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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Incompetence, political shenanigans and allegations of grubby deals

Yesterday's debate on whether or not to suspend standing orders so as to pass regulations on Council Tax benefit was bad enough, but today's developments have turned a government cock-up into a full-scale farce.

In many ways the Welsh Government were their own worse enemy yesterday. Despite the fact that Scotland and many English Councils had put their council tax benefit scheme into place some time ago, Welsh Ministers insisted that they could not do anything until they knew how much money they were getting from Westminister to fund it.

There was no pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft regulations, no consultation with the public or with opposition parties, indeed there was no attempt to get other parties on board at all, apart from a fairly dry technical briefing last week.

Instead Ministers relied on moral blackmail to get the regulations through, calculating that the Assembly would vote through whatever they produced so as not to leave claimants in the dark on their entitlement. They then upped the anté by using the regulations as a political football to beat the UK Coalition parties around the head, indulging in a blame game on the changes to the benefit system with undisguised glee.

It was by no means a lesson in how to win friends and influence people.

The result was that the final regulations, all 340 pages of them landed in our in-box just minutes before we were due to debate and vote on them. Nobody was in the mood to pass them without proper scrutiny or a chance to influence their contents.

It was a missed opportunity to get the matter resolved, because if the Governmemt had talked to the Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru earlier and agreed to their very reasonable demand to put a sunset clause in to facilitate post-legislative scrutiny then the regulations would have gone through without a problem.

Instead we felt we were being railroaded, without an opportunity to question some of the fundamentals of the scheme. As one BBC journalist noted on Twitter, the usual channels between the parties broke down very badly.

Today though, things have taken an unusual turn with the focus being on how the Welsh Conservative group handled their part in the matter. Yesterday the Tories were accusing the Welsh Government of being 'Incompetent.. intransigent... playing politics'. Today they stand accused of trying to do a 'grubby deal' in exchange for their votes.

As Adrian Masters outlines, it was not until late on Wednesday afternoon, when the Tories realised that there was no deal that they decided to oppose the suspension of standing order:

Opposition leader Andrew RT Davies says his group had reached an agreement which would have 'facilitated' a vote on the rules.

“We were working until the day before (the vote) to find a way to facilitiate this. We believed we had found a way to facilitiate it. But at lunchtime on Wednesday, the Welsh Government refused to take up the offer.

– Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Opposition

He said that he'd made the agreement with Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant on Tuesday night and denied that he was holding out for spending commitments. But the Welsh Government is categorically denying not only that there was any agreement, but that negotiations took place at all.

A source told me that 'they (the Conservatives) came with a set of demands and we showed them the door.' The source added:

“On Wednesday, the Welsh Tory Leader approached the Welsh Government with a set of totally unacceptable, inappropriate and unrelated demands, in order to secure their support to get the vote through the Assembly.

Not content with deliberately trying to impose needless financial uncertainty on 330,000 Welsh households over Christmas and the New Year, the Welsh Tories tried to exploit the situation for their own narrow political ends. Their behaviour was reprehensible.

“The Welsh Government’s response to the Welsh Tory Leader and his grubby deal, was to show him the door. No negotiations took place and nothing was offered.

– Welsh Government source

Nobody is absolutely sure what the Tories were asking for. Toby Mason tweets that it is important to note that Tory leader Andrew RT Davies has strongly denied making any specific spending demands during negotiations.  The Tories themselves have indicated that they wanted a deal on the Armed Forces card.

Whatever the details it seems that for them at least, political advantage was more important than the principle of effective scrutiny and the interests of 330,000 benefit claimants. This one could run and run.
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