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William Graham AM: The need for a strong Conservative Opposition in Wales has never been greater

William_grahamWilliam Graham, Welsh Assembly Member for South Wales East and Shadow Leader of the House, writes the first in a series of a weekly reviews of Assembly matters.

There is a compelling case for arguing that 2007 has seen a significant shift in British politics. Just as the Party Leadership seized the initiative at our Blackpool Conference offering enterprising policies on issues such as inheritance tax, in the Welsh Assembly under Nick Bourne’s leadership we are capitalising on our new platform as the Official Opposition – putting ideas before ideology, people before party politics. In future this column will offer a fortnightly bulletin on the key issues and debates occurring in Wales but may I first sketch a quick picture of the Welsh political landscape.

With the Assembly Elections in May representing Labour’s worst performance at the polls in Wales since the First World War there was a realistic opportunity for the Welsh Conservatives to consider entering a coalition Government. The Liberal Democrats’ dithering ended the prospect of the of the All Wales Alliance becoming a reality, with the end result being a fragile alliance between Labour and Plaid Cymru predicated more on keeping the Conservatives out of power than delivering the change and good governance Wales requires. With this uneasy coalition’s objectives, stated in their One Wales agreement document, of moving towards independence and the implementation of a socialist agenda, the need for a strong Conservative opposition has never been so great in Wales.

In contrast to a fragile Coalition Government which appears uneasy with its responsibilities and frequently looking likely to crack over the issue of the timing of a referendum on a law-making parliament for Wales, the Welsh Conservative Group has consistently set the political agenda both in and outside of the Assembly Chamber. As Chief Whip (Assembly) I have drawn particular satisfaction from the progressive programme of debates we have recently raised, including calling for increased expenditure on flood defences, calling for a public inquiry into an M4 relief road around the Newport area at the earliest possible date, and appealing to the Assembly Government to make representations to the UK Government to hold a referendum on the deeply flawed EU Treaty.

In keeping with our statement in the Party manifesto to make the NHS our priority, the Conservative Group has consistently drawn attention to the fact that despite spending increases there has been little improvement in service delivery. Our last motion in plenary on the need to cut levels of bureaucracy in the NHS in Wales highlighted that the Labour restructuring project that scrapped five health authorities only to replace them with 22 local health boards has been disastrous. Shadow Health Spokesman Jonathan Morgan, who lead the debate, provided a perfect summary of events saying "It was ill-thought out and it demonstrated the worst traits of Labour in power – there is far too much bureaucracy, far too many committees and far too much confusion". To this we may add recent debates informed by the local campaigns at which our Conservative AMs have so often been at the forefront, including the campaigns opposing Government plans for wind turbines in highly unsuitable sites that would seriously scar the Welsh landscape, and put forward a motion on improving skills in Wales.

Previous administrations’ failure to take steps toward developing a highly innovative, knowledge economy with a first-class skills base means that there is little prospect of Wales relinquishing its status as having the lowest GVA (Gross Value Added) per head of all the devolved countries and English regions.

Furthermore, the Conservative Group has taken meaningful steps to take advantage of the Assembly’s new law-making powers. In October our Health Spokesman Jonathan Morgan won a private member’s ballot enabling him to formally request a transfer of power in the area of metal health legislation from Westminster. The Legislative Competence Order (LCO), which achieved cross-party support, represents a considerable step forwards and will bring the potential for major reform of mental health legislation – an area clearly in need of change when one considers that half of people with severe mental illnesses receive their first treatment under compulsion.

This week sees the Welsh Conservatives bring forward motions on the necessity to adequately compensate Welsh Farmers for the impact of the recent Foot and Mouth disease restrictions and the serious inadequacy of the Assembly Government’s Home Energy Efficiency Scheme. It promises to be a lively debate: with the Coalition Government having a noticeable urban focus it falls to the Conservative Group to convey just how challenging life has been made for farmers in Wales as a result of falling livestock prices and the twin threats of bluetongue and Foot and Mouth Disease. I look forward to bringing more news of the Conservatives’ resurgence in Wales in coming weeks. 


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