Parliaments

Senedd 2018: All four parties press reset button

Senedd

The year began with First Minister Carwyn Jones facing three inquiries in the wake of the death of former cabinet secretary Carl Sargeant, in November 2017.

It ends with his time at the helm over and the biggest of the three inquiries, to examine how Mr Sargeant's sacking was handled, yet to begin because of a legal row.

The former first minister insists he decided to quit in September 2017, months before he sacked Mr Sargeant, but he had been under intense pressure, with some calling on him to resign, since the Alyn and Deeside AM's death.

His announcement that he would quit relieved some of the tension in the Labour group, and focused minds in the opposition parties on their leadership.

It eventually resulted in all change at the top (in UKIP's case twice) in each of the four main parties in the Senedd.

UKIP

At the beginning of the first Senedd term of 2018, the infighting within UKIP took a new twist when the party announced that newly-sworn in North Wales AM Mandy Jones would not be sitting with the UKIP group due to a row over her choice of staff.

She replaced Nathan Gill, who stepped down to devote his energies to the European Parliament, but the UKIP group said it would be "impossible" to work with Ms Jones as some of her staff had "campaigned actively for other parties". She continues to be an independent AM.

UKIP's Gareth Bennett - who revealed that he's had "at least 35 jobs, several of which I was sacked from" - began the year barred from speaking in Senedd debates until he apologised for comments about transgender people in which he warned society could "implode" if there was too much "deviation from the norm".

In a personal statement, he said he was "sorry that people took offence", telling the Llywydd Elin Jones "I wish to make it clear that I respect your authority as chair. I do, however, stand by the views I expressed about the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Bill."

Sign of things to come

In January, there was a preview of the Welsh Labour leadership hustings when a fired-up Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford accused the Conservatives of expecting the public to pay for the mistakes of outsourcing, following the collapse of contractor Carillion.

Carl Sargeant: inquiries following death

Former Labour minister Carl Sargeant was found dead in November 2017, days after being sacked over claims about his conduct towards women.

The inquiry into whether the sacking of Mr Sargeant was leaked before a cabinet reshuffle "found that there is no evidence of prior unauthorised sharing of information by the Welsh Government relating to the recent Ministerial reshuffle." There were unsuccessful calls for a redacted version of the report to be published after the conclusions were questioned.

Jack Sargeant, 23, won the Alyn and Deeside assembly by-election for Labour, and he received a standing ovation from AMs after his first Senedd speech in which he vowed to continue the work of his late father Carl and said he hoped he could build a "better, kinder politics".

In April, an independent inquiry cleared the first minister of misleading the assembly over what he knew about past claims of a bullying culture in the Welsh Government. Carwyn Jones was found to be telling the truth when he told AMs last year that no allegations were made in 2014.

Following Carl Sargeant's death, former local government minister Leighton Andrews and former special advisor Steve Jones claimed there had been a "toxic" atmosphere within the Welsh Government back in 2014. Carwyn Jones told AMs no complaints had been made but was accused by some of giving misleading answers.

He referred himself to an independent inquiry, headed by lawyer James Hamilton, following the allegations. Mr Hamilton cleared him of breaking the ministerial code, saying that the answers given by the first minister in the Senedd were "accurate" and "truthful".

Image copyright PA
Image caption James Hamilton, a former Irish prosecutor, was tasked with investigating whether Carwyn Jones misled AMs

The session of Questions to the First Minister on 17 April was intense and angry, with Carwyn Jones facing criticism on several fronts. Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies criticised the first minister's request to the Llywydd Elin Jones to call off a debate tabled by the Conservatives, which called for publishing the report into whether details about the cabinet reshuffle were leaked before the death of Carl Sargeant.

"Time to go" and "resign" were shouted at the first minister by Conservative Darren Millar and Plaid Cymru's Adam Price, which led to a clearly uncomfortable Carwyn Jones claiming the Llywydd Elin Jones was "losing control". The Labour AMs behind Carwyn Jones looked very gloomy.

A few days later, Carwyn Jones announced at the Welsh Labour party conference in Llandudno that it would be his last as leader.

Referring to the months following the death of Mr Sargeant, he said he had been through the "darkest of times" and that his exit would give his family, his party and the country a "fresh start". His long goodbye, lasting eight months, was underway.

Brexit

Brexit inevitably hoovered up much of the political energy in the Siambr (Senedd chamber), often dominating FMQs.

In March, AMs voted to pass the Continuity Act to bring powers over devolved matters currently operated at an EU level to Cardiff Bay.

But following months of talks, ministers and officials in Westminster and Cardiff reached agreement in April over changes relating to devolution contained within the UK government's EU (Withdrawal) Act.

As a result, the Welsh Government felt it no longer needed the Continuity Act, which it argued was passed only as an insurance policy before the 'inter-governmental agreement' was reached.

So in November, a majority of AMs backed scrapping the Continuity Act, despite Plaid Cymru warning that would be "constitutional Kamikaze". The motion to repeal the act, which was passed by 40 AMs to eight, had Labour, Conservative and UKIP support.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The assembly passed the Continuity Act, to protect its powers following Brexit, in March before voting to scrap it in November.

Local government

Another plan to come and go was council mergers. The plan that could have seen Wales' 22 councils merged to as few as 10 was announced by local government secretary Alun Davies in March, but it was greeted with "disquiet and confusion" in the sector, according to the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA).

By June, Mr Davies told council leaders he was "happy to withdraw the map" on re-organisation. The previous set of merger plans had been scrapped after the 2016 assembly election in favour of regional joint working.

Alun Davies was also widely criticised for his comparison of Welsh councillors asking for more money to Oliver Twist - his remarks followed calls for more council cash ahead of planned real-terms cuts to local authority budgets. Few were surprised he was dropped from the Cabinet at the end of the year.

Around and around

The ill-fated Circuit of Wales project still reared its head occasionally, with a public accounts committee report stating the Welsh Government made "inexplicable decisions" about spending public money on it.

The racing circuit was proposed for Ebbw Vale in Blaenau Gwent, and the hope was to create 6,000 jobs and attract 750,000 visitors a year.

The report was critical of the way the Welsh Government scrutinised more than £9m of public money spent on the proposal.

Image copyright Circuit of Wales
Image caption Racetrack: Artist impression of the proposed development

Clear as mud

A campaign that gathered momentum during the year was against the dredging of mud and sediment from the seabed in the Bristol Channel, near the decommissioned Hinkley Point A and B, being disposed just over a mile out to sea from Cardiff Bay. The project prompted concerns from campaigners, who feared the mud could have become contaminated by discharges from Hinkley.

A Petitions Committee report was debated in May, and by October, a majority of AMs passed a motion calling for Natural Resources Wales to reassure the public over the dumping of the mud but rejected opposition demands that the licence be suspended.

Health

Opposition AMs kept up the pressure regarding the performance of Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, which has been under Welsh Government special measures for over three years. Health Secretary Vaughan Gething said although "progress has been made in some key areas", he is "intensely concerned with the decline in performance" in referral to treatment waiting times, unscheduled care and financial planning. AMs also fiercely debated a controversial shake-up in the Hywel Dda health board area, and Mr Gething has warned repeatedly that NHS services in Wales could "collapse" without urgent transformation.

In June, the Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Bill - backed by Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives - was passed, with Wales following in the footsteps of Scotland by setting a minimum price per unit.

Ebb and flow

Most AMs reacted with great disappointment to the decision by the UK government not to back the world's first tidal power lagoon in Swansea.

UK Business Secretary Greg Clark said the £1.3bn Swansea Bay energy project was not value for money, but First Minister Carwyn Jones, who had offered £200m in backing for the scheme, said the announcement was a "crushing blow" for Wales.

An unprecedented vote of no-confidence in Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns, tabled by Plaid Cymru, failed to pass as it did not have Labour's support.

Dignity and respect

The Assembly Commission - the body that oversees the assembly - had a new Dignity and Respect Policy this year, which aims to give people confidence to come forward with harassment concerns. It followed claims of sexual harassment in both Cardiff Bay and Westminster.

Conservative leadership

Andrew RT Davies quit the Conservative leadership in June feeling he had lost the support of his colleagues.

He had been condemned within the party a few days earlier for accusing firms such as Airbus of undermining Brexit by voicing their concerns about the impact on trade. The farmer who backed Brexit and said it meant breakfast had been leader for seven years.

In September, Paul Davies was named as winner of a postal ballot of Welsh Conservative members by a margin of just over two to one over his rival Suzy Davies.

Outspoken Labour backbenchers

Committee reports are a staple of Senedd plenary proceedings, despite UKIP AM Gareth Bennett's assertion that "a lot of the assembly's committee work is unnecessary". The Welsh Government has been criticised by Labour AM Mike Hedges for often accepting recommendations "in principle", thereby giving "no idea how they will be delivered in practice", according to Mr Hedges.

Lynne Neagle, Labour AM for Torfaen, has earned a reputation as a formidable chair of the education committee. She did not hold back when the committee's conclusion that "a major step change is needed in the priority given to emotional resilience and well-being of children and young people", was met with a less-than-satisfactory response from the Welsh Government.

She said "the recommendations to which we have given considerable and serious thought, have not met with the acknowledgement, analysis and respect they deserve". Her tenaciousness in holding the Welsh Government to account as committee chair led her Labour colleague Julie Morgan to commend her "ferret-like nature". The bemused look on Lynne Neagle's face prompted her to change the description to "terrier-like".

Image caption Lynne Neagle reacts to Julie Morgan's 'ferret-like' remark

Likewise, veteran Labour AM John Griffiths, a former long-serving minister and now equalities committee chair, criticised the Welsh Government's response to their report on "making the economy work for people on low incomes". Mr Griffiths said of the response, "there is a lack of detail, or meaningful engagement with the recommendations and the evidence underpinning them".

Another Labour backbencher unafraid to challenge her own government was Jenny Rathbone. She insisted on knowing, for example, how the Welsh Government would "rectify its unlawful inaction on air pollution" (the Welsh Government has agreed to work on new plans to tackle high levels of air pollution, the High Court heard.) However, she ends the year suspended from her party for remarks about Jewish people.

UKIP leadership

Image copyright GETTY/ASHWOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Image caption UKIP's Neil Hamilton (L) was ousted by Caroline Jones but Gareth Bennett (R) won the membership ballot six weeks later

Caroline Jones, who ousted Neil Hamilton as UKIP group leader, served just six weeks in the job before being beaten by Gareth Bennett in a ballot of UKIP members in Wales. She later resigned from the party, claiming UKIP UK leader Gerard Batten was alienating his members by moving the party to the "far right".

In and out

Labour's Rhianon Passmore was given a two-week ban from the Senedd without pay after failing to give a breath test to police. She was the second AM to be excluded, after UKIP's Michelle Brown was banned for a week over a racial slur she used to describe Labour MP Chuka Umunna.

Helen Mary Jones made a return to the Senedd to replace Simon Thomas, who resigned his seat in July. Ms Jones, previously an AM between 1999 and 2011, was next on Plaid Cymru's regional list for Mid and West Wales. Simon Thomas was convicted of making indecent images of children and given a 26-week suspended jail sentence.

Plaid Cymru leadership

Plaid Cymru rules allow for a leadership contest every two years - Leanne Wood said she would welcome a contest and felt "very" confident of winning it. However, Adam Price was named the winner of the membership ballot in September, with Rhun ap Iorwerth second. Ms Wood, who had served six years as leader, came third.

Image copyright Plaid Cymru
Image caption Adam Price won a three-way contest with Rhun ap Iorwerth second and incumbent leader Leanne Wood third

Transport

In January, Mick Antoniw, Labour AM for Pontypridd, described transport in south Wales as "crappy" - not a word you hear often in the Siambr.

In October, the Welsh Government took control for the first time of the £5bn Wales and Borders rail services franchise, which is overseen by Transport for Wales (TfW), promising to transform rail travel over the next 15 years. But within weeks, more than a quarter of trains in Wales were out of service said rail bosses in newspaper adverts apologising to passengers.

Image caption TfW inherited an old fleet of trains from previous operator Arriva

The final decision on building a £1.4bn M4 relief road in south Wales will now be made by the new first minister Mark Drakeford. Carwyn Jones had said he would make the decision, but Wales' new leader's in-tray now includes the 580-page report from the planning inspector after a 13-month public inquiry. There is even greater focus on the decision following the scrapping of the Severn Bridge tolls, which could increase congestion further along the M4 at Newport's notorious traffic bottleneck, the Brynglas Tunnels.

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Media captionThis video reveals the possible route of the M4 relief road

Voting time

On several occasions during the year, the Welsh Government surprisingly failed to stack up numbers in votes in the Siambr. From 10 January, when the government failed to amend both the Conservative and Plaid Cymru motions - on the Welsh road network and homelessness respectively - to 21 November when it lost a vote on further education cuts. Although the motions are non-binding, it is always embarrassing for the government to be defeated in a Senedd vote.

The most extraordinary vote came in early December on the biggest issue of the year. The Welsh Government motion was to "note" the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU agreed by the European Council and the UK government, and only expressing regret that neither Wales or Scotland are mentioned in either document.

Two Labour AMs were given "special dispensation" to vote for the Plaid Cymru amendment calling for a so-called "People's Vote" on the final agreement, and Labour ended up voting for the other Plaid Cymru amendment to "reject" the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration. The amended motion also called for an extension to the Article 50 process. As BBC Wales' Brexit correspondent James Williams said, "the Welsh Government has made a bit of a dog's Brexit of this motion".

At least the Welsh Government didn't need to worry about getting the budget through this year as it was the second of the two-year budget deal with Plaid Cymru.

Standards

UKIP group leader Gareth Bennett's year ended with being formally censured for breaching the AMs' code of conduct when he spent almost £10,000 of taxpayers' money in rent and other costs on a constituency office in Pontypridd that never opened. Mr Bennett has fully apologised to the Standards Commissioner and has undertaken to repay the money for the building materials.

Image caption Gareth Bennett signed a lease at the Angharad's nightclub building against solicitors advice

Leadership

At one point, 12 assembly members were running leadership campaigns - that's one in five, or 20% of the total. Three ousted leaders - Neil Hamilton, Andrew RT Davies and Leanne Wood - have taken up new party spokesperson roles effectively.

Carwyn Jones received a standing ovation as he bowed out as first minister, saying it had been an honour to lead his party and the country for nine years.

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Media caption'I cannot thank you enough', Carwyn Jones says as he signs off as first minister
Image caption Most AMs joined the standing ovation for Carwyn Jones

So much in world politics has been unpredictable over recent years, but not so the Welsh Labour leadership contest as front runner Mark Drakeford had a decisive win. The pro-Corbyn finance secretary, who secured 53.9% of the vote after the count went to a second round, pledged to make Wales "a beacon of hope in a darkening world".

Image copyright Campaign handout
Image caption Mark Drakeford (L) has described the late Rhodri Morgan (R) as his mentor

Carmarthen-born academic Mr Drakeford, 64, has pledged to extend the smoking ban to town and city centres, and give the parents of newborn babies a bundle of essential items.

Tackling inequality and poverty are his priorities, with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit such a challenging backdrop.

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