Friday, 17 February 2017

Relief at Tata vote

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 17 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.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Fighting Plaid cuts in Llanelli schools

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 10 February 2017

Over the last few months I’ve visited many of the schools in the Llanelli constituency. Each of them are struggling with their budgets.

Last year cuts of £3.4 million by the Plaid-led council in Carmarthenshire stretched the budgets of Llanelli school to breaking point. Despite the Welsh Government protecting the money sent to County Hall there were job losses in Bigyn, Brynteg, Dafen, Brynsierfel, Dafen, and Ysgol y Felin Primary schools.

This year local Heads were told to prepare for further cuts of 5%. I revealed these cuts in this column but Plaid Councillors wrote to the local papers to say I was fibbing.

Meanwhile the Director of Education, Gareth Morgans, wrote to Heads to say, “There is a proposal to reduce school budgets. The details of the proposals being considered by the County Council”.

Local Heads were told that they’d need to make up to 135 members of staff redundant to meet the £3.2 Million shortfall.

Still Plaid accused me of misleading.

The Heads I’ve been speaking to were in despair. The Council leadership told the public all would be well, while their officials pushed them to draw up redundancy plans.

I pleaded with Plaid to cancel the cuts after the Welsh Labour Government announced that there would be no cuts in Carmarthenshire’s overall budget next year.

With an eye on May’s Council elections the Council published their final spending plans this week.  Plaid’s press release announced "SCAREMONGERING ON EDUCATION CUTS PROVED WRONG”.

They announced they’ve found an extra £2.5m and would be giving £1.76m of it to schools. Plaid Council Leader Cllr Emlyn Dole said in the press release “We were aware of public fears due to unfounded allegations by some leading Labour politicians, who should have known better,” said.

My ‘claims’, they said, had caused ‘unnecessary alarm’.  

Well, by revealing what the Council were planning I certainly caused alarm, but it certainly wasn’t unnecessary. The pressure has led to a change in policy that will reduce the cuts schools will have to make.

But there will still be cuts. They aren’t passing on all the money they’ve found to schools. Heads will have to absorb teacher pay rises and the cost of inflation, which means they’ll have less money than this year to run their schools. There still may be job losses - on top of the cuts they had to endure last year.

And all Plaid can do is blame me for ‘scaremongering’.

This game-playing must stop, and we should put the education of our children first.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Tearing out much needed employment for the Llanelli economy

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 3rd February 2016

146 people currently work in the Department for Work and Pensions office in the middle of Llanelli.

Some come from far and wide as the result of previous re-locations, but most live in the area.

These are not Job Centre roles but so-called ‘back of house’ functions. The team that are affected mostly work on dealing with sickness benefit claims, work capability assessments and crisis loans.

The Whitehall department announced last week that they want to ‘modernise their estate’. The Conservative Minister in charge in London wrote to me to tell me that because we now have “record levels of employment across Wales” - apparently -  and 80% of people who claim Jobseekers Allowance now do so online, the benefit offices need less space.

But rather than working with Carmarthenshire Council, or even the Welsh Government, to try and find better accommodation locally, the UK Government have announced they want to centralise offices in Cardiff and Pembroke Dock.

In their letter to me the DWP said workers would be offered alternative roles in “a nearby location”. Only a civil servant in London would consider Cardiff and Pembroke Dock as nearby Llanelli!

Forcing up to 146 people to add to the congestion out of Llanelli every morning will suck out even more trade and footfall from the town centre, adding further to its decline.

It is becoming clear that many would find the commute impractical and risk becoming classes as ‘surplus’ by the DWP. If no other roles can be found locally they face the risk of redundancy.

Either way the move risks tearing out much needed employment for the Llanelli economy. It flies in the face of the words of the Prime Minister that she wants to spread wealth around the UK.

I fail to see how taking jobs from one of the most deprived parts of Wales to one of the most successful parts helps with that.

I tabled an Urgent Question in the Senedd this week to urge the Welsh Government to get the Westminster DWP to re-think this badly thought through plan. Nia Griffith and I are holding a public meeting at Paddock St Community Centre on Saturday 11th February at 10.30am to organise the fight back against the DWP plan to close its Llanelli office.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

I do not envy the choice Tata workers have to make

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 27th January 2016

Workers in Trostre and Port Talbot have a big decision to make on whether to accept the deal they have been offered by Tata.
Politicians have been put under pressure to keep their opinions to themselves, but I have not.

My view is that the outcome of the vote will have an impact on the whole area. If workers vote to reject the deal the Heavy End at Port Talbot will close, hundreds of workers will lose their jobs and there will be a big ripple effect on the whole economy. That is not something I can stay silent about.

I don’t blame the workers for being angry. There are steelworkers who have spent decades working seven shifts in a row; shift patterns that have ignored public holidays, just as they’ve ignored weekends and standard working weeks. I’ve been in touch with workers from Llanelli who have had to work nights and long days in highly stressful, intensely physical environments; all on the promise that at 55 they could retire on a decent pension.

And now - for many, at the eleventh hour - they feel they’re being done-over by a company they’ve understandably lost faith in. They don’t believe the guarantees, and for many who are within reach of retirement they are being asked to take a significant cut. One man described it to me as being asked to jump into a black hole whilst they whisper “we’ll catch you”.

I’ve been clear from the moment the deal was announced that this is economic blackmail by a multinational company playing off Governments and workers to try and minimise its costs and maximise its profits.
The anger is real and understandable and there’s risk that they will reject the offer. Tata need to listen to this if they want to salvage the situation.

I have met with the Chief Executive of Tata in the UK as has First Minister Carwyn Jones. And the message back is: the deal is the deal.

I have been critical of Plaid who have called on workers to reject it. They are jumping on the bandwagon of legitimate worker discontent, but it is deeply irresponsible of them to do so when they know that the impact of a No vote could decimate the industry. The livelihood of hundreds of families would be wiped out if Tata put its Welsh operations into receivership. Not only would jobs go but the pension fund would take an immediate 10% hit when it is taken into the Government’s Pension protection Fund. In fact the Allied Steel & Wire workers say they only got around 50% of their pension back after it went into the fund.

I do not envy the choice Tata workers have to make.

We need to make sure we are not put in this position again, and focus on developing jobs where we are not held to blackmail by big foreign companies.

I don't want to see division

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 20th January 2016

From September 1st children in Llangennech who do not want a Welsh medium education will have to go outside their village to get it.

The move is justified by the Council because the last census showed a decline in the number of Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire, and is part of the measures needed to achieve the Welsh Government’s target of doubling the number of Welsh speakers to 1 million by 2050.

Whilst Carmarthenshire Councillors were voting to set aside the objections from 757 people in Llangennech I was in the Senedd scrutinizing the Minister for the Welsh Language, Alun Davies, on the way Councils are converting schools like Llanegennech from Dual-Stream schools, where English and Welsh are taught side by side, into Welsh medium schools.

“We need to take great care in the way we deal with it” the Minister told me.  He and I share the ambition to ensure that all 16 year-olds are able to speak Welsh by the time they leave school, and continue to use it in everyday life. And we both want to maintain the goodwill that there has been towards the Welsh language.

I went to school in a primary much like Llanegennech, and I’ve always admired the way the children from different language backgrounds are educated together, and the way in which children who are not taught in Welsh are nonetheless exposed to the language everyday. This is in stark contrast to most primary schools where Heads struggle to recruit teachers and support staff who can speak Welsh. Children are often taught by adults who themselves not able to speak Welsh, and often leave school barely able to speak the language.

Carmarthenshire plans to turn all Dual-Stream schools into Welsh medium schools over the coming years. Where there are easily accessible English medium schools nearby this may not attract much comment, but in villages like Llanegennech there’s a risk that approach may be similarly divisive.  I don’t want to see that.

“We need different approaches in different areas” Alun Davies told the Assembly’s Culture and Welsh Language Committee this week. “I hope we can move away from negative debates and take time to reflect. Does a bilingual school deliver bilingual people? If not, why not? Let's have that debate without negativity” Alun Davies added.

I have deliberately not tried to use this issue to score points against the Plaid Cymru led Council. I do however, disagree with their approach. Rather than creating ever more Welsh medium schools I would prefer to focus on improving the quality of Welsh teaching for children who are not currently well served, and to run English medium schools into bilingual ones.

The Welsh Government will be looking at the best way of achieving its ambition of doubling the number of Welsh speakers by 2050, and I hope that the need to avoid the division we have seen in Llanegennech can be avoided.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Kidwelly leading way

Column published in the Llanelli Herald on February 13th 2016

The media has been full of the “crisis” in the NHS this week.

The British Red Cross went as far as saying the health service in England was facing a "humanitarian crisis" this winter.

Thankfully the NHS in Wales is being run differently from the health service across the border, but nobody is under any illusion about the pressures that it faces.

We are demanding more and more from the NHS. I find it astonishing that the average age of a patient in Prince Philip Hospital is 83!

It is a huge achievement of modern health care that people are living longer, but our later years are often spent in poor health and that is putting huge pressure on the health and social care services. Indeed, Doctors at PPH tells me that most of the elderly patients there often have multiple chronic conditions, and even after they've been treated for the condition they were admitted for can’t be sent home because of their other conditions..

Our health service has to change and adapt to meet these new demands. And it’s not only the demands of the patient that are changing, but the staff have changing needs too. GPs, for example, increasingly want to work part-time, and to mix their duties at a local surgery with hospital or University work.

Last week I welcomed Welsh Health Secretary Vaughan Gething to Kidwelly to see a new model GP surgery in action.

This time last year the Minafon surgery was in crisis after the existing GPs left. The practice was taken over by the Hywel Dda Health Board and in the absence of a full complement of Doctors they designed a team of health professionals who could support a smaller team of GPs.

Local patients can now see an advanced nurse who can prescribe, a physiotherapist and a pharmacist, alongside a telephone support service. It's a smarter way working and offers more services locally. For example, the pharmacist, is conducting a review of all patients at the surgery who suffer from asthma and reviewing their medication with them - this is something an overstretched GP wouldn’t have time to do.

This offers a model for all GP surgeries, but because most are in effect run as private businesses by the Doctors, it is harder to bring about the changes than one directly run by the health board- like Minafon on Kidwelly. However, as more and more surgeries struggle to find the Doctors they need change may well happen organically.

It does go to show that often the pressures on the system can produce changes for the better.

But change is rarely easy, and in a service we all value so deeply, can cause deep concern. That’s why its so important that we are honest and open about the challenges and listen to patients to mke sure changes are carefully thought through.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Sparking the flame of innovation

Published on IWA blog and in Western Mail on December 22nd

What will 2017 bring? It’ll be the year we trigger Article 50, marking the beginning of our exit from the EU; and Donald Trump will enter the Oval Office as the United States’ 45th president. These are things we know. But 2017 will also bring changes that many of us can’t even imagine. And whilst the bounds of these technological advancements are unknown, their impact on our lives is not.

Earlier this month, I raised concerns with Welsh Economy Minister Ken Skates that an estimated 700,000 jobs in Wales are at risk from being made defunct by automation. Human hands and - with the eruption of computers being able to learn for themselves – human brains, that are in danger of being replaced by machines and algorithms.

This innovation is all part of what is commonly termed the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Just as the first industrial revolution was marked by our ability to harness steam power; the second by our capacity to mass produce; and the third by the development of electronics and computers; this fourth industrial revolution is the combination of these digital technologies with pre-existing physical and biological systems.

Machines are becoming embedded into every aspect of human life - our money, homes, factories, healthcare systems, workplaces and even bodies are becoming inextricably linked with automated systems. It is the speed at which these ‘cyber physical’ systems are disrupting existing industry - and the scope of this disruption - that is a defining factor of this industrial transformation. Whilst other revolutions progressed at a steady, linear rate, this fourth industrial revolution is progressing at an exponential one. 

But just as it’s crucial we prepare for the risks this disruption will bring, we also need to position Wales at the forefront of the new industries this revolution will spur. 

Achieving this will require a new economic strategy that concentrates our limited resources on the interventions that will have the biggest impact - where growth is predicted, where Wales has existing competitive advantage and and where the benefits of growth can be seen to generate a ‘common good’. 

We also need to ensure that the jobs that are left behind - the jobs that make-up the ‘economy of our everyday’ (in food, energy, housing, tourism and healthcare industries) - are jobs that are worth having. 

In an unpredictable era we need to move away from predictable, orthodox, economic approaches.

Let's dispense with the ‘long-term economic plan’ and instead embrace shorter-term, more agile, rapid-response, approaches which adapt easily to changed circumstances. 

As Sir Terry Matthews has advocated in the Swansea Bay City region, we need to shift our focus away from the familiar - new roads and business parks, and towards driving innovation - and instead link up businesses with the cutting-edge research taking place in our universities, facilitating partnerships that will solve real industry problems, as well as exploring the economic challenges and possibilities that remain unknown.

The challenge is how do we embed ‘innovation’ into our systems and our thinking. Some are advocating an arm-length body for Wales to take the lead, I think we need to be taking a more decentralised and flexible approach. 

We need an approach that recognises Wales’ economy isn’t a homogenous monolith, but rather a collaboration of multiple hubs of industry. In Scotland, they’ve achieved this through the establishment of university-led Innovation Centres. It’s an approach that could work in Wales, too. We could draw on our diversity - from Swansea’s academic excellence in engineering, to the outstanding research underway in Aberystwyth on sustainable food production, and Bangor’s leading contributions in the field of neuroscience. 

We need multiple minds sparking off each other, trying different approaches in different parts of Wales. Just as I have been critical of a UK economic strategy which concentrates wealth in the south east of England, and relies on that to trickle down to the other parts, we must be critical of any strategy that focuses efforts in just one corner of our nation. Further and Higher education institutions are natural partners in achieving this.

We need to introduce agitators within our existing governance structures too - at local, regional and national levels of government. People who understand the nature of the change already underway and who aren’t afraid to take risks. People who have the brains, the capacity and the personality to drive buy-in and to bring others with them. We are a creative nation - we need to find ways to celebrate and leverage this creativity for our common good.
If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that there is a deep disaffection for a business as usual approach. We must meet this cry for change with an economic message that commands confidence that things can be better for all our communities.

2017 will be a time of big change - politically, economically and technologically. Let’s seize this opportunity to make these changes work for Wales - and to establish ourselves as the UK’s Western Furnace of Innovation and Industry.  

Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour & Co-operative AM for Llanelli