.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Carwyn Jones' mythical budget plans

Listening to First Minister, Carwyn Jones in yesterday's Scrutiny Committee meeting I could not help but feel that I had slipped into an alternative universe.

Just hours earlier the Wales Audit Office had published a report suggesting that as a minimum the Welsh Government will lose £1.5 billion of its budget over the next three years and yet the man who heads that adminstration was telling the Committee that he would be seeking to avoid job losses.

Tom Bodden has the details on this political equivalent of feeding the 5,000:

Mr Jones conceded he was preparing for a "very tight budget indeed".

His administration was taking a "line by line" look at its finances as it drafts its budget for next year.

"It won't be easy, it won't be painless, far from it, but it's certainly a process that we are going through at the moment."

Critics of the Labour/Plaid administration complain that they have squandered money during the years of plenty and were tardy in tackling the public service reforms necessary at any rate.

Wales remains a country over-reliant on the public sector for jobs, which may partly explain why Mr Jones was keen to disabuse anyone of the idea that public sector jobs must for the axe.

"Do I believe that job losses should be the first thing that public authorities look at? No, I do not," he told Plaid left-winger Leanne Wood.

"I do believe very firmly that there are many areas that can be looked at where money can be saved without the need for job losses to be looked at as the first port of call.

"We (the Assembly Government) have no plans to make people compulsorily redundant."

Carwyn's position is actually very interesting. He was elected as Welsh Labour Assembly Leader on the promise of boostimg educational spending by 1% over and above the increase in block grant in an attempt to claw back the £527 per pupil deficit in spending here in Wales as compared to England.

That indicates that when he and his Ministers carry out their 'line-by-line' scrutiny of spending, education at least will be sacrosanct, or at least the money that gets to the front line will be. The new Education Minister has already promised to maximise the amount of cash that ends up in schools, presumably by cutting back on bureaucracy.

His problem though is that the Welsh Government do not control education spending, local councils do. Furthermore there is no specific line in the Welsh Government's budget that feeds revenue expenditure directly to schools. It is all mixed up in the Local Government Revenue Support Grant that includes lots of other items as well, many of which will suffer as a result of the impending cuts.

Thus, he may increase that part of the RSG that feeds education by 1% but other areas may be cut by 2 or 3%. How will he ensure that Councils, who spend 50% of their income on education, will get the balance right? Won't they just take some of the education spending and use it to alleviate pressures on children's social services for example?

There are solutions to this but none of them do anything to enhance local democracy, accountability or even transparency. If Carwyn is going to get his extra 1% to schools he may be forced to carry out changes that go beyond anything so far attempted by government in Wales or indeed the UK in emasculating local democracy.

This brings me to the second part of the conundrum. How to make cuts without putting people out of work. From the point of view of the Welsh Government this seems to actually be quite easy. After all, they do not directly provide services, they fund others to do so.

Thus, as long as they protect the jobs of the highly paid chiefs within their own government machine as they have done over the reorganisation of the health service, the Welsh Government can pass on the cuts to other bodies and let them make the painful decisions. That way they can make noises about local councils and health boards living within their means, pretend that they are not in favour of compulsory redundancies and then blame these other bodies when they then go ahead and lay people off - 'nothing to do with us, guv. We don't agree with job losses but there is nothing we can do about it.'

It is a sleight of hand that has been repeated for decades, but that does not make it any less cynical or dishonest.

This is an operation in political posturing that does nothing to enhance the reputation of politicians. Government Ministers who are fully aware of the enormity of the task they are facing, standing up in public fora pretending that they can conjure bread and fishes out of thin air and then blaming others when it all goes wrong.

It seems that partnership only works in the good times. In the bad times it is everybody for themselves and those who actually deliver the services have to take the hit whilst Ministers sit around washing their hands of anything that might taint their virtue as champions of the left. Perhaps that is why all we are getting from the First Minister at the moment is platitudes, why the budget itself is more opaque than ever and why details of government plans are as rare as an orchid in the antarctic. The next First Minister's Scrutiny Committee is going to have to pin Carwyn down much better than this.
His problem though is that the Welsh Government do not control education spending, local councils do.
To be fair to the Neath Port Talbot Labour cabinet, the leader has pledged that any extra money from WAG earmarked for education will go straight out to the schools in the county borough.

It hasn't stopped them from backtracking on the previous leader's pledge to keep all schools open, though.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?