There's been a fair bit of public discussion about the Welsh Assembly Government budget which was presented this last week. Must admit that when I was an Assembly Member myself, I never saw the budget debate as being that significant - even when I was opposition spokesman on finance. Nothing like as significant as budget day in the House of Commons. And that's because it was no more than a debate about spending plans. Always thought that while the National Assembly has no power to raise money, the disagreements between parties could only be at the margin. But this year, there does seem to be a disagreement of rather more significance.
There are two 'background' issues. Firstly, because the Chancellor protected NHS and schools spending in England in his Comprehensive Spending Review, the block grant being made available to the Assembly Government is probably a bit more generous than was anticipated. (The 'block' is calculated as about 5% of whatever is spent by the Treasury on devolved policy areas - and both health and schools are devolved). And secondly, we're told that the % reduction is higher for Wales than for Scotland or N.Ireland - though I'm unsure how accurate this is. In any case, the differences are so marginal as to be almost irrelevant. And I suppose there is the third long standing background issue of the formula by which the annual block grant is calculated supposedly shortchanging Wales by up to about around £300million - which can only be 'corrected' if the Scottish block grant is significantly cut back. Maybe Ieuan Wyn Jones is discussing this with Alex Salmond as we speak - or not! This third issue is a 'red herring' as far as this post is concerned though.
Anyway, let's get to the significant difference I referred to. The Assembly Government has announced a reduction in the Health and Social Services spending, to the tune of around 7.6% over 3 years. This differs from the Coalition Government at Westminster which is committed to increasing health care spending by the rate of inflation for each of the next four years. The Conservatives in the Assembly have decided to match the UK Government's commitment - and to publish a fully costed budget before Christmas. I like the sound of this, but I can see that it's going to be difficult. Health and social services spending is a far higher proportion of total spending in Cardiff than it is at Westminster. Looking forwards to seeing how the figures work out for other services. I do think its rather a positive thing to have this genuine difference of approach. Good for debate. Probably the most significant difference in spending plans between 'government' and 'opposition' since the Assembly was created in 1999.