Tuesday, 8 November 2016

FMQs : Veterans, USA & Article 50

It's a long one this week as I've decided to tack on the Assembly's response to the Article 50 judgement. There's also a sense of deja vu from recent FMQs as you'll probably see for yourselves.

FMQs, 8th November 2016

There was a problem with the Senedd TV stream – which kept cutting out - so I'm unable to provide any video clips today (though it does mean I can post this earlier).

Party Leaders

Conservative leader, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), followed up on the recent revaluation of business rates. Many businesses are facing increases in rates of 100%+. He's been to many towns in his region and it seems to be affecting secondary retail and hospitality premises in particular. He welcomed the support offered, but unless more is done in the current budget round, some of the businesses may not be around when business rates are devolved in 2018.

The First Minister expected three things : most businesses would see a reduction in ratable values as the last revaluation happened before the 2008 economic crisis; the small business rate relief scheme will continue; a £10million transitional rate relief scheme will be available. If businesses believe they've been over-valued they should contact the Valuation Office.

UKIP leader, Neil Hamilton (UKIP, Mid & West Wales), welcomed Welsh Government cuts to the climate change budget and he was glad the Welsh Government were seeing things UKIP's way – though flood defences would be needed regardless of “conjecture” on “unproven” global warming. It was right not to commit huge sums of money to this, when 23% of households are in fuel poverty and 20% of fuel bills are attributable to green taxes. What would the Welsh Government do to cut these taxes?

The First Minister said the weight of evidence from qualified people is that climate change is happening and there's a human impact. If it's not true, then they'll be spending money on flood defences that aren't needed – but they are, and are based on disturbances in weather patterns attributable to global warming.

On energy and accusations Labour weren't standing up for working people, he said coal will never return, and it's better to have energy security that draws upon renewables. He also said Neil was in the UK Parliament when they waved through the “greatest act of industrial vandalism” against working people ever seen.

Filling in for Leanne Wood, Plaid's health spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys M
ôn), asked whether the First Minister accepted a report from the Fourth Assembly that support for veterans' mental health was “inadequate”? The exact figures aren't known but estimates are that 4% of veterans suffer from PTSD, while up to 1 in 5 suffer any sort of mental health problem. With the All-Wales Veterans Support budget being just £585,000, Plaid are calling for a Military Wellbeing Act to ensure support for veterans is consistent.

The First Minister didn't accept that veterans' services were inadequate, with the Welsh Government working with veterans' bodies to ensure they have access to mental health care and support. The system can still be improved and packages can be strengthened. He didn't know how effective a law would be, but the underlying sentiments were shared.


As I'm sure you've all had pounded into your skulls by now, Americans go to the polls today to elect a new President. I'm not saying anything else as I don't want to tempt fate.

Hannah Blythyn AM (Lab, Delyn) asked for an update on the Welsh Government strategy to improve links between Wales and the United States. There are strong historic ties with many signatories of the Declaration of Independence being of Welsh descent, plus a need to improve trade and tourism in light of Brexit. Also, whoever wins the election will have an impact beyond US borders; though it was time for a women President. (Update 09/11/16 : Umm....)

The First Minister believes the current political landscape means relations with the US are more important than ever. The Welsh Government maintains a strong presence in the US, having opened a new office in Atlanta, with support available for exporters in Cardiff and US; a new trade mission will take place later this month.

The election itself is a matter for American voters, but it's important the US doesn't become isolationist and nationalist. However, he doubted the UK will jump the EU in the queue for trade agreements because objections over TTIP across the political spectrum remain.

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) asked for a statement on no cold calling zones. They're popular with residents with large numbers of homes putting “no uninvited traders” stickers in their windows; what can be done to expand them?

In reply, the First Minister said the zones help make people feel safer and the number of them is increasing. The Welsh Government invited local authorities to bid for funding and 12 councils did so. There are difficulties with putting levies on unsolicited junk mail and nuisance phone calls as many of them don't originate from within Wales – the answer there lies at a UK level.

Best of the rest:
  • There's a recognised right for parents to home school their children and rights for children to receive a suitable education; revised guidance will be published to reflect this. Local authorities have the main responsibility there and to ensure children's safety. He didn't believe increased home schooling was a lack of confidence in the state school system in light of improved results and protected budgets - to Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales).
  • On historic Welsh place names, they provide invaluable evidence of the nation's development. The Historic Environment Act 2016 places a duty to record them for the future. The Welsh Language Commissioner has established a panel to provide advice and recommendations on how Welsh language names can be protected – to Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West).
  • The First Minister discussed the Wales Bill with the Welsh Secretary on a number of occasions, most recently last Friday by phone. It was important UK Ministers respond positively to recent reports, and he sympathises with criticisms of the Bill as it won't be comprehensive enough to settle the devolution settlement. “Good progress” has been made on fiscal framework talks - to Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Ind, Dwyfor Meironnydd).

Urgent Question

Eluned Morgan AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) asked what discussions had been held between the Welsh Government and UK Ministry of Defence over today's announcement that several military sites in Wales are to be closed and sold? The sites include Brecon Barracks in Powys and Cawdor Barracks in Pembrokeshire – which will close by 2027 and 2024 respectively (See also : Defending Wales IV - On Land). The announcement will cause huge uncertainty for army families and employees and will impact the economy in Mid & West Wales.

Communities Secretary, Carl Sergeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), confirmed there was was no warning of the announcement and shares AMs frustrations and concerns. The area is steeped in history of the armed forces, and the views of local members will form part of his representations to the MoD. Defence estates are a reserved matter but there are indirect consequences to communities as the military are valued and bring economic and social benefits.

Discussions will start with UK Ministers on actions they should take and potential timescales; they shouldn't just walk away without an exit strategy. The Secretary also intends to work with cabinet colleagues on supporting economic development in the areas affected.

Written Question of the Week ABANDONED

The latest published answers written questions are at least a fortnight old. Like last time this happened, if they're going to be lazy, I'm going to be lazy.

Statement of Opinion of the Week

Tory leader, Andrew Davies AM, submitted a statement demanding FIFA allow the Home Nations to wear poppies during their World Cup qualifiers this weekend. At time of posting it's attracted 13 signatures.

FIFA forbids national teams from wearing political or religious statements on their shirts, with the Republic of Ireland recently charged for commemorating the 100
th anniversary of the Easter Rising earlier this year. In November 2011, FIFA allowed the Home Nations to wear armbands with a poppy on them as a compromise and the individual FAs are reportedly in talks to allow the same thing to happen this time around.

FIFA are being anal about this, but rules are rules. The poppy seems to be becoming a form of “virtue signalling” in public discourse than an act of individual remembrance. Should anyone wear a poppy because it's expected of them?

Article 50 Judgement & Intervention
This is where we are at the moment.

As you'll all know, the High Court recently determined the UK Parliament should have the power to activate Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – and start the Brexit process – not the UK Government. The UK Government have appealed to the Supreme Court.

As the UK is an outdated constitutional joke, all executive decision-making powers are a privilege entrusted in Ministers by the Crown (known as the royal prerogative), which is in turn derived from an invisible sky wizard.

The UK Government argued this means the Prime Minister has the power to activate Article 50. However, the High Court ruled no such power exists when it comes to the EU (and because it affects domestic laws), so the matter has to be voted on by Parliament – meaning MPs will decide when and under what terms to activate Article 50.

This is all about using the correct procedure, not the referendum result itself. It doesn't overturn anything and, in many respects, is more democratic as our elected representatives will add extra checks and balances - it won't be left solely to the UK Government. This point has been lost on a depressingly large number of people and fuelling that ignorance is dangerous.The reaction from the right-wing press to the judgement - which has directly attacked the independence of the judiciary, personally attacked the judges and plaintiffs and seeks popular support to overturn the constitution - has been reminiscent of a
Nazi-era Der Stürmer persecution and Carmarthenshire Council....and I don't say that lightly. These are vile publications fit for an increasingly vile little island.

It's also a significant development for the devolution settlement because it raises questions about the use of prerogative powers in areas like Welsh law, the role and function of Welsh Ministers and the relationship between the devolved administrations and the UK Parliament. As a result, the Welsh Government have applied to give their views to the Supreme Court, now joined by the Scottish Government.

For the sake of brevity, I'm going to summarise what Counsel General, Mick Antoniw (Lab, Pontypridd), and other AMs said in the chamber rather than directly quote.
  • The UK Constitution is built on an independent judiciary and the rule of law; alternatives only “lead in one direction”. The case is about parliamentary sovereignty, not only of the UK Parliament but the devolved legislatures. Calls for protests and suggestions of violence are an attempt to intimidate judges.
  • The Welsh Government respects the referendum result and this isn't about overturning the Leave vote. It's important the Welsh Government has a voice in a process that could result in major constitutional change – probably the most important one since the execution of Charles I. Expert representation in court will be sought.
  • It's beyond doubt that the Government of Wales Act 2006 is a constitutional document similar to EU Communities Act 1972. Prerogative powers shouldn't be used to change devolved powers and ministerial functions – which are directly linked to the continued function of European treaties and will have to be amended post-Brexit. It should be Parliament's role.
  • There's a danger that if Article 50 is triggered in the form of a law, the UK Government may interfere in devolved powers via secondary legislation/regulations and bypass Assembly approval. Provisions in the 1689 Bill of Rights mean the Welsh Government may be unable to challenge changes to devolution done this way.
  • The UK Government has a right to appeal the judgement as the EU Referendum Act was approved by the UK Parliament. It's their duty to “get on with the job” of leaving the EU. The Great Repeal Bill is unlikely to roll-back devolved powers as there are mechanisms in place to prevent this happening without the Assembly's consent.
  • It's lawful to challenge the independence of the judiciary. There's a “people's prerogative” expressed in the referendum; politicians have a moral imperative to accept it. Giving notice to withdraw from the EU doesn't necessarily have to result in the repeal of any law; it has to be legislated for separately.


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