A Welsh Government minister has been repeatedly moving between his constituency home in Llanelli and family home in Penarth throughout lockdown.
Llanelli MS Lee Waters’ weekly trips between his constituency home, where he spends a couple of nights at a time, and his family home have been defended by the Welsh Government, which said they were within the rules, but have caused consternation in Llanelli.
It has raised questions about whether the Welsh Government is following a consistent approach in the run up to an election while saying volunteers cannot post election leaflets through doors but defending the right of its own ministers with two homes to travel between them and stay the night in both.
We asked a series of questions to the Welsh Government and Mr Waters about what the nature of the work was that he needed to do either in his constituency or at his Penarth home that necessitated travelling between the two but their responses did not include any detail.
The Welsh Government only said that: “To represent their constituents effectively, Members have a clear need to spend part of the week in their constituencies… travelling between the two for work is permitted under coronavirus regulations.”
Mr Waters said he did not wish to expand on the statement that had been provided.
A neighbour of Mr Waters who contacted WalesOnline only discovered his local MS was travelling between his two homes when he emailed him to complain about a man living near him who he’d seen arriving at the house for two days at a time, not knowing it was Mr Waters himself.
The man, a recovering cancer patient who has been shielding, has kept a record of Mr Waters’ movements at a time he thought travel between Cardiff and Llanelli was banned and contacted the police.
He said he was flabbergasted when he emailed his local MS only to learn that it was his neighbour.
“I was flabbergasted, I was absolutely flabbergasted,” said Steve (not his real name). “I was totally embarrassed and I didn’t know what to say. He repeated that he was obviously working there for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning.”
He said Mr Waters “just brushed it aside” with an “arrogant email back” saying “enforcement officers are busy dealing with much bigger issues like closing bars and restaurants”.
He said tradespeople had been doing work in Mr Waters’ house before the Level 4 lockdown came in on December 21 and in January Mr Waters turned up no fewer than four times at his constituency home, each time arriving towards the end of the week and leaving on a Saturday.
We verified some of his claims, and pictured Mr Waters’ car at his family home in Penarth on Wednesday, January 28, before leaving it at 7.20am on Thursday, 29th, and arriving at his second home in Llanelli just after 9am the same day. He remained there on Friday, 30th.
These trips in January came at the same time he was sharing tweets from Burry Port and Kidwelly Police about dealing with the public breaking travel rules. Mr Waters added: “Too bad they still need to do this”.
Throughout this lockdown, First Minister Mark Drakeford has taken a very consistent public line in press conferences that people should not just do what they are allowed to do but what is right.
Last week, he said that he was only leaving his home or place or work “in a genuine emergency”
“I myself have left Cardiff I think twice since November,” Mr Drakeford told a press conference in Cardiff.
“I went once to the Rhondda, where a coal tip had slipped, and I went once last weekend to Skewen where major flooding had taken place.
“So I am only leaving my home or place or work in a genuine emergency and that’s because the rules in Wales are stay at home, work from home. We are at level four of a public health emergency.
“On the whole I think it is preferable for people who make rules that we expect other people to observe to observe them ourselves.”
Health Minister Vaughan Gething has taken a similar line. When asked about people travelling between Bristol and Wales – referring to the many health workers and other key workers in Bristol who have taken advantage of cheaper housing in south-east Wales – he replied this week that there were very few reasons why this should happen.
He said: “If people are travelling for essential purposes they should then be coming back to their household.”
Their comments raise legitimate questions about why a Welsh Government minister is spending nights in separate houses rather than coming back to his main household – whichever place it is in – after doing his essential work. We have not been given details of why the work required him to be at either location in person when the vast majority of the Welsh Government’s business is now done through video meetings.
We also asked the Welsh Government what other ministers had been doing – whether the ministers whose main homes are in their constituencies had also been travelling to Cardiff. We also asked what work ministers might have in Cardiff that required their presence.
A spokesman referred us to this statement: “Lee Waters is a deputy minister and the Member of the Senedd for Llanelli.
“To represent their constituents effectively, members have a clear need to spend part of the week in their constituencies.
“As such, like most other elected representatives, he has a home in his constituency where he lives and works for part of the week and a home near the Senedd.
“Travelling between the two for work is permitted under coronavirus regulations.”
When we approached Welsh Labour, the party said that MSs needed to visit their constituencies because some people may have issues with technology, language barriers or to get a sense of what the situation was on the ground.
Mr Waters felt this so strongly he actually confronted his neighbour and told him that he had spoken to lawyers in the Welsh Government and that he was within his rights to do this. His neighbour had to ask Mr Waters to step away from him because he felt he was standing too close.
But this all begs several questions.
- Why did Mr Waters feel the need to travel to his constituency home when his family and ministerial work is in the Cardiff area?
If he had an appointment in the Llanelli why could he not drive there and then return to Cardiff? This is little more than a two hour round trip after all, a commute that many people did every single day before the pandemic. As Mr Gething said: “If people are travelling for essential purposes they should then be coming back to their household.”
- What businesses required him to be in Cardiff regularly?
After all, he has not appeared at any press conferences and the Senedd meetings are virtual.
- Is it really the case that there was three days worth of meetings (running into the weekend) in Llanelli that could simply not be done on Zoom or over the phone?
It is clear from the statements given by Welsh Labour, Mr Waters and the Welsh Government that they feel has technically broken no rules and that his journeys were essential. They claim it was impossible to do his job if he didn’t spend three nights at his constituency home.
But there is a broader question here of double standards and perceived hypocrisy. Countless times the First Minister has stood before the people of Wales and said that it is not just about following the rules – it is about following the spirit of the rules. It is not about trying to find loopholes or ways around them but adhering to them as much as possible. It is about doing the minimum that the rules allow, not the maximum.
People in Wales are suffering through their third lockdown – the fourth for those who experienced local lockdowns in September and October. They have been told that the situation is so severe, so dire, so on a knife edge, that they can be fined hundreds of pounds for meeting a close relative at a social distance in a park. We are told that the Welsh NHS is under such pressure that you can not spend an extra minute in a shop to buy a non-essential item.
And yet Welsh Government ministers are able to stay overnight, for several days, in a property that is just an hour from their home.
This is not to single out Lee Waters specifically. Conversations with other parties seem to suggest he is not the only MS doing this. His employers do not for a second suggest any rules are being broken.
But for lockdown after lockdown people in other professions are having their liberty curtailed. Physios have had to diagnose and treat patients over video. Therapists have had to help patients through a screen. This isn’t ideal for them, it makes it harder for them to do their job and almost impossible to do it as well as they did before. But they were told it’s necessary.
This may be a storm in a teacup. Many people will perfectly reasonably argue that it doesn’t really matter that MSs can visit their second homes. But when approached by a concerned member of the public and the feeling that there is something not quite right in this rule, it seems only right we put this information into the public domain.