In what the Daily Telegraph called “an escalation in Conservative attempts to highlight disparities between health care in the two nations to attack Labour at a national level”, David Cameron claimed that Offa’s Dyke was being turned into a ‘line between life and death’ in his address too the Welsh Conservative conference..
David Jones, the Secretary of State for Wales and MP for Clwyd West, took up this theme in this own speech. His first salvo cut right to the bone:
Let’s be blunt. For thirteen years in Government at Westminster, Labour took Wales for granted. Treated it as a place they thought they could safely neglect. Because they took the view that the Welsh could take it or leave it.
He then proceeded to highlight Labour failures in the most critical parts of government – education and health – by contrasting them with the approach taken by the Coalition in England. There’s no shortage of evidence: a Nuffield Trust report stating that waiting times for knee or hip replacements average 70 days in England, against a whopping 170 in Wales; the lack of a Welsh cancer drugs fund; and a chronic inability to meet A&E and ambulance response targets.
Jones was keen to stress that this is not the fault of Welsh NHS staff – ‘lions led by donkeys’ – but “incompetent oversight of the Welsh NHS by the Labour party”, which cut health spending by eight per cent despite £1.6bn extra in block grant funding (and what has that been spent on?) while the Coalition has protected it. He also highlighted the Welsh government’s deliberate hostility to criticism:
“Ann Clwyd, a long serving and highly respected Member of Parliament, tried to complain about the treatment of her husband at a Welsh NHS hospital. Her complaints were rubbished by Carwyn Jones. And she was stopped from attending the Assembly Health Committee to give evidence. That’s the way Labour deal with what they regard as a member of the awkward squad. Even if it’s one of their own.”
Wales’ notoriously declining education outcomes, driven home most recently in lamentable PISA scores and a damning report from the OEDC, were also highlighted. Jones contrasted Welsh performance with that of England and praised Michael Gove’s reforms, attack Labour’s insistence on ‘Welsh solution for Welsh problems’, which often amounts to resisting English solutions because they are English: “Decent health care and decent education are universal issues, not Welsh, nor English, nor anything else.”
He closed by throwing down a gauntlet Welsh Labour and their ‘so very thin-skinned’ First Minister, Carwyn Jones (who considers criticism of his government an attack on the Union):
My challenge today to Carwyn Jones and the Labour party in Wales is this:
admit how badly you’ve got it wrong on important public services – that’s an important first step; look at what we’re doing in Westminster to improve those same services; and give serious consideration to doing something similar here in Wales. Work with us. We’re more than happy to give you all the help we can.
But if you are too proud, or too perverse, or too Labour to do what it takes to make life better for the people of Wales…
Then step aside. Because we in the Welsh Conservative party will be only too happy to accept that challenge.