Saturday, 22 July 2017

End of Term Report 2016/17

As is tradition, here's my verdict on how the Welsh Government and opposition leaders have performed in the first year of the Fifth Assembly.

Carwyn Jones AM (Lab, Bridgend)
First Minister


He's been placed in a very difficult position by being on the wrong side of the EU referendum result but still has nowhere to go when it comes to seeing Brexit through. There'll be many policy areas where Wales' interests will have to be defended at the highest level. Carwyn's shown a sincere willingness to do that and will probably have the backing of most of the Senedd to do so too.

"Domestically", the legislative programme is, as ever, relatively safe and unambitious – but in the absence of a working majority, it has to be. The difference between Welsh Labour's managerial centrist stance and Corbyn's more old-school 1970s Labour may cause internal problems and leave them open to accusations of hypocrisy (see tuition fees). However, far from the opposition making his life difficult, if anything he's never been more comfortable.

Mark Drakeford AM (Lab, Cardiff West)

Finance & Local Government Secretary


Is austerity over? Not quite. Mark passed a budget – with help from Plaid Cymru - that lifted a bit of the burden that's fallen on local government, with spending remaining flat. Mark's also overseeing the introduction of the first Welsh taxes in hundreds of years and has previously expressed support for more novel ideas like a land value tax - which may or may not end up replacing council tax and business rates in the long-term.

I still believe there's more to come and he may run into trouble when income tax devolution starts, but Mark's making a much better fist of Finance Secretary than he did as Health Secretary.

Ken Skates AM (Lab, Clwyd South)

Economy & Infrastructure Secretary


Succeeding Edwina Hart was always going to be tough and although many will disagree, Ken's acquitted himself well. He's had a full plate, dealing with the tail-end of the steel crisis and now having to deal with the fallout from Brexit and more specific problems like the future of the Ford plant in Bridgend. None of them has really "blown up" yet and maybe that means Ken's performance is peaking before the real work starts.

Ken's shown he's not scared to make big calls (Circuit of Wales). Based on what's been made public, it was the right decision – though there are questions about how the Welsh Government came to its conclusion and he can expect more tough questioning in the autumn once the details come out.

Vaughan Gething AM (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth)

Health Secretary


For the first time in a long time, there's a bit to be cheerful about when it comes to the performance of the Welsh NHS. There are signs ambulance response targets are closer to being consistently met for the first time in several years. There are also encouraging signs with regard staff recruitment (though training and retention remain major concerns).

You get a sense from Vaughan he's determined to get a grip on issues like Betsi Cadwaladr health board's special measures and waiting times (which remain poor compared to the rest of the UK). It's a promising first year in the role, spoiled only by his sometimes condescending manner in the Senedd chamber.

Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)

Education Secretary


You get a sense Kirsty's still in shell shock from the 2016 election results and has been a bit quiet, having neither put a foot wrong nor really shone in the role. There was a measured reaction to another poor set of PISA results and she can hardly be blamed for that. Kirsty's also overseeing the implementation of major changes to student support via the Diamond Review and the eventual scrapping of HEFCW – these are no small things.

There's trouble brewing. Any goodwill students might've had towards her looks set to be damaged with tuition fees set to rise by £300 a year. It's also debatable whether she would've had more of an impact by staying out of government. By being the face of what might become unpopular policies, Kirsty's in danger of being seen as a Labour stooge.

Lesley Griffiths AM (Lab, Wrexham)

Environment & Rural Affairs Secretary


It's been a quiet year probably because, Brexit-aside, there's not a lot happening in Lesley's portfolio that will grab the public's attention. She's set out a comprehensive vision for an increase in green energy production, but successive Welsh governments haven't rushed to make it a reality. There've also been moves on new ways to target bovine TB.

However, we're still yet to get an idea of what will/may replace farming subsidies post-Brexit. That's partly the UK Government's fault, but we'll need some idea soon.

Carl Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside)

Communities Secretary


Communities is a neither here-nor-there portfolio in the grand scheme of things - particularly in the absence of criminal justice or welfare powers – but there have been significant developments. As promised, the government are seeking to scrap right to buy. Carl's also had to make a big call in winding down Communities First (which is, on balance, the right decision). I also believe the Welsh Government moved quickly in the fallout from the Grenfell Tower disaster – not that it's likely to impact Wales all that much - and showed the UK Government up in the process. Quietly impressive.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd)

Counsel General


He technically lost the Welsh Government's case on Article 50, but in doing so he's shown a willingness to fight Wales' corner. Far more questions have been put to him in the Senedd chamber than his predecessor – mainly due to Brexit – so the role has more visibility than ever before. Mick looks set to have another busy year with the Repeal Bill almost certain to be formally challenged by the Welsh and Scottish governments if concessions aren't made.

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent)
Minister for Lifelong Learning & Welsh Language

C- (B for effort)

Based on what's happened so far, the story of Alun in government seems to be repeating itself. Having gone from being one of the more effective backbenchers of the Fourth Assembly to a return to government, he talks the talk but the bar is perhaps set too high in terms of what he can deliver.

Alun will have the unenviable task of seeing though the Welsh Government's 1 million Welsh-speakers policy and Valleys Taskforce (promising 7,000 new jobs in 4 years); I can't fault the ambition or the effort, but I'm sceptical either vision will be fully delivered. There's also been one major cock up with the costings of the Additional Learning Needs Bill being some £13million out from reality. That's not necessarily his fault, but he'll be culpable for it.

Rebecca Evans AM (Lab, Gower)

Minister for Social Services & Public Health


At the second attempt, the Public Health Act has been successfully seen through without incident and with strengthened measures on things like obesity. Will it work? We'll have to wait and see. Rebecca's also shown leadership on Sport Wales, though we all deserve a fuller account of what actually happened there. Other than that it's been a bit quiet, but there are choppy waters approaching with the shortlisted Member's Bill on autism – will the Minister back it or not?

Julie James AM (Lab, Swansea West)

Minister for Skills & Science


Julie has been somewhat overshadowed by Ken Skates. That might be about to change with some growing areas of concern. Firstly, it looks like the standard of careers advice has taken a nose-dive, with the uptake of apprenticeships and work-based learning being very low amongst school leavers. Secondly, I suspect the £425million Super-fast Cymru broadband scheme is a scandal in waiting, with concerns from the Public Accounts Committee on delays, low uptake and poor marketing. There are no big disappointments, but it's not a completely unblemished record and, as hinted, I suspect next year will be tougher if some of these problems aren't addressed.

Opposition Leaders
Andrew Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central)

Personal: C+
Party: C+

Still standing. Andrew defied the central party in picking Leave in the EU referendum but found himself on the winning side. He's performed very well in the Senedd chamber on occasion but is becoming an expert at not answering questions (we're still yet to hear his own post-Brexit vision for Wales) and is too easy to wind-up. You get the sense his authority is being undermined in the higher echelons of the party, yet there's no sign of a serious leadership challenge. Politics is a funny old game.

As a result, it's hard to judge the performance of the Tories in Wales. They did OK in the local elections and, despite suffering a serious setback in the UK general election, they still formed the UK Government. You get a sense the dam will break at some point, but you can argue they're doing well to shore it up.

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda)

Personal: C
Party: C+

It's been the toughest year of Leanne's leadership, saved from being a disaster by gaining a Westminster seat and an increased number of council seats. Even if Leanne has sometimes come across as two dimensional over the past year, all leaders have rough patches. Although the progress promised in 2012 hasn't materialised yet, there's no need for an immediate change.

As for the party as a whole, you would've thought losing Dafydd Elis-Thomas would've brought some relief, but others have popped up to take his place as "trouble-maker in chief" both within and outside the Assembly. There've been a few bungled stunts, very few punches landed on Labour it's got to be said (though they did manage to secure a £100million+ package in the budget) and they seem to be struggling to figure out what they're for. Plaid really need to hit the ground running in September.

Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP, Mid & West Wales)

Personal: D
Party: D (C for effort for some individuals)

Despite his unquestioned levels of parliamentary experience, Neil Hamilton has occasionally appeared out of his depth or ill-suited to 2010s Cardiff. They say there's no such thing as bad publicity and UKIP cling to that, trying to make headlines for the sake of it not because they actually have something to say. It got boring pretty quickly and they're struggling to find a niche for themselves in a post-Brexit referendum Wales other than being court jesters.

Apart from the successful Leave vote and occasional outbursts, UKIP has contributed little to the Senedd chamber. After losing two of their most capable AMs and taking a real hiding in the local and general elections, they seem like political featherweights. Their AMs' naiveity has shone through, but at least their less prominent members have made an effort and generally take the role seriously – for example, Caroline Jones and even Gareth Bennett and David Rowlands on occasion.

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