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Opinion

The dodgy donations that have dominated the Welsh Labour leadership campaign shows the need for urgent reform

09 Mar 2024 8 minute read
Vaughan Gething (James Manning/PA Wire), Mark Drakeford (Dominic Lipinski / PA Media), Jeremy Miles, Senedd

Martin Shipton

Whatever happens in the Welsh Labour leadership contest – and I fear the worst – there’s a need for urgent reform of the measures in place to ensure accountability and transparency.

If Vaughan Gething is elected, we shall have as First Minister a politician who has repeatedly shown a disdain for scrutiny, an antipathy towards openness and a tendency to surround himself with sycophants.

This is not a recipe for good governance.

It’s therefore vital that the mechanisms that should force him and the rest of the Welsh Government to be accountable are functioning as well as they can – something that is demonstrably not happening at present.

We only have to look at the way Mr Gething has avoided scrutiny over his acceptance of donations totalling £200k from a company run by a convicted criminal to realise that the current way of doing things is dysfunctional. It makes no sense to conclude that such donations were made out of pure altruism.

Businesses have all sorts of issues where decisions made at various levels of government impinge on their operation. It’s perfectly understandable, therefore, that they would wish to engage with and, yes, influence government decision makers.

But to ensure that such influence is undertaken ethically and with full transparency, change is necessary, both in terms of the way politicians are held to account and the way those seeking to influence government decisions are regulated.

‘Dodgy donations’

The way Mr Gething’s “dodgy donations” scandal has been handled provides a perfect case study in how the accountability of Senedd Members and Ministers falls far short of how things should be.

Mr Gething himself has an in-built arrogance that has been nurtured in a political culture where he knows he has the upper hand, because of the dominance of the Labour Party. Unlike some other Welsh Labour politicians, he shows no humility and clearly enjoys occupying positions of authority and the trappings of power.

Sadly his exercise of what power he has is not matched by the ability to deliver positive outcomes, as his lamentable performance as Health Minister during the pandemic – and at the UK Covid Inquiry – amply demonstrated.

His avoidance of scrutiny for the donations totalling £200k that he received from a company whose main director, David Neal, has received two suspended prison sentences for dumping toxic sludge in a sensitive landscape that is special to the Welsh Government is especially shocking.

In typical Gething style he has batted away questions from journalists about the matter. His manner is that of a pompous member of an unchallengeable elite indignant at the impertinent behaviour of upstart inferiors. His team issues terse statements that smugly assert he is playing by the rules of the game.

Clearly such rules as exist – or at the very least their interpretation – are inadequate and need to be changed.

It is beyond ludicrous that the acceptance of £200k from a dodgy donor is considered outside the remit of the Ministerial Code.

How can that not be worthy of investigation? How can it not be forbidden?

Bland denials

Equally, the Standards Commissioner’s dismissal of a complaint against Mr Gething in his capacity as an MS over the same issue seems incomprehensible.

Neither the politician nor the criminal donor has said anything of consequence about the donations. Mr Gething has issued bland denials that it amounts to anything out of the ordinary, while Mr Neal has clearly been advised to say nothing at all.

There are so many questions that could be asked of them by a forensic investigator, not least about what Mr Neal was hoping to achieve, what Mr Gething thought he was doing in accepting so much money from a tainted source, and how the exceptionally large sum was arrived at.

Such questions should be put to both of them at a public hearing. The fact that Mr Gething knows that scrutiny of such a kind will not happen emboldens him to act as brazenly as he has done.

The people of Wales need to wake up and insist that toleration of such conduct must end. Fair-minded Labour Senedd Members must act together with MSs from other parties to ensure that such egregious avoidance of necessary scrutiny is no longer possible.

The donations came to light, of course, because there is a legal obligation on politicians to declare donations that are made to them. But there’s an anomaly in the way that has to be done.

While politicians have to specify the amount received in the declarations they make to the Electoral Commission, that is not a requirement when they make entries to the Register of Members’ Interests.

All they have to declare is the identity of the donor, without the amount. The Senedd should insist on greater transparency, with the quantum of donations being published as a matter of routine.

I don’t believe it’s cynical to hold the view that the more a donor gives, the more they will expect in return. Unfortunately the current lack of scrutiny suggests an underlying belief in pure benevolence for its own sake, without the expectation of any payback.

Most of us have been around long enough to recognise such a notion for the nonsense it is.

Lobbying

But there’s another very important element of current practice that needs to be addressed with equal vigour: the role of lobbying in Welsh politics.

At present there isn’t even a register of lobbyists held by the Welsh Government or the Senedd. Yet everybody who knows anything about the way the Senedd operates knows that the place is awash with lobbyists of various kinds.

Most days when the Senedd is sitting there are events taking place in the reception area designed to influence politicians into changing policy in favour of a particular interest group.

Often the events are run by charities and other groups with what can be interpreted as wholly benign motivations. But there is another category of professional lobbyists whose practitioners boast to prospective clients about their ability to secure access to Ministers.

Such access would be with a view to securing something of value to the client – either in terms of policy change, legislative change or perhaps a favour in particular circumstances.

At present the need for such contact between lobbyists, their clients and Ministers to be declared is limited to “formal” meetings.

This became clear to me when I was tipped off some time ago about a meeting involving a lobbyist, a client and two Ministers at the home of the lobbyist at a time when there was a raging controversy involving the client and the Welsh Government.

It turned out there had been no obligation on the Ministers to declare their attendance because the meeting was regarded as “informal”! Such a distinction between supposedly formal and informal meetings drives a coach and horses through whatever regulation is in place.

Overhaul

It’s time there was a thorough overhaul of the rules affecting lobbying at the Senedd. There should be a formal register of lobbyists. Politicians should declare all contact they have with lobbyists and a record of such contacts should be published on a readily accessible website.

But the need for transparency must go further. Any representations made to politicians, their staff or officials aimed at exerting influence should also be published.

I’m convinced that too much under-the-radar pressure is taking place. Many of the rules we live by and decisions taken in our name have been shaped by lobbyists.

At a UK level, there is no doubt in my mind that both the government and the party likely to be in power after the next general election have been heavily lobbied by those that didn’t want a ceasefire in Gaza.

The Welsh Government may not be able to influence the outcome of a war, but it has a lot of money at its disposal and the ability to favour businesses, groups and individuals.

We are faced with the possibility of a new First Minister taking charge whose record on transparency, accountability and integrity falls far short of what we should expect.

“Senedd reform” needs to encompass far more than simply increasing the number of elected politicians and changing the voting system.


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Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
1 month ago

1) I seriously doubt any would be UK PM would survive the intense scrutiny he or she would be under if they’d accepted a donation of the kind, and from such a disreputable source, that Vaughan Gething has. 2) A register of lobbyists at Westminster means It’s not possible for professional lobbyists to act with such impunity and so little accountability there as they seem to be able do in our Senedd. So the question must be asked why are we in Wales willing to accept activities in our Parliament and from our would be leader that would be considered… Read more »

Welshman28
Welshman28
1 month ago
Reply to  Leigh Richards

The public don’t get any form of say in this argument . Labour politicians in Wales have cleverly covered their tracks so any form of protest is either ignored or brushed aside. They created rules that mean they do as they please it’s called a DICTATORSHIP.

Llyn
Llyn
1 month ago
Reply to  Welshman28

“Dictatorship”? The labour party have won nearly all national elections in Wales over the last 100 years. Corbyn’s Labour comfortably defeated the Conservatives in Wales. They are the will of the Welsh people.

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
25 days ago
Reply to  Llyn

You have to be kidding. The Labour Party are, at best, seen as the best of a bad bunch .In fact the Welsh branch, like the rest of the UK, is totally undemocratic, controlled from the top and through the constituencies by a small number of tightly knit members, often from the same family.. The small minority who vote then have the choice between them and the Nasty Party.

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
30 days ago
Reply to  Welshman28

It would appear that you are talking about the tories of the uk government, who managed to obtain an 80 seat majority (at the time) when only 29.36% of the elegible electorate actually voted for them!

Robert Williams
Robert Williams
1 month ago

An article by Martin Shipton in which he reveals even more clearly than before his horror at the possi/proba/bility of Vaughan Gething’s becoming FM. But the fact is that his dread is completely justified; not on the same world-threatening scale as the threat of Trump’s return, but a kind of microcosm of this.

Gruff Williams
Gruff Williams
1 month ago

Thank you Mr Shipton. Are you now mates with Royston Jones? Whatever, some pertinent, much needed observations.

Welshman28
Welshman28
1 month ago

Brilliant piece of journalism

Jen
Jen
1 month ago

The two Cabinet Ministers who had the informal meeting, at a dinner party hosted by a lobby company were Julie James and Jeremy Miles. Both lawyers!

Rob jones
Rob jones
30 days ago

Corrupt labour ,people voted the dictatorship in and we pay the price

Nobby Tart
Nobby Tart
29 days ago
Reply to  Rob jones

How do you ‘vote’ for a ‘dictatorship’?

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
25 days ago
Reply to  Nobby Tart

BY having two main parties with almost identical policies as the only show in town, Its known as an elected dictatorship

A Evans
A Evans
26 days ago

Absolutely correct. When any Senedd member can refuse to provide information it is open to corruption. They are our servants, paid by us to do our bidding! The very opposite is currently happening & must be stopped immediately!

Cwm Rhondda
Cwm Rhondda
26 days ago

Labour with their noses in the trough – nothing new in the valleys, its Labour normal mode of operation.

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