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Sunday, August 07, 2022

How cosy is politics in Cardiff Bay?

It is more than six years since I worked in what was then the Welsh Assembly, and if anything, the so-called Cardiff Bay bubble has grown tighter and more exclusive. The chummy culture between MSs and lobbyists, means that a small group of unelected individuals wield unprecedented power to get things done their way, and in return the various interest groups go easy in their scrutiny and criticism of government ministers.

It is not healthy, and somehow, I doubt that even a much-enlarged Parliament will not change anything, especially when the proposed new voting system puts the fate of individual members in the hands of their own party hierarchy.

There have been calls to register lobbyists of course, and to secure more transparency in their dealings with ministers and members, but these pleadings have largely fallen on deaf ears. I wonder if the latest revelations will change that.

Wales on line reports that two Welsh Government ministers attended an informal dinner with the owner of the Green Man Festival as controversy raged about the decision to spend £4.25m of public money on buying a farm for the organisation.

They say that the dinner with Fiona Stewart took place at the home of lobbyist Cathy Owens, the managing director of Deryn Consulting and a former Labour special adviser, who has made a declaration identifying the Green Man Festival as one of her company’s clients. 

But, because of a loophole in the Welsh Government’s Ministerial Code under which “informal” meetings do not have to be declared, Climate Change Minister Julie James and Education Minister Jeremy Miles were not obliged to declare their attendance at the dinner:

Opposition politicians have expressed a range of concerns about the purchase by the Welsh Government of Gilestone Farm, near Talybont-on-Usk, about seven miles from the festival site on the Glan Usk estate near Crickhowell. Questions have been asked why it was bought without a full business plan.

An outline business plan was submitted to the Welsh Government in October last year and a full business plan was provided at the end of June.

The Green Man Festival has been held at the Glan Usk estate for 20 years, attracts more than 25,000 visitors annually and is estimated to generate over £10m a year to the region’s economy. During a meeting of the Senedd’s Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee, Plaid Cymru MS Rhys ab Owen asked Welsh Government officials: “Is it usual practice to spend over £4m before having a detailed business plan?”

Andrew Slade, director-general of the economy department, said an “outline case” was necessary but that it was “perfectly possible, feasible, legal, proper... for government to engage in property purchases where we think that is going to deliver on the Welsh Government’s policy delivery objectives.”

Mr Slade said the purpose of buying the farm was about “the wider business and development of the wider Green Man business”, adding that it would include sustainable development work, farming activities and a “range of other things that would allow them to keep the operation in Wales”.

Mr Slade told the committee the festival had “insufficient funds” to buy the farm itself, with either “not enough money to go ahead or the possibility of borrowing to go ahead to get the property needed to develop the business”.

As Wales on Line's political editor at large, Martin Shipton points out on Twitter, paragraph 3.7 of the Ministerial Code states: “Ministers should not meet formally with professional public affairs organisations (lobbyists) seeking to influence the views or decisions of Government.” He points out that these Ministers have got round this by having an "informal" dinner.

He also reports in his article that every three months the Welsh Government publishes on its website details of formal meetings involving ministers and external organisations. He says that typically the list of meetings runs to around 60 pages but none of the three most recent lists includes meetings with the Green Man Festival or Deryn Consulting.

This is not the transparency we should expect of the Welsh Government, nor is it any way to conduct government business when so much public money is at stake. The First Minister has now initiated his own inquiry, albeit rather late in the day. Let's hope the outcome of that probe is published in full.

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