Monday, 18 September 2017

Embracing the chaos

Published in the Western Mail on September 18th 2017

The metaphor of the perfect storm has become overused, but it is difficult to think of a better one to describe the potentially calamitous confluence of a Hard Brexit and the disruptive destruction of automation. And that’s the context in to which the Welsh Government will this week launch its long-awaited new economic strategy.

But as Rahm Emanuel - Obama’s colourful Chief of Staff at the time of the 2008 slump - famously said, you should never let a serious crisis to go to waste. Chaos offers an opportunity to do things previously unthought of.

Both automation and Brexit will transform our communities. The choice we have is whether we try and shape these forces to support people who have been largely left behind by globalisation, or whether we try to struggle on to preserve the status quo.

In the past our obsession with following conventional templates has meant we’ve fixated on roads, business parks and attracting foreign firms to Wales. And the results have been clear – in nearly twenty years of devolution, the wealth gap we have with England remains the same; the value of the goods and services we produce is just three-quarters of what it should be.

Turning this around is clearly not easy. Our current GVA figures are not for the want of trying. But the lesson of the last two decades is that we need to ruthlessly focus on a small number of interventions that will make a difference.

There are five things I think we must do to enable the new economic strategy to stick.

First off, we must be alert to the challenges coming our way. The robotic and digital forces being unleashed through the fourth industrial revolution will re-shape our world of work, and the speed of change is unprecedented.

The automation we’ve witnessed replacing workers in our factories is turning to new professions. The ability for computers to process huge quantities of information at the touch of the button and to ‘learn’ from each other means that we’ll be turning to robots and mobile apps for anything from house-buying to x-ray results. Finance officers, admin workers, pharmacists, doctors, accountants and lawyers are all at significant risk - an estimated 700,000 jobs are predicted to be lost in Wales alone over the next twenty years.

We must be mindful of these changes as we consider the jobs we are creating and attracting. And in the skills we are teaching in our schools.

But this technological innovation isn’t something to be halted, it’s something to be harness. Our assumptions of what is possible are constantly being challenged and we must exploit these. However our window of opportunity is short – we are already behind many other countries, and reversing our laggard reputation will require significant investment. Crucially, not every emerging technology will prove lucrative – countries, and other regions of the UK, have already established early dominance in some. For example, we are not the only ones who are trying to grow our Life Sciences sector, and we are going to struggle to try and compete with the so-called Silicon Fen between Oxford and Cambridge.  

The new economic strategy must be supported by a clear analysis on where we have existing expertise – agriculture, car manufacturing, compound semiconductors, insurance, creative industries and bonded composites amongst others – and how best these will be leveraged in emerging markets.
The second area for focus is efficiency.

I welcome the regional approach the strategy is said to be taking. The ability of the Cardiff area to attract investment has left wider parts of Wales scrabbling for scrap ends. And it’s right that regional teams will be best placed to decide what the priorities of their communities should be to try and catch-up.

But in an era of increasingly pressured budgets, the pursuit of new opportunities will require a rationalisation of existing investments. Ken Skates, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, has spoken about the need to slim down the absurd nine ‘priority’ areas that feature in our current nationwide economic plan - but this hard-headed approach could well be stymied by the devolution of decision making to regional areas. We can’t sidestep the tough task of prioritising and there is little point moving away from an unfocused national approach to an unfocused regional one
It’s crucial that regional authorities are tasked not just with identifying which sectors should be prioritised, but which specific sub-sectors should receive precedence.

We must also ensure that a localised approach doesn’t diminish our ability to be ambitious nor compound Wales’ ability to innovate. The disparity in the quality and creativity of the Cardiff City Region and Swansea Bay City Region bids – for example - demonstrates how Welsh Government, whilst able to facilitate innovation, has to date failed to drive it. And it is deeply worrying that just one of the three Regional Skills Partnerships, tasked with analysing the economic challenges their region faces, references automation as a source of future risk. And equally troubling that when tasked with setting out their plans under the Future Generations Act, none of the Welsh Councils identified automation as an issue.
We need to find a way to get people from different regions and from different areas of industry to sit around the same table. Unless we put in place measures that identity future growth threats and seize fast-emerging opportunities then we will simply be treading water. This will require extensive technical expertise and expert dexterity - something our civil service has so far failed to demonstrate.

Importantly, a truly efficient approach to growth will mean grants to private businesses must only be used in the rarest of circumstances, instead we should prioritise low-cost favourable loan agreements that are easier to access and that are ambitious in their criteria. Partnering with firms by taking an equity stake and having a representative on the board ought also be encouraged.

The third test for the implementation of this new strategy is its relevance to the so-called post-industrial communities, those ‘left behind’ when heavy industry departed and nothing took its place. We mustn’t simply rebrand the status quo, we have to move beyond the conventional approach and support our communities to be more resilient to future shocks. A number of my Welsh Labour colleagues have called for a greater focus on the economy of the everyday, the so-called foundational economy; the ‘mundane’ 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.

The drive to reduce administrative budgets has led to the domination of large-scale, privatised companies in the delivery of our public services – at the cost of small, localised businesses. And the consequence of a focus on attracting Foreign Direct Investment to Wales has also meant too little emphasis and resource has been placed on spurring indigenous growth. Quick wins have too often been allowed to overshadow slow-burners.

Take two widely-touted examples of economic success over the past few years - Airbus and Ford. Two very large employers in Wales (together employing 8,000 people across Wales) who have both recently admitted they’re a flight risk in the face of Brexit; and yet both companies continue to be in receipt of substantial Welsh Government support. Over the past ten years, Ford has received more than £24m in support; Airbus has received £33m in the last eight. In 2016 alone, Ford’s pre-tax profits were close to £8bn, and Airbus’ were more than £2bn.

So reports that the foundational economy might feature in a future economic strategy for Wales are very welcome. But my concern is that the term will be misappropriated or diluted without any meaningful commitment to doing things differently being embedded into our economic practice. We need a sincere commitment to trialling different approaches which support the Foundational Economy. Interventions must be at both the demand and supply side of transactions, and mustn’t just focus on the support supplier firms need. Brexit offers us a potential opportunity to exploit the £5.5bn the public sector spends every year buying in goods and services to Wales to boost our foundational economy. But to achieve this we will need to urgently address the skills shortage in public procurement. And we need to face-up to the fact that working with multiple local, smaller, suppliers will be more expensive in the short-term.

Of course, to achieve such a radical shift in economic policy - both in terms of the ambitious market capture of emerging industries, and in shifting our focus to the foundational economy - we need to be honest about the scale of the challenge faced and ready to admit failure. This is the fourth test for the strategy to achieve meaningful change.

There is no silver bullet for economic development; anyone who argues otherwise is attempting to advance their own, specific agenda. And theories of economic growth remain untested in this new industrial landscape.

In unpredictable times we need to focus on rapid, agile approaches which adapt easily to changed circumstances. But with this will come risk, and with risk will come some failure. The new strategy should prepare us for this, and should have a clear, consistent and transparent monitoring strategy that will enable us to quickly scale up initiatives seen to be working, and quickly put an end to those that are not.

The final, fifth element that the new strategy must embrace is that it must have a positive impact on the things we actually care about.

Success that is only measured by increasing GDP or jobs figures fails to consider the quality of the jobs generated, or the extent to which national wealth is shared. Rising levels of in-work poverty and inequality in Wales demonstrate how inadequate this approach has been to date.

In fact, most families in Wales don’t give two figs about Wales’ GDP or GVA figures. And the age-old adage of the rising tide lifting all boats has consistently been proven false. People care that they have decent jobs, that their families are healthy, their communities are close-knit, their town centres are lively and that their kids go to a good school.

If Wales is to truly set ourselves apart, this is how we should measure economic success. It’s a bold move, but it’s one that’ll mean the effort and money we invest is best spent for the results we ultimately want to achieve.

Some of the biggest economic challenges Wales has ever faced are coming at us at an alarming speed. We have an opportunity to prepare for them, to cushion the blow of harmful knocks, and to position ourselves at the forefront of emerging opportunities.

But to achieve this we need to be brutally honest - on the state we’re currently in, the challenges coming our way and the risks we need to take if we are to emerge not just unscathed, but strengthened.

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”.