Wednesday, 30 June 2010
Unsurprisingly our political opponents have tried to accentuate differences and have been resolutely negative. No surprise there! You will not be surprised that I want to look at the very positive aspects of what has been happening in Wales over recent months, and there is much good news.
The new coalition government has clearly defined themes against which the legislative programme and the budget have been set.
Prime amongst these has been economic competence and the need to deal with the massive deficit that has been left by the Labour Party after their 13 years of government. They came into power with the outgoing Prime Minister, then Chancellor, promising an end to ‘boom and bust’ and left office with the biggest bust that we have ever seen. Whilst clearly there was an international element to this economic crisis, it is also undeniable that of the major economies we entered the recession first and left it last. Our currency was weaker against the dollar, and weaker against the Euro at the end of Labour’s period of economic turbulence.
The coalition budget, whilst making necessary cuts and increasing taxes in some areas, has introduced some very valuable initiatives and policy changes for us in Wales:-
the re-linking of pensions with earnings, with a floor limit of 2.5% increase if earnings have not grown by that amount in a year is very welcome news for Welsh pensioners;
(ii) the increase of personal allowances that will occur over the Parliament to take more people out of basic rate tax by increasing personal allowances is massively welcome news for Welsh workers; and
(iii) the provision to waive national insurance contributions for a year for businesses outside of London, and outside of the East and South-East of England, is a great boost for the Welsh economy which I hope the Welsh Assembly Government will ensure is fully utilised by the Welsh economy.
A second key theme of the coalition government is the promotion of devolution and localism. In England this is reflected in schools policy with more power being given to individual schools away from local authorities for example. In Wales this is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government, but ‘local schools’ is a policy that has been espoused and put forward by Welsh Conservatives over a year ago.
At the same time Cheryl Gillan, as Welsh Secretary, has set about delivering the referendum with gusto. A draft question, agreed by the Project Board that she set up, has been submitted to the Electoral Commission as is required by law, and the Welsh Secretary has indicated that she intends the referendum to be held in the first quarter of 2011. This, I believe, is good news for Wales.
At the same time, and for the first time ever, a Westminster government has indicated the need for the Barnett Formula to change. Wales is disadvantaged by the present formula as, indeed, is England. The main beneficiaries are Scotland and, to a degree, Northern Ireland. It is important that the Welsh Nationalist party speaks to the Scottish Nationalists to seek to see if we can have a measure of agreement on how change should be made across the whole of the United Kingdom. At the moment the main bar for any change is Scotland, and in Wales we cannot sit back and see a system where parts of the United Kingdom are disadvantaged unfairly by another part.
The attitude of the coalition government to devolution and the Assembly is important. It is not mere symbolism alone that dictated that David Cameron would be in Wales so quickly after the general election victory of the coalition parties. He had always indicated that that would be the case and, of course, he is no stranger to the Assembly, having visited even before becoming Leader of the Party.
In contrast, Gordon Brown never entered the Senedd nor, indeed, did Tony Blair, though he made one visit at the original opening of the Assembly some 11 years ago. The agenda of respect that has been heralded by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister means we enter a new era where there is more effective partnership working between Westminster and the Assembly.
The new Secretary of State, who is determined to tackle the issues in her in-tray, demonstrates this approach. Assembly Members are only too well aware of the approach of her immediate predecessor Peter Hain. A consummate politician though he may be, his visits were characterised by an approach to Assembly business that often appeared 50% pantomime villain, 50% Victorian pater-familias. There certainly didn’t seem to be any desire for dialogue across the party divide.
The Housing LCO is to be delivered too as the coalition government heralded. Procedural difficulties meant that no amendments could be made but the decision of the Secretary of State in those circumstances to agree to the LCO was an instant one, with which I am in total agreement.
I am sure that this close dialogue will continue and be repeated over the next 5 years. It is an approach that has been welcomed publicly by the parties in the Welsh Assembly Government – let’s hope it is not undermined by private, anonymous briefings by some of those who work in the shadows for the Shadow Ministerial team at Westminster or others.
The challenges in Wales, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, are immense. In Wales, whilst protecting our excellent public services, there is no doubt that we need to grow the private sector. The Welsh economy has shrunk relatively against the rest of the United Kingdom during Labour’s period in office and that is not mere political hype, that is based on the Office of National Statistics figures.
We need too to free up our schools so that they are free of local authority control and operate within the parameters set by government but with the ability to use their own budget as they see fit. They know their schools best.
Under the Welsh Conservatives, the health budget would continue to grow. It needs to do so. New drugs are becoming available and we want to make sure that they are available to patients quickly. New treatments are coming on stream and once again patients should benefit from these new treatments.
We need to strip away much of the target philosophy that has been the key feature of the Labour years, and once again to ensure that decisions are taken by clinicians at local level rather than by ministerial dictat from Cardiff.
On the economy we need to ensure resources are used not just to promote the private sector, whether by macro-economic levers of taxation at Westminster, as the Chancellor has already done, or by intervention in Wales itself. By promoting green jobs we achieve not just the important and desirable goal of expanding the Welsh economy, but also the goal of tackling the daunting challenge of climate change.
It is by this imaginative thinking that we need to ensure that we get full value for the Welsh pound in utilising the National Assembly budget. Whatever the short term massive challenges are, and given the national debt approaching a trillion pounds, they are immense, I believe the medium to long term future for Wales is bright, and that the sort of agenda that I have outlined will help us to deliver a brighter future for Wales.
Monday, 28 June 2010
The loss of these allowances, which were due to be scrapped by the previous Labour Government, could have had a devastating effect on thousands of self-catering operators in Wales. We fought against these proposals in the National Assembly but the Labour/Plaid administration failed to stop Labour’s proposal.
Massive concern was expressed to me last year by the Wales Association of Self-Catering Operators (WASCO) and many other small business owners regarding the repeal of the Furnished Holiday Letting Rules.
Labour’s highly damaging proposals were made without any consultation with self-catering operators and any study into the impact they would have on their businesses.
The tourism sector in Wales is vital to our economy and I am delighted this has been recognised by George Osborne in his budget.
Saturday, 26 June 2010
When I was a student at Cambridge Peter Walker was the patron of PEST (Pressure for Economic and Social Toryism) the forerunner of TRG (Tory Reform Group). I was a member of PEST as well as of the Cambridge University Conservative Association. Peter Walker was then a Cabinet Minister in Ted Heath’s government and was actively and dynamically promoting the sort of Conservatism that is now back in fashion. Curiously Peter Walker was always sceptical about Europe. He was not a Europhile.
I was to come into close contact with Peter Walker during the Chesterfield by-election in 1984 (fought on St David’s Day). Peter Walker was then the Secretary of State for Energy and the by-election was fought against the backdrop of the miners’ dispute with Mrs Thatcher’s government. Chesterfield was part of the Derbyshire coalfield and had working mines in the constituency. Peter Walker came up to Chesterfield to speak in my support and was then, as he always was, good humoured, bright, dynamic and totally master of his brief. As an extremely capable and adept Minister, he was trusted by Margaret Thatcher in a succession of roles (Energy, Agriculture, Wales), despite the fact that they were from different wings of the Party. They were from remarkably similar backgrounds and had a relationship of mutual respect.
It is, as Secretary of State for Wales, that Peter Walker is probably best remembered. Margaret Thatcher was keen to have a Minister of dynamism who could handle such a wide ranging brief, and readily agreed to the only condition that Peter Walker laid down that he was given a totally free hand to get on with the job in Wales without Prime Ministerial interference. For her part Mrs Thatcher always honoured the bargain. Famously John Major relates that the only time when he had difficulties settling a departmental budget was with Peter Walker, when Peter Walker said "I am holding out for more money, speak to the Prime Minister she will back me up". John Major, believing that there was no way she would do so, contacted the Prime Minister only to find that Margaret Thatcher backed Peter Walker on this matter.
Over the years Peter Walker came to Wales on many occasions, not least to campaign in General and Assembly Elections. He was always supportive, always handy with good, sound advice, and rightly proud of his period of office in Wales, which was characterised by dynamic leadership and a succession of private sector successes that were certainly the envy of other parts of the United Kingdom.
He must have been pleased to see the advent of a Conservative Prime Minister with the sort of centrist right-wing agenda of which he would have been proud. He must have been also massively proud to see his son, Robin, win the seat at Worcester which he had held for so long himself (though on different boundaries). I, myself, fought the seat in 1997 when I was to see Peter Walker on many occasions once again. The seat was a different one from the one that Peter had fought of course. Many of the villages and Peter Luff, Peter Walker’s successor as MP, had gone into mid Worcestershire.
A successful businessman in his own right; a politician with very sensitive political antennae; an accomplished administrator and a true public servant, he will be massively missed in Wales, in the United Kingdom and more widely. I will certainly miss his support and his sound advice.
Friday, 25 June 2010
This is true for Arts Council Wales which is currently undertaking a spending review with a report due this summer.
Excellent outlets such as Theatr Powys and the Wyeside Arts Centre as well as groups like Powys Dance rely on Arts Council of Wales funding to grow and to thrive and find it difficult to access private sources of funding, unlike similar centres and groups in Cardiff.
The aim must be to secure and increase future funding for facilities like Theatr Powys and the Wyeside Arts Centre and groups like Powys Dance which play such a significant and valuable role in bringing the arts to Powys.
Yesterday I visited another of our truly excellent Arts venues-the Arts Centre, Aberystwyth, where Alan Hewson has done such fantastic work over the years.
I pay tribute to the many charities, organisations and volunteers who help provide transport to patients, particularly from Powys to Shropshire and Herefordshire.
It can be a long journey from towns and communities such as Rhayader, Nantmel and so on. The Institute of Rural Health has found examples of patients having to pay return taxi fares of up to £70 for a round trip when an ambulance was not appropriate and when they were unable to access Dial-a-Ride.
I asked the Minister if she has given any thought as to how these sorts of costs can be met.
These are often old or vulnerable people who have no way of finding that sort of money and who, therefore, are not accessing the treatment that they need.
In reply, Edwina Hart said:
“We have to recognise the cross-border dimension in rural Powys with regard to these particular issues. I am more than happy to take this matter up and will come back to members on it, because it raises points of real concern.”
I welcome the Minister’s acknowledgement that there is a problem and look forward to her coming forward with proposals to help elderly and vulnerable people in rural Powys meet the transport costs incurred in accessing health care.
Thursday, 17 June 2010
Dolmynach House is a Victorian property that was left to Powys County Council sixteen years ago following the death of its owner, Leila Williams, to be preserved as a period property for the general public.
For a long time now many people have been working to bring this project to fruition and I can remember years ago calling for a meeting to press Powys into action.
The Dolmynach Community Group has worked hard to get this museum open for the enjoyment of the public and I look forward to visiting Dolmynach House in the near future.
Proposals for the future of High Schools have been outlined in a new document by Powys County Council.
One thing is certain, we must ensure there is the widest possible consultation on these plans to restructure Secondary and Post-16 Education in the county.
I accept that we need always to keep under review our educational system and the need to tackle falling rolls and financial pressures.
I believe the starting point should be how we keep open our excellent Secondary Schools whilst accepting that some changes to delivery may be needed.
The principle must be how we can continue to deliver excellent education without ignoring rurality and preserving communities when looking at future provision.
The current document is a pre-consultation document and consultation needs to be thorough and thought through.
I note Powys County Council wishes to complete this process and implement any changes by September 2011.
I believe this may be too short a period to ensure the widest possible consultation on proposals that are likely to cause considerable concern amongst parents and pupils.
Last Friday, I met with Dr Medwin Hughes to discuss the exciting plans for a new University in Wales.
University of Wales Trinity St David will be established in September this year by bringing together the University of Wales, Lampeter and Trinity University College, Carmarthen.
Dr Medwin Hughes is the Vice–Chancellor designate of the new University.
We had a very constructive and informative meeting and we agreed that this combines the chance to offer exciting new opportunities whilst building on the sound foundations of the historic inheritance of the two oldest Universities in Wales.
I was also pleased to hear of collaboration plans with regional Further Education Colleges and Swansea Metropolitan University.
I wish Medwin and his team every success in the future.
Monday, 14 June 2010
This new initiative is a landmark programme to mark The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and has Prince William as its Patron.
The aim is to protect a network of 2012 Queen Elizabeth II Fields in communities all across the UK as a permanent and lasting legacy of The Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games.
Next year the public will be asked to vote for their favourite local playing field to be protected and become a Queen Elizabeth II Field.
I think this is a great idea and hope communities and local authorities in Wales will play their part in making this scheme a success and protect and preserve playing fields.
These events and this initiative present important opportunities to extend and protect playing fields in our communities across Wales.
Thursday, 10 June 2010
I am concerned to hear about possible job losses at Rachel’s Dairies in Aberystwyth.
Jobs are under threat there because the owner of the company, Dean Foods based in Dallas in the US, is revising its position with regard to all of its holdings.
This means that the largest private sector employer in Aberystwyth, and an iconic business, is in danger of losing jobs.
I have called on the Assembly Government to issue a written statement, so that we can reassure the people who depend on Rachel’s for their livelihood, as well as those who consume that company’s products.
Rachel’s Dairies is one of the UK’s oldest producers of organic dairy products and the largest private sector employer in Aberystwyth so any loss of jobs would be a serious blow to the town.
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
This is in spite of an admissions panel ruling that they should be granted places.
This situation is grossly unfair and these children need to be admitted straight away.
I visited the school personally last Thursday to meet teachers and Governors to discuss this matter and I am concerned that these vulnerable children could lose vital ground in their education.
I have written to Powys County Council, The Education Minister and the Children’s Commissioner to try to get this resolved as soon as possible.
Monday, 7 June 2010
Obviously there is still some way to go but this is fantastic news.
The RBL inform me that this preferred bidder is an established care provider in Wales and that the intention of this potential purchaser is to take on Crosfield House as a full going concern, with residents and staff remaining in place.
Let’s hope the remaining negotiations are successful so that the staff, residents and indeed all those in Rhayader and the surrounds, can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Friday, 4 June 2010
I am greatly impressed by David Cameron’s performance at his first Prime Minister’s Question Time.
He came across as confident and totally in command of the House of Commons.
He even managed to answer the questions, something Gordon Brown failed to do, and without referring to a sheaf of briefing papers which Gordon found indispensible.
He did so in a courteous manner which, I hope, sets the tone for future Question Times.
All things considered, an excellent start for the Prime Minister.
If Carwyn Jones is disappointed then I’m afraid he only has the previous occupants and his colleagues to blame. The former Secretary of State Peter Hain claimed to have Wales’ best interests at heart, especially when it came to the referendum but we soon found out when Cheryl Gillan took office that there had been little progress.
Since taking office, the Secretary of State has been honest and open about the timetable for delivering a referendum. We now have a clear map of the road ahead.
If we retrace the steps that bring us to the present, it is difficult to see how the First Minister can suggest that the inability to deliver an autumn referendum is any thing other than one of the many unwanted legacies of the previous Labour government.
The All Wales Convention reported back in November 2009. However, a ‘trigger vote’ did not happen until February 2010 and even then the letter to then Secretary of State formally requesting a referendum sat on the First Minister’s desk for another 10 days. I repeatedly pressed Carwyn Jones to rule out a referendum on the same day as the Assembly elections. Until the middle of May he had failed to do that.
Then just over 2 weeks ago, the First Minister issues a Ministerial Statement which suggested an October referendum as well as a draft question. Just like that, out of nowhere. Without any serious consultation.
We all know the reality of the situation is that proper, robust consultation must take place. There are obligations on both the Secretary of State and the Electoral Commission to not only deliver a question that has been fully tested meet electoral regulations and allow adequate time for a campaign on the vote. These requirements are vital to the delivery of a referendum question and a referendum date and we must not be over hasty regarding this process.
The First Minister says we must wait and see whether the Prime Minister and the Government can work constructively with the Assembly Government. Perhaps it’s time the First Minister took his own advice over this referendum process and focussed his energy on the campaign ahead. I have repeatedly urged him to push forward with the referendum process and have found him lacking the necessary commitment and passion about this vital issue. Most recently, I wrote to him on the 20th May reminding him that some time ago I urged the setting up of a ‘yes’ campaign with each of the 4 parties in the Assembly nominating representatives. I urged him once again to move swiftly to ensure that such a campaign is up and running. To date I have had no response to the letter.
Wednesday, 2 June 2010
This is an important move towards ensuring that there is greater transparency in government and public services.
We must be honest and open with the public about the way their taxes are being spent, and by increasing the information available we will allow the public to more closely scrutinise the government and public service providers.
I would urge the First Minister to follow this example and commit to making more government data available in Wales.