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Friday, June 19, 2009

Ministers with egg on their face

Two Welsh Government Ministers have ended up with egg on their face this week after overstretching themselves in their respective portfolios.

First up is Economy and Transport Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones who has now come to an agreement with the Assembly's Finance Committee over important information they needed to complete their review on transport. The Minister had refused to give a document to the Committee that they had requested and they threatened to subpoena him.

Incredibly, Mr. Jones had decided to treat the Committee's request as a Freedom of Information application but has now admitted that he was wrong to do so. An Assembly Government spokesperson is quoted as saying: “The Deputy First Minister has said that, subject to the agreement of the Ministerial Assembly Group, he will share the final report with the committee in July when the Transport Plan is announced."

Second up is the Finance Minister, Andrew Davies who has an item in tonight's South Wales Evening Post in which he accuses Swansea Council of selling off the family silver. The Council has sold off more than £60 million of assets over the past four years, which it is worth pointing out amounts to a modest boost to the authorities coffers of about £15m a year.

Mr. Davies refers to the fact that the Council faces a £146m bill to bring the City's schools up to scratch and challenges the authorty's leader to explain where all this money has gone. Unfortunately, for him things are a little bit more complicated than he seems to understand.

For a start £29.3 million of this money comes from the sale of housing revenue account assets which means that it is ring-fenced for housing and cannot be used for schools. Furthermore, Welsh Government rules say that the Council can only spend 25% of these capital receipts, the remainder has to be used to pay off debt. This reduces the total amount of money that might be available for schools to £30.7m or just over £7.5m a year.

The Council Leader more than adequately deals with Mr. Davies' remaining criticism. He points out that some of the sale of assets have taken place in joint ventures with the Welsh Government; that, as with the Langand Bay Beach huts, some of the money has been reinvested in the area where it was raised from; that some of the sales were of surplus and dilapidated buildings such as the old Dynevor School (closed by Labour); and that the Council has in fact opened two new Primary Schools in the four year period referred to.

There is also the legacy of neglect that the present administration inherited from Labour including a closed Leisure Centre, a dilapidated Central Library and a neglected Guildhall. All of these have been addressed by the Welsh Liberal Democrat-led Council.

Councillor Chris Holley also points to the Welsh Government's own lack of commitment to schools in the Swansea area pointing out that we have not had our fair share of funding. Carmarthen, for example, with a population of 130,000 has received £13 million for education, whilst Swansea with a population of 230,000 only got £1.4 million.

The question therefore is why did the Finance Minister not understand this? It is not the sort of detail I would expect the man in the street to be aware of but a Government Minister, who is responsible for a £15 billion budget should have a better grasp of the technical details, especially with housing. I hereby nominate the Swansea West AM for the new (and admittedly invented) award of boob of the week.
When I follow Andrew through cardiff in his chauffeur driven limousine, I cannot help reflect that there is no warm feeling of security from having people like him as 'ministers'.
Also, if he wants to represent the people of Swansea he does a shoddy job of standing up for us.
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