As we leave 2013, this is an opportune moment to reflect on what has been achieved in Wales over the last twelve months – and crucially what can be improved over the next year. Wales enters 2014 with some degree of optimism and hope for the next twelve months. Yes, we face some big challenges as a direct result of UK Government cuts. Financially Wales is simply not in the position it was even five years ago and as a result belts are being tightened across the public sector.
However, as a country, there are very real reasons for us to be optimistic – it’s not all doom and gloom. When it comes to growth and jobs, there are signs of tangible economic improvement beginning to develop as we emerge from the devastating global downturn of recent years.
Looking ahead to 2014
This week the four party leaders in the National Assembly reflect on 2013 and set out their hopes for the New Year. Tomorrow we hear from Andrew R.T. Davies, Leader of the Welsh Conservatives; on Wednesday from Leanne Wood, Leader of Plaid Cymru; and on Thursday from Kirsty Williams, Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
The biggest challenge we will face in 2014 will be in ensuring we maintain and consolidate the progress and momentum we have made in growing the Welsh economy. Employment figures now show that Wales is performing better than the UK as a whole. Youth unemployment figures are particularly encouraging thanks to such initiatives as Jobs Growth Wales.
The number of people employed in Wales is now at a record high. Youth unemployment amongst young people aged 16-24 in Wales is down 1.5 percentage points on the year to September 2013, a much greater fall than the UK, which was down 0.1 percentage points.
As for the success of the wider economy, official statistics now show that total workplace Gross Value Added (GVA) for Wales rose faster than the UK last year by 1.6 per cent, compared to 1 per cent for the UK as a whole. The increase per head in Wales was the third largest increase behind the South East of England and the North West.
So how as a Government did we help in achieving this economic turnaround? When the global economic problems began to bite in 2009, it became clear to me that in order to transform our economy and mitigate the impact of the downturn, the solution for Wales’ economy lay far beyond our shores.
I believed it was imperative that the Welsh Government’s presence abroad – in the offices we have in various locations around the world – had to be re-modelled and re-focused in order to bring in new investors and to ensure Welsh companies had access to new and developing markets. In addition, I believed it was crucial that as a Government we took Wales to the world via trade missions to the most important markets and by personally going to those countries that Wales could do business with, meeting government heads and representatives – ‘selling’ Wales to the world.
As a result, the picture in the last couple of years has improved considerably and we are now beginning to reap the rewards. For example, goods exports from Wales for the third quarter in 2013 were up on the same quarter in 2012. We are also particularly encouraged by exports to the United Arab Emirates which have seen an increase of 54.7 per cent over the year. Over the long term we continue to be one of the best performing parts of the UK, with an increase in exports of 104.7 per cent since 1999.
However, we cannot take our foot off the ‘pedal’. Much remains to be done, particularly in attracting direct foreign investment and widening Wales’ expanding export market even further. In 2014, I am determined to ensure that this progress is maintained by ensuring we lead more trade missions to those markets that are crucial to helping our companies grow, prosper and create more jobs.
It is now clear that Wales as a nation is turning an economic corner. We are no longer a magnet for the kind of direct foreign investment that was attracted here in the seventies and eighties simply because we were a low wage and low skilled nation. Going into 2014 Wales is now a completely different economic entity. Today we have a workforce that is being re-skilled to take full advantage of the investment opportunities we can help secure as a Government.
On the other side of our economic ‘coin’ – Wales’ public services – it is crucial that during a time of shrinking budgets, we look at how they should be reformed to make them more efficient, effective and accessible to the people of Wales. That is why in 2013, I established a high-level, cross-party Commission, chaired by Sir Paul Williams to address this important issue.
As a Government, we are wholly committed to the values of fairness and equality and in order to deliver on such values in the future, we have to build sustainable public services in Wales – services that are fit for our times. We are all aware of the serious effects UK Government policy is having as a result of cuts welfare budgets. As a Welsh Government – faced with huge cuts ourselves – it would be impossible to pick up the ‘tab’ for decisions taken in London.
However, it is incumbent on us as the Welsh Government to ensure that against this backdrop, Welsh public services remain in a position to give support in the future to individuals and communities that are most vulnerable and rely more heavily on these services which impact so directly on the day to day quality of their lives.
That is why Sir Paul Williams’ Commission has been charged with devising a reform agenda that will deliver a blueprint for Welsh public services in the future and I look forward to receiving his report early in the New Year.
Al though we remain in uncertain and challenging times, in 2014 the people of Wales can be sure of one thing – the Welsh Government will stick to its course of helping to create the right conditions for our economy to grow and to make our public services fit for the future.