I hope 2013 will be remembered as the year the British economy turned the corner. The recession of 2008 had a huge impact especially here in Wales and the road to recovery has been long and tough. I trust that the positive signs of the last few months will continue into 2014 and this year will be one of economic prosperity for Wales.
I think it is fair to say 2013 was a tough year for the Welsh Labour Government. Wales languishes at the bottom of the league tables when it comes to education and health. We now have six Local Education Authorities in Special Measures and December’s PISA results showed we had fallen even further behind our UK and European colleagues with regards to the basics of our education system. In health we saw a record 13,000 Welsh patients waiting over 36 weeks to start their treatment and the slowest ambulance response times in the UK. This cannot be allowed to continue.
Looking ahead to 2014
This is the last in a series of articles this week in which the leaders of the four parties in the National Assembly have set out their hopes for the New Year. Tomorrow Roger Scully surveys the electoral fortunes of the parties during 2013. On Saturday Jon Owen Jones speculates on what awaits them in 2014.
That is why in the annual budget negotiations with the Welsh Government, the top Welsh Liberal Democrat priorities were Education and Health. We worked with Plaid Cymru to ensure a better deal for Welsh people and managed to secure a doubling of the Welsh pupil premium (also known as the ‘Pupil Deprivation Grant’) so that schools in Wales will get an extra £35 million to help break the link between income and attainment. We also secured an extra £50 million to help health and allow people who are well enough to return home more quickly.
The coming year will be highly significant politically. For the first time in centuries the United Kingdom could be broken up. It is absolutely right that the Scottish people are having a say on their membership of the United Kingdom, but I truly hope they remain with us. I am a believer in devolution. I believe decisions should be taken at the closest level possible to the people they affect. However, I also believe being part of the United Kingdom gives Wales huge advantages and I feel the same is true for Scotland.
This idea that we are ‘better together’ applies equally to our relationship with the European Union. In May we will be electing our members of the European Parliament. There is little doubt that the European Union needs to change but the fact that we are members is a huge advantage to us. To be part of the world’s largest trading block is extremely important to businesses and farmers in Wales who trade internationally. Wales benefits by £144 million from our membership of the European Union and that is not something we should put at risk.
Welsh Liberal Democrats believe in reform not isolation and I hope the people of Wales will vote for a party that wants to improve our relationship within the EU rather than separate us from it.
On a personal level 2014 looks set to be a very busy year for me. As well as my usual Assembly and constituency duties I recently won the ballot to bring forward my own piece of legislation. I have chosen to introduce a bill that will set minimum nursing levels in Welsh hospital wards. We are lucky to have some of the best nurses in the world in Wales but we have fewer of them per patient than any other part of the UK, so too much is being asked of them. If we have more nurses they can spend more time with each patient so we can identify and rectify problems more quickly. This type of legislation already exists in parts of Australia and the USA and it has dramatically improved patient outcomes and reduced mortality rates.
Whatever you have planned for the coming year, I hope that it will be a successful one for you. We know that all of the problems, economic or otherwise, will not disappear overnight but we are confident that the recovery is underway. Welsh Liberal Democrats will remain relentlessly focussed on building a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.