Drakeford’s Nightmare

BY GAVIN CHAMBERS

And there we have it: trade of ‘non-essential’ items in supermarkets remains banned in Wales. I wrote only a few days ago about the petition against Welsh Labour banning supermarkets from selling ‘non-essential’ items. That petition has now generated the most signatures in Welsh history. Over 66, 000 people have declared that they want the Labour to reconsider the senseless ban. But the reaction of the Labour has been to reject us out of hand. 

I wouldn’t normally be pressed to write two articles on the same subject in the space of a week. But recent developments have led me to want to say more on Mark Drakeford and his minister’s jumbled thinking.

The other day it was reported that a woman had been turned away from buying sanitary products from a supermarket. The woman quite properly complained about this but was told by the supermarket that sanitary products were ‘non-essential’ items. The Health Minister Vaughan Gething responded by saying that the supermarket had got this wrong, and that the supermarkets should have some ‘discretion’ in some cases. Does this attempt to blame supermarkets for not using ‘discretion’ give us in any way a satisfactory answer? 

This really does show us the flaws of the ban. First of all, stopping shops from selling ‘non-essential’ items has given scope for these kinds of misunderstandings, which we can see has led to people not getting the items that they desperately need. The imprecision of the rules has been a major cause of this. Labour haven’t given shops enough guidance to work with, so they’re bound to make mistakes. 

Second, the government cannot just respond to these problems by blaming the supermarkets for not acting with ‘discretion’. They made the rules. The buck stops with them. If those rules are wrong and don’t take into account the needs of the Welsh people, they should be changed or dropped. Labour should not expect a customer in a shop to plead to shop workers that they have a ‘genuine’ need to purchase certain items. We shouldn’t have to have an embarrassing negotiation when we want to buy something. And, equally, Labour cannot expect an already fatigued shop worker to have to use ‘discretion’ in weighing up whether a customer has a ‘genuine’ need to buy those items, possibly leading to unfairness and inconsistencies in the decisions they make. What is more, we’ve already seen the unpleasant abuse some workers have received over the last few weeks; the ‘discretion’ will only make it far easier for angry customers to blame shop workers for their problems if decisions don’t go their way.

The government has since released a lazy little list of what it ‘consider[s] that the regulations allow’. Hardly a move to inspire confidence. What they ‘consider that the regulations allow’ provides none of the specificity that we need. There is so much more grey area in the list that more problems may arise. And maybe they will need to re-tweak that list. Furthermore, they also said that they ‘clarified that a sensible system should be introduced whereby customers can ask to buy non-essential items by exception under the regulations’. What is the system? Who is it the customers are to ask? I cannot tell. I’m not sure the public will be able to tell either. If it is the shop worker, the issue I highlighted above has the potential to apply, of workers possibly receiving more abuse.

What we can see is the problems of making rules like these. Once the government makes one rule, it makes another, and another, in an attempt to make it all work somehow. So, first, Labour causes a lockdown, which stops smaller shops from trading, but keeps larger supermarkets open. They then decide that the policy is unfair on those smaller shops, so, instead of dropping the policy, they construct another rule to make it so that the larger shops can’t sell items that those smaller shops would have sold. People then rightly complain that they might well need some of those items after the larger shops restrict sales. The government then says that the shops should act with ‘discretion’ without clarifying anything. It’s a never-ending cycle of government interventionist nonsense. Labour seems to think that government failure is best solved by more government. 

Here’s my suggestion for a simple solution to the problem of weighing up what are ‘non-essential’ item: why don’t we just allow customers to decide for themselves what to buy? That way, we don’t get into these impossible situations. 

Again, as I said in my previous article, those who disagree with me can go ahead and scoff that the lockdown doesn’t last long or try to say that these items aren’t really essential and that this is all pathetic in light of the doom of the Covid virus. My response is that we should never blindly accept poorly thought through measures from coercive governments. 

We have every reason to be angry with Welsh Labour. And we have every reason to vote them out in May 2021. 

Gavin is Chairman of Islwyn Conservatives and stood in the last General Election for Islwyn and is on the South Wales east regional list for the last assembly elections .