Welsh Assembly defiant over Public Services

As David Cameron unveils his plans for ‘modernising’ our state’s provision of public services in his Open Public Services White Paper (for more details read my earlier article) Wales is taking a distinctly different route from England on public policy. As Cameron stresses the need to lessen the state’s role and the virtues of ending the state’s monopoly over public services, in favour of ‘diversifying’ the private sector, the Welsh assembly is reinforcing the importance of the state.

Carwyn Jones’ administration has unveiled a host of new bills underpinning state-delivered (not outsourced private sector delivered) social care and health care, strengthening environmental protection and putting sustainable development and planning on a sounder footing. [1] Twenty one new pieces of legislation were announced covering everything from education, organ donation, children getting body piercings, health, hygiene, allotments, etc [2] and all of them show the different attitude to public services taken by Welsh Labour compared to their Conservative (and Liberal Democrat) Westminster peers.

The differing trajectory of policy, undertaken by the Welsh Assembly compared to its Westminster counterpart, has not gone down well with Prime Minister David Cameron. On his first official visit to the new assembly last week, Mr Cameron let the Assembly know his critical view of their policies and tried to impress upon assembly members the virtue of ‘modernisation’ by ending the state monopoly. Jones likened the speech to a lecture and said “It would be the equivalent of me going and lecturing the UK cabinet on where they are going wrong”.

Mr Cameron’s speech is likely to have little to no impact on the assembly which, in a referendum in March, won new legislative powers away from Westminster. In areas where the assembly has independent power to create its own policy and legislation Mr Jones’ administration has no incentive or need to follow an agendum alien to its own; the Assembly’s legislation no longer falls under the direct jurisdiction of Mr Cameron or the Westminster government. Mr Cameron said in his speech to the assembly, “Let me be clear: it is not my intention to interfere in decisions over devolved matters. But it is my duty to give my opinion where I feel it could benefit the Welsh people”. [3] A quote that some may take as slightly arrogant – but one that reflects the responsibilities of his office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to which Wales is a member

Mr Cameron went on to say the direct law-making powers won by the assembly in the March referendum had given the assembly “immense responsibility” to improve people’s lives. He continued to say some public services in Wales were “too bureaucratic to deliver those improvements”. [4]

Mr Jones (pictured to the right) rebuked this argument saying “Well that point was made by his party in the May election and the people of Wales gave their answer”. He elaborated further saying “We’re not looking at privatising public services in Wales, we’re not looking at GP commissioning. So it was quite strange [for Cameron] to come to the assembly two months after an election, and suggest the Welsh government should completely change course after being election on a particular platform” – that platform being the defence of Welsh public services against the changes happening in England.

Mr Jones’ also explained why he rejects Mr Cameron’s vision for public services “There are very few examples to my mind of this model working without it brining extra expense to the taxpayer. The [privatisation of] railways, for example. There’s hardly been a saving there. You see it in energy provision – price rises now in gas and electricity. Where is the benefit to the consumer? So I just don’t see where the benefit lies for patients. What people want to do is to see a GP… and be able to access services in new ways…… I don’t think the public want to see more private providers; they want to see quite simply, good public services”. [5]

So whilst Mr Cameron’s government talks about privatising services, Mr Jones talks about rolling back the private frontier in areas such as adult and elderly residential care. Whilst Cameron calls for decentralisation, Mr Jones is passing legislation enacting increased centralisation with Wales’ 22 councils being forced to share services and staff to more efficiently and cost effectively allocate resources as a way of finding saving in the provision of public services. Whilst Cameron calls for a decrease in rules and legislation, Mr Jones is legislating in whole new areas such as plans to extend smoking bans from public places to cars with children in them.

Perhaps it is no wonder then that Mr Cameron’s speech was ill received by the Assembly eliciting silence, hostility from both Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru and the occasional heckle. Something that Janet Finch-Saunders, one of the 14 conservative assembly members, commented on saying “I was appalled at the rude behaviour by some assembly members during – and following – the prime minister’s address”. [6]

This recent episode in Welsh politics emphasises the inequities in the system of devolution within the United Kingdom in what has become known as the ‘West Lothian Question’ where the 117 MPs from Scotland (50), Wales (40) and Northern Ireland (18) can vote on laws and directly affect legislation that affects England, whilst English MPs cannot do the same in their counterparts respective devolved parliaments. In this particular instance the very Prime Minister, let alone a regular MP, has no say over Welsh legislation. A solution to this problem, that many have been calling for recently, is the establishment of a devolved English Parliament where only English MP’s would legislate on English affairs. This would necessitate a reduced role for the Parliament of the United Kingdom which would now only have powers over issues that affect the entire union whilst the respective devolved institutions independently of one another handled their own affairs. This would drastically damage the supposedly unitary nature of our state, making it much more resemble a federation or even confederation. As Scotland moves for greater devolved power and now Wales too wants greater fiscal independence; currently Welsh government has to be funded from Westminster; (the Assembly has no tax raising powers of any kind and has less borrowing powers then local authorities in England) the calls for an English parliament are only likely to get more vocal.

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[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jul/19/welsh-assembly-new-direction-public-services

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-14129196

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-14121321

[4] Ibid

[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/jul/19/welsh-assembly-new-direction-public-services

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-14121321