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It shouldn’t happen to a Health Minister

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Abandoned to his fate: Cabinet Secretary cuts an isolated figure

IT’S NOT easy being a Welsh Government Minister.

There are so many new words to learn when you get into office and so many old ones to forget.

For example, take the word ‘cut’. It’s a very simple three letter word. But once you become a Welsh Government Minister, you are not allowed to use it.

Instead, at least as far as Welsh Government policies go, the word ‘cut’ has to be replaced with the far more unwieldy ‘transformation’ or the two-word mouthful ‘transformational change’.

ANGRY ANGELA ATTACKS

As you will see elsewhere in this newspaper, Hywel Dda UHB – to nobody’s surprise – has been caught on the hop by people discovering that when it talks about ‘transforming clinical services’ it means ‘cuts and closures’. You could argue that cuts are in themselves transformational, at least in the same way that being guillotined was transformational for the French aristocracy.

On Wednesday​ (Jan 24)​, Vaughan Gething was faced with a barrage of topical questions, which he confronted with the enthusiasm and delight of Louis XVI on his final journey to Place de la Révolution.

You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Angela Burns, the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire AM who speaks for her party on Health in the Senedd.

Crikey Moses! After a brief initial question, she tore into the Health Board, the Welsh Government, the First Minister, Labour backbenchers, Mr Gething and almost managed to get to Uncle Tom Cobley and all in a positively breathless display of genuine outrage.

Picking up a copy of the Parliamentary Review of Welsh Health Services, unanimously backed by Senedd members the previous week, she handled it between two fingers as though it was a particularly badly soiled nappy.

It was quite bad enough, Mrs Burns said, for the First Minister and his backbenchers to behave in a supercilious and arrogant fashion towards members raising their constituents’ concerns, it was quite another to obtain cross party agreement on the strategic direction of Welsh health services and then ignore the very principles that underpin it.

Mr Gething got to his feet and momentarily looked shell-shocked. Unlike the First Minister, there were almost no Labour members present to prop him up, bray, and snipe at the opposition with sarcastic remarks. However, the Cabinet Secretary is nothing if not smooth and polished. More than capable of bandying around banal generalities, Mr Gething soon adjusted himself into his usual smooth delivery of assurances about ‘meaningful consultations’.

Demonstrating the same sort of faulty memory that could yet come to unglue his leader, Vaughan Gething continued by saying that his boss had not been in any way supercilious.

Mr Jones’ stock in trade is supercilious.

Perhaps Mr Gething had not been paying attention; because having watched the previous day’s First Minister’s Questions and the business statement which preceded Mrs Burns’ questions, you would have to say that Mrs Burns had it pretty much nailed on.

ASK ME NO QUESTIONS

It didn’t get much better for Mr Gething, despite his stream of soothing words and assurances of good intentions. There used to be a saying that you couldn’t knit fog. Well, you certainly couldn’t weave whole fabric out of Mr Gething’s non-answers.

Mr Gething was very clear that he couldn’t answer direct questions because of protocol and the risk that he might have to make final decisions on a consultation which had not yet started. Which was very odd, because the previous day Carwyn Jones had decided he wouldn’t comment because the consultation was ‘open’. Open or closed, Mr Gething was prepared to fall back on the ‘all changes are difficult’ line. As an alternative tack, he attempted a switch to ‘difficult choices have to be made’.

So often did he repeat these lines, or variations on them, that it appeared as though poor Mr Gething had got stuck in one of those time loops beloved of science fiction programmes that need to create a cheap episode to make up for blowing the make-up budget on Slurb the Invincible or some such in a preceding one.

WHERE’S HELP WHEN YOU NEED IT?

Paul Davies had a go after Mrs Burns. Mr Davies doesn’t really do splenetic outrage, but he was clearly peeved – testy even. In a calm and measured way, he berated the Health Board for even proposing, never mind contemplating the closure of Withybush Hospital.

In response, Mr Gething tried a different tactic. While he appreciated that local sentiment was strong, it would be the same across Wales as tough decisions – hard choices – had to be made everywhere across the nation. This was, Mr Gething suggested, a national issue.

Mr Gething’s words would have had more weight on that score had he been accompanied by members of the Welsh Assembly from his own party. Apart from Mark Drakeford seated to his right, Mr Gething appeared terribly alone. The rest of the chamber was devoid of a Labour presence, demonstrating just how seriously west Wales’ concerns were being taken by all those south Wales AMs upon which the party depends for its majority.

Simon Thomas, incongruously seated next to Neil Hamilton, was next to tackle Mr Gething’s dead bat defence.

Pointing out the way in which the First Minister had sought to use the Parliamentary Review in an effort to deflect either criticism or inquiry, Mr Thomas told the Cabinet Secretary that the review was published too late to influence any proposals advanced by Hywel Dda.

After ungallantly pointing out that Labour’s candidate in the 2015 General Election, Paul Miller, had stood on a platform of restoring the paediatric services to Withybush – which had been removed temporarily without consultation – and had still not returned, he suggested this was the opportunity to test the strength of the Parliamentary Review’s framework.

NO STOPPING A CONSULTATION

Mr Gething lost his way a little as he said it wouldn’t be right for him ‘to attempt to instruct’ the health board to stop its consultation now. That would be the consultation that has not started, as the Cabinet Secretary had previously made clear just minutes before.

Difficult conversations needed to be had, tough choices had to be made, and the public would be properly engaged in the process of helping to make those tough choices after taking part in those difficult conversations.

You could see the cogs clicking away as Mr Gething spun new golden platitudes out of old strawmen.

Joyce Watson, whose support for retaining services in the past was less than fulsome, said it was very important that the public was told Withybush was not closing immediately. As this had never been suggested anywhere, it was hard to see what point Joyce Watson was trying to make; but having been thrown a life preserver, Mr Gething clung to it. He agreed that there was no plan to close Withybush in the immediate future. A relief for those attending outpatients next week to have their bunions filed.

Mr Gething then proceeded to point out that other hospitals were also mentioned in the options that had been leaked and that there could be those hard conversations and tough choices to be made in respect of them. But never mind, there would be a genuine and meaningful consultation and, if not, there would be a meaningful and genuine one. That’s what he expected the Board to do. Although, of course, he couldn’t tell them that was what was needed, because he might end up having to make one of those difficult choices after hard and tough conversations.

HAMILTON’S FORK

Neil Hamilton was next. Reaching for his pantomime pitchfork, he rather nastily skewered the Cabinet Secretary on its tines.

Remarking on Mr Gething’s status as the government’s fire blanket for successive health board failings everywhere, he posed the rather more difficult question of whether the threat to Withybush could be boiled down to death by a thousand cuts?

Tellingly, he suggested: “It must be regarded as a ridiculous proposal to close Withybush—even in contemplation in the medium term, let alone the short term. The health board should, when it produces the list of options for people to discuss, avoid causing unnecessary alarm and consternation by producing extreme proposals that are not going to be followed through.”

He then rather neatly suggested the real problem was a complete lack of accountability in the health service. Community Health Councils, Health Boards, were not elected bodies and the truth was that everything ended up on the Health Secretary’s desk. ‘People on the ground feel they have no voice at all,” Mr Hamilton said.

Vaughan Gething could see the home stretch coming.

There would be a meaningful conversation about tough choices in a difficult consultation, in which the views of clinicians would be heard as well as those of the public. It would be rather mean to point out that there is a difference between hearing and listening.

Particularly as those conversations will be tough, difficult, hard, meaningful, and genuine.

Then Mr Gething concluded on a point that he must now be grateful he did not open with.

Concluding he volunteered​,​ he didn’t want to be in the position in the future where the Government will be asked​:​ ‘Why didn’t you do something about a part of the service that really has gone wrong?’

That remark rather fortunately leaves the question unasked as to what all the previous tough choices after hard conversations and meaningful consultations over the last twelve years were actually for.

That would be a difficult – if not unanswerable – question.

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Ben Lake MP “disappointed” after Agriculture Bill amendment on the standard of food and agricultural imports is rejected by House of Commons

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The UK’s new Agriculture Bill was put before MPs on Wednesday (13 May) for the final time as it reached the Report Stage and Third Reading.

Alongside farming unions and campaign groups, Ben Lake MP has lobbied for the Bill to include a number of important amendments. One of the amendments sought to introduce a legal requirement that agricultural or food products imported into the UK under future trade agreements would need to be produced or processed according to equivalent animal health, welfare and environmental standards as those required of UK prodcuers.

This amendment, in the form of New Clause 2, and which was tabled by the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Neil Parish MP, was rejected by the Commons. All Plaid Cymru MPs supported the amendment and Ben Lake MP said he was “disappointed” that the house did not vote in favour of an amendment to prevent the importation of products produced to lower animal health and environmental standards, and which in turn would have supported the high standards of Welsh produce.

Ben Lake MP said:

“Without this amendment there remains no legal requirement for future UK trade agreements to ensure that any agricultural or food imports are produced to the same standards as those required of domestic producers.

“Farmers in Wales strive to produce quality food in a sustainable manner, but the failure to include this amendment to the Agriculture Bill risks undermining these efforts by keeping the door open to imports produced to lower environmental and animal welfare standards.

“I have always argued that in order to protect our own high standards it is crucial that a level playing-field is maintained in relation to imports, and that farmers in Wales are not put at a disadvantage by having to compete with imports that are produced to lower standards. I sincerely hope that this amendment will be adopted by the House of Lords, so that the House of Commons has another opportunity to support it.”

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£1 billion deal for ‘Shared Rural Network’ to improve mobile coverage goes ahead

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Ceredigion MP, Ben Lake says he is delighted that a scheme to extend mobile coverage in hard-to-reach rural areas making poor mobile phone coverage a thing of the past has been given the green light, thanks to a major new deal between the Government and UK mobile network operators.

The ‘Shared Rural Network’ will mean that high quality 4G coverage will be available for 95 percent of the UK by 2026 which means consumers will get good 4G signal wherever they live, work or travel. The new plans involves four operators (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) joining forces to create a new organisation to deliver the ‘Shared Rural Network’. Each will be able to make the maximum use out of existing and new phone masts by being able to host their own equipment on them allowing their customers to access a mobile signal. The scheme will cost more than £1billion made up of £530m from the mobile operators and a £500m investment from the Government.

Ben Lake MP, who was one of 78 cross-party MPs who wrote to the Secretary of State for Digital Culture, Media and Sport last year to ask for government support for the scheme, said:

“This is really good news for my constituents. Better mobile connectivity will make flexible working, access to education and leisure opportunities easier. It will boost regional economic growth and begin to close the digital divide that exists across the country. The mobile has become an essential tool for most of us. It will certainly come as a relief to many people living in my constituency who are frustrated by the persistent ‘not spots’ which prevent them from carrying out many tasks which other people take for granted”.

The ’Shared Rural Network’ will eliminate the substantial majority of the country’s partial not-spots with the added benefit of increasing competition for mobile services, especially in rural areas; deliver on the Government’s 95% coverage manifesto commitment to extend coverage across the country; improve road coverage by reaching a further 16,000 kilometres of roads; involve minimum environmental impact and reduce the need for duplicate infrastructure and ensure that the UK has one of, if not the best, mobile coverage in Europe.

The initiative, which is a world first, follows government proposals for an overhaul of planning rules and is part of the Prime Minister’s plan to level up the country with world-class digital infrastructure across the UK to make sure homes and businesses are better connected.

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Elin Jones welcomes speed reduction, but says it should be even lower

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Following a meeting and correspondence with the Welsh Government, Elin Jones AM has welcomed the confirmation of an initial reduction in the speed on the A487 between Bow Street and Aberystwyth.

This stretch of the A487 is particularly dangerous, and there were two fatal accidents there last year.

Ken Skates, the Welsh Government Minister for Economy and Transport, confirmed to Elin Jones via letter that the route between Waun Fawr to 300m beyond Dorglwyd Junction will be reduced to 50mph, with work taking place in the next financial year.

The reduction to 50mph has been initially welcomed by Elin Jones, however she has called for the speed limit to be reduced further to 40mph.

Elin Jones said:

“The need for a review of the safety on the A487 is clear, particularly following the two tragic accidents that took place last year. I was pleased to be able to discuss the issue directly with the Welsh Government Minister in Bow Street recently, and for him to see for himself why a speed reduction was needed.

“I’m also pleased that this has resulted in the safety and speed limit review concluding that a reduction was necessary.

“However, I and many constituents who regularly use this route feel that the speed limit could be reduced further to 40mph, which I will raise again with the Minister.

“I will also continue to call for upgrading safety at the Dorglwyd junction. There are also many areas on the A487 where safety can be improved, either with a speed limit reduction, or by providing cycle lanes and footpaths to remove pedestrians and cyclists from danger. I have called on the Welsh Government to consider all options.”

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