Cardiff Bay watch

Wales is adopting a more pragmatic, gentler approach to austerity than London, Carwyn Jones tells Robert Philpot and Adam Harrison

DURING his decade as first minister, Rhodri Morgan trumpeted the ‘clear red water’ Wales had established between itself and the Labour government at Westminster. There would be no top-up fees, prescription charges, foundation hospitals or academy schools west of the Severn Bridge.

Morgan’s successor, Carwyn Jones, faces an altogether trickier task. Elected in 2009 as Labour stumbled towards electoral defeat, the first minister now finds himself leading the party in the only place where it remains in government. And, while his predecessor defined himself against Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Jones has the rather less benign challenge of blunting the impact of David Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity drive.

‘What we’ve done is trying to get away from this false choice that the Tories put forward of public sector versus private sector,’ the first minister explains. ‘We think the two go together. We don’t believe in privatisation and, when it comes to the private sector, we’ve been strong in promoting Wales as a place to invest and making sure our people have the skills that they need.’

Jones acknowledges that being in government and having to take responsibility for tough decisions has encouraged a pragmatic and realistic culture on the part of Welsh Labour. But he refuses to accept that this has to come at the price of sacrificing the party’s values. ‘We’ve shown that, even as our budgets have reduced, there doesn’t have to be carnage in public services,’ he says. At the same time, the Welsh government is working ‘to make sure we’re getting as much value as we can from the money we provide’ and recognising that ‘it’s just not possible in some areas to do the same as was done in the past.’

The Welsh experience proves, believes Jones, that it is possible to adopt ‘a far more pragmatic and a far gentler approach than we see in London’.  That approach was evident when the coalition axed the Future Jobs Fund shortly after coming to power. The Welsh government swiftly resurrected it as Jobs Growth Wales, giving 4,000 young people a job, training or apprenticeship for at least six months at the minimum wage.

That determination to prove that there is a more ‘pragmatic and gentler’ course than the one set by London is also apparent in Jones’ insistence that his government will stick by its pledge to eradicate child poverty by 2020. ‘We still have our poverty targets and we still aim to reach them,’ Jones suggests, while noting that his administration cannot entirely predict the effect of the UK government’s cuts.

Even those sympathetic to the poverty target question, however, how realistic it is. Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation, wrote last autumn that sticking to the target was ‘brave’ but warned: ‘Every analysis of the economy and the tax and benefit changes up to 2015-6 shows that poverty is likely to increase in the next few years.’ Once you also take account of high levels of unemployment and the weaknesses of the Welsh economy, concluded Winckler, ‘the likelihood of achieving its targets on poverty is zero.’

What, then, about the domain – public services – where the Welsh assembly has far more room for manoeuvre? Wales’ public services have  become one of the prime minister’s favourite attack lines. He regularly cites the fact that his government is increasing spending on the NHS while Labour in Cardiff Bay supposedly cuts it. ‘I know that David Cameron says that health spending has increased but we know the UK Statistics Authority is saying it hasn’t,’ responds Jones. ‘The reality is that several trusts in England are on the verge of bankruptcy and there have been compulsory redundancies in the NHS in England as well. None of these things have happened in Wales.’

While Cameron’s charge on health spending may be unfair, there is evidence that Wales’ decision to reject many of the public service reforms implemented by Labour in England has come at a price. Having compared the four health services in the UK, the Nuffield Trust concluded that England spent less but made better use of its resources than Wales. By 2006, four years after Morgan announced his opposition to Blair’s public service reforms, virtually no patients in England waited more than three months for an outpatient appointment, whereas 44 per cent of Welsh patients did. While the Welsh government dismissed the Nuffield Trust report as ‘dated’, Wales continues to have a 26-week waiting time target. In England, patients are not supposed to spend more than 18 weeks on a waiting list.

After devolution, the Welsh government also made strenuous efforts to divorce its education system from that in England. As well as blocking academies, Wales abolished secondary school league tables and Sats tests. Wales also spent less: in the decade after devolution, the gap between what England and the principality spent per pupil widened from £58 to £604. Research by the University of Bristol in 2010 blamed the abolition of league tables for a drop in standards, while in 2011 Estyn, the Welsh equivalent of Ofsted, questioned the decision to scrap Sats.

Jones is careful to defend Wales’ approach to public service reform. ‘I don’t think that fragmentation of the education system is a way of making it better,’ he says in a thinly veiled attack on academies. He also suggests that England’s better exam results stem from the fact that ‘we tend to enter more students into GCSEs as a percentage of the population than is the case in England and Northern Ireland, which suggests to us that those students who are not as likely to pass exams tend not to be entered in the first place.’

Nonetheless, a quiet change is already under way. During the 2011 assembly elections, the party admitted, in the words of education minister Leighton Andrews, that ‘progress on improving our school standards had slowed unacceptably’. With Robert Hill, a former aide to Blair, advising him, Andrews is looking at school structures, and has introduced Teach First, the scheme to fast-track high-flying graduates into struggling schools which was first introduced in England in 2002. And, in the face of opposition from the teaching unions, the Welsh government has introduced banding tables. ‘We took the view that it’s important that parents should be able to see how a school is doing,’ suggests Jones. ‘League tables are an inaccurate reflection of the value a school adds to a child’s education whereas, with the banding system, we think we’re far closer to judging a school on its performance.’

Wales will, of course, have a role to play in the wider politics of the UK over the next two years. Despite its reputation as a Labour bastion, the principality contains seven of the UK party’s recently released 106 target seats for the 2015 general election, four of which are currently held by the Tories. Some observers have suggested that Labour’s difficulties in west Wales resemble the UK party’s problems in southern England. It is a problem Jones acknowledges: ‘We’re working on seats in the west where we lost ground … We started at the council elections. Carmarthenshire has a Labour leader now for the first time in many years, we increased our representation in many councils further west and we’re very ambitious … We know we’re not there yet but the results show we are gaining on the Tories in those seats.’

Indeed, the party’s performance in the assembly elections – when Labour regained the control it lost in 2007 and saw its vote rise sharply – stood in stark contrast to the meltdown experienced by the party in the Scottish parliamentary elections held on the same day. ‘We’ve positioned ourselves on the ground that we think most Welsh people occupy politically: strongly patriotically Welsh, left-of-centre in politics but not attracted to independence,’ suggests Jones.

But what impact does Jones believe that a vote for independence in Scotland next year would have on Wales? ‘My view is that there should be a constitutional convention before to sort out the UK’s constitution and the nature of the relationships between the different legislatures … The UK can’t just continue as it has been doing without a far clearer understanding of the fact that there are now a number of centres of democratic accountability. My view is that parliamentary sovereignty is not at all appropriate for the 21st century.’

Jones wants that convention to focus not simply on the relationships between London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, but also the make-up of the Westminster parliament. He floats the idea that the House of Lords should be reformed so that ‘each constituent nation of the UK would have its own number of members, something like the Senate in the United States. You would have a Commons based on population but an upper house based on geography that helps the balance between the different parts of the UK.’

Jones has also recently called for a new Government of Wales Act to enhance Welsh devolution. The new settlement would replace the present ‘conferral model’ of devolution, whereby powers are devolved to Wales on specific matters, with a ‘reserved powers’ model, where specific areas of responsibility such as defence, foreign affairs and macroeconomic policy would be ‘reserved’ to the UK parliament, with remaining matters devolved to Wales.

Labour in Wales has succeeded in pulling off a balancing act that has, thus far, eluded the party in Scotland: using devolution to chart a different course from the UK party, while maintaining its position as the dominant centre-left force in Welsh politics and marginalising the supporters of independence. Whatever the limits of its ‘clear red water’ approach to public service reform and the uncertain outcome of its attempt to steer a ‘more pragmatic, gentler’ course than Westminster, that, alone, is quite an achievement.

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Photo:  National Assembly for Wales/Cynulliad Cymru

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