by Jon Coles
ANDREW RT DAVIES, the new and combative Conservative Shadow Health Minister, stepped into new territory for him and the Conservatives in Wales this week.
In recent weeks, the Conservative group in the Senedd has stepped up its attacks on the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, highlighting instances where Wales has failed to follow the Westminster Government’s lead on policy decisions.
TURNING A BLIND EYE
With Westminster’s current response to the COVID crisis at sixes-and-sevens, the Shadow Health Minister put in his boot to criticise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead on a contentious policy decision.
In March, the Westminster Government – followed by the UK’s devolved administrations – began discharging hospital patients into care homes. Discharged patients were not tested for coronavirus.
The Herald reported on the scandal at the time. We highlighted instances where care providers, in both Wales and England, were pressurised by health boards and trusts to take untested patients into closed residential settings.
The outcome of that disastrous policy decision was easily predictable. Its likely consequences were well-known – at least by the Westminster Government – at the time it made that decision.
Introducing a virus known to be lethal to vulnerable and elderly patients caused a wave of deaths in care homes across the UK. The virus spread among an isolated and largely defenceless population.
The foreseeable result was a calamity.
Deaths in social care settings spiralled. They remain high even after the first spike of the virus in the general population and its decreasing incidence across the UK.
Wading into the scandal this week, Andrew RT Davies criticised Welsh Government without a moment’s apparent reflection on the wider context of his words.
In a press release, Mr Davies commented: “There can be no excuse for such an ill-thought decision which, of course, will have had a profound impact on some of our most vulnerable in care homes. I cannot comprehend where the government’s thought process was in pushing care homes to accept hospital patients who had not received a COVID-19 test.
“The bullish act by the Welsh Labour-led Government in applying pressure is truly scandalous and as a result, the people of Wales deserve an apology.
“The most pressing question now is to address how many patients were infected after being admitted and then discharged from the hospital. To address people’s serious concerns, this must be a priority for the Welsh Labour-led Government.”
On receipt of the press release, we replied and asked whether Mr Davies wished to extend his tart observations about the discharge of untested hospital patients to include the Westminster Government.
After recent press releases in which the Conservatives have not hesitated to compare Wales unfavourably with England, we believed Mr Davies might reflect and provide a balanced response: possibly to praise the Welsh Government for following Westminster’s lead; possibly to take the chance to even-handedly criticise the Westminster Government’s policy which the Welsh Government followed.
We did not receive a reply.
POLITICISING A PANDEMIC
Over recent weeks, the Conservatives have ramped up partisan rhetoric over the Welsh Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns, managed to navigate a path between scoring political points and attacking the Welsh Government for its multiple early failings in Wales’ response to the virus.
Those failings include setting a testing target, failing to secure the testing kits necessary to meet the target, saying a testing target didn’t exist, announcing a revised testing target, and then abandoning testing targets altogether.
On each of those, Mrs Burns made telling points and held Wales’ Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, to account – often leaving him wriggling on a hook made of his own contradictions and evasions.
Similarly, when Wales entered the strictest phases of lockdown, Paul Davies was able to highlight the enormously disproportionate impact of them on Wales’ rural economy without indulging the fantasy that somehow things were any rosier over the border.
As the Westminster Government began to ease lockdown restrictions in England, and under pressure from both the Westminster Government and Conservatives on either side of Wales’ border with England, the tone of Conservative briefings changed sharply.
Repeated releases from the Conservatives demanded that the Welsh Government lift the lockdown in Wales in step with England. The Welsh Government was accused of ‘dither and delay’, the phrase ‘catch-up Cymru’ began to appear. Fighting talk appeared in the names of shadow ministers who previously expressed themselves cautiously, occasionally critically, and usually constructively.
With one eye on the next round of elections to the Senedd, the Conservatives moved away from consensus and criticism to outright attack.
Having watched the reopening of schools in England unravel into chaos, Conservative attacks on the reopening of Wales’ schools lost step with reality. Now, the Welsh Government was criticised for taking steps that England failed to take to keep schools open there. The desperate floundering of Westminster’s Conservative Education Minister, Gavin Williamson, stood in stark contrast to the determined and unflustered approach of his Welsh counterpart, Kirsty Williams.
Darren Millar, the Senedd Member charged with speaking for the Conservatives on COVID in Wales, began to speak of Wales’ failings – and particularly those of the Welsh Government – for not reopening pubs, restaurants and holiday accommodation. With Wales’ hospitality and tourism industries on their knees, it appeared that approach would serve the Conservatives well.
As the easing of lockdown in parts of England has unravelled, however, Mr Millar has gone noticeably quiet as Wales continues to lift restrictions now re-imposed in significant areas of England’s north-west.
The Prime Minister’s warnings of the risks of a second wave of the virus should focus Conservatives in Wales’ attention on what preparations the Welsh Government is making to head-off that eventuality or at least ease its impact if or when it arrives. Instead, Andrew RT Davies is fighting four-month-old battles seeking headlines.
CONSERVATIVES NOT ALONE
One of the features of the crisis has been how Plaid Cymru has used it to propel its own message for an independent Wales – or at least a Welsh legislature with far stronger powers than the current arrangements.
‘Westminster doesn’t work for Wales’ is how Plaid has pitched its message. Its fire is concentrated on the shambolic approach of the Westminster Government’s response to the crisis. The Prime Minister’s endless capacity to make up policy on the hoof when caught out or tell outright lies when questioned about details has given Plaid Cymru ample opportunity to illuminate the gap between Westminster’s rhetoric and reality.
The Westminster Government’s hectoring approach to the UK’s devolved administrations, which includes gazumping the Welsh Government on a deal for testing kits with pharmaceutical giant Roche, and its constant inconstancy and inconsistency has also allowed Plaid to deploy
its choir of voices demanding more autonomy – preferably independence – for Wales.
When attacking the Welsh Government, however, Plaid has taken a different approach to the Welsh Conservatives. It has clamoured to keep restrictions in place – for example on schools – and for existing restrictions to be strengthened and reinforced – for example on face coverings, a policy on which it is eerily close to the Conservatives’.
However, Plaid – and the Conservatives – have fallen well short of saying what they would have done differently in the same situation and what they would do now to improve things during the continuing COVID age.
ONE EYE ON THE ELECTION
By the time next May comes around, both of Wales’ principal opposition parties need to set out defined messages that are both less negative and more grounded in current reality if either is to shift Labour from power in Cardiff Bay.
For the Conservatives, the challenge is finding a voice for Wales which is not an echo of Westminster. The events of recent weeks demonstrate that efforts to reform the Conservatives in Wales to forge a distinct identity from the UK party are likely to be seed falling on stony ground. Darren Millar is Boris Johnson’s representative on Earth and Simon Hart his rock. A more constructive approach from the Conservatives is, therefore, highly unlikely.
For Plaid Cymru, the challenge is moving beyond dreams of jam tomorrow in favour of policies for today. Plaid need to focus less on what Westminster isn’t doing for Wales but what Plaid CAN deliver for the whole of Wales and not just its existing voters. Plaid’s problem is systemic. It lacks resources and, while it well-organised in pockets of Wales outside ‘Y Fro’, it has not found the key to unlock monoglot Anglophone voters in sufficient numbers across Wales.
As for Labour in Wales, all it can promise is more of the same. It’s been in power for over twenty years and it isn’t likely to change a formula that’s kept it in power for so long. And, when it comes to the economy, Labour can point out that the big levers are held by the Exchequer in London.
The Conservatives and Labour have the advantage of a large electoral base across most of Wales. If they can energise those voters to turn up and vote next May in anything like the numbers they did in the General Election, Plaid will have to watch out for a massive squeeze on their far smaller electoral base
“Inherently unfair” social care funding needs total overhaul
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.”
Residents urged to look out for voter registration letter
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
“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.
Residents who have any questions can contact Ceredigion’s Electoral Services on 01545 572032.
Conservatives accused of contempt for devolution
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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