Jones's 'harsh reality' as Welsh assembly nears Christmas

Carwyn Jones The first minister is finding assembly debates are hotting up in time for Christmas

The performance of the Welsh government is already being used as a political football at Westminster, something we can expect to continue as we get closer to the general election.

The first minister won't want to provide the Conservatives, in particular, with any ammunition.

The problem for him is that this is what's happening with some of the indicators covering health, education and the economy which have been published in the past few weeks.

Carwyn Jones had two major opportunities to address these issues - at his news conference on Monday marking four years in the job, and also the final First Minister's Questions of the Year.

At times in the news conference, he was in reflective mood, describing the referendum on further law-making powers, and the implementation of the organ donation bill as highlights.

But during questioning he was dragged back to the here and now of the harsh reality of missed NHS targets and a poor showing in the Pisa education league table.

Right direction

And in First Minister's Questions, Plaid and the Lib Dems both tried to build on what they'd like to see emerge as a narrative of under-performance.

Plaid's leader Leanne Wood said it sounded like he was saying to the assembly members "Crisis, what crisis?"

Carwyn Jones laughed it off as a cliche and insisted health and education are going in the right direction.

There are times when the claims from the opposition leaders in the assembly chamber and in the press briefings, and then the claims from the first minister appear to exist in parallel universes. So where's the truth?

Let's take the latest headlines on health. This week, responses to FoI requests by the BBC showed that one patient in Wales was forced to wait six hours in an ambulance after arriving at an A&E department.

The day after that hit the news, Dr Mark Poulden, a senior consultant at Morriston Hospital, told a committee of AMs he spent most of his eight-hour shift on Monday treating patients in the back of ambulances in the car park.

Digest

When asked, the first minister's response was three-fold.

The first is that the vast majority of patients wait no longer than twenty minutes. Secondly, those that have to wait longer don't have life threatening conditions, and thirdly he points to the fact that the ambulance service actually hit its latest target for responding to the most urgent calls.

Although what he didn't say is that it's the first time that target has been met in a year and a half.

And then what about education? People have had more than a week to digest the international PISA rankings.

The figures put Wales at the bottom of the UK league tables.

The main defence here is that changes, such as the literacy framework, annual tests and school banding, will take time to have an impact. So the message is, in effect, "stick with us and things will get better".

And the Welsh government is sticking by its ambitious target of being in the top 20 when the next results are out in 2015.

There has been plenty of soul-searching about what's happened in schools in Wales to leave pupils trailing others in the UK.

Nations and regions

The education minister Huw Lewis says there is a question about the Welsh government taking its eye off the ball in the mid 2000's around the basics of education.

On the historical perspective, all Carwyn Jones says is that there has been a clear problem with implementation of policy.

And today we've had the latest figures on GVA, or the value of goods and services produced in the nations and regions in the UK.

Wales remains at the bottom of the pile in the UK, although the figures here are improving at a faster rate than other areas.

Now the first minister, like his predecessor Rhodri Morgan, insists that GVA doesn't give the best picture of the Welsh economy.

The Welsh government says it's much better to focus on disposable household income figures, which take into account the wealth of the comparatively higher proportion of retired people in Wales. You won't be surprised to learn that Wales performs better in household income than GVA.

He also points to a decent performance in unemployment figures in Wales, compared to other parts of the UK.

That may be the case, but the reality is that GVA measures the value of the goods and services produced in Wales and we are still at the bottom in the UK.

Whether ministers like it or not, until these figures improve the Welsh government is always going to be vulnerable to the criticism that it's not delivering on the economy.

The assembly may be winding down for Christmas, but the debates on the three pillars of everyday life - health, education and the economy - are just hotting up.

Nick Servini Article written by Nick Servini Nick Servini Political editor, Wales

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