welsh Government email which showed the Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government, Dame Shan Morgan, telling Welsh Government staff to share evidence for the Carl Sargeant inquiry with senior civil servants first. Paul Bowen QC is investigating Carwyn Jones’s handling of the sacking of the Alyn and Deeside AM from his cabinet and in an email to Welsh Government staff entitled “support to staff”, the Permanent Secretary, Dame Shan Morgan, asks “those who believe they have evidence relevant to the investigation should bring this to the attention of David Richards, Director of Governance; Peter Kennedy, HR Director; or my office”.

Only a subsequent ‘clarification’ after the email’s leak suggested that employees could give their evidence direct to the Independent Inquiry Team without it being looked over by their senior managers.

Questioning the Permanent Secretary’s latest involvement, Welsh Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies said: “This once again raises serious concerns over the conduct of the Welsh Government and calls into question the independence of this whole process.

“If the inquiry is to be fully independent then all potential evidence should be handed over to the QC leading the investigation, not pre-vetted by the Permanent Secretary or her minions.

“This latest communication shines a light into the dark tactics being deployed by certain individuals in the Welsh Government to influence and control the upcoming inquiry, and that is simply unacceptable.

“Carl Sargeant lost his life in incredibly tragic circumstances, and there is a responsibility on everyone involved to ensure this process is fully independent and transparent so that the family can find the answers they need to find peace with what has happened.

“The Welsh Government must apologise and immediately withdraw this instruction so people can provide evidence to the inquiry free from bully-boy tactics and intimidation.”

A spokesperson for the permanent secretary said: “We have been clear that as a civil service we will fully co-operate with the work of the IQCI [independent QC investigation], and any evidence held by staff on Welsh Government systems will be collated and transferred to the investigation in its entirety and without redaction.”

A request by The Herald for an explanation as to WHY the Permanent Secretary issued the email remains unanswered and the prospect of Wales’ leading civil servant acting ‘on behalf of the Welsh Government’ raises a substantial question about whether the right distance is being maintained between the sectional interests of the party in government and the national role of the Welsh Government as an institution.

A Plaid Cymru spokesperson responded: “This email raises serious questions about the internal processes of the Welsh Government and risks jeopardising the independence of the inquiry.

“It is vital that this inquiry remains independent, transparent and fair.

“Plaid Cymru will be urgently raising questions about this matter with the Welsh Government.”

Dame Shan Morgan has also come under significant pressure following her decision to deny lawyers acting for the Sargeant family the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry.

The family of Carl Sargeant has threatened legal action after claims they had been excluded from a probe into the late minister’s sacking by Carwyn Jones.

A solicitor acting for the family, Neil Hudgell, said: “The grieving Sargeant family are losing patience and faith in the inquiry and are hurt and upset that everything they have asked for has been ignored.

“Mr Bowen can only go as far as the permanent secretary will allow and we currently have an inquiry process where there will be no effective involvement from the family. How can that be fair?”

A spokesman for the Welsh Government said: “The protocol (agreed between the Welsh Government and the Inquiry) sets out the basis on which the investigation will be conducted and enables the family and any other participant to put forward questions they wish to be asked by the investigator.”

A spokesperson for the independent investigator said: “Mr Bowen QC confirms that the independent QC Investigation will continue to run under the published Operational Protocol while this is resolved.

“Mr Bowen QC is committed to conducting a thorough and independent investigation,” the spokesperson added.

Meanwhile at the inquest into Carl Sargeant’s death, a QC representing Carwyn Jones has claimed that other women have come forward with allegations of inappropriate behaviour against the late Alyn and Deeside AM.

Those allegations, as those supposedly made before Mr Jones sacked Mr Sargeant, all have the inestimable benefit of not being subject to challenge or proper investigation. Moreover, taking the First Minister’s lawyers claims at face value leads to a substantial question of how – if the allegations have substance – Carwyn Jones remained unaware of any issue with his close friend and former colleague’s supposed conduct.

Moreover, the attempt to publicly smear Mr Sargeant, who –as before his death – has no opportunity to defend himself is, Coroner John Griffiths observed unlikely to be relevant to the Inquest process, which raises the obvious question of why it was raised at all by the First Minister acting through his lawyers.

As it is, Mr Jones’ claims to have been a close friend of Mr Sargeant, those were thrown into even deeper question by the QC acting for the Sargeant family.

Leslie Thomas QC told the inquest that the first minister must have been fully aware of Mr Sargeant’s personal issues when he sacked him, as they had been friends for 16 years.

In a statement the first minister and Welsh Labour leader said he had not been aware of any mental health illness or vulnerabilities at the time.

Carwyn Jones is due to give evidence to the inquest, an event that should provide some insight into his ability to reconcile his public and personal pronouncements with information set to be laid before the Coroner.

A request for information as to who is paying for Mr Jones’ representation at the Inquest was unanswered.

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“Inherently unfair” social care funding needs total overhaul

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Moves to top up the pay of self-isolating social care staff in Cardiganshire should be part of a complete overhaul of the “inherently unfair” way the sector is funded.

According to Care Forum Wales, the dysfunctional system had led to chronic underfunding for a quarter of a century with many care homes facing the prospect of financial ruin and the threat of closure while having to deal with the enormous challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The chair, Mario Kreft MBE, spoke out after Health Minister Vaughan Gething announced he is planning to top up the wages of social-care workers forced to self-isolate because of coronavirus.

At the moment they are only eligible for statutory sick pay – currently £95.85 per week – if they have to self-isolate or take sick leave due to the virus.

Mr Gething said an announcement would be made “soon”, adding that “my expectation is that we will top-up the wages of those taking time off because of coronavirus to 100% of their normal wages”.

The Health Minister also acknowledged there were “broader long term questions about the terms of social care workers”.

Mr Kreft said: “We welcome anything that is going to improve the terms and conditions of care workers.

“Providers did have concerns that there were incentives for people not to self-isolate when perhaps they ought to.

“The funding care homes receive from local authorities and health boards enables providers to do no more than pay statutory sick pay and nothing over and above that.

“If we’ve got to incentivise people to self-isolate then that money has to come from somewhere – either the local authorities and health boards or the Welsh Government.

“We have invited to a meeting next week to look at the detail of how it can work and this is among the issues we will be raising.

“What this does not address is the inherent unfairness that has been built into the system over a generation when social care has been largely commissioned by local authorities which has effectively set pay levels at such a low rate.

“We have had 25 years of failure and inadequate resources. This is a golden opportunity to right some fundamental flaws that have pushed the social care sector to the brink of financial ruin.

“Even before Covid, we have suffered regular care home closures across Wales because of the postcode lottery of fees.

“That’s why we devised the Cheapskate Awards to highlight the gross unfairness of a system that ensures that a care home in Cardiff receives £12,000 a year more for providing the same level of service for an individual resident in a care home in Powys. That equates to a staggering £500,000 a year for a care home with 40 beds.

“Fundamentally, this is about the traditional Welsh values of fairness and equality.

“The league table of fees across Wales was a clear illustration that the current system is unfair and unsustainable.

“Even the fees paid in Cardiff are inadequate – they are merely the best of a bad bunch.

“Five of the six local authorities in North Wales are in the bottom 10 of the worst payers so we also have a North-South divide adding to the inequity of the post code lottery.

“Working in social care is already a career to be proud of but we now need to make sure that it also a career in which our wonderful staff are also properly paid, one that they can afford to go into.

“The only way to achieve that is have root and branch reforms to the way social care is funded with an urgent national action plan which recognises that the sector is a pillar of Wales’ foundation economy as designated by the Welsh Government.

“It would be sheer folly to carry on doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. We need a totally new approach, fit for the 21st century to enable us to pay social care workers what they deserve.”

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Residents urged to look out for voter registration letter

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LOCAL residents are being encouraged not to lose their voice on decisions that affect them by making sure their electoral registration details are up to date.

With elections taking place in Ceredigion in May 2021, this is an important opportunity for residents to make sure they can take part.

The annual canvass ensures that Electoral Services can keep the electoral register up to date, identifying any residents who are not registered or have moved.

Next year’s Senedd elections will be the first time 16-17 year olds and qualifying foreign citizens will be able to vote. It is therefore very important to capture these groups of people in the electoral register.  

Electoral Registration Officer, Eifion Evans said: “It’s important that residents keep an eye out for messages so that we can make sure we have the right details on the electoral register for every address in the county. To make sure you are able to have your say at elections taking place next year, simply follow the instructions.

“If you’re not currently registered, your name will not appear in the messages we send. If you want to register, the easiest way is online at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote, or we’ll send you information explaining how to do this in the post.”

“This year’s canvass, which we have to carry out by law, is taking place during a challenging public health situation. We are working to ensure that we take account of public health guidelines, including the continued importance of social distancing.”

People who have moved recently are particularly encouraged to look out for the voter registration messages from Ceredigion County Council and check the details. Research by the Electoral Commission indicates that recent home movers are far less likely to be registered than those who have lived at the same address for a long time.

Rhydian Thomas, Head of Electoral Commission Wales, said: “It’s really important that everyone who is entitled to vote is able to do so. More people are now entitled to vote in Wales, including 16-17 year olds and qualifying foreign citizens. Making sure you provide the necessary information to your local authority when it is needed will ensure the process runs smoothly. This is particularly helpful in the current public health situation, as it will help avoid the need for home visits from canvassers.

“There’s lots of helpful information about registering to vote on the website: https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/i-am-a/voter.

Residents who have any questions can contact Ceredigion’s Electoral Services on 01545 572032.

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Conservatives accused of contempt for devolution

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THE WESTMINSTER Government is undermining the devolution settlements of each of the UK’s nations according to opposition parties.

Just before the parliamentary recess, the Conservative Government published a White Paper on the future of the UK’s internal market. The same day, July 16, it opened a brief consultation. The Consultation lasted 28 days and ended yesterday, Thursday, August 13.

White papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation. White Papers are often published as Command Papers and may include a draft version of a Bill that is being planned. This provides a basis for further consultation and discussion with interested or affected groups and allows final changes to be made before a Bill is formally presented to Parliament.

The UK’s devolved administrations have reserved powers for a range of issues, including agricultural and animal welfare standards and building regulations.

The proposals advanced by Westminster would see powers of those two areas of policy removed from the devolved administrations’ control. Building regulations in England are both differently focused and of a lower standard than those in Wales. For example, harmonising building regulations around England’s lowest common denominator could scrap the Welsh Government’s regulation requiring sprinklers to be fitted in new homes.

The UK Government did not consult with any of the UK’s devolved administrations about its proposed legislation before publishing the White Paper and announcing an unusually brief consultation on such an important policy.

POWER GRAB? WHAT POWER GRAB? THAT POWER GRAB
When The Herald put the White Paper’s content to Conservative Shadow External Affairs Minister, Darren Millar, and asked about the change in powers over building regulations and animal welfare standards.

We received a furious response.

“To suggest that this is a power grab is utter nonsense,” fulminated Mr Millar.

We suggested no such thing. We asked only about two regulatory areas covered in a 104-page policy document.

Darren Millar continued: “As a result of the UK’s exit from the European Union scores of new powers are set to be transferred to the Welsh Parliament – so far from being a power grab, this is actually a significant power gain for Wales.

“These powers have never been held before by the Welsh Government and this legislation will give the Welsh Parliament additional levers which can be used to help ensure that economy of Wales recovers from the impact of Covid-19 while ensuring seamless trade across the UK.”
As Mr Millar said that ‘scores of new powers’ are heading the Welsh Parliament’s way, we invited him to identify some of them.

He did not answer in time for our deadline.

The problem for Mr Millar is Government line in the debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement set out that Westminster will take some powers from Wales, even as it provides additional powers over other areas of policy.

The position was set out by the current Minister of State at the Wales Office, David TC Davies.
In the Withdrawal Agreement debate, David TC Davies said the following: “The reality is that the change will be called a power grab. I did not hear the phrase used today, but it will be described as a power grab. Of course, it is a power grab, and what a wonderful power grab it is, too. We are grabbing powers from Brussels and bringing them back to London.”

He continued: “The Government’s whole purpose is to ensure there is a single market within the United Kingdom. We cannot have a situation where different nation-states within the United Kingdom go off and do their own thing.”

The powers being lost to Westminster over agriculture and building regulations are not examples of devolved administrations ‘going off to do their own thing’ in the future. They are examples of devolved administrations which had exercised their powers and face their policies roll-back.

WESTMINSTER CLAWINGBACK POWER FROM WALESOther Welsh parties are less impressed by the White Paper. Cllr William Powell, the Welsh Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said: “In my view, the manner and content of this consultation demonstrate a lack of respect by the UK Government for the Welsh devolution settlement.

“Under the cloak of enabling Westminster to create a new UK internal market at the end of the Brexit transition period, this most ideological of governments is effectively putting to the sword decades of devolution, validated by the Welsh people in two referenda.”

William Powell continued: “The Bill would allow the UK Government to set out how the devolved administrations would interact with Westminster post-Brexit, compelling Scotland and Wales to accept whatever new standards – in the field of animal welfare, environment and food are built into trade agreements of the future.

“Whereas vital areas of policy, such as agriculture, food safety and the environment are currently overseen by the governments at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, this UK government clearly wants to have ultimate control over issues previously determined by the EU. In other words, it represents a radical clawback of power, undermining Welsh democracy and giving Boris Johnson and his associates a free hand in post-Brexit negotiations with other countries.

“Welsh Liberal Democrats are committed to respecting the devolution settlement & the principle of Welsh Home Rule. Therefore we roundly condemn the UK Government’s cavalier tactics in this consultation.”

‘THIS IS A POWER GRAB’

For Plaid Cymru, Liz Saville Roberts MP said: “Four weeks and a series of loaded questions over the summer whilst Parliament isn’t sitting is all this Westminster Government has given people in terms of a consultation on a fundamental shift in the constitution of the UK.

“It is as if the Westminster Government cannot even hide its contempt for devolution.
“This is a power grab, plain and simple. From nakedly taking back competencies already held in Wales, to the fact that this legislation was not proposed jointly with the devolved administrations, the Westminster Government is chipping away at two decades of devolution.

“People will not fall for the Westminster double-speak of adding to devolution, these changes will only diminish Wales’s ability to carve its own path.”

NO DISCUSSIONS WITH WESTMINSTER
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We support having rules across the UK to regulate the internal market, but these rules must be agreed between the four Governments in the UK, each of which has their own responsibility for economic development. Any new system must have independent oversight and dispute resolution.

“Unfortunately, the UK Government did not manage to share the Paper with us, and Welsh Ministers have had no recent discussions with the UK Government on these issues. Any attempt to unilaterally impose a system will be deeply damaging.”

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