Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Alun Davies fired from Welsh Government

I don't often make much of what passes as a "scandal"
in Cardiff Bay nowadays. This is one of those rare exceptions.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
As you'll probably know, Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) was sacked as Natural Resources and Food Minister today, though not for the reasons many would've expected.

It follows a row over his breach of the Ministerial Code relating to the proposed Circuit of Wales development in Blaenau Gwent, and then a subsequent separate – and disgraceful – attempt to use his ministerial position to obtain private information about opposition AMs.

Last week, the First Minister decided against sacking his minister even after a report from the Permanent Secretary (pdf) said there had been a breach of the code. Opposition parties weren't satisfied, and are planning to/planned to hold a joint debate on the minister's position tomorrow afternoon.

Since then, it's been revealed that on July 2nd, Alun Davies twice asked civil servants (once via e-mail, once verbally) for information on farm subsidies received by five opposition AMs. This would've been used against them, probably to flag up possible hypocrisy or demonstrate that he alone isn't the only AM who has possible conflict of interests.

The civil servants – quite rightly and commendably – blew the whistle. BBC Wales provided a snapshot of the "smoking gun".
(Pic : BBC Wales)

The AMs in question were :
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) – a farmer by profession.
  • Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) – her husband's a farmer.
  • Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) – her family run a farm, though she's a barrister.
  • William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales) – his family run an organic farm in Powys.
  • Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) – his family run a farm in Ruthin, Denbighshire.

The First Minister is said to be "furious", having reportedly found out about this last Friday (4th July) . After standing by Alun last week - when he could easily have given him the sack there and then - you can understand why. He's been made to look like a poor man manager and that's before considering how this reflects on the ways by which members of his government go about their jobs.

In his formal statement to the National Assembly (all of the following is from ITV Wales), the First Minister said :
"In recent days communications between the Minister for Natural and Resources and Food and civil servants in his division have been drawn to my attention.
"The emails indicate that the minister asked the civil service to give him private information about the financial interests of a number of members of this chamber. These relate to CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) payments made to these individuals.

"I believe that these requests were poorly judged, inappropriate and the fact that they were made at all is unacceptable to me as First Minister.

"As a result, I have asked the Minister for Natural Resources and Food to leave the government.

"I made this decision with some regret and would like to record my appreciation for the contribution that Alun Davies has undoubtedly made to the work of the government during his time in office. "

This obviously has a wider administrative impact too. The portfolio Alun previously held has been broken up.

  • Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), will take responsibility for agriculture and fisheries policy.
  • She'll be assisted by a new Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Mid & West Wales).
  • Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), will take responsibility for environmental policy.
That looks clunky. Culture and the environment are hardly bedfellows, and Edwina Hart has enough to do managing the economy without this being piled onto her desk too. It also demonstrates the limited talent that can be promoted to cabinet.

The reaction has - quite understandably - been ferocious by Welsh standards, especially considering two opposition leaders were targets for the smears. There were angry exchanges during First Minister's Questions today, with the First Minister not exactly covering himself in glory after a bizarrely irrelevant accusation that Andrew Davies snubbed Chuckles Windsor when he was, in fact, dealing with a stroke his mother-in-law suffered as well as being ill himself.

Again, the following are extracts from ITV Wales' coverage

Andrew Davies AM :

"Efforts to gain this information – in what would appear to be attempts to smear Assembly Members – is reminiscent of Damien McBride’s era under Gordon Brown. What possible reason could the former Minister have for taking this devious action?

"His sacking was inevitable and questions must also be raised about his continuing role as an Assembly Member. This – effectively – is gross misconduct, and we have today written to the Standards Commissioner, making the case that this person may not be a fit and proper person to hold elected office. "

Kirsty Williams AM :

"The actions of Alun Davies as a Minister are atrocious and completely unacceptable for anyone serving in public office. The fact that Alun Davies used his Ministerial office to start a smear campaign against those that dared to hold him to account is disgraceful.

"Alun Davies has been mired with controversy throughout his ministerial term. Aside from the actions that have come to light today, his inappropriate lobbying over the Circuit of Wales left the ministerial rule book in tatters. His behaviour has left the First Minister with no choice but to sack him, but the fact that this was not done sooner calls into question the First Minister’s own judgement."

Llyr Gruffydd AM :

"The public places great trust in our elected cabinet members and it is clear that Alun Davies played fast and loose with that trust. The First Minister should have taken this action last week when the independent report into Alun Davies’ conduct found that he had broken the Ministerial Code on more than one occasion.

"Had Alun Davies had the courtesy to ask me in person if I received the single farm payment I would have answered him directly that I do not. It is a great shame for the people of Wales that Alun Davies has acted inappropriately as a Minister, and it is right that the First Minister has finally taken this action."

It's clear that Alun Davies divided opinion, and his performance as a minister was patchy to say the least. His good side showed that he understood that farming needed to undergo something approaching a revolution to be viable in the long run. He also set some ambitious targets for the Welsh food and drink sector more recently.

His bad side revealed a pompous immaturity ill-suited to ministerial office that verged on incompetence, with specific concerns like the aforementioned Circuit of Wales lobbying, poor relationship with parts of the farming industry and poor management of his departmental accounts. One of his laws has also ended up in the Supreme Court - rightly or wrongly - and he's sped up the passage of legislation twice.

This is one of the most cynical, arrogant and downright idiotic decisions ever made by a sitting member of a Welsh Government. It's so serious it even made UK headlines, which is a rare feat in itself.

It's right that every AM declares interests when debating in the Assembly chamber, or at least have them on public record - some of that information is freely available via the likes of Companies House. It's another thing entirely to abuse a position of power and trust in order to smear AMs by attempting to obtain private financial information.

Martin Shipton's reverse midas touch has even come into play, as he went so far as to suggest in the Western Mail a few days ago that Alun could be a future First Minister. I guess that's a "no" then. Martin's subsequently changed his tune after today's revelations.

Alun Davies can't be sacked as an AM; he's there until 2016 regardless. But since the rule changes brought in by the Standards Committee last year, there's the outside possibility he could be temporarily suspended should the Standards Commissioner take up Andrew Davies' case. I don't know if ministerial misconduct is dealt with separately to standards of conduct as an Assembly Member.

It remains to be seen whether he has the Labour whip withdrawn - it appears the First Minister has rejected the idea. Carwyn Jones might be making another poor judgement call if he allows a disgraced minister to rejoin his party's ranks after attempting something as explosive as this. Luckily for him there's less than a fortnight until summer recess.

I doubt this is going to be the last we hear of it, and it's new low for Welsh political skulduggery.


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