Peace and goodwill? Not likely...
- 6 December 2012
- From the section Wales politics
As detailed in the last post, Betsan's away from the Assembly today at the NHS Confederation annual conference - @TobyMasonBBC is deputising with this account of the major row which has erupted over the new council tax benefit scheme.
The debacle, fiasco, disaster, call it what you will, of last night's failure to pass the regulations needed to get council tax support schemes in place by April next year has covered no one in glory.
It's in the process of being straightened out following the extraordinary scenes in the Assembly chamber last night, which were as toxic as any seen in recent years.
And in the middle of it, 330,000 of the poorest households in Wales for whom help with their council tax - the most widely claimed benefit - is a vital part of keeping their heads above water financially.
So what happened? In simple terms, the Welsh Government brought the 340 pages of regulations in front of the Assembly last night minutes before AMs were being asked to vote on them. They said it was because the Treasury had refused to tell them how much money was available until after the Autumn Statement.
The opposition parties united to say, actually, no, it could have been sorted out months ago, and, if needs be, the final figures simply dropped in and voted through last night. That way, they argue, the scheme itself would have been properly scrutinised, instead of going through on the nod.
Despite the fact that Labour doesn't have a majority in the Assembly, scenes like last night's are actually relatively rare, which is why they are attracting so much attention, both from the media and from the AMs themselves who've been attending the Assembly's annual carol service. In search, presumably of the elusive peace and goodwill to all men.
At the moment, there is deadlock, and the clock is ticking on the need to get the regulations passed so councils can consult and implement the new schemes in time to set their council tax bills for this coming April.
How did we get here?
In public, the Welsh Government is scathing and condemnatory of what they see as irresponsible posturing on the part of the opposition parties. Putting financial help worth £220m-plus to 330,000 households in jeopardy is not something to be done lightly, they point out. Yes, the timescale was exceptionally tight - but the needs of those people should have been paramount is the argument.
However, senior figures in the government, along with many Labour backbenchers, are uneasy. Ministers sat through the debate, or to be more accurate, shouting match, last night shifting uncomfortably in their seats. One told me "Something has clearly gone wrong with the 'usual channels' - we need to find out what". The "usual channels" being the frequent and routine behind-the-scenes contact between parties that keeps the business of the Assembly moving.
A Labour backbencher pondered, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, "Perhaps we could have given them (the opposition) the draft regulations earlier. Perhaps we could have given them a sunset clause".
This sunset clause was the key demand from both Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats - a clause which would have meant the Assembly had a statutory right to review the scheme in a year's time as a kind of 'backstop' in case there turned out to be drafting gremlins buried somewhere in those 340 pages they were being asked to approve sight unseen. Government sources say such a clause is inappropriate and unworkable for a scheme like this. So that's where things ended with those two parties it seems.
That's politics. But what seems to have happened in the case of negotiations between the Welsh Government and the Welsh Conservatives is a whole other kettle of fish - and this is where it gets messy.
Once the negotiations with Plaid and the Liberal Democrats had foundered, Labour had little choice but to do a deal with their arch-enemies to get the two-thirds majority they needed to suspend standing orders and vote the regulations through. Some Plaid members, most notably Rhodri Glyn Thomas were prepared to at least suspend standing orders - but he couldn't guarantee enough of his group to ensure the two thirds needed. So the Tories were effectively the only option left.
There was a meeting early this week between the Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant and his advisers, and the Tory group leader Andrew RT Davies and finance spokesman Paul Davies in Mr Sargeant's office on the 5th floor of Ty Hywel, next door to the Senedd.
Both sides say it was initiated by the other, but on the government's account, the Tory leader walked in and submitted a list of demands, in return for which his group would vote with Labour to deliver the two-thirds majority last night. According to the government these included:
*more money for Monmouthshire
*a seat on a Commission (unspecified)
*credit for a new Armed Forces Card in Wales already under development by the Welsh Government when it is launched.
Government sources are adamant that the Tory negotiators didn't ask for anything relating to the regulations themselves, or the way they were to be passed in the Assembly. And they are using exceptionally strong language to describe the Tories position:
"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."
And so in the chamber last night the Conservatives condemned the government's handling of the regulations and voted against the suspension of standing orders. Note the WG source doesn't even mention Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, even when prompted.
The Conservatives' account of events is very different. They say the reference to Monmouthshire is simply wrong - "a lie" according to one source. They say they are "baffled" by the reference to a Commission, and say yes, they did discuss the Veterans Card - but with a suggestion that it be launched as an all-party initiative.
The other difference between the Tories' account and the government's is also quite substantial. Andrew RT Davies said publicly earlier today that the deal that they asked for was signed, sealed and delivered by Carl Sargeant at that meeting and that therefore their votes were in the bag by close of play on Tuesday.
Then, on Wednesday lunchtime with the vote a matter of six hours away, Mr Sargeant walked past the Tory group in the Assembly canteen and simply shook his head. Deal off. Only the First Minister, they say, could have intervened to scupper it in this way.
Furthermore, they say the whole row about the negotiations is a smokescreen to hide the Welsh Government's monumental failure to get the regulations passed after having left it all to the eleventh hour.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, the public airing of all this leaves a major problem for each side.
On the Tories' account, the implication for the Welsh Government is that they had the votes to at least debate the regulations last night, but turned their backs on the deal, for whatever reason, knowing they most likely didn't have the votes from Plaid and certainly not the Lib Dems.
For the Conservatives, the big problem is that the deal that they were looking for / agreed (delete as applicable) didn't relate to safeguards or redrafts of the regulations; this means they would have potentially allowed the regulations they so bitterly condemned last night through in return for what they wanted if the deal had held.
I'm not endorsing either version of events, of course.
Where does this leave us? Meetings are already underway between the First Minister, Plaid and the Liberal Democrats to find a way of getting the Assembly back next week and the regulations into a state where the parties can support them. The WLGA are urging all parties to work together to find a way through, as councils are desperate to get their individual support schemes into place.
Best bet? That the AMs will reconvene middle of next week, argue some more, then pass the regulations.
I asked one AM at the carol service what the people actually receiving council tax benefit would have thought of the last 48 hours.
"I doubt if we're on their Christmas card list any more" he replied, eyes downcast.