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Nick Bourne: Speech to the Bevan Foundation


I'd like to start by thanking the Bevan Foundation for inviting me to speak today.

It is a superb organisation, and makes a leading contribution to the debate on social justice.

The Foundation continues to produce research and organise events of the highest standard.

I'm very pleased to be able to speak today on the One Wales Agreement, and to give a view from the perspective of the Official Opposition.

<h2>In opposition</h2>

It's often been said that an hour in government is worth many years in opposition.

As a Conservative in the last twelve years I would definitely agree with that!

We were certainly very close last time.

In fact if the next speaker to me today had voted differently two years ago, this would have been a very different conference indeed!

But I still believe Welsh Conservatives can be proud of our record in Wales.

We are, after all, the only party in Wales to have made gains - significant gains - with each passing election.

For us, last month's European election was a statement of intent. Labour lost its grip on Wales for the first time since 1918.

Rather than kicking them into touch, Plaid Cymru were relegated to the Welsh third division!

For our party, winning in Wales for the first time since 1859 was very encouraging, and something we are determined to build upon.

Since 1999, Welsh Conservatives have arguably changed and adapted to the circumstances of devolution the most, and travelled the furthest as a result.

Our guiding principle, as we look to build on this success and prepare for government, is that whilst the premise of devolution has been secured, its inherent promise is yet to be realised.

<h2>Preparing for government</h2>

Labour have certainly had some noble intentions:

to halve child poverty by 2020, for instance;

to work towards 90% relative GVA and greater employment.

Yet with more children growing up in poverty in Wales than in any other UK nation.

And with unemployment here sadly also the highest of any country in the British Isles, it's clear that while the intentions may be there, the delivery is failing; the methodologies are flawed.

In Wales - and Westminster - we've come to appreciate what thousands of Poles, Soviets, Romanians and Czechs did before us: the limitations of trying to manage the full complexity of human life by top-down, bureaucratic, central control.
 
The truth is, we've gone backwards in the last 10 years under this Labour Assembly Government.

This is evident from the repeated falls in our economic prosperity.

Our relative GVA has declined or stagnated in each successive year since 1999, and Wales is now the poorest of any UK nation - or region.

It's evident from the continued and unacceptable delays in ambulance and hospital waiting times.

And the increasing gap in the attainment of our GCSE pupils compared to those in England.

Yet it has always been my firm belief that there is nothing wrong with Wales that couldn't be fixed by a Welsh Conservative Assembly Government.

The nation that gave the world Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, a Batman and a Bond ...

The nation that built the world's first steam locomotive to pull a load along rails, created the NHS, invented the microphone and built an aqueduct to rival the great Pyramids and the Taj Mahal ...

This nation certainly has the talent to succeed again, so long as it puts its trust once more in the people of Wales, and restores to them the opportunity to improve their own lives.

What Wales needs now, is a new settlement between elected representatives and the people they serve - one that makes the most of the brilliance, diligence, hard work and creativity of the people of Wales.

For Welsh Conservatives, this means using the market to achieve maximum social benefit so that communities can thrive.

Government needs to be smaller, wiser, more local - but still a strategic driving force.

And we realise that the Constitution has to be further reformed.

<h3>1. Market Conservatism</h3>

Labour set themselves the task to create 135,000 jobs in the first ten years of devolution.

But less than half that number have actually been created.

Labour have failed to increase employment by any meaningful margin in Wales because they have failed to stimulate the private sector.

Independent statistics show 29% of Wales' workforce is engaged in the public sector - a higher level than elsewhere in the UK.

Staggeringly, the public sector generates 60% of our GDP.

Those who hoped the insularity of our economy would protect us against the economic recession have seen their argument shattered by a succession of public sector jobs cuts, and the promise of further job losses to come, as a result of the imminent reduction in our budget.

It's little wonder CBI Wales used the Budget announcement to whisper rather loudly in Rhodri's ear the need for Wales to "redouble it efforts to work with the private sector."

It's little wonder Professor Brian Morgan warned of the dangers of a "bloated public sector" on our ability to attract inward investors and the world's best companies to Wales.
 
But it's no less disconcerting that a member of WAG's own staff wrote to the Western Mail recently citing 'Ministerial incompetence and laziness', 'mismanagement' and concern over the diversion of 'millions of pounds of European aid ... from the private sector into ... long-standing, re-branded public sector schemes with poor track records'.

Welsh Conservatives would reinvigorate the private sector in Wales.

And we would start by getting help to those who need it most.

Our proposals for business rate relief for small and medium sized businesses with a rateable value of up to £15,000 have been enormously well-received.

It's a policy that would bring measurable benefits to many thousands of small businesses across Wales, at a time they need it most.

As it has in Scotland, with Scottish Conservative support.

<h3>2. Social Conservatism</h3>

I posited at the beginning that Welsh Conservatives have adapted better to the realities of life in today's Wales than perhaps others have.

For me, this wouldn't have been possible without the superb leadership of David Cameron.

For Conservatives of all stripes, one of the greatest developments since David took charge has been in the way we think of wealth.

David Cameron was right to say at the outset, that what matters is not only our wealth - but our wellbeing as well.

It's a belief in fact which dates all the way back to Oliver Wendell Holmes, that the aim of Conservatism should be to raise the standard of living of all in society by increasing wealth - not in the pursuit of wealth itself, but rather to generate enough money to fund first class public services.

This is how my party want to be judged, as we aspire to enter government.

Welsh Conservatives believe everyone should have access to first class public services.

The difference between us and Labour is how these services would be commissioned and delivered.

So firstly, we would end the dogmatic practice of ruling out private finance, including in the Welsh NHS.

In an era of tightened public spending, it's essential that we use all funding opportunities open to us.

Private finance has been used to good effect in Wales.

It has made a tangible difference to pupils at Penweddig secondary school in Aberystwyth and patients at the Neath Port Talbot hospital for example.

Welsh Conservatives would like to see more capital projects built using PFI, and would use it to begin tackling the devastating backlogs that have built up in school and hospital building, and to invest in public services at a time when conventional funding is in short supply.

However, each project would need to demonstrate its value for money.

It is essential that we make the most of the investment, skills and expertise of everyone in Wales.

Therefore, we must begin to take seriously the need to put our economy on a long-term, sustainable footing.

I will outline in the coming weeks plans for the greater use of renewable energy that would use the burgeoning expertise of green Welsh firms to the full.

We would also end the current administration's complacency towards the voluntary sector.

Charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises provide diverse and dedicated help to many people across Wales.

They play a pivotal role in combating alcoholism and drug abuse in some of our most deprived communities, for instance, and in doing so, help to tackle some of the root causes of child poverty in a way that would be difficult for any Assembly Government to accomplish.

Others contribute directly to the fabric of community life.

Dial-a-ride play a crucial role in providing community transport for instance.

The RNLI are an essential part of any coastal community in Wales.

Charities, social enterprises and voluntary groups are best placed to understand their communities the most, and would receive all the support they needed from Welsh Conservative Assembly Ministers.

For Welsh Conservatives, a key part of our mandate would be to get help to those who desperately need it.

That means we would also do more in Wales to use the money we have more effectively - to get the best bang for our buck.

Which means being fiscally conservative.

<h3>3. Fiscal Conservatism</h3>

Barack Obama said the notion that US Democrats had previously become "obsessed with slicing the economic pie rather than with growing the pie" contained "a good deal of truth."

Detachment by the Welsh Assembly Government from the responsibility to grow the economic pie in Wales has not only blighted our small businesses and firms who rely on a viable business environment in order to thrive.

It has given Labour free reign to fritter away the public purse.

Without having the responsibility to generate the money it spends, the Assembly Government has squandered it on gimmicks and giveaways without a second thought.

Now as Wales' budget comes under increasing pressure, and Wales is called upon to play its part in mitigating the effects of Labour's profligacy, there is an urgent need for the reprioritisation of the Assembly Government's budget.

This will need to include health and education spending.

Labour and Plaid may have spent a lot of money on public services - but they haven't spent it wisely. We all know that spending is not automatically investment.

Wales' budget is to be cut by £416 million next year - with deeper cuts likely to come in successive years after that.

Rhodri Morgan says he can't promise that public services won't be cut.

Plaid AMs admit public services are "a legitimate cause for concern", only to whittle on without coming up with any concrete suggestions.

The public want politicians to be honest with them about spending plans and public services.

Welsh Conservatives are the only party so far to honour that.

That is why I'm proud that Welsh Conservatives have recently unveiled exciting and progressive new proposals for academy-like Free Schools in Wales; and the redistribution of monies from free prescriptions into other core areas within the Welsh NHS.

Despite a 79% increase to the health budget since 1999, stroke sufferers currently have to endure a service that one expert has described as being "scandalously bad."

According to Labour's own Health Minister, the palliative care sector in Wales for those with terminal illnesses is "patchy."

Under this Assembly Government, core funding which should have gone on reducing waiting times or improving conditions for patients, has instead been wasted on gimmicks such as free prescriptions for all.

Shadow Health Minister Andrew RT Davies has rightly said it's unacceptable for some of the most vulnerable in our society to endure services described as 'scandalously bad'.

So we would ask those who can afford to pay a modest sum for their prescription medicines to do so, and redistribute the money raised directly into improving stroke services and palliative care.

We would retain or even extend the previous exemptions for the elderly, young and the chronically sick.

For Welsh Conservatives, the reprioritisation of the health and education budgets is essential if we are to improve the life chances of people in Wales.

That is why my party would pilot the use of Free Schools in the Fourth Assembly, in order to give those who know best - the headteachers, teachers and staff - the freedom to make the decisions that will best improve the life chances and prospects of the pupils in their care.

In doing so, we would give teachers a fighting chance to improve the lives of thousands of young people across Wales, who currently face a distinct disadvantage in obtaining the qualifications they need compared to their counterparts in England.

This is something Shadow Education Minister Paul Davies feels passionately about.

<h3>4. Localism</h3>

Social, Market and Fiscal Conservatism and the exciting new policies we have developed as a result, are based on the premise - on the new settlement - that what Wales needs, is less State and more society.

They are driven by a fundamental rejection of the socialist idea that one size fits all; and the realisation that top-down targets and central control do not unfortunately lead to the outcomes that we would all wish to see in Wales.

And they are driven by the belief that often, local solutions are best in countering local problems.

Whether it's the teachers and head teachers who are best placed to make a judgement as to how to improve their school.

The nurses and doctors best placed to administer the most effective help to those in their care.

Or the local voluntary and charity groups, that are better placed than any bureaucrat in Cardiff Bay to unleash the talent and vibrancy of the communities they serve.

For Welsh Conservatives, localism is the core principle that will be used to guide many of our theories on the path to government.

It is the premise that any new settlement must be founded upon.

That is why I am delighted that Jonathan Morgan has chosen to lead the campaign to bring an elected Mayor to Cardiff, and look forward to seeing his proposals.

And that is why I fully back Darren Millar's proposals to reengage the public with local politics, through a bigger role for town and community councils.

The great bargain of elected office is that in return for their taxes, and their trust, the public rightly expect better public services.

They expect their money to be invested wisely.

They expect not only honesty from their elected representatives.

But also the chance to be fully part of the new Wales that we seek to build.

Devolution will be stronger with renewed engagement from the people we serve.

So it is only fitting that as we look to shape the next ten years of devolution in Wales, we seek to engage and include the public to a greater degree in the decisions that we take.

That we give them a greater say.

Wales has a proud record of local community involvement.

Welsh Conservatives have a proud record in local government - in fighting Labour's cuts to local schools, for example, or Labour's attempts to hike council tax to record levels.

The challenge for us will be to join these up, and ensure that local and central government meet the aspirations of local people.

It will be to secure the promise of devolution.

<h3>5. Constitutional Reform</h3>

This will mean earning the public's trust in the very way government works as well.

For the final part of our preparations for government must involve the mechanisms of government itself.

It is the logical last piece of the jigsaw.

Take the Assembly Government's housing LCO.

Many people in Wales don't understand what an LCO is.

According to Sir Emyr Jones Parry, many perhaps don't even care - but would rather watch the rugby!

After the series defeat to South Africa, this is not a sustainable policy for the health of the people of Wales!

Nor is the ad hoc manner in which a Secretary of State and selected MPs at Westminster currently decide which powers Wales can have and which it cannot.

It's clear to most that the way we govern in Wales needs to be improved.

Except Labour.

Personally, I just don't buy Rhodri Morgan's assertion that the LCO process is "creaky" simply because it's new.

I do not share Paul Murphy's optimism that it will "smooth" itself out in the end. Instead I believe that Legislative Competence Orders, and the Government of Wales Act that ushered them in, were a political sticking plaster from Labour to cover up the cracks in their own party.

The current LCO system converts the UK Parliament into the Senedd's Mr Bumble. It is unsustainable in the long-term.

We believe in the long run that the LCO system needs looking at.

And it is essential that in any such constitutional change, and unlike with Labour's reforms in 2006, the public are fully consulted.

At this point my own view is that short of pestilence, war or famine - or more realistically a swine flu outbreak or foot and mouth - it is unthinkable that any request from the Assembly would be blocked from a Conservative Secretary of State.

Both Cheryl Gillan and David Cameron are passionate supporters of Wales, and that is why we have had the continued success that we have.

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

The Welsh Conservative Party has changed a great deal since 1999.

There's still a long way for us to go.

We need to do more to bring more ethnic minority candidates into the fold and more women too.

We need to use modern technology to make sure that we constantly engage with those that might otherwise not develop an interest.

But exciting policy announcements have put us on the right track.

As we look towards the next Assembly elections, I am convinced that a shift in the way we define government, away from Labour's one size fits all culture towards public policy built on less State and more society, will stand us in good stead.

I believe that with a new settlement with the people of Wales, one that:

trusts them to use their expertise in the delivery of public services;

is honest with them about what we can and cannot afford;

and one which involves and engages people both locally and in terms of the bigger questions that we face.

We can be confident of a brighter future for our nation.

I believe that Welsh Conservatives are ready to realise the full promise of devolution.

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