Election 2016: The Key Issues

With the 2016 National Assembly election campaign about to kick into full swing, it’s worth taking a look at the key issues over which the parties will be fighting for our votes.

I’ll start with the broader issues.

1. Health

Ambulance and A&E services – There are plenty of areas of the Welsh NHS where you can point to serious service failures, but the ambulance service has suffered more than most – though it’s not necessarily their fault. There have been improvements since the new response time target reforms were introduced last year, but issues on patient handover at A&E departments and low morale amongst paramedics remain.

Recruitment and retention of medical staff – While as I pointed out recently that staff numbers in the NHS have remained stable, there are ongoing concerns about the proportion of doctors – particularly specialist registrars – with figures suggesting Wales has one of the poorest doctor:patient ratios in Europe. Also as mentioned, the changing demographics of the GP workforce suggest a crisis will develop towards the end of the Fifth Assembly if expected shortages in coverage hit hard; time’s running out.

Care standards in Welsh hospitals & waiting times – Although generally people are happy with the service they get from the NHS, there are particular problems in some specialities (particularly elderly care and mental health) with several high-profile examples over the previous term of families and patients being let down. Numerous reviews have been carried out, but the lack of urgency has given the impression Ministers were burying their head in the sand or were too hesitant to call into question staff behaviour. Waiting times are a perennial issue and you’ll all know about that anyway.

NHS complaints – Linked to the above, there’s a clear need to overhaul how complaints are dealt with. There are claims there’s a massive backlog (not exactly reason for confidence), while there doesn’t seem to be any minimum standard of service people who make complaints can expect. Community Health Councils, which are supposed to represent patients, have proven to be a chocolate teapot. As I said here it’s probably going to need primary legislation or significant regulations to sort it.

Resurrection of the Public Health Bill
– Following the ludicrous circumstances surrounding its rejection by the Assembly last week, I would expect the parties to put forward alternative proposals for a public health law. Though the sugary drink tax has been usurped by the UK government (which can be interpreted as both good and bad news for Plaid Cymru), you would expect AMs and public health professionals to continue to push for more action on issues like obesity and nutrition. Yes, I’d also expect arguments over public vaping to be resurrected as well – maybe as a stand-alone law.

2. Education

The New Curriculum – In short, implementing it over the agreed timescale (by circa 2021) as well as deciding what will be included. The Donaldson Review provided a good, broad outline but the real challenge will be working out what pupils who start the new curriculum will be taught and what balance between subjects : Will there be more emphasis on key skills like reading, writing and maths? Will we try and broaden learning experiences as they do in Scotland? What place will there be for the arts? How will teachers be trained to deliver it?

Student Finance – Tuition fees look set to be an election issue yet again, and with the Diamond Review of student finance due to report in the Fifth Assembly (with a widened remit) it looks set to be a significant issue in the Assembly chamber amongst the new intake of AMs. It boils down to whether we want to make sure students can study wherever they like without breaking the bank? Or whether we should do more to help those who study and stay in Wales to help stall an ongoing “brain drain”?

Essential Skills – Will the literacy and numeracy framework continue? Major changes have already been made to maths GCSEs, with a separate qualification for numeracy, while business leaders are constantly telling us that we need more pupils to study science, engineering, maths and technological (STEM) subjects to meet future demand. There’s a danger the arts will be sidelined in the chase for these “core skills”, with concerns already raised over withdrawal of funding for local authority music services and peripatetic (mobile) music teachers; also as mentioned, little idea of how the arts (music, art, literature) will fit into the post-Donaldson curriculum.

Work-based learning & Apprenticeships – Apprenticeships seems to have become the “in thing” when it comes to young people and employment in the Assembly, though there have been criticisms that present schemes are too age-restrictive. As the financial pressures of a university education continue to rumble, the offer of a strong alternative – like apprenticeships – might put less pressure on school leavers to see university as the be all and end all.

3. The Economy

Youth unemployment – Unemployment rates amongst the young remain significantly higher than any other age group, and although this will be partly by design (students etc.), there will also be those not in any sort of economic of learning activity, called NEETs. So far, as mentioned, the main way the Welsh Government and other parties hope to address this is by expanding work-based learning; but NEETs are perhaps less likely to engage with such programmes and having a lot of angry people (mainly men) with nothing to do is a serious social problem.

The M4 Newport bypass – This will be the last chance to put a halt to it (or ensure it goes ahead) before any final inquiries and contracts are signed. The only price tags for the work put it in the £1.1billion range meaning it’ll take up a significant chunk of the Welsh Government’s future borrowing powers. However, a bypass is more likely to provide a permanent solution to the Brynglas Tunnel problem than local upgrades.

Business finance – It looks as though we’re heading into another economic slowdown, and the banks will probably be reluctant to lend again. This will push the case to create Development Bank for Wales out of Finance Wales more strongly – though different parties will have different ideas on how to implement it and the levels of government involvement required. It could also be considered a bit of a risk.

The future of the Welsh steel industry – With January’s Tata jobs blow, and gradual job losses at other major steel companies like Celsa, the metals industry in Wales has been brought to a crisis point by falls in the value of metals, compounded by high energy prices and cheap imports from China. Metals remain one of Wales’ key exports and pay generous salaries. A future’s needed for it and the Fifth Assembly will probably make or break the Welsh steel industry.

4. The Future of Local Government

Without a doubt, local councils have taken the biggest hit from cuts to public spending. They’ve seen significant real terms cuts over the course of the Fourth Assembly, which probably runs into the hundreds of millions of pounds. There will almost certainly be some form of local government reform during the Fifth Assembly, but what form that might take depends largely on what government we elect.

If Labour can’t rule alone, the changes could end up looking a lot different to what’s current planned – we might finally get a proper electoral system for local councillors and some other concessions could be bought in any potential coalition or one-off deal negotiations.

If Labour win, then it’ll be either 8 or 9 authorities through forced mergers, which might prove unpopular with Labour councillors.

5. Tax

From 2018 the National Assembly will have responsibility for raising a certain amount of its own budget through several devolved taxes and, at some indeterminate date, they’ll also have the power to vary income tax rates by up to 10p in the pound. So for the first time ever, we can expect the Welsh parties to include proposals for tax in their manifestos.

Those on the right want to use the tax system to encourage wealthier people to move into Wales and, presumably, “bring investment” with them. Centrists want to cut taxes for the largest group of income tax payers – those in the middle. Those on the left are presumably going to suggest taxing higher rate taxpayers more or limiting tax rises to raise funds to pay for specific projects or policies.

6. Constitutional Reform

Fair funding for Wales – Some sort of “funding floor” has been provisionally agreed, but some parties are clearly wary that the devolution of tax-varying powers could see the block grant Wales receives via the Barnett formula taking a hit. Arguments could be over whether there should be a needs-based reform to the Barnett formula itself, or ensuring Wales receives a proportional share of spending on England-only projects in order to make appropriate investments here.

Devolution of policing and criminal justice
– It might well be knocked on the head once the next Wales Bill passes – minus its inclusion – but I suspect by the end of the Fifth Assembly this will be the next tedious constitutional discussion. Devolving policing, which has Assembly backing, would be relatively straightforward; disentangling the English and Welsh legal systems would be trickier, but would finally put Wales on a par with Scotland and Northern Ireland within the UK’s constitution. The Welsh Government now seemingly support the idea and have set 2026 as a possible date.

Expansion of the “Welsh Parliament” – A name change to “Welsh Parliament”seems inevitable (I’d expect within weeks of any future Wales Bill passing), but the question of how many AMs we need is going to rumble in the background once the Assembly gains powers over its own structure and membership. The strain on the committee system and legislative scrutiny functions is beginning to show and the pay rise won’t solve that. It’s hard to expect a limited number of AMs to fill so many different roles in addition to their constituency/regional obligations.

I’ll make a prediction : although they oppose it now, once any soon-to-be-elected UKIP AMs realise what the workload is they’ll have a damacene conversion to an expanded Assembly within the next term….and they’ll propose something along the lines of MPs being entitled to sit in the Assembly. Mark this down.

7. Specific Issues

Affordable Housing – A real “ticking time bomb”. Houses are massively expensive, even in Wales and their prices often out-strip the income of many first-time buyers. The whole housing market is a pyramid scheme in my opinion and is essentially a transfer of wealth from the young to the old. In light of reforms to private renting in Wales, the parties will presumably offer their own policies to increase the number, and affordability, of new homes.

Renewables vs Non-renewables
– There’ve been several major energy-related issues over the Fourth Assembly : nuclear (Wylfa B), fracking and the future of open-cast mining. It seems many wind energy projects have stalled due to local opposition, while although it’s unquestioned that Wales has enough in its tank to produce probably all of our energy requirements from clean sources, there’s been little to no hard action. It’ll be a little while until the Welsh Government have some control over energy policy, but for many projects that won’t be soon enough. All of the parties will have to make it clear what sort of energy mix they want Wales to have.

Free childcare – Over the last few weeks this has, somewhat surprisingly, become a key issue for the parties as they all competed with each other to release plans for free childcare. It’s said more free childcare will encourage mothers, particularly single mothers, back into the workplace and reduce their reliance on welfare and some in-work benefits as their earning potential increases. Good childcare can also give deprived children a leg-up before they start school.

Electrification of the north Wales mainline – We already know that electrification projects are going ahead along the Great Western mainline as well as the south Wales valleys – with great delays. Electrification of the north Wales mainline has been talked up as a way to speed up journey times and enable passengers in north Wales to take advantage of England’s High Speed 2. However, because of Network Rail getting their sums and timetables wrong on current schemes, the business case for north Wales will have to be watertight to see anything started this side of 2021.

The Severn Crossing Tolls – The two bridges are set to return to public ownership in 2018 (possibly as soon as 2017), and responsibility will ultimately pass to Whitehall – who’ve already announced that tolls will be halved in 2018. Parties have proposed numerous long-term solutions like reducing the toll to cover maintenance costs only, or scrapping them completely. It might even be worth considering using tolls to construct a new rail crossing of the Severn to future-proof a high-speed rail line.

A “Smacking” Ban?
– It was one of the causes of tension on Labour backbenches during the Fourth Assembly and although one of the key proponents – Christine Chapman – is standing down I fully expect it to be raised again, probably as stand-alone legislation (particularly if a pro-ban member gets a chance to introduce a Member’s Bill) instead of tagged on to another Bill.

Welsh in the Community
– The results of the 2011 census didn’t make particularly good reading for the Welsh language, and while it still remains a living language in parts of Wales, some of the progress made since the Welsh Language Act 1993 has stalled or even reversed. We have a Commissioner, a set of standards and a moderate expansion of Welsh-medium education now, but the signs are ominous and make calls from Welsh language campaigners for a million Welsh-speakers look excessively optimistic.

The Dairy Industry
– Despite the large tracts of land given over to agriculture, farming doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves when it comes to Welsh politics. While headlines have been dominated by the crisis in steel, a crisis in the price supermarkets pay for milk has also threatened livelihoods and communities. There are proposals for some sort of working group and for the provision of extra milk processing plants, but the dairy industry might need something similar to Hybu Cig Cymru and help in diversification (to make cheeses, yoghurts etc.).