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Friday, November 25, 2005

Bring on the snow

Sitting in the Assembly chamber on Wednesday it was hard to imagine Wales moving closer to the arctic circle than it is already. It has been cold but not that cold. Waking up this morning to several inches of snow the comparison that was made by Plaid Cymru AM Dai Lloyd between Wales and Greenland seemed more apt. Dai though was talking about systems of government and the way that they are financed, not the weather:

David Lloyd: Denmark, as you know, provides funding for Greenland on a needs-based formula, which is reassessed every three years. However, Wales continues to be funded without any assessment of need. How can you justify that?

Sue Essex: I was with you when that was mentioned; I remember how keen you were to hear that. ‘Where Greenland goes, Wales will follow’ was your motto after that.

There is no doubt that in terms of temperature Wales really is following, however for the Labour Party that is as far as they are prepared to go. Despite this Mike German did his best to push at the door only to find it was firmly bolted:

The Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrat Group (Michael German): I was also there, Minister, but I will not mention Greenland. Can you tell us what attracts you to maintaining the current Barnett formula?

Sue Essex: We have gone over this ground before, but I will repeat what I find attractive. We know about some worries that people have; Dai has just expressed his worry. The formula gives us certainty that, virtually immediately after Gordon Brown’s announcement, we get a clear view of what money will be coming to Wales. We check that, but it does give us a clear view. That certainty on money through the system is important. As you will know, we have tried to make the local government formula a needs-based formula, but it is incredibly complicated. As time goes on, it becomes more and more complicated. Changes to the formula have enormous repercussions, as it changes distribution. There are downsides to that.

The second issue—and this is worth saying—is that some people would say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Over the years, the Barnett formula has delivered considerable sums of money to Wales.

As far as the Finance Minister is concerned risk-aversion is the abiding principle that should apply to funding devolution not fairness.

The amount of money that the Assembly Government has to spend is crucial in determining their approach to public services. How much they can invest in the Welsh infrastructure and in attracting jobs to Wales is a vital plank of any economic strategy. Thus the launch of the Government's new economic plan, ‘Wales: A Vibrant Economy’, or WAVE for short, is an event worth noting. The problem was that the launch took place outside of the Assembly and there was no opportunity to question the Minister on it.

This fact drew much comment during the debate on State Aid on Wednesday afternoon. A number of members questioned the priorities in the document, whilst others expressed scepticism as to its efficacy in solving the problems of the Welsh economy. Kirsty Williams in particular continued her verbal duel with Minister by starting her speech with a small piece of verse. If the Minister was waving, she said, then it was because he is drowning:

Kirsty Williams: I will begin by abusing the genius of Stevie Smith,

‘Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning’.
‘Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning’.

The Minister for Economic Development and Transport is drowning in a sea of self-spin and congratulation, and is simply not aware of the situation that large parts of the Welsh economy find themselves in.

Later in the day William Graham returned to the subject of drugs. He is to be congratulated for perservering with this important subject despite taking some stick from people such as myself for staging a press conference featuring the unlikely juxtaposition of himself and the lead singer from Motorhead. At that event William was taken a bit unawares when Lemmy announced that the best way to deal with heroin abuse is to legalise it. This is not a view that he subscribes to but he was game enough to use the event to his advantage by staging a short debate entitled "Heroin—Is Lemmy Right?" He tackled the issue head-on:

I focused upon heroin because one realisation that I share with Lemmy is that of all of the substances that people abuse, heroin kills. Each heroin-related death is a tragedy and each one is avoidable. In the face of such an alarming state of affairs, it is our duty to examine whether the existing policies and arrangements for dealing with this and other hard drugs are truly working.

We must question why heroin retains its appeal to young people, despite more information about the negative effects of drugs being available now than ever before. We must also question why it is so readily available on our streets, despite the best efforts of our excellent police service. We need to ensure that we reduce the volume of drugs available from illegal sources, and their ease of access.

One in 10 teenagers said that they would accept the offer of a drug they had never taken before from a friend at a party, as they would feel uncomfortable or not know how to say ‘no’. Nearly 10 per cent said that they would be happy to be swept along with the crowd, saying ‘yes’ to look cool or not to feel left out. The safety of the wider community is paramount in any consideration of drugs policy, and the disastrous consequences of full legalisation are obvious to all.

His conclusion was cogent and to the point:

Unfortunately, there is no panacea for the ills of heroin abuse either on an individual or society basis. The process of rehabilitation is physically and mentally draining, feelings that are only compounded by the individuals concerned being labelled ‘users’ or ‘junkies’. While I acknowledge that a radical shift in public opinion is unlikely, we can play our part. It is imperative that we alter sentencing guidelines to move away from the temptation merely to sentence those involved in heroin use to jail, and instead send the individuals concerned on carefully designed rehabilitation programmes and to treatment centres. Sadly, drugs remain freely available in prisons. Such a policy could provide those who would have merely returned to society as hardened criminals with a chance of a decent life, and could yield significant results in tracking down the dealers that fuel this evil trade. Furthermore, it could go some way to altering the dominant view that heroin users are criminals with no hope for the future.

I pay tribute to Edwina Hart for demonstrating an acceptance of the need to consider the widest possible views to address this problem. She has directed scarce resources towards further education and rehabilitation, together with supporting initiatives to enhance economic activities that direct people away from isolation and substance abuse. We must consider every option to address this problem, understanding that we need to offer specific treatments as an alternative to prison. Drug addiction is a medical problem; people need doctors, not prison guards.

I will end my presentation as Lemmy ended his, by saying that heroin addicts will never rehabilitate until someone gives them a chance.
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