David Jones: A strong voice in government for Wales

Speech by Shadow Minister for Wales and Clwyd West MP David Jones to the Welsh Conservative Party conference 2010.

“Last year marked the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales, of which I was once, briefly, a member.

Ten years, in political terms, is a long time; certainly long enough to enable us to assess how well devolution has worked for the people of Wales and to consider what can be done to help make it better.

Of course, there are different views about devolution.

For us Conservatives, devolution should be about bringing government as close as possible to those who are governed.

About making it more responsive to people’s concerns. About making it more relevant to people’s lives. And, above all, about making things better. And that sort of devolution, in Wales, doesn’t stop at the increasingly centralising Assembly.

It goes beyond it, down to county councils and – where appropriate – even to town and community councils.

We Conservatives are entirely pragmatic about devolution.

For others, however, devolution is almost an article of faith.

It is, they say, an end in itself: inherently a good thing, no matter how well or badly it serves the people and it is best not to be too critical of it.

I don’t think that’s right.

For others still – let’s name names, Plaid Cymru - devolution is just a step on the road to a goal which they crave: the break-up of the United Kingdom and the establishment of an independent Wales.

But we Conservatives are Unionists if we are nothing else.

And we will oppose Plaid Cymru’s brand of devolution for as long as we have breath in our bodies.

I Blaid Cymru, datganoli yw cam ar y ffordd i nod y maent yn ei grefu: Y Deyrnas Unedig yn cael ei rannu a Cymru’n annibynnol.

Ond rydym ni, y Ceidwadwyr, yn undebwyr os nac unrhyw beth arall.

Ac byddwn yn gwrthwynebu brand Plaid Cymru o ddatganoli cyhyd a bo gennym anadl yn ein cyrff.

No, we Conservatives are not dogmatic about devolution.

Our only concern, as always, is the practical one of whether the people of Wales are better governed.

If devolution – to whatever level of government - does achieve that, then we welcome it.

But that does not mean that we should be uncritical and it does not mean that we should not constantly strive to find ways of making it better.

The Welsh devolution settlement is complicated.

Broadly speaking, only administrative powers have been devolved to the Welsh Ministers, in areas including health, education, transport, agriculture and economic development.

Very few legislative powers have been devolved to the Welsh Assembly, although this may change after the referendum.

And I am sure that you will all have your own views about that.

A large number other powers, however, are not devolved to Cardiff, including policing, justice, large-scale energy infrastructure, pensions and benefits – as well as the more obvious areas of taxation, defence and foreign affairs.

In other words, although the Assembly Government does have competence in a number of areas that affect the daily lives of the people of Wales, many other functions remain with Whitehall.

And that is probably right for Wales, given its history, that it is part of the same jurisdiction as England and given, also, that the border between Wales and England is far more populated than, for example,  the English - Scottish border.

Wales and England are, and always will be, inextricably joined; not only geographically, but also culturally, socially and politically.

And that will always be the case.

In some respects, the devolution settlement has bedded in and is working well.

It has to be said, however, that in other respects it is not.

The most common problems arise where some cross-border element is involved.

And the most glaring example, of course, is health, where Wales – particularly North and Mid-Wales – has traditionally relied upon English hospitals for specialist medical services.

The performance of the Welsh Assembly Government on cross-border medical care has not, to be frank, been particularly effective.

In fact – let’s be blunt - it is pretty poor.

Welsh patients needing treatment in English hospitals, such as the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Gobowen, often find themselves waiting for much longer than patients who live in England.

And we all remember the outcry a couple of years ago when the Welsh Health Minister, Edwina Hart, decided that it would be a  good idea to make North Wales neurosurgery patients travel to Cardiff or Swansea for surgery, rather than to the Walton Hospital in Liverpool, where they have traditionally been treated.

Fortunately, Mrs Hart felt the full force of North Walian outrage and decided it would be prudent to do a ‘U’ turn, which is what she did.

However, the Welsh Health Service continues to be criticised for the fact that Welsh patients still usually wait longer for treatment in England.

And the criticism often heard – and it’s a reasonable one – is that it is wrong to expect Welsh patients to put up with an inferior medical service when they pay their taxes and national insurance contributions at the same rate as anyone else.

Differences in educational policy can cause problems, too.

For example, last year I was contacted by a constituent whose teenage son had been offered an apprenticeship with a football league club in the North of England.

He was a talented player and was delighted to be given the chance to turn his sport into a career.

But it was a condition of his apprenticeship with the club that he should follow a course of academic study in a further education college in the same town.

He needed financial support to help pay for his accommodation while studying, but when he applied to the Learning and Skills Council for residential support (which he would have been entitled to, if he lived in England) he was told that he could not have it because he lived in Wales.

There was no flexibility; the young man had to abandon his chosen of career simply because he lived in Wales.

Now, there are those who say that such incidents are rare and are the natural consequences of devolution – of different policies pursued in Wales and England.

I think, however, that they are unintended consequences of devolution.

Not enough thought was given before policy was developed and implemented.

Which is quite wrong.

Because no citizen of this country should be disadvantaged because of where he or she happens to live.

There should be no postcode lottery.

The problem is that over the last 10 years, a silo mentality has grown up in both the Welsh Assembly Government and Whitehall Departments.

Each operates its own policy framework.

Each jealously guards its own sphere of authority.

Sometimes, it even seems that each is unwilling even to talk to the other.

And even when they do talk, the way they do it is complicated by any standards.

If the Welsh Assembly Government needs to come to an agreement with a Whitehall department, such as the Department of Health or the Department for Transport, it does so through a Byzantine process of memoranda of understanding, concordats and protocols.

It is a cumbersome procedure better suited to negotiations between mutually-suspicious sovereign states than to dealings between component parts of the same country.

It can, and must, be improved.

Something must be done about these unintended consequences of devolution.

This calls for two things.

In the first place, it needs the Welsh Assembly Government to adopt a more mature, less confrontational attitude to Whitehall departments.

And, secondly, it calls for Whitehall departments to develop a better understanding of devolution and to take Wales more into account when developing their own policy.

What’s more, somebody should be overseeing the process, making sure that it works. Making sure it gets done.

And that, fairly obviously, should be the role of the Wales Office.

But the trouble is that the Wales Office doesn’t do that.

The Wales Office, under Labour, seems to regard itself as nothing more than a channel for processing bids for additional powers from the Welsh Assembly.

So far as relations between the Assembly Government and Whitehall are concerned, it seems entirely happy to allow the present unsatisfactory state of affairs to continue.

The Labour Wales Office, in short, has a very unambitious view of its role.

And that is perhaps to be expected, given that the person in charge of the Wales Office is Peter Hain, the man who regards it as a huge triumph that Wales is richer than Rwanda.

That is the limit of Peter Hain’s ambition for Wales.

He’s delighted that we are doing better than an impoverished, third world country.

No, the Wales Office could do more. Much more.

The Wales Office must change.

For the last 4½ years, I have been a member of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee.

The committee has done a lot of work studying the cross-border consequences of devolution and will shortly be completing an important inquiry into the relations between Wales and Whitehall.

Throughout the course of our inquiries, we have heard example after example of the ways in which the consequences of devolution have not been properly thought through in London or in Cardiff.

Worse  still, there are many examples of devolution throwing up problems that cause real hardship to Welsh citizens, but which both the Assembly Government and Whitehall are apparently willing to put up with.

Take, for example, the A483. This is the road that links North East Wales with South Wales. Many of you will travel home on it this afternoon.

It is one of the most important North – South routes for Welsh motorists, but suffers from the major disadvantage that for a lot of its length it passes through England.

So far as the Welsh Assembly Government is concerned, the A483 is an important strategic route.

However, responsibility for the English section has been devolved by the Department for Transport to the West Midlands Regional Assembly – an esoteric body that I am sure very few people in this room have ever heard of.

And you won’t hear of it much longer, because we intend to abolish it.

But it’s there for the time being and has limited resources to upgrade the A483.

And, anyway, it’s not inclined to do so because – in West Midlands terms – it is a relatively unimportant local road.

The Department for Transport refuses to get involved in the issue because it is devolved the West Midlands Assembly.

So to all intents and purposes, the Assembly Government, the West Midlands Assembly and the Department for Transport have given up on the A483.

And the consequence is that travellers between North and South Wales have to put up with a sub-standard road that has little prospect of being improved while this ridiculous bureaucratic standoff continues. That’s not good enough.

The Wales Office should be stepping in. It should be talking to the Assembly Government, the Department for Transport, the Regional Assembly and anyone else it needs to, making its business to ensure that bureaucracy doesn’t get in the way of providing a decent, modern road for Welsh motorists.

It should persuade, chivvy and cajole. If necessary, it should knock heads together until something is done about the road. That is the proper role of the Wales Office in the post-devolution era. And that will certainly be the role of the Conservative Welsh Office.

A few weeks ago, I was pleased to meet the new Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, in London. I asked him what he thought would be the practical consequences of a change of government in Westminster and he said that he thought that there should not be too many difficulties, provided there was good will on both sides.

I can assure Carwyn Jones that the first and overriding priority for Cheryl, for me and for the whole of the Conservative Welsh Office will be to do whatever is best for the people of Wales.

We will be more than willing to extend good will to the Assembly Government. But, at the same time, we expect to receive good will in return. More importantly, the people of Wales expect that too.

Because they have the right to expect government – of whatever political colour - to work for them.

Ten years after its birth, it will be up to the Labour Welsh Assembly Government, just as it will be up to the Conservative Welsh Office, to subordinate political differences to what best serves the interests of the people of Wales.

And that is something on which I am sure we can agree with Carwyn Jones.

It has often been said that the role of the Welsh Office is: to be the voice of Wales in Westminster and the voice of Westminster in Wales.

That is a role that Cheryl and I are looking forward to with relish.

Unlike Labour, we don’t seek power just for the sake of being in office. We want to create a new Welsh Office. A Welsh Office that belongs to the people of Wales. And a Welsh Office that delivers for the delivers for the people of Wales.

Llais Cymreig yn San Steffan.

Llais Ceidwadol yng Nghymru.

A dyfodol newydd.

Dyfodol well i bawb.

A Welsh voice in Westminster.

A Conservative voice in Wales.

And a new future.

A better future for all.”