Helen Mary Jones says the Welsh government’s budget choices reflect clear priorities and strong leadership
Last week the Welsh Government announced their draft budget for the next three years. The huge cuts being forced on Wales by the Westminster Coalition Government meant that the Welsh Government has been under enormous pressure to protect vital Welsh public services. The cuts presented very difficult choices in what was arguably the most difficult budget produced since devolution began. These huge cuts, the reaction to years of Labour refusal to regulate the banks, is on top of an already recognised unfair funding settlement which sees Wales lose out to the tune of £300m ever single year. With a 41 per cent reduction in capital spending there were always going to be areas that were hit. That has been unavoidable, but it has been a case of weighing up the priorities and spending the available money wisely.
|This is the fifth in a series of commentaries we’re publishing on the Welsh budget. On Monday: Malcolm Prowle, Professor of Business performance at Nottingham University.|
Our One Wales Government has decided to protect frontline services, including the special protection given to health and community care budgets with priority given to schools, skills and hospitals. The main focus of the debate leading up to the budget was the opportunistic and naive approach of the Conservatives in relation to health spending. I was deeply concerned that the Conservatives have been so willing to play political games with something so important to the people of Wales. Their position on health was simply fantasy economics. Don’t just take my word for it as it is a view that has been shared by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Welsh Local Government Association and many more who know that it would have devastated all other Assembly budgets.
If they’d had their own way, the Tories in Wales would have seen a quarter of the funding given to schools, children and the elderly cut, as well as massive council tax increases. This would only have led to even more strain being placed on the health service as many areas of the budget that have an impact on health, such as housing and social services, would not have been given the support that they needed.
Plaid in Government rejected this cheap headline chasing tactic. As a result our spending plans reflect the priorities of the people of Wales. Universal benefits to include free bus passes, free school milk, free breakfasts and free prescriptions have all been protected. These are the benefits that make a real difference to the quality of people’s lives. Last year in Carmarthenshire alone, over 3,000 primary school children took part in the free school breakfasts programme, and over 38,898 concessionary bus passes were issued, proving the popularity of these kind of schemes.
The Guardian reporting on the budget rightfully highlights how the One Wales Government has grasped some painful nettles in tackling the huge cuts being inflicted on Wales by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. They recognise that at the forefront of this budget are fairness and a determination to safeguard the services that mean the most to Wales. As noted in the Guardian’s review, health, schools and social services will be protected as much as possible.
This is a budget as much about protecting frontline services as it is about continuing to support skills development as an essential tool for Wales to build its way out of the recession. People in Wales can be confident that they will be supported in learning, in developing new skills and whenever they need it in frontline medical care.
Having received the worst settlement of the devolved nations, all we can do now is continue to stand up for the people of Wales and continue to provide the right support for those who need it most. I am proud that what Plaid Cymru and One Wales have done is put the country before party politics. We have created a budget that takes the difficult decisions but takes them in a way that ensures that the most vulnerable people in society are protected as the backdrop to an honest and progressive financial settlement. What is important now is that this approach of safeguarding services above party interests is taken forward. Wales needs strong leadership, clear priorities and cohesive delivery in order to work through difficult times.