Today’s Senedd roundup: Boost for plans to reopen old railway infrastructure for walkers and cyclists

The Rhondda Tunnel. Photo by Richard Szwejkowski licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Notes the rich and diverse network of historic industrial infrastructure across Wales and notes the potential of re-opening disused railway lines and tunnels across Wales – but also recognises the practical and financial challenges of bringing such infrastructure back into use.
  • Calls upon the Welsh Government to seek ownership of such infrastructure which would aid funding applications.
  • Calls on the UK and Welsh Governments to play its part in exploring the practical opportunities for re-opening such infrastructure across Wales.

Hidden gems

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said there while there were plenty of physical reminders of Wales’ industrial past, the infrastructure left behind is ripe for restoration to boost tourism and active travel describing abandoned railway lines and canals as “hidden gems”.

The Rhondda Tunnel between Blaengwynfi and Blaenrhondda is one of those gems, having been closed by the UK Department of Transport in 1970. The Rhondda Tunnel Society was established to press for it to be reopened to pedestrians and cyclists, linking the Afan Valley to the Rhondda Fawr.

“I and many others envision the tunnel being the focal point of cycling events and running events, and there have been examples of these happening: Bath tunnels have been one of these cases, where we’ve seen them being used as a focal point for 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and full marathons. It’s not just simply an opportunity to walk through them or cycle through them. They could be used for other events, which bring more into the community.”
– David Rees AM

Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) mentioned plans by the Llangollen Railway to work on joint ticketing with bus companies in the area following an extension to Corwen. A trust has also been established to restore a tramline near Chirk.

Ownership and community ambitions

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) said the Rhondda Tunnel Society’s ambitions have been hampered by questions of ownership of the tunnel itself.

“I also understand that correspondence was sent to the Welsh Government in 2017 from the UK Department for Transport offering ownership of the Rhondda tunnel and £60,000 to reflect savings to that department in survey costs. The UK Department for Transport are still waiting for a reply to that offer. So, I really hope we can end the stalling now and make some progress.”
– Leanne Wood AM

Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) supports a similar project to reopen the Abernant Tunnel between Cwmbach and Merthyr Tydfil. It’s reopening would provide a direct, traffic-free route between Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil which currently doesn’t exist and often forces cyclists onto the A465. A local company has been instrumental in maintaining the tunnel so reopening could provide sustainable, skilled local work.

Several other AMs either celebrated the industrial heritage in their constituencies. Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) mentioned the Caerau-Cymmer Tunnel, while Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) mentioned a peaceful local woodland which developed at Llanhilleth quarry.

Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn) said the former Navigation Colliery in Crumlin has become a local landmark, while Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) spoke in favour of reopening the Cardiff-Creigau railway line which could be extended towards Beddau and Llantrisant.

Not as easy as it sounds

Deputy Economy Minister, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), said he didn’t need any persuading in supporting the principle of the motion, but it was important to invest money – in terms of walking and cycling – in areas where there’ll be an immediate return; there was no point reopening tunnels if they’re not connected to a proper active travel network.

He couldn’t commit to the Welsh Government taking immediate ownership of old tunnels and then seek funding opportunities – this was the wrong way around and the £60,000 offer from the UK Department of Transport was “risible”. But while several AMs contested this, there was a bit of good news for Rhondda Tunnel and Abernant Tunnel campaigners:

“The Minister for Local Government and Housing and the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism and I have jointly agreed to fund Sustrans to lead a partnership bid for assembling external funding for the reopening and running of the Rhondda and Abernant tunnels.

“Clearly, the funding would need to come from a wide range of sources and can only be achieved with a wide range of bodies working together, and this includes the community, who I pay tribute to again for championing this cause. I do believe there are practical things that we can do….to make this opportunity a real one, but it is not easy, and we cannot do it alone.”
– Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters

The motion was carried by 39 votes to three with 12 abstentions.

Image by Mabel Amber, still incognito… from Pixabay

Communication key to improving care homes

This week’s short debate came from Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) on the subject of care homes.

Janet Finch-Saunders identified communication as a key way to support care homes. This includes support for Welsh-speakers in care homes, understanding how dementia affects a resident’s ability to communicate and improved communications between care homes, local councils and health boards.

“The need for a stronger dialogue is apparent when considering incidents such as care home staff not being told what rehabilitation their residents have had in hospital, patients being discharged to care homes with no information at all, and care home staff not being asked for important information, such as how an individual signals their need for the toilet and whether they like drinking from a particular cup, contributing to the situation in which some patients return to homes from hospital unrecognisable from when they went in.”
– Janet Finch-Saunders AM

Wales needs an estimated 20,000 additional workers in the care sector by 2030 and one idea raised by organisations was for nurse training to include both NHS and social care skills as part of the programme, up to an including nursing placements in care homes. This could include care homes holding walk-in clinics or hosting things like infusion therapy and blood testing.

Jayne Bryant AM (Lab, Newport West) voiced support for live music in care homes, which isn’t just entertainment but can improve the wellbeing of people with dementia in particular. Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) praised the work of social care staff and called for harmonisation of pay rates between the NHS and social care sectors.

Challenges “well-known and well-documented”

Deputy Minister for Health & Social Care, Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North), said the care sector couldn’t operate in isolation. The challenges, especially the financial challenges, facing the sector were well-known and the Welsh Government were working to achieve a better funding model over the coming years.

The Deputy Minister also highlighted policies to make care careers more attractive:

“I remain absolutely committed to raising the status and the profile of social care workers so that social care does become a positive career choice where people are valued and supported responsibly. We’ve taken steps to help make the social care sector a more attractive place to work, bringing forward regulations in 2018 to improve the terms and conditions of the workforce. These regulations limit the use of zero-hours contracts and ensure that providers clearly differentiate between care and travel time.”
– Deputy Minister for Health & Social Care, Julie Morgan

Councils have been awarded £19 million to ensure care providers can implement a living wage, while the government were also funding a three-year care home improvement programme.

The Deputy Minister also expressed support for the idea of holding clinics at care homes, saying “there was no reason why it shouldn’t happen”, as there was a need for flexibility.

Photo by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Reformed Dental Contract To Be Rolled-out Nation-wide By 2021

AMs debated the Health Committee’s report on dentistry yesterday afternoon – which has been summarised here.

Dentists discouraged from taking on patients with complex needs

Chair of the Committee, Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) explained the situation regarding the dental contract in detail. In essence, there are three pricing bands for treatment regardless of how many procedures are undertaken in each band, which discourages dentists from taking on high-needs patients. There was a need for a more preventative approach to oral health:

“That is why the Committee’s first recommendation is to replace the current….targets system with a new, more appropriate and more flexible system for monitoring outcomes, to include a focus on prevention and quality of treatment. As I said, this system will focus on prevention and quality of treatment.”
– Chair of the Health Committee, Dr Dai Lloyd AM

Recruitment is a perennial concern regarding health in general, but the Committee was pleased to hear there were no problems in recruiting to dental schools in Wales – though recruitment of Welsh-domiciled students is low.

Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) focused on the issue of actually getting a dental appointment in the first place:

“About 45% of the population – that’s almost 1.5 million individuals – have not seen a high street NHS dentist in the last two years. I’m concerned about the stagnation that these figures because, nine years ago, 55% of the population was being treated within the NHS dentistry service. Today, 55% of the population is being treated in the NHS dentistry service. That sounds like good news but our population’s grown by almost 200,000, so, actually, we’re beginning to reverse and, rather than reverse or stagnate, we need to improve.”
– Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM

Only 15.5% of dental practices in Wales were accepting new adult NHS patients and 27% accepted children. This threatened to undo all the positive work of the Designed to Smile scheme.

Access issues were echoed by Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) who said all six dental practices in her constituency refuse to take new adult NHS patients, meaning people often leave dental problems alone until they become serious enough to secure an emergency appointment through NHS Direct.

Quality, Prevention & Access

Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), said that while calls to bin the UDA target system were premature, the system was being changed – and in ways which go beyond mere “tweaking”.

A third of all dental practices in Wales will soon be taking part in a reformed contract focused on quality, prevention and access, compared to 1% of practices in England.

“I expect over half of all practices to be part of the reform programme by October 2020, leading to a full roll-out of contract reform in 2021. The broader set of monitoring measures and the removal of low-value UDAs under contract reform will help to reduce the need for health boards to recover funding from dental contractors.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

He accepted there was more to do to address dentist shortages in some parts of Wales, but an e-booking system for orthodontics referrals has now been rolled out nationally meaning Wales is the first part of the UK to have a fully digital referrals system for specialist dental treatment. This will provide health boards with an accurate picture of the volume of specialist referrals so they can make better plans.

 

Bethan Sayed. Picture by the National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Government to seek to streamline Welsh language standards

Yesterday afternoon, AMs debated the Culture Committee’s report on supporting the Welsh language – summarised here.

Complexity

Chair of the Committee, Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West) said that while the Welsh Language Measure 2011 was seen as a broad positive, there was frustration at the complexity surrounding Welsh Language Standards – though also agreement that the law didn’t need to be changed yet.

“In assessing whether to continue with the current system or to simplify aspects of the legislation, we recognised as a committee that the majority of the organisations currently implementing the standards have only been doing so for a year or two. The Committee, therefore, agreed with the Welsh Language Commissioner in post at the time who told us that ‘it’s much too early to decide that the legislation needs to be amended wholesale’ on this point.”
– Chair of the Culture Committee, Bethan Sayed AM

She called for a firm date for the introduction of standards for water companies and health regulators. She also asked whether the Welsh Language Commissioner will be provided with appropriate resources to undertake promotional work for the language.

Shadow Welsh Language Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), praised the ambition of the Cymraeg 2050 programme, but it’s dependent on a number of things. She criticised the fact that promotional work was stripped from the Welsh Language Commissioner’s remit without the Senedd’s consent. She did, however, express caution at extending standards to new areas of public life before properly considering the impact of current standards.

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) said it was now clear that language promotion rests with the Welsh Government and that requires a “powerful unit” within the government to take on that work. She also asked why the Minister has put pressure on the Welsh Language Commissioner to undertake fewer complaints investigations – which would surely weaken the standards regime.

Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) supported the use of technology (like Duolingo) to encourage people to learn Welsh but was concerned that cutbacks to council budgets would hamper efforts to reach the 1 million Welsh-speaker target by 2050.

Better planning needed

Minister for Welsh Language & International Relations, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales), said the government either accepted or accepted in principle all of the Committee’s recommendations.

For too long the emphasis in language policy has been towards regulation at the expense of policy interventions.

“….although we are no longer expecting to legislate, I have made a decision that is aimed at seeing a better balance between creating rights to access Welsh services on the one hand, and practical work, which is policy work, on the other hand.”
– Minister for Welsh Language & International Relations, Eluned Morgan

She added that the focus now was more on language planning and behavioural change. A new “multidisciplinary unit” will be established within the Welsh Government to drive Cymraeg 2050 forward.

It was difficult to give a specific date on when Welsh language standards will be introduced for water and healthcare regulators – though the Minister hoped they would be ready in 2020. She also confirmed her intention to reduce the number of Welsh language standards (mainly through mergers) – but this process will need to avoid creating fewer standards which are more complex as well as simpler standards which wouldn’t work.

 

 

Picture: National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Leanne Wood censured for blogger spat

Disciplinary motions in the Senedd are usually straightforward affairs.

The Chair of the Standards Committee summarises what happened, the AM in question may or may not make a mea culpa and then the Senedd unanimously agrees to whatever punishment the Standards Committee recommends.

Yesterday was a bit different as Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) faced the music for her run-in with blogger Royston Jones (aka. Jac o’ the North).

Gloriously unrepentant, Leanne told AMs it would be dishonest to apologise, listing several other groups targeted by Jones including the disabled, LGBTs and feminists.

“These types of attacks are personal, but they are also political, and the timing, after our group had experienced such a horrific loss just that week, well, enough was enough. I decided that the best way to stand up to that bully was to use language that he was sure to understand. It’s not language I would normally use, but sometimes, when standing up to bullies, you have to deploy whatever strategies you deem necessary.”
– Leanne Wood AM

Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) – a member of the Standards Committee – said none of the facts were contested, the complaint was made by a third party and while more needed to be done to address social media abuse, it was language unbecoming of an elected representative.

David Rowlands AM (BXP, South Wales East) – another committee member – added that provocation wasn’t justification for breaking the Code of Conduct.

Leanne had AMs in her corner. Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) said the report warranted some judgement and humanity. How can Leanne be in the wrong, when others (usually men) get away with saying objectionable things?

“Her reaction was human, instinctive and protective, and it is those three characteristics that continue to bind women from all parties together in this Chamber in the face of dehumanising threats and abuse. I know that we won’t all vote the same way today, but I cannot believe that we don’t at least feel the same way. I commend Leanne for standing her ground.”
– Lynne Neagle AM

Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) – who was Royston’s target – said the context and timing of the comment, in the days following Steffan Lewis’ death and before his funeral, meant she didn’t think she was in a position to respond herself. People were making assumptions about her based on a one-line Twitter biography. She expressed gratitude to Leanne for defending her by realising “how ill-judged, insensitive and cruel the timing and the tone of those messages about me were.”

Chair of the Standards Committee, Jayne Bryant (Lab, Newport West), said the role of the Standards Committee was quasi-judicial and they can’t make decisions based on party lines or personal opinions. While she had sympathy for Leanne Wood, with political discourse currently toxic, AMs had a duty to maintain high standards of behaviour.

When it came to the vote, Lynne Neagle AM voted against.

Also from the government benches, Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central), Vaughan Gething AM (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) and Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) abstained.

The vote was carried by 37 votes to 12 with four abstentions.

Consultation on making sex education compulsory for all

The Welsh Government has announced proposals to end the right for parents to withdraw their children from sex education lessons as part of curriculum reforms.

An eight-week public consultation has been opened.

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) said: “I am minded to ensure all pupils study RE and RSE (Relationship & Sexuality Education) in the new curriculum, just as they will study science, maths and languages. It has always been an anomaly that children could be prevented from attending certain subjects. This consultation seeks views on the practical implications of dealing with this anomaly.”

Compulsory vaccinations ruled out

The Health Minister has ruled out introducing compulsory childhood vaccinations in Wales after the idea was proposed by the English Health Minister at the Conservative conference in Manchester.

The Welsh Government said uptake of the Measles, Mumps & Rubella (MMR) vaccine was close to 95% – the minimum level needed to guarantee “herd immunity”. The rate in England was closer to 87%.

£10 million research centre to improve teenage mental health

A new research centre is set to be developed at Cardiff University to find ways to improve the mental health of children and adolescents – particularly reducing levels of depression and anxiety.

The centre is being developed in partnership with Swansea University, NHS Wales and the Welsh Government.

Co-director of the centre, Prof. Stephan Collishaw, told BBC Wales: “This major investment will allow us not only to understand the causes of anxiety and depression but help create early interventions to ensure that young people get the right help, advice and support they need.”

Vets “failing to hold bad puppy breeders to account”

The Dogs Trust has called for vets to be investigated as part of a clampdown on poorly-run “puppy farms”, with claims vets were not upholding standards and allowing puppies to be bred in appalling conditions.

The Welsh Government are considering introducing a law to ban third-party puppy and kitten sales – known as Lucy’s Law. At present, anyone breeding a minimum of three litters per year must be licenced by a local authority.

Carwyn Jones peerage “put on hold”

The Western Mail’s Martin Shipton reported that a proposed peerage for former First Minister, Carwyn Jones AM (Lab, Bridgend),  has been “put on hold” due to the ongoing inquests into the death of Carl Sargeant.

He was set to be included in Theresa May’s resignation honours list, but a QC-led inquiry into the circumstances leading up to Mr Sargeant’s death in November 2017 remains outstanding.

A peerage hasn’t been ruled out once the inquests are completed and Mr Jones has expressed an interest in joining the House of Lords. Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) said: “Until these are answered, any peerage would be disturbing, distressing and wholly inappropriate.”

A third of Welsh phone boxes set to be decommissioned

According to BBC Wales, BT intent to decommission up to a third of all public phone boxes in Wales.

The plans were described as “deplorable” by a Neath Port Talbot councillor, who said the boxes often provided a lifeline to people without access to mobile phones. Others supported the proposal, believing the boxes could be converted into alternative uses, including mini-libraries or to house public defibrillators.

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