Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

I’m delighted to have tabled this debate today along with my colleagues Hefin David, Vikki Howells and Jeremy Miles and my friend David Melding. Genuinely delighted.

Just, as we pressed last month, that we must do all we can to bolster the so-called Foundational economy, we must also look at the external trends that are set to change our lives, and our economies.

We are in the early stages of a fourth industrial revolution - marked by our ability to combine digital technologies with physical and biological systems.

Just as the first industrial revolution was brought about through our ability to harness steam power; the second by our capacity to generate electrical power - driving mass-production; and the third industrial revolution was prompted by the development of electronics and computers.

This fourth industrial revolution sees machines, data, & algorithms becoming embedded into every aspect of our lives

Our money is increasingly virtual, our homes are becoming smarter - technology now controls our kettles, our boilers, even our ability to park; the health care we receive is set to be transformed beyond recognition as the ability to know our own, personal genome becomes ever more affordable, and whilst we’ve become accustomed to our factories  having machines where once there were workers,  this automation will continue apace.

Technology has crept into our lives with stealth, to the point that it is now near impossible to imagine a world without it.

And the pace of change is phenomenal. Things I grew up with - Floppy disks, cassettes and videotapes - are now meaningless. As are their replacements - DVDs & CDs : already obsolete, in a generation.

Spotify and Netflix are now intuitive for younger generations - both driven by Big Data, which is now not just a hi-tech phenomenon, it is everywhere and it is shaping everything.

Our assumptions of what is possible are constantly being challenged.

Just this week we heard of Elon Musk’s ability to reuse a rocket. As he said “It’s the difference between having airplanes that you threw away after every flight, verses reusing them multiple times”.

If the same implications hold true for space travel - as air travel has had on our daily lives - they are huge.

How soon before driverless cars, wireless electricity, 3-D printing and even space travel are as mundane as Netflix and email.

And there is much going on behind the scenes that we aren’t yet aware of.  

Change isn’t just happening in one industry, as in previous industrial revolutions, it's happening simultaneously across multiple sectors

This poses new challenges.

The Bank of England’s own methodology suggests that - within twenty years - as many as 700,000 jobs might be at risk in Wales from automation.

Computers and algorithms that can gather data from far wider sources to make calculated judgements on anything from tax returns to cancer treatments.

I’d recommend listening on iPlayer (which itself didn’t exist 10 years ago) to Radio 4’s ‘The Public Philosopher’ which held an eye-opening debate on this very issue.

What was stark was the total disbelief by the vast majority of the audience that any robot could do their job better than them.

And the audible shock when they realised the possibility they could.

One example that stood out was the GP who listened as half the audience revealed they’d rather receive a diagnosis from a robot than a human.

One in four jobs in Wales is at risk like this.

And - let’s be clear - this impact is gendered.

The World Bank recently warned that for every three male jobs lost, one will be gained. For women the situation is far worse - they will lose five jobs to automation for every one that is gained.

Governments, businesses and global institutions are struggling to keep up with the pace of change. This is hardly surprising, it is unsettling. But it is our role as policy makers to prepare for that.

And right now, we’re all doing a terrible job at it.

To this end I’ll be hosting a roundtable in June with some of Wales’ biggest employers - across the public and private sectors - to discuss how we can brace ourselves for this common challenge. I’m delighted that both the Cabinet Secretary and the Future Generations Commissioner have agreed to join.

But as well as preparing for the challenges, we must also seize the opportunities.

At a recent meeting I hosted with the Manufacturers’ Organisation - EEF - with businesses in my constituency - one manufacturer revealed to me that automation within their company had not only boosted productivity, it had enabled their company to take on more staff.

Automation need not always be seen as a threat to jobs, but a tool for growth.

And technological advances have the potential to create new sectors which will spur new jobs.

This is a hugely exciting time.

Julie James, as the Minister responsible for Data, recently attended a roundtable I hosted on the potential for precision agriculture in Wales.

Precision farming isn't simply about agriculture. And the fourth industrial revolution won’t respect departmental boundaries.

A whole new industry is being driven by our ability to collect and analyse data at speeds that were previously unimaginable.

But Wales has a short amount of time to capitalise on the generations of knowledge we’ve built up in farming, and apply these to emerging technologies, to grow an industry that has global potential.

To understand where these opportunities are. Where our domain expertise  - our USP - can offer us clear competitive advantage, an immediate and urgent strategic review is needed.

Robotics and automation, cyber security, big data, the codification of money and financial markets, and genomics are widely predicted as the key industries emerging from the fourth industrial revolution.

That’s what we should focus on. For too long we’ve focussed on conventional approaches - too concerned about not upsetting the apple-cart. I still don’t understand how we can have 9 priority sectors?  When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

I applaud the focus that has been brought to bear onto Wales’ apprenticeship scheme. We must do the same to our entire economic strategy - enabling the most efficient targeting of scarce resources.

And there must be clear guidance on what this new industrial landscape demands in terms of approach.

This will require a deft hand.

Charting a difficult path through providing patient, goal-oriented finance and support - setting a long-term goal for which we’ll provide long-term support.

But combined with an experimental approach to reach that goal.

We will fail along the way - and that’s ok.

We must be open about it in order to learn from it.

If we think back to many of the inventions I spoke of at the beginning of my speech - the iphone, space travel, driverless technology.

The origins of each of these can be traced back to long-term, patient, government finance.

Ostensibly, this blueprint, this difficult course, is what the Innovation Wales strategy has set out to do.

But - speaking frankly - this is a strategy that is only remarkable in its lack of ambition.

It urgently needs revision.

I don’t want to look back in twenty years time and think, I wish I had done more.

I don’t think any of us do.

So my challenge today - and it is intended as challenge, not as criticism - is that we redouble our efforts to address the hurdles. And to embrace the opportunities.

And that we do it fast.


To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

1. Notes that the commonly-termed 'fourth industrial revolution' presents both challenges and opportunities to Wales' economy.

2. Notes that an estimated 700,000 jobs are at risk in Wales over the next two decades as a result of automation.

3. Believes that Wales has existing expertise that offers competitive advantage in emerging growth industries.

4. Recognises that, to capitalise on these emerging industries, we need to focus on rapid, agile approaches which adapt easily to changed circumstances.

5. Calls on the Welsh Government to revisit the Innovation Wales Strategy with a view to ensuring it reflects the scale and scope of the disruption we face, and commits to a strategic review of opportunities in emerging, high-growth sectors, where Wales has the potential to establish early market dominance as part of its work on developing a new economic strategy.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Think Big Llanelli

Column published in Llanelli Herald on March 31st 2017

Too many people in and around the Llanelli constituency have given up on the idea that things will get better. And they distrust promises that it can.

Establishing a new trading relationship with Europe, and the predictions that some 700,000 jobs could be replaced by automation in the coming years, mean that we face fierce challenges. But just because it is going to be hard, it doesn’t mean that we cannot re-establish Llanelli as a furnace of innovation and industry in Wales.

For too long our strengths have been overlooked and as a community we’ve given up hope that things can be better. We must be more ambitious, and we must try new things.

In unpredictable times we need to move away from conventional approaches and focus on innovative approaches which adapt easily to changed circumstances. That means we should build fewer roads and business parks and be willing to experiment.

We also need more emphasis on the day-to-day economic activity that dominates local economies (the so called ‘Foundational Economy’ such as local energy and food production, housing, and social care), and areas of innovation where Llanelli can demonstrate a competitive advantage. We still have a strong manufacturing base in the area and there’s much we can do to make sure it is at the forefront of innovation.

I want to engage as many people as possible in this debate. I want to hear your ideas on what we can do to bring jobs to our area. Alongside public events, workshops, school visits, and doorstep chats, I’ve launched a ‘crowdsourcing’ website is designed to enable you to pitch your own ideas, to build and comment on the suggestions of others, and to vote up (or vote down) your favourites.

No idea is too big or too small – other people can chip in and small ideas can grow – if you have 10 seconds or 10 minutes please do get involved by going onto my site

I want us to be ambitious for our community, and to think big about how we can generate jobs and opportunities for the future.

Send it back!

Column published in Llanelli Herald on March 24th 2017

“Do you like powdered egg” I asked Wales’s Chief Nurse when she gave evidence to the Assembly’s powerful Public Accounts Committee?

This miserable sounding dish was one of the examples given to me on my Facebook page of the food that’s served up in hospitals - in this case Glangwyli.

Her answer wasn’t very convincing. “It depends what's in it”, she replied. My suggestion was to serve it up in the Welsh Government’s office and in the Assembly canteen and see what they made of it.

It wasn’t a flippant suggestion. But she didn’t seem keen.

The exchange came about because I was genuinely angry about a report I’d read which said that one in three patients found hospital meals unappetising, and as a result a Million pounds worth of food is thrown away uneaten every year. If patients miss a meal they are not always offered a replacement, and not all patients are offered snacks - even when they are advised to eat them.

It may not be the most glamorous of subjects but I think that the quality of the ‘patient experience’ is often overlooked in favour of measuring what are referred to as ‘outputs’ - for example, the number of operations carried out, or prescriptions issued.

I don’t think enough attention is paid to the customer service side of the way people interact with the NHS - things like how people communicate with the NHS and get information. And the quality of the food we get in hospitals is an important part of a patient's experience of their care, but as our enquiry found it is not something that the leadership of the NHS keeps a close eye on.
The cross-party report I helped write says there’s a lack of leadership in tackling the issues that were first raised over 5 years ago. And because of delays in bringing in new systems, almost a decade will have passed before these matters are resolved and patients receive efficient and effective meal services that provide the basics of appetising and nutritious food and water to remain hydrated.

The report is a tough one and is designed to send a signal to NHS bosses that the situations needs to change, and we’ll be returning to the issue soon to check that they are dealing with it.

Even though I’m criticising my own Government I said when I was elected last years that I would not hesitate to speak out on behalf of the people I represent.  But I didn’t think that would include the quality of puddings served in hospitals!

The Foundational Economy

Column published in Llanelli Herald on March 17th 2017

Karel Williams grew up in Goring Road in Llanelli. He is now a Professor at Manchester Business School, and he has come up with some interesting ideas about how we can breathe life back into towns like Llanelli which have been left behind after the heavy industry that inspired their creation has gone.

Rather than chase after big foreign investment, look after what you’ve got on your doorstep, he’s argued. The mundane, unglamorous everyday stuff - what he’s called the ‘Foundational Economy’: the industries and businesses that are there because people are there. The food we eat, the homes we live in, the energy we use and the care we receive.

This isn’t a small part of our economy. It accounts for four in ten jobs, and £1 in every three that we spend.

Our focus has been on so-called ‘anchor companies’ employing more than 1,000 people in one place, but more than 3,000 people are employed in making sofas across Wales and they do not feature in any economic strategy.

We’ve looked the other way as local producers have been crowded out of the market by foreign owned subsidiaries - who often pressure Welsh suppliers to drop their prices and ship the profits overseas.

This needs to change.

If we get it right, the Foundational Economy approach offers the chance to reverse the deterioration of employment conditions, stop the leakage of money from our communities and reduce the environmental cost of extended supply chains.

There are big hurdles that stand in our way, but they can be overcome.  As a start local businesses need help to bid and deliver public sector contracts, and we’ll need to invest in higher skilled staff in local government with specialist procurement skills to direct more of the £5.5 Billion the public sector in Wales spends every year to local firms.

This week in the Senedd I joined up with a group of new Labour AMs to persuade the Welsh Government to focus on the Foundational Economy in the new economic strategy for Wales that they are developing.  I was very pleased that the Cabinet Secretary, Ken Skates, agreed and said it will form a central part of the Government’s plans.

Having been at the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution Llanelli could well be inspiration for an idea that helps us cope with the impacts of de-industrisation. And if we pull it off there’ll be a blue plaque to be erected in Goring Road.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

We need to be honest about our schools

Column published in Llanelli Herald on March 10th 2017

I get sent lots of reports. To be honest I don’t read all of them - it would take up all of my time.

But I did make sure I read the annual report of the Welsh School inspectorate, Estyn, ahead of a debate in the Senedd about it this week..

There were many positives about the state of our schools - for example, 70% of the primary schools inspected this year are rated as Good or better.

There is some world class teaching in Welsh schools - in fact the Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams sung the praises of Maes y Morfa Head Joe Cudd in the Assembly debate for his passion about providing the best possible education for his pupils. There are many Heads like Mr Cudd who do not take the deprivation of their communities as an excuse for poor performance, but as a spur for excellence.

But as the Estyn report points out there is far too much variation.“The gap between providers that are doing well and those that are not is still too wide” the Chief Inspector of Schools says in his report.

I’m particularly worried that our schools aren’t equipping our children with the digital skills they’ll need to succeed. The Inspector’s report says only a “very few schools” are excelling in digital skills, and many are completely failing to equip young people with these essential skills for the modern world.

Its widely agreed that the quality of leadership is the key to high performing schools. The best Heads develop thinking skills, not just exam-sitting skills.

Being a Headteacher is an enormously challenging role. I am always amazed at the range of skills needed to be an excellent Head - a mastery of everything from the plumbing to pedagogy. You can spot a great one a mile off, and I am in awe of them.

But the Estyn report highlights that there are too many across Wales who don’t have a grip on what needs improving in their schools. And there just aren't enough of them -  I am very concerned that there are 23 schools in Carmarthenshire without their own permanent headteacher.

The Welsh Government are now making a big push on developing new Heads, and on improving teacher training.

I’d like to see a far greater emphasis on classroom assistants too. They make up almost half the school workforce and we don’t do enough to support them, or train them, and we don’t pay them enough. They are a key part of our schools and we need to nurture them if we want to improve our education system.

The lesson of the last 20 years of devolution of education policy is that we can innovate and achieve excellence, but only when we are searingly honest with ourselves about how the whole system is performing. And this year’s annual Estyn report is invaluable in reminding us that there is much still to be done.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

What would I do without my music?

Published as a column in the Llanelli Herald on March 3rd 2017

Imagine the scene: A music teacher with just 30 minutes to teach a dozen children - each with different levels of proficiency, and many playing different brass instruments.

After they’d each tuned their instruments and sorted their sheet music out there was little time left to teach them much new - let alone tailor teaching to their individual needs.

This was an example quoted to me by Gareth Kirby the Carmarthenshire Music Service co-ordinator. The experience left him frazzled, understandably. He was giving evidence to the Assembly’s Culture Committee as part of our inquiry into the state of music education. It’s a topic we’re investigating after a public vote to choose which subject we should look at.

The distinguished conductor of the Welsh Proms, Owain Arwel Hughes, described the state of music in school as a ‘crisis’. He told our committee that cuts to school budgets mean Wales is at risk of losing its reputation as a land of song. He called on the Welsh Government to do more to ensure that children learn to sing and play instruments.

As I’ve seen from my own experience the availability of music provision in schools depend enormously on the enthusiasm of the Head. In Stebonheath Primary school in the middle of Llanelli children get multiple opportunities to take part in different types of music. Whereas in other schools I’ve visited there is little or no music on offer. This is true across the country and means that many children don’t get the chance to express themselves through music at all.

Carmarthenshire has some of the highest fee levels in Wales at £57 per hour. It’s simply unaffordable to many families, and the number of schools buying into the service is declining by some 10% a year.

Organisations who run our national ensembles, like the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, warn that applications to join this year are down as fees have gone up.

We can see the impact of this is in the number of pupils who go on to study music. The number of students taking GCSE music has dropped by 25% since 2010, and the drop-off in A-Level entry is 36%.

Of course, this impacts social classes differently. 43% of children whose mother had a postgraduate degree had music lessons, compared with just 6% of children whose mother had no qualifications.

Huge talent is being wasted by our under-investment in music for all young people.

The Welsh Labour Government has announced a new National Endowment for Music with an initial contribution of £1m to cover the setup of the fund. The aim is that the fund will eventually generate at least £1m per year which will be used to fund additional music activities for young people across the country.

It is a good start but will not be enough to address the problem I have set out. I want to hear about your experiences, and any ideas you have to help the situation, so that I can feed it in to the work I am doing with the Culture Committee. My email address is Lee.Waters@assembly.Wales

Friday, 17 February 2017

Relief at Tata vote

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 24 February 2017

I felt a huge sense of relief when the news came through on Wednesday afternoon that TATA workers had voted to endorse the deal negotiated by the unions to secure the future of their plants.

In the end the majority was 75% of workers.

It would have been an economic disaster for our area if they had listened to Plaid Cymru’s call for them to vote it down. The Heavy End at Port Talbot would have closed, hundreds of workers would have lost their jobs and there would have been a big ripple effect on the whole economy.

Of course it wasn’t a black and white situation. There was understandable and justifiable anger by many older workers who felt the future they had planned, and worked for, has been taken away from them.

The events of the last year have created deep mistrust amongst many workers towards TATA. Even though it is broadly agreed that TATA have been good owners, even now committing to future investment when the UK-arm of its business is not profit making, the way that they put their plants up for sale last year and then refused to sell has created ill-feeling.

It is now up to TATA to keep its promises and invest in state of the art plant, in order to gain the most competitive edge and secure the future of the steel industry here in Llanelli and across the UK.

We also need the UK Government to recognise the huge commitment of the workers, and to start doing a lot more to support the steel industry. Tata’s senior management have been clear that the Tories have not followed through on their promises of help. In contrast to the Welsh Government who put the money on the table that enabled to deal to go ahead.

The plants can now work on the turnaround plan that TATA have agreed to fund. This includes a commitment to run two blast furnaces at Port Talbot until 2021 with an investment of around £50M.

There are still uncertainties ahead, not least the impact of Brexit. Two-thirds of what TATA makes in the UK is exported to the EU, and if the Prime Minister does not negotiate tariff-free access to the Single Market the steel products we produce could become more expensive to sell.

For me the big lesson of the last year is that we must become less reliant on the whims of international corporations. We must rebuild our local economy to grow local firms, grounded in their communities, to make us more resilient to external shocks.