I am most grateful to the WLGA for inviting me to this important conference. It is a particular pleasure for me to be asked to come here so…
I am most grateful to the WLGA for inviting me to this important conference.
It is a particular pleasure for me to be asked to come here so soon after becoming Welsh Minister and to address an audience that includes leading figures from public service and business in Wales.
As a North Walian who has lived most of his life in and around Llandudno - the town where I set up my own legal practice - I find this occasion even more special.
After all, who could resist an invitation to exchange another day behind a desk in Whitehall for the chance to speak to such a distinguished gathering in such a beautiful town in one of the finest parts of Wales?
And I am sure you will understand that I speak with no hint whatever of local bias.
Today, you will have heard a great deal about the challenges that we all face across the UK and to which Wales is no exception.
I would therefore like to use this opportunity to talk to you about some of the key priorities of our new coalition government and in particular about what we can all do together to achieve our aims in this extremely difficult economic climate.
Indeed, I do not believe that we can build a better future for this country - which is surely something we all want - unless we do work together.
We have already shown that at a national level a partnership can work.
The formation of the coalition government came as a surprise to many; but how can we politicians call on people to work together to face our current difficulties if we ourselves are not willing to work together, too?
So David Cameron and Nick Clegg were right to recognise that partnership government was what the British people had in effect voted for and that it was up to them and their parties to make it work.
This Government’s priority must of course be to tackle the deficit.
As the Prime Minister made clear last week, it is imperative that we take urgent action to repair the public finances.
That is the only way we can create the confidence needed for sustained economic recovery.
Last year, our budget deficit was the largest in our peacetime history.
Today, the national debt stands at £890 billion.
Based on the previous Government’s projections, within just five years that debt is set to rise to £1.4 trillion, equivalent to some £22,000 for every man, woman and child in the country.
In five years’ time the interest we pay on the national debt is predicted to be around £67 billion.
That means that for every pound you pay in tax, 10 pence will be spent servicing the debt.
That it is more than twice what we receive in corporation tax from businesses around the country.
If we fail to confront our problems we will suffer a rapid erosion of confidence in our economy and increasing interest rates - which will hurt families, communities and businesses across the UK and cause still further damage to our public finances.
That is why we have been clear that urgent and effective action is critical and must not be put off, an approach endorsed recently by, among others, the G20, the Governor of the Bank of England and the OECD.
We have also been very clear about how we must take that action. It must be in a way that protects the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. And in a way that unites our country, rather than divides it.
In a way that acknowledges that we’re all in this together.
Fairness will be at the very heart of what this Government will do, along with freedom and responsibility.
Yes, it will be tough.
But it will also be fair.
I understand that Jane Hutt spoke to you earlier today.
Let me immediately pay tribute to Jane for her willingness to acknowledge that the deficit has to be reduced and that Wales must play its own part in doing so.
We in Government want to work constructively with Welsh ministers such as Jane and with the Assembly, local authorities and our other partners across Wales.
We acknowledge and respect the devolution settlement.
And we understand of course that the Assembly Government have their own commitments and priorities.
So we have we have given them the freedom and flexibility to postpone all or part of the necessary spending reductions until next year.
We also want to make sure that people, businesses and organisations across the country - including local government - have the opportunity to put forward their own ideas for finding savings and reducing the deficit.
The cuts that have to be made will affect each and every one of us, so it is right that we should all have the opportunity to have our say.
So the Chancellor is pioneering a new, open approach, to the forthcoming spending review to allow just this.
The devolved administrations will of course have their own spending priorities, and they will be free to find the necessary savings in the ways they see fit.
But we want to create a new approach in which ideas are shared, improved and adapted so that we can all benefit from innovative ways of generating efficiencies, wherever and whoever those ideas come from.
Freedom, fairness and responsibility are the values at the heart of our coalition Government.
They are the values that will drive our efforts to deal with our deficit.
And they are also the values that will underpin our work to turn our economy around.
So what should we do to help build strong, sustainable growth?
First, we must give the private sector the freedom to expand.
All of us in Government, both central and local, have a role to play in this.
But let’s be clear: Government alone can’t create economic growth.
Businesses do that.
But what Government can and must do is to create the conditions in which businesses thrive.
We have to recognise that Wales has historically relied too heavily on the public sector and that this has arguably held back the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that we so desperately need.
The private sector in Wales must be given the freedom to expand, so that it can build real and long-lasting prosperity for this country.
We must free businesses from the stranglehold of excess regulation which costs them over £80 billion a year.
That is why we are introducing a “one-in one-out” rule so that Ministers can impose a new regulation on business only if they can identify one that can be removed.
And that is why we are also introducing “sunset clauses” to ensure that no regulation outlives its need, and why we will make it easier to set up new businesses, by for example, introducing “one click” registration.
Secondly, we must build a strong recovery based on fairness throughout our corporate and personal tax regimes.
This will begin with a reversal of the most damaging part of the National Insurance increases planned for next year by the previous Government.
Those increases would have increased the tax burden on businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, precisely when we need such companies to expand and grow.
We want to reform and simplify our corporate tax regime to make it the most competitive in the G20.
We will raise the threshold at which people pay income tax - ultimately to £10,000 - to make work more rewarding, particularly for those on low incomes.
We want a prosperous Wales, where companies from all over the world want to come to do business.
And we recognise that we cannot do that alone.
As the Prime Minister said when he visited Cardiff less than a week after being invited to form a Government, we need to work together with the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities to ensure that all of us deliver for the people of Wales.
And thirdly, we recognise that freedom and fairness must be balanced with responsibility.
The coalition Government has already taken on the huge task of tackling the legacy of public debt left by the previous administration but we need to instil a new sense of social responsibility if we are to build a more prosperous future.
That means, for example, making unemployment benefits conditional on looking for work and reassessing the fitness for work of existing incapacity benefit claimants.
This is not about depriving people of benefits that they are entitled to; it is rather about encouraging people to take responsibility for their own lives.
For some, at present, work simply does not pay.
They are better off on benefits.
That cannot be allowed to continue; it is not good for people and it is not good for the country.
So we will make sure that those who can work are better off in work.
These foundations of freedom, fairness and responsibility will help drive the growth that Wales needs. **
**Energy and Green Jobs
An area where we can do more to help create jobs and wealth is in energy generation.
Wales has huge renewable energy potential.
But it’s not just about renewables.
We accept that there is a divergence of views on nuclear construction but I believe that nuclear power generation - without public subsidy - has a part to play in ensuring the right mix of energy generation in the UK, alongside other low carbon technologies such as carbon capture and storage.
That means that here in North Wales, we all recognise that the construction of Wylfa B would be a much needed boost to the Welsh economy, in particular to job creation and the local economy of Anglesey, as well as contributing to the UK’s energy security.
And we, in the Wales Office, will work with our colleagues in the key UK Government Departments to remove any obstacles to investment in new nuclear power generation, such as Wylfa B.
I’ve talked about the importance of working together at all levels.
This means securing democratic engagement and putting responsibility and power back into the hands of communities.
But what steps are we taking to achieve this and what difference will it make to you and the people of Wales?
In the area of planning we have listened to calls to address the consents process for major infrastructure projects.
Therefore we will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with a fast and efficient process that is not only transparent but is also - crucially - democratically accountable.
We want our police forces to be more accountable to the people they police.
We are removing bureaucratic meddling from Whitehall and will return the power to those who know how to do the job best - the police in their communities.
But with that greater freedom must come responsibility and accountability.
That is why we will be establishing elected commissioners who will be directly accountable to local people.
Across Wales and England we want to ensure that the voices of law-abiding citizens are heard.
And we are determined to give individuals and communities a proper say over how their streets are run.
We will be restoring more rights to individuals - determined to return to Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness.
We will reverse the erosion of civil liberties by scrapping ID cards and further regulating the use of CCTV.
We have listened to what the electorate want and we are determined to put in place policies that will make a real difference to people’s lives - where it matters most, in the communities in which they live.
Role of the Wales Office
You may ask what is the role of the Wales Office in all this.
The short answer is: to act as a bridge between Whitehall and the Assembly Government in Cardiff.
To ensure that divergent policies pursued in Wales and London don’t inadvertently short-change the citizen.
Thousands of people cross the border between England and Wales every day - without thinking about it and certainly without seeing it as a barrier.
And, of course, the border should not be a barrier.
Devolution in Wales will, of course result in different approaches by government on either side of the border.
But as the devolution settlement continues to mature, we must remain alive to the potential for disadvantage to citizens if policies on either side of the border do not dovetail sufficiently.
The coalition Government respects devolution and the right for the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly for Wales to hold different views, and to develop different policies.
That is not in question.
However, the acid test must be: “what is the effect of divergence on the citizen”?
If transport links on either side of the border don’t join up or if you lose your place on a hospital waiting list because you’ve moved into Wales or conversely into England it is not enough to be told “well, that is devolution”.
People on both sides of the border are entitled to proper service from Government and should not have to endure lower levels of service as a result of poor co-ordination between the two systems.
The Secretary of State and I see a key role for the Wales Office in making sure these wrinkles are identified and ironed out.
We will be proactive in looking for them, and will work with colleagues in Whitehall and the Assembly Government to find better ways of joining up cross-border services.
I hope you all today will be quick to tell us what problems exist, so that we can be equally quick to address them.
With thought and effort it can be done.
There are excellent examples of cross-border planning and co-operation by local government, including for example, the Mersey-Dee Alliance, which has successfully influenced the regional and local transport plans in North East Wales and Cheshire.
Our task will to make innovative co-operation like this the norm rather than the exception.
It has been far too long, in my view, since we asked ourselves the question: what is Government really for?
And not just national Government, but all levels of Government.
Yes, we are facing tough times, but these times present us with a rare opportunity to question what role we are - and what role we should be - playing in the lives of the citizens we are here to serve.
They also give us the chance to reflect on what it is we are all trying to achieve.
In Wales, uniquely, we have administrations of all colours at various levels of Government.
But, although we come from different political traditions, we do - or should - have one common aim:
to make life better for every citizen of Wales.
And in spite of the difficulties we face, we can achieve that, if we really want to.
Not through squabbling and political point scoring, but by working together to provide the conditions and the context in which communities, businesses and families can flourish.
By freeing individuals and businesses from needless Government interference and giving them the space to succeed.
By building a fairer society in which someone’s background does not dictate their future - and in which someone’s postcode does not dictate the level of service they receive.
By giving back to people responsibility for their own lives and for their communities - supporting those who need it, but giving those who can help themselves every encouragement to do so.
These are aims that we can all sign up to, in all parties and in all levels of Government.
It is up to all of us to work together - Whitehall, the Assembly Government and councils right across Wales - to make these aims a reality.
Thank you for listening me.
I look forward to working with you.