12 December 2018

Carwyn Jones’s legacy: Inertia, buck-passing and failing services


This week Carwyn Jones stands down as First Minister of Wales after nine years in the post. When Jones took over in 2009 the UK still had a Labour Government and Gordon Brown would cling on as Prime Minister for a few more months. Given the turbulence of modern politics, for Jones simply to have survived is something of an achievement.

The final stages of Jones’s tenure in office have been marred by the grim saga of Carl Sargeant, a fellow member of the Welsh Assembly. Sargeant died on November 7, 2017 — suicide was presumed to be the cause. Four days earlier, Jones had removed Sargeant from a Cabinet post after unspecified allegations of “personal misconduct”.

Of course political leaders can be criticised for being too slow to sack colleagues, as well as being too quick. Calm deliberation is not easy in the era of 24/7 rolling news channels and the shrill crescendo of the Twitter lynch mob.

But it would be fair to assess Jones for his wider political record, rather than a single incident, however serious. Let us consider his legacy after those nine years in charge at the Senedd. Jones does not emerge well from the big picture.

Devolution has meant that for some important aspects of life in the Principality, the end of the Labour Government never happened. For education, health, housing, and transport there has been no interruption to socialism. The Cameron reforms passed Wales by.

While school standards in England have been driven up, in Wales they have languished. Since 2009, GCSE performance has deteriorated in Wales with attainment of A*-C grades for summer 2018 the worst since 2005. Another measure is against the international league tables. Wales’s OECD PISA scores have got worse in reading, maths and science. Wales is in the bottom half of the OECD global ranking and at the bottom of the UK rankings. Targets have been announced, missed, then abandoned altogether.

Things are not good in the Welsh NHS either. The referral-to-treatment waiting times have increased. Patients have waited longer to be seen — the performance for both the four and 12 hour targets in Welsh emergency departments has deteriorated. In December 2009, no patient in Wales was waiting any longer than 36 weeks from diagnosis to the start of treatment. The figure is now 13,673.

When it comes to housing, the Conservative Government is criticised for failing to increase the supply of new homes sufficiently. The criticism is valid. But the annual number of new homes being built in Wales has actually fallen. For England there has been some modest lifting of the planning burden. In Wales anyone trying to build a house is punished with even more red tape. Council and housing
association tenants in England are seeing the right to buy strengthened — in Wales the aspiration for home ownership has been blocked.

In England the interests of Council taxpayers has been championed. Reforms to local government meant more accountability and greater transparency — in particular over how money is spent. For several years Council Tax was frozen — while the requirement for a referendum gave a veto over excessive increases. Without this protection Welsh Council Taxpayers have seen their bills rise above inflation while local services have remained poor.

It is not that the Welsh Government has brought in bold radical measures that have proved disastrous. The failure is less exciting than that. It has been a pattern of inertia and buck passing. Review panels have come and gone. The constant refrain has been to blame the UK Government for imposing “austerity”. But the constraint on public spending has been more severe in England. In 2017/18, public spending per person in England was £9,080, in Wales it was £10,397. That is largely due to the Barnett Formula. A simple thank you would suffice. Instead we have had to keep hearing Jones blame the cruel English for his failings.

On the other hand the Welsh could be forgiven for wondering where the money has gone. Spending on school pupils is lower in Wales than England. NHS spending in Wales has been cut, while in England it has increased. Yet the Welsh Government’s annual budget of £17 billion includes £314 million for “Central Services and Administration.” The money has gone on an extra layer of Government.

What the Labour Party has failed to answer convincingly is why Wales has been falling behind England — on just about any criteria you can think of. Let us take the figures from the Joseph Rowntree Trust for relative poverty (more a measure of income inequality). In 2009 the percentage of English and Welsh households with below average income was the same — 22 per cent. In England it has fallen to 21 per cent. In Wales it has risen to 24 per cent. That’s the upshot — after all Labour’s egalitarian oratory.

A pretty dismal legacy. Is there any defence that can be offered for Jones? I suppose it could be argued that the “system is to blame”. The case could be made that the wastefulness and mismanagement is inherent in the dysfunctional arrangements he has found himself trying to cope with. What if we had real devolution? What if the Welsh Assembly was abolished and power and money handed down to hospitals, schools, and town halls?

The Welsh referendum on setting up a National Assembly took place in 1997. The result was incredibly close. 50.3 per cent in favour. 49.7 per cent against. Everyone accepted the verdict of the Welsh people — and a couple of years later it was up and running. Still, after 20 years perhaps it would be right in 2019 to run a second referendum. It could be called a “People’s Vote”, an informed decision now the full implications are known. After all, nobody in Wales voted in 1997 to make themselves poorer. I’m afraid that has been the outcome.

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.