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Just giving?

Betsan Powys | 14:30 UK time, Thursday, 17 April 2008

Who does the Welsh Labour party want us to focus on in the run-up to these local elections?

Who was their local election party political broadcast all about?

Who, this morning, made the kind of speech that is very hard to ignore?

That'll be Rhodri Morgan, who "weak-minded members of the commentariat" - more about them in a moment - have dubbed the freebie First Minister.

From free prescriptions to free school breakfasts to free car parking in Welsh hospitals, the so-called 'giveaway policies' may have been popular with most but some are sensing an obsession, a free-something-or-other on special offer every time you pull up at the Assembly Government forecourt.

Today came the rebuttal.

This is how the argument goes: that the so-called giveaway policies are a distinctive Welsh approach that other governments - in Scotland and Northern Ireland - are now aping. The freebies are one of many deliberate, calculated measures designed to persuade those surviving on benefits that they won't lose out by going back to work. Giving away is just one of the "many clubs in the bag" this government is using to try and galvanise the labour market and drag the Welsh figures for economic activity upwards, so that they do more than touch the hem of the Scottish statistics.

Now that still doesn't sound to me like a defence of giving free prescriptions to everyone, yes, including those millionaires we trot out at times like this to drive home the point. and it was no surprise either that it seemed to go down well enough at the Welfare to Work conference (with its logo of a pared down red and green rainbow by the way).

So what about these "weak-minded members of the commentariat" who slam the freebies - the curious words that leapt off the page of the pre-released speech and the press release? Commentariat? Who is he talking about?

Well Rhodri Morgan never did utter those words, nor anything like them. He always did tend to wander off script ("looking into people's eyes is far more important") but the sentiment , he insisted afterwards to confused reporters, "was there" even if he didn't stick to the script.

So I'll ask again: who are they? Who has recently criticised the Welsh Assembly Government for concentrating too much on free stuff?

There's the Conservative, Alun Cairns, on free school breakfasts: "It's time to put this expensive, ill-thought-out gimmick to bed".

And there's Liberal Democrat, Jenny Randerson on "free prescriptions for millionaires and parking in hospitals for commuters ... putting headline grabbing gimmicks ahead of patient care".

But hang on, who was it who said more than once that it made no sense to spend NHS money on "subsidising anyone who wants to park in a hospital car park for free"?

And who said that the Welsh Assembly Government should prioritise "sharp" rather than "soft" services, skill and business support rather than free schemes?

It was Ben Bradshaw, the Labour Minister in charge of health in England and the former Labour Secretary of State, Peter Hain who spelled out his thoughts very clearly here.

The First Minister couldn't possibly having been thinking of them - now could he?


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