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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Sparks fly in Labour leadership contest

I am pleased to see that the BBC has caught up with the rest of us in speculating whether the One Wales Agreement will survive the Labour leadership contest due to the three candidates' reluctance to commit to a referendum.

Both Carwyn Jones and Edwina Hart seem convinced that we cannot proceed without full consultation within the Wales Labour Party, whilst Huw Lewis wants to defeat the Tories first. Meanwhile the world moves on.

What they all need to understand is that this is not a decision for Labour alone. Yes it would help if we can have a unified Labour Party behind the 'yes' campaign but there are other parties involved as well and they need to be involved in the decision-making process.

I am astonished that none of the candidates appear to have learnt the lessons of the 1997 referendum when Labour resisted a cross party campaign such as that in Scotland and only just squeaked home by a few hundred votes. If they act in such an arrogant and monopolistic way again then the vote will be lost and the devolution process set back years.

But by far the most interesting political news today are the sparks that are flying around in the Labour leadership contest. A suggestion by Carwyn Jones that the Welsh Government's policy towards public service delivery is less than adequate was met with a sharp rebuke from the man responsible for delivering it, Finance Minister, Andrew Davies. Andrew is also Edwina Hart's campaign manager.

What Carwyn said was: “We cannot allow bureaucratic processes or systemic boundaries to undermine delivery. Our current structures of governance in the public service – in local authorities and health services for example – must be platforms for delivery, not stand-alone empires. Otherwise the people will demand more radical change.”

Referring to two reports that recommended more collaborative working in the Welsh public sector, he added: “Five years after the Making the Connections report was published, people are impatient for change. Three years after the Beecham report, it is time for the Local Service Boards (LSBs) to show they are delivering.

“Are they meaningful structures to advance public service collaboration or are they simply sticking-plaster? Are they driving real change in service delivery, or are they just talking shops?

“Beecham called for common principles of citizen-centred, efficient and accountable services in a small country, and for more ambitious leadership at national and local level. If elected Labour leader in the Assembly, I will lead a review next year of progress against the Beecham targets.”

In response Andrew Davies suggested that Carwyn is not a team player. He told the Western Mail: “I presume Carwyn is still a member of the Cabinet, even if he is semi-detached. I value his contribution to the role of public service delivery – the first I am aware that he has made."

The point is though that Carwyn Jones is right. The Local Service Boards have failed to make much of an impact, recent evidence to the Audit Committee has indicated that the efficiency savings required of public sector bodies are not being made, whilst Welsh Government spending priorities continue to miss the mark.

There is the proposed 5% cut in funding for Higher and Further education at a time when we need to be investing in skills and training for example, the evidence of NHS Finance Directors that up to £1 billion of Health spending is being misdirected and the failure to secure any financial benefits by reducing red tape and management costs as a result of the recent reorganisation of the Welsh Health service.

There is also the continuing evidence of crumbling school buildings and hospitals, whilst capital funding is directed to pet projects by Ministers and cities like Swansea are starved of the resources that they should be entitled to on any fair per capita distribution basis.

It is little wonder that the Finance Minister is having a rough time defending his budget in Committee at present, often as a result of criticism by his own side. And yet he is right about one thing, Carwyn Jones has been a member of the Government for nine years. He cannot escape his share of responsibility for the mess he may, or may not inherit as First Minister.

This is more than just a spat between cabinet colleagues. It reveals fundamental splits within the Government itself, but more importantly it shows that the overwhelming pattern in recent times is one of Ministers avoiding hard decisions and failing to deliver on their own rhetoric. Why should it be any different after 9th December?
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