This week the Welsh finance minister Jane Hutt published a draft budget for 2014-15 which she described as ‘the most difficult since devolution’.
Owen Smith is MP for Pontypridd and shadow secretary of state for Wales
Values matter in public service. In times when budgets are shrinking, they matter even more. This week the Welsh finance minister Jane Hutt published a draft budget for 2014-15 which she described as ‘the most difficult since devolution’.
Yet despite the arithmetic challenge faced by Jane and first minister Carwyn Jones, they have succeeded in embedding Labour values throughout the Welsh government’s balance sheet.
Of course, values are also visible in the Tory and Lib Dem budgets we’ve seen over the last three years. It’s just that these values aren’t ones shared by the British people.
From the divisive to the incompetent, we know exactly where David Cameron’s priorities lie. He’s prioritised a £2,000 per week tax cut for millionaires and a marriage tax break that benefits just a third of married couples while penalising widows and single parents. Meanwhile the bedroom tax is forcing disabled people from their homes.
Cameron’s mismanagement of the economy means that the Welsh government’s budget has fallen year on year since 2010, and by 2015 it will be £1.7 billion lower in real terms since the year before the election. This week’s budget showed the extent to which those cuts have bitten, with difficult choices at every turn for our team of ministers in Cardiff Bay.
In contrast to David Cameron, who uses budgets to divide communities, the Welsh government has extracted maximum value from every pound to deliver a budget that embeds fairness and opportunity. Despite losing a third of their capital budget, ministers will invest £620 million in infrastructure projects to create and support 11,000 jobs.
With a focus on housing and transport, this will give an immediate boost to the construction industry, as well as giving us the infrastructure we need to grow for the long term.
Youth unemployment is fast becoming the scourge of this decade as it was the 1980s, but rather than stand by and watch the ambitions of a generation of young people turn to dust, the Welsh government has established Jobs Growth Wales, which has already helped nearly 7,000 young people find a job, and thanks to this latest budget will create 16,000 jobs in total by 2015.
The budget also commits additional resources to Flying Start – the scheme to support young children and their parents – when hundreds of Sure Start Children’s Centres in England have already closed.
The difference in priorities can also be seen in the Welsh government’s reaction to David Cameron’s version of the Poll Tax. His changes have forced up council tax for 2.6 million of the poorest people in England, some of whom were exempt from paying council tax altogether.
As a result, more than 150,000 people, including disabled people, carers, veterans and war widows, have already been summonsed to court for council tax arrears.
In Wales, however, the Labour government decided to fill the hole with a £22 million package. This is being extended for another year to protect some of the most vulnerable families from receiving a bill that they simply can’t pay.
The health service was another key priority for the budget. With huge demand pressures from a population that is older and sicker than that of England, Welsh health minister Mark Drakeford has focused on improving access to treatment. An additional £570m funding package for NHS over three years, including £150 million for the current financial year, will help ease those pressures.
David Cameron likes to use the Welsh NHS as a stick with which to beat Ed Miliband, but his attacks don’t ring true for the people of Wales, 92 per cent of whom are satisfied with the service. They know that the Tories cannot be trusted with the NHS when they see 4,500 fewer nurses in the English health service than two years ago, while in Wales numbers are stable and will even increase thanks to an additional £10 million announced by the Welsh government.
The budget wasn’t all good news, and with the level of savings needed there simply wasn’t a pain free option. Local government faces a tough couple of years, and there will be some agonising choices made in town halls across the country.
I hope our councillor colleagues will be creative in finding ways to protect front-line services. We need the Welsh people to know that Labour has tried to shield them from the worst effects of the Tories’ disastrous management of the public finances and inability to get the economy growing for the first three years of the Parliament.
And while we will undoubtedly see some local services cut back, we are lucky that key universal services such as free prescriptions and free breakfasts for primary school pupils will continue to be funded by the Welsh government, helping to ease the cost of living crisis facing Welsh families.
But to really improve living standards we need a Labour government in Westminster to introduce the measures outlined by Ed Miliband at our conference just a few weeks ago. With one million energy customers in Wales hit by SSE’s announcement yesterday, that they are raising gas and electricity prices by more than 8 per cent, this cannot come soon enough.
We need Labour governments in both Westminster and Cardiff to work together to put Labour values back at the heart of every budget and every decision.
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