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.
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.”
Liberal Democrat Conference review
THE WELSH LIBERAL DEMOCRATS gathered at The Village Hotel, Cardiff over the weekend, vowing to foster ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’ and to campaign to bring about a Ratification Referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal.
While the party has had a punishing time in the most recent round of elections, retaining only a single AM in the 2016 National Assembly Election and losing their final Welsh MP in Theresa May’s snap General Election, the prevailing mood at this weekend’s conference was upbeat.
A PARTY ON THE WAY BACK?
There was an appeal for traditional, Welsh Liberal values by Party President, Cllr William Powell, Mid and West Wales AM between 2011 – 16. Cllr Powell also paid an emotional tribute to his friend, party stalwart and former Preseli Parliamentary Candidate Nick Tregoning, leading to a short silence and round of applause. The former Swansea Council Cabinet Member and Presiding Officer, who died recently, represented the best in the Welsh Liberal tradition, and ‘thought and fought more for others than for himself.’
A keynote speech by new Welsh Lib Dem leader, Jane Dodds, who was elected in November last year, replacing Mark Williams, former Ceredigion MP, was particularly well received. Not shying away from the party’s recent challenges, Ms Dodds said: “There’s no denying we’ve had a difficult few years. While the wounds of the last few years are still visible, we are still fighting.”
Ms Dodds emphasised that the party’s top priorities must be to battle homelessness and poverty, as ‘The nasty party in Westminster doggedly pursues deeper cuts in public finances, vulnerable people scraping by to survive, without access to public services, with no hope for their future”
Turning to the Party’s signature policy on Brexit, the new leader continued: “We have to be clear in our opposition to the UK government’s disastrous handling of the biggest decision our country has faced in a generation… Whether we like it or not, Wales voted to leave the EU. But – and it’s a big but – it was not on the basis that we would leave under any circumstances.”
Concluding, she said: “We need to make sure we have the ideas in place that address the needs of communities and people living in Wales, and we have to translate these ideas into winning votes. Not power for the sake of power, but power so we can change people’s lives for the better, putting us back at the heart of Welsh politics, where we belong.”
A FREE AND FAIR WALES
Ms Dodds also presented a motion calling for the creation of ‘a fair, free and liberal Wales’, emphasising that the party’s mission for the immediate future should be to develop new policies to work towards this goal.
“We need to make sure we have an economy and a society which offers opportunities to all…A Wales of hope and optimism.”
Cardiff Councillor Rhys Taylor was amongst those to speak in favour of the motion, stating: “We know what we stand for, but we’re not always very clear about articulating that. It’s an aspirational vision for Wales and our society.’
Veteran Ynys Mon Councillor and former Cabinet Member, Aled Morris Jones, also spoke in favour of the motion, saying: “Never has there been a time when there has been a greater need for liberalism. We must stand up for moderation because it is under threat, both here and across the world.”
Summating the motion, Party President William Powell said: “It is ambitious, it will need a lot of work and I sense that people in this room and in our local parties are up for that. It is central to rebuilding our party and to our resurgence.”
The motion was supported unanimously.
Party Members and supporters also had the opportunity to quiz Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM, and to debate motions on plans to bury radioactive waste off the coast of Wales. There was also a passionate appeal for legal clarity over access to waterways for water sports enthusiasts from Welsh Paralympian and first time conference speaker, Frances Bateman.
BREXIT, SYRIA, EQUALITY DEBATED
The weekend also included an expert panel discussion on Brexit with Ms Dodds, Ms Williams, Liberal Democrat Federal President, Baroness Sal Brinton and former MEP Peter Price, chaired by Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Lib Dem activist and Newbie Hilton Marlton. During the session, members agreed to keep battling Brexit, working across party lines with all Remain supporters, which was confirmed by an explicit #ExitFromBrexit motion on the Sunday morning.
Baroness Sal Brinton also gave a keynote speech, in which she criticised Theresa May for not giving MPs a vote on military action against Syria, saying that to do so was “further diminishing the standing of Britain in the world”. And she was optimistic about the party’s future prospects, saying: “I know the future of the Welsh party is in good hands.’
The second day of the conference also included a motion on the Welsh Government’s new plans to reform local government in Wales. Although the motion agreed with the principle of cutting the number of councils in Wales, it suggested the final number should be 14 or 15 – and emphasised the importance of respecting localism and democratic structures to reflect that.
Members also backed a motion calling for schools in Wales to introduce gender-neutral uniforms. Presenting the motion, Cllr Rhys Taylor of Cardiff said: “We should not dictate to young people what they should wear outside religious codes.” He added more support and training should be offered to teachers in supporting LGBT pupils.
Amy Gaskin of Swansea University’s branch of the party also spoke in support of the motion, saying: “There’s increasing evidence that male and female brains just don’t exist. It’s more of a mosaic”.
“What right do we have to tell kids they should wear trousers or a skirt, or a tie or no tie?” she asked.
Sunday also saw Baroness Christine Humphreys of Llanrwst, North Wales AM from 1999 until 2001, appointed as the party’s new Deputy Leader. She was the only nominee.
Closing the conference, Welsh Party President William Powell said: “We’ve got a rich vein of new talent emerging in the party.”
Saying he felt a sense of “optimism and positivism, Mr Powell called for: “A kinder, gentler and more inclusive values-based politics – that is what Jane (Dodds) and our wider leadership want to introduce.”
What’s in a name?
QUITE a lot, actually, as Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns found out last week. The announcement that the Second Severn Crossing would henceforth be known as the Prince of Wales Bridge in honour of HRH Prince Charles was met with a somewhat equivocal response from the population of Wales.
The name change, agreed by the Queen and Theresa May, was timed to mark Prince Charles’s 70th birthday, and the 60th anniversary of his investiture as Prince of Wales.
At the time of going to print, around 30,000 people had signed a petition calling for the name change to be scrapped. Plaid Cymru, as might perhaps be expected, were among the more vociferous objectors, with leader Leanne Wood asking whether or not this was a late April Fool prank.
Mr Cairns invoked the Conservative Party’s secret weapon – the ‘silent majority’ – which he suggested gave the name change their full, if silent, backing.
Speaking to the BBC, he implied that a small group of republicans were behind the opposition: “We knew that public opinion would be broad,” he remarked. “Of course there will be some republicans who dislike it, but I think that they should at least have respect for the Prince of Wales because of the work he does in the community.
“I know some republicans who strongly support the charities that he stands for – the Prince’s Trust, Prime Cymru , Business in the Community – and the fantastic work that they do. And I would hope that they would at least look at the work of those charities and recognise that this is a fitting title – for that work if nothing else.”
While the work carried out by groups such as the Prince’s Trust is indeed laudable, it would surely have made more sense to call it The Prince’s Trust Bridge, or indeed the Prime Cymru Crossing, if the name change was meant to celebrate Prince Charles’ charitable works.
The Welsh Labour Government was conspicuously silent on the matter, and it emerged shortly afterwards that Mr Cairns had informed them of the plans some time previously. They raised no objections. This led Plaid Cymru AM Adam Price to accuse the Welsh Government of taking its eye off the ball.
“It’s rare in Wales for tens of thousands of people to sign a petition on an issue like this, with such an emotional and defiant reaction,” he added.
“Of course it’s not just about the name of the bridge, but the symbolism, and the way the decision was made.
“Attention will rightly turn to the Labour Welsh Government and the first minister in the coming weeks, as they failed to raise objections or to recommend that the public’s views were sought.
“We potentially have a position where Labour politicians, as well as Plaid Cymru, will be disappointed in their own first minister, and will be left scratching their heads about why some kind of wider consultation wasn’t proposed.
“Serious questions need to be asked of why the Labour Government took its eye off the ball and, given the strong public reaction, we should now at the very least expect the Welsh Government to make formal representations to the UK government in favour of public consultation.”
This was the cue for UKIP AM Gareth Bennett to enter the fray, with an insightful analysis of the situation, and a solution which would satisfy all concerned: “Rather than getting into a row about a name, Welsh Labour and their bedfellows in Plaid Cymru should be working to build bridges with the Government in Westminster to secure the Brexit that the people of Wales voted for,” he insisted.
“Coupled with their bogus legislation on a supposed ‘power grab’, the people of Wales will see this for what it is; a cynical attempt by Plaid and Welsh Labour to claim they’ve been hard done by yet again.
“The people of Wales voted by a clear majority for Brexit, far more than the very few who cling on to a vain hope of a ‘Welsh Republic’. It’s time the establishment in Cardiff Bay and London got on with the day job and stopped their pointless virtue signalling.”
This statement, while proving conclusively that no topic cannot be linked – at least in the mind of a UKIP AM – to Brexit, did little to indicate the party’s stance on the matter.
The comments sections of any article concerning the subject were an education, in the loosest sense of the word. Responses ranged from calling those in support of the change gutless appeasers, to others suggesting that Welsh Nationalist outbursts like this were the reason that Wales can’t have nice things.
Enter Rod Liddle.
In his column for the Times, the former Today Programme editor wrote: ‘The Welsh, or some of them, are moaning that a motorway bridge linking their rain-sodden valleys with the First World is to be renamed the Prince of Wales Bridge. In honour of the venal, grasping, deranged (if Tom Bower’s new biography is accurate) heir to the throne. That Plaid Cymru woman who is always on Question Time has been leading the protests. They would prefer it to be called something indecipherable with no real vowels, such as Ysgythysgymlngwchgwch Bryggy. Let them have their way. As long as it allows people to get out of the place pronto, should we worry about what it‘s called?’
This 100 word snippet has so far led to at least 19 complaints to Ofcom – or one for every five words – and in fairness it is difficult to see how Mr Liddle could have managed to insult or denigrate more aspects of Welsh life and culture in such a short article.
Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts, told Radio Cymru’s Post Cyntaf: “The two things in particular which incensed me were his attempts to belittle the Welsh language, and to compare poverty in Wales with England’s wealth as a first world nation as something amusing.
“We have to ask when we should put up with this and whether or not the Sunday Times cares about readers here in Wales.”
Carmarthen Mayor and veteran journalist Alun Lenny said: “As a supposedly highly-experienced journalist Rod Liddle has let himself down badly by writing such puerile stuff. His sneering comments about ‘rain sodden’ Wales not belonging to the First World and his attempt to get a cheap laugh at the expense of the Welsh language is the basest racial stereotyping.
“At a time when anti-Semitism dominates the political agenda, it’s deeply disappointing that the Sunday Times allowed such a nasty and offensive little article to be published. You must not be nasty to the Jews, but it seems we Welsh are fair game.”
Moving forward, in the somewhat unlikely event that the massed discontent surrounding the name change in Wales has any effect on the UK Government and Royal Family, several suggestions for a new name have been floated.
Pont Arthur – thus referencing the Prince of Wales’ middle name and a national hero – was one suggestion. Given that the tolls are due to be abolished this year, the Rebecca and her Daughters Bridge has a certain ring to it.
If a royal reference was a requisite, Carmarthen East AM Adam Price provided one: “If we must name this bridge after a prince let it be Owain, surviving son of the last real Prince of Wales (pre-Glyndwr) who, arrested at age eight, spent his entire adult life in a wooden cage in Bristol Castle so the Welsh would know their place. If only we knew our own history,” he remarked.
Aberaeron’s Lib Dem County Councillor perhaps hit the nail on the head. “Can’t decide which comes first in my train of thought – offence? certainly, Anger? most definitely, or should indifference top my list? Because in Wales, it will always be the Severn Bridge – and a mighty fine name that is!”
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