Adrian Mason: Wales needs real devolution. Not Cardiff Bay giving orders.

27 May

Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.

Congratulations to the Conservative candidates in Wales who have secured the most seats ever for the party in the Welsh Senedd – and an all-time high in the number of votes cast since devolution began in 1999.

However, the very real possibility is that these very respectable results may turn out to be the high-water mark for the Conservatives in Wales.

So, the plain question has to be asked: where has it got us?

Despite the immense hard work put into the Conservative election campaign, Wales is still trapped in a socialist orbit. Nothing has changed, and we now face another five years of Labour government. That is the way it has been since devolution was implemented 22 years ago, and unless something extraordinary happens, it is likely to be the position forever. That is the reality we face.

The Welsh Labour Party has its power base in the South Wales valleys. There are 25 constituencies confined within a small geographical area in south east Wales, broadly contained in the boundaries of the old county of Glamorgan. They are former mining and steel communities. No crumbling ‘red wall’ there, and any chance that they can be turned blue in our lifetimes is for the birds. All a party needs to achieve a majority in the Senedd is 31 seats, a mountain as high as Snowdon for the Conservatives to climb. So far, we are halfway up – but the path may have run out!

This leaves the whole of Wales subject to a socialist government that has little interest in anything other than in bolstering its own position with its core voters.

‘Devolution’ is defined by Oxford Languages as:

‘”The transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially by central government to a local or regional administration.”

Whilst power has been ceded by Westminster to Cardiff Bay in specific areas under the Government of Wales Act 2006, that is where devolution stops. For it to be true and effective devolution, powers should be further delegated to local authority level, allowing local decision-making in much the same way as is developing in England.

We have seven Conservative Members of the Westminster Parliament in North Wales, but their influence compared to English colleagues is diminished in such important areas as health, education, and social care, where they have no vote. Our elected Members in the Senedd, though increased in number, are still in a significant minority, and with the best will in the world, their voices will remain mute for all practical purposes.

As a member of Boris Johnson’s leadership election team in Wales, I organised an event for the now Prime Minister to address the faithful here in the North. He was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling by local people that devolution is not working for us. The people who attended that meeting will be watching carefully, expecting their voices to have been heard. In that regards, there are some positive signs.

The decision of the UK Government to facilitate the direct funding of new infrastructure developments within the devolved nations and regions is commendable. It means that, for the first time since devolution started, local authorities will receive money directly from Westminster in the form of the Levelling Up Fund, to invest £4.8 billion in high-value local infrastructure.

This money is available to all areas of the UK and its prospectus states that it is:

“Designed to help local areas select genuine local priorities for investment by putting local stakeholder support, including the local MP where they want to be involved, at the heart of its mission.”

As a consequence, Sarah Atherton, the Conservative MP for Wrexham, has been working on bids with Wrexham County Borough Council with its ‘Wrexham Gateway Project’. She is also engaging with a number of community groups to apply for the Community Ownership Fund. Former Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones of Clwyd West, is also actively involved with his local authorities formulating bids. The story is the same with all our Conservative Members across the region.

By facilitating direct bids to the Treasury, the scheme allows local people headed by our Conservative MPs to prioritise money for local issues. That is real devolution. It is great news for North Wales.

In another positive development, Westminster will be able to fund projects under the Shared Prosperity Fund to be launched in 2022. This source of funding has been designed to replace the EU Structural Fund.

There are, however, important differences. Firstly, taxpayers will receive all the funding, not having it ‘top-sliced’ by the EU and, crucially, it will be available directly from Westminster. Again, this is excellent news for local interests here in North Wales. It will allow local authorities to select their own priorities without having it blocked for political reasons by the Welsh Labour Government.

Although the political outlook in Wales remains discouraging for Conservatives, notwithstanding the good results last week, initiatives such as the Levelling Up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund gives those of us in the North some independence from Cardiff Bay and allow our elected MPs to influence the direction of travel.

Despite the howls of objections raised by Labour politicians in Cardiff, funding by Westminster is not a threat to devolution; it actually enhances it through the principle of local decision-making. Opposition by the Welsh Government to direct funding by Westminster is more to do with politics than economics. If they really believed in disseminating powers to local level, rather than hoarding them for themselves, then they would be supporting and encouraging of these initiatives. Alas, this is not their modus operandi – as the last 22 years has aptly demonstrated.

Adrian Mason: Brexit offers Welsh farmers great opportunity

18 Mar

Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.

It is always pleasing to write about positive developments that are happening in troubled times. The opportunities that present themselves to Welsh farmers, now that we have left the European Union, are enormous.

Farmers care for around 80 per cent of Wales’s land area. Agriculture, along with tourism, is the economic lifeblood of the country. What happens to the farming industry will have a profound effect on the future of Wales in the post-Brexit era. If our farmers can prosper, then the benefits for Welsh communities will be significant.

We are at a crossroads. For the last 47 years, Welsh agriculture has been subject to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which allowed farmers to export their produce to the Eurozone tariff free and, in many cases, receive subsidies determined by Brussels. Since January 1st, this has all changed. The CAP no longer applies to the UK. Agricultural policy is now a national issue. The Basic Payment Scheme, the biggest of the rural grants and payments that provide help to the farming industry, will be maintained into 2021. Pleasingly, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) concluded by the UK Government with the EU will ensure the continuance of tariff-free access to the European market for our farmers.

However, whilst there is much to be positive about, there are some worries. Agriculture in Wales is a devolved matter, so the responsibility for the industry resides with the Welsh Government (WG). Setting out its policy in a White Paper for the Agriculture Bill, Wales’s Environment Minister, Lesley Griffiths, criticised the historical CAP payments for not adequately supporting efforts to protect the environment and enhance the Welsh countryside. The WG therefore proposes that future payments to farmers should be subject to additional environmental caveats, which are likely to prove onerous. These include satisfying economic, social, and cultural criteria. It is intended that such benefits be secured through the Sustainable Farming Scheme, which is primarily focussed on environmental outcomes.

The scheme is perhaps typical of Welsh Labour’s generally hostile approach to commercial activity, putting ideology before economic reality. At a time of change, the opportunities presented to Welsh farmers should not be constrained by further regulatory burdens of the type proposed by the WG. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of CAP was of the overburdening bureaucratic red tape taking up a disproportionate amount of farmers’ time. Whilst safeguarding the environment is of course important – and farmers are the first to recognise their responsibility for ethical husbandry – there needs to be a balance that does not damage their competitiveness in a world market at this pivotal moment of exciting change.

The WG White Paper comes at a time when there is renewed optimism in the Welsh farming industry. Now the fears and doubts of ‘no deal’ have disappeared, farmers can look forward to the future with certainty and confidence. However, whilst the WG is hatching its plans for burdensome regulation, the agri-industry is getting on with building the future.

Huw Thomas, Political Adviser to the National Farmers Union Wales, comments:

“Brexit uncertainty has meant that many farmers have delayed on-farm investment and development decisions; now that we know what sort of trading relationship we have with our largest export market, I very much hope that farmers will have the confidence to start investing on farm and growing their businesses.  I hope we will see new export opportunities open up for Wales’s farmers, and a return of confidence across all sectors allowing them to invest and plan for the future.”

There is evidence of this renewed optimism on farms all over Wales, though many are still cautious in their approach to the future. There are some shining examples of how the entrepreneurial spirit within the industry has reignited in recent times, and this can surely only increase now we have left the CAP.

Take, for example, the farmer from Corwen, in North Wales who exports 1,000 Welsh lambs to Norway every week and has opened up a supply line to the Middle East. Others are taking the opportunity to diversify from traditional farm produce and are producing quality cheese, yoghurts and butter.

Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) (HCC) is keen to ensure that Wales’s premium lamb produce finds its way to non-EU countries. Currently, around 85 per cent of beef and 92 per cent of lamb goes to Europe. This is the legacy of 47 years of EU membership, which militated in favour of sales within its single market but did not encourage farmers to look elsewhere to export their produce.

However, now the UK Government is free to enter into free trade agreements with other countries, there are now real opportunities to export, tariff-free across the globe. The TCA gives our farmers the best of both worlds, maintaining access to the EU market whilst offering the prospect of new markets elsewhere in the world.

Kevin Roberts, the HCC chairman, said recently:

“We [also] look forward to building new trade relationships right across the world as we have been for the past few years – lamb exports to the Middle East are growing quickly, and there’s huge potential in North America, Asia and elsewhere.”

Indeed, exports to the Middle East, a market worth an estimated £7.8 billion in 2019, have increased ten-fold. Whilst still modest, the potential for Welsh farmers is enormous. Welsh lamb can now be found on the shelves of three supermarket chains in Qatar, for example, and is exported to Japan and Canada. And whilst Welsh farmers would find it difficult to compete with New Zealand on quantity, the USP for Welsh lamb is its premium quality. HCC is taking enormous strides in promoting Welsh meat into the global marketplace.

Whilst it is still very much early days in our post-Brexit journey, there are positive signs that this new era will bring with it fresh opportunities for Welsh farmers and others in the agricultural industry. The only caveat to that, as always, is the attitude of the Welsh Labour Government, who are seemingly hell-bent on replacing the EU’s onerous regulations with their own.

The WG should take the opportunity to deregulate the industry to allow our farmers the scope to engage in entrepreneurial schemes which will further diversify and expand Welsh agriculture. A ‘light touch’ approach, within reason, would free our farmers from non-productive paperwork, allowing them more time to use their expertise in positive ways. This will be good for, not just the Welsh economy and the land, but also the environment generally. Such an approach is more likely to achieve the objectives set out in the Agriculture Bill, rather than imposing a raft of rules and regulations.

Adrian Mason: Cancelling exams is a betrayal of Welsh children

16 Nov

Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.

The Welsh Labour Government has announced that it is scrapping GCSE, AS, and A-Level examinations for the second year in a row, in contrast to the decision to proceed with exams in England. The consequences of the decision could well be a further deterioration in Welsh education as the system falls further behind its English counterpart. Already bottom of the league of home nations in the PISA tables, Labour has a track record of using education as a political football, with the losers being Welsh children.

Sarah Atherton, the Conservative MP for Wrexham, said:

“The Labour Government in Wales has a woeful record on education, and this simply continues the trend which has let down Welsh children again. This is reflected in the international PISA scores, where Wales scores over 15 points lower in English, reading and mathematics. Welsh Government needs to do better if they are to promote our young people’s life chances.”

The decision announced in the Welsh Senedd by Kirsty Williams, the Education Minister, is another example of how the socialists in Wales run the government. Engaged in a race to the bottom, they make decisions that are more to do with political ideology than the wellbeing of its citizens.

The decision not to run the exams in 2021 was announced, unusually, by Williams in the Sunday Times, two days before the formal decision was given to the Senedd. In the article, she stated that she was ‘not concerned’ whether Welsh students would end up with higher grades than their English counterparts and that was a matter for Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, to worry about.

However, what is becoming clear is that by deviating from the English position, the Welsh Government is potentially damaging the future of Welsh school students. It is not the first time they have played politics with our examination system. They recently took the decision to retain AS Levels as a stand-alone qualification, and not follow England with linear A Levels, provoking accusations that they had debased the ‘gold standard’ of the qualification in Wales.

This latest attempt to be ‘different’ (which frequently seems to be all that inspires the decisions of Welsh Ministers) followed on from a number of options presented to Williams by the regulator, Qualifications Wales. The Minister chose the most extreme option and now assessments will be undertake in the classroom, under the supervision of teachers, not through formal examinations overseen by independent invigilators. This leaves Williams open to the charge that these assessments will not be as robust as those taken in England under traditional methods.

Suzy Davies, the Conservative Senedd member and Shadow Minister for Education said:

“The critical issue for me is that assessments are externally set and externally marked. This will give them some comparability with previous years’ exams and protect teachers against any accusations of unintended bias.”

The Vice Chancellor of Bangor University, Professor Iwan Davies, commenting on Williams’s announcement, said he was awaiting further details but providing the assessment is robustly externally moderated then that should not prejudice Welsh students when they apply to university.

However, this is currently far from clear. Under the new rules, schools will be able to run ‘teacher managed assessments’ at a time of their choice between February and April next year. These assessments, which are likely to be part-papers taken from the full examination, will be externally prepared and assessed by the Welsh examination board, WJEC, but overseen by teachers.

This raises two issues. The first is that with such a wide window to take the assessments, it will be impossible to keep the contents of the papers confidential. What is to stop students simply sharing the contents with the outside world? How can fairness be maintained so that all students have an equal opportunity? The second issue is that by not having independent invigilators, how can we be sure that these classroom assessments will ensure the same level of examination rigour and compliance which is required by OFQUAL, the regulator in England?

These are questions that need answering before any semblance of confidence in the robustness of the system can be assured. The consequence of getting it wrong once again after last year’s grade debacle, will be that Wales’s students will potentially be becoming second class exam graduates.

To deny our young people the opportunity to excel in traditional examinations is a disservice to the hard work and dedication they put into their learning. It is an illogical decision. Williams says she consulted with a number of stakeholders before making the decision to not run the exams, amongst them the universities, but clearly as all the details of assessment have yet to be finalised, these discussions would have been based on conjecture and not hard facts. It remains to be seen whether Higher Education institutions in England and the university admissions service, UCAS, retain confidence in the standard of A-Levels achieved by students in Wales compared to their counterparts in England, when the full implications of the Welsh system of assessment are fully thought out.

And what about those children who have worked hard to achieve their GCSEs so they can leave school and find a job? Will employers consider their assessed qualifications to be as robust and secure as the exam results of their English job-hunting competitors?

Welsh political debate on the issue meanwhile consists of the usual hand-wringing contributions from Labour and the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru. They say it would be ‘unfair’ or ‘stressful for children’ to allow the exams to proceed. Williams herself referred to ‘the mental stress that the pandemic had already inflicted upon young people.’ This is the type of propaganda we have grown used to in Wales.

The Welsh Government do our children a disservice by denying them the opportunity to compete in the real world, rather than the fantasy world dreamed by their socialist dogma. They believe so fervently in their ideology that some Cardiff politicians are calling for Gavin Williamson to follow the Welsh example.

I sincerely hope that Williamson has more respect for English students than to inflict this lunacy on them.

Adrian Mason: The Internal Market Bill will help North Wales compete

30 Oct

Adrian Mason is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the North Wales Conservatives.

Looking for good news in Wales at the moment has become a difficult task. We are living under a Covid 19 cloud with an incompetent Welsh Labour Government (WG) meting out disproportionate diktats on what seems like a daily basis. Sadly, these measures are having a devastating effect on the Welsh economy, no more so than in North Wales where the lifeblood of the tourism industry is being drained away by lockdowns and government-sponsored anti-English sentiment.

Welsh Labour has never been a friend of North Wales – not enough votes here to cause them any electoral issues. It must be remembered that the WG is a hard-left regime, the living embodiment of Corbynism. It believes in state control, with its inevitable over-regulation and high taxes. It has little interest in our tourist industry, and this has been borne out in successive policy announcements. Even before Covid 19 they were planning to introduce a tourism tax. 20 years of failure, with a health board in special measures for the last six years, an education system bottom of the pile of UK nations, and a chronic lack of infrastructure expenditure has left our region all the poorer and gives precious little for the WG to shout about.

So, the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (IMB) currently going through Parliament has the potential to redress the balance of years of WG neglect and should be great news for North Wales.

In all the hullabaloo over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the real essence of the IMB is often overlooked. Part 6 of the Bill allows Westminster to administer internal funding that was previously undertaken by the EU. All those signs you see with the EU flag proudly claiming that a project had been part-funded by Brussels. Well, that wasn’t really EU funding at all; it was British taxpayers’ money, top sliced by the EU and handed back to the UK regions. The IMB will allow Westminster, not Brussels, to carry out that task. Under S.46 of IMB, a Minister of the Crown has the power to allocate money provided by Parliament, to promote economic development in any area of the United Kingdom within a number of specified areas. These include the promoting of economic development, culture, sport, and provides far reaching financial support in areas like transport, health, education, and housing.

David Jones, a former Secretary of State for Wales, said:

“The Bill is of prime importance to businesses and consumers in Wales, as in every other part of the country. Indeed, those businesses and consumers would be horrified if they thought that there was any prospect whatever of there being a threat to the integrity of the internal market post-transition. The interests of economic prosperity require that producers in every part of the UK should have unfettered access to consumers in every part of the country. This Bill ensures that will happen.”

The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford though, has recently stated that the IMB represents a “smash and grab” on the devolution settlement and takes back powers that have been devolved to Wales. This is simply untrue. Wales didn’t have those powers in the first place as they were vested in the EU. To state that these powers are now being removed from them is disingenuous. Part 6 of the IMB is just another layer of funding and does not impede upon competencies enjoyed under devolution.

What is undoubtedly annoying Drakeford is that the EU previously handed over this funding directly to the WG whereas under IMB, ministers in Westminster will now decide this based on merit across the whole country. The WG was quite content to allow an unelected unaccountable EU Commission to hand out funds but now squeals like a scalded cat at the thought of Westminster doing the same.

This is a view shared by Paul Davies, the Leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament who said:

The Welsh Government are quick to claim that Part 6 is some sort of power grab and that the UK Government simply wants to neuter devolution – well that couldn’t be any further from the truth. [Welsh] Government Ministers were all too happy to receive funding from Brussels and so it begs the question, why on earth would anyone object to more investment and more jobs in Wales at a time of looming economic crisis. Let me make this clear – Wales will not lose any powers as a result of the Internal Market Bill.”

The fact is that this is excellent news for us here in North Wales. No longer having to contend with a WG discriminating against us, we will have just as much chance of receiving funding as those in South Wales. With seven Conservative MPs here in North Wales, the aspirations of the people will be better represented than through a remote WG. It will, in fact restore democracy and not ‘attack’ it, as claimed by Welsh counsel general and minister for European transition, Jeremy Miles. Over time, IMB should level the playing field.

There are plenty of contenders for funding in our region. We need to develop our transport links, both rail and road, so that we can take full advantage of the Northern Powerhouse. Better links to Manchester Airport, full fibre broadband, and the development of our HE/FE sector too. Crucially, we need additional funding to regenerate the region after years of WG neglect. Our tourism industry will need major restorative surgery after the disgraceful treatment it has received from Cardiff Bay, not just through the draconian Covid measures but stretching back years. Schools and hospitals will be able to apply for targeted funding and our service industries will be able to tender for funds free from WG bias.

Sadly, in its own ‘mission creep’ the WG’s posturing over IMB is telling. There was not a hint of criticism when the unelected EU was administering funding and yet, the thought of an elected Westminster government now doing the same is now seen by them as ‘undemocratic’. The UK Government needs to stand firm and not concede an inch to a Welsh Labour Government that has such a disgraceful record of incompetence. First Minister Drakeford is on record as saying that Wales’s support for the union is ‘not unconditional’. Criticism by his government of IMB has all to do with Welsh politics and nothing to do with preserving the Union or crucially, sensible and prudent financial administration of UK taxpayers’ funds.

Adrian Mason: Welsh disillusionment with devolution gives the Conservatives an opportunity

19 Aug

Adrian Mason is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the North Wales Conservatives.

Imagine forming a new single-issue political party. In the first election, you field no constituency candidates and you do not produce any election material to promote your cause. Would it surprise you to then receive a quarter of the votes in some regions in the first election you enter? Of course, it would, but that is exactly what happened in North Wales during the Assembly Campaign in 2016. The Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party did just that, picking up 44,286 votes overall, not that far behind the Liberal Democrats! Incredible, well yes, but not if you put matters in perspective. Devolution in Wales has never been as popular a concept as in Scotland. In fact, anecdotal evidence from the doorsteps in the 2019 General Election campaign showed that even after 20 years of devolved Welsh Government, many people were not aware that the Welsh Assembly (now grandly renamed ‘Parliament’) is responsible for health, education, and other important areas affecting daily life.

Then along came Covid 19 and everything should now have changed.

The pandemic has opened the eyes of many here in Wales with regard to devolution and the powers conferred upon the Welsh Labour Government to diverge from Westminster. Over recent months the public has seen Wales taking a different path out of lockdown, often – seemingly deliberately – lagging behind England. It has left people feeling bewildered. Whilst many people in Wales looked to the Prime Minister’s guidance, it has come as a wake-up call to learn that even though many voted Conservative in the General Election – on a significantly larger turnout than at any Assembly election – and we have a Conservative UK Government with 14 Welsh Conservative MPs; vital decisions affecting our everyday lives now reside in Cardiff with a Labour administration.

The public indifference to the Welsh Parliament shown by many just last December has now hopefully evaporated. It should be crystal clear that devolution in Wales has made a seismic difference to how we are governed. This then presents an opportunity for the Conservative Party in Wales at next year’s Welsh Parliament elections.

In votes gone by, many Welsh electors have simply blamed Westminster for the ills of the Welsh NHS, where, in 2018, 3.4 per cent of patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E compared to 1.3 per cent in England, despite receiving more per head funding. Then we have the bottom of the class education system. Recent PISA statistics published in December 2019 show Wales still lags behind the other UK nations in maths, literacy, and science. These statistics provide an open goal for the Conservative Party. Welsh Labour have been content to allow the electorate to believe that their own failings were the failings of the Conservatives, and even in the 2019 General Election campaign some of their candidates were being disingenuous about this.

It is not just health and education that the Welsh Labour Government controls in Wales. They also have the power to vary the basic rate of income tax, given to them under provisions of the Wales Act 2017, wrong-headedly amending the Wales Act 2014 which provided that a referendum was required before tax varying powers could be granted. Sadly, this amendment to the devolution settlement, denying the people of Wales a vote on such an important issue, was enacted by a Conservative Government.

So, what do you get if you give a socialist government tax-raising powers? You get higher taxes, and this is exactly what will happen here in Wales. Taxpayers will be paying a premium to sustain Welsh Labour’s profligate spending and inferior public services. It will hold little value either for many parts of Wales as Labour looks to satisfy its core voters in the south-east.

The Conservative Party in Wales not only has to overcome voter apathy, it needs to make a positive case for devolution. The latter may be the solution to the former, but unfortunately, neither objective is in sight. A recent Survation poll carried out by the Centre for Welsh Studies saw the Conservatives in Wales trailing Labour by 14 per cent. In order to win power, the Conservatives need to provide a clear vision of how much better life would be in Wales under a Conservative Government.

It is not just a case of attacking Labour’s atrocious record over the last 20 years. The Party needs to set out exactly why life will be improved under a Conservative administration. You would expect such things as rolling back the State, a low tax, business-minded environment, encouraging international companies to set up base here. We need policies that promote excellence in health and education and investment in our agricultural sector, to promote our tourist industry and taking advantage of the fantastic opportunities that await us outside the EU. We need to set out a clear blue divide between the Wales of today and the Wales of tomorrow.

Only by painting an optimistic picture will the Conservative Party be able to win over the voters of Wales. Even those who voted Conservative in the General Election are more hesitant to vote for the Conservatives in Welsh Parliament elections. People though are genuinely tired of Welsh Labour and are looking for an alternative. They won’t find it with the nationalist Plaid Cymru with its narrow view of the world and they will not find it with a Party wishing to abolish the Welsh Parliament, which, like it or not, it is here to stay. The Conservatives are the only realistic alternative. However, unless something changes dramatically and quickly, we are likely to see another five years of Labour. This would be a tragedy for Wales.

The Conservative Party in Wales needs to analyse why so many people voted to abolish the Assembly last time around. A vote to abolish is a damning rejection of the status quo. These voters have been alienated and see the whole devolution project as not fit for purpose. The Conservatives need to promote policies that will give these people back hope that devolution, in sensible hands, can be a force of good. That is now the challenge for our Party in Wales. Failure to do so will see more people deserting the Conservative cause in Wales and either abstaining in next year’s election or lending further support to the abolitionists.