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.

Improving Llanelli station

Published in Llanelli Herald on 5th May 2017

This week, Arriva Trains teamed up with a voluntary group, the Heart of Wales Line Development Company, to announce they will be trialling extended opening hours of the ticket office at Llanelli Train Station.

Ticket offices aren’t just about being able to purchase tickets - we’re used to using ticketing machines on platforms. It’s about local knowledge, someone we can go to for advice and help, a sense of station security and an ability to join-up public transport provision.

From speaking to local passengers about what they want out of the station, it’s obvious to me that the facilities simply aren’t open for long enough - the fact that the station is closed on a Sunday is far from ideal.

So I’m glad that throughout May the booking office on Great Western Crescent will open from 6.15am  to 5pm Monday to Saturday, and between 11am and 5pm on Sundays. Currently, the ticket office closes at 12.40pm Monday to Friday, 1.30pm on Saturdays and doesn’t open at all on Sundays.

If it goes well the longer hours could be made permanent and the rail development company will get a portion of the additional ticket sales to allow them to employ staff and offer additional services to promote greater use of the Heart of Wales Line.

The way to get more people travelling by train to make it a more attractive option than taking the car. Part of this is making the stations welcoming places by offering a wide variety of facilities - such as toilets, food & drink and manned platforms.

I’m a little concerned that it may be a self-fulfilling prophecy to say at the end of what is a fairly short trail that extended hours aren’t justified due to a lack of use. These changes need time to improve passenger numbers. Will a month be enough? We’ll soon find out.

In the meantime, spread the word. The more people that use the station throughout May, the better chance we all have of getting a permanently improved service for our town.

Raising our game to help families with autism

Published in Llanelli Herald on 28th April 2017

It is estimated that Around 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum. It affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people. It also affects how they make sense of the world around them.

It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all autistic people share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Some autistic people are able to live relatively independent lives but others may need a lifetime of specialist support.

The Welsh Labour Government has just announced an additional £7 million investment into the new national autism service for Wales, which will provide lifetime support for children and adults.

The Integrated Autism Service offers help with emotional and behavioural issues, support to access leisure and improved diagnostic assessment. It was set up last March and will be rolled across Wales by next year thanks to a total of £13 million of investment by the Welsh Government so far .

There’s been an immediate improvement in the appalling waiting times for families in the Hywel Dda area. But the situation is nowhere near good enough. It needs to keep improving, and I’m confident that it will.

The funds will help deliver the target of a 26-week waiting time from referral to first appointment for children with autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions, along with speeding up access to support.

Speaking as someone with personal experience of how difficult it can be for families living with autism.

Recently the National Autistic Society Cymru said that service provision for the 34,000 people with autism and Asperger syndrome in Wales is "patchy". Crucially the Welsh Government’s new plan focuses on improving assessment, diagnosis and support for people on the autism spectrum. It will be led by the new integrated autism service, which will be based on the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s best practice standards and will include a focus on multi-disciplinary working, ensuring people with autism receive joined up services and support.

Like all well intentioned plans the way it is rolled out and resourced is the key, and that’s something we’ll have to keep working on but the new £7m funding is a significant step forward.

But the things that can make the biggest difference is how we all understand the condition, and the
people who are affected by it. And that’s something we can all make an effort to do.

More Doctors for Llanelli

Column published in the Llanelli Herald on April 7th 2017

We had good news this week about an increase in the number of GPs that are being trained.

As family Doctors retire, and more and more opt to work part-time, many local surgeries have been struggling.

Welsh Labour Health Secretary Vaughan Gething launched an incentive scheme to offer £20,000 to trainee Doctors who sign up to areas that have shortages.

This week we heard that the scheme has helped bring a 16% increase in the number of trainee GPs.

The campaign has focused on marketing Wales as an attractive place for GPs and their families, to train, work and live by highlighting the benefits and opportunities offered by a medical career in Wales.

Developments like the new ‘Front of House’ model at Prince Philip Hospital and the planned ‘Wellness Centre’ at Delta Lakes complement this message by offering opportunities for Doctors to research and develop while they practice as GPs.

As well as highlighting what a great place Wales is to live the campaign offers to pay the exam fees of trainee Doctors. And students who sign up to train in specialist areas that have shortages will get further financial incentives on the understanding they remain in the area in they trained for one year of practice afterwards.

There are still spare training places and efforts will continue to fill them. The early signs are very encouraging with the number of GP training places filled at the end of the first round of recruitment currently stands 84 per cent - compared to 68 per cent at this stage last year.

The next phase of the campaign is being launched next month and will target nurses in primary care, secondary care and the care home sector and will launch in May. Future phases of the campaign will target pharmacists and allied health professionals.
As well as getting more people to become Doctors we need to modernise the model of the way local surgeries work. I met with Llanelli GPs recently and they are trying a number of ways of changing the way they work by building up clinical teams around them. So instead of just having a family Doctor surgeries will increasingly offer the services of a physiotherapist, a pharmacist, a paramedic and a nurse practitioner.

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.