The announcement of the draft budget by Jane Hutt brings the cuts announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review home to Wales. The Budget next year will fall by £860m and will be £1.8bn lower by 2014-15.
It is this budget that will set the scene for next May’s Assembly election. It is Carwyn Jones’s first opportunity to put his mark on the priorities of the Assembly. Hitherto he has operated to a budget set by Rhodri Morgan. The budget underlines his priorities of protecting health, social services, schools and skills.
The draft Labour ’“ Plaid Cymru budget will set the financial background for the next four years. But as finance dictates the political agenda, the budget will also set the parameters for Welsh politics for the coming years.
The budget allocates around £15bn of expenditure across the public sector in Wales, covering devolved areas like health, education, agriculture, local government and economic development.
Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition parties will use the occasion not only to wrong foot the Welsh government by setting out a different set of priorities, but with an eye to next May they might also want to set an agenda that distances them from their colleagues in the Westminster coalition. For tactical electoral reasons they have to demonstrate that they are standing up for Wales.
Already the Conservatives are on record in saying that they’ll ring fence the health department budget. Consequently, the governing parties have been pressing them to say where the blue axe will fall in the unlikely circumstance that they should be in government in Cardiff Bay.
Although the government will say that they have protected the cash budget in health as Jane Hutt said ’˜We have listened to the people of Wales ’“ and have taken action to protect Health and Social Services ’“ vital services that we will all depend on at some time in our lives. It is a measure of the difficult decisions we have had to make that health and social services is the only area where the budget will not reduce in 2011-12. Despite the cut to our budget in 2011-12, revenue funding for NHS Delivery ’“ by far the largest budget line in the Health Service – will actually be higher next year than this year.’
But of course with inflation there are cuts in real terms with inflation running over 3 per cent and health inflation running at over 6 per cent. So even on the Conservative commitment there will be real cuts to the health budget.
Carwyn Jones’s leadership campaign commitment of increasing expenditure on schools is being met. ’˜Budgets for schools, both within the Education Department and through local authorities, will grow by almost 5% over the three years. Budgets for schools and skills within the Education Department will grow by 6.5% over the three years. This means that we can continue the roll out of the pioneering Foundation Phase for 3-7 year olds and increase funding for Flying Start over the period.’
But as education budget is to be cut overall, it is likely that higher education will receive swingeing cuts, but the details of these as in the case of all the other ministerial portfolios will be announced later.
The universal benefits that the government are so proud of are protected. So the free bus pass scheme, free prescriptions, free school breakfasts and milk for primary school children will remain. Indeed the funding for these initiatives will rise by 3.7% by 2013-14.
This will be an area that the Opposition parties will be expected to attack because they have always described them as populist ’˜gimmicks’.
There are major cuts to the money going in to build new housing ’“ a cut of £53m in the capital amount with £8m revenue. But help to the most vulnerable is to be kept with the budget for Supported housing being kept.
Local government will also take a cut of 7.4 per cent. So there will be many cuts to services and the prospect of larger Council Tax bills falling through our doors are very likely.
What happens now? For the next couple of month’s assembly committees will be looking carefully at the draft and then all AMs will debate the budget in mid-January. The assembly government will then reflect on all the comments before drawing up its final budget to put to a vote of members in February.
If you’re a member of a political party you can look forward to a lovely Christmas card from him or her shortly. Who? Your Member of Parliament.
What’s more during the next couple of years he or she will be attentive to your every need.
Why? It’s all down to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill which is going through Parliament now. The bill paves the way to the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and the redrawing of boundaries to create similar-sized constituencies. The posh word for this is ’˜equalization.’ So with these changes most, if not all constituencies, will have new boundaries. In Wales when the numbers of MPs are likely to be reduced from 40 seats in the House of Commons to 30, many of the constituencies will be vastly different from the ones that voters have been used to. Some will even cross very old boundaries. For instance Ynys Mon will be tacked on to Bangor and Bethesda and some of the South Wales Valley seats will be joined without regard to the natural geographic boundaries of the areas. Yes, valley shall speak to valley!And there in lies the rub, for many of our existing MPs will be pitched against existing party colleagues in re-selection contests. And as we know from musical chairs, when a chair is removed there are losers. Usually, a Member of Parliament can expect his own party to re-select him without any great difficulty. It is a different ball game when the boundaries have been changed.
Member’s will be eyeing up the neighbouring colleagues and thinking nasty thoughts.
In Labour seats expect MPs to rekindle their love of the various trade unions that are affiliated to the constituency party. The Co-op party will have many more recruits from existing MPs.
Ministers that are kept busy in Westminster will be worrying that their back bencher neighbour will be stealing a march in the constituency by turning up to coffee mornings, whist drives and the like. Why? To press the flesh with local party members.
Oh, yes, the bill when comes into play, it will create a great deal of uncertainty for Members of Parliament and will certainly hasten the departure of many. Perhaps, it is only right that they should be worried about their jobs, after all these are uncertain times for all public sector workers. The uncertainty is in no small part due to the action of politicians in the way they have managed affairs.
Now it is easy to sit back and condemn the scenes of students breaking windows and trying to enter buildings as ’˜mindless violence.’ But one broken window and attempts to enter a building do not constitute the start of a revolution! Whatever the London press may say.
Perhaps at this point I should declare an interest. In the 60’s whilst a student at the London School of Economics I too showed the same determination as some of the students last Wednesday to get into a building. The object of my singularly ineffective efforts was the American Embassy in London to protest against the Vietnam War.
Many of us at the time wanted to enter the Embassy, quite what we would have done had we got in, I know not. I guess we would have sat in there for a while until removed by the authorities. After all we had done the same in LSE itself.
Occupying buildings for a while, seemed at the time a good idea and was seen by protesters as a legitimate form of protest.
Nearer home, Cymdeithas yr Iaith adopted similar methods to win rights for the Welsh language.
A couple of years ago I wrote and presented a short documentary about protests in Wales for ITV. What struck me at the time was how many of those taking part in protests of all kinds were now part of the Welsh or English ’˜establishment.’
You can hardly think of an organisation in Wales that is not run by an ex-member of ’˜Cymdeithas’, as it is affectionately known. They are, for certain, the great and the good of Welsh society. Establishment, you bet!
Farmer protesters, who hijacked lorries and threw their contents into the Irish sea, later become magistrates, councillors and Assembly Members. Those fuel protests, that held us all to ransom, their leader is now a respected Conservative Assembly member.
Protesters against Apartheid who stopped rugby matches and cricket tours became Ministers of the Crown.
Protest, demonstrations and other acts of civil disobedience are as much part of the political process as voting and elections. After all, our politicians don’t always get it right and sometimes action is the only way to get them to listen. The history of this country is shaped by those that have taken to the streets. Long may it last.
As for the students, it was good to see them shake off their apathy and do what students have always done, challenge their elders and betters. And when in turn they become tomorrow’s rulers, they’ll know that there are always consequences to every decision. A lesson Mr Clegg and his party may have learnt this week.