NHS Wales should be a special priority

Nick Ramsay says the Welsh Government should do away with freebies such as universal free prescriptions to help protect the rest of the health budget

In the same week that The Times should run its three-day debrief on the death of New Labour, it is perhaps appropriate that we discuss the Draft Budget in Wales. Labour and Plaid Cymru have now slashed the budget for the Welsh health service by 6.3 per cent in real terms over the coming three years. We have come a long way indeed since the days of there being “24 hours to save the NHS”. The Conservatives are now the only party in the United Kingdom that would protect spending on the NHS in Wales.

Budgets famously take time to unravel. But early indications suggest that Labour and Plaid’s decision to cut revenue in health spending by 6.3 per cent may cost the Welsh NHS as much as £880 million. This makes a mockery of Jane Hutt’s claims in Committee this week to have “protected” health spending. Indeed, thanks to the decision by the Conservatives to protect health spending in real terms at Westminster, since repeated by governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales is left as the only nation where health spending will go down in the coming years. £880 million could fund 140,000 coronary bypass operations or the salaries of 41,000 nurses. The loss of such money will be felt keenly in the Welsh NHS.

This is the third in a series of commentaries we’re publishing on the Welsh budget. Tomorrow: Alun Davies, Labour AM for Mid and West Wales.

It is disappointing therefore that Labour and Plaid have attempted to deflect attention away from their decision to slash the health budget this week, rather than stand up and defend it. Ministers have been hard to find this week as each has refused to defend the Welsh Government’s health cuts in public. But Carwyn Jones’ comment this week that Welsh Conservatives should be “honest” with people is the latest in a series of bizarre outbursts.

In October he said he wanted opposition parties to be “constructive”. He now says we should have the facts “at our fingertips”. But if Carwyn had taken our advice on board in March this year and unveiled an Independent Budget Review, as they had the courage to do in Scotland, the opposition parties would have had the full facts at our fingertips ready for a constructive debate, and so too would the Welsh public. Then we could have a proper debate, and everyone in Wales could rightly have their say. As it stands, the 75 per cent of people in Wales who believe, as Welsh Conservatives believe, that health spending should be protected have simply been ignored by a Welsh Government that is increasingly far removed from the priorities of the people of Wales.

The Draft Budget presented the Welsh Government with an opportunity to define what kind of a country it wanted to see Wales become in the next three years. The Spending Review settlement was tough but fair. All parties accept the need to bring Labour’s record deficit down. But in adversity often comes opportunity. The Government therefore had the opportunity to set out its priorities for our public services in Wales. Yet it wasted this opportunity. Instead it opted to cut public services at random rather than studying the contribution that other measures could have made.

No consideration was given to protecting public sector jobs via a pay freeze, for example, as it was in Scotland as a result of the Independent Review. And no consideration was given to ending the Government’s costly obsession with freebies such as universal free prescriptions, by targeting these at the elderly, young people, those on lower incomes and benefits and those with chronic long-term conditions, and asking for a contribution from higher earners as Welsh Conservatives would do. The Welsh Government has not only taken decisions behind the secrecy of closed doors, it has based these decisions on the narrowest possible criteria. In so doing it has put the jobs of many public service professionals at risk.

There is another reason why I believe Labour and Plaid were wrong to slash health spending for the coming three years, and it is the most important. The health budget is much more than figures and percentages. It merits being considered as a special priority because for many people in Wales their health is by necessity their only priority. Protecting health spending gives us the best possible chance to make a difference by saving or prolonging people’s lives.

Conservatives at Westminster have been able to invest £50 million in a new Cancer Drugs Fund. This will give tens of thousands of patients across the border currently suffering from breast, colon, kidney, lung and other cancers access to life-prolonging drugs to which they are currently denied. The UK Government has been able to do this because of its decision to protect spending in the (English) NHS. In Wales, the Welsh Government’s decision to cut spending on the NHS means that no such Fund will be available for cancer sufferers here. By cutting health spending, Labour and Plaid are telling patients that prolonging their lives is less a priority in Wales than it is in England.

Difficult decisions were required in last week’s Draft Budget. Instead, the Welsh Government has tried to please everyone, and pleased none. Welsh Conservatives remain disappointed that Labour and Plaid have cut health spending. We will now look to set out in detail before Christmas how we believe health spending can be protected in order to inform the Budget process before the final vote in February. Three in four people in Wales believe health spending is a top priority. It is disappointing that the Welsh Government has continued to ignore them.

Nick Ramsay is Conservative AM for Monmouth and Shadow Minister for Finance.

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