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Politics

Drakeford lands in the brown and smellies

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THAT was much better. At least from Conservative leader, Andrew RT Davies.
Last week, we reported on the difficulties Mr Davies got into when bandying around statistics with the First Minister. His performance fell flat and the subject didn’t play to his or his Party’s strengths. 

REGULATIONS BREACH PROMISES 

This week, Mr Davies was back on ground about which the First Minister knows little and couldn’t care less: agriculture, and a Minister’s breach of repeated promises not to enact costly and onerous legislation during the pandemic.


Mr Davies said Labour’s Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, betrayed farmers in Wales announcing the introduction of a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) across the whole country despite saying in the Senedd Chamber on seven separate occasions that she would not while the pandemic continues.


Mr Davies said: “We’re 10 months into this crisis, a crisis that has had a dramatic effect on all sectors of business including farming, and the Welsh Labour Government – propped up by the Lib Dem – decides to introduce a blanket NVZ across all of Wales when [Lesley Griffiths] had said she wouldn’t.


“Labour’s farming minister was quite clear throughout the course of 2020 and the pandemic. Labour promised farmersup and down Wales they wouldn’t look at introducing these regulations while we were still dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Labour has broken that promise.


“I asked Labour’s First Minister to personally intervene on behalf of farmers and rural communities across Wales and hold off introducing these regulations when we’re still in the grip of a pandemic. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t even acknowledge that his Minister broke a promise made seven times.


“It’s yet another broken promise by the Labour Party, and shows that farmers and the Welsh public at large can’t trust Labour when it comes to protecting livelihoods and the food security of Wales and our United Kingdom.” 

FIRST MINISTER DIGS A SLURRY PIT

While Mr Drakeford tried to bluster his way out of the corner by referring to the number of agricultural pollution incidents each week, he inadvertently dug himself deeper into the hole Lesley Griffiths prepared. Neither the number nor frequency of pollution incidents have increased and the majority of pollution incidents are both localised and minor. That can be shown by direct reference to the minuscule number of enforcement actions and the even smaller number of prosecutions arising from pollution incidents.


The Welsh Government’s claims that its environmental watchdog, Natural Resources Wales, has both the necessary powers and the necessary funding to tackle incidents. If the Welsh Government’s claims on either count stand up to scrutiny, the overwhelming majority of cases relating to agricultural pollution are of extremely limited impact. If the Welsh Government’s claims about NRW are an example of ‘gilding the lily’, the problem of agricultural pollution is one to which it has contributed by neutering its watchdog. It cannot have it both ways. But Mr Drakeford tried to, even after acknowledging there had been NO increase in alleged agricultural pollution incidents.


Mr Drakeford said: “The level of pollution incidents in the agriculture sphere is damaging the reputation of farmers, damaging our environment and damaging the ability of that industry, in the long run, to trade with other parts of the world. Given that the strength of our industry is the quality of the produce that it delivers, any delay would not be in the interests of the industry.”That last point begs the question that if a delay to the regulations is not in the industry’s interests now, why delay promised at all.
Mr Drakeford continued: “The implementation of the regulations will be done sensitively, they’ll be done alongside the industry.” 

GOVERNMENT IGNORED OWN REGULATOR

That last point would make a welcome change.The largest source of river pollution in Wales has been pollution by water companies. Agricultural leaks are implicated in 15% of incidents.As long ago as 2018, The Herald probed the incidence of river pollution. A Freedom of Information Act request that year revealed there were 2,700 incidents of river pollution in the preceding three years. Fifteen percent of 2700 is 405: that equates to 2.6 incidents each week attributable to agricultural pollution. Those numbers, as Mr Drakeford said, have not changed. Of those 2,700 incidents, only ten resulted in civil sanctions.

At the time, Andrea Winterton of NRW told us: “We always seek to be proportionate in our enforcement, and the action we take will depend on the severity of the incident. Of the pollution incidents between 2013 and 2016, many of these were minor, small scale and short-lived, often making it difficult to find those responsible.”While one pollution incident is one too many, as Andrew RT Davies recognised in the Senedd, the Welsh Government is taking a large hammer to crack a relatively small nut while ignoring major pollution causes.


The Welsh Government has ignored both its own environmental watchdog over the scope of the regulations and the industry group it convened to review the new rules. The decision of the Welsh Government is also contrary to the recommendations of its own advisory panel.

Natural Resources Wales warned the Welsh Government its pollution regulations could have the ‘perverse outcome’ of making water quality worse.


The official advice from the regulator was obtained as part of a freedom of information (FOI) request submitted by NFU Cymru. The advice also said NRW did not have enough resources to implement the new rules if they applied to all farm businesses across Wales.


NRW’s advice was given specifically on the Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) being carried out by the Welsh Government. That assessment should have assessed the impact on all farm businesses in Wales. The NRW advice suggests the Welsh Government did no such thing.


NRW also claimed the Welsh Government had ‘lost an opportunity’ in only considering two options – do nothing, or an all-Wales approach – and suggested the assessment did not follow the Welsh Government’s own RIA guidance on presenting a comprehensive range of implementation choices.
It also questioned the lack of analysis on water quality in the RIA and how proportionate the measures would be in areas where low nitrate concentrations are found, concluding the assessment would be ‘open to challenge’ from a number of stakeholders.


Legal action has already been threatened by NFU-Cymru.The Pollution Subgroup of the Welsh Land Management Forum facilitated by Natural Resources Wales has consistently argued for better enforcement and the promotion of good practice.Those facts alone show the emptiness of Mr Drakeford’s words on the topic. They are of the same value as Lesley Griffiths’ seven empty promises. 

MORE TARGETEDAPPROACH NEEDED

TFA Cymru Chairman, Dennis Matheson, said “The vast majority of farms across Wales operate to very high standards of pollution control. Sadly, a tiny number of operators continue to flout the existing regulations and deserve to be penalised. However, the Welsh Government is using this as an excuse to hit the whole of the industry with costly new regulations.


“Tarring the whole of the industry with the same brush is not appropriate. Increasing the regulatory bar will do nothing to improve compliance amongst the small number of individuals who wilfully ignore the existing rules. Instead, the Welsh Government should be stepping up its enforcement of the existing rules.”


Mr Matheson continued: “As a member of the Pollution Subgroup it feels like we have been wasting our time meeting, discussing, debating and providing advice to Government. The Government didn’t even have the decency to consult with the Subgroup before announcing its decision. This is not evidenced-based policy-making, it’s a knee-jerk reaction and completely wrongheaded.”


Tenant farmers may struggle to meet the new requirements due to the constraints of their tenancy agreements.


“For many years, TFA Cymru has been highlighting the statutory and contractual restrictions that impact tenant farmersto the Welsh Government and provided advice as to how this could be overcome. However, the announcement contains no details about how the Welsh Government expects tenant farmers to comply.


“Tenants that meet opposition from their landlords could end up having to cease farming altogether, despite already operating to extremely high environmental standards. That surely cannot be right,” said Mr Matheson. 

RURAL COMMUNITIESFACE BIG CHALLENGES

Cefin Campbell, Plaid Cymru’s lead candidate for the Mid and West Wales region, said: At a time when the UK Tory government has slashed £137 million from the support for Welsh agriculture, the Labour Welsh Government plans to make the whole of Wales a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ), despite fierce opposition from farming unions.


“When conditions are favourable, farmers usually spread slurry on their fields between October and March, but the NVZ will ban slurry spreading for five months over the winter period. Slurry will have to be stored at a time when most cattle are kept indoors, which could result in farmers having to invest heavily in huge slurry tanks to accommodate the increased waste.


“‘As agriculture and our rural communities in general face huge challenges following the Brexit agreement and the effects of the Covid pandemic, the Conservatives take millions of pounds of badly needed money away from farmers, and Labour bring in draconian measures that will have a devastating effect on small or medium-sized dairy farms,’ said Cllr Cefin Campbell who is also Executive Board member with responsibility for Rural Affairs on Carmarthenshire County Council.


“Although I fully understand the crucial importance of protecting our waterways from slurry pollution, the Welsh Government should have taken a more targeted approach by implementing restrictions in specific areas or on farms that have a history of poor practice – as proposed by the government body Natural Resources Wales,’ he said.


“This blanket ban will punish the 95% of farmers who’ve worked tirelessly for generations to maintain that delicate balance between making a living and protecting the environment. It’s a grossly disproportionate over-reaction by Welsh Government.


“The investment needed by family-run farms to comply with these new restrictions could put their businesses at risk and even result in many leaving the land. The financial support offered by the Welsh Government to help farmersadapt to these new conditions is pitiful. The increased costs, coupled with the Tories cutting millions from agriculture aid, clearly shows that neither of the main parties can be trusted to support the farming industry, which is the backbone of our rural communities across mid and west Wales,” he added.

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Drakeford says Wales is not immune to Indian coronavirus

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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.

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Politics

Voter registration opens for Welsh Youth Parliament elections

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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/

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Politics

Cummings slates Government, Johnson, and Hancock

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“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.

NO PLANNING

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.

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Matt Hancock: Accused of lying to colleagues and the public

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.

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Like the Mayor in Jaws: Media-obsessed PM didn’t stop foreign travel

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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