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Sunday, September 28, 2003

A skewed vision?

The Wales on Sunday this morning has a huge article on page ten entitled "My vision for Wales' future by Peter Hain". I have a lot of respect for Peter Hain as a political operator and so naturally I was curious to see what the personal vision was that he wanted to share with us. The article however, turned out to be a legitimate and fairly accurate hatchet job on Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party of Wales. Mr. Hain quite rightly raised questions about the budget deficit that would have to be faced by an Independent Wales. He reported that Plaid themselves have estimated this black hole to be £1.5 billion, though I know that other commentators have come up with a figure three times as high.

He asked whether the money that has been earmarked for schools by the last Liberal Democrat-Labour Partnership Government would now be spent on overseas embassies and a seperate Welsh army. Well actually, he didn't mention us but even he cannot deny that the present Welsh Assembly budget is a joint affair. He didn't mention either that Rhodri Morgan is already spending £300,000 on overseas trade centres or embassies but then that would just be too inconvenient. I was surprised that although he referred to the cost of a separate Welsh Treasury, Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office, he did not pick up on the biggest expenditure that any independent Welsh Government would have to meet, namely that of social security.

Mr. Hain's alternative turned out to be the Welsh Labour manifesto for the Assembly elections. Investment in school buildings, school breakfasts and free prescriptions may form part of a programme for Government but they cannot be termed a "vision". He stated that "we will continue to transform Wales' NHS from a service that treats ill-health to a service that promotes and sustains better health, through investment in new hospitals and surgeries and thousands of extra nurses and doctors to join the 17,000 extra NHS staff since 1997." Now I don't want to pour cold water on good political sound-bites but firstly, the problem with the present NHS is that it is NOT treating ill-health very effectively at all. Despite thousands of dedicated and hard-working staff the system remains under-funded, under-resourced and under-equipped to do the job. That is why we have out-of-control waiting times. The investment in capacity that Hain refers to and which started under the Partnership Government is the right approach but it is a long term one, it is not yet the huge success that he portrays, not by a long way. Equally, that investment does not amount to a "service that promotes and sustains better health" as he states. It is a good and worthy aim but it is not one he seems to understand. If we are to promote better health then we need to prevent illness as well as treating it. That is about better housing, cleaner air, healthier eating, less drinking, good public transport and more exercise. None of that relates to investment in capacity, but to investment in Wales, something that Peter Hain does not refer to because, like a good machine politician, he is concentrating on the three core messages of education, health and crime, which all the focus groups say people want to hear about.

To be fair, Mr. Hain hits all the right buttons. It would make a good Conference speech. "Tough action is needed to tackle drug crime and the anti-social behaviour that blights communities", he says, but he does not provide the detail. That is because he knows that we have been embracing tough action on drug crime for decades and yet it increases day by day, with the result that I am now told that the street price of heroin in South Wales is falling, indicating that supply is outstripping demand. Yes, we need to target dealers but we need also to review our drugs laws so that the Police are able to better target their resources and we need to invest more in treatment, detox and rehabilitation to give drug users a chance to return to a normal life. And if being tough on anti-social behaviour involves criminalising innocent youngsters and giving the police powers that they know won't work then it is clear that Labour really has backed itself into a blind alley. Why are we not investing in facilities that will get our kids off the streets, like the excellent KPC youth centre in Pyle? If we had one of those in every community then many people would sleep sounder at night whilst the Police would be free to deal with the hardcore using Acceptable Behaviour Contracts and, as a last resort, Anti-Social behaviour Orders.

One interesting aside on the Nationalist independence debate. The Wales on Sunday is full of letters from people defending the Plaid Cymru resolution. The classic one however is from an Edward Huw Evans from Abergavenny who quite rightly highlights the inadequacy of the Barnett formula. He says that an independent report by Nuffield College in Oxford showed that a fair settlement would give Wales another £625 million to spend from central govenment. What he doesn't explain is how independence would put that right. An independent Wales would not need a reformed Barnett formula as it would not get any money from Westminster. Doh! The nationalists can't have their cake and eat it.

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