I think 2011 will be seen as another missed opportunity by Welsh Labour. At a time when the people of Wales are looking to the government to step up and deliver, they are instead met with a First Minister and a Labour Assembly Group that are plagued with lethargy and obstinacy.
In March, the National Assembly received further legislative powers, doing away with the cumbersome Legislative Competence Order procedure and according to the First Minister, giving politicians in Cardiff Bay “the tools for the job”. Yet, seven months since the Welsh Labour Government received its self-acclaimed “mandate” to govern after the elections in May, only one Bill from its Legislative Programme has been tabled in the Assembly. This is in stark contrast to the six Bills tabled by the Scottish and UK Governments.
The turn of the year
In a special feature this week the four party leaders in the National Assembly reflect on their achievements during 2011 and prospects for the next 12 months. Tomorrow Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams claims the Welsh Liberal democrats are punching above their weight. On Friday we hear from Plaid Cymru’s leader Ieuan Wyn Jones.
Such torpor undermines people’s confidence in devolution and does little to engage the Welsh electorate on its merits. Recent turnout figures at the Referendum and Assembly Elections confirm there is still great work to be done by all parties in this area. Such apathy reinforces a widely-held belief in the inertia of the Labour government here in Wales.
2011 was a tremendous year for Welsh Conservatives. With 14 Assembly Members in Cardiff Bay, we are now the second largest party in Wales and represent the only real alternative to the failed agenda of Labour that continues to let Wales down. Our task is to demonstrate that simply throwing taxpayers’ hard-earned money at a problem will not make it disappear. The fact of the matter is that anyone can spend money as if there were no tomorrow. The real test comes when tomorrow arrives and there is nothing left in the coffers. This is precisely the position the UK Government found itself in following years of Labour excess. It is the people of Wales who continue to face the very real consequences of those years of excess.
Sustained Welsh Government inactivity is threatening our economy’s chances of recovery. Instead of supporting businesses in Wales and providing the impetus and stability they need to thrive, the people of Wales are faced with a government that that is bent on a culture of blame. Instead of taking responsibility for, in the First Minister’s own words “the spending [that] during the years that Labour were in Government in London rose inexorably”, the Welsh Government is content to sit back and moan. This is in spite of the fact that the Welsh Government received a further £38.9 million as a result of the Council Tax freeze announced in England and an additional £216 million coming from the UK Government’s Autumn Statement.
My colleagues in Westminster are working hard to help families in these tough economic times, offering a cut in fuel duty, help for young unemployed people, pensioners and further investment in broadband, and support for businesses, whilst still tackling the budget deficit that was crippling the UK economy. This is in stark contrast to the paralysis shown by the First Minister’s tired regime.
Politicians are perennially faced with balancing competing priorities. However, the budget proposed by Welsh Labour and endorsed by the Welsh Liberal Democrats this autumn failed to adequately meet the needs of communities across Wales. By imposing a 6.6 per cent real terms cut between now and 2014-15 on the health budget, the Welsh Government is attacking the very service it claims to hold so dear. With waiting time targets being missed, vacancies remaining unfilled and operations cancelled, our staff, who work so tirelessly in the Welsh NHS, must struggle to meet government targets without adequate support.
Since becoming Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly, one thing I have been particularly struck by is how ignored the people of Wales feel. All politicians must accept some responsibility for this. However, the Cardiff-centric mentality that emanates from the Welsh Government has led to the concerns of local communities going unnoticed. To this end, I am establishing Community Engagement Forums throughout Wales, starting in January in north Wales and continuing throughout 2012. By getting out and about, beyond the Cardiff Bay bubble and meeting with groups and organisations across Wales, we can show that a centre-right philosophy can lift Wales from its doldrums, and transform it into a prosperous and thriving country.
2012 looks set to be an interesting year for Welsh politics. With Labour having failed to secure an overall majority in the Chamber, ministerial decisions can no longer be regarded as a fait accompli. Backbench acquiescence cannot be taken for granted, as has perhaps been the case in years past. I am hopeful that with this subtle shift in power, we will see a more robust debate from all groups in the Chamber.
The recent negotiations surrounding the draft budget showed that opposition parties can work together to effectively scrutinise the work of the government, a fundamental task in any legislature. Under my leadership, Welsh Conservatives will offer strong opposition and constructive scrutiny of the government’s performance whilst setting out an alternative vision for government that will improve the life chances of the people of Wales.
The Local Government Elections in 2012 represent a great opportunity for Welsh Conservatives to build on our on-going success and as a party that believes in the empowerment of local communities and enabling services to be delivered as locally as possible, we have a strong platform on which to stand. With Welsh Labour stubbornly refusing to implement a Council Tax freeze that would ease the pressure on the incomes of hard-pressed families and pensioners, this is yet another example of Welsh Labour Ministers failing to capitalise on an opportunity to drive economic growth.
Rest assured, Welsh Conservatives will not be resting on our laurels in 2012, but will continue to work hard to show that there is an alternative. Welsh Conservatives are prepared to take action to improve the lives of people in Wales and will not waste an opportunity to do so.