By Conor Holohan
Gair Rhydd spoke to Andrew RT Davies, Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Assembly, last week before Wednesday plenary.
The Leader of the Welsh Conservatives had, just the day before, stood with his Assembly colleagues in applause for Jack Sargeant’s maiden speech. Sargeant had just won the Alyn and Deeside by-election, the seat held by his late father Carl until his passing late last year.
‘It was a privilege to be able to stand and welcome Jack Sargeant into the chamber. Carl always sat on that front bench and we used to have a bit of banter together over the eleven years.’
There are four separate investigations into the events surrounding the passing of Carl Sargeant. Davies has recently been frustrated at the lack of meaningful answers to pertinent questions concerning Carl’s death. ‘With the enquiries that have been set up, everyone has the right to innocence until proven guilty. That’s the cornerstone of the British judicial system, and the First Minister should enjoy that right the same as anyone else.’
‘Where I now struggle with many of the investigations that are going on is the ability to get some straightforward answers to some pretty basic questions.
In particular, with the first of the four reports that have been undertaken by the Permanent Secretary on the cabinet reshuffle’. Here Davies refers to an investigation into whether or not the Welsh Government’s intention to sack Sargeant from the frontbench over allegations of sexual misconduct was leaked to the press.’
‘That report has been concluded but it hasn’t seen the light of day. How can we have confidence in a system when we haven’t even seen the conclusions of that report, leave alone the methodology of how those conclusions have been arrived at?’
‘So I do have concerns over the transparency and the conduct of the Permanent Secretary’s inquiry. I asked for a meeting with the Permanent Secretary some three weeks ago now and I still haven’t had a reply from her yet on that which is unfortunate, but I will go on to continue to challenge to get to the truth of what happened around the time of the cabinet reshuffle, but more importantly about the atmosphere which existed at the time at the heart of government over many years of bullying and intimidation.
It has been identified, not by Conservative politicians, but by Cabinet Secretaries who have served on the fifth floor here in Ty Hywel. You can’t have public life organised around a culture of bullying and intimidation.’
Davies is pragmatic in his approach to the lecturer strikes that are currently taking place in many Welsh and British universities. ‘There’s been a ballot so it’s not like the bad old days of the seventies and eighties which I recall.’
‘The universities themselves were informed of the potential disruption. Obviously any disruption is really regrettable, especially at a very, very delicate time for some of the students who are now coming to the tail end of many years of work. Finding a compromise and a way through has to be the best solution for all concerned here.’
‘The lecturers clearly believe that their pension rights have been eroded and the universities believe that to continue paying the pensions that they have to date will be a huge financial burden going forward that could jeopardise their viability and their ability to expand and create more places for students.’
‘As with all these arguments there has to be a centre ground that people will have to coalesce around to find a solution. I want to find that solution sooner rather than later and I hope that can be done, but I do regret that fact that students at a very delicate time in their academic studies are finding that their lecturing time and final preparations for their final exams are being disrupted.’
Gair Rhydd has many contributors and readers who are concerned about the state of free speech at universities. Cardiff University itself has not been exempt from national criticism for its standards of free speech. ‘Universities should be safe space for free speech, full stop. It should really be a question that we should have to pose, but regrettably, we do have to pose it.’
‘We’re all relatively familiar with the images which came out of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s encounter, shall we say’.
Davies is of course talking about the pictures that emerged when a group of protesters crashed an event at which Jacob Rees-Mogg was speaking in UWE.
‘‘In a civilised society where you have plurality of opinion, that plurality of opinion should be enjoyed by all sections of that society. Universities are a hotbed of thought and engagement and, frankly, to see these types of actions where people are walking in on meetings with balaclavas on, sunglasses on, to hide their own identity and then cause mayhem is something that is highly regrettable.’
‘The universities need to stamp on this and put a firm line down that says we are not endorsing any particular viewpoint, but one viewpoint we do endorse is a safe space for discussion, debate and challenge. It cannot be tolerated if people feel intimidated or that their views are suppressed, whatever part of the political spectrum they come from.’
Davies was the only mainstream party leader outside of UKIP to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union in 2016.
He feels that the Welsh Assembly is out of touch in regards to the referendum result. ‘I get it. There are politicians who are fighting to re-run the European referendum. In particular, here in Wales, the detachment from the Assembly to the reality of the way the people voted is probably the most dramatic example of that. Politicians in this institution, by and large, want to remain in that single super-state of Europe.’
‘I want to see a good deal for Britain and a good deal for Europe, and I don’t believe that a good relationship is difficult.’
‘I think there are people trying to make it difficult for their own political ends, but I believe we can deliver the spirit of the Brexit referendum for the people of Wales and the people of the United Kingdom.’