Welsh Assembly

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Saturday, 27 November 2010

Wales: last on the Coalition's list.

I was scared this May when a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party was declared. I knew that the next few years, at least, would be harsh and bleak. I knew that the Tories, albeit with a weak mandate, would use the deficit to justify the cuts they had been itching to make. Neil Kinnock's words echoed in my ears. 

I hoped that living in Wales, where the Assembly is Labour controlled, would provide a balustrade against the cuts. In Wales, Labour still had a mandate to govern. We lost Cardiff North by just 194 votes but the Tories were expecting to win by thousands, and the results wiped the smirks off their faces. We kept  Swansea West in the face of stiff competition from the Liberal Democrats and we won back the iconic seat of Blaenau Gwent from an Independent. 

Within weeks it became clear that the new government were not interested in Wales and it seems to some that they are deliberately hostile. Our budget fell by £162.5m in May. This was despite the conclusion of the independent Holtham Commission, that Wales is underfunded by £300m a year. The cuts are a third more than the UK average.

This autumn the Conservative controlled government seem to aim more punitive measures at Wales.

First, at the beginning of October the coalition announced that the passport office in Newport was due to close. As it happens, I was being interviewed for a job that day by Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West. He had heard the news an hour or so before it was released to the press, and he spoke emotively to me of the impact that losing 300 good jobs could have in the working class town of Newport. The passport office has been there for over forty years and is the only passport office in Wales. 

New blows would come in November. On the 23rd of November the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, visited Cardiff and made the statement that there would be no change to the Barnett formula until the economic crisis is "resolved".

The Barnett formula is the formula from which the money allocated to Wales is decided. Last year Health Minister Edwina Hart memorably declared that "Barnett is bust", as Wales is said to be chronically underfunded.  Despite the fact that funding for education is £500 a child less than England and that Wales has some of the most deprived communities in the UK, the Coalition still seemed to have Wales last on the list.

On the 25th November the UK Transport Minister Philip Hammond scrapped the electrification of the railway line from London to Cardiff and Swansea. The government is continuing to invest £8bn on railways across the country but Wales is missing out. Aside from the unfairness of this, I am fearful of the result this will have on jobs and trade in Wales compared to areas where the railways have been electrified. 

Paul Flynn MP made a statement that along with the closure of the Newport Passport Office, changes to the way S4C is funded and the cancellation of the RAF St Athan project as policies instituted by the UK government that have hurt Wales.

Ministers in the Labour led government in the Senedd last week released the draft of the Welsh budget, doing what they can with the money given from Westminster. Although a lot of commentators have compared it to the release of the Scottish budget, Wales is operating with half of the funding of Scotland and does not have tax varying powers. Wales also chose to plan for the long term, while the Scottish budget only covers up until 2012. 

The Welsh budget was announced by Business and Budget Minister Jane Hutt, and I was relieved to see that it seemed to take a much more fair approach than the Westminster budget. Yvette Cooper has launched a well aimed and bruising attack on the Westminster budget, pointing out how it makes scapegoats of the most vulnerable in society, particularly women. 

Jane Hutt has stepped away from this, retaining and introducing a number of progressive measures. Flagship Assembly policies such as free bus passes, free prescriptions and free hospital car parks have been retained. The EMA that has been controversially scrapped in England will be reinstituted in Wales. This year the Assembly launched a 4.4.m, six year initiative called "Right to be Safe", targeting domestic abuse and they have announced they will not be scrapping this measure. This is an extremely positive measure, especially as incidents of domestic violence tend to rise when the economy is poor. 

The Special Policy Conference held last weekend in Cardiff also established the fact that the Welsh Labour Party is committed to continuing this after the elections in May 2011. A new initiative to help older people to pay for care is in the pipeline. Carwyn Jones also added that, "The people of Wales can be sure of one thing – we will do  everything we can to protect our public services, the vulnerable and the fragile economic recovery, despite the hand we have been ‘dealt’." 

The public seem to be approving of the message that Welsh Labour is sending out. On 25th November an ITV poll placed support for Labour at 44%. Welsh Labour has six months to maintain and improve that result before the Assembly Elections. With some really excellent and high profile candidates such as Julie Morgan and a far more fair and progressive budget that Westminster, that is definitely something we can achieve.

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