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Commissioner appointment questioned

Sophie Howe has been appointed Future Generations Commissioner Photo: ITV Cymru Wales

Senior opposition politicians in the National Assembly have been criticised for questioning the independence of the person appointed to a top job scrutinising the Welsh Government.

The Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru have highlighted Sophie Howe's ties to the Labour party and questioned her level of expertise for the rôle.

But they've been attacked for criticising an appointment process in which members of their own parties were involved.

Sophie Howe was named as the first Future Generations Commissioner whose rôle is to make sure ministers' actions are made with sustainability and the long-term interests of Wales in mind.

She's currently Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner to the Labour Commissioner, Alun Michael and in the past has been a Labour councillor and a candidate for the party in several elections.

The Tory and Plaid decision to raise these questions now has been described as 'a bit rich' by the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats who says their parties were involved in the interviewing process.

And a Welsh Government source said it amounted to questioning the judgements of members of the panel from their own parties.

The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew RT Davies, said he was 'a little surprised' by the appointment, pointing out that Sophie Howe 'has a very strong identity link with the Labour party' and that 'she will have quite a way to go to persuade people that she's impartial.'

When I asked the Opposition leader at his weekly briefing of journalists if she has his support he replied, 'she has to convince a lot of people.'

He repeated his call for appointments to such rôles to be made by the Assembly as a whole rather than the Welsh Government.

Meanwhile at Plaid Cymru's weekly briefing, frontbencher Simon Thomas said that 'it doesn't appear that [Sophie Howe] has any interest in this field.'

A Plaid spokesperson later added:

The Commissioner must be trusted to be able to act independently of Ministers and Ms Howe’s close association with the Labour party and this Labour government will be a cause for concern. This is somebody who was a Labour political appointee to the role of deputy Police and Crime Commissioner and somebody who worked as a Special Advisor to this Minister.

It does not appear that Ms Howe has a strong background or experience in sustainable development and in light of this the government must give assurances regarding her suitability for the post and her independence from Ministers. We expect this Commissioner to be able to be critical of the government and we will judge her on her ability to hold it to account on its performance.

– Plaid Cymru spokesperson

Both parties have been criticised in turn by their fellow Opposition leader and the Welsh Government.

At her weekly briefing, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams said:

Sophie Howe is a very able and talented individual. I don't share her politics but my understanding is that she was the unanimous choice of the cross-party panel that decided to appoint her. It's strange to see Andrew RT Davies objecting when the Tory on the panel was very enthusiastic.

In an open competitive process she has obviously been able to convince the appointments panel of her skills and ability. She should now be judged on how she does this job not her previous jobs. I'm not prepared to write her off before she's even started.

– Kirsty Williams AM, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader

The Lib Dem leader added that she was confident that Sophie Howe would be aware of the criticisms that have been made of her and would want to demonstrate her independence.

I understand the cross-party group's decision was not only unanimous, but that Sophie Howe was given higher scores than any other candidates. The members of the group were:

  • Joyce Watson AM, Labour
  • Janet Howarth AM, Conservative
  • Llyr Gruffydd AM, Plaid Cymru
  • William Powell AM, Liberal Democrat

A Welsh Government note accompanying the announcement states:

The Future Generations Commissioner appointment was made using the guidance set out within the Code of Practice for Ministerial Appointments to Public Bodies. To ensure transparency the appointment panel comprised of cross-party representatives of the Environment and Sustainability Committee.

– Welsh Government note

A Welsh Government source suggested to me that the criticism would backfire on those making it.

Andrew RT Davies and Simon Thomas have questioned their own panel members' judgement. We didn't make this recommendation, they did. There are three opposition members on the cross-party group and only one Labour. Each member has effectively a veto and they didn't use it.

– Welsh Government source

Meanwhile her current boss, the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales, has welcomed the news.

I can’t think of anyone better to spearhead the implementation of this ground-breaking and ambitious legislation. Planning for future generations requires a real capacity for making things happen across a wide range of policy areas, agencies and institutions which is what Sophie has demonstrated during three years as Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner.

This approach by Welsh Government fits perfectly with the way we have been working together to cut crime and make our communities stronger across South Wales and I look forward to working closely with Sophie in her new role to achieve even greater success for the benefit of our public.

– Alun Michael, Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales