Election 2016 : BBC Wales Leaders Debate

(Title Image: BBC Wales)

With just one week to go until polling day, the second of the two Welsh leaders debates was held last night by BBC Wales in Cardiff. If you missed it you can catch up on iPlayer (link). There was also an after-show with the usual talking heads and party apparatchiks each claiming their own side “won”; you can watch here (link).

As last week, I’m listing the party leaders as they appeared on the podium from left to right.  There were five topics of discussion : health, the steel crisis, infrastructure, schools and student finance/tuition fees.

Carwyn Jones (Labour)

In opening Carwyn went straight to health, hailing Welsh NHS staff who were “hard at work”, while drawing attention to the junior doctor’s strike in England. There was “no greater contrast”  between the two countries, though he accepted challenges remained. However, he won’t simply tell staff to work harder or push for an expensive reorganisation (Owen : Plaid’s policy).

When it came to the question on health, Carwyn said we needed to ensure the NHS had the right money and that people got the right treatment at the right time. A message needs to be sent out that sometimes pharmacists might be the first port of call for some illnesses. A&E was “a challenge”, with demand rising every year; money alone won’t solve the problems. Labour would create a treatment fund for all life-threatening diseases, not just cancer.

He couldn’t imagine Port Talbot without its steelworks and Labour would fight hard to make sure no steelworks close; an enterprise zone has been created in Port Talbot. In terms of solutions, pension liabilities need to be taken care of and energy prices need to drop – something he’s been telling the UK Government for five years. Also, in answering Nathan Gill’s blame-framing the EU, he reminded the audience that it was the UK government who voted against tariffs on Chinese steel.

On infrastructure, he warned that the proposed Blue Route in Newport passes close to many houses and wasn’t the easy option its portrayed to be. Labour would seek control of and eventually abolish Severn Bridge tolls as the money raised would be spent in England. He raised the importance of bus re-regulation which would result in more frequent services and better links with trains.

Education needs leadership, and Labour would work on a new package for teachers once pay and conditions powers are devolved. We also need to make sure teachers work in buildings that are fit for purpose, as well as ensure there are no difference between rich and poorer areas. Labour would also never scrap EMA.

Welsh students would “never”  pay £9,000 a year tuition fees, and would never tell students to study only in Wales – they deserve opportunities wherever they go. If universities want to close the funding gap they should make Welsh students a better offer.

7/10 – A professional performance. He wasn’t put under as much pressure as last week and didn’t get dragged into any shouting matches, even going on the attack on more than one occasion. On the whole he ought to be pleased.

Alice Hooker-Stroud (Greens)

Wales needs the Greens to create a “sustainable and fair Wales”, bringing new ideas and fresh thinking. Everyone deserve access to warm, affordable homes, clean energy and public services should be protected. Alice made a specific plea for voters to vote Green on their regional ballots.

On health, while services were important the root causes of poor health needed to be addressed too – public health, warm and affordable homes so people don’t get ill, secure employment and ways to encourage walking and cycling.

Alice said the ownership question was important in Port Talbot. Tata have no obligation to its workforce or the community, just profit. Nationalisation or community ownership of the steel industry should be considered as a stop gap measure, as steel is essential for green energy and infrastructure.

On infrastructure, the Greens would look to create a Welsh infrastructure fund from public sector pensions, which would be divested from fossil fuels and spent in Wales.

Education needs to inspire children and make learning fun. There’s evidence that a higher age to start formal schooling helps, alongside education focused on play in early life (Owen : Heard of Foundation Phase?). Schools also need to remain open in rural areas as they’re the heart of their communities.

The Greens would offer free university education for students who study in Wales; they wouldn’t have the resources to fund students who study in England. Also, the issue wasn’t just about tuition fees as living costs play a big role too.

6/10 – Expressed her views clearly, but was sidelined as soon as the others started talking over each other so didn’t make much of an impact. Her love of the word “sustainability” shows she would fit in very well in the Senedd; that’s not necessarily a compliment.

Nathan Gill MEP (UKIP)

We have the opportunity to put a fresh, new party into Assembly. If there were no UKIP, there would be no EU referendum and immigration would still be taboo to talk about. UKIP changed things without elected members and have punched above their weight.

He believes in and NHS free at point of delivery. 80% of work done by GPs, but they only get 20% of the budget, with Wales not filling its GP training places. He completely opposes TTIP which could see the privatisation of the NHS; the only way you can oppose it is by voting to leave the EU in June.

Steel was in a world market and the UK doesn’t control tariffs on Chinese steel – the EU does. If people vote to leave the EU, tariffs will be lowered. The issue at Tata isn’t about ownership, it’s about selling the steel. After being accused by Kirsty Williams of voting against tariffs in the EU Parliament, he said he wasn’t even an MEP at the time. He couldn’t answer Carwyn’s question on what metal works closed “on his watch”.

UKIP doesn’t support the Newport M4 bypass “black route”. The A55 has big problems due to it lacking a hard shoulder, while there were passing lanes on A470. UKIP would spend £600million on infrastructure – and he blamed immigrants for putting pressure on infrastructure.

The education system needs to be “bespoke and aspirational”. Pupils need to enjoy what they’re learning and learn something relevant to them; not everyone is cut out to go to university. Grammar schools should be re-established, with delayed entry for some and no single 11-plus exam.

UKIP would provide free tuition for STEM and medical students, paid for by scrapping tuition fee grants for pupils studying in England. A £5million bursary for poorer students would also be provided.

6.5/10 – Tried to drag the debate onto the EU referendum and immigration but it didn’t really work. However, when put on the spot he handled it pretty well. Other than that he didn’t make much of an impact. Kippers would’ve liked it; everyone else not so much.

Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru)

Something“exciting was happening”, with the gap closing between Labour and Plaid and Tories pushed to third place. The election was now a “two horse race”. Labour have had their chance to turn around economy, health and education, but “their time is up”.

Labour have run the NHS down through centralisation, with Labour politicians protesting their own government’s plans. The Tories would sell it off, while A&E waiting times were recently the worst ever. Plaid wants to recruit extra doctors and nurses, alongside investment in social care. After criticism of reorganisation plans, she said there needs to be a closer relationship between health and social care services, and all parties agree. She accused the First Minister of being in “complete denial” on a postcode lottery in cancer treatments.

The steel crisis would have a much wider ripple effect down the supply chain. It made no sense to import steel to use on infrastructure and energy projects. Leanne called for both governments to work together and consider all options including part nationalisation – which Plaid were calling for in January.

Plaid would establish a National Infrastructure Commission to plan infrastructure projects. They would also stop the M4 black route and ensure infrastructure spending was spread around Wales not just in one corner.

Welsh schoolchildren perform worse than Estonia, Vietnam and Ireland – which was a scandal compared to good performances in the past. We need to invest in teachers to “be excellent”, also invest in early years and make teaching a world class profession. Plaid would guarantee a job or training place for under-25s who’ve been out of work for 4 months.

Existing student support was unsustainable. Although Carwyn said students wouldn’t pay £9,000 a year, he hasn’t said how much they would pay – plus Labour introduced tuition fees. Plaid would pay off graduate debts for every year a graduate works in Wales for up to five years.

7/10 – A strong opening statement was followed by Leanne being put under serious pressure for the first time in a public debate. She handled it but clearly didn’t expect it. Was disappointed to hear her talk Wales down with unflattering comparisons to Estonia – that’s something the Tories persistently did in 2011.

Andrew RT Davies (Conservatives)

Andrew had a simple message – we can carry on with business as usual or vote to secure real change. Labour was only “one vote away” (Owen : One seat?) from losing control of the Assembly.

The Tories would protect the NHS budget through the five year term so commissioners know what they have. At least £300million was taken out of the NHS in the first two years of the Fourth Assembly. He opposes wholescale reorganisation of the NHS as we’ve had two reorganisations already. Wales need to tackle the biggest killers so people are aware of their own public health responsibilities. The cancer drugs fund in England was time-limited and will be replaced; it’s said 1 in 2 will get cancer, so he wants to set up a cancer treatment plan, backed by £100million.

It was vital both governments worked together on Tata to ensure it’s not a fire sale – he was glad to see the current levels of engagement. Any state support has to come with a package to protect the seel industry, including action on business rates and energy prices.

On infrastructure, Andrew slammed Labour for the RIFW scandal and misuse of convergence funding. We also need to get digital economy right, as many parts of Wales were “stuck in the 20th century”. It was vital electrification of key rail lines happens, including north Wales in the next funding round.

There’s been a lack of political leadership in education : “Sorry kids, you’re going to get left behind”. Tories would fund schools directly so they can spend as much as they want in classrooms and run their own affairs – 9% of the schools budget was lost to administration when compared to England. There also needs to be equality between vocational and academic subjects.

The Conservatives would put £400million into student living costs, but there also needed to be more support for part-time learning and further education colleges.

7/10 – Came out fighting as you might expect, and was clearly more engaged with audience questions. However, he was far too eager to shout over others and that slightly spoilt what was otherwise another solid performance.

Kirsty Williams (Liberal Democrats)

The Lib Dems have listened; people want a better lot in life. They’ll cut class sizes, put more nurses into the community and support small businesses. They’re also the only party that voted against the £10,000 AM pay rise; it’s time to do things differently.

We need to make sure the family doctor system is right because A&E is sometimes the only part of the NHS open most of the time. The Lib Dems would do this through a £10million (at the start) GP fund – Kirsty used an example of a GP hiring a clinical pharmacist to take on medicines work. We need to “take the politics out of the NHS” and listen to professionals and patients to design the service. Also, it wasn’t just cancer drugs not being delivered, but technology and specialist operations too. On reorganisation, it “doesn’t work” and she suggested Plaid’s plans would be a disaster for rural Wales.

There’s a bright future for blast furnaces in Port Talbot and it can be turned into a profitable business again. She supports establishing an urban regeneration company, taking plant and machinery out of business rates and a comprehensive industrial strategy. She accused Nathan Gill of voting against anti-steeldumping measures in the EU Parliament in 2014, saying “Shame on you”which drew a big applause. However, this backfired slightly as you read earlier. (Owen : I think she meant Nathan Gill voted against measures at some point after becoming an MEP – I don’t know if that’s true or not).

The infrastructure budget shouldn’t be “blown entirely on one road”, so we need to look at a fair distribution of resources. Also, consideration should be given to reopening old railways like Aberystwyth-Carmarthen, as well as re-regulating bus services for rural communities.

She said Labour admitted they’ve taken their eye off the ball on education, so the Lib Dems will cut class sizes – starting with cuts to 25 pupils for infants. This will ensure teachers have time to teach every child. The Lib Dems also have a record of prioritising education spending in each budget negotiation. She opposed direct funding for schools as it leads to the creation of Academies by the back door and led to a boom in business managers and civil servants. There also needs to be a presumption against closure of schools in law.

No party has a good record on tuition fees; her own party “paid the biggest price” for not keeping a promise. Kirsty was clear to students that they’ve got costed plans to award students a £2,500 living grant and would ring-fence the higher education budget.

7.5/10 – Not immaculate as her ad hominem attack on Nathan Gill wasn’t put across in the way it should’ve been. Other than that it was another good performance and Kirsty communicated key Lib Dem policies well.

Overall Impressions

As I said last week I was concerned this debate would see the same questions asked. I was proven right, but it’s not all bad news.

In many respects we didn’t really hear anything new – particularly when it came to the scripted elements. What made this debate different was the dynamics. Plaid’s policies come under full scrutiny for the first time and Leanne wobbled a little bit – presumably the close focus was due to the recent poll which showed modest progress for Plaid. Also, Nathan Gill used a dog whistle of EU and immigration to, presumably, appeal to UKIP’s core voters – which he didn’t do last week in an attempt to show UKIP were taking this election seriously.

There was no stand out performance – and I’d argue that as a debate this was weaker than last week – but Carwyn probably would’ve been the most pleased at the end.

Another big difference between this week and last week was that Huw Edwards asked the audience for their views and opinions; they weren’t simply there to ask the questions and that probably gave this debate a bit more depth despite the repetition. It even resembled an episode of Question Time at points.

What spoiled it is that supporters of some of the parties were in the audience and whooped and cheered at the right time regardless of the quality of the arguments presented.

I’m now of the opinion these things should be done in complete silence in front of an audience of undecided voters.