Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Wales needs substance, not soundbites

There is an air of complacent expectation across the Welsh centre-left at the moment that the 'pendulum' is merely going to swing back to them now the Conservatives are in power in Westminster. It’s writ large in their body language and they could yet be punished for it.

It leaves the impression that the Labour/Plaid coalition are less focused on making devolution work efficiently, by producing meaningful solutions to the problems that Wales faces, and merely content to allow the old Westminster model to ‘swing’ them back into power.

After 11 years of Labour-led governance in the National Assembly, inevitably it appears that they have truly exhausted their collective imagination... A tired government running on empty; bereft of ideas and, above all, bereft of leadership.

The same familiar faces, governing as if it were their right – and not a privilege afforded through merit.
Recently an ex-Minister was heard bemoaning the obstruction of government policy by senior civil servants - surely this misses the point altogether. It is the duty of Ministers to enact their democratic mandate and to ensure that working relationships with civil servants are maintained in the appropriate way. That is leadership in the truest sense. It would, after all, be humiliatingly absurd to hear such comments from someone of the stature of Sir Alex Ferguson, that he was no longer able to command the respect of his support staff...

In truth, the Welsh Assembly Government needs to learn to govern more maturely and with an authority hitherto unseen. Having spent several years happily playing little brother to Labour at Westminster they now appear to have seamlessly reverted to 'opposition mode' with the coalition having now taken up the reins in London.

This merely leaves a leadership vacuum, and we all know that natures abhors...

The next decade in Wales needs to be about firm leadership, with government conducting itself more maturely - with less belly-aching! Whoever wins the next election in May would do well to remember that.

Many WAG ministers have become too used to the comfort blanket of 'blank cheque-book politics'; throwing a lot of money and not necessarily the same degree of thought at a problem. This failure to articulate an inspiring framework of ideas lets the nation down. Too many gimmicks - not enough substance.

WAG will need to muster all of its creativity and energy if we are to see the economic revival that Wales desperately needs to catch up to speed with the rest of the UK. Right now i don't see much more than steam coming from the benches opposite.

If respect is indeed the currency of leadership then surely it won't be long before Labour's cheques start bouncing, revealing only what we've suspected all along - that they are ideologically bankrupt, both here in Wales and in the UK as a whole.

What Wales need is substance, not soundbites...

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Must try harder! WAG failure to deliver for the future

Rather disappointing news this morning, with the publication of the latest results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment – hereafter referred to as PISA!

It would seem that Wales is falling down the league table of nations according to this measure. This is rather worrying in the current economic climate because – unfortunately – it stands to reason that a poorly educated workforce is likely to be a poorer one.

(@ Careers Wales, discussing ways to increase opportunities for young people in Wales)

When companies are looking at investing in an area, once they have looked at the costs they will inevitably be looking at the levels of basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. As such, this does highlight a worrying trend; with the gap between Wales and its competing OECD peers growing each year.

If we are going to address this then we need a new approach because Wales cannot be allowed to continue to fall behind other nations, as it currently appears to be under Labour and Plaid. Being the worst performing nation in the United Kingdom means that all of those involved in the education of our children need to look closely at their own roles, reflecting on the changes that need to be made to bring about significant improvements.

We need to foster in our young the basic skills that they need to succeed in life and that starts with literacy and numeracy. Tony Blair often spoke of the importance of the three R’s; reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetics. (I’m hopeful that he appreciated the irony!) However, as appears to be the case under Labour and Plaid here in Wales, the initiatives brought forward were all too often overly-centralised and ridden with red tape. What is needed is the empowerment of the teachers and parents who are inherently best placed to understand the needs of pupils.

It's vital that parents and teachers have the ability to understand how their school is performing and, above all, how it performs against other schools. Giving those schools the power to respond to comparative examples of success/failings is also essential if we are going to improve educational outcomes in the long term. The ability to develop 'free schools' is something that I have championed since my first days in the Assembly, and it is no coincidence that Scandinavian countries (the first to pilot the concept) very often lead the field in educational excellence!

I know that the Shadow Minister for Education, Paul Davies, has some great ideas in this this area and with the policy launch that is taking place tomorrow I am very much looking forward to getting stuck into the debate that will inevitably follow…

In the end, it will be the people of Wales who decide and we must always be mindful of the need to give them a genuine choice at the forthcoming election.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

After the dust has settled

It's certainly been an interesting few days, made all the more so by the laying of yesterday's draft budget.

We've been taking the debate to the Labour/Plaid coalition in recent days, making a passionate case for health to be protected from the cuts that were inevitably going to make things more difficult than in previous years.

I won't rehash the arguments for tackling the deficit in the manner in which the Westminster coalition has been required to; only to observe that this was a draft budget that was all about priorities... And did the Budget Minister deliver?

Well, it's clear that the Lab/Plaid coalition don't share ours. We have committed to protect the health budget, just as it has been in England, meaning that it would grow in terms of inflation over the next four years. Of course difficult decisions will need to be made elsewhere, but we have made the health of the nation a key priority. As Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsey, said earlier today, our figures will be published just as they always have been, to indicate just how we propose to balance the books. And of course our proposals will be judged on their own merits in the same way in which the people of Wales are judging the Assembly government's today...

We've had our finest mathematicians on the job and the results of yesterday's announcements are shocking! What is presented as a 'stand-still' budget actually turns out to be a cut in real terms of nearly £900 million over the next three years.

To simplify, that's:

  • The salaries of 41,818 nurses for a year
  • 140,000 coronary bypass operations
  • 868,189 bed days in intensive care baby units
  • The development of more than 100 dedicated stroke units

...A huge sum of cuts that the health service in Wales neither needs or can afford.

This isn't about political point-scoring, or about adopting a populist position to gain a few votes. It's about the future of the NHS in Wales, and the health of the people it is there to serve. At a time when both Westminster and the Scottish Government are taking steps to invest in the health budget, we simply cannot afford to be left behind.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Public Health Matters...

As the old saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Yet too often the need to prevent people falling ill or developing medical conditions comes second to the acute needs of those already suffering. As health budgets have been placed under enormous pressure in recent years and with increasing demands on our hospitals, the rise in the number of public health crises – such as obesity, smoking and sexually transmitted diseases - continues to go unchecked.

In these times of economic austerity, savings are being sought in every corner of the NHS in Wales as Edwina Hart and her officials take £435 million out of the NHS before the end of this financial year. But what’s the true price of Labour’s legacy to Wales and who pays for it?

With the cost of alcohol misuse in Wales at around £70-85 million and with around 1,000 deaths attributable to alcohol per year in Wales, the cost of the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG)’s ineffective policy is all too apparent. Instead of investing in tackling the root causes of alcohol misuse, the Health Minister continues to rely on the dedication of health professionals to pick up the pieces at the frontline of A&E departments, at huge expense to the taxpayer.

While the Government thinks that introducing minimum pricing on alcohol may possibly curb the incidence of drunken anti-social behaviour in the short term, it is merely the plaster that covers the bullet wound whilst penalising moderate consumers.

WAG’s approach to public health matters in Wales has been found wanting. The Labour/Plaid Coalition Government is haemorrhaging money while the statistics continue to rise. With the astronomical rise in diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections, a decade of a Labour-led government has little to show for its efforts. By 2025, around 225,000 people will have been diagnosed with diabetes; that’s over 7 per cent of the Welsh population. Unless we address these lifestyle issues underlying our public health crises, health inequalities will continue to expand meaning you are likely to live longer if you live in the Vale of Glamorgan than in the Rhondda Valley.

By refusing to protect NHS funding in Wales in real terms, the WAG is playing Russian roulette with the health of the Welsh nation.

Can we afford not to protect health spending? Simply put, the answer is no.

It’s time for a change. Not another health reorganisation. Two restructures of the NHS in Wales at a cost of more than £30 million is quite enough waste. No, what we need is a broader focus. We need a longer term view of the challenges facing Wales. We need a more holistic approach that uses the talents of health and social care professionals more effectively. We want better cohesion of services so that the focus is on prevention rather than cure. We want a wholesale change in our health behaviour.

The Welsh Conservatives are committed to getting it right now so that future generations don’t ultimately foot the bill.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Reaching out of the 'goldfish bowl'

Had an interesting chat this morning with Peter Adam Smith and his colleagues from Politics Wales, all students at JOMEC in Cardiff Uni. It was a good opportunity to redress the balance with many of their recent contributions having been made by parties other than our good selves, the Welsh Conservatives!

It was an opportunity to once again stress the need to protect health spending in Wales and to remind the public that Labour's unfortunate legacy to Wales has been cuts of £435 million to the Welsh NHS in this year alone! I have made the case on a number of occasions for ringfencing the budget, outlining key areas where we feel huge improvements to health outcomes in Wales could be made.

Firstly, we would introduce a national 'Cancer Plan' that would be implemented by a dedicated Cancer Co-ordinator. It is something that has been launched with success across the Severn Bridge and we genuinely feel that it would deliver improvements in the early diagnosis and treatment stages of cancer care. Next, we would give our struggling stroke services a much needed funding boost... Experts have damned Welsh stroke services as amongst the worst in the UK. This is simply not acceptable. These plans are costed rigorously and would be paid for by ending the unfair practice of free prescriptions for higher earners, although they would remain for 93% of medicines issued in Wales.

Peter also discussed the future of social media in politics - a fascinating subject indeed. Personally, i think that politicians have a duty to bridge the 'disconnect' in any way in which they can. If the public are changing the way they communicate then politicians should respond to that for sure. If that means using platforms like Twitter, Facebook and so on, then i'm all for it.

I do, however, feel that the fanfare with which Obama's usage of social media was greeted has placed unrealistic pressure on politicians from this side of the Atlantic. His campaign is rightly heralded but will take some doing if it is to be matched never mind improved upon over here. Politicians have been criticised for failing to make the most of the interactive potential of the internet, for failing to make the switch from 'send' to 'receive' mode... However, Obama's campaign was as much about his own personal story as it was about the methods he employed and we can't forget that!

I do think that elections in the future will be hugely influenced by social media, and i intend to maximise their usage in my own campaign. Having said that, politicians of all shades of the political spectrum need to make sure that they are reaching outside of the 'godlfish bowl', and to the public at large! (Not just to the journalists, support staff and politicians who are paid to feign interest!)