Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Harnessing the algorithm

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 25th November 2016

Farming is not a subject that traditionally excites people much. But work being done by Coleg Sir Gar in Carmarthenshire could have far-reaching results that benefit us all.

I drew on the work being done by the college in a debate I arranged in the Assembly this week.

The college are at the forefront of what’s known as ‘Precision Agriculture’. At their farm at Gelli Aur near Llandeilo they are using satellite imagery to increase milk production.

By measuring the weekly growth in grass on their farm they calculate exactly how much feed the cattle need and decide which fields to put the cows in via a smartphone app.

It is a rapidly developing area where farmers gather a wealth of real-time information -  water and nitrogen levels, air quality, disease - data which isn’t just specific to each farm or acre, but to each square inch of our farmland.

At a time when we’re facing a future of food and water shortages across the world, and a changing climate, this approach to food production and land cultivation can dramatically improve productivity (and farmers income) as well as reducing harm to the environment.

But we haven't begun to scratch the surface of the potential of precision agriculture for Wales.

At my recent public workshop in Llanelli on developing a jobs blueprint for my constituency there was a consensus that we need greater ambition for the area if we are to withstand impending economic storms. And precision agriculture presents us with a prime opportunity for us to demonstrate this ambition.

One of the industries that will likely bear the brunt of Brexit is our food production and manufacturing industries - the removal of the CAP, and the likely imposition of export tariffs will hit our farmers hard. We need to prepare for this, and to find new, imaginative, innovative means to drive growth in this critical sector.

This week I helped secure cross-party support in the Assembly for the Welsh Government to develop a strategy that will put Wales at the forefront of the development of precision agriculture.

And students in this part of Wales can play a big part in this.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The first six months

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on November 18th 2016

It takes a while to adjust to any new role. Six months into being an Assembly Member I must confess that while there are elements that fire my enthusiasm, there are elements that make me tear my hair out.

The most satisfying part is representing the area where I was born and raised in our National Assembly: It’s a huge privilege, and a huge challenge too.
I’ve made a good start on the things I promised to do, like an economic strategy for Llanelli and creating a litter taskforce to clean up our streets. I’ve also spoken up on issues in the Assembly, challenging traditional thinking.

I set out to be a fresh voice for Llanelli, and I hope my first six months has shown that I’m not afraid to speak out on the issues I care about. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck between reflecting public feeling and being true to your principles. For me politics is about making an argument about changing society, not simply parroting what the latest opinion poll says. I’ve been encouraged so far that many people accept that I will sometimes hold opinions they don’t agree with, but they appreciate honesty and integrity.

One of the challenges of being an AM is finding the time to think and reflect; And to balance the role with the needs of my family.

Like countless families across the Llanelli constituency my wife and I struggle with juggling the needs of our children and the pressures of work.  Picking up and dropping off the kids is a challenge for us. My wife works for the NHS in Abercynon, and I need to be in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay four days a week, and active throughout the constituency on other days.

I also am hyper-accessible through social media and via my busy office in the town. I hold a joint surgery with Nia Griffith MP every Friday between 10 -11 at Lakefield Hall in Llanelli where you are welcome to come to speak wth me to discuss any issue you may have.

As I expected, the role is full-on. But I’m keenly aware our family life can’t be just about managing my demands. My wife is a professional in her own right, and my two children deserve the time and support of us both. They need stability in their young lives and that is why, instead of uprooting our children from their schools and friends, we’ve made the decision that I move around instead.

I split my time between Cardiff and Llanelli - where I have a family home which I stay in several times most weeks, enabling me to be busy and active working in the community.

I have got lots of plans for things I want to do and issues I want to raise over the next five years to improve our constituency. But I also want to be a good father to my two young kids, and a good husband.

It’s a challenge for sure, but also an opportunity to make a difference that I don’t intend to waste. And when its all over I want to be able to look myself in the mirror, and look my family in the eye, and have no regrets.

Monday, 14 November 2016

It’s not only Nissan that needs a deal

Published in Llanelli Herald on 11th November 2016

Though the fate of our steelworks have disappeared from the headlines the crisis facing the industry is still very real.

The underlying challenges steel manufacturing in the UK remain, in fact the uncertainty about what happens to our economy after we’ve pulled out of the EU has added some extra challenges in for good measure.

Not that you’ll hear the UK Government talk much about how it can help salvage our steel industry. They have taken action to protect the car industry - which remains important to us locally.

Ministers have given guarantees to Nissan in order to secure the future of the huge factory in Sunderland that if there are barriers to trade with Europe after we’ve pulled out the EU the UK Government will compensate the Japanese company.

It may well prove to be a very expensive promise. Compensating the foreign owned firm for any taxes that are put on car exports could well amount to hundreds of millions of pounds every year being passed on to Nissan’s shareholders from the UK taxpayer if the Brexit  negotiations don’t go out way.

It's just as important to safeguard our steel making industry as it to protect our car manufacturing base.  But while they’ve taken action on one, they only have words on the other. It's time Tory Ministers matched the efforts they’ve made for Nissan with real action to save our steel.

Whereas the UK Business Secretary travelled to make promises to the Nissan Chief Executive, Carlos Ghosn, to secure the manufacture of two new models in their Sunderland plant, the recent meeting between Tata and Welsh Government officials revealed that UK Ministers have not taken action to secure the future of steel manufacturing in Wales.

Ken Skates, the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Economy & Infrastructure, recently met with Tata UK Chief Executive Mr Bimlendra Jha and told me that Tata are not getting the same kind of promises from the Prime Minister. When Carwyn Jones met Theresa May recently he said how important it was that other manufacturing industries get a clear steer from her about their future, but she was short on detail.

The Welsh Labour Government have set out to Tata our commitment to the Steel industry - including reducing business rates, alleviating energy costs and examining how procurement practice can be better used to support Welsh steel. But the Tories must match that with a fair solution for the British Steel Pension Scheme and tariff free access of the single market.

And, crucially, we need the option of a management buyout back on the table.

This isn’t an issue that can be kicked into the long grass. Theresa May must prove her mettle.

Lee Waters is Welsh Labour AM for Llanelli

Friday, 28 October 2016

Bringing the community with you as you tackle drugs problem

Published in the Llanelli Herald on 28th October 2016

Like many similar sized towns Llanelli has a drug problem.

Many people don't understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral fibre or willpower, and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to.

Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to. Research shows that drug use is also linked to a person’s environment and quality of life.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the wiping out of our industry in the 1980s, and the economic decay that has followed, has contributed to a sense of despair that some people are tempted to try escape from with the help of chemicals.

But drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will.

Fortunately, in Llanelli there are people trying to help.

I recently went to Chooselife drop-in centre in Copperworks Road to meet the team who work with people struggling with addiction.

The charity have had support from the Welsh Government and the Lottery to provide a welcoming and sympathetic place for those who need it. I met volunteers taking part in healthy eating cookery classes, and heard about the range of activities that are put on to divert them from being in an environment that aids their addiction.

The team there told me if the drop-in centre wasn’t there their clients would be roaming the streets. Not everyone who passes through their doors is able to be helped, but a number have been and are now living healthier and happier lives.

Soon after my visit I was approached by a group of residents to raise concerns about the way the drop in centre is run.

Some local residents don’t want a drop-in centre for drug users on their doorstep. Others accept that Llanelli needs to deal with our own drug problem and the facilities need to be centrally placed. But it is clear from my conversations with them that they are unhappy with the way the current centre is being run.

As the Wallich Centre in Llanelli has demonstrated, it is possible to provide facilities for people struggling with addiction in a way which commands the confidence of the community.

Quite clearly relationships have broken down between Chooselife and some local residents. We all need to show support for people within our own community who need help, and the service providers need to do their bit to command the support of the town.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Powdered egg anyone?

Column published in Llaneli Star on 26th October 2016

Powdered egg anyone?

Doesn’t sound very appetising does it? But it’s on the menu at Glangwyli hospital in Carmarthen. I questioned Wales’ Chief Nurse about it last week and asked if she liked powdered egg. “It depends what's in it”, she replied.

I used my position on the Assembly’s respected Public Accounts Committee to hold a hearing on the quality of hospital food. It may not be the most glamorous of subjects but having read a recent report by the Auditor General for Wales on how the quality of food offered to sick patients differs between health boards I was genuinely angered by what I read.

One in three patients said that they found the meals unappetising in the last patient survey carried out across Wales. A Million pounds worth of food is thrown away uneaten every year.

We called the Chief Executive of the NHS in Wales and the Chief Nurse to explain.

They’ve made a lot of progress they told the committee, and in fact other evidence shows that more than 90% of patients find the food appetising.

But I’m not convinced. When I asked people in Facebook for their experience I had a range of people telling me food can be unappetising; and a number who told me that people with special dietary requirements are not well catered for.

The NHS chiefs said they didn’t think there was a big problem. My suggestion to them was that if the same food that is served to patients is served in the canteens of health boards and the Welsh Government they’d be able to see for themselves if the food is good enough.

They weren’t keen,

Hospital is doing well

Column published in Llaneli Star on 5th October 2016

For years whenever the subject of Prince Philip Hospital has hit the news it has usually been for negative reasons.

So last Friday I was delighted to stand alongside Welsh Health Secretary Vaughan Gething, our MP Nia Griffith and SOSSPAN campaigners Tony Flatley and Brian Hitchman for some good news: the official opening on the new Acute Medical Assessment Unit

Three months after opening its doors the new style A&E unit at Prince Philip Hospital is exceeding expectations.

All the people who have worked hard to get the new model of working up and running gathered to together to celebrate their achievement, and to hear about its success in its first three months of operation.

The Hospital Director Dr Robin Ghosal told us patients are getting a better experience than a year ago. Ambulances are no longer stacked up; the average amount of time patients are staying in medical beds has nearly halved and 96% of people turning up at the minor injury unit are seen within the 4 hrs target waiting time - which is above the national target.

And word is spreading that things have improved at the hospital as more people are turning up to be treated. There’s been a 52% increase in emergency admission in the last year - up from 495 emergency admissions in August 2015 to 753 in August 2016.

But as a result of the new way of working the average amount of time patients are staying in medical beds has fallen by more than 3 days. The average length of stay for emergency patients was 9 days in August last year and was 6 days this August.

“The improvement in the performance of the new unit has surpassed our expectation. Patients are facing shorter waits, and being seen by the right person the first time. This is a better and more efficient way of working” Dr Robin Ghosal told us

We can never be complacent, as there are huge pressures on our NHS, with increasing numbers of frail elderly patients and staff shortages in some areas. But we should recognise the huge progress that has been made in Llanelli in the last year.

Friday, 16 September 2016

School cuts could get worse

Column published in Llaneli Star on 14th September 2016

Having spent 7 years as a primary school Chair of Governors I know from first hand experience how hard teachers work, and the difference they make.

I also know how thinly resources are spread, and how tricky it can be to balance the books to make sure there are enough teachers and Learning Support Assistants in our classrooms.

That’s why First Minister Carwyn Jones pledged to protect school spending despite the cuts the Welsh Government are facing - a 3% drop this year again.

But school budgets are administered from County Hall not Cardiff Bay, so even though the money can be passed on to Councils there’s no guarantee that is passed on to schools.

Even though the Welsh Government’s budget was cut by the Tories by 3%, the money we passed on to Carmarthenshire Council was protected from the brunt of the cuts.

Our County’s funding was just 0.1% less than last year. And yet the money being received by schools themselves is down by £3.4 million.

When they were in Opposition in Carmarthenshire Plaid Cymru jumped on every bandwagon that passed, and pledged to spend more on education. But now they have their hands on the levers of power it is a different story. Free car parking for Llanelli, you must be joking. More money for schools?

No, instead teachers are being made redundant.

There are job losses in Bigyn, Brynteg, Dafen, Brynsierfel, Dafen, and Ysgol y Felin Primary schools. Coedcae Comprehensive school has already suffered losses and is looking at further cuts. Furthermore vacant teachers posts are being left unfilled in Pentip primary and Lakefield primary is operating without a Headteacher.

From speaking to headteachers and Governors it’s clear that there is real fear about what lies ahead if Plaid-run Carmarthenshire Council don’t change their priorities. Headteachers have worked miracles to minimise the impact on children but if there are more cuts in the pipeline there will be hell to play.