For members of the Welsh Assembly government, the relative freedom from crisis which we have been able to enjoy over recent weeks has been most welcome. Wales is now foot and mouth free, last year’s flooding has not reoccurred and we are twelve months on from the announcement of steel closures. In the eyes of the people of Wales, the Assembly has proved itself by the way in which we have been able to deal with the unexpected crises which are the stuff of politics. A bit of a breather from crisis management, however, is all the more welcome because of the way in which it leaves us more able to concentrate on pressing ahead with our key programmes and priorities.
Of course, these things are not unrelated to one another. Renewing the health service in Wales is one of our most important policies. Not long before Christmas a dreadful explosion at the Corus steel plant at Port Talbot left three dead and a trail of very serious injuries behind it. The NHS may attract criticism, often unfairly, but its response to the Corus emergency was outstanding, with highly skilled and dedicated staff – from ambulance men at the scene, to doctors and nurses at the specialist unit at Morriston – providing a world-class service.
Corus has also announced major new investment to replace the capacity which the accident destroyed. This has added to an economic picture in which Wales continues to fare remarkably well in the post-September 11 circumstances. Unemployment is the lowest for a generation, and continues to resist the UK trend upwards.
We have successfully concluded the consultation exercise on structural reform of the NHS in Wales. Labour is determined to make a reality of a primary care-led health service, in which preventative and public health receive the attention they deserve. We are determined, too, to move power and resources closer to local communities and the staff who serve them. Of course, reform in this field brings out vested interests, often left over from the days of Tory internal markets, who try to defend their present privileges and power bases. It has taken a determined effort from the Welsh Assembly government to see the reforms through to a conclusion, but our success in doing so is part of the stable and effective administration which we are now able to provide for the people of Wales.
On the political front, the partnership between Labour in Wales and Labour at Westminster remains our most important political relationship and has been especially important over the past couple of months, with Welsh clauses in the health and education bills being taken through the House of Commons. Our political opponents whinge away at their line that the ‘Assembly isn’t working’. Our determination is to show that the settlement does work, as demonstrated when Paul Murphy and I jointly gave evidence to the January meeting of the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee enquiry into Objective One arrangements – incidentally, another success story of Labour in Wales.
It is, of course, a particular pleasure to be able to welcome the wider Labour movement to Cardiff for spring conference, at this exciting time in the history of the party and of Wales. Having so many of our comrades here will help us to strengthen further the successful platform which we are building for a Labour victory at the Assembly elections next year. That success cannot be left to the implosion of our political opponents, much as that seems to be taking place. We will have to work hard, together, to put our record before the people of Wales, to demonstrate the policy freshness which we will bring to a further four years and to confirm our reputation as a united party, dedicated to social justice and economic success. That formula may not be a new one, but in the era of devolution it is even more important than ever.
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