All shall have prizes down in the Bay

John Osmond examines the curious spectacle of rewards for failure in the Welsh cabinet reshuffle

What are we to make of Carwyn Jones’ reshuffle at the end of last week? First the good news. The arrival of Cardiff West AM Mark Drakeford as Health Minister offers the prospect of some strategic decisions being taken on the future of NHS Wales, and just as important, their being communicated effectively to the electorate.

Health is the most difficult and dangerous of policy issues for politicians. Everybody is either directly effected, is close to someone who has recent experience of the NHS, or is worrying about what might happen if they did. Politicians typically react by keeping health problems as far at arms length as possible. In England the Conservative instinct is to marketise health provision and devolve as much responsibility as possible to customer choice.

In Wales Health Ministers have decentralised decision-making to the seven Health Boards. But this only works when the Boards can persuade the Community Health Councils to acquiesce in their plans. With the current options around hospital reconfiguration this isn’t happening, certainly in north, mid and west Wales. Decisions are being thrown back to Cardiff Bay, but former Health Minister Lesley Griffiths gave little sign that she had much of a vision about where the Welsh NHS was going.

Earlier this month Carwyn Jones told the Assembly that he was taking over the decision-making process in relation to reconfiguration issues within the Betsi Cadwaladr north Wales Health Board, because Lesley Griffiths’ Wrexham constituency was affected. An especially controversial question is the Board’s proposal to transfer intensive care neonatal services out of Wales to Arrowe Park hospital in the Wirral.

This is what Carwyn Jones told the Assembly on 4 March: “Just to make it clear, I will be taking that decision, because the Minister herself has a constituency within the Betsi Cadwaladr Board area.” This was an extraordinary reflection on the former Health Minister who was judged incapable of separating out her own constituency’s interest from that of a balanced view about the needs of the health service in north Wales as a whole.

The new Welsh Cabinet


  • Rt Hon Carwyn Jones AM First Minister of Wales
  • Edwina Hart AM Minister for Economy, Science and Transport
  • Professor Mark Drakeford AM Minister for Health
  • Huw Lewis AM Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty
  • Lesley Griffiths AM Minister for Local Government (and Government Business)
  • Jane Hutt AM Minister for Finance
  • John Griffiths AM Minister for Culture and Sport
  • Leighton Andrews AM Minister for Education (and Welsh Language)
  • Carl Sargeant AM Minister for Housing and Regeneration
  • Alun Davies AM Minister for Natural Resources and Food

Deputy Ministers

  • Gwenda Thomas AM Deputy Minister for Social Services
  • Jeff Cuthbert AM Deputy Minister for Skills & Technology



Llyr Huws Gruffydd AM says the reshuffle has left responsibility for the Environment in Wales betwixt and between Ministers.

What is the Welsh Government’s policy on the need to rationalise the provision of health specialities across Wales? How does it intend to achieve the safest and highest standards consistent with optimum patient access and value for money? These are exceedingly difficult questions to answer to be sure. But the Health Boards have just been allowed to get on with it. There may have been a good deal of behind-the-scenes encouragement, exhortation and advice from Cathays Park. But there has been precious little public advocacy.

When did Lesley Griffiths last make a keynote speech about her vision for the NHS in Wales along the lines, for example, of Education Minister Leighton Andrews? In the last few years he has stepped on to more podiums than I can remember to lecture us about his philosophy and political priorities.

Does this matter? You bet it does. One of the reasons why Labour came so adrift in its last attempt to reconfigure hospitals across Wales, in the run-up to the 2007 Assembly election, was because it signally failed to convince the electorate about the coherence of its plans. Instead, much of the electorate took the view that the real agenda was saving money rather than improving the service. This contributed to Labour’s loss of five seats directly affected by proposals to remove services from hospitals – three in west Wales (Llanelli, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, and Preseli), and two more in the north (Clwyd West and Conwy).

So Mark Drakeford has a big job on his hands. First he has to develop a coherent and intellectually convincing all-Wales approach to the provision of hospital care, and then communicate it to a sceptical and untrusting electorate.

However, he brings to the task some formidable qualities. He has been Professor of Social Policy at Cardiff University and has studied the relationship between health and social care for decades. He was chief policy adviser to Rhodri Morgan when he was First Minister, authoring, for example his ‘clear red water’ speech. Since succeeding Morgan as AM for Cardiff West he has chaired the Health and Social Care Committee in the Assembly and has a detailed understanding necessary to override, if necessary, the civil servants in his department tempted to reach for the ‘too difficult’ file.

Above all, however, Drakeford has the communication skills (in both languages) and confidence that is vital to take the complex arguments around the challenging difficulties in his brief to the electorate and make a convincing case.

There were two other positive aspects to the reshuffle. First transport has been placed within Edwina Hart’s economic development portfolio, where it belongs. The improvement of Wales’s connectivity, that hopefully will be achieved by projects such as the Metro in south east Wales, is as much about economic regeneration as communication links. Secondly, it makes all kinds of sense to put responsibility for European convergence funds within Jane Hutt’s finance brief, rather than within economic development, since it allows the possibility for giving greater co-ordination and impetus to the Welsh Government’s Infrastructure Investment Plan.

Yet, apart from these welcome changes there’s not a lot to be positive about in the new line-up. Ministers were demoted but not sacked. Stripped of her health responsibility Lesley Griffiths was rewarded by being given control of local government where a reorganisation is on the horizon. Carl Sargeant lost local government but held on to housing and regeneration. He was reported as being “very pleased with this vote of confidence”. Deservedly, John Griffiths lost the Environment portfolio where he has made little impact – witness the current ineffectual legislation on Sustainable Development – but has been handed culture and sport.

Indeed, what has happened to sustainable development, allegedly the government’s “central organising principle”? Gone, or rather dissipated, primarily to Huw Lewis’ new Communities brief, but also to the newly created department for Natural Resources and Food, the responsibility of Alun Davies who enters the Cabinet for the first time.

These three ministers lost their leading roles because they were not up to the job of communicating government policy. In fact we have scarcely heard from them in the past two years. Some months ago, after refusing to respond to questions about hospital changes Lesley Griffiths was chased by a television crew which was then attacked by her special advisers for having the temerity to try and put her on the spot. The Welsh Government press office even attempted to extract an apology from BBC Wales until they were told that unless they provided a spokesperson to talk about the government’s policy, footage of Lesley Griffiths being chased down the road by the camera crew would be broadcast.

These Ministers lacked confidence and were not on top of their jobs. Yet they remain in the Cabinet. Why? A few months ago, writing on ClickonWales former Welsh Office Minister Jon Owen Jones, latterly Chair of the Forestry Commission which is being absorbed into Natural Resources Wales, remarked that a distinguishing feature of Welsh devolution is that no politician or civil servant has ever paid a price for conspicuous failure:

“In Westminster politicians and civil servants often avoid the consequences of their actions but often they do not. The two DEFRA Ministers responsible for the plan to sell the Forestry have been sacked and thanks to Branson’s deep pockets the Civil Servants who messed up the West Coast rail franchise are suspended. In England and in Scotland a failed policy can end your career but not so here.”

Maybe Carwyn Jones is biding his time for a more fundamental shakeout. Depending on how soon the Silk Commission’s recommendations on tax and borrowing powers for the Assembly are put into effect – and we will have a response from the Treasury in the next few weeks following Wednesday’s budget – the Welsh Cabinet will have to take on a new shape. Moves are already afoot to build a civil service Treasury function within the Cabinet Office – another central recommendation from the Silk Commission.

When responsibility is devolved for tax and borrowing powers the really serious business of government will begin in Wales. In turn this will require the strategic decision making across government that has so far has eluded us. Carwyn Jones will then need to grasp the nettle of creating a new department, equivalent to the Treasury in Whitehall, with the authority to knock heads together to drive a coherent programme forward. Is he up for that?

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

12 thoughts on “All shall have prizes down in the Bay

  1. I have a question; if all the Labour AMs were MPs, who would get a cabinet position at Westminster in the next Labour government?

    I’ll assume as a given that Carwyn would get the Welsh Office, but would Wales provide a single MP who was senior Minister material?

  2. Along the lines of the first post: Maybe poor ministers are not being demoted because the back benchers are even less able to do the job. Labour, and the Assembly as a whole, is a very shallow pond. We need to increase the number of AMs, considerably, if we want the Assembly to be up to the task.

  3. “Carl Sargeant lost local government but held on to housing and regeneration”

    Carl was local govt, communities and transport. So he hasn’t held on to anything, he’s been moved sideways.

    Apart from that a reasonable article. On health I think Mark will probably support some reconfiguration, but it’s unlikely the north Wales neo-natal decision will be upheld – the BMA, RCN and RCM united to oppose that particular change. Meaning commentators such as yourself can’t really stack up the idea that the problem in health was that “the plebs simply don’t get it” – quite often the doctors and nurses don’t get it either!

    The problem is essentially health managers have become fixated on centralisation as the answer to all their problems, if only the politicians would let them, when this really isn’t the case. Centralising A+E can only work if we get out of hours care and the ambulance service right – but health managers act as if this is a minor footnote rather than key to the operation. Moving services into the community can only work if you create specialist community nursing teams, link up with social care and invest in ICT. Again health managers simply don’t provide the detail on how they will create these services, they just close a community hospital and put ‘moving services into the community’ into a press release. Then wonder why people don’t support plans, become very sceptical of health boards and get very offended when people ask these basic questions.

    Mark certainly has a tough job on his hands, but at least he’ll be able to differentiate between proposals based on clinical evidence, and those which are just being driven by vested interests and lazy health boards. Lesley never gave the impression she was able to do so.

  4. Jon Jones:

    “…senior Minister material?”

    Blair and Brown… need we say more, if this is the height to which Labour, or any party anywhere, needs to aspire?

  5. Jon Jones is a common Welsh name which is why I use my middle name. I do not share the view with my namesake that only one Labour AM is capable of becoming a Westminster Senior Minister.

  6. It’s a National problem Glyndo, the country is a shallow pool and we are determined to select only from that pool. Even if we increase the size of the Assembly are we any more likely to get quality politicians? It’s marginal. It’s not only the politicians, from time to time you see the quality of their advisors and it isn’t good. Then there’s the civil service, unseen but vital cogs in a malfunctioning machine.

    Never mind, we’ve got a great rugby team, we’re all happy.

  7. What is the evidence that an increase in AM’s would mean in an increase in the QUALITY of AM’s available to manage the public funding to the betterment of public services? Let’s be absolutely frank it’s a backwater, and anybody with real talent/ability is off to London asap. What are the figures for young people graduating from Russell group Universities and have the world beckoning, but decide to return to Wales? Precious few i.e 10% at a maximum, so we are left with local government ‘fixers’, and ‘time servers’ and the results of the Welsh Government can be seen, or not seen as the case might be.

  8. Dave; I asked who from Wales was of a calibre to serve at ministerial level in Westminster. You didn’t give me a single name preferring to name two Scotsmen who became PMs. You may have also been inferring that they were of low calibre however they were credible.

    JOJ. You don’t share my view? It was a question; you didn’t offer an answer. Who is it that you see as a credible Minister in London?

    As Howell Morgan says, and as the 2011 census will show in the fullness of time, we lose our talent to England but, I repeat, where is our political talent in the Assembly?

  9. It doesn’t matter if they change the faces if the policy is still wrong: over-centralising the NHS in Wales, (apparently even if people have to go to England for treatment) is not the answer. People need local health services, and Welsh Labour’s policy of centralising and ‘rationalising’ (cutting) services will continue to be resisted by people in Wales wherever they realise what it means in practice.

  10. John Osmond (JO) says: “Education Minister Leighton Andrews – In the last few years he has stepped on to more podiums than I can remember to lecture us about his philosophy and political priorities. Not sure if JO is implying that quantity means quality but in case of Leighton Andrews using a yoyo approach to ‘podium politics’ is for no other reason but to cover up failings of Welsh education and strictly down to his policies and political dogma. Just wonder how many more generations of Welsh young people will be damaged socially and academically as a direct result of Leighton’s approach to education? There is an invisible Elephant in Welsh classrooms created by others but maintained by Leighton for the benefit of the Y Fro people and a ruthless system in place to prevent Elephant’s visibility and a long overdue open discussion!?

  11. The first post raises a fair point. Young, able, ambitious politicians from Welsh Labour and the Welsh Conservatives have generally opted to go to Westminster (as is the case in Scotland too, from what I can gather), whereas Plaid and to a lesser extent the Welsh Lib Dems ‘buy in’ to devolution that bit more and so have often had a better balance of talents at each end of the M4.

    That’s not to say that Labour at Cardiff Bay don’t have a few ‘big hitters’ – Edwina Hart and Leighton Andrews being good examples – but their backbenches are not stuffed with talent. For every Vaughan Gething, there’s a Gwyn Price and a Keith Davies who are little more than voting fodder for tight debates, with little to offer to civic debate in Wales.

  12. Really good summary of the new regime in Cardiff Bay. Only thing… As a social care professional, please give Mark Drakeford his full title: Minister for Health and Social Care. Whilst the NHS obviously gets centre stage in politics, the role of statutory and third sector social care is increasingly important. For example, the new Minister will be steering through the Social Care and Well Being Bill – fundamentally changing the face of social care in Wales, which will also have a significant impact on health service delivery.

    By the way, I knew John Osmond many years ago through mutual friends in my hometown of Mountain Ash. I was struck then by his passion and commitment to raising the profile of Wales in the media, and I am pleased to see retirement from IWA doesn’t mean this will lessen in future! Pob hwyl John!

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