Election 2016: ITV Wales Leaders Debate

(Title Image: ITV Wales)

Although (most of) the party leaders recently went through BBC Wales’ #AskTheLeaders Q&A sessions – and are in the process of offering Adrian Masters cooking lessons on ITV Wales – the first “proper” debate of the 2016 National Assembly election took place in Cardiff last night.

You can watch it for yourselves here (link).

I’m listing the party leaders as they appeared on the podium from left to right, and there were four main topics of discussion : the steel crisis/economy, education, housing and health.

Nathan Gill MEP (UKIP)

We were experiencing de ja vu, with similar promises made five years ago – “have we benefited?” It was time for something different and UKIP offered a full manifesto on devolved areas; “If you vote UKIP, you’ll get UKIP”.

Wales has lost eight metal plants since Carwyn Jones became First Minister, and Nathan asked where were those sporting “Save Our Steel”badges then? He was concerned there would be a repeat of Rover with a company sold off to ditch its pension liabilities. He also questioned whether the steel could be sold in face of Chinese subsidies. UKIP would ensure Welsh steel was used in construction projects.

“One size doesn’t fit all” on education and it should be focused on individual skills – not academic; therefore we need vocational colleges and to allow schools to become grammars as focal points for excellence in order to meet pupils’ aspirations.

We can’t plan for housing without knowing what the population is. It was a simple case of supply and demand with demand outstripping supply. Nathan criticised Local Development Plans (LDPs) as they would “completely change the dynamic of the country”. UKIP would support smaller developments in towns and villages and emphasis on brownfield development. Also, UKIP would offer communities binding referendums on large developments and supports Right to Buy.

Nathan called for an independent Keogh-style inquiry into the Welsh NHS so problems can be found in order to fix them. GPs do 80% of the NHS’s work but only get 20% of the budget. UKIP supports GPs offering more diagnostic services and 15 minute consultations (as an aspiration). However, Wales wasn’t filling its GP training places and the British Medical Association warned the Welsh NHS was in “imminent meltdown”.

In closing, Nathan said Wales was on the edge of something exciting. He was certain Wales was about to elect UKIP AMs, as we “deserved something better”.

6/10 – Made a few good points and managed to turn conversation to UKIP policies when he was threatening to be drowned out. Otherwise, he didn’t really add very much in the absence of discussion on Europe and immigration.

Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru)

We can’t accept “that this is as good as it gets for Wales”, while Labour have tinkered instead of spearheading radical change. Plaid offered a well-costed plan for change in their manifesto.

A government-supported buy out was the “best opportunity” for steel – with 18,000 jobs dependant on it across Wales – and the Welsh Government could help with business rates and energy costs – but should also be prepared to take an equity stake. We should also ensure Tata faces up to its responsibilities on pensions and contamination. Plaid would resurrect the Welsh Development Agency (WDA), cut business rates and improve local procurement. Any new steel company also has to look to re-employ workers who’ve been made redundant.

Plaid wants a “cradle to career”education service and will reward teachers who up skill or gain higher level qualifications with a premium. They would also pay off student debts for Welsh students when they find work after graduation. She claimed Labour’s manifesto didn’t mention teachers (Owen : I checked and it’s true, though they have published a separate education manifesto), and Plaid would simplify the inspection system to reduce bureaucracy.

Leanne wants more council houses built and to end Right to Buy. A National Housing Company would be established to borrow against rents to build more homes. There were too many large developments in LDPs located in inappropriate areas using over-inflated figures where local needs aren’t there. She arguably got the biggest applause of the night when she challenged Andrew Davies on the bedroom tax.

Wales needs to honour commitments to “cradle-to-grave care”. Plaid would gradually scrap care charges for the over-65s over two terms for both residential and non-residential care. Wales currently has fewer doctors per head than most of the EU and the longest waiting times in the UK. Plaid would prioritise the recruitment of 1,000 doctors and 5,000 nurses – she can’t accept it’s impossible to do so. Leanne also dealt well with criticism from Carwyn Jones for her support for a “pop tax”.

In closing, Plaid’s manifesto was “more than a programme for government”. It was a transformational plan to turn the country around in a generation. We can stand on our own two feet as long as there’s a plan and the right leadership in place.

7.5/10 – Started off shaky and wasn’t the same confident Leanne we saw in 2015. As things went on she got better and ended up landing a “zinger” on the bedroom tax. She also outlined Plaid’s key policies clearly, but was a bit chopsy and too eager to talk over others.

Andrew RT Davies (Conservatives)

Welsh elections are “boring and predictable”, but there was a real opportunity to change things and unleash Wales’ potential. We can’t carry on with Labour’s managed decline.

Space needs to be created for a buyer to invest in the steel plants without asset-stripping them, though favouring one bid over another at this early stage was dangerous as other plants need help. The Tories would lift age restrictions on job support schemes and take small businesses out of rates. He accused Plaid Cymru of hypocrisy for voting against Conservative motions calling for a resurrected WDA then including it in their manifesto. He also rejected Carwyn’s assertion that the Welsh Government was alone responsible for recent positive economic stories, and it was vital to recognise the UK Government’s contribution.

The Tories would fund schools directly and give power to parents and governors. There would also be parity between vocational and academic courses and up-front support for student living costs. Although he admitted he would’ve failed the 11-plus due to his dyslexia, he believed the better parts of grammar schools could be re-introduced.

In Wales, new home starts fell 2% in 2015 while they rose 7% in the rest of the UK. The Conservatives would ensure people are properly involved in the planning process. There were plenty of developable sites and the Conservatives would work with the industry to develop them. He defended the bedroom tax, saying it results in a sustainable welfare system. He also defended Right to Buy as one of the biggest tools to improve social mobility.

The health budget needs to be protected and increased in real terms. The Tories would re-open minor injury units and tackle some of Wales’ biggest killers – strokes, heart disease, dementia and poor lifestyles. He said there was “everyday brilliance” in the NHS, but the political leadership has delivered long treatment times, no cancer drugs fund while front line staff don’t feel they’re supported.

In closing, Andrew said we can’t afford another five years of “lazy Labour” and missed opportunities.

7/10 – Surprisingly good. He waffled a bit, but came out fighting on more than one occasion and used facts to back up some of his arguments. Perhaps needs to tone things down and be a bit less combative.

Carwyn Jones (Labour)

The campaign was dominated by the steel crisis, UK budget mess and the junior doctor’s strike (is it?). There’s been no junior doctor strike in Wales, while the unemployment rate was now lower than the UK.

This wasn’t a time for point scoring on the steel crisis. We need to work with the UK and take the pension liabilities out of the equation – as with the Royal Mail and coal industry. He’s talked with potential buyers and a £60million package is on the table. A Labour Welsh Government would be willing to take a stake in Tata as long as it were affordable (following questioning from Leanne Wood). Programmes were in place to help workers and an enterprise zone has been set up in Port Talbot. However, he hit back at Plaid’s new WDA plan as the “answer isn’t to set up a committee”.

Last year Wales had its best GCSE results ever, was building more schools than ever and was sparing students from debts. Labour would spend £100million to improve education, bu won’t have a free for all on funding (like the Conservatives) as it would open gaps between richer and poorer schools. The grammar system was “ridiculous” and we can’t go back to children having their life determined at 11.

On housing, Labour would extend Help to Buy, expand equity share schemes and develop community land trusts. It made no sense to build council houses and sell them off cheaply, so rejected Right to Buy, comparing it with “trying to fill a bath with the plughole out”. He also (rightly) criticised Conservatives and Plaid because candidates often oppose any and all housing developments despite the inclusion of major housebuilding programmes in their manifestos.

The Welsh Government invested more than ever in the NHS, but he accepted there were “challenges”. Labour would like to ensure people don’t go to hospital unless they need to, but he said A&E problems were happening across the UK, while cancer treatment statistics were better than the UK average. He cited the recent OECD report which revealed little difference between the UK’s health systems – so we can’t pretend the picture was rosy elsewhere in the UK.

Summing up, Carwyn said his government’s record was proof of what we can do. There were huge challenges ahead, but we need Labour to deliver a prosperous, ambitious and united Wales.

7/10 – Debate Carwyn was more animated than the Assembly Carwyn we’re used to. He started off confident enough, but as things went on you could tell from his body language that he would rather be somewhere else. Was put under more pressure here than in the Assembly chamber, but he endured it well.

Kirsty Williams (Liberal Democrats)

People have told the Lib Dems that they want to “get on in life”, and it was time to do thing differently after having 17 years of the same party in government.

It was inconceivable that a country could function without its steel industry and the management buy-out deserves support. The Welsh Government could go further on business rates by exempting plant and machinery, while a development company could be set up for Port Talbot like the one in Newport following declines in steel there. It wasn’t an old-fashioned industry as there was record production and she’s seen the turnaround plan, believing it was deliverable.

Kirsty commits to cutting class sizes and have a track record of providing extra money via the pupil premium, which resulted in the gap between rich and poor student closing. Teachers and students should be congratulated on good academic results, but Wales remained behind its international competitors as well as England and Scotland. We shouldn’t go back to a system that writes people off if they fail the 11-plus.

The Lib Dems would develop a Rent-to-Buy scheme so people can buy properties by building up equity via rent. Land wasn’t always the problem for social housing, it was cuts to grants and the Lib Dems would provide an extra £40million. She would scrap Right to Buy as there would always be people for whom renting is the best option.

Health was the biggest challenge facing the next government, and a non-party commission would be established to address key challenges. Her Nursing Bill would be extended into community nursing, while extra funding would be provided so people can access GP services when they need to. The Lib Dems would also legislate to treat mental and physical health equally. Itwasn’t all about money though as NHS spending has gone up, yet performance was sometimes terrible – particularly recent A&E waiting figures.

The Lib Dems were “the smallest party, but made the biggest difference.” They were the only party to vote against the AM pay rise and “our priorities are your priorities”. Most contests on the regional lists are between themselves and UKIP (Owen : You sure about that?). Kirsty asked whether the public wants AMs who’ll listen? Or AMs who you can’t guarantee will take the Assembly seriously?

8.5/10 – Kirsty consistently delivers in these things and did so again with gusto. She perhaps spent too much time slowly draining the life out of Carwyn via his left ear instead of addressing the audience, but otherwise she walked it.

Alice Hooker-Stroud (Greens)

Alice sees amazing potential in Wales with its talented people and incredible natural resources. We’ve been heading in the wrong direction on poverty, cuts and carbon emissions and need new ideas and fresh energy, with Green punching above their weight wherever they’ve been elected.

Steel was a vital core industry for housing, energy and infrastructure, but Alice questioned whether a buy out by another company would simply lead to more problems. There needed to be an ownership model that works, and that includes possible nationalisation to put the community’s needs ahead of profit. She believed Port Talbot steelworks was already energy efficient and Wales had to take advantage of the green economy.

Alice emphasised the need to keep smaller rural schools open. She rejected the idea of throwing more money at teachers, with the answer to improving their lot being more freedom in the classroom as there’s been too much focus on targets and measures.

On housing, everyone has a right to a warm, comfortable home. The Green would build 12,000 extra homes a year with a third those being social housing and many others being empty homes brought back into use – there was no guarantee developers can keep prices affordable. She condemded the bedroom tax as unfairly targeting the poorest and most vulnerable and the Greens would offer a rebate to those affected.

Cuts were a “false economy”as it transfers costs from health to social services. Poverty was a root cause of poor health and there was a need to support people to be healthier – that includes making sure they’re secure in their homes and incomes. People also need to have services provided closer to them, with a greater focus on outcomes.

If Wales is going to create a sustainable future, then it needs Green voices to protect public services and look at opportunities not simply blame Westminster.

6.5/10 – Alice definitely knows her stuff but was a bit wooden. At times it felt like a lecture from a student union leader with too many lefty buzzwords thrown in and attempts to link everything to poverty and cuts. Overall, there were more positives than negatives and this was a good start.

Overall Verdict

I know I’m a cynical git who keeps his expectations low on things like this but that was genuinely better than expected.

The most pleasantly surprising thing is the whole debate was dominated by devolved issues – no talk on Europe, immigration or constitutional reform. This makes me happy. The only real negatives were the fact that, on occasion, the leaders started talking over each other and there were too many unsolicited interruptions.

As to whether the debates will make any difference – I doubt it. I watched the Youtube stream and according to the counter it peaked at 300 views. Kirsty Williams “won”, but there were no “big moments” or game-changing events. It was a bit safe, though it’s worth pointing out that Carwyn Jones was visibly rattled by the end despite his reasonable performance overall.

My main concern now is we’re going to see and hear the same questions asked in the BBC debate next week, with no coverage of other major issues like local government reorganisation, infrastructure or how the Assembly works.