Today’s Senedd Roundup: AMs should decide on pledging allegiance to the monarch

Queen Elizabeth IIOwen Donovan, Senedd Home

AMs should decide whether to continue pledging allegiance to the monarch

Having been trailed on social media for a week, Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West) used her short debate to discuss whether the Oath of Office for AMs should change – from swearing allegiance to the monarch (and their successors) to pledging allegiance to the people of Wales.

Believing in the Oath of Office is crucial

Bethan said it was crucial that from the very start of their term in office, elected representatives honour their beliefs and, subsequently, that the people who elected them believe what they say. From their very first act, AMs may be forced to pledge allegiance to something they simply don’t believe in.
“This is what people say at the moment: ‘I, (name of the AM), pledge that I will be faithful to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, in accordance with the law. So help me God.’

“Well, I don’t believe in that statement. I am a republican. I am very proud of that fact. I do understand that not everyone is a republican and, of course, they could disagree. I respect that. That is the true meaning of democracy. But that respect should work both ways.”
– Bethan Sayed AM

Forcing people to swear allegiance to an institution they don’t believe in in order to take their seats showed that the UK places a higher value on outdated traditions, giving undue deference to an institution that lacks any democratic legitimacy. As the row over the Severn Crossing name change proves, people in Wales aren’t “prepared to blithely accept something simply because it has a royal proclamation attached”.

Hold discussions; garner support

Replying on behalf of the Assembly Commission, the Llywydd, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion), struck a cautious tone and suggested change would be very slow, but possible.

She said the Oath of Office was currently non-devolved but could be devolved to the Senedd either via an Order or via a Bill at Westminster which would require the approval of both Houses of Parliament. Afterwards, it would require a Bill in the Senedd to become law.

“My advice, therefore, to any Member who wishes to implement a change of this kind or any other change on any issue, is to hold positive discussions among Members and the people of Wales, and across parties, of course, and to garner the support of a majority. Everything is possible, but only through garnering support.”
– Llywydd, Elin Jones

On behalf of the Welsh Government, Deputy Minister & Chief Whip, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), said that while the Oath was an important a memorable part of becoming an AM, it wasn’t really a matter for the government – all but agreeing with the Llywydd’s advice.

The Extinction Rebellion protest in London

Senedd declares “Climate Emergency”: Is that enough?

The Motion (Final/Amended Version)

The Senedd:

  • Notes the stark warning from the world’s scientific community that there are just 12 years left to prevent 1.5C warming and further notes that warming beyond 1.5C represents a threat to the future of humanity and even limited warming will wreak havoc upon the livelihoods of countless people across the world.
  • Welcomes the fact that solutions to the climate crisis are widely available including renewable technology, sustainable transport and zero-carbon buildings.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to declare a climate emergency.
  • Commends the Welsh Government for: bringing forward the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the Environment (Wales) Act; committing the public sector in Wales to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and for all public sector buildings to be supplied with 100% renewable energy by 2020 or as soon as contractually able; and exploring all options for decarbonising the Welsh economy.

“Business as usual is not an option”

As you probably already know, the Welsh Government pre-empted this debate by declaring a “Climate Emergency” by themselves. Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) was nevertheless disturbed by comments from the First Minister earlier this week that declaring a climate emergency didn’t represent a difference in policy.

“In essence, it’s establishing two new committees and giving Cardiff University a bit more money. Well, my question to the First Minister and to the Government is whether you’re really up for this challenge?…. We’ve seen recently published the Government’s ‘Low Carbon Wales‘ paper, and the BBC highlighted quite clearly that the vast majority of pledges in that document already exist. This has to be a game changer, and business as usual is not an option.”
– Llyr Gruffydd AM

There are a number of policies Llyr believes should be pursued, such as making Wales self-reliant in renewable energy, fully mapping Wales’ green energy potential and an ambitious retrofitting programme for homes.

Shadow Environment Minister, Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), outlined some of the successes the UK Government have had, with a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions – while Wales has lagged behind at just a 19% reduction. He agreed that just declaring an emergency to grab headlines and plaudits wasn’t enough.

Weight of the future

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) said glumly that “my generation is the generation that has destroyed the planet” and that generation’s legacy has to be to help solve the problems which will be left to future generations to clean up. Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) called for brave leadership and the cost of doing nothing will end up being much higher than the cost of taking necessary steps to address this now.

Somewhat inevitably, the Newport bypass was raised. Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) said the Government had to make the right call there. In terms of the broader picture, nations which didn’t cause the problem (Mongolia, Mozambique) are facing up to the devastating impact of climate change through rapid average temperature increases, air pollution and powerful cyclones, while 1 in 14 native Welsh species are in decline.

“We should set highly far-reaching targets to limit our carbon output, encourage greater use of public transport and electric vehicles, and take steps to become powered solely by renewable energy….declaring this emergency is a welcome, necessary step, but it must be the beginning of a sea change in our approach towards protecting our environment because the impact of climate change isn’t remote, isolated or far away, it is now, it is immediate, it is near at hand. Solving it too and halting it is also within our grasp.”
– Delyth Jewell AM

Local Carbon Plan “could be revised”

Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said that even Plaid Cymru’s proposed solutions wouldn’t even go halfway towards what needs to be done. There had to be collective action across the whole of society and, under advisement from the UK’s Climate Change Committee, the Welsh Government’s Low Carbon Plan will be revised.

Photo by Hao Rui on Unsplash

Government taken to task over Pinewood “comedy of errors”

Yesterday, AMs discussed the highly-critical Public Accounts Committee report into the Welsh Government’s relationship with Pinewood Studios – summary here.

Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) said – to groans – that the love story had turned into a comedy of errors. Not only was there lack of clarity over the financial arrangements, but a lack of recognition of potential conflicts of interest.

In addition, the Welsh Government spent £6million on the studio space without undertaking a survey – which most people do when buying a house – and immediate repairs had to be carried out on the roof.

While the process behind the deal was criticised, the Committee reserved judgement on whether the relationship is a success or not:

“We agreed….to reserve judgement on whether the deal with Pinewood has represented value for money, as we recognise that commercial investment in the film and TV industry is….precarious and that it can take many years to realise the economic benefits. We believe there is a balance to be struck between investing public money to maximise investment in Wales and the risk this incurs, but these risks must be managed and the decision-making and governance arrangements around them need to be robust and rigorously informed.”
– Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM

Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East) said this report had all the hallmarks of previous reports, particularly in terms of lack of clarity in terms of operating arrangments and a lack of due diligence.

“….if you’re dealing with Darth Vader, you don’t send Bambi in to negotiate the deal.”

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) said that while the ambition and vision for the project were laudable and recent successes in film and TV production in Wales proves that projects like this make a positive impact. However, these types of projects need to maximise their impact on the local economy and Wales can’t be seen as an outpost of London in the industry.

Chair of the Culture Committee, Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West), was also supportive of Welsh Government efforts to boost TV and film production in Wales, but that had to come with appropriate oversight and transparency; commercial sensitivity has been used by Ministers to avoid answering tough questions. Some of the Welsh Government dealings to date in the industry have “been riddled with amateur mistakes”.

Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) was quite blunt as to what lessons needed to be learned from this:

“When you present your next money-making race winner, Ministers, you’d better prove its pedigree upfront. And when you engage in bespoke arrangements—and let’s remember that the Bad Wolf deal is a bespoke arrangement—please make sure that you have procured the necessary negotiating expertise. A director of Bad Wolf, herself a former Government insider, said that capacity was lacking in that department….if you’re dealing with Darth Vader, you don’t send Bambi in to negotiate the deal. “
– Suzy Davies AM

“Substantial growth”

Deputy Minister for Culture, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) was pleased members recognised the importance of the industry:

“We have seen the substantial growth, with an annual turnover of around £2 billion in this sector in Wales, which employs over 58,000 people, and that there are 50 per cent more people working in the industry now than was the case 10 years ago.”
– Deputy Minister for Culture, Dafydd Elis-Thomas

Pinewood has generated value for the Welsh economy and boosted Wales’ credibility in the industry and a further update on the financial performance of the project will be provided in December 2019. While he accepted the principle of carrying out surveys of buildings, there will be occasions where it isn’t entirely appropriate (i.e. when the building is prepared for demolition).

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

International affairs strategy due by summer

Another report discussed yesterday was the External Affairs Committee report on Wales’ future relations with Europe after Brexit – summary here.

Set out the scale of our ambition

Chair of the External Affairs Committee, David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said it was crucial for the inquiry to have an international dimension and the Committee held discussions with representatives from a number of nation states and stateless nations. He was pleased the Welsh Government has accepted, or accepted in principle, all of their recommendations.

“….it’s abundantly clear that Wales needs a new strategy of how we engage with the world after Brexit, or how we engage with the world full stop. Brexit is just an example of why we need to do it. This new strategy needs to be bold. It needs to set out the scale of our ambition as a nation. We must not be frightened of going perhaps that one step further than we would conventionally do.”
– Chair of the External Affairs Committee, David Rees AM

He highlighted one of the key recommendations – that Wales learns from stateless nations (like Quebec and the Basque Country) which have successfully forged bilateral relations based on common interests.

The impression Mark Reckless AM (Con, South Wales East) got on the Committee’s visit to Brussels is Wales’s office there didn’t need as much of an overhaul as he first thought. He added the Basque Country was taking a hard-headed economic approach to external affairs and were well positioned to promote exports – something Wales needs to do.

Brexit makes this work far more urgent

Ambition and urgency (or a lack of) on the part of the Welsh Government were common themes in all AMs’ contributions.

Plaid’s International Affairs spokesperson, Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East), was particularly concerned at what she considers to be the Welsh Government’s lack of ambition on engaging with the Welsh diaspora; there wasn’t much detail on how they intended to do it. She was also critical of delayed timetables regarding the development and publication of the “Global Welsh” strategy; Brexit has surely made all of this work far more urgent?

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) stressed the need to change the political culture of the Senedd. There’s been too much criticism of Welsh Government spending on its overseas presence whilst ignoring the overall vision. He was supportive of efforts to maximise Welsh “soft power”, citing a Wales-Mexico international football friendly in California last year which drew an 80,000 strong crowd.

“….can I commend the British Council’s soft power barometer, which compares us with Scotland, Northern Ireland, Catalonia, Flanders and Quebec, amongst others? I think that’s a good indicator because there’s good and not-so-good news there, but there are some really interesting insights. We are rated sixth out of those 10, so we are behind Quebec, Flanders and Scotland, but ahead of Northern Ireland.”
– David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central)

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) was pleased the Welsh Government has created a cabinet-level post for international affairs. He called on the Welsh Government to make more of the international-minded organisations which already exist in Wales and have built up relations over a great many years.

International strategy “ready by the summer”

Minister for International Affairs & Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales) provided an update on her international strategy:

“Work on the strategy is ongoing, and I do hope that by the end of this month I will be in a position to present the first draft to the Cabinet, but the final document will be available by the beginning of the summer.”
– Minister for International Affairs & Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan

International affairs crosses several cabinet portfolios and discussions have been held with different departments. Brexit, of course, still looms and the Welsh Government are exploring whether Wales, as a constituent nation of the UK, can still take part in certain EU programmes like Erasmus in our own right.

Picture: National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Government commits to introducing Social Partnership Act

In the first of two Plaid Cymru debates yesterday afternoon, the party tabled a motion to mark International Workers’ Day.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Notes the importance of International Workers’ Day and the role of trade unions.
  • Notes that Wales is lagging behind the rest of the UK when it comes to fair wages, with many people on wages 30% lower than the rest of the UK.
  • Believes legislation should be updated to: deliver ‘Fair Work’; protect workers’ rights and embed social partnership and collective bargaining into the fabric of Welsh life.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to ban the use of zero-hours contracts in devolved public services and associated supply chains.
  • Calls on the Welsh Government to commit to introducing a Social Partnership Act in the current legislative programme.

Wales should be “a fair work nation”

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) backed TUC Cymru’s aim of making Wales a fair work nation. Despite falls in unemployment, this masked the reality of life for people at the bottom of the wage ladder:

“Around a quarter of jobs in this country were paid below the voluntary living wage in 2017, with regional variations. For example, one in five jobs in Caerphilly were low paid; one in three jobs in Blaenau Gwent were low paid. In 2016, roughly 17,000 jobs in Wales were paid below the statutory minimum wage. The Low Pay Commission found that the majority of underpaid workers are women, part-time, and hourly paid.”
– Leanne Wood AM

She was disappointed the Welsh Government had decided to “gut” Plaid Cymru’s motion and replace it with “another meaningless self-congratulatory statement, with wishy-washy words and a long kick into even longer grass”.

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), tried to link low wages to devolution, with the gap in pay between Wales and the rest of the UK widening over the last 20 years. He rejected the idea zero hour contracts were somehow unfair as they provide flexibility, but there was broad agreement that workers should be empowered.

“In the period of devolution, we’ve seen successive Welsh Labour-led Governments taking forward a workers’ rights agenda, embracing social partnership, working towards a fair work nation, promoting collective bargaining, protecting and funding the Wales Union Learning Fund, abolishing zero-hours contracts in social care, introducing codes on ethical employment and procurement, establishing the economic contract, and, as already mentioned, repealing the worst elements of the vindictive Tory Trade Union Act here in Wales….”
– Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney)

Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) believed the Welsh Government were watering down Plaid’s call to ban zero hour contracts outright; people on zero hour contracts were twice as likely to work night shifts and are on average paid a third less per hour than other workers.

Setting the record straight

Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), told the chamber Plaid’s motion was worded as “an attack” and the Welsh Government amendments “set the record straight”. While she agreed zero hour contracts were exploitive, the important issue was control – people sometimes need flexible working arrangements but should control that.

The Minister made a clear commitment to the future of workers’ rights (though much of it will be decided in London):

“….we have already….committed to introducing a Social Partnership Act this Assembly term in order to provide greater clarity about the authority of social partnership bodies. And, if and when we leave the EU, we will look to ensure there is no weakening of existing employment rights, that new trade agreements protect employment standards, and that future UK employment legislation keeps pace with progressive EU employment legislation.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

Vote

The government motion – which by and large said the same thing as the Plaid motion but in more friendly terms to the Welsh Government – was passed by 29 votes to 23.

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