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.
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.
Labour leadership election: they’re off!
IN THE days when being leader of the Labour Party meant having the ability to command the confidence of the majority of your parliamentary colleagues, its election process would likely be almost over.
Five candidates made the next round of contest: Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Sir Keir Starmer, and Emily Thornberry. They respectively have the support of 33, 31, 23, 88, and 23 of their parliamentary colleagues.
Before 1980, Keir Starmer would be home and hosed.
A PLURAL APPROACH
Clive Lewis, who withdrew from the leadership contest, forcefully made the case for Labour to stop behaving like the Exclusive Brethren: “The litmus test of survival for Labour is pluralism – the recognition that we as one party don’t and can’t have all the answers to the complex challenges we face. We are going to have to collaborate.
“It’s not that we can’t win alone, it’s that we can’t change society alone. Since 1918, there have been 28 elections and Labour has only won eight of them, often with small majorities and a short government.
“Labour can no longer impose a future on the country, instead it must negotiate one.”
Ms Long-Bailey, whose media performances during the campaign were only ‘good’ relative to the comic relief offered by current deputy leadership contender Richard Burgon, is favoured by those most closely associated with Jeremy Corbyn’s argument-winning tenure.
She has already drawn the support of party-within-a-party Momentum. Or at least its executive, as members were not allowed a vote. Momentum members have been subsequently presented with a ballot paper for the Labour leadership with only Ms Long-Bailey’s name on it. Democracy in action.
As someone who said she would give the departing Labour leader 10/10 and accepted responsibility for Labour’s last manifesto, she will also attract the votes of those who are intent on campaigning in purity instead of governing (all governments do) through compromise.
In her candidate statement, Rebecca Long-Bailey acknowledges the defeat and calls upon the Party to look inward to establish the reasons why, saying: “We had a chance to help turn back the tide, but we failed. The starting point in the leadership election is to be honest and self-critical about why and then look forward and forge our path to power.
“We have another round of elections in May [not in Wales] and the escalating crises we face mean that building a winning vision of a socialist future has never been so urgent.
Lisa Nandy received only two fewer nominations, despite – unlike Ms Long-Bailey – having had virtually no public profile in the 2019 election campaign. That low level of exposure for an effective media performer followed her walking out of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in 2016 and declining to return.
She also backed the UK Government’s Withdrawal Agreement in a key vote in October 2019 and cannot, therefore, be charged with facing two ways on the Brexit issue.
At the hustings held for candidates before the Parliamentary party, Lisa Nandy reportedly made the best impression, giving a clear indication of what Labour needed to do to recapture lost votes, look outward and not navel-gaze looking for utopia.
Making her pitch as an outsider, at her campaign launch Ms Nandy said: “The stark truth is, the path back to power for Labour will never be to build along the ‘red wall’.”
“If we do not change course we will die and we will deserve to. This is the moment when we up our game and recover our ambition.”
Emily Thornberry, who regularly humiliated Boris Johnson when she shadowed him as Foreign Secretary and took regular delight in butchering Theresa May’s stand-ins at PMQs until she was replaced by Rebecca Long-Bailey to dismal effect, is a strong and experienced parliamentarian.
She is also the MP who had to resign from Ed Milliband’s frontbench team after a hopelessly misjudged and snobbish tweet during a by-election campaign in Rochester.
Ms Thornberry has the inestimable advantage among remain-backing CLPs to have stuck to her guns on the membership’s wish to unequivocally support remaining in the EU. In the changed political landscape, however, that strength could prove an electoral millstone with the voting public.
Unless Brexit turns out to be a political and economic catastrophe, it is difficult to see how Emily Thornberry will break through to the voters Labour lost in the last election. Although, of course, that presupposes that the unions and membership want to win an election on something other than a sectarian basis.
Jess Phillips is, perhaps, the most outside of outsiders. She was a constant thorn in the last Government’s side only slightly more often than she was a thorn in Jeremy Corbyn’s. She has never held a frontbench position.
Boris Johnson’s public school debating style does not impress her and clashes between the pair are always ‘direct’.
Her pitch is based upon her ability to connect with voters on a personal level and on emphasising her ‘speaking truth to power’.
In her candidate statement, Ms Phillips says: “I’ve never shied away from speaking out when I thought we were doing the wrong thing – whether that was the handling of antisemitism, waving through Tory tax cuts for the well-off or equivocating over Brexit.
“Boris Johnson fears what he can’t understand. And that includes people like me.
I can win back trust because I am actually honest. And I can beat Boris Johnson because he can’t handle people like me.”
Sir Keir Starmer had a good term as Shadow Brexit Secretary. He tormented the hapless David Davis, made a complete laughing stock out of Davis’ Minister of State Steve Baker, dissected Dominic Raab with equal forensic skill, and – faced with Stephen Barclay – often seemed to speak more in sorrow than in anger at his out-of-depth opposite number. All of which might lead a critical observer to say Sir Keir’s best parliamentary performances have not been against the most testing opposition.
In many ways, in spite of his plummy voice and manner, Keir Starmer is a real Labour success story: his mother was a nurse, his father a toolmaker and he rose through the opportunities given to him to head to University and become a QC on merit.
Perceived as a ‘moderate’, Keir Starmer has quickly moved to push forward his ‘left’ credentials.
His leadership pitch says: “We are an anti-austerity party. We believe in common ownership. We want to build a more peaceful world through a human-rights based foreign policy. We must hardwire the Green New Deal into our every part of our politics.
“Inequalities of every type – power, education, health and wealth – are so ingrained that only a fundamental shift can address them.”
THE KEY PROBLEM
Of all five candidates, only two – Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips – talk of a need to reconnect with voters Labour has lost. The other three make their pitch on a solely internal basis, as though the answers to Labour’s electoral woes lies within not without.
That will, no doubt, work well in a leadership election for a political party in which only members can vote. Beyond the membership, though, Labour’s new leader must communicate more than a shopping list of policies and blue-sky thought.
The failure to enunciate a clear path to reach voters outside the faithful should give the membership and unions considerable cause for, as Jeremy Corbyn put it, ‘a period of reflection’.
Tackling hidden homelessness
A MAJOR new campaign to tackle hidden homelessness by raising awareness that “homelessness doesn’t always live on the streets” has been launched by the Welsh Government.
The campaign aims to bring to light the problem of hidden homelessness and is targeted at young people who may be at risk of or already experiencing homelessness. The campaign also advises the public on what to do if they’re concerned about someone they know.
Research suggests people overwhelmingly connect homelessness with rough sleeping only – which is not the case for most young people experiencing homelessness.
Even if someone has a roof over their head, they can still be homeless. They could be sofa surfing at a friends’ place or staying somewhere temporarily like a hostel, night shelter or bed & breakfast. It might be they are living in very poor conditions or somewhere that’s not suitable for them or their family.
To help identify people who could be homeless, there are several signs that people can look out for:
• They may be having difficulties with their relationships with their parents and close family members;
• They may be reluctant to go home – spending lots of their time outside; in public places that offer shelter and connection to wifi – for example, train stations and cafes; staying late at their education setting or jobs;
• They may be keeping belongings with them and have problems with keeping clothes clean;
• They might be asking for help with money and using food banks;
• They may have lost their job;
• They may be experiencing physical or mental health problems.
Those experiencing hidden homelessness are more likely to be at risk of exploitation, particularly young people. For example, they might be targeted by people who want to pressurise them into sex or unwaged labour in exchange for a roof over their head.
The campaign is designed to ensure that young people get the help and support they need as soon as possible, preventing homelessness from happening in the first place.
Launching the initiative Housing Minister Julie James, said: “Many people think homelessness is only about rough sleeping – it is not. Many young people experiencing, or at risk of homelessness don’t recognise themselves as homeless.
“If you don’t have a place to call home it is likely that you are experiencing ‘hidden homelessness’.
“We know young people often don’t know where to seek advice and support – so that’s why we’re launching this new campaign.
“So if you think you’re experiencing hidden homelessness or you’re at risk of it then get help now. It’s never too late or too early to get help.”
The Welsh Government funds Shelter Cymru to provide independent housing advice and support. The service also links people to partner organisations who can provide support services based on the needs of individuals.
Shelter Cymru Director Jon Puzey said: “We know the earlier and more often someone experiences homelessness, the more likely they are to develop complex issues that might mean they become homeless repeatedly throughout their adult life. That’s why it’s so important that we make it a priority to prevent youth homelessness.
“It’s fantastic that the Welsh Government is taking this so seriously and helping us to reach more young people. With this joint campaign, we are making sure that young people know that Shelter Cymru is here to help them.”
WG launches first international trade strategy
Eluned Morgan AC: Wales needs ‘strong international presence’
INTERNATIONAL Relations Minister Eluned Morgan launched Wales’ first International Strategy on Tuesday, January 14.
The strategy aims to promote the country as an outward-looking nation ready to work and trade with the rest of the world.
It is being launched as the UK prepares to leave the EU and negotiate a new relationship with the European Union and trade deals with international partners around the world.
Eluned Morgan said: “A strong international presence has never been more relevant for Wales.
“Following the EU referendum in 2016 and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the UK’s future relationship with Europe, Wales will pursue its place on the international stage with renewed vigour.”
The International Strategy has 3 core ambitions over the next 5 years:
• Raise Wales’ profile on the international stage
• Grow the economy by increasing exports and attracting inward investment
• Establish Wales as a globally responsible nation
It is the start of a new approach to how the Welsh Government promotes Wales internationally, identifies Wales’ key global markets in a post-Brexit landscape and highlights 3 sectors where Wales is recognised as a world leader – cybersecurity, compound-semiconductors and the creative industries.
The Welsh Government hopes the approach will project a new dynamic and vibrant image of Wales as a modern, confident, high-tech, creative and sustainable nation.
Speaking ahead of the launch the minister said: “As Wales’ first Minister for International Relations, it was important to bring the achievements of the last 20 years together and use these as a foundation to set out Wales’ future approach to its international work.
“For a small, smart nation, Wales enjoys a reputation, which stretches far beyond its borders. The strategy will build on this reputation and showcase Wales as a nation that will be known for its creativity, its expertise in technology and its commitment to sustainability.”
Responding in the Senedd for the Conservatives, Darren Millar said: “I think it’s absolutely right that there’s a deliberate attempt by the Welsh Government to strengthen the presence of the Welsh Government overseas post Brexit. I think it’s absolutely right that some very key and core ambitions flow through the whole of the document. And I think it’s right that we are attempting to get the Government focused on delivering centres of excellence around those three particular sectors that you referred cybersecurity, compound semiconductors and the creative industries.”
Delyth Jewell, for Plaid Cymru, responded: “I’m glad that you have finally published details about how you intend to engage with the Welsh diaspora all over the world. This is fertile ground that Plaid Cymru has been calling for Government investment in for years. We are way behind countries such as Ireland and Scotland, so setting up this diaspora database is a positive first step that will allow the Welsh Government to take a more proactive approach. That will help us culturally and economically, and will benefit Wales.”
Welcoming the Minister’s statement, Mandy Jones of the Brexit Party said: “I do hope that the Government considers the possibility of actually hosting a new trade summit here in Wales for Commonwealth countries. This could promote trade and also celebrate cultures, history and future relationships. I see this not as a replacement for the EU relationship, but as an additional relationship with countries who also share our goals and our values.”
Eluned Morgan concluded the debate by emphasising the Welsh Government did not want to limit its ambition on international trade to the three sectors the policy focuses on.
“Let me make it clear,” the Minister said, “we are not just focusing on three sectors.
“Those three sectors are to just get the attention of people when we walk into the room. We did that when we went to Germany last year. We invited people to a tech meeting, we told them that we were going to talk about cyber and compound semiconductors; we finished up talking about insurance tech.
“It’s about getting people through the door and how you pique their interest.”
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