Sunday, 19 July 2015

End of Year Report 2015

The curtain comes down on another Assembly year, the last summer recess
before the big boys and girls face their tough examinations next May.
(Pic : The Guardian)

Another Assembly year ends. While AMs start their 9-week summer recess, it's time to reflect on the performance of key personalities over the last year, being the final such report before the 2016 National Assembly election.

Carwyn Jones (Lab, Bridgend)
First Minister & Minister for the Welsh Language

C+ first minister; C- Welsh language

Although Carwyn's not being put under significant pressure in the Assembly chamber, he's been looking a bit more rattled than previous years. Health has dominated the headlines, and has taken the shine off a respectable economic performance. He's continuing to say the right things on constitutional reform - both before, during and after the fall out from the Scottish referendum campaign - but time and time again nobody's taking notice of him. Hosting the NATO summit will inevitably be a career highlight too.

On Welsh, Cymdeithas yr Iaith are quick to get the placards out and threaten hunger strikes, often to little effect, but some concessions on Welsh in planning were worked into the Planning Act at least. Elsewhere, it's as you were.

Labour had a bad election in May, and the Welsh results will be causing sleepless nights for Labour strategists. Things aren't rosy. This will probably be looked back upon as the year the gloss finally started to wear off, and tentative/speculative discussion has already begun amongst the commentariat on who might replace Carwyn in the medium-term.

To put Carwyn's mind at ease, the Western Mail is to Welsh political star-making what Caught Offside is to transfer rumours; any senior Welsh Labour personality is dubbed "a potential First Minister" – bloody hell, even Mark Drakeford's being touted now! Who next, Mike Hedges?

Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney)
Minister for Education


Huw has a very clear understanding of the issues facing the education system, but might be too focused on structures and management - he really likes his hubs, centres of excellence and buzzwords. Nonetheless, he's done quite a bit and seems to take quick action when needed. He's seen through the Qualifications Wales Bill and has listened to AMs by seeking to introduce a separate law on special needs instead of tagging it on to another law – though the delay until after the election has been criticised by some AMs in light of pre-existing concerns on delays to autism diagnoses.

Edwina Hart
(Lab, Gower)
Minister for Economy, Science & Transport


Despite June's slightly surprising announcement that she wouldn't be seeking re-election next May, it's been mostly good news. Inward investment is reportedly at record levels, unemployment is still higher than the UK average but not massively so, Edwina's seen off most of the opposition to the M4 Newport bypass, the South Wales Metro project has taken a big step forward, while there are and tentative steps being made towards forming a Welsh Development Bank. Black marks include the Ideoba situation and her handling of the trial closure of Junction 41of the M4. It's more good news than bad though.

Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan)
Minister for Finance & Leader of the House


Jane is still having to deal with budget cuts handed down from the Treasury, but as an excuse it's starting to wear thin. Most of the promising stuff here has come from the proposals surrounding the devolution of taxes. The Welsh Government are taking a cautious and methodical approach and seem determined to ensure the Welsh Revenue Authority will have everything at its disposal to become a credible authority. Although securing another round of EU structural funds shouldn't be seen as a good thing, it seems that after all these years the Welsh Government have woken up to the need to invest in economic growth.

Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)
Minister for Health & Social Services

D (C+ for effort)

Another generally torrid year for the Welsh NHS with the minister pulled from pillar to post by a series of high profile scandals and troubles – notably involving Betsi Cadwaladr health board, which has damaged Labour's standing in north Wales. As recent polling suggests, although a majority of people trust the Welsh NHS to deliver services, satisfaction levels are generally much lower than the rest of the UK. This is a huge problem going into an election year, but having stuck to the proper procedures, it was right to put BC in special measures.

Mark also stuck to his guns on the Public Health Bill, which contains many good measures. However, his admission that the Welsh Government are going to dismiss the requirement for evidence of e-cig harm does him no good at all and will inevitably be used against him in the future.

Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda)
Minister for Public Services


As you would expect, Leighton has rattled some cages since his return to cabinet. Although he's taken a more conciliatory than usual approach to local government reform, the map itself could be considered a clunking fist in its own right. He's probably the right person to see it through but there are interests even he might struggle to satisfy. There was a very good response to the grass fires over Easter, but there were hints at use of the political dark arts when it came to the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act.

Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham)
Minister for Communities & Tackling Poverty


There's little question that Welsh Government progress on their povery goals are static, if not going backwards (as highlighted in a recent Assembly committee report). That's not Lesley's fault as most of the main levers – in particular welfare – are still controlled from London. Nevertheless, there have been moderate successes on housing in particular, with some very bold proposals included within the Renting Homes Bill. However, questions have been raised time and time again on the effectiveness of programmes like Communities First, while other programmes like Flying Start have been threatened in some local authorities.

Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside)
Minister for Natural Resources


The passing of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is being hailed as a landmark by the Welsh Government; though while the aims are laudable, the substance is still lacking. I don't question Carl's commitment to tackling climate change either. Welsh recycling rates remain impressive, but some local authorities are really struggling – in particular Cardiff. Carl talks the talk on fracking and opencast mining but is yet to walk the walk – whether that's down to a simple lack of action or lack of powers to enforce moratoriums. Current local frustrations could turn into election issues next May which could cause Labour problems in the valleys.

Theodore Huckle QC
Counsel General


There's only one major talking point the Counsel General found himself involved with and that was the Supreme Court's striking down of Mick Antoniw AM's (Lab, Pontypridd) Asbestos Disease Bill. The defeat doesn't reflect badly on the Counsel General himself or the Welsh Government as it was a Member's Bill, but he hasn't been questioned enough by AMs - Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) aside – on the constitution and his own thoughts on future reserved powers. I suspect as the next Wales Bill comes forward we'll hear more.

Junior Ministers

Rebecca Evans (Lab, Mid & West Wales)
Deputy Minister for Food & Farming


Managing Wales' farmers can be a tricky task as many others have found to their cost, but Rebecca has been quietly impressive in this role and, in Shipton-speak, is genuinely "one to watch". She's become a bit "institutionalised" with her enthusiastic use of Assemblese, but her praises haven't been sung enough for her intervention into the Welsh dairy industry – something she was asking questions on before being promoted. Can she find a safe seat for 2016 though?

Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth)
Deputy Minister for Health


A problem with Vaughan's position is that it's sometimes hard to tell what he's responsible for. One thing he's definitely responsible for is the ambulance service and, in fairness, response times have noticeably improved over the last few months, joined by the introduction of the EMRTS/"Flying Doctors" – which is a solid idea.

Vaughan's starting to show why he was so highly-rated when first elected, and is probably a shoo-in for a full cabinet position (post-2016) if one becomes available. However, he can be too partisan. His calls for opposition parties not to make a meal out of the Tawel Fan scandal were in poor taste and, in themselves, came across as party political comments.

Julie James (Lab, Swansea West)
Deputy Minister for Skills & Technology


Julie hasn't really done anything wrong, though there were issues around the temporary suspension of Jobs Growth Wales which could be considered an example of poor handling. There's no doubt that she can cope with the job, but I'm yet to see anything that suggests Julie's long-term cabinet material. This comes across as a stop-gap appointment. That doesn't mean Julie doesn't have a place as she comes across as highly intelligent but perhaps isn't being properly utilised. Considering her professional background, a sideways step to the more sedate role of Counsel General shouldn't be ruled out in future.

Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South)
Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport & Tourism


It's fair to say Ken hasn't quite hit the heights he did as Deputy Skills Minister, his tenure there arguably being one of the best ministerial performances of the Fourth Assembly. The Heritage Bill perhaps hasn't gone as far enough as some would've liked, but it appears he leaves a door open for opposition members. Over the coming months it's likely his in-box will become very heavy with the prospect of cuts to the BBC and S4C, plus Ken's been handed the unenviable task of writing Welsh Labour's 2016 manifesto. How to you formulate ideas for a party without any ideas? The answer – ask the public.

Opposition Leaders

Andrew Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central)

B personally; B+ party

Last year it looked like Andrew wouldn't see out the term as Tory leader following a David Jones inspired putsch, but since then there's been a remarkable turnaround. It now looks as though he has the confidence of his party group since two of his most vocal critics have been jettisoned down the M4.

I'd imagine the Tories will be secretly elated with May's election results. The frightening thing for the other parties is they could realistically have won more seats and that could possibly even translate into Assembly gains next year. Also, their message on health is starting to get through and his party's long-standing calls for a full public inquiry into the Welsh NHS appear largely vindicated.

Andrew and his party are still not convincing as a potential First Minister or Welsh Government respectively, but he's making an effort and is slowly inching there.

Homer's pulled the crayon out.

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, South Wales Central)

B personally; C party

Leanne Wood has had a very good year. She enjoys the highest profile of any Plaid Cymru leader to date and her solid debate performances during the election will prove invaluable experience next May. In the end though, it hasn't done very much.

Optimism is fine, but Plaid desperately need a dose of realism. They have their moments, but have failed to land major blows in the National Assembly and aren't doing as well as they've convinced themselves they're doing – to the point of coming across as a happy clappy evangelical church (and I thought I was joking around). There's too much nonsense going around about minority governments and Leanne Wood being the next First Minister that sometimes verges on arrogance.

They're the third (possibly fourth) party in Welsh politics for the foreseeable future; not a "Welsh SNP", not the official opposition, not a future government. The best they can hope for with regard the latter is propping up Carwyn & Co seeing as they've ruled out working with the Tories. Unless they heed warning signs or take on board criticism (I'm not referring to the blogosphere, but from people who "really know what they're talking about") they're in danger of epically failing to meet the expectations they've set themselves.

Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)

A personally; D party

The fortunes of the leader and her party couldn't be any different, and in a much more dramatic way than Plaid. Kirsty is easily the star of the opposition benches, perhaps with a contrived over excitement, but she's the opposition leader who rattles Carwyn the most. Also, she's introduced a law on safe nursing levels which will likely resonate well with the public.

Although they've very effectively worked their policy programmes in, with budget deals, out-thinking Plaid etc. and the Welsh Lib Dems remain – I'm sure you're tired of me saying this – pound for pound the most effective opposition group in the Assembly, their election results in May were an unmitigated disaster.

Things are looking grim, and although their spirited "fightback" is, on many levels, the right thing to do, it's as though all those aboard the Lib Dem bus are oblivious to the three foot thick wall of reinforced concrete they're speeding towards. I hope the fightback works, because if the Assembly loses the likes of Eluned Parrott and Peter Black and gains the likes of Nathan Gill and Norma Woodward we all lose.


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