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Politics, Welsh Government

Negotiating the Welsh Budget in public and in hindsight

At the time, the exchange in First Minister’s Questions between Carwyn Jones and Kirsty Williams less than a fortnight ago (November 15th) seemed to see the two leaders going through the usual FMQs motions. The only difference was that later that afternoon saw Labour’s draft budget defeated in a vote in the Assembly.

In the light of the subsequent deal announced on Friday, which will see the Lib Dems backing the Labour Welsh Government’s budget, it opens a fascinating window onto their negotiations which were already underway by this point.

Most notably, the First Minister’s tetchy gibes at Kirsty Williams seem to betray his irritation that she’s chosen this subject to discuss publicly:

These are issues that form part of the discussions between our two parties.

… perhaps, standing on our feet here is not the best way to negotiate over the next two minutes, I look forward to continuing these discussions at the appropriate time.

… we are more than happy to continue the discussions that we have already had.

He also criticises the Pupil Premium as introduced in England:

It is not extra money; it is money from within the education budget that has simply been moved around.

And he reminds her that there’s not much room for manoeuvre in his budget to pay for such a scheme:

… there is no money in reserves; money would have to be moved from another part of the budget.

Kirsty Williams, meanwhile, accuses Carwyn Jones of ‘fundamentally misrepresenting policy in England’ and calls on him to introduce a ‘statesman’s budget’:

First Minister, Wales cannot afford a politician’s short-term fix to get your budget through this afternoon. Do you not agree that what we need is a statesman’s budget that makes the right choices for our education system now and for the future?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Here’s the full record of proceedings:

The Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats (Kirsty Williams): First Minister, do you agree that education does more than shape the life chances of individuals or achieve economic success, and that education is fundamental to building a just, inclusive and fair society? If you believe that, why will you not back Welsh Liberal Democrats’ proposals to help close the funding gap between Welsh and English schools and find extra money to help our poorest children?

The First Minister: We have made a commitment to close the funding gap that exists; it was one of the pledges that we took into the election. The pledge has been fulfilled as a result of our budget. These are issues that form part of the discussions between our two parties.

Kirsty Williams: The reality is that the education announcements that you have made to date will have little appreciable effect on closing the gap. In Wales, only one in five children who have free school meals, which are our poorest children, get five good GCSEs at grade A* to C. Society pays the price for education failure: three quarters of young offenders describe their academic attainment as nil; two thirds of employers say that schools do not equip young people with the skills that they need for the workforce; one third of young people excluded from school are involved in substance misuse. That is the long-term impact of a short-term failure to invest. Does the Labour party really disagree with directing extra resources to the poorest children to give them the extra help that they need to succeed?

The First Minister: No, but we would disagree with any system where money is diverted from other schools to pay for that, which is what has happened in England. It is not extra money; it is money from within the education budget that has simply been moved around. That said, I appreciate the comments and the force behind them. While, perhaps, standing on our feet here is not the best way to negotiate over the next two minutes, I look forward to continuing these discussions at the appropriate time.

Kirsty Williams: Of course, the First Minister fundamentally misrepresents policy in England. However, I am particularly interested in policy in Wales and Welsh schoolchildren. It is said that a politician thinks of his party, and a statesperson thinks of the country. First Minister, Wales cannot afford a politician’s short-term fix to get your budget through this afternoon. Do you not agree that what we need is a statesman’s budget that makes the right choices for our education system now and for the future?

The First Minister: I agree. I think it is important that people put country before party. We saw that with Nick Clegg, of course, as he sold students down the river. The second point that should be made is that of course there needs to be a budget that is, as the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats put it, statesmanlike, but it is also important that the proposals that come forward from other parties are sensible. That means that, where it is proposed that more money should be spent in a particular area, consideration must be given as to where that money will come from—there is no money in reserves; money would have to be moved from another part of the budget. That is perfectly sensible, and it is what the people of Wales expect. On that basis, we are more than happy to continue the discussions that we have already had.

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About Adrian Masters

By day, Political Editor at ITV Wales. By night, obsessed with music and books.

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