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From the Senedd: Bethan Jenkins

09/03/2022

By Bethan Jenkins, AM.

 

This has been a week for confirmations.

 

Firstly, with its decision to close seven of nine Remploy factories, the UK Government has confirmed what Plaid has been saying for some time – that it really has no plan for the economy other than stuffing pound notes into the already bulging pockets of those that least deserve it.

 

This week also confirmed that the Labour Government in Wales has no alternative to offer people living here.

 

We should not take any pride in having our worst fears realised, because the absence of imaginative solutions in Westminster and a dearth of radical answers from the Welsh Government spells even more trouble for our economy, as myself and Plaid colleagues including Alun Ffred Jones highlighted in a Plaid debate on Wednesday.

 

The debate sparked Labour into action, but not of the kind that people in Wales require. Instead, the Welsh branch of the party chose to play shoot-the-messenger, demonstrating an embarrassingly poor grasp of mathematics and, unbelievably, sticking up for a procurement status quo which, it finally accepts, disadvantages Welsh SMEs.

 

The Remploy announcement has to be regarded as totally unacceptable here in Wales. What it demonstrates is the total cluelessness and resultant hypocrisy of a Tory party that claims a mantle of competent financial stewardship without any just justification whatsoever.

 

The UK Government has spent the past 18 months effectively demonising disabled people in an attempt to cut the welfare bill and so balance off the money given to the financial industry. It has trailed welfare reform – with the suggestion, of course, that reform means long-overdue improvement – and has tacitly encouraged (through failing to tackle the matter) endless tales of benefit fraud and undeserving claimants in the right wing press.

 

This, of course, helps shape the public mood, hardening attitudes towards some of the most vulnerable people in society, and thus making it easier for ministers to reduce or do away with the cost to the Exchequer.

 

What is also sad about this state of affairs is that it has no basis in reality. Welfare error (which includes fraud) is estimated at its most generous to cost around £1bn a year – just a fraction of the still-largely-unpaid Vodafone tax bill and far less than the £20bn a year estimated to be lost to the Treasury through avoided, evaded and uncollected tax. In fact, the Tories’ solution to this requirement to improve tax collection was to fire tens of thousands of HMRC staff.

 

Now, having said that it is the intended desire of the UK Government to see more disabled people back at work, it contradicts itself once more by destroying much of what was one of the best ways of doing that.

 

I have visited Remploy factories many times, and it’s very hard for me and other Plaid representatives who have done the same to get past the utter heartbreak this will bring to Remploy employees, many of whom live for jobs that provided much more than just an income.

 

But the political debate here is about getting all of the economy rather than selective parts to work. The Prime Minister has spent considerable time talking about diversifying away from our dependence upon the Square Mile. What he fails to appreciate that it is in places like Remploy Bridgend that this is achieved. We’re turning a tanker here, as we have to undo four decades of relying on the City to deliver prosperity.

 

In acting like a spoilt child who casts aside a new toy because it fails to match his unrealistic expectations, the Prime Minister merely demonstrates that he has no stomach for the huge changes required, particularly in post-industrial and rural Wales. It gives me no pride to say this, but Plaid has known for some time that we cannot expect Westminster to deliver for us. Ed Miliband’s “redistributive union” is laughable – where is the evidence that this would ever work? Plaid now needs to frame the economic debate here in Wales so that people ask not whether we can afford independence, but rather how much longer we can go on affording the union.

 

 

We should not forget Labour’s complicity in this state of affairs. It closed plenty of Remploy factories while in government in Westminster, while the Welsh Government has been asked on a number of occasions – particularly by Leanne Wood AM – if it would seek the devolved budget from London. It has failed to do this and so it must bear some responsibility for what has happened. It can do that by acting now to retrieve what it can from this situation and see if there is still scope to devolve responsibility for Remploy to Wales.

 

 

The main problem – and something I highlighted in the Plaid debate on the economy – is the almost static speed with which the Welsh Government does anything. Indeed, it appears to have become so process obsessed that the Business Minister, having dismantled much of what was good in the Economic Renewal Programme introduced by Ieuan Wyn Jones, saw nothing wrong in announcing in the autumn what amounted to yet another reorganisation of her department as some kind of major government initiative. She and other ministers appear to have forgotten – or simply don’t realise – that it is outcomes that business and people in Wales want, not just re-arranging the office.

 

 

As such, this slow and ponderous Welsh Government has shown that it simply is not able to answer the needs of Welsh business, which thrives on flexibility and agility. Welsh business deserves better – from Westminster and from Cardiff Bay.