Celebrated Welsh poet T.H. Parry-Williams wrote in his famous work “Hon”:
“Beth yw’r ots gennyf i am Gymru? Damwain a hap
Yw fy mod yn ei libart yn byw. Nid yw hon ar fap
Yn ddim byd ond cilcyn o ddaear mewn cilfach gefn,
Ac yn dipyn o boendod i’r rhai sy’n credu mewn trefn.”
Unfortunately, that is sometimes how the people of Wales think. The translation of the words, which does not quite encapsulate the feeling of the piece, is:
“What do I care of Wales? It is by accident and chance
That I am living here freely. She isn’t on a map
And is nothing but a piece of land in a hidden creek,
And a bit of a nuisance to those who believe in order.”
In the rest of the poem, Parry-Williams was searching for the “Welsh way”, questioning the relevance of Welsh culture in society and the blaming of the country’s problems on the English, when in fact sometimes our problems can be closer to home and generated by ourselves.
What a neat segue into devolution that is! Who would have thought that this theme would be repeated so often at the Senedd in Cardiff? Every week at First Minister’s questions and other departmental questions, inquiries are made about transport services in Wales, where the providers are asked to make changes such as making it possible to get from Holyhead to Cardiff in four hours on the train, but they can only do so by cutting out a raft of local stations from the programme, and they then have to take the complaints imposed on them by the requirements of the Welsh Government. Inquiries are made about educational standards in Wales, where our hard-working teachers are asked to do more with less and feel more disenfranchised and unsupported. Inquiries are also made about health in Wales, where four out of the seven health boards are in special measures or have some form of targeted intervention, with the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in north Wales having been in that state for almost five years. Our health boards have some of the most dedicated and caring professionals, who come in every day to fight fires and battle against a system at breaking point.
Every week, when those questions are asked in the Senedd, there is only one answer from the First Minister and his colleagues: “Westminster doesn’t send us enough money.” That is the stock response every time, yet for every £1 spent on the NHS in England, there is around 15% more available to be spent on the NHS in Wales—it is just poorly spent and targeted in the wrong ways. T.H. Parry-Williams was right: we cannot just keep blaming the English for all our ills. We need to look closer to home.
Like my right hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) and for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), I was amazed during the campaign just how few people I spoke to on the doorstep realised which services are devolved and which are not. A lot of people complained to me about the health service in north Wales without realising that it is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. A&E waiting times have been the worst on record for two months in a row, and in education, 2019 GCSE results were no better than in 2007, but the number of people who continually blame Westminster for those challenges is staggering. I consider it very important over the next 14 months, in the run-up to the Welsh elections in May 2021, to highlight to people just who is responsible for what, so that their frustrations—and, indeed, occasional praise—can be directed to the appropriate places.
The Wales Act 2017 delivered a clearer and more stable devolution settlement for Wales by devolving important powers to the Senedd on energy, transport and local government. At the 2018 Budget, the UK Government announced plans to increase the Welsh Government’s budget by £1.2 billion, including a 5% Barnett boost of £67 million over the next five years. Subsequently, at the September 2019 spending round, the Government increased funding for the Welsh Government by a further £600 million. They cannot keep complaining that they do not have enough funding; they just need to make better choices.
There are still issues and problems with the funding formula for Wales. The Barnett formula—that short-term measure designed in 1978—is not fit for purpose and needs wholesale reform. Demographics are the key, and they are not properly considered under Barnett. By way of example, my constituency of Delyn has a median age of 46 compared with a median age of 40 across the rest of the UK, and 23% of the population are over 65 compared with 18% nationally. These figures may not seem hugely substantial, but they are statistically significant, as they indicate the ageing population in my constituency, which therefore has an increased need for health and social care. The calculation of funding based on headcount, which does not take into account different needs or costs, is flawed, and that should be addressed as a priority.
Devolution is here to stay and is not going away. There are many in north Wales who feel it has never worked: funding coming from Cardiff is just as detached from the north as it was when it came from Westminster, and we have just switched one funding body for another, while adding an extra level of governance and cost in the middle. In many ways, they are right, but let us be very clear: it does not need to be that way. The calls for the abolition of the Senedd are not fair and are unreasonable. Honestly, I used to be one of those who called for its abolition, and then my mind was changed by hon. and right hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend Craig Williams, who, sadly, is no longer in his place.
If the Labour party had won the election here in December, nobody would have been calling for the abolition of Parliament just because there was a useless party in charge—nothing of the sort. They would just have campaigned harder next time and highlighted the weaknesses in that Administration, and so it is with us. We need to get over the fact that we do not like it and feel that it is not working, and recognise that it is not that the structure does not work, but that the problem lies with the party in control of the structure.
In closing, I urge my constituents and the wider society across Wales to recognise that these will be the issues next May, and to make sure they install a Welsh Government who are focused on levelling up across the whole country, remembering that a huge amount of Wales exists if they happen to look north of Newport.