Friday, 5 February 2016

Time for a re-think

Published in the Llanelli Herald on 5 February 2015

Trimsaran in action, but without changing facilities

There’s all the difference in the world between cuts and savings. But the people who run our public services often can’t see the distinction.

The Tories have cut the Welsh Government’s budget by 11% since they came to power. Inevitably that has huge consequences for public services. By trying to minimize the impact on the NHS in Wales, the amount of money taken out of some other areas has been significant.
Labour in Cardiff have tried to shield Councils from the worst of it. In England Council budgets were savagely slashed by 37%, but in Wales the reductions have been much more modest. But as the Tories extend Austerity for the sake of it Welsh Councils face tough choices.
You may not have heard of Kevin Francis and Mike Bassett, but along with other volunteers in the Carmarthenshire Unified Sports Committee, they have been setting an example other Councils would be wise to follow. They found savings of £241,505 for the Council and made pitches affordable for clubs.
When the Independents were backed by Labour in Carmarthenshire Council we followed the advice of the Council officers, and the example of many other Councils, in increasing the fees for using sports pitches across the County. Parents and volunteers were rightly up in arms. Kevin and Mike showed there is a better way.
Now Plaid are propping up the tried Independents in County Hall, they’re continuing to listen to Council Chief Executive Mark James (despite saying they’d get rid of him), and instead of working with community groups to support them, they are simply trying to off-load the pitches, parks and changing rooms to local clubs and groups.

Rather than looking for savings by finding new ways of doing things - as the Carmarthenshire Unified Sports Committee have done - highly paid Council officers find it easier to close things or cut them loose.

When Kevin Francis and Mike Bassett spoke at the last meeting of the County Council they weren’t thanked, or asked what lessons they could pass on from their experience. They were shouted down by Plaid Council Chairman Peter Hughes Griffiths.
Kevin Francis of Carmarthenshire Unified Sports Committee
The Council should be using their reserves to develop a plan to find a way of keeping facilities for our communities, and supporting locals to look after them. Instead, Trimsaran Rugby Club have been told they’ll be without changing rooms unless they can find £50,000 to bring them up to scratch and agree to cover all future maintenance costs. They simply don’t have the money.

There’s little point spending £580,000 on a new cycle track for elite riders in Carmarthen when there are no funds to help keep existing facilities used by thousand of children across Llanelli.

The Tory cuts facing Council will get worse. Plaid-run Carmarthenshire are blowing £20 Million of their reserves on pet projects a year ahead of the next Council elections, but have no plans to help communities save their facilities. 

It is time for a re-think before we lose precious facilities, because once they are flogged for housing they won’t come back.

Lee Waters is Welsh Labour’s Assembly candidate for Llanelli

Monday, 1 February 2016

What is UKIPs appeal?

Published in the Llanelli Herald on January 29th

I was asked this week why I thought people voted UKIP?

The new party has been in disarray this week, and have failed to agree which candidates to put forward for May’s Assembly elections as a result of deep splits.

But I’m not sure any of that impacts on UKIPs vote. In fact the more chaotic they are the more they seem to appeal to some voters.

Why? Well, I think there are a number of reasons why they did so well in Llanelli in last year’s General Election.

Historically populist parties of the right flourish in times of economic slump. When the economy declines people like to find someone to blame, and this time it is immigrants and the EU who are the bogey men. It is a simple answer to a complex range of issues.

On top of all that trust in politics, and politicians, is at all time low. The expenses scandal confirmed many people's worst prejudices about those who rule over us. Against this backdrop Farage is seen as a 'breath of fresh air' with his blokey persona who 'tells things like they are' - unlike most politicians who dodge questions and speak in a political code few understand.

What is rarely mentioned of course is that Nigel Farage has said the NHS should be replaced by a private insurance model, and UKIP’s candidate in Llanelli was behind moves to sell off Parc Howard to private developers.

But it seems UKIPs policies are largely irrelevant, as is the quality of the candidates they put up, people vote for them because they are angry and fed up.

The academic researchers who have studied UKIP say their key constituency are those who live in 'left behind towns', and Llanelli is a classic area where they thrive. Our economy has been declining for decades, and people feel we have been forgotten about. And to a considerable extent they are right.

I think the way to tackle UKIP, is not to outbid them but to offer an alternative. They pray on despair, and we need to show there is hope. Llanelli may be suffering, but it doesn't have to be that way. We need to come together to set out a plan for how our area can thrive once again.

There are no quick and easy answers, but there are answers. What we need is ambition for our area, determination to follow it through, and a willingness to work together, across party divides, to secure a more prosperous future for Llanelli.

When I was growing up the attitude was ‘if you want to get on, you’ve got to get out’. I want to put an end to that. That’s the reason I’m standing. And as much as I understand the frustration of those who put their faith in UKIP, I think there is a better way.

Lee Waters is Welsh Labour’s candidate in Llanelli

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Trostre has been failed by the Tories, again

This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on Friday 22nd January

I vividly remember the worry and stress at home when my father was made redundant from the colliery, and so I have some sense what the families of steel workers facing layoffs are going through this weekend.

The decision by Tata Steel to dramatically cuts its workforce in south Wales will not only decimate an industry, but will lay waste to communities too.

A UK Government who have bent over backwards to help bankers now appears to be indifferent to the fate of heavy industry. The Chancellor, George Osborne, would rather cosy up to the Chinese Government rather than push for action to tackle the sharp practices which has put Welsh jobs on the line.

Because the Chinese economy is slowing down they are producing more steel than they need, so they’re selling if off cheaply on the international markets. Last September for example, China exported 11.5 million tonnes of cut-price steel in one month  - that is almost as much steel as the UK produces in a whole year.

The U.S government have put import taxes on the Chinese steel to compensate for its low prices and to stop it undercutting home made steel. Meanwhile the UK government has blocked EU reforms which would make it easier to keep cheap Chinese steel out of Europe.

When Chinese President Xi’s came to the UK on state visit at the end of last year the only person to confront him about the effect of this so-called ‘dumping of steel was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.  

The European Union has taken some action but the whole process could take up to two years to resolve. Meanwhile the world economy shows no signs of growing, so demand for steel is set to remain sluggish. On top of that, the value of the pound is at a seven-year high, which makes imports cheaper.  

At a time of low demand in the private sector, the UK Government should bring infrastructure projects forward, and make sure that we use British steel in them; that would keep up our skills base and help both the steel and construction industries. Instead it is cooling on the Swansea Bay Tidal lagoon and the electrification of the train line to Swansea has been heavily delayed - both projects that could be big customers for our steel.

Tata Steel also say the cost of energy is causing it extra problems. Port Talbot steelworks uses as much energy as the city of Swansea. Indeed, Tata's electricity bill for Wales last year was £60m when its competitors in Europe are paying half as much.

The bill is inflated by a Carbon Tax set at a high rate by the Tory Chancellor in 2010. It is a tax unique to the UK, which is not paid by any of our competitors, inside or outside the EU.

The Welsh Labour Government raised concerns about the impact of energy prices on the most energy intensive businesses in 2011.  Now, in 2016, the industry is still awaiting the full package of support promised by UK Government.

The full-range of pressures facing such Wales steel is significant. I’m attracted to the idea of the Welsh Government examining a joint-venture with Tata to help take the works through a tough period, but the industry has been very clear: it does not want hand-outs. It wants a level playing field in order to survive in a highly competitive global environment.

What we need now is for the UK Government to show the same determination as it did to help the bankers to help a key industry that is essential for the future of the UK economy.

Lee Waters is Welsh Labour’s Assembly candidate for Llanelli

Thursday, 14 January 2016

The truth behind the headline

This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on Friday 8th January

A lot has been written about how the NHS in Wales is lagging behind England, even though the official studies don't back up the idea.

In fact the biggest research report on the performance of the health service in different parts of the UK concluded that each part has its own strengths and weaknesses depending on the priorities set locally.

Is some areas the English NHS is out-performing the Welsh Health Service, but in others it is the reverse. One notable example is helping elderly people stay out of hospital. In fact the highly respected King’s Fund health think-tank has said that social care in England is “on the brink of a crisis”.

This is because unlike your GP or local hospital, services to help people stay safe and independent at home are mainly arranged by local councils. In England the Tories have slashed Council budgets which has had a huge impact on their ability to provide social care. The Welsh Labour Government have tried their best to protect Council services from cuts, but in England the Tories have cut spending on services like home carers, meals on wheels, and day care by more than £1 billion in the last five years.

This is having a huge knock-on effect on the NHS, where each year more and more older people are finding themselves trapped in hospital for days or even weeks, despite being well enough to leave, simply because there isn’t support available for them in their community.

But figures out for Wales this week showed the number of patients remaining in hospital when they are well enough to leave is falling.

The total number of people experiencing a delayed transfer of care, also known as “bed blocking” , in October was 468 - a fall of 1.3% compared to the previous month and is the second successive monthly fall.

Unlike the Tory approach in England the Welsh Government has adopted a “twin-track” approach towards investing in health and social care, which has helped to ensure people can leave hospital quickly when they are well enough.

The Welsh Government’s Intermediate Care Fund, which will next year be increased from £20m to £50m, has been the key role in supporting older and vulnerable people by helping them to maintain their independence in their own home.

We have taken a distinct approach of investing in both health and social care because many we know that people rely on both services for their care. The latest figures published by the Treasury shows Wales spends £172 more per person on health and social care combined than in England. This is a direct result of the choices made by Labour Ministers in Wales and stands in contrast to the Tory approach in England.

You are unlikely to see that on the news or in the London tabloids. The truth about the NHS is more complicated than the headlines suggest.


Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Time to bang our drum

This column was published on the Llanelli Star on 13rd January 2016

The funny thing about people in Llanelli is that they don’t like to blow their own trumpet.
We don’t like to show-off.
As I walked around the new emergency unit at Prince Philip Hospital last week, with Health Minister Mark drakeford, there was definite pride amongst the nurses and the Doctors who had worked hard to come up with a new model of A&E. But it was almost as an aside that they mentioned that this new unit was being talked about as the future model to be copied across the whole of the UK.
If we were Americans we’d be shouting from the rooftops that our town was leading the way!
When it opens on February 22nd the new ‘front of house’ facility (which is a bit confusing as it’s actually round the back of the hospital!) will streamline the way patients coming to A&E are treated. Instead of going through a pecking order of Doctors before treatment  - as is traditional in casualty departments - people will be assessed as soon as they arrive and dealt first time by the right person in the right place.
Patients arriving by ambulance will have a dedicated entrance and a dedicated team using state of the art facilities. People walking into A&E will be assessed by a GP or experienced enhanced nurse practitioner and treated according to their needs.
If patients come in with conditions that need highly specialised treatment – like acute abdominal pain – they’ll be rushed to the nearest specialist centre where experts will treat them. Likewise sick children will be treated in the closest specialist hospital.
The change at Prince Philip hasn’t been easy, but the thing that has impressed me most is how campaigners and protesters have been willing to roll their sleeves up and get involved in finding a way forward.

When it’s fully operational in the middle of May Llanelli should be a bit more American, and shout from the rooftops about the innovation we started.

Lee Waters is Welsh Labour’s Assembly candidate for Llanelli

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Proof of the pudding is in the eating

This column was published on the Llanelli Star on 23rd December 2015

Today is my son’s 11th birthday. It is a rotten time for a party, but that was the least of our concerns. After a stressful pregnancy we were just relieved to have him delivered.

I have lots of memories of that day, but perhaps the strongest is of standing in the maternity ward. I remember seeing all these new born babies, and realising that as unique as my son was to me, the newborns dotted around the room were almost identical - but what was radically different was their life chances.

It was a strong impression that came to me again when I became Chair of Governors of a Primary school. By the time children have reached 4 their paths in life are often set. Teachers know at that age which ones are most likely to end up in a cycle of poverty.

That’s wrong. And to me the purpose of Government - The State - is to intervene to disrupt that path: To allow every child to be able to fulfill their potential.

Our education system is probably one of the most powerful tools we have to fight poverty. It’s one of the reasons why the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has pledged to increase schools spending by 1% above the budget given to Wales by the UK Government every year.

And despite the Tories slashing the size of the Welsh budget by 11% since they came to power, Carwyn has again stuck to that pledge. Although he’s had to make big cuts in other areas the education budget is getting an extra £40m next year.

But in Carmarthenshire the Plaid-run Council has asked schools to plan for a 18% cut in their budgets.  They talk a good game about being radical, but now they are in control in the County their priorities are clear, and they don’t seem to include investing in schools to tackle disadvantage.

Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour & Cooperative candidate for Llanelli in next May’s Assembly elections

Monday, 21 December 2015

A time for reflection

This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on 18 December 

Christmas is a time for reflection. And for me, a much needed time to try and switch off and enjoy time with my family.

The last few months have been relentless. As well as doing a full time (and full-on job) I’ve run for selection as Labour’s candidate for next May’s Assembly election, and since late September have thrown myself into campaigning.

Although I’ve been involved in politics at a number of levels over many years I’ve never been a candidate before. Having worked for a Cabinet Minister, and then covered politics as a Political Correspondent for ITV Wales, there’s not much about political life that surprises me. But being a candidate is different.

It is weird seeing your face on leaflets, not to mention knocking on the doors of strangers on Saturday morning’s - interrupting the flow of their lives, unconnected with party politics - to ask them for their support. I’m adjusting to it all pretty quickly, but it’s not how I’m used to spending Saturday mornings.

It also takes a level of self-belief and confidence that doesn’t come naturally. Who can honestly claim to have answers to all the bewildering range of complex problems that Llanelli faces? It’s those that do claim to know it all that worry me the most!

I have huge respect for people who put themselves forward for election. It is not for the faint-hearted, and of course, there is no guarantee of success.

In fact no Llanelli AM has yet to succeed in being elected - at each Assembly election the seat has swung back and fore between Labour and Plaid. And the opinion polls are again predicting a close contest.

For someone with a family, and a career, this is pretty unsettling prospect. I have to try and plan ahead for success and failure at the same time.  The only reason to put my family through it all is the belief that I’ll be able to make a contribution to the communities I grew up in. I’m sure all candidates feel the same.

Wales can do better. That’s my simple motivation for getting into politics.

I’ve had a series of jobs where I’ve been able to witness the Assembly up close. And although I am a passionate supporter of devolution, and I played a leading role in the last referendum as Vice-Chair of the cross-party Yes for Wales campaign, I believe we can do better.

After a rest over Christmas I’ll be re-energised to hit the campaign trail because I passionately believe we can use devolution to improve our communities and our country. But it won’t be easy and each of us have a responsibility to do our bit.

Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour Assembly candidate for Llanelli