Thursday, 27 October 2016

Powdered egg anyone?

Column published in Llaneli Star on 26th October 2016

Powdered egg anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They weren’t keen,

Hospital is doing well

Column published in Llaneli Star on 5th October 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 September 2016

School cuts could get worse

Column published in Llaneli Star on 14th September 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, instead teachers are being made redundant.

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

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

Sunday, 7 August 2016

How do we increase the number of Welsh speakers?

Published in Llanelli Star on 3rd August 2016

At the National Eisteddfod this week First Minister Carwyn Jones announced our ambition to almost double the number of Welsh speakers to one million by 2050.

This is a hugely ambitious policy and reflects the worry about the dip in the number of people who speak the language captured by the last census.

The Welsh Labour Government have set out a policy of increasing the number of places in Welsh medium schools, and when we led Carmarthenshire Council we put in place a plan for achieving this that is now being carried on by the Plaid-led administration.

In practice this involves converting schools that currently have Welsh and English language streams running side-by-side, into Welsh-medium schools.

As someone who was educated in the Welsh stream of a bilingual school in this county I think it is a shame to end the tradition we have of having a mix of languages in our schools. Those worried about the weakening of the language fear that unless you immerse children in Welsh we will struggle to create fluent speakers who use the language every day. I understand that concern.

On the other hand, we know there is a shortage of teachers able to teach Welsh, and many English-language schools struggle to get skilled staff to teach Welsh as a second language. The advantage of having dual-stream schools is that all children are educated in an environment where Welsh is a vibrant part of the school culture.

This is one of the reasons why some of the parents in Llangennech are fighting plans to turn the school into a Welsh medium one. There are a number of good reasons why Llangennech should carry on as a school for the whole community, but the arguments are falling on deaf ears. And if the currently policy continues this will be happening to the other dual-stream schools in the county too.

If we are to get close to our ambition of having a Million Welsh speakers within a few generations we need to address the teaching of Welsh in all our schools - and amongst adults; and not only focus on increasing the number of Welsh medium schools.

Action on steel

Published in Llanelli Star on 13th June 2016

The decision of Tata steel to ‘pause’ its search for a new buyer for the Trostre works and its other plants is a worry.

To keep Port Talbot and the other plants running for more than a year or so will require a company with deep pockets - and the willingness to dip into them.

When I met the Chief Executive of Tata in the UK a few weeks ago he told me that he was not convinced that any of the bidders who had come forward had the ability to keep the plants open for more than a few years.  

Tata proudly see themselves as responsible owners (and to be fair they put essential investment into Trostre) and they want to make their sure they are seen as responsible sellers.  They don’t want to be seen in the same way as Sir Phillip Green who cut and run after selling BHS.

Tata clearly didn’t think any of the bidders were serious, and with companies finding it harder to find investment in the aftermath of the EU referendum they’ve decided to put a stop to the sale process..

But some sceptics think Tata had no intention of selling to a company that would be their rival in any event. The fear is that the announcement that they will instead explore a merger with the German steel-maker ThyssenKrupp will allow them to wind-down Port Talbot over the next couple of years as they intended all along.

A tie-up with ThyssenKrupp could lead to a consolidation of steel production at Tata’s Dutch plant at Ijmuiden, and once that is secure Port Talbot could be closed to take out excess production capacity from the system.

For some reason the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns has welcomed this merger.

We need to look carefully to see if there’s anything that can be done to secure the future of the Welsh plants.

The Welsh Government has put money on the table with a clear offer of help. The UK Government have yet to make a concrete offer of support and they must now stop talking and start delivering

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Labour’s problems go way beyond Jeremy Corbyn

Published on IWA's comment site on 21 July 2016

So, the Labour Party is in crisis - plots, rebellions, protests: the whole nine yards.

As a recovering political journalist I feel pretty jaded about the whole thing. Fundamentally, the Labour Party is pretty solid and has been through all this before  - several times.

But. And there is a big But. Maybe this time it’s different. I’m not overly bothered by the division between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith - it is the meat and drink of politics, but what does greatly trouble me is the growing divergence between those inside the party and the people we were founded to represent.

Successful political parties reflect the communities they are drawn from. That became very clear to me when I first joined the Labour Party in the mid-90s. In parts of the constituency where the local branch was a good cross-section of the local community we did well; in parts where it wasn’t, we did not.

I’ve spent much of the last 12 months knocking on doors; not just of the doors of people we think we’ll get a reasonable welcome from, but on every door. And the experience has been a salutary one: a worrying number of people who you might expect to look to the Labour Party for an answer to their problems have switched off politics altogether, and too many of those who still have some faith in the political process now look to UKIP.

There are signs of a profound disconnect between our party and ‘our people’ (as we’ve paternalistically called them for too long). We saw the result of that in the EU referendum: 90% of the Labour Party members voted to Remain; But 64% of voters categorised as working class (C2s), and those out of work (DEs), voted to Leave the EU.

This is what should be troubling and pre-occupying us: the chasm between the leaders and the led. And instead of addressing it we’re exacerbating it.

Every political party faces the tension between furthering their own set of core values and responding to public opinion. And that’s where Leadership comes in, to balance these tensions, and persuade people to follow a course of action which honours the values of the party and chimes with the priorities of the electorate.

The modern Labour Party is failing to do that. That was true before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, and it has intensified since. There are complex reasons for this, but they have far-reaching consequences for us as a political movement. But where is the searching debate challenging ourselves to respond to this profound disconnect with our voters?  Instead we seem to want to fall back onto certainties.  We are increasingly talking to ourselves, while the voters look on in bewilderment.

This is typified by the debate over the leadership. Labour’s problems go way beyond Jeremy Corbyn, but without the right leadership we’ll never be in a position to address them.

In modern politics unless you have a leader who is seen as having the potential to be a credible alternative Prime Minister you are dead in the water.

Though I didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, I totally understood his appeal. His opponents were so bland, and symbolised how as a party we had lost our way.

I shared a platform with Jeremy in Burry Port earlier this year and praised the fact that he has re-energised the party, but noted that to bring about change we have to win. Sadly (and I take no pleasure from this) Jeremy Corbyn’s personal poll ratings are disastorous.

He is a polarising figure. He may be popular amongst Labour Party members (56% support him) but the general public appear unmoved by his leadership qualities.
Whilst the polls show that he is seen as more honest than most politicians, when people are asked if Jeremy Corbyn has what it takes to become Prime Minister 68% disagree. He is even less popular than Ed Miliband and Michael Foot were as Labour leaders (and by quite a margin).

These facts cannot be dismissed. And they matter.  

Just 76% of people who voted Labour in 2015 say they’d do so again if there was a fresh General Election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader.  

His supporters say this is simply a reflection of the fact that Labour MPs haven’t given him a chance, and have been undermining him. Whilst it is true that some MPs refused to serve under him, the majority have respected his mandate and have tried to help him succeed. But an alarming number of them have drawn the conclusion that it won’t work.

Lilian Greenwood is a typical example. By no means a Blairite, she told her local party, more in sorrow than in anger, “I wanted to make it work and I promise you, I tried to make it work. In the 9 months I spent in the Shadow Cabinet I never briefed against Jeremy...But through my own personal, direct experience I know that Jeremy operates in a way that means impossible. He is not a team player let alone a team leader”.

Similarly my colleague Nia Griffith - who has never said a single negative thing about Jeremy Corbyn to me, even in private - felt it was impossible to carry on in his Shadow Cabinet after getting nowhere in trying to persuade him to come up with a plan to keep the party together.
Even Mr Corbyn’s own economic adviser, Richard Murphy, has described what he saw within the inner sanctum as ‘shambolic’; “there was no policy direction, no messaging, no coordination, no nothing” he said. “ All that I have got so far from the Labour left is a message of what it is opposed to. That’s something. But it’s a long way from being enough” he wrote.

These can’t all be dismissed. These are all people who have tried to work with Jeremy, and even they’ve thrown their hands up in despair.

We are letting the Tories off the hook. The last time a Conservative Government was still ahead 12-18 months after an election was in 1984 during the miners strike. And the Tory fresh start under Theresa May is boosting them further still.

The voters, and his close colleagues, have drawn the same conclusion - for all his merits, and his sincerity, Jeremy Corbyn can’t beat the Tories.

And yet, the more he is attacked, the more his supporters feel vindicated in backing him. People are still joining Labour in their droves to show they believe in him.

There is a gulf between the Labour Party and the people it was created to represent; a gulf between new enthusiastic members and the people who have traditionally supported us; and a gulf  between the Leader and the rest of the party in Parliament.

This is a grave moment in the history of the Labour Party. Our new Government is the most right-wing in living memory and they are going to be creating a new settlement for our country outside the EU in the face of an imploding opposition.

We can recover. But to help the people we were created to help we need more than posturing and slogans. The first step is to elect a Leader who can regain our credibility in the eyes of the public, can unite the party in Parliament and can start to put together an ambitious policy vision for healing our society.

I know Owen Smith, he is one of the brightest talents of his generation. He combines a genuine passion to change society, and a rich understanding of our party’s history and mission, with a political sophistication to make the most of our opponents weaknesses.

I don’t agree with him on everything, but I genuinely believe he represents our best chance to reconnect, and re-think our purpose.

Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour & Cooperative AM for Llanelli

Sunday, 12 June 2016

My personal take on the EU referendum

Published in the Llanelli Herald on 10th June 2016

The claims and counterclaims of each side in the EU referendum campaign are bewildering.

Leaving the European Union will cause our economy will crash. Or, leaving the European Union will free us to grow faster and produce more jobs. Which one are we to believe?

Within the next three weeks we are being asked to make the biggest decision for a generation, and we’re being fed a diet of fear - by both sides.

I’ll be voting to Remain in the EU because it provides hope for a better future.

For me this is not a decision about short-term benefits. In fact it is a very personal decision based on the sacrifices of previous generations, and my hopes for my children’s generation.

70 years ago my grandfather leapt from planes into machine gun fire to help secure a bridge in Arnhem. I witnessed the scars this brave man bore from what he witnessed in the Netherlands, and across the deserts of North Africa, fighting for our freedom so that me and my children don’t have to do the same.

His generation faced the hell of two World Wars within 50 years of each other - both with their origins in conflict between European States. After that war the European Union was created to stop this happening again. By binding the economies of these former enemies together we have had 70 years of peace and prosperity.

We now take this for granted, but we really shouldn’t. Bringing dozens of countries together - and keeping them together - has been the outstanding achievement of the post-war generation. And it has everyday benefits - easy travel and study across the continent; rights in the workplace from safety to maternity benefits; and vastly improved environmental conditions - from blue flag beaches to cleaner air.

We hear a lot in this referendum about ‘sovereignty’, and about EU bureaucrats telling us what to do. But the real story is that by being part of this super-alliance we have opted to share decisions with our neighbours to secure shared benefits. In an unstable world this is a smart thing to do. None of this is inevitable, and it could quickly unravel if we left the EU.

The idea that by leaving we can keep the best bits of EU membership and opt-out of the disadvantages is a reckless fantasy. What’s more it leaves us under-equipped to deal with the threats we face.

The big challenges over the next 70 years we’ll face as a continent are climate change, terrorism and mass migration (which will worsen as climate change makes many areas uninhabitable). All of these threats are too big for one country to tackle alone. We need to pull together, to pool the risk and share the benefits. That’s what the European Union was designed to do, and for all its flaws, continues to do.

And that’s why I’ll be voting to Remain on June 23rd.

Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour AM for the Llanelli constituency