The prospects of a coalition between the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru in the Welsh Assembly after next month’s election appear to have dimmed this weekend following a rift between the two parties on the NHS which emerged in a public hustings meeting in Penarth.
At the meeting – organised by Penarth Woodcraft Folk at All Saints Lesser Hall – Labour’s Deputy Health Minister Vaughan Gething dismissed Plaid Cymru’s plans to recruit 1,000 more doctors in Wales as “fantasy”.
The candidates attending the event are all contenders for the Cardiff South and Penarth Assembly seat in May 5th’s election . They were:-
- Ben Gray (Conservative)
- Vaughan Gething (Labour),
- Dafydd Trystan Davies (Plaid Cymru)
- Anthony Slaughter (Wales Green Party)
- Nigel Howells Lib Dem
UKIP’s candidate Moelwyn Hughes was invited but did not attend.
Two members of the Women’s Equality Party – Sharon Lovell and Sarah Rees – took places on the panel even though they are bidding to win a seat in the South Wales Central constituency (which includes Penarth) and not the Cardiff South and Penarth constituency. The Women’s Equality Party – set up by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig – claims to be a non-partisan party with 47,000 members
A mixed audience of all ages including a significant number of articulate young people attended the two-and-a-half-hour hustings meeting
One first questions debated was on the issue of reducing the voting age to 16. It turned out all the candidates were in favour of it – a late convert being Dafydd Trystan Davies of Plaid Cymru who said he had changed his mind on seeing young people’s involvement in the Scottish Referendum.
Ben Gray (Conservative) said that his party proposed to cut ministerial pay in the Welsh Assembly by 10% in order to fund greater youth engagement in politics. However he noted that ‘Votes at 16’ was not UK Conservative Party policy and the Prime Minister Davidf Cameron had said in 2015 he was not in favour of Votes at 16. The Welsh Conservatives had a free vote on the issue in the Welsh Assembly . Gray said he personally supported reducing the voting age to 16 .
Sarah Rees and Sharon Lovell of the Women’s Equality Party said the issue was not one on which their party had a policy but supported Votes at 16. A question from the floor established that the Welsh Assembly has no powers to lower the voting age – so none of the candidates had anything to lose by ‘supporting’ a reduction in the voting age.
The discussion moved to the issue of whether there should be political education in schools. Vaughan Gething pointed to the existing pressure on the curriculum and said there was a wider problem – as to how, amongst all members of the public, what he called “the profession of politics “ of could be “rehabilitated”.
Gething said “I don’t doubt the people on this table actually want to see Wales become a better place . We disagree about how this should happen – but there’s far too many members of the public who are deeply cynical about that and who don’t believe that’s the case . Too many people think we are in it for ourselves “.
However Labour’s dismal record in power in the Welsh Assembly came in for criticism from Plaid Cymru’s candidate Dafydd Trystan Davies. He said that after 17 years of continuous Labour Government: –
- Wages in Wales were now 15% lower than the UK average,
- The PISA Maths and Science tests revealed that in schools in Wales had the lowest educational performance in the UK
- Wales had fewer doctors per head than almost any other European country.
Dafydd Trystan Davies said a Plaid Cymru Welsh Government would recruit “1,000 extra doctors into the NHS” . He said Cardiff Medical School had a recruitment policies which paid no regard to whether the students came from Wales or not – but he proposed that every student from Wales who met the criteria should be offered an interview . (He knew of a Welsh-speaking “quadruple A” student who had been offered places in several leading medical schools but had not been offered an interview at Cardiff Medical School). He also proposed increasing recruitment to Cardiff Medical School from 310 to 600 and increasing recruitment in Swansea and Bangor.
Vaughan Gething – laughing – dismissed Plaid Cymru’s policy as “fantasy“. He said “To get those 1,000 extra doctors in is a huge challenge and I just don’t believe it’s possible. It’s great to put in a manifesto but I don’t think it’s a very honest way to sell to the public or to the profession to say ‘we will do this if we’re elected’ ”
Conservative candidate Ben Gray said he was not aware that his party would be coming out with a “1,000 doctors” pledge but Plaid Cymru’s complex scheme “sounded like a great plan”.
He reminded the audience that the Welsh Labour Government had cut funding to the NHS by a billion pounds over the term of the Assembly whereas in England the Conservative Government had protected NHS budgets.
Gething attempted to challenge these figures but was swatted-down by Gray who said he had the facts and that a Welsh Conservative Government would be protecting and investing in the NHS in Wales – and giving that local accountability as to how services are being driven, selected and funded in each local area.
LibDem candidate Nigel Howells said that in the NHS in Wales there were lots of targets for physical health – but there were very few targets in terms of mental health. He said “We really don’t know what the problem is”
Howells said but one of the things which the Welsh Assembly needed to address was “targets for being seen for CBT or to see a psychiatrist or things like that to see what the scale of the problem is and what can be done to address it “
Sharon Lovell (Women’s Equality Party) said this question was being taken very seriously by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales . More children than ever were being treated with anti-depressant drugs and we had to ask ourselves as a country what is it about our young people that we are referring to a medical model to suppress their feelings, anxieties . “Where”, she asked “are the talking therapies? Where are our services in Wales to ensure we listen to young people?. We need a holistic model”
Green Party candidate Anthony Slaughter harked back to the earlier discussion on the image of politics and wondered – listening to the debate – whether the politicians were doing a very good job of selling politics to the young (of whom there were many in the audience) .
There was , he said, a lot to be praised in the NHS and that it did not help anyone to see the health service used as a “political football” both at a Welsh and UK level.
He said David Cameron’s remark about “the line of death between England and Wales” had been “disgusting. [PDN Note: In 2014 Cameron – criticising Welsh Labour’s appalling performance in education and in the NHS – had said that Offa’s Dyke had become “the line between life and death”]. Slaughter also said he was also against what he called the “Dutch auction “ of NHS promises.
Whilst Plaid Cymru’s Dafydd Trystan Davies diplomatically praised Labour’s record in the Welsh Assembly on a few issues – and criticied Labour on others (there was no reciprocal praise for Plaid from Labour) – it would appear that the two parties have major differences on the NHS, on education and on the economy which would appear to get in the way of any revival of the Labour/Plaid PACT of 2007 – a possibility which some senior Plaid figures are said to have already dismissed.