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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Budget blues

The spat in yesterday's Plenary over the Government's draft budget receives a lot of coverage this morning. On 'Good Morning Wales' Finance Minister, Sue Essex, told listeners that the opposition had thrown a spanner in the works by amending the Government's motion and forcing negotiations on their spending plans. However, this outcome was not unexpected on the government side, nor is it the cataclysm that they are claiming. That is because the Assembly has until 10th December to approve the final budget and, because they were expecting some delay, the Government had tabled the draft earlier than usual.

Claims that the negotiations will delay funding for front line services is frankly nonsense, but they are part of the war of words that has raged around this issue nevertheless. Much of Labour's opposition to the amendment yesterday centred on demands that we provide costed alternatives to their budget. Alas, they were missing the point. The amendment was never about putting up a rival budget, it was always about forcing the government to negotiate so as to achieve a consensual outcome. This had to be done by way of open debate in the Assembly so that opposition parties could get some credit for any changes that resulted. This is because when negotiations have taken place in the past on budgets the Labour Party has very much spun the outcome in their favour.

The two hour debate was certainly heated and entertaining. Labour's other tack was to try and shame the supposed socialists on the opposition benches into abandoning their pact with the devil aka the Tory group. Huw Lewis in particular was scathing about Peter Law's part in this:

Let us look at the Tory party’s stance. This is the party that ran an election campaign not so far back in our memories based on cutting back public services. Now they have a wish list of extended public expenditure in this area, that area and whichever area might win them a seat at the next election.

Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats, John Marek and Peter Law are lining up in an unholy alliance behind their Conservative muckers. There are only two alternatives here: either you are entering a coalition of convenience with the Conservative Party—and I speak particularly to Plaid Cymru and Peter Law on this issue—or you genuinely believe that the Welsh Conservatives have, overnight, seen the light when it comes to decent public provision—

David Davies and Jenny Randerson rose—

The Presiding Officer: Order. One at a time, please.

David Davies: Is it not the case that, if there is a coalition, it is a coalition of the interests of all those who do not want to see the health service being run down, who are sick of seeing their small schools shut down and who want to see a fairer council tax for all council tax payers? If so, we are proud to be part of that coalition of interests.

Huw Lewis: It is a coalition of interests all right, but not the interests of my constituents or the constituents of any Member who represents deprived communities. This is about taking money away from frontline services, such as those provided by our new initiatives on early years intervention in deprived communities, and stuffing that money towards vested interests and groups that may give some electoral payback to opposition parties over time.

By far the worst attitude today is that of Peter Law—

Peter Law rose—

Huw Lewis: I will let you in in a minute—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order, Huw Lewis has not yet given way. Peter Law, please resume your seat—[Interruption.] None of that was recorded because the microphone was switched off.

Huw Lewis: I am relieved to hear it. I want to know whether the independent Member for Blaenau Gwent will inform the people of his constituency of his new joint working relationship with the Conservative Party. I wonder whether that is what they had in mind when they voted for him at the last election.

Peter Law rose—

Huw Lewis: I will give way in a moment. Undoing a Labour budget and our measures for social justice—is that what they had in mind in Blaenau Gwent when he spat such vitriol at Welsh Labour during his election campaign? Can we now look forward to Peter Law signing joint amendments with the Conservatives at Westminster, too? Is that what the people of Blaenau Gwent can look forward to? [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. Huw Lewis is not giving way.

Huw Lewis: Can we take it that today’s Peter Law/Tory party alliance is the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or is it just a one-night stand? I give way.

Alas, as can be seen Peter's response was mostly not on the record as he resorted to heckling off-mike, though he did get in eventually:

Peter Law: I thank the Member for giving way. What I seek is fair play for my constituents; I seek it from a minority Government, as part of a majority opposition. That is what you must start to remember, because if you are not delivering, someone else will have to do so. That is what the people of Blaenau Gwent expect, and that is why I am standing here speaking about it—or at least I hope that I will be in a minute, Llywydd. We have an awful lot more that you have to provide.

Torfaen AM, Lynne Neagle, resorted to accusing the opposition of "pork-barrel politics". This elicted a witty but rather predictable response from David "the gypsy king" Davies:

Overall, this budget reflects our commitment to tackling inequality in Wales—inequalities, it seems, that the opposition parties risk exacerbating with their back-of-a-fag-packet, uncosted wish list. If anyone wonders why we have not yet seen the rise of the much-vaunted rainbow coalition, this list of vagaries, loosely disguised as a budget amendment, is the best indication to date. The opposition parties are intent on dragging Wales into the pork-barrel politics of the worst kind. They are intent on securing a few bungs that they can boast about in their election leaflets with no intention of securing the best settlement for the most deprived communities in Wales.

David Davies: What we are getting from Labour is porky-pie politics. [Laughter.]

Neath AM, Gwenda Thomas had a nice line:

Gwenda Thomas: How do you explain your party’s actions, in that you are, once again, prepared to give unqualified support to the Tories? You might not have the courage to move in with them permanently, but you are certainly pleased to spend the odd night.
accused Plaid Cymru of not so much as getting into bed with the Tories as spending the odd night.

Whilst Leighton Andrews had one of his famous rants:

What is happening today, of course, is that the opposition is kicking off the 2007 election campaign 18 months early. I think that we are entitled, therefore, to reflect on what is likely to be the main opposition in 2007. I only heard two serious speeches today from the opposition benches, and they came from the Tory Party. We know that they have led the opposition today.

This is what is happening today: the Tories are the real opposition in the Assembly, and Plaid Cymru is following their every word.

Today, the Tories are preparing the way for their role as the main opposition after 2007. We all saw Nick Bourne on that well-known BBC programme, ‘Smug on Sunday’. We all know that he is the organ grinder today, and he has a right gang of monkeys to play with. Nick Bourne and Ieuan Wyn Jones—Wales’s worst nightmare made flesh; not so much a coalition of the willing as a coalition of the chilling. They do not want to be caught together, though. It is like that old song by the Police—‘Don’t stand, don’t stand so close to me’. This is Plaid Cymru’s last stand; we all know that there will be a new leader of the opposition in 2007, and he is sitting on the Tory benches. His name is Glyn Davies.

Today Plaid Cymru is lining up with the Tories. It is finished in the Rhondda from here on; it is finished in the Valleys from here on, and it is hanging onto the Tories’ coat tails. The opposition may have the votes today, but it will lose votes in 2007 by its antics.

John Marek gave as good as he got:

John Marek: I wish to speak to the amendment that bears my name, but before I do, I would like to ask this: what are the arguments that the Government side has been putting forward? I have only been able to detect two. One, which has been put very badly by Leighton Andrews and Huw Lewis, is that we are voting with the Tories. I do not play party politics with the welfare of Welsh people. [Laughter.] You may laugh, but the record will show that playing party politics does not attract Welsh people to the Assembly. When Labour realises that and speaks seriously, it will realise that our amendment is aimed at helping Welsh people. The Labour Party wants to beggar council tax payers in Wales; we are saying that it should not be doing that.

Secondly, what does it matter if Plaid Cymru, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrat Party, Forward Wales and Peter Law happen to agree that we should be doing something for council tax payers in Wales? I put the Welsh people first, not party politics. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Order. I would like to hear this interesting speech.

John Marek: My long years in the Labour Party have shown me that it is irrevocably split. Half of its members regard the Tories as the enemy, and the other half regard Plaid Cymru as the enemy. I speak from experience.

Whilst Plaid Cymru's Janet Davies neatly turned the tables on the Labour conspiracy theory by pointing out that on the amendments on reviewing the Barnett formula, Labour and Tories were in fact in cahoots in seeking to defeat it.

For me, the outstanding contribution came from Kirsty Williams. She started off with an excellent joke at the Economic Development Minister's expense:

Kirsty Williams: A budget area that has had little attention this afternoon is that of economic development and transport. It has become obvious over recent years that the Minister for Economic Development and Transport is rather adept at stealing other people’s responsibilities, gathering them to his own portfolio. In doing that, however, he has singularly failed to match that ability with the ability to bring resources along with those responsibilities. Indeed, if one were to suggest that the ability to win resources for one’s own portfolio was a kind of virility test, I would suggest that the Minister for Economic Development and Transport needs to take lessons from Dr Brian Gibbons, or, failing that, at least get himself a prescription for Viagra for the next budget round.

She then went on to lambast the Labour Party whilst getting a few digs in at anybody on her own side who might contemplate turning an agreement of convenience amongst the opposition parties into a more permanent partnership:

The economic development and transport budget fails to establish the right base for economic development in the principality. Looking at the budget, you can see that the knowledge bank—the great big economic development idea of the Labour Government’s manifesto—has only just been realised. There are cuts in the entrepreneurship budget lines, and the business birth rate strategy is also a victim. There is little evidence of a plan to pick up the slack if Objective 1 and other European funding comes to an end, or of how we would fill the gap that that would leave. The freezing of the local transport budget is a blow for a scheme that, the First Minister admits, is already in trouble.

Huw, you are right: this is an unholy alliance today, and it does not sit easy with me to line up with a bunch of Conservatives to propose amendments. However, it comes to something when I am forced to do so because of the failure of a Labour Welsh Assembly Government budget. There is no social justice in a free school breakfast for your child or mine when there are children in my constituency who are taught in classrooms in which they cannot see the blackboard. There is no social justice in a free prescription for you and me when the hospice users in my constituency will see their grant cut off totally this year. That is not social justice. There is no social justice in a whizz-bang air link between north and south Wales that will pollute our environment, when people in the Valleys cannot catch a train to get to the cities to get a job. It is your failure to bring forward a budget that truly reflects the needs of Wales that has caused this unholy alliance today. There is no social justice for pensioners in Llandrindod Wells who find that their council tax band has jumped up by two notches while their ability to pay has not changed one iota. There is no social justice in any of those examples.

Do you want to know where the budget cuts could come from? Scrap your free school breakfasts, s
crap your free prescriptions for everybody, scrap north-south air links and put the money into front-line services, such as proper classrooms for our children, proper health services—which is not the position in which we find ourselves—and proper transport links. If you do that, the unholy alliance will fall apart, which is something for which I would be grateful. However, until you shape up, there is no alternative.

For once the heat did produce some light.
At least Kirsty was honest about where the opposition want to find the money for their, rather bizzarre in my opinion, wish list without a price list.
Brecon Lib Dem AM Kirsty Williams said: "Scrap free school breakfasts, scrap free prescriptions for everyone, scrap north-south rail links ..."

So the aim is to force Labour to abandon the major planks of it's manifesto from the 2003 Assembly Elections. Obviously no self respecting party could continue on in office in such circumstances. After months of being pushed around in minority government Labour will now have to face down the Tory, Nationalist, Lib Dem, independent coalition and defy them to form an alternative government!
Actually she said "Scrap north south AIR links" so as to invest in rail. However, as I said the intention was not to put a costed alternative but to get Labour around the table.

Kirsty's list will not be taken to that negotiation as (a) there are many other alternatives and (b) they are Labour manifesto pledges and so will not be on the table as far as Labour is concerned.
Kirsty Williams is the best political debate speach i've heard (i mean read) in a long while.

KW delivered the best debate speach ....
Interesting, don't you think that Peter Law voted with the opposition objecting to Council Tax rebanding when his was about the only constituency that benefitted substantially from it!
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