Today’s Senedd Roundup: Housing association criticised for non-Welsh speaking appointments

Siân Gwenllian AM. Llun gan y Cynulliad (CC 2.0).

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Housing association criticised for non-Welsh speaking appointments

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) said that Cartrefi Cymunedol Gwynedd housing association used a recruitment agency in Leamington Spa to fill two senior roles without placing a Welsh language requirement as a key skill. This was despite the organisation having a policy for internal use of Welsh. That was in 2014. In 2019:

“Now, it’s become apparent that this body once again is recruiting senior officials – with the assistance of an agency from Birmingham this time. And the post of deputy chief executive, with a salary of £105,000, has been advertised, without any requirement in terms of the ability to communicate through the medium of Welsh – only an ‘understanding’ of Welsh and the culture of north Wales is required, whatever that means.”
– Sian Gwenllian AM

International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales) described it as a “sensitive subject” but there should at least be a commitment to learn Welsh by anyone filling the post – something Sian said the job advert didn’t even mention.

The Minister blamed Brexit for not bringing forward language standards for housing associations – an excuse Sian suggested the Minister was using too often, adding that, if anything, Brexit should mean introducing the standards sooner.

Consulting children on Cymraeg 2050

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) said a key plank of the Welsh Government’s Cymraeg 2050 programme was an evaluation of the Welsh for pre-school children programme (Cymraeg i Blant). She asked a number of questions on how this would be achieved.

“I accept the fact that very young children can’t contribute much to this process, but, of course, they have parents too who will have their own ideas. And you haven’t answered the question either on how some councils are starting to rely on external groups to help them, as they would put it, with their internal duties and responsibilities. Because it appears to me that too many of them are doing that rather than trying to generate more capacity within the councils themselves, within their workforce, in relation to the Welsh language.”
– Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM

The Minister said there was broad agreement that pre-school age children should be a priority as it was a key way of getting them into full-time Welsh-medium education (and subsequently boosting the number of Welsh-speakers). It was important for public bodies to improve their capacity for use of Welsh and there were a number of examples of good practice – citing North Wales Police. It was important for councils to learn from each other though.

Wales for Africa “needs more clarity on who does what”
John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) asked about the Wales for Africa programme. It was important for developing community-to-community links and there were a large number of them now in Wales. Could the programme be expanded?

Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) – who has links to the Love Zimbabwe charity – said links between Wales and Africa could form part of the 20th anniversary of devolution celebrations next month. Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) mentioned a proposal from the Wales for Africa Health Network for Wales to “adopt” 3 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and provide universal healthcare for them through existing networks.

The Minister is undertaking a review of the Wales for Africa programme:

“One of the things that we need to do is to just have much greater clarity on who is doing what, where, so I’ve already commissioned a piece of work to see how we map that, so that we’re all aware of what’s going on before we start. You’re absolutely right: resources are always going to be an issue here, but what’s clear is, with the very small resources we are giving to this, they are having a major impact. But we can also be creative in some of the other ways that we help.”
– Minister for International Affairs & Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan

The Minister added that including Wales’ African links in the devolution celebrations “was an excellent idea” and improving health links with Africa has already been discussed with the Deputy Health Minister….financial constraints depending.


Trostre steelworks “would be sold as a going concern”

One of the two topical questions this afternoon focused on news of the possible sale of Llanelli’s Trostre steelworks in order for a merger between Tata and ThyssenKrupp to go ahead.

Deep Concern

Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) summed up the local area’s concerns on the news. It’s a similar situation to what the plant faced under Corus and Trostre had to prove that it was more productive and better-skilled than a plant doing the same work in the Netherlands. Trostre was also, of course, an important part of the Port Talbot steelworks supply chain and remains a profitable business, employing around 700 people.

Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) urged caution and the Welsh Government had already been in discussions with Hans Fischer (CEO of Tata Steel Europe).

“I think it’s very important to say….that the site could not be sold off in order to close it. It would have to be sold in a way that ensures it has a viable future. I would not wish to speculate too much on what’s been reported today, due to it being a commercially confidential matter between two companies.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates

The supply chain was the focus of the next question from Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West). This merger was now looking very different from what was originally anticipated by many AMs. Would this news affect ambitions by the Swansea Bay City Region to develop a centre of excellence for steel innovation at Port Talbot? Was a commitment to avoid compulsory redundancies under the proposed merger still in effect?

The Minister said this wouldn’t impact any further decisions on support for Port Talbot steelworks. He promised to circulate a note to AMs on the terms by which the Welsh Government are supporting Tata.

Looking for “the cheapest deal they can get”

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said that he hoped the proposal to sell Trostre as a going concern would remain so as the companies will be looking for the cheapest deal they can get in order to push the merger through, not necessarily the best deal.

“I do worry about this because it’s not just Trostre being mentioned, because Tata are also divesting themselves of….the Orb works in Newport. It seems that Tata are divesting themselves of resources more than ThyssenKrupp are in this joint venture. So, what discussions are you going to have with Tata….because I’m deeply concerned that when Bimlendra Jha left his position, there was no UK representation, effectively, for Tata in the UK, and particularly in Wales….”
– David Rees AM

The Minister said it wouldn’t be the place of the Welsh Government to get involved in the merger negotiations. He did, however, expect any “pain” in the selling of assets to be split 50:50 between the two companies.

With regard the Orb works, the Welsh Government have worked with Tata in the pass to sell assets, including the Afon Tinplate works which are now trading under Tinmasters – there’s no reason why the Orb works or Trostre couldn’t have a similar positive outcome.

Photo by Martin Brosy on Unsplash

Conflicting claims over GP recruitment as Health Minister hails “largest ever” NHS workforce

Issues surrounding GP recruitment and the NHS workforce were raised at this week’s First Minister’s Questions. Yesterday, the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), provided a bit more substance.

More vacancies filled, more NHS staff than ever

Repeating what the First Minister said, the Health Minister was pleased that more people were working for the Welsh NHS than ever before. £114million will be provided in 2019-20 for workforce training, while the flagship “Train, Work, Live” recruitment campaign has successfully been deployed in a number of countries.

Psychiatry, pharmacy and general medical recruitment have also seen successful uplift in recruitment, while there were also improvements in GP recruitment:

“I am pleased to be able to confirm….that following only the first of the three recruitment rounds for GP speciality training in 2019, we have filled 131 places – 28 more doctors than at the same stage last year. I am also pleased to confirm more positive interest from doctors applying through the round 1 re-advert recruitment window in 2019, with over 50% more applications received than at this stage in 2018.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

Despite this, a review of GP training will be carried out to see if the current model was suitable in the medium to long-term.

“Too little, too late”

Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) welcomed the positive news, but it was a case of doing “too little, too late”. Between October 2015 and January 2019, 24 GP surgeries in Wales closed and 29 switched to direct management by health boards. In north Wales, 50% of eligible GP trainees have been turned away.

There was a storm brewing regarding a new GP professional indemnity insurance package too – announced by the Health Minister on Monday. It’s prompted anger from some GPs because it’ll top slice £11million from GP funding, while in England it’s a top-up.

“But this indemnity insurance scheme, which you have announced yesterday, without the backing of most GPs or their representative bodies in Wales, is very shameful indeed. You’re reducing the amount of funding that is available for GP practices here. It’s going to have a significant impact, particularly on those practices that are just about managing at the moment, and I would urge you….to reconsider your position on this….”
– Darren Millar AM

The Minister defended the indemnity scheme. It’s meant premiums won’t rise year-on-year and threaten practice finances. He also defended the proposed GP contract – still under negotiation with representative bodies – describing it as a better deal than one on offer in England.

Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) criticised the poor quality of some of the data surrounding GP numbers – particularly numbers of full-time equivalent GPs. While oversubscription of GP training places was in some ways a positive, turning away so many applicants and filling just 131 training places wasn’t much to get excited about.

Lucrative agency work

While Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) and Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) praised endometriosis services and professional development respectively, Caroline Jones AM (Ind, South Wales West) warned of continued long-term recruitment challenges which weren’t necessarily restricted to Wales:

“Even if you meet your recruitment targets, many of the royal colleges….warn it’ll be insufficient. So, what discussions have you had with (representative bodies) about ensuring safe staffing levels over the coming decade? Bear in mind that many nurses find agency work extremely lucrative, and one mentioned to me that in 2.5 days she can earn a week’s salary. Many GPs are turning to part-time work, some because of the stress of working full-time and others due to family commitments”
– Caroline Jones AM

The Minister said GP practices are likely to be very different places in the future and possibly fewer in number; “single-handed practices” (as he described them) aren’t sustainable. There’s also the Nursing Levels Bill introduced during the Fourth Assembly which is yet to be rolled out.

Photo by Sascha Moser on Unsplash

Government to promote the retrofitting of sprinklers in high-rise buildings

Almost two years on, the Grenfell Tower disaster continues to cast a shadow. Last November, the Communities Committee demanded a new fire safety law, though in January they were told one couldn’t be introduced during the Fifth Assembly.

Following a report into fire safety by Dame Judith Hackitt, the Welsh Government said they were considering how to implement her recommendations and AMs were provided with an update yesterday.

“A broad and helpful analysis”

An expert group report was published this week (pdf). Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), described it as “a broad and helpful analysis”. A full response from the government will be given in May, but there were a number of things the Minister could agree to now.

Firstly, the Welsh Government will consider any building 18 metres or above in height as “a high-risk high-rise building”; the Hackitt report recommendation was 30 metres.

Secondly, the Welsh Government will seek to promote the retrofitting of sprinkler systems in high-rise buildings – something already done for new-builds in Wales thanks to backbench legislation from Ann Jones AM (Lab, Vale of Clwyd):

“One recommendation from the road map that I will accept here and now is that we promote the retrofitting of sprinklers. Hard evidence supports the sprinklers’ effectiveness in preventing fatalities….With our partners, we have previously identified the high-rise residential buildings in Wales that are 18m or more. We are now augmenting the database we shared with local authorities with robust information about the coverage in those buildings of sprinkler systems.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

Regulations are also set to be amended to ban combustible building materials being used in high-rise developments.

Current system “isn’t fit for purpose”

Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), said that in light of Grenfell it became clear the current system wasn’t fit for purpose. The Conservatives agreed entirely with the expert group’s recommendations.

Both himself and John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) repeated the recommendation of the Communities Committee calling for a new fire safety law – and the Minister accepted there may need to be legislative changes, though didn’t commit to a Bill.

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) believed retrofitting shouldn’t be confined to high-rise buildings and could be extended to the private rental sector generally, adding that the UK was also one of the only nations in the world that doesn’t licence builders or building companies; did that need to change?

Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) later added that training and inspections required improvement – particularly electrical testing.

The Minister said retrofitting in the private rental sector could be looked at alongside decarbonisation of housing. Licensing the building industry was a valid point but will need to be looked at further. There’s a whole section in the expert group’s report dedicated to building inspections and the Minister said the entire system needed improvement, with builders, inspectors, approvers and the inspection itself all independent from each other.

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