Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Last ditch appeal to save Llanelli benefits office

Column in Llanelli Herald on 14th July

When Teresa May became Prime Minister she said she wanted to spread opportunity to people who had been left behind, and spread wealth around the country. Fast forward one year and her Ministers are determined to strip 150 jobs from Llanelli town centre.

On Wednesday Nia Griffith and I held our second meeting with the man behind the plan, Department for Work & Pension Minister Damien Hinds. As before, he was charming but indifferent to Llanelli's plight.

The DWP are planning the centralise the staff from Crown Buildings working on sicknesses benefit claims, work capability assessments and crisis loans, and move them to 'hubs' based in Cardiff, Swansea, Bridgend and Pembroke Dock.

I've been working with Ministers in the Welsh Government for months to come up with a Plan B but the UK Government just haven't been willing to play ball. Welsh Government Minister Julie James is also meeting with Damien Hinds in an attempt to get him to re-think. 

The Welsh Labour Government have already offered to make space available at offices they fund in the area in order to keep work here, and I asked the DWP Minister to keep an open mind to see if a local solution can be found to keep these jobs in Llanelli, but based on our meeting I'm not optimistic.

We patiently explained the local jobs situation, the congestion problem as people already commute out of the area each morning, and the enormous difficulties staff with caring responsibilities will have in moving offices - especially the people who work part-time on fairly modest wages.

He listened, and explained they wanted less office space overall and there'd be benefits from working in larger offices. Despite his manners and charm it was at this point I concluded this was a dialogue of the deaf. 

DWP managers will begin holding 1:1 meetings with staff in the next few weeks to discuss where they may be moved to. Staff will be given help with travel costs and those who aren't able or willing to travel will be offered voluntary redundancies.

We sought assurances that if staff are moved that they won't have to move again in a year or so once a planned big new office near Cardiff is ready. The Minister said the moves would be permanent and at equivalent grades.

He gave us the impression that this was a done deal and the Minister had no sympathy for getting jobs in west Wales. They are pushing ahead with a big centralisation programme which will take jobs out of the parts of Wales that need them the most and concentrate them in Cardiff. That was not what Teressa May promised when she became Prime Minister.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Seeing more of Wales on the BBC

Column in the Llanelli Herald on June 30th 2017

People in Wales watch the BBC, and value it, more than people in any other part of the UK. And yet over the BBC Wales have cut the number of hours last 10 years by a massive 22%

In my last job running the think-tank, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, I made the case for reversing this cut by publishing detailed research about the poor state of the media in Wales, and since I’ve been in the Assembly I’ve been heavily involved in efforts to put pressure on the Government and the broadcasters to better serve Welsh audiences.

This week I had another chance to put the Director General of the BBC, Lord Tony Hall, on the spot when he came before the Assembly’s Culture Committee. You can watch the session on Senedd TV if you want to!

The pressure has had an impact. Despite facing significant Tory cuts the BBC have agreed to provide an extra £10.5 Million a year to BBC Wales. The Beeb are now creating 40 new jobs in Wales, including 25 additional journalist posts.  The main BBC network will also be airing three major TV dramas set in Wales in 2018 – the biggest ever commitment to homegrown drama. These are currently being shot in Newport, Carmarthenshire and north west Wales and include Keeping Faith starring Eve Myles and Requiem starring Lydia Wilson and Richard Harrington.
On top of that there’s be a new short bulletin at 8pm on weeknights on BBC One Wales, produced in Cardiff, covering global, UK and Welsh stories for the first time. And the late evening Wales Today bulletin will be extended to more Welsh news on BBC One.

News and sport coverage will also be strengthened with a focus on reaching younger audiences, and BBC Wales will expand its specialist correspondent team to provide greater expert coverage in important areas such as social affairs, home affairs and under-represented communities - as well as a BBC Wales Brexit team working between Cardiff, Westminster and Brussels and a new current affairs strand, BBC Wales Investigates, to carry out major investigations across television, radio and mobile.

As part of its new 11-year Charter the BBC is now committed to improving the way Wales is represented across all its coverage, and they’ll be monitored by the regulator, Ofcom, to make sure they deliver.

We’re still not getting the same kind of funding, and there’s lots of room for improvement on the way Wales is covered on the main BBC news coverage.  But things are getting better and it’s largely because of the pressure that has come from people and organisations in Wales.

Even though broadcasting is not something that is formally devolved to the National Assembly, we are now increasingly treated as the rightful voice for Wales and we have the results to show for it.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Carmarthenshire Council need to listen

Column published in Llanelli Herald on June 9th

“Change must be discussed with the public rather than announced to the public" Health Secretary Vaughan Gething said to me in the Senedd the other week after I’d raised Hywel Dda Health Board’s failure to engage with people before deciding that the surgeries in Burry Port should merge.

The Health Board have not proved very good at taking people with them when they make changes, and neither has Carmarthenshire Council.

There is a clear pattern of high-handed decision-making by the Council leadership as we have seen in the way they changed the status of Llangennech school, have chosen to dig up Llanerch field to build a new school, and are pushing ahead with developments in Parc Howard.

Of course, it’s a good thing that the Council has taken the park off the asset transfer register and is willing to invest in its future. That it is only right given the investment the Council has put into Carmarthen Museum (£1.5 Million) and Oriel Myrrdin Art Gallery £199 (which has had lose to a million pounds).

The grounds of the park are the crown jewel of Llanelli, but the mansion house is not achieving its potential. The museum has some fascinating exhibits but badly needs modernising to bring these displays to life to better tell the remarkable story of the town.

Council Leader, Emlyn Dole, has developed a ‘masterplan’ for the park but many of its details are shrouded in secrecy - for ‘commercial reasons’ we are told.

The Council is not showing itself to be open to discussing with the people of Llanelli how the potential of the park can be harnessed.

At last week’s public meeting about the proposals by Carmarthenshire Council to build a car park within the grounds the Chair of the Parc Howard Association, Gareth Morris, denied that they had been consulted; in fact he said they have had no voice in discussions with the County Council, and instead they were being told what they would get.

“All of a sudden we are given 21 days to protest against quite a drastic change in the park. The wedding venue discussions have been between the leader of the County council and people he knows. There are people like myself who can’t understand what the County council’s philosophy and main aim is” Gareth Morris told the Parc Howard Association meeting.

I’m concerned that the Council are rushing their plans, and the paused work on the new play area is proof of this. The planning application for a car park is causing great anxiety and I think it should be withdrawn.

Park Howard belongs to the people of Llanelli, its future can’t be decided in secret.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Ending zero-hours contracts in the care sector

Column in the Llanelli Herald on 14th June 2017

Care services are a vital source of relief and respite to many, and support thousands of people to continue living independently in their own home. But the services are under immense strain - not least because the workers employed within them are pressured into trying to do too much for too little, and aren’t being given the respect and stability they deserve.  

Anyone who has an elderly relative, or knows someone who relies on these services, knows that these terrible working conditions can often impact on the quality of care given. Rushed visits as care workers are pressured to fit too many visits in one day, with not enough time allowed for travel between the visits; and high turnovers of staff, which can be disorienting (particularly for older people), and which can impact on continuity of care that complex conditions so require.

This week, the Welsh Labour Government has committed to act. Ministers have launched a public consultation on a raft of policies that will help address many of these issues. These measures include requiring care providers to put in place realistic rotas that make allowances for the travel time required to journey between visits and that take things like heavy rush hour traffic into account.

The Welsh Government also want to address the abuse of zero-hours contracts. Under the measures proposed, care workers who have been continuously employed for three months will be offered the choice of moving to a minimum hours contract. Crucially, this will be a choice - protecting the right to a zero-hours contracts for those staff that prefer the flexibility such agreements can offer, whilst also offering greater security and certainty to those that want it.

Hopefully, these ideas will alleviate some of the stress faced by care workers, and will help protect the time they can spend with the people who need their help and attention. More than this, it’ll offer care workers greater respect for the vital support they provide.

The consultation on these measures is open until August 7th, and I’d encourage anyone who has views on how we can improve these services to get in touch. More details are available on the Welsh Government website.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Cutting corners to raise school standards

Published in Llanelli Herald on 2nd June 2017

About 40% of my working week is taken up sitting on two committees - the Public Accounts Committee (which examines the value for money offered by public bodies in Wales) and the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee (that focuses on Wales’ arts, media and historical institutions, as well the Welsh language). They’re a crucial part of the functioning of the Assembly - holding our national government to account, scrutinising expenditure and examining legislation -  but it’s work that largely goes unnoticed. Partly this is because the work can be highly technical (sometimes my weekly briefings are more than 200 pages long); and partly because we just don’t do a very good job of publicising it.

Recently, however, a series of questions I asked the Welsh Government Director of Education caught the attention of the BBC. And with good reason.

Right now, students (and their parents) across Wales are facing a nail-biting time as exams are underway. But in a recent meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, Steve Davies (the lead official for education in Wales) admitted he held concerns that some schools are entering children prematurely in a bid to boost their ranking. In other words, some education authorities in Wales are pushing Headteachers to game the system, to ensure they reach the required number of C-level passes.

This is a concern not just because it’s creating a lot of unnecessary stress in the classroom, but it also isn’t pushing children to their best ability. Instead of being encouraged to hold off and reach for a higher grade, children are being left ‘bagged at C’. Mr Davies admitted that the volume of early entries was indicative of this premature pressure being piled onto students; Headteachers fearful of upcoming Estyn inspections, are entering pupils based on the school’s needs rather than those of the child.

It’s a shameful picture, and an unintended consequence of trying to raise school standards. I’m relieved that the issue is now getting the attention it deserves - and there’s a commitment to publish the findings of the review in the early autumn, before next years’ pupils are entered into their exams.
GCSEs are stressful enough, without having to question the motives of your school for entering you.

Hopefully action will be swift, and we can prevent further pupils falling foul of the system meant to serve them.

Kidwelly’s woes should make us all stop and think

Published in Llanelli Herald on 26th May 2017

Last Friday, I held a public meeting in Kidwelly on the parking and speeding issues faced by the town.

Though the meeting was not particularly well publicised over 50 people came out on Friday night to explain how much of an impact speeding cars and inconsiderate parking is having on their lives.

For example, people mounting their cars on pavements obviously doesn’t seem like a big deal to the driver but to parents with a pushchair or wheelchair users, this simple act of thoughtlessness can force them out into the road and into potentially dangerous confrontations with oncoming traffic.

Cars whose drivers choose to speed through the town is also a concern, particularly for those tackling the school run. With two kids of my own, I know how difficult it can be to juggle the multiple demands of the daily commute without having to contend with self-centred motorists. Split seconds can be the difference between mundanity and tragedy.

Many at the meeting were frustrated by the lack of progress - mine wasn’t the first meeting the town had held and they were quick to point out that little has changed. In part, that’s because of a lack of money, budgets are simply too tight to give every community the traffic-calming measures that are needed - and the complexity of the rules and regulations which affect anything which is done near the highway.

But residents are right to challenge this inaction, and it mustn’t be left for a tragedy to occur before due attention is paid. I will do everything I can to work with councillors and council officials to address their concerns.

But I also think there’s room for us to all take collective responsibility for this community’s woes.

Kidwelly is a stunning town. But its beauty is being blighted by the selfish acts of a few. People who can’t walk fifty metres further down the street, or who can’t arrive at their destination just five minutes later. Sometimes there might be legitimate reasons for this; often there aren’t.

And at moments like these, I find myself reflecting on how we have allowed the car to dominate our lives, to such a degree that 50 people will give up their Friday night plans to come and speak to me. Cars are a convenience, sure, and (since having to juggle the demands of being an Assembly Member) my family has two. But they now monopolise the environments we live in.

And too often we resort to tighter controls; expensive coping mechanisms that offer a physical barrier to what is essentially anti-social behaviour - parking permit schemes, pedestrian crossings, curb extensions and speed bumps. We opt for ever-more-expensive engineered solutions, rather than addressing the problem at source.

Getting out of this situation will take collective action, a collective promise to prioritise people over speed, our communities over convenience. I’m not suggesting that this would solve all of Kidwelly’s parking and speeding woes, and - as I’ve already set out - I am determined to try and tackle the issues that were raised. But with complex problems, the response must also be complex. Tackling these concerns will take more than a lollipop lady or a concrete bollard, it’s about each of us taking responsibility for the communities we live in. It’s less “me first” and more “us, together”.

Keeping patients in the dark in Burry Port

Published in Llanelli Herald on 19th May 2017

Hywel Dda Health Board have made the decision to close Harbour View surgery in Burry port in the light of the decision by Dr Lodha to retir

Doctors retire all the time and this should not have come as a huge surprise. But rather explaining to the patients of the surgery back in February what the options were for them when this single-GP practice hands back their contract to the Health Board, some patients have only just had letters telling them the surgery is to close in July and they are being ‘dispersed’ to Doctors as far afield as Kidwelly, Trimsaran, and Pontyates.

The problem is that nearby Doctors surgeries are ful

Needless to say there is huge local concern and on Tuesday night 250 patients attended a public meeting called by Nia Griffith and I, along with local County Councillors John James and Amanda Fox.

But despite our best efforts the Health Board would not attend to listen to people’s concerns and explain their plans.

As I drove to the meeting the Health Board called to confirm they plan to shut the surgery in the summer after a panel decided this was the best option. But as part of their decision-making it seems that this panel doesn’t seem to think that engaging with the public, and explaining the options, should be part of their role

The local Health Board have known about it since February, yet have failed to explore avenues that would lead to the surgery staying open, and haven’t yet officially communicated the closure to all of the patients. Instead of a categorical response, residents have been drip-fed information from various sources, including the beleaguered surgery staff and a pinned notice on the front of the door.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the underlying issue here - there is a shortage of GPs in Wales, as there is all over the UK.

GPs increasingly want to work flexibly or part-time, and are less keen on buying into a traditional practice (not everyone realises surgeries are basically private businesses that contract to the NHS). Younger doctors also tend to want to be in cities. In fact the model of a single GP practice - like Harbour View and Andrews St in Llanelli - is fading out because of all these reasons.

When a Doctor does retire the Health Board has been trying to keep surgeries going by bringing in Locums. When this happened in Kidwelly some were charging £1,500 a day, and stipulating the sort of work they would and wouldn't do.

Eventually Kidwelly has been able to recruit (not as many as they would like), by supplementing the doctors with other professionals like physiotherapists, nurse practitioners and a pharmacist - this is a sensible model as we don't need to see a doctor for everything).

But what the health board plan to do in Bury Port I do not know as they haven't told me, nor anyone else it seems. The lesson from Kidwelly was to involve patients from the beginning and to be open about the choices that the health board face - this lesson seems to have been quickly forgotten.

I’m meeting the Chief Executive of Hywel Dda on Friday to let him know about the public meeting and to ask him to personally intervene to ensure that people in Burry Port get easy access to the best health care, and are kept fully involved.