John Osmond asks why the Welsh Government’s ‘central organising principle’ doesn’t have a higher priority
The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government published this week is essentially a re-write of Welsh Labour’s Manifesto on which it successfully fought the National Assembly in May. There are 12 chapters in the Manifesto and 12 chapters in the Programme for Government. In both the chapters have identical headings.
On the face of there’s nothing wrong with that. Why would you expect anything different? Civil servants have done a bit of a re-write but essentially followed the politicians’ lead. The trouble is the Programme for Government was trailed as being something new. More pointedly, after three months to get to grips with the policy agenda, as usual the bureaucracy has shied away from exposing itself to anything as difficult as a target to which it might be held to account. As was swiftly pointed out across the political spectrum, and in the media, there are no numbers in the document.
Still buoyed by his election victory First Minister Carwyn Jones evidently thought the Programme for Government was a substantial document. He argued that there would be annual reports tracking delivery. But he was caught on the back foot by a well-briefed Felicity Evans on the BBC’s Good Morning Wales while Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams cut to the chase with her remark, “It has taken 145 days for someone to work out how to find the cut and paste function on the computer from a vague Labour manifesto.”
If you search the Programme for Government closely you will find a few nuggets that hold out a prospect of some radical intervention. For example, in May’s Manifesto the commitment to “Establish a single Welsh Assembly Government Capital Infrastructure Fund” is contained in Chapter 3 under the ‘Public Services’ heading. In the Programme for Government the commitment has been moved to Chapter 2, under ‘Growth and Sustainable Jobs’.
In other words it has been moved from Carl Sergeant’s Local Government portfolio to Edwina Hart’s Economy brief. It is noteworthy, too, that the words “explore innovative ways of raising capital for investment in public service infrastructure” have been added. It might be too much to hope, but this at least holds out the promise that the Welsh Government is intent on levering substantial new investment into projects such as electrifying the Welsh Valley lines as a way of compensating for the 41 per cent cut in its capital budget and as a means for helping kick start our faltering economy.
This would be a major plus if it were to come about. However, it’s a detail in the Programme for Government when set against the lack of overall strategic cohesion. When Carwyn Jones published his Legislative Programme back in July he began with a commitment to bring forward a Sustainable Development Bill. His opening words were:
“Sustainability lies at the heart of the Welsh Government’s agenda for Wales and it lies too at the heart of this legislative programme.”
This is reiterated in the First Minister’s programme for Government, and it is worth quoting the second paragraph of his introduction to the document:
“At the heart of this is a focus on people and our commitment to support the development of a fairer society in which every person is able to make the most of their abilities and contribute to the community in which they live. This is our Welsh account of sustainable development: an emphasis on social, economic and environmental well-being for people and communities, embodying our values of fairness and social justice. We must also look to the longer-term in the decisions that we make now, to the lives of our children’s children as well as current generations. All our policies and programmes will reflect this commitment to sustainability and fairness so that we make sustainable development our central organising principle.”
But nowhere in the document will you find spelled out what this means in practice. What will be in the Sustainable Development Bill when it is brought forward? More to the point, when will that be? The answer, I am told, is the Autumn of 2013, a timing that doesn’t seem to fit the alleged centrality of the idea.
The Sustainable Development Bill stands alone from the rest of the legislative programme, distanced from the Environment, Local Government and Highways and Transport Bills. Yet anyone can see that all these are closely related. If it is to present the Welsh Government’s “central organising principle”, will the contents of the Sustainable Development Bill inform the rest of the legislative programme? If it were to do so shouldn’t it be the first Bill to be enacted, with everything else following on?
The answer to these questions is no because as yet the Welsh Government has little idea of what is going to be put into the Sustainable Development Bill. Responsibility for it lies with just two civil servants in John Griffiths’ Environment and Sustainable Development Department. You can be sure that the question, “How can I make what I do today fit with the Government’s central organising principle?” is not the first thing that comes into the heads of Economic Minister Edwina Hart or Education Minister Leighton Andrews when they get up in the morning, and certainly not their civil servants.
Getting this right is going to be a major challenge across the Welsh Government in the next few years. But if it can do so it could provide its programme with a cohesion that it lacks at the moment.
At the same time it could burnish a highly distinctive image of what Wales stands for in the world. After all, it has often been lauded that sustainable development was enshrined in the 1998 Government of Wales Bill that established the National Assembly in the first place. It was rightly claimed that Wales led the world in this regard. No other democratic Assembly has this duty at its heart. Now, in the next few years, there is a chance to give real meaning to the aspiration.