Political parties clash on levels of protection for environmental health services in Wales

Representatives from the leading political parties in Wales all agreed environmental health is important but clashed on how services will be protected in the future.  

Wales conf 2016 - panel debate

The panellists take a question from the floor

Discussions on the future of environmental health services and the recent failure of the Public Health (Wales) Bill took place during a Question Time-themed panel debate at CIEH Wales’s Annual Conference.

Chaired by David Daycock, an experienced Barrister, the panel debate took place on Thursday 21 April and saw representatives from the Labour, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrat, Green and the Conservative parties answer questions from the conference delegates. UKIP were invited to take part but did not attend on the day.

The first question asked the panel whether they agreed environmental health made a unique contribution to health and what would they do to protect the service if they form the next Government.

Vaughan Gething, former Deputy Minister for Health in the outgoing Welsh Government, said that the Labour Government had made a difficult decision to invest more money into the NHS at the expense of local government.

The former Minister said he wanted to be “honest” with the audience and said that while environmental health is important, there was no more money, leading to difficult choices, and that this situation was likely to persist into the next Government term.

Leader of the Green Party in Wales, Alice Hooker-Stroud, said that Wales is heading in the wrong direction. She put forward that cuts are a “false economy” and while savings are made in the short term, it denies people access to facilities and further pushes them further into poverty.

Alice Hooker-Stroud suggested the Government needed look at alternative sources of income, believing Wales’s “abundant” resources would generate income to invest in public health and environmental health, the “foundation of a healthy society”.

Plaid Cymru’s Dr Ian Johnson said that environmental health issues was a class issue and problems with noise, for example, disproportionately affected people in deprived areas. Ian Johnson complained that funding cuts have resulted in a loss of staff with experience which hampers services and said he would look to protect services. But he also said he would not provide ring-fence guarantees for environmental health.

Denis Campbell, a businessman for more than 30 years, representing the Liberal Democrats said that funding cuts have hampered economic development. He suggested the government needed to implement measures to grow and attract businesses to Wales, with the additional tax income paying for local services.

The Conservative representative and Prospective Assembly Member for Bridgend, George Jabbour, made a defence of the budget cuts by the UK government but added that he was a firm believer of public health. George Jabbour said public health is not a zero sum game and suggested Wales needed to implement services that make positive impacts and long-term financial gains for a small initial spend.

The panel was then asked whether they wanted to see steps made to reintroduce the Public Health (Wales) Bill, which failed recently at the final reading after the Labour public services minister referred to Plaid Cymru as a “cheap date”.

Plaid Cymru’s Ian Johnson, whose party originally had a free vote on the Bill but decided to whip their members to vote against the bill after they were ‘insulted’ by Labour, said his party would reintroduce the Bill but with significant changes.

He added that Plaid Cymru want to see a more ambitious bill, with measures to increase the age of consent to purchase cigarettes, a minimum alcohol unit price, targeting obesity and more about vaping, including scaling back previous plans to reintroduce a complete ban in public spaces.

Vaughan Gething lamented the failure of the Bill and admitted that there had been “honest” disagreements throughout the development of the Bill but its ultimate failure was due to politics.

The former Deputy Health Minister said he would like to see the Bill reintroduced in its current form and challenged Plaid Cymru, saying that taxation, such as a minimum unit price on alcohol, was not successful in changing people’s behaviours.

Liberal Democrat Denis Campbell agreed with Vaughan Gething that taxation was a not conducive in changing behaviours and the Bill failed because the political system is flawed and creates “political jostling”.

Alice Hooker-Stroud wants to see the a future Bill tackle kids-oriented advertising for products containing sugar, while George Jabbour bemoaned how the Bill failed but agreed that the Bill wasn’t fit for purpose.

Other questions put to the panel focused on the reorganisation of local authorities in Wales and whether the parties supported Private Finance initiatives (PFI).

Julie Barratt, CIEH Wales’s Director and organiser of the Annual Conference, said: “The Question Time debate was the high-point of the conference and gave the delegates an important opportunity to ask direct and pertinent questions of the parties to gauge exactly what they thought of environmental health in Wales.

“It was good to hear that all the political parties agree environmental health services are important for the future prospects of Wales. The question now is how they are going to maintain, if not improve, the current levels of resources and not decimate environmental health further. I am not encouraged, in that none of the parties would say how they would protect the service and continued to focus on protecting the NHS as their main objective.”

Julie added: “We will continue to engage with our stakeholders and Welsh Government, whatever the outcome in May, to ensure services are protected and that a public health bill which seeks to achieve much of what the one lost in the previous session did is brought forward as soon as possible.”

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