BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 01.12.02

Interview: RHODRI MORGAN, First Minister of the Welsh Assembly

Says he has no desire to take over negotiations with the fire-fighters and has no desire for the Welsh Assembly to acquire tax raising powers.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: When the people of Wales voted in favour of their own Assembly they did so with a remarkable lack of enthusiasm. Only half bothered to vote at all and the devolutionists won by a whisker. The sceptics say very little has been achieved since then and the Assembly is not much more than an expensive talking shop. The enthusiasts say if that's true it's because it needs more power. Unlike Scotland it does not have a Parliament that can pass primary legislation or raise income tax. So what does the man in charge think? Rhodri Morgan is the First Minister and he's in our Cardiff studio. Good afternoon Mr Morgan. RHODRI MORGAN MP: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: You've no problem admitting to your differences with London, indeed some say that you positively delight in them, but you don't have the powers that Scotland has, talking to Jack McConnell a few minutes ago as you know. And that makes it more difficult for you to deliver what you might want to deliver. MORGAN: Well we've delivered an awful lot with the powers that we've got. We've delivered Assembly learning grants for higher education and further education students, the first children's commissioner, an independent ombudsman for children's rights in Wales, free bus passes with free bus travel for old age pensioners and disabled people in Wales, I could go on. The list of achievements in three and a half years of an action packed programme I think is there as a tribute to the powers that we have got and how effectively we've used them. HUMPHRYS: But let me give you an example of where - and I gave this suggestion to Jack McConnell as well, where you might want to do something different and that is the fire dispute. Now, you would rather like to have the power and it is being talked about as I understand at the moment, to deal separately from England with the Fire Brigades. MORGAN: Absolutely not, I don't know who's told you that, but it couldn't be further from the truth. We have always set our faces against having civil servants from the Welsh Assembly government actually conducting pay negotiations separately for Wales for Health Service staff, it's all done on an England and Wales basis, for teachers that's done on an England and Wales basis and likewise for the Fire Brigade, it's slightly mysterious, it is effectively done on a UK basis although it's the local government association that does it on an England and Wales basis, and Scotland have to come in behind it, as Jack McConnell explained. We have no ambitions in that regard to have different pay rates for public service workers in Wales. HUMPHRYS: But wouldn't it help to in the sense that Mr Gilchrist, the FBU leader wants to get away as he puts it, from new Labour and back to real Labour as he puts it. You'd quite like to do that too wouldn't you? MORGAN: Well, I've always described myself personally as classic Labour. I don't recognise the term 'Real Labour'. I mean I'm not sure what game he is playing there, but I do think that in terms of the FBU I do fear after the eight day strike now that the FBU is in danger of doing what the water workers did to themselves when they went on strike twenty or thirty years ago, when what they did was to demonstrate that they were not as indispensable as everybody previously thought they were including themselves, and there's an enormous danger in strike action in the public service, if that's what the outcome is. Don't go down the water workers' road, because I don't think that's very wise at all. We are not involved in the negotiations and have no ambitions to be involved in the negotiations. HUMPHRYS: Nonetheless your advice would be to them, get back round the table quickly even if it's not our table? MORGAN: Absolutely. HUMPHRYS: Let's give you another illustration then, perhaps you'd agree with this one, where you could make a difference if you had more powers and that's the power to raise taxes perhaps. The National Health Service, the Health Service in Wales. The worst waiting lists in Europe. You have spent more money of course, but you need to spend more don't you? You promised nobody would wait for more than six months for out-patients treatment and eighteen months for in-patient care. At the end of August it was eighty-four thousand, you know the figures as well as I, waiting for out-patient care, four thousand for in-patient care. You are not going to meet your target there are you, you could do with a bit of extra cash? MORGAN: Yes, but I mean you've seen that the Scottish Parliament is not using the power that it has, so that's really a very bad example to quote, because if they've got the power and they're not using it and we haven't got the power, then I think anybody would say that if we did have that power we wouldn't use it either. HUMPHRYS: Wouldn't you? MORGAN: So we have to find the solutions in a different way and we are finding those solutions by increasing the intake in the medical schools of Wales by eighty nine per cent from 1999 to 2005. We would increase it faster if you could recruit lecturers in the medical schools, but you can't do it any faster than an eighty nine per cent increase and similar increases for growing more of our own nurses, professions allied to medicine as well because we don't want to be stripping South Africa of all its doctors and the Philippines of its nurses unless they actually want us to, so we are expanding the capacity of the National Health Service to treat as fast as you humanly can. It's not a matter of taxation, it's the human capacity to treat. Consultants do not grow on trees, it takes ten years to train them and we are training them very very rapidly indeed, but they're not there yet and the increase in the out-patient waiting list is a consequence of our going for a primary healthcare led system with national frameworks, national service frameworks, for coronary heart disease, for diabetes, rheumatism and arthritis and as soon as you do that, you see consultants having to treat more and more people in the community, frail elderly people with heart trouble or diabetes, or arthritis, and that makes it very difficult then to handle new cases as they come screen. HUMPHRYS: So...but one way or the other, you're not going to make that target, are you and you're not saying you couldn't do with a bit more cash, surely? MORGAN: Well, we have been given a large amount of additional cash by Gordon Brown and we know that as regards health from April 1st next year where we are going to be as regards cash for five years ahead, so that then you can've got the capacity to plan ahead. The expansion of the staffing capability and therefore the treatment capability of the NHS in Wales. For other public services we know where we are for three years ahead from April 1st next year, it's a very, very good platform to build on, given the size of the increases that Gordon Brown has given us. HUMPHRYS: But I mean, you knew that people got sick before you set these targets, didn't you? MORGAN: Well, we didn't know what the consequence of introducing national service frameworks was going to be. What you do with national service frameworks, you go out and find the vulnerable at risk categories and you bring them in for treatment and you need more consultants to do that and you cannot just pull consultants out of know, from the unemployment register, they're just not there. HUMPHRYS: So, you don't want the extra cash or so it would seem. Let's suggest to you that maybe you might want...possibly want some other powers though it seems to be saying seem to be saying that you don't want tax raising powers, we've got the Richard Commission looking at this whole area and I know that you're going to say that well we're going to have wait and see what they say, but you're already apparently saying that we don't want tax raising powers, are you saying you don't want more powers? MORGAN: No, we are asking for more powers - individually we have said we want the transfer of animal health powers from Westminster to Wales, that was one of the lessons from the foot-and-mouth disease inquiry. We are looking at a wide range of areas where there are individual things where we think we could deal with it better because there's a clear lesson from some incidents that have occurred like the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic. But we don't get obsessed with this, it's a...we are delivering public services to the people of Wales in the way that they want them. We are bringing down unemployment to forty-six and a half thousand now in Wales compared to its peak during the Tory years of hundred and sixty-eight and a half thousand during the year 1986. It's back now to 1975 levels. There was an increase in the total number of jobs in the Welsh economy last year of thirty-three thousand from September '01 to September '02. These are huge achievements which we have done in partnership with Westminster. We are doing a good job for the people of Wales. HUMPHRYS: If the Richard Commission were to recommend fairly drastic things, such as the ability for you to raise tax, whether you wanted to raise it or not and I accept you might not want to raise it but, nonetheless, if you were to do that, you would say what? - we'd have to have a referendum before that could be agreed, or what? MORGAN: The whole purpose of setting up the Richard Commission is for them to be able to report back to the Assembly with the ability to look back at the whole of the Assembly's first term, so they will be reporting in about October of next year, ten months', eleven months' time, and then the Assembly will debate the consequences...well the conclusions rather, of the Richard Commission. And then it's a matter really for each party to pick that up in any way that they want. They will either reject or accept part or all of the Richard Commission recommendations and then it's a natural consequence of that, that each party will look at it and will say: right, well what we do we want to put in the manifesto for the next general election - full acceptance of any recommendations from the Richard Commission, what are the consequences of that, for the need for another referendum, if it was that kind of change that they were proposing. If that's what the Assembly accepted, that's a matter for parties to take forward, as parties always do, there's no magic about it and no rocket science. HUMPHRYS: Rhodri Morgan, many thanks. MORGAN: Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.