A major conference on devolution in the UK, organised by the Constitution Unit of University College, London, took place at the British Academy in London yesterday. Chief Reporter Martin Shipton outlines his view of how the Labour-Plaid Cymru government has performed in its first year of office
WHILE in Scotland, Labour has accused the SNP administration of being “all style and no substance”, a cynic in Wales might characterise the present Welsh Assembly Government as possessing no style and little substance.
At a time when most ordinary people in Wales are preoccupied with the effect of the credit crunch on their purchasing power, the impact of the Assembly Government on their lives can seem increasingly marginal.
By its own estimation, the One Wales Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition’s achievements would accurately be described as modest.
A list of such achievements provided to me this week is headed by the introduction of free car parking for hospital patients and staff, the appointment of the world’s first Commissioner for Older People, granting nurses their full pay award of 2.5%, and the creation of a single business support investment fund.
The list goes on to claim credit for introducing the Foundation Phase, a new approach to learning for three-to seven-year-olds. It does not refer to the concerns of headteachers, who were continuing to assert this week that the scheme is “woefully underfunded”.
Credit is claimed for single farm payments made to farmers, with 95% of such payments having been made already.
The final two achievements claimed in this list of eight innovative ideas relate to action against climate change. Yet there is nothing dramatic to report so far: a sustainable energy route map was published in February suggesting how Wales could become self-sufficient in renewable electricity within 20 years, and Forestry Commission land is to be leased for the construction of wind turbines – a controversial decision which has met considerable opposition in rural Wales.
It is important to remember, of course, that the One Wales agreement has a span of four years, with three more to run. Before 2011, there are promises that include the introduction of a distinct curriculum for schoolchildren in Wales, the introduction of sprinkler systems in new and refurbished schools, and legal powers to suspend the right to buy council houses in areas of great housing need.
Quite a few initiatives have a familiar feel: a commitment to “work closely” with local authorities and developers to ensure there are enough affordable homes to buy in new developments; a “Welsh Food Debate” aimed at persuading people to eat healthily; and improving the “patient experience” by endeavouring to make hospitals cleaner.
Much of the One Wales agreement, in fact, seems deliberately vague when it comes to specific, practical commitments.
A typical phrase is “working towards”: “working towards reforming NHS Trusts”; “working towards eliminating the use of private sector hospitals [by the NHS] by 2011”, a commitment that some would see as mere ideological posturing, with the get-out that a failure to achieve the aspiration does not represent a broken promise.
One notable achievement was the meeting of an interim patient waiting-time target.
By March this year, no-one was waiting more than 22 weeks to see a consultant, against 21,500 in the same month last year.
Only five waited more than 22 weeks for treatment, against 10,000 in March 2007.
Nevertheless, patients in Wales are still waiting significantly longer than their counterparts in England.
In terms of public perception of the One Wales Government – such as there is – there has been considerable resentment from Labour activists about the high profile on TV of Plaid Cymru ministers.
This reflects the quite widespread view among those who care that Plaid are playing something of a double game.
They want to be in government, yet they also want to retain their detachment from ultimate responsibility.
A clear Plaid strategy is to grab advantage of the kudos attached to being in government, while reserving the right to blame Labour at Westminster for any shortcomings, especially a lack of funding.
This was correctly identified in advance by Labour opponents of the One Wales deal.
Nearly a year on, it is sometimes easy to forget how momentous the decision of Labour and Plaid to come together in government was.
Ludicrously, it probably would not have happened if a crucial Liberal Democrat meeting had taken place in Cardiff rather than Llandrindod Wells, and if Lib Dem AM Kirsty Williams had not been worried about losing the support of Labour-inclined supporters in Ystradgynlais.
If the Lib Dem vote at the Llandrindod meeting had gone in favour of a “rainbow coalition” involving Plaid, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, Ieuan Wyn Jones would now be the First Minister instead of merely Rhodri Morgan’s deputy.
As it was, the vote at the Lib Dem meeting was tied, and according to party rule, the rainbow option was rejected.
That convinced both Labour and Plaid that the Liberal Democrats would be unreliable coalition partners, making a Labour-Plaid deal the only realistic possibility remaining.
Plaid leader Ieuan Wyn Jones is no Alex Salmond. He lacks charisma and has a reputation of being cautious.
His detractors say he is over-cautious.
Perversely, this may have been a blessing for Plaid in government, at least initially.
He is an unthreatening figure who is incapable of frightening the horses.
Moderate voters who would be put off by a more strident nationalist figure than Mr Jones can now see Plaid as a credible party of government.
The other Plaid ministers – Rhodri Glyn Thomas (Heritage) and Elin Jones (Rural Affairs) – have also established themselves in the public eye as competent and reassuring.
Ms Jones, it is generally agreed, did particularly well in handling the foot-and-mouth outbreak (which required her return from holiday in New Zealand), over compensation payments to farmers, and latterly over her decision to cull badgers in a bid to eliminate bovine TB.
Unfortunately for Labour, its ministers have often been at the sharp end of difficult economic controversies. Andrew Davies, the Finance Minister and one of Rhodri Morgan’s possible successors, has been in the firing line over a lower than hoped for settlement to local government.
Jane Hutt, who was constantly under attack in her earlier role as Health Minister, is beginning to attract criticism over such matters as the underfunding of the Foundation Phase and the decline in the relative level of school funding in Wales in comparison with elsewhere in the UK.
One way of describing Edwina Hart, the current Health Minister, is as an exponent of creative feistiness. Notorious for her dislike of the media, she nevertheless has the ability to make controversial decisions that make news. Responding to widespread concern over car parking charges at hospitals, she decided to scrap them – even if in so doing she appeared to be cocking a snook at her government’s climate change initiatives. She became involved in a public row with UK Labour Health Minister Ben Bradshaw over the issue. Then this week she again diverged from the Westminster line by insisting that failed asylum seekers would be entitled to free NHS treatment.
Mrs Hart’s willingness to disagree openly and robustly with her colleagues in London is a refreshing exception to Welsh Labour’s usual determination to paper over the cracks. More of this could help to provide the “style” or attitude the Assembly currently lacks.
Rhodri Morgan has announced his intention of stepping down as First Minister next year, probably in September, although up until now there has been little evidence of the impending party election to choose his successor.
Equally, there has been no depiction of Mr Morgan as a lame duck leader, possibly because of the lack of open clamouring to succeed him. Carwyn Jones, who is perhaps the favourite, now has the relatively low-profile role of Counsel General and Leader of the House.
In a nation where most politicians have appallingly low public recognition factors, Rhodri Morgan is well known.
Some choose to criticise him for his scruffiness or his quirky manner of speaking, but he continues to have many fans.
He remains an antidote to the kind of depersonalised, passionless politician typical of the worst of New Labour.
But the affection he attracts has little to do with ideology: as the social historian Peter Stead suggested recently, he is capable of making an impression regardless of what he says.
Much as Labour MPs at Westminster may dislike it, the issue of lawmaking powers for the Assembly will continue to be a looming presence on the Welsh political agenda.
The current settlement, brought in after last year’s election, requires the Assembly to seek permission from Westminster to legislate in clearly defined policy areas.
So far the process has been characterised by the kind of delays that some predicted. So far, just one Legislative Competence Order (LCO) – covering an un-contentious matter relating to people with additional learning needs – has received the Royal Assent. Although only several paragraphs long, the LCO received Royal approval on April 9 – a full 10 months after it was initially proposed on June 11 last year.
Even the Presiding Officer, who has been a staunch supporter of the new arrangements, was prompted to criticise the delays earlier this month, saying: “I think the Welsh Affairs Select Committee has not been operating in the way that it was expected to operate in the Government of Wales Act.
“It’s been investigating and seeking to gather evidence on the reasons for requests for legislative proposals coming from here [the Assembly], and asking all sorts of questions about what might come out of that.
“Measures are nothing to do with them. These measures are for the Assembly. Quite honestly, they’re a bit tardy in scrutinising them, in my view.”
In making his comments, Lord Elis-Thomas hinted at another looming problem: the question of how a Tory Government at Westminster will deal with LCO requests from an Assembly run by Labour and Plaid.
The Conservatives certainly do not seem any more inclined than Labour at Westminster to accept the kind of unwritten convention proposed by Lord Elis-Thomas under which LCOs proposed by the Assembly would be rubber-stamped by MPs and peers.
Tories at both ends of the M4 have indicated they will vote against the proposed affordable housing LCO because it would permit the suspension of the right to buy.
Plaid sees this as a dangerous precedent and a constitutional threat: according to them, the right time for the Tories to oppose the suspension of the right to buy would be after the power has been transferred to the Assembly and a measure is being proposed. But this argument is rejected by the Conservatives, who point out, perhaps with some constitutional justification, that MPs have a locus under the Government of Wales Act to decide whether LCOs should be passed.
At present, with Labour in power in Westminster, the opposition of the Conservatives to LCOs whose consequential measures they disapprove of may not matter.
But there will be plenty of scope for clashes between Cardiff Bay and Westminster with a Cameron-led administration.
In response to demands from Plaid, Labour agreed to set up two independent commissions: one to examine the conditions for a referendum on primary lawmaking powers, and the other into the funding of the Assembly.
Despite the appointment last October of Sir Emyr Jones Parry to chair a convention looking at the referendum, no other members have yet been announced and it will still be some months before work begins.
As for the commission on funding, which will look at the contentious issue of the Barnett formula, we have heard no more.
No-one can say for certain whether the One Wales coalition will last the course of a full term – not even the participants.
The dynamics of working with an incoming Tory Government at Westminster could have a bearing, as could the reaction of Plaid activists if a decision is taken not to proceed with the promised referendum.
Plaid will undoubtedly be reading the runes to see whether their future electoral prospects are tarnished by association with Labour.