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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A run of misfortune

I am on the BBC programme AM/PM today (BBC2 Wales 11am to 1pm if you are interested) discussing a whole range of issues including Welsh Questions in the House of Commons and Prime Ministers Questions. No doubt the credit crunch and the pre-budget report will feature in our deliberations.

One of the features myself and Plaid AM, Helen Mary Jones, will be asked to comment on is an evaluation of who in Welsh politics is having a good week and who is not. Well after the report of the Assembly's Finance Committee was published today my nomination for a bad week would have to be Education Minister, Jane Hutt.

Technically, the Learning and Skills (Wales) Measure (to all intentions and purposes our equivalent of an Act of Parliament) is being piloted through committee by a Deputy Minister but it is the Education Minister who retains overall responsibility and it is her budgetting decisions that are once more under fire.

The measure makes provision for schools and colleges to share resources to give 14 to b19 year olds more study choices but the Assembly Finance Committee insists that it is not fit for purpose. I understand that the Measure Committee, who are taking evidence from the education and training sector on the efficacy of the proposal, are rapidly coming to the same conclusion.

The finance committee say that ministers have not demonstrated that their claims the system could be provided largely within existing budgets are realistic. The committee's report asserts that too many of the Welsh Assembly Government's financial calculations are based on "estimates and assumptions". They say that "little if any work appears to have been done on ascertaining the true costs of implementing such a major new venture in education" and they conclude that it is "therefore unable to examine these calculations and has to conclude that it cannot reliably assess the impact of the proposed Learning and Skills (Wales) Measure". This is an all party committee with a majority of government members.

This is not the first time that Jane Hutt has found herself in this situation. She famously had to extend the roll-out of the Foundation Phase by a year after reluctantly accepting representations from local government, headteachers, teaching unions and opposition politicians that she had underfunded it. She also reiterated a promise of her predecessor that all schools in Wales would be fit for purpose by 2010 despite there being no realistic prospect of this happening and a major shortage of government cash to do the job.

As Health Minister she carried out a wholescale reform of the National Health Service only to see her successor and Ministerial colleague, Edwina Hart dismantle the reforms eight years later as not fit for purpose. She presided over huge rises in NHS waiting times and despite talking the talk failed to secure the investment in the health service needed to modernise and reform it adequately.

In many ways her career in government has been a run of misfortune with one exception, her period as business manager when she soothed troubled relations with opposition parties and enabled Rhodri Morgan to sustain a minority government for a full four years between 2003 and 2007.

Jane's strength is as a people person and you will not find anybody in the Assembly who dislikes her as an individual or has a bad word to say about her personally. She is an exccedingly hard-working Minister whose instincts are to bring people together and to seek consensus at every opportunity. Despite rejecting my attempt at a private member's measure to improve youth facilities around Wales she has invited me to join her Ministerial task and finish group drawing up new guidance for local authorities on the youth service. That is typical of her approach.

Unfortunately, it seems that Jane's strengths are not best utilised in a high-spending department. There is no doubt that she belongs in the cabinet but health and education have both proved her undoing. Maybe it is time for a reshuffle.
As Jane Hutt's Liberal Democrat opponent in the Vale of Glamorgan in the first WA elections, and observer of the first Labour government thereafter, I endorse all your comments. Her good points obviously came from her Liberal parents!
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