We'll cut NHS waits in Labour-run Wales - Starmer

Sir Keir Starmer at an election event in Abergavenny
Sir Keir Starmer vowed to reduce NHS waiting lists in Wales [Reuters]

Sir Keir Starmer has promised to work with the Welsh government to cut NHS waiting times.

The UK Labour leader made his first general election campaign visit in Wales on Thursday.

He promised more funding for the Welsh government by scrapping tax rules for people not domiciled in the UK, and cracking down on tax avoidance.

His party has been in charge of the Welsh NHS since 1997 - waiting times hit a new record high in the country last week.

Meanwhile Sir Keir said he would fight for "every job" at Tata Steel.

He promised "six steps to change Wales", similar to pledges made to voters in the rest of the UK.

First Minister Vaughan Gething - who is facing a no confidence vote tabled by the Conservatives next week - used the event in Abergavenny to accuse the Tories of playing political games.

Sir Keir defended Mr Gething and said no rules were broken over his leadership campaign donations - £200,000 of which came from a firm owned by a man previously convicted of environmental offences.

As well as delivering economic stability and cutting NHS waiting times, Labour said it will crack down on anti-social behaviour, set up a publicly-owned clean power company and recruit new teachers in key subjects.

It said it will raise money to cut NHS waits by cutting down on tax avoidance.

But the Conservatives said Labour's record on waiting times is "abysmal".

And Plaid Cymru said Sir Keir was "behaving as if the last 25 years never happened" and said the six steps were a "cynical rehash" of Labour's UK pledges.

Vaughan Gething
Vaughan Gething was defended by Sir Keir at the event in Abergavenny [Reuters]

Health and education services have been run from Cardiff - and not Westminster - since Labour set up the former National Assembly for Wales in 1999.

Labour has run the Welsh government, and been the largest party in the Senedd, since then.

Most of the Welsh government's cash comes from the UK government - Cardiff ministers have complained of being underfunded by the Conservatives in London.

Over the last year the Welsh government has made cuts to other public services to help prop up the health service.

At the event in Labour's target seat of Monmouthshire, he said he will work with Mr Gething to bring "down those waiting lists".

He said there were "too many people" on them.

The plan, he said, was "fully funded and fully costed".

"We will get rid of the non-dom tax status, totally," he said, vowing also to "crack down on those who are avoiding their tax".

He said that means they can invest in the NHS in England, and said that would mean more money for the NHS in Wales.

Waiting times for hospital treatment in Wales hit new record highs earlier in May.

The number of patient pathways - a statistic that refers to the total number of waits, rather than people waiting - rose by 6,400 to 768,899.

Sir Keir Starmer
The campaign event took place on Thursday morning [PA]

Sir Keir accused Rishi Sunak of not picking up the phone "to do a blind thing" about jobs at Tata Steel.

"I've been there, I've looked them in the eyes and I have told those workers I will fight for every single job they have there and the future of steel in Wales".

The Labour leader said there would be "no more conflict" between the first minister and prime minister in London.

"This is a huge prize to elect a government that wants devolution to work," he said. "That will get around the table, will work together and everyday deliver for working people of Wales."

The six steps for Wales are:

  • deliver economic stability with tough spending rules

  • cut waiting times by targeting those waiting the longest and in the most need, paid for by cracking down on tax avoidance

  • launch a new border security command

  • set up Great British Energy, a publicly owned clean power energy company

  • more neighbourhood police paid to reduce anti-social behaviour and new penalties for offenders

  • recruit new teachers in key subjects, paid for by ending tax breaks for private schools.

'No rules broken'

The visit came ahead of a vote of no confidence in Mr Gething, taking place in the Senedd next Wednesday.

Mr Gething accused the Tories of playing political games.

At the Labour event he made no direct reference to his own troubles, but said the Conservatives had a record of “treating politics as a game” rather than “a route to opportunity hope and security”.

Since he became first minister Mr Gething has been embroiled in a row over how he funded his successful Welsh Labour leadership campaign.

He raised £251,600 - £200,000 of it came from Dauson Environmental Group, a company owned by a man previously convicted of illegally dumping waste.

Some £31,600 was left over from Mr Gething's fund - amid calls from within Labour itself for the party not to take money from Dauson, it was announced that it would instead go to "progressive causes".

Sir Keir, asked why the £31,000 was not taken, said: “It was the decision of Vaughan Gething that that would go to a good cause”.

Put to him that Mr Gething had an unfair advantage from his £200,000 campaign donations, he said: “I think its absolutely clear that no rules were broken and Vaughan Gething has answered all the questions put to him.”

Lines briefed to the media on Labour's six pledges for Wales did not repeat a promise made in England for evening and weekend appointments.

Labour sources said it would be up to the Welsh government to decide how to spend the money it receives.

Education policy is also set in Cardiff - most recent data on recruitment to teacher training courses showed secondary teacher targets in 2021-22 had been missed for the eight successive year.

Recruiting teachers to train through the medium of Welsh and in subjects such as modern foreign languages and the sciences have faced the biggest challenges.

'No interest'

Welsh Conservative Senedd leader Andrew RT Davies said: "Keir Starmer has said that the Labour Welsh government is his 'blueprint' for what a Labour government would do, and their record on waiting lists is abysmal.

"The Labour Welsh government has presided over record NHS waiting lists while spending tens of millions of pounds on vanity projects and the 20mph war on motorists.

"Labour's record in Wales is a stark warning to the rest of the UK of what a Labour government in Westminster would look like."

Plaid Cymru's Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts said: "Labour have been in charge of health and education in Wales for a quarter of a century, yet here they are pretending that they are the party of change.

"They talk of unleashing Wales's potential but in reality, their record shows that they have no interest whatsoever in doing so."

Calling the six steps a "cynical rehash of UK Labour's pledges", she said: "There is no mention in these pledges of giving Wales the billions it is owed from HS2 funding, of introducing a new fair funding model for Wales based on need not population, nor of the devolution of powers our economy sorely needs."

Analysis

By Gareth Lewis, BBC Wales News political editor

It was a phrase that made some Labour candidates in the congregation at Abergavenny’s Priory Centre touch wood to avoid tempting fate: ‘prime ministerial’.

It might have taken him eight days to get here, but Sir Keir Starmer’s first campaign visit to Wales had all the tight organisation and very tight security that might become a daily occurrence if he gets the top job in five weeks time.

One Welsh candidate - a keen runner - compared the past few years to a race: it’s been long and has gone well, but now we just need to get it across the line.

Runners know the final few miles are always the hardest.

The question for Labour is whether they can ride out the bumps on selections over the border, questions hanging over their First Minister Vaughan Gething and their own party’s record on the Welsh NHS - to name just some of the issues.

Some commentators are calling this Labour’s race to lose. That finish line is not yet quite in.