Monday, 19 December 2011

Two years of Carwyn Jones - little to celebrate, much to lament...

On December 10th the First Minister marked two years in office. Despite our pronounced political differences, I am not beyond congratulating him on the occasion. Reaching the leadership of a major political party is no mean feat, and with it he assumed the highest elected office in Wales; admittedly leading a minority Labour government in partnership with Plaid Cymru, but the senior partner in that nonetheless. The Assembly election results of 2011 may not have granted him a full majority, but Labour certainly has the numbers to pursue their agenda, if only with the co-operation of other parties at certain times. Given the position in which he finds himself then, it is all the more disappointing to observe the marked failures of the Welsh Labour government under the First Minister’s leadership.
It may be expected of me as Leader of the Opposition to find fault with Welsh Labour’s record in government, but the evidence alone does this well enough without any additional help from me. Starting with the economy, during the First Minister’s time in office the percentage of people economically inactive who want a job has risen from 23.5% to 25.2%; the employment rate for ethnic minorities from 16-64 years old has fallen by 1,700; business turnover of small and medium sized businesses (10-249 employees) dropped by 6.4%; there are 3% fewer small businesses (10-49 employees) currently operating, and Wales remains in second place in the league table for out-of-work benefits claimants. These figures simply scratch the surface of Wales’ current economic malaise and, alongside Labour’s foot-dragging over enterprise zones and failure to reduce business rates, reflect badly on a Labour government that supposedly prioritises jobs and the economy. The uncertain economic climate is buffeting the UK and Wales as much as anywhere else, but the First Minister and Labour are failing to do all they can to provide at least some protection from the storm.

The health figures for September 2011 as compared with January 2010 are equally, if not more damning. The number of patients waiting for treatment increased by nearly 42%, and the numbers waiting over 36 weeks for treatment (a Welsh Government target remember) increased from 35 to 7,389. There has been a 27% increase in the number of patients waiting for General Surgery, while those waiting over 36 weeks increased from zero to 620. There has been an increase of nearly 35% in patients waiting for Trauma and Orthopaedic treatment, and the number waiting over 36 weeks increased from 11 to 5,344. Labour has also failed to meet its target of 95% of new patients spending no longer than 4 hours in major A&E departments from arrival until admission, transfer or discharge in every single month since Carwyn Jones became First Minister. Staff morale in the Welsh NHS has also plummeted during the First Minister’s time in office. The Royal College of Nursing’s staff survey found that almost half of nurses have considered leaving their job in the last year and two-thirds said they were under stress; a third of members were seeking a change in employment, up from 29% in 2009, and just 37% now believe nursing is a secure career compared to 72% in 2009, with fewer see nursing as a rewarding career. While a flow of statistics such as these can risk clouding the human element of this issue, it must always be remembered that each one of those numbers represents either a patient who is potentially suffering or a disillusioned staff member, both being failed by the health system in Wales just when Labour have slashed health spending in their latest budget.

Meanwhile, educational attainment has fallen in some areas under Carwyn Jones’s rule, and at no point do we exceed England, especially in A-Level and GCSE A*-C grade results. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results released early in 2011, Wales ranked bottom of the four home nations of the UK for educational attainment and our performance in Science, Maths and Reading has declined alarmingly, to the extent that Wales now matches (or even falls below) the attainment levels of some under-developed Eastern European, Baltic and Mediterranean countries. Additionally, during the 2006-2010 period the number of full time equivalent qualified teachers working in primary and secondary schools dropped from 25,668 to 24,586; a decrease of 1,082, or just over 4%. Are declining standards and lower teacher numbers under Welsh Labour’s watch a coincidence? Somehow, I doubt it, and with Carwyn Jones having previously served for a time as Minister for Education, he too is not beyond blame.
The economy, health and education are three of the main devolved areas, but regarding transport Wales has a higher proportion of people using a car, van or minibus to travel to work (79% in 2010) than England (69%) or Scotland (71%), which likely speaks volumes about the efficiency of, or the public’s faith in, our public transport or cycle route provision, and environmentally there are only 25,251 people living in Air Quality Managements Areas in Wales in 2011, representing only 0.8% of the total population.

The list could go on, stretching into many other areas, but I think the picture painted is already bleak enough. Decline across the board is a clear and inexcusable mark against the record of Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour, with our next generation seemingly destined to inherit poor educational provision, a stagnant economy and a broken health care system. I would end by saying that, if this is the state of Wales after two years of Labour under Carwyn Jones, then I am filled with trepidation as what damage will have been done after another full Assembly term of their rule.

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