IT’S NOT easy being a Welsh Government Minister.
There are so many new words to learn when you get into office and so many old ones to forget.
For example, take the word ‘cut’. It’s a very simple three letter word. But once you become a Welsh Government Minister, you are not allowed to use it.
Instead, at least as far as Welsh Government policies go, the word ‘cut’ has to be replaced with the far more unwieldy ‘transformation’ or the two-word mouthful ‘transformational change’.
ANGRY ANGELA ATTACKS
As you will see elsewhere in this newspaper, Hywel Dda UHB – to nobody’s surprise – has been caught on the hop by people discovering that when it talks about ‘transforming clinical services’ it means ‘cuts and closures’. You could argue that cuts are in themselves transformational, at least in the same way that being guillotined was transformational for the French aristocracy.
On Wednesday (Jan 24), Vaughan Gething was faced with a barrage of topical questions, which he confronted with the enthusiasm and delight of Louis XVI on his final journey to Place de la Révolution.
You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Angela Burns, the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire AM who speaks for her party on Health in the Senedd.
Crikey Moses! After a brief initial question, she tore into the Health Board, the Welsh Government, the First Minister, Labour backbenchers, Mr Gething and almost managed to get to Uncle Tom Cobley and all in a positively breathless display of genuine outrage.
Picking up a copy of the Parliamentary Review of Welsh Health Services, unanimously backed by Senedd members the previous week, she handled it between two fingers as though it was a particularly badly soiled nappy.
It was quite bad enough, Mrs Burns said, for the First Minister and his backbenchers to behave in a supercilious and arrogant fashion towards members raising their constituents’ concerns, it was quite another to obtain cross party agreement on the strategic direction of Welsh health services and then ignore the very principles that underpin it.
Mr Gething got to his feet and momentarily looked shell-shocked. Unlike the First Minister, there were almost no Labour members present to prop him up, bray, and snipe at the opposition with sarcastic remarks. However, the Cabinet Secretary is nothing if not smooth and polished. More than capable of bandying around banal generalities, Mr Gething soon adjusted himself into his usual smooth delivery of assurances about ‘meaningful consultations’.
Demonstrating the same sort of faulty memory that could yet come to unglue his leader, Vaughan Gething continued by saying that his boss had not been in any way supercilious.
Mr Jones’ stock in trade is supercilious.
Perhaps Mr Gething had not been paying attention; because having watched the previous day’s First Minister’s Questions and the business statement which preceded Mrs Burns’ questions, you would have to say that Mrs Burns had it pretty much nailed on.
ASK ME NO QUESTIONS
It didn’t get much better for Mr Gething, despite his stream of soothing words and assurances of good intentions. There used to be a saying that you couldn’t knit fog. Well, you certainly couldn’t weave whole fabric out of Mr Gething’s non-answers.
Mr Gething was very clear that he couldn’t answer direct questions because of protocol and the risk that he might have to make final decisions on a consultation which had not yet started. Which was very odd, because the previous day Carwyn Jones had decided he wouldn’t comment because the consultation was ‘open’. Open or closed, Mr Gething was prepared to fall back on the ‘all changes are difficult’ line. As an alternative tack, he attempted a switch to ‘difficult choices have to be made’.
So often did he repeat these lines, or variations on them, that it appeared as though poor Mr Gething had got stuck in one of those time loops beloved of science fiction programmes that need to create a cheap episode to make up for blowing the make-up budget on Slurb the Invincible or some such in a preceding one.
WHERE’S HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT?
Paul Davies had a go after Mrs Burns. Mr Davies doesn’t really do splenetic outrage, but he was clearly peeved – testy even. In a calm and measured way, he berated the Health Board for even proposing, never mind contemplating the closure of Withybush Hospital.
In response, Mr Gething tried a different tactic. While he appreciated that local sentiment was strong, it would be the same across Wales as tough decisions – hard choices – had to be made everywhere across the nation. This was, Mr Gething suggested, a national issue.
Mr Gething’s words would have had more weight on that score had he been accompanied by members of the Welsh Assembly from his own party. Apart from Mark Drakeford seated to his right, Mr Gething appeared terribly alone. The rest of the chamber was devoid of a Labour presence, demonstrating just how seriously west Wales’ concerns were being taken by all those south Wales AMs upon which the party depends for its majority.
Simon Thomas, incongruously seated next to Neil Hamilton, was next to tackle Mr Gething’s dead bat defence.
Pointing out the way in which the First Minister had sought to use the Parliamentary Review in an effort to deflect either criticism or inquiry, Mr Thomas told the Cabinet Secretary that the review was published too late to influence any proposals advanced by Hywel Dda.
After ungallantly pointing out that Labour’s candidate in the 2015 General Election, Paul Miller, had stood on a platform of restoring the paediatric services to Withybush – which had been removed temporarily without consultation – and had still not returned, he suggested this was the opportunity to test the strength of the Parliamentary Review’s framework.
NO STOPPING A CONSULTATION
Mr Gething lost his way a little as he said it wouldn’t be right for him ‘to attempt to instruct’ the health board to stop its consultation now. That would be the consultation that has not started, as the Cabinet Secretary had previously made clear just minutes before.
Difficult conversations needed to be had, tough choices had to be made, and the public would be properly engaged in the process of helping to make those tough choices after taking part in those difficult conversations.
You could see the cogs clicking away as Mr Gething spun new golden platitudes out of old strawmen.
Joyce Watson, whose support for retaining services in the past was less than fulsome, said it was very important that the public was told Withybush was not closing immediately. As this had never been suggested anywhere, it was hard to see what point Joyce Watson was trying to make; but having been thrown a life preserver, Mr Gething clung to it. He agreed that there was no plan to close Withybush in the immediate future. A relief for those attending outpatients next week to have their bunions filed.
Mr Gething then proceeded to point out that other hospitals were also mentioned in the options that had been leaked and that there could be those hard conversations and tough choices to be made in respect of them. But never mind, there would be a genuine and meaningful consultation and, if not, there would be a meaningful and genuine one. That’s what he expected the Board to do. Although, of course, he couldn’t tell them that was what was needed, because he might end up having to make one of those difficult choices after hard and tough conversations.
Neil Hamilton was next. Reaching for his pantomime pitchfork, he rather nastily skewered the Cabinet Secretary on its tines.
Remarking on Mr Gething’s status as the government’s fire blanket for successive health board failings everywhere, he posed the rather more difficult question of whether the threat to Withybush could be boiled down to death by a thousand cuts?
Tellingly, he suggested: “It must be regarded as a ridiculous proposal to close Withybush—even in contemplation in the medium term, let alone the short term. The health board should, when it produces the list of options for people to discuss, avoid causing unnecessary alarm and consternation by producing extreme proposals that are not going to be followed through.”
He then rather neatly suggested the real problem was a complete lack of accountability in the health service. Community Health Councils, Health Boards, were not elected bodies and the truth was that everything ended up on the Health Secretary’s desk. ‘People on the ground feel they have no voice at all,” Mr Hamilton said.
Vaughan Gething could see the home stretch coming.
There would be a meaningful conversation about tough choices in a difficult consultation, in which the views of clinicians would be heard as well as those of the public. It would be rather mean to point out that there is a difference between hearing and listening.
Particularly as those conversations will be tough, difficult, hard, meaningful, and genuine.
Then Mr Gething concluded on a point that he must now be grateful he did not open with.
Concluding he volunteered, he didn’t want to be in the position in the future where the Government will be asked: ‘Why didn’t you do something about a part of the service that really has gone wrong?’
That remark rather fortunately leaves the question unasked as to what all the previous tough choices after hard conversations and meaningful consultations over the last twelve years were actually for.
That would be a difficult – if not unanswerable – question.
Conservatives crank-up calls for Carwyn to go
THE CONSERVATIVES have called for Carwyn Jones’s replacement as Labour leader in Wales to be chosen sooner rather than later.
Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Conservatives in the Assembly, has raised fears of legislative inertia and lack of progress on key projects while uncertainty continues around the identity of Mr Jones’s successor.
Mr Davies has warned that Wales faces a period of ’rudderless leadership’ in Welsh Government, if the process to select Carwyn Jones’ replacement is allowed to drag on until December.
The Conservatives say that internal wrangling within Welsh Labour over the electoral system used to elect leaders could delay a contest by months, with some Labour members calling for the introduction of ‘one-member-one-vote’.
But Mr Davies is concerned that a ’vacuum at the heart of Welsh politics’ could have serious consequences for public services in Wales.
He said: “The First Minister’s decision to stand down has created an immediate vacuum at the heart of Welsh politics, and we now face a period of rudderless leadership whilst the Labour Party works out how to elect his replacement.
“They need to get a move on, for the sake of our public services and public confidence in devolution.
“Welsh NHS waiting lists are spiralling, we have a teacher recruitment crisis, and take-home pay is the lowest in any part of the UK.
“It is simply unacceptable for the country to be left in limbo until the end of the year.
“Frankly, the majority of the public are unconcerned by the mechanism used to determine Carwyn’s replacement, but we need to see a new First Minister with a mandate to take Wales forward in the coming weeks – not months.”
Mr Davies’ words were subsequently given more force when the outgoing First Minister refused to commit the Welsh Government to its preferred ‘Black Route’ for the M4 relief road.
Speaking in First Minister’s Questions, Carwyn Jones refused to back the route, despite his government having spent millions of pounds in preparatory work for its development – and having taken that route through to public consultation.
A number of routes have been proposed, but First Minister Carwyn Jones and the Welsh Government’s favoured option has always been the ‘black route’.
In May 2016 Carwyn Jones confirmed that the Welsh Government would not support the alternative – the ‘Blue Route’.
The First Minister said at the time: “One thing I will say is we wouldn’t support the blue route. There are a number of reasons for this.
“First of all, the blue route is dual carriageway, not a six-lane motorway, and that seems to me to defeat the whole object of a new road.”
Yet, when asked to reaffirm his government’s commitment to an M4 Relief Road, the First Minister refused – even claiming that he’d never publicly expressed a preference.
Speaking outside the Chamber, Leader of the Welsh Conservatives – Andrew RT Davies – said: “It looks like the M4 relief road is going to be the first casualty of Labour’s leadership contest.
“Despite spending millions of pounds preparing for the project – and despite having repeatedly backed the black route – the First Minister has now distanced himself from taking a decision.
“This is just the first major decision that will now be parked until a new leader is in place.
“This is why we need to see a swift resolution of the Labour leadership crisis, before the sense of inertia takes hold.
“On the current timetable, the new First Minister is unlikely to be in post before Christmas – just weeks before we leave the European Union, and several months after the public inquiry into the M4 relief road has reported.
“These decisions cannot simply be parked, and the Welsh public can’t be held to ransom because the Labour Party cannot agree on how to elect a new leader.
“That’s why we need to see a new First Minister with a mandate to take Wales forward in the coming weeks – not months.”
Meanwhile, the Conservatives’ shadow spokesperson on local government, Janet Finch-Saunders has drawn attention to the potential for the First Minister’s impending departure to leave other major reforms in limbo.
Ahead of a Conservative debate on local government in the Assembly on Wednesday (April, 25), Ms Finch-Saunders, warned that the uncertainty was having a negative impact on already creaking frontline services.
She said: “Just weeks ago the Welsh Government announced its third major set of proposals to reform local government in just a few years.
“They’ve spent considerable amounts of taxpayer money, and wasted several years discussing disruptive plans which have led to a sustained period of uncertainty for local authorities.
“With the First Minister’s impending resignation you have to wonder where the latest reincarnation of forced mergers is heading – after all, there’s no certainty that the same Local Government Secretary will even be in post under a new leader.
“What is clear is that the vast majority of Welsh councils are firmly against these disruptive and counter-productive plans.
“We all want to see the cost of politics reduced, but councils are already exploring collaboration on a regional level, and we would not back mergers without the consent of local residents and taxpayers.”
Voting system overshadows Labour elections
A ROW has erupted following the election of Carolyn Harris MP as the new deputy leader of the Labour Party in Wales.
And the row could have an impact on the election of Carwyn Jones’s successor to the post of leader and First Minister.
In an eerie echo of the way in which the late Rhodri Morgan was defeated for leadership of Labour in Wales 18 years ago, the membership of the party overwhelmingly backed his widow, Julie Morgan AM, but the votes of the union machine and Labour representatives went Carolyn Harris’ way.
The MP for Swansea East gained 51.5 per cent of the vote, narrowly beating Julie Morgan, Cardiff AM and former MP, to become the Welsh party’s first deputy leader.
Although Julie Morgan won a majority of party members’ votes, Carolyn Harris won amongst affiliated groups and elected representatives.
In the UK Labour Party, the leader and deputy leader are elected under one member one vote (OMOV); however, Labour in Wales has retained the Electoral College, which was widely criticised following the 2010 election for Labour leader that saw Ed Milliband returned as party leader.
There has been disquiet within the Labour Party over the system it uses for elections for some time, and the Welsh Labour Party is part of the way through a review of its Electoral College.
The vote was -
Affiliated groups including trade unions:
Harris – 20.14 per cent
Morgan – 13.19 per cent
Harris – 11.6 per cent
Morgan – 21.73 per cent
MPs and AMs:
Harris – 19.75 per cent
Morgan – 13.58 per cent
Harris – 51.5 per cent
Morgan – 48.5 per cent
Campaigning in the deputy leadership election centred upon the system used to elect the candidates. Carolyn Harris – backed by the unions – supported the existing system, while Julie Morgan supporting a change to one-member-one-vote.
The result is likely to strengthen calls for OMOV in Welsh Labour internal elections.
There was no sign of the fight being over after the election, when Julie Morgan tweeted: “The campaign for one member one vote continues.”
Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum and a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee tweeted: ‘The process was a travesty of democracy & insults the people of Wales. The Welsh Exec deliberately chose to limit members say to ⅓, they knew what they were doing. It’s called gerrymandering’.
The timing of Carwyn Jones’ announcement is also thought to be significant, as it would now require a rule change to switch the Electoral College system – perceived as a way of stitching up elections – to a wider vote of party members.
Following Carwyn Jones’ surprise decision to stand down in the autumn, battle lines have been drawn along the method chosen to elect the new leader, with potential candidates with strong links to unions – for example, the former President of the Wales TUC and transparently ambitious Vaughan Gething – altruistically supporting the status quo; while others have called for Labour in Wales to follow the UK party system, widely thought to favour more left wing candidates – for example, Mark Drakeford, who is more popular with rank and file members.
Indeed, as the week has progressed since Carwyn Jones’s announcement, Mark Drakeford has easily racked up more than enough AM nominations to succeed him as leader. The extent of the concern that some AMs have has been the coded call for ‘a more diverse field’, hoping to throw up a ‘Stop Drakeford’ candidate.
Mid and West Regional AM Eluned Morgan is thought to be the favourite of those seeking to prevent a coronation.
Eluned Morgan is a formidable political operator and is likely to have a far wider appeal than the other alternatives to Mark Drakeford, who seem so politically similar that they could have been designed by the same committee. Whether Ms Morgan is willing to place her name forward is open to question. While a further complication is that, as a regional AM, she is not in control of her own destiny and would likely need a safe constituency base for the next Assembly elections.
Signs of support for Ms Morgan are already evident.
An online petition has been launched calling for her name to be included on the ballot for leadership candidates. The petition’s supporters say that ‘For too long women have been overlooked in Welsh politics. Despite the many movements and campaigns to bring about equality, Wales of all the UK nations is unique in that it has never elected a woman leader’.
Minister announces affordable housing review
HOUSING and Regeneration Minister Rebecca Evans has announced an independent review of affordable housing supply in Wales, with a visit to newly built affordable houses and flats in Pontardawe.
The review will examine whether more can be done to increase the supply of affordable housing in Wales, maximising the resources available, and will be chaired by Lynn Pamment, Cardiff Senior Partner and Government & Public Services Lead at PwC. Lynn has many years’ experience of providing financial advice to public and private sector bodies, including working with housing associations and others in the affordable housing sector.
The review will:
- examine the scope for increasing match funding to build more affordable homes, to maximise the number of homes created by the Welsh Government’s contribution to social housing
- review the arrangements governing partnership working between local authorities and housing associations
- consider the implications of moving to deliver zero carbon homes by 2020, including the role of off-site manufacture and modern methods of construction
- review the standards governing affordable housing and advise on whether they require updating
- make recommendations regarding a sustainable rent policy that will both allow long term affordability for tenants and allow viability of existing and new housing developments.
The review will be expected to issue a report and make recommendations to the Minister by the end of April 2019.
Rebecca Evans said: “We have made a clear commitment to deliver 20,000 affordable homes during this term of Government and this development in Pontardawe demonstrates how we are delivering on this.
“I want this review to ensure we are getting the best value for money in our investments and policy, including how we plan for a zero carbon future and the way in which the sector operates.
“We know that many more people in Wales want to access affordable housing.
“The sector in Wales have called on us to look at our policy, and we want to work closely with all stakeholders involved in housing supply to ensure we are building as many homes as possible.
“Lynn Pamment has a great deal of experience in working with the public and private sector on financing projects, and I look forward to reading the results of her review next year.”
Stuart Ropke, Chief Executive of Community Housing Cymru said: “Housing associations in Wales have ambitions to build a minimum of 75,000 affordable homes in Wales over the next twenty years – doubling the current delivery rate. In November 2017 we launched ‘Housing Horizons’, our sector vision to make good housing a basic right for all. This far reaching ambition cannot be achieved without a full analysis of Welsh housing policy and how this is put into practice, so we are delighted the Minister has backed our call for a review.
“Through the review we can establish the most effective policy environment to meet our affordable home delivery ambition and build a solid foundation for current and future generations. If we get this review right, it will be a big step towards solving the housing crisis.”
Matt Dicks, Director of the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru said: “We welcome today’s announcement of a review into housing policy in Wales. It rightly looks at what kind of homes we need in the future and how we can sustain longer-term investment whilst maintaining the affordability of our housing. Over the lifespan of the one-year review we look forward to engaging fully, bringing to life the experiences of housing professionals from across the sector in Wales to provide timely insight and real-life expertise.”
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