Wales election: Fears over ‘anonymous’ social media adverts

Voters could see political adverts on social media during the Senedd election campaign without knowing who is behind them.

Leaflets and print adverts must say who has produced and paid for them.

Campaigners said the Welsh government “missed an opportunity” to update election laws so the same rules applied to digital advertising for May’s vote.

The Welsh government said it wanted to work with other governments to create new regulations.

Mandatory digital imprints, which make clear who is responsible for the political adverts, will be introduced for Westminster general elections under plans outlined by the UK government.

That would mean voters could see who was trying to influence them and help watchdogs keep track of campaign spending.

Although ministers in Cardiff support the idea, it is too late for the Senedd to change the law before the election on 6 May.

Digital imprints are being made compulsory in Scotland, where devolved elections are happening on the same day.

Online advertising spending has risen sharply in British elections since 2010.

It is thought to have accounted for more than half of campaign spending at the 2019 general election and social media is predicted to be even more important now that Covid has restricted traditional canvassing.

Electoral Reform Society Cymru director Jess Blair said: “It’s a real missed opportunity that the Welsh government haven’t legislated around digital imprints for the Senedd elections this year.

“We’ve seen Scotland go ahead and do this for their elections. The legislation isn’t perfect but it’s a lot better than what we have in place in Wales.”

She said the Welsh government should not wait for UK government legislation

“You shouldn’t be waiting for the slowest person in the race,” she said.

“You should be trying to win that race and actually deliver better democracy and better transparency in our elections.”

Campaigners say the Welsh government has "missed an opportunity" to update election laws
image captionCampaigners say the Welsh government has “missed an opportunity” to update election laws

The Welsh government said it was “committed to fair and transparent elections and digital campaigning has become an increasingly significant portion of democratic engagement from political groups”.

A spokesman said it was not possible to legislate in time for May’s election, but “we will be working closely with the other administrations of the UK to ensure there will be a robust and transparent system in the future”.

The UK government said its legislation on digital imprints would “increase transparency” and “ensure greater scrutiny”.

Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said it was a “complex” issue, adding: “We need to be mindful not to impose excessive regulation of free speech by individuals, nor force campaigners to publish their home addresses as part of the imprint requirement.”

The Electoral Commission previously said it was “disappointed” the rules were not changed in time for May’s Senedd election.

It has launched a campaign to help voters “think critically” about political advertising. 

Spokesman Craig Westwood said: “Political adverts are an important part of how voters find out about who are standing as candidates, and what they think about key issues, but we know that people are increasingly concerned about online adverts, if they can’t easily tell who is targeting them, and why.”

Facebook said it was “constantly working to increase ad transparency and election integrity” on its platforms.

“We do not allow political ads to run without a disclaimer providing more information about who is running them,” a spokesman said.

“This includes ensuring anyone running a political ad goes through a verification process to prove who they are and that they are based in the UK, and that ads carry a ‘paid for’ disclaimer if targeting people in the UK.”

Plaid Cymru said: “Plaid Cymru will support any move to make our elections more open and transparent and digital imprints would play a key role in upholding the integrity of our elections.”

The Welsh Conservatives said the party supported digital imprints.

Welsh Liberal Democrats leader, Jane Dodds, said the party supported “transparency and fairness” in digital campaigning.

She added: “We would also, however, urge platform-owners, such as Facebook and Twitter, to make available digital imprint tools to easier facilitate this process.”

By Daniel Davies
BBC Wales political correspondent

Brexit: ‘Partnership’ on spending replacement EU cash

A “partnership” with Westminster, Wales’ politicians and councils will decide how replacement EU cash is spent, Welsh Secretary Simon Hart says.

But Plaid Cymru said devolution will “exist in name only” with the UK government accused of “siphoning money away from our poorest communities”. 

Liz Saville-Roberts was responding as further details of a new Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) were made public.

It replaces European Commission development and social fund grants.

Mr Hart said Westminster “intend to work alongside” ministers and councils.

“The idea is that this is going to be much more of a partnership effort than it’s ever been before,” he said.

“And not just a partnership by the way between politicians and Westminster and Cardiff.

“Local authorities and many more people are going to be involved in this.”

Money used to move from Brussels to devolved nations like Wales with aid administered by the Welsh Government.

But, in a letter to the Scottish finance secretary, UK Treasury Secretary Stephen Barclay has said the Shared Prosperity Fund would be a UK project, help “levelling up” areas most in need.

Welsh flag and Welsh coins
image captionUK ministers have previously promised Wales would not receive “a penny less” in funding after the Brexit transition period

Ms Saville Roberts, Plaid’s Westminster party leader, said: “First a power grab, now a funding grab. Hot on the heels of the ruinous Internal Market Bill, this is another shameless Tory attack on devolution.

“They’re siphoning money away from our poorest communities, and unless we stop them, devolution will exist in name only.”

Examples of where EU money was spent in Wales include colleges and roads, such as the Heads of the Valleys.

Following Brexit, ministers in the devolved countries and Westminster have been arguing over who should control the cash, with First Minister Mark Drakeford saying any attempt to centralise control over funding in London would be an “attack on devolution”.

However, in his letter, Mr Barclay confirmed European structural funds will be replaced with a centrally-controlled system.

He said: “The UK SPF will help to level up and create opportunity across the UK in places most in need.

“It will operate UK-wide, using the new financial assistance powers in the UK Internal Market Act.

“We will ramp up funding so that total domestic UK-wide funding will at least match EU receipts on average reaching around £1.5bn a year.”

‘Not appropriate’

Responding, a Welsh Government spokeswoman said it was “not appropriate” for the UK government to “involve itself with clearly devolved matters”.

“The SPF should be run in Wales, much as the EU Funds it replaces have been,” she added. 

The spokeswoman said a framework for regional investment was published in November outlining how the SPF would be used in Wales.”It is disappointing that the UK government has neither provided the promised funding to replace the EU funds nor given any clear indication of how it sees the SPF working in devolved administrations, other than to suggest that it intends to ignore the clear consensus in Wales on how the funds should be deployed that is set out in our framework,” she added.

Broadband: Virgin to offer hyper-fast speeds in parts of Wales

Hundreds of thousands of people will have access to hyper-fast broadband after Virgin Media said it would bring its gigabit service to Wales.

The service will be available to people in parts of Cardiff and some nearby counties in south-east Wales. 

The telecoms firm said customers would be able to receive speeds 18 times faster than average in Cardiff. 

A plan to get gigabit broadband in every home by 2025 was rolled back by the UK government last week.

Parts of Rhondda Cynon Taf, Caerphilly, Vale of Glamorgan, Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot will also be able to get faster speeds.

The new broadband would allow users to download 4K films or very large files almost instantaneously.

However, the village of Pennant, near Llanbrynmair, Powys, had the slowest broadband in Wales, according to technology comparison website Uswitch. 

Average download speeds there were 0.86Mbps, and it would take about 17 hours to download a two-hour film there, Uswitch said. 

Jeff Dodds, from Virgin Media, said: “At a time when our services play a vital role in supporting people’s lives and powering the economy, Virgin Media is continuing to invest and as a result our gigabit footprint is growing like gangbusters.”

Covid: Brains to close more than 100 pubs due to Wales’ alcohol rules

The boss of Wales’ biggest brewery has called new alcohol rules “closure by stealth” and announced more than 100 managed pubs will be closed from Friday.

Brains said the majority of its 1,500 staff will be put on furlough on 80% of their wages.

Chief executive Alistair Darby said the earlier firebreak cost it £1.6m.

Welsh pubs and restaurants will be banned from selling alcohol from Friday and must close after 18:00 GMT.

The Welsh Government says the rules are needed to tackle a rise in cases.

Opposition leaders challenged the decision in the Welsh Parliament on Tuesday.

Woman in bar
image captionPubs will have to close to customers at 18:00, and will not be able to serve alcohol on the premises

The Welsh Conservatives’ Paul Davies questioned how pubs could be expected to survive on “pop and pork scratchings”.

Adam Price, Plaid Cymru leader, warned public trust was “being eroded” due to a “lack of logic” behind the government’s approach.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said the step – which still allows for takeaway alcohol to be sold – had been taken in the “inescapable context” of the spread of coronavirus.

Later he came under pressure from two Labour backbenchers – with Blaenau Gwent’s Alun Davies demanding to see the evidenceunderpinning the decision.

He told the Senedd that despite the efforts that had been made by businesses “we continue to face a public health emergency here in Wales”.

There were “no easy decisions”, he said, telling Mr Price it “wasn’t possible to have a logic that is watertight on every single occasion and on every single aspect”.

The evidence for the decision was the same, he said, as that which had led governments across the UK and across Europe to take similar actions.

Pubs are closed in tier three areas in England, while in level three areas in Scotland they are not able to serve alcohol.

A man walks past a pub sign in Cardiff displaying social distancing notices
image captionPubs will not be able to serve alcohol on the premises from Friday

Brains directly employs around 1,500 people and has 300 tenants as well as suppliers and regular trades people.

Mr Darby said the new rules for pubs were “insulting” and “a huge slap in the face” for the sector.

He called on politicians to “stop changing their mind” on what is required, and said the move suggests pubs and restaurants are areas of “high transmission”.

“It’s hugely frustrating and a bit insulting. It says people are not making the effort being asked of them,” he said.

Mr Darby said the decision will be felt by many thousands of other workers who supply the industry, such as electricians, plumbers and caterers.

Mr Drakeford has said there could be between 1,000 and 1,700 preventable deaths without action taken this winter.

But the Brains boss said: “The sector has done more than its fair share to ensure those potential deaths are avoided.

“And at the end of this, we will be asking, if lives aren’t saved, what the answer will be?”

stay home stay safe message
image captionPubs had to close during the initial lockdown in the Spring

Adam Price called for a “sensible compromise”, allowing hospitality to serve alcohol until 19:00, with a ban on alcohol sales at off-licences and supermarkets after that time to “to discourage people from going into each other’s homes”.

Paul Davies described the decision as “catastrophic” and “devastating” for businesses.

“Pubs and restaurants in areas where transmission rates are low will rightly feel upset that their businesses is being put at risk, through no fault of their own,” he added.

Both called for Mr Drakeford to reveal the scientific evidence underpinning the decision.

What is the scientific evidence for the new rules?

“There is no absence of evidence,” Mr Drakeford told the Senedd.

Later, he added that similar restrictions have been introduced in “all parts of the UK and across the world”.

“The consumption of alcohol has been identified by health officials and policy makers internationally as increasing the risk of transmission, as social distancing can break down as people have an altered perception of risk,” he said.

The first minister added that data from contact tracing had regularly highlighted hospitality “as venues where contacts of infectious individuals are identified”.

Firebreak ‘lifted too quickly’

UK government cabinet minister Michael Gove said restrictions had been lifted too quickly after Wales’ 17-day firebreak.

He told BBC Breakfast he sympathised with the Welsh Government, but added: “As a result of doing that, the virus once more got out of control, so they’ve had to slam the brakes on again.

“The example of Wales shows what can happen if you lift the restrictions in too blanket a way too soon.”

Infographic

The first minister promised firms hit by the restrictions they would be offered £340m in support which he claimed was “the most generous package” anywhere in the UK.

However Mr Darby said the support “would not touch the sides”.

As an £80m turnover business, Brains spent £500,000 in personal protective equipment (PPE) and digital technology for pre-booking, while it has “surrendered” huge capacity and lost summer trading, Mr Darby added.

He said: “My message to politicians is ‘you have to stop changing your mind on what is required in the sector’.

“We have done more than our fair share to ensure potential deaths are avoided at the end of this.”

‘Christmas has been cancelled’

David Cattrall at Harlech Foodservice
image captionDavid Cattrall of Harlech Foodservice said businesses need an exit plan and support

David Cattrall, managing director of Harlech Foodservice, warned that many hospitality businesses would not survive the latest round of restrictions.

“There is a palpable sense of frustration, bewilderment and anger at the restrictions being placed upon the hospitality sector in north and mid Wales,” he said.

“The rate of the virus is lower here than in south Wales so it defies logic that we are being subjected to this damaging one-size-fits-all policy.

“The run-up to Christmas is when the sector makes enough money to keep them going through the quiet months of January and February but it’s clear now that Christmas has been cancelled as far as the hospitality sector is concerned.”

Businesses need an exit plan and reassurance they will be able to open at Easter “as a matter of urgency”, he added.

Kelly Jolliffe, owner and landlady of The Greyhound Inn in Usk, Monmouthshire, said she was “gutted” about the new restrictions.

“I was expecting it, I was hoping that it would only be shutting at 6pm, which I think we could all have managed with and could have all worked around,” she said.

“But when he banned the alcohol, I just thought there’s no point really – we’re a pub!”

She told Radio Wales Breakfast she has decided to close, despite having got the pub ready for the Christmas trade.

“We were all decked out, all socially distanced, bookings coming in, everybody working around the regulations,” she said.

Health Minister Vaughan Gething said he understood why companies in the industry were upset, but admitted there was “no perfect balance” between protecting public health and businesses.

Speaking on BBC Radio Wales Breakfast with Claire Summers, he added: “What we can do is make sure more of us will be here in the future to celebrate life events.”