The Jones Years: Five Good, Five Bad

(Title Image: Wales Online)

As you can probably tell, I’ve decided to change the format of State of Wales.

Fixed quarterly updates are out. Posts will now be published as and when I feel like it – one month there might be a long series of posts, another month I might not post anything.

Starting off, here’s an assessment some of the high and low points of the premiership of former First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones AM (Lab, Bridgend) – who resigned in December.

From the outset, it’s worth stating I’m not going to include the Carl Sargeant affair in this. Why? It stands apart, we don’t have the full facts yet and there’s an ongoing quasi-judicial process. It’s also unfair to judge Carwyn’s entire record as First Minister on a single event, however horrible that event might’ve been.

Another take well worth reading is on living with the First Minister by his wife, Lisa, published in May 2018 (yn Cymraeg).

It’s hard to attribute ongoing policies – such as school building programmes or hospital waiting times – to one person or one government, so I’m going to focus on single policies which Carwyn Jones either played a key part in introducing, set as a priority or – in some cases – perhaps neglected when they needed more attention.

Five Good

 

(Pic: Wales Online)

Rescuing Cardiff Airport

If I were to pick out one single decision that you can say for certain will be looked back upon as a significant positive – and something Carwyn will want to be remembered for as First Minister – it was the Welsh Government’s decision to nationalise Cardiff Airport.

We can quibble over the amount of money the government spent, but I’m in no doubt that if it didn’t happen Cardiff Airport would probably now be on the brink of closure. There would’ve been no long haul flights, no expansion of domestic and European routes, no increase in passenger numbers, no 2017 Champions League Final. It kept Wales on the map when our place on the world’s maps has always been precarious.

The airport was being run into the ground by its Catalan owners. While it still has some way to go to become what the airport’s management wants it to be, it seems to be making big strides year on year. Talk of a new terminal sounds fanciful until the airport is regularly getting 3million+ passengers, but the alternative – had Carwyn and his government not intervened – would’ve been an absolutely crippling blow to Wales’ reputation, tourism potential and trade prospects.

Handling of the 2016-17 Steel Crisis

I don’t think Carwyn has got enough credit for his role during the steel crisis.

While the UK Government – then pre-Brexit and still led by David Cameron – dithered and dragged their feet, Carwyn provided leadership. He didn’t sugarcoat the truth or make promises he couldn’t keep (such as on potential emergency nationalisation) and kept up the pressure on the UK Government in the fallout from the Brexit referendum.

He turned over a party political broadcast to what was in effect an address to the nation and recalled the Senedd for an emergency debate (only the second time that’s happened AFAIK). He treated it with the seriousness it deserved, unlike that lot down the M4.

You can certainly argue that if Carwyn wasn’t a regional premier but the Prime Minister of an independent state, he would’ve had far more tools at his disposal and will have been taken more seriously. However, years of close working and co-operation with Tata paid off – at least in the medium-term, major issues remaining include energy, R&D and air pollution in Port Talbot.

Wales’ Recycling Record

The recycling rate in Wales has markedly improved over the course of Carwyn Jones’ premiership to the point where Wales is now a genuine world-leader, albeit with a surprise drop in the most recent recycling figures.

It’s not a totally unblemished record as there are still question marks over where the waste actually goes and how it’s processed, as well as the expansion of waste incinerators. Our 22 local councils deserve the bulk of the credit for actually delivering this, but the vision for a low-waste Wales has been led from the top and progress accelerated since 2009.

Securing law-making and additional fiscal powers for Wales

The National Assembly as it is now is very different to how it was when Carwyn took office as First Minister.

In December 2009, there were limited law-making powers (AMs could pass laws called Measures, but often had to ask permission of the UK Parliament before doing so in some supposedly devolved areas), the Welsh Government had no taxation or borrowing powers and AMs spent most of their time debating relatively minor points of policy and regulations (OK, they still do this to a certain degree) instead of being able to put public policies in devolved areas in a broader context.

While we’re not quite on a par with Scotland, depending on the outcome of the Thomas Commission – which Carwyn Jones ordered – we’re very close to achieving it. While the 2011 Yes for Wales campaign was a broad church led by civic society, Carwyn was instrumental as the figurehead and had called for these sorts of powers for a while. We can rightly or wrongly argue over things like the Continuity Bill, but his devolutionist credentials can’t be questioned.

Improvements to cancer treatment times & survival rates

This is the quiet achievement that hasn’t been mentioned as often as it perhaps should be. For all the bad news about the NHS in Wales, a major bit of good news is improved survival rates for many types of cancer and significant improvements in treatment times.

Wales has set an ambitious target of 95% of patients starting treatment within two months of diagnosis. Although in 2017 the rate stood at around 87% (occasionally hitting 92% on a month-by-month basis), this exceeds England and caught up with Scotland, both of which have fallen back.

Cancer survival rates have also significantly improved since 2010; around 75% of all cancer patients in Wales survive at least one year after diagnosis – though with notable problems involving lung and bowel cancer.

Five Bad

First Minister’s Questions

While FMQs is usually the most regularly-read recurring feature on Senedd Home, it’s never been a personal highlight.

As the (supposed) flagship debate from the Senedd each week there’s going to room for a bit of verbal horseplay – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I suppose expecting anything different from the “yah-boo” pantomime in Westminster was asking too much.

During Carwyn’s tenure, FMQs sometimes descended into a question-dodging exercise, with his expert ability to answer a question with another question. He took valid criticisms of Labour’s record in government as a personal affront and, on more than one occasion, either defended his record with personal attacks or deflected criticisms of his own government’s performance onto the record of the UK Government.

It’s all contributed to the sense that there’s no “cause and effect” in Welsh politics. If you based your view of Carwyn’s tenure entirely on his performance in FMQs, then you would get the impression of a leader who got to the top but was unclear on what he wanted to do with it.

The RIFW Scandal

If there’s any single scandal that sums up all of the negatives about how Wales has been run since devolution (and under Carwyn Jones) it’s this one. I’ve written loads on it but, in short, a number of very sought-after land parcels owned by the Welsh Government were sold at massively under-valued prices, possibly costing the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds.

Despite legal action being instigated, nobody seems to have been held to account, there were no Ministerial resignations (when there should’ve been), there was very little pressure from the press and despite the heat and light of the opposition, any anger quickly subsided.

The civil service and Welsh Government completely failed to learn any lessons from it. Echoes of the scandal have been seen in the Circuit of Wales, Kancoat, Pinewood and Delta Lakes/Llanelli Wellness Village and I’m in absolutely no doubt that we’re going to see it again and again until every facet of how Wales is governed is overhauled. Like it or not, Labour will have to take ownership of it.

Air Quality

You would think this was an emerging problem judging by the levels of attention it’s got over the last year or two, but it’s been a problem in Wales for decades and I don’t believe Carwyn or his governments have done anywhere near enough to address it.

It finally caught up with them after being successfully challenged by ClientEarth in the courts over their lack of action, but it shouldn’t have taken such extreme measures for the Welsh Government to acknowledge and address it – like it or not, Carwyn Jones is ultimately responsible for that.

The fact poor air quality is said to contribute to up to 2,000 excess deaths every year in Wales, alongside the Welsh Government’s reluctance to take on the powers and policy controls to properly address it, makes this a black sooty mark against Carwyn’s tenure and a mess his successor will have to clean up as quickly as possible.

Child & Adolescent Mental Health (CAHMS)

This is a national disgrace that hasn’t got the attention it fully deserves.

It was quite telling that having flicked through the profiles of the Welsh Youth Parliament members, about 90%+ of them put children’s mental health as one of their top three priorities. If that’s not a call for urgent action – both in schools and in the NHS – then I don’t know what is.

Whenever the First Minister has been pressed on this in FMQs – usually by Leanne Wood – what AMs got back was a list of new investments and supposed improvements to waiting times, but if the system is broken in the first place no amount of money can fix it. Another battle here has been over the lack of facilities for children and teenagers with eating disorders, who often have to travel hundreds of miles to receive treatment.

Child Poverty

This one isn’t entirely the fault of Carwyn or the Welsh Government as the main levers to alleviate poverty (namely the welfare system) are controlled from London. However, for a government that has often claimed to have put tackling poverty front and centre of its social justice plans – Carwyn having even appointed cabinet members with that specific responsibility in the past – it’s been a failure.

A flagship target of eliminating child poverty by 2020 was scrapped and things look set to get worse.

While the child poverty rate has fallen since Carwyn took office in 2009, the overall child poverty rate remains stubbornly high compared to the rest of the UK. At the end of 2017, the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicted child poverty in Wales was likely to soar over the coming years despite falling unemployment. One estimate suggested the proportion of children in Wales living below the poverty line will eventually hit rates of 40%+. Welfare reform has been blamed.

Carwyn has spurned opportunities to press for the devolution of welfare administration (as in Scotland) on cost grounds, even though it might’ve helped address the negative impacts of welfare reform (particularly the introduction of universal credit) by the UK Government.

Summing up The Jones Years

This decade or so has been one of immense change and not necessarily in a good way – the financial crisis, then austerity, the ongoing chaos of Brexit and the Senedd itself going through its darkest period since devolution. That’s before including the possibility that rising populism is going to fuel a resurgent direct rule campaign before and during the Sixth Assembly.

By and large, Carwyn has led Wales through these tough times in a reactive firefighting manner. If you need someone in a crisis, Carwyn has proven himself to be up to the challenge time after time again – a neat bookend with his management of the 2001 Foot & Mouth Crisis, which set him on the path towards the premiership in the first place.

The problem is we’ve let these crises happen in the first place.

Long-term thinking has been absent. We’ve lacked a sense of direction when it comes to outlining where Wales and its public policy needs to go beyond the next electoral cycle.

The only attempt during Carwyn’s tenure to do it – the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act – is likely to be critically undermined by lack of progress on climate change, stalled progress on renewable energy and hardly any shift from private to public transport (that’s before mentioning the Newport bypass).

Carwyn got the little things right. We could entrust the leadership of the nation with him.  Until the last year or so he lived up to the role and provided dignity and stature to the position of First Minister which we could well have lost after Rhodri Morgan.

Carwyn is a fundamentally decent man whose biggest flaw was simply remaining in the top job for too long and – at least partly because of the lack of options on the Labour benches – preventing some of the major challenges facing Wales from being seen through fresh eyes.

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