Today’s Senedd roundup: New teachers to get 5% salary increase

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Following an eight week consultation, the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), announced that all newly-qualified teachers will receive a 5% pay rise.

For all other teachers, pay ranges and allowances will increase by 2.75% – marginally higher than the original recommendation of 2.4%. The changes will be backdated to September 1st 2019.

The Minister said: “Today’s announcement shows the benefit of Welsh Government gaining responsibility for these powers. In setting teachers’ pay for the first time, we have diverged from proposals in England by ensuring that the starting salary for teachers in Wales will be higher.”

Local authorities will be provided with an additional £12.8 million to cover the costs.

Fire safety white paper due to be published next year

With the issue of fire safety in high rise buildings making headlines recently – and set to do so again with the imminent publication of the first report of the Grenfell Disaster inquiry – the Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), outlined the Welsh Government’s next steps.

No room for complacency

The Minister told AMs Wales has one of the most generous systems of home fire safety checks in the UK and preventative work by fire services has improved fire safety in domestic properties significantly.

Since her last statement on safety in high-rise buildings, several reforms are being finalised and the Minister announced that a white paper on changes to fire safety laws is set to be published in 2020.

Some reforms include making the fire service a statutory consultee for certain planning applications, amending building regulations to ban the use of certain cladding materials and introducing a stricter building inspection regime.

“This programme of reforms will put greater emphasis on buildings over 18m, or seven storeys, in height. Fire safety in blocks of flats depends critically on….the ability of the structure to contain a fire in the area in which it originates. If that fails, as it did at Grenfell, then the consequences can be dire….My commitment to improving fire safety does not only apply to those living in high-rise residential buildings, though. My intention is for legislation to be flexible enough to include other buildings in the future, should the evidence lead us to consider it necessary.”
– Minister for Local Government & Housing, Julie James

She stressed that taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill for defects in private high-rise residential buildings and there was a moral responsibility for owners and developers to fix any issues or risk damage to their professional reputations (Redrow’s Celestia development in Cardiff Bay being a high-profile example).

Need to move quickly

Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), believed the matter had to proceed more quickly than the Minister outlined; at a minimum, the necessary law changes need to be in place before the next Senedd election in 2021. He also believed that if the regulatory regime was proven to be at fault, then there was a case for government involvement in fixing issues in private high-rise flats.

“Part of the problem is that we lost public sector capacity to build houses ourselves, and that is something we have to regain because what they (developers) have now is a monopoly over us, and they don’t care. We have all met with them from time to time. We have these pointless meetings where it’s almost like meeting with banks to talk about bank closures. You’re meeting with some of these housing companies to talk about the housing problems they have, and you sit down and, yes, you get a lot of supportive nodding of the head, but nothing changes.”
– Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd)

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) made many points. Firstly, that builders should be a regulated profession as, currently, anyone can set up as a builder. Secondly, the reputation of developers should be a material consideration in planning applications. Finally, she repeated calls she recently made for a windfall tax on developers to fund work to fix fire safety issues.

Chair of the Communities Committee, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), called back to his committee’s fire safety inquiry which called for detailed surveys of all high-rise residential buildings. The Welsh Government accepted that recommendation in principle, but it seemingly hasn’t been mentioned since.

The Minister didn’t rule anything in and out in terms of retrofitting or survey work, but the right people and capacity within local authorities needed to be in place first.

Angela Burns AM. Picture by the National Assembly (CC 2.0).

Hospital delays resulting in”people coming to harm”

Here’s a summary of this afternoon’s questions to the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth)

Principles and Practice

Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.), brought up various local health board mission statement tropes, saying they’ll put people first, care for people, keep people well etc. When it comes down to practising what they preach, however, they often depressingly fall short:

“My constituent….was scheduled for an urgent spinal operation in January. Without it, her spine would deteriorate to such an extent that her temporary paralysis would become permanent. From January, her operation was cancelled five times by Swansea Bay University Health Board, until we had a result last week…. I’m now quoting directly from a letter from a consultant who says, ‘I regret to inform you that the situation with access to spinal surgery in Swansea is creating such delays I’m witnessing people coming to harm. These cases have been appropriately reported as they occur.’”
– Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM

The Minister couldn’t defend five cancellations for serious surgery and asked for specific details – but Angela Burns didn’t stop there. She mentioned a 93-year-old constituent who was left on the floor of a ward at Withybush Hospital for five hours as well as a 25-year-old constituent who was sent to a secure unit near Northampton and has since deteriorated.

The Minister accepted there was always something to learn when things go wrong and given the seriousness of the statements regarding quality of care, they should be referred to the relevant inspectorates.

Cwm Taf cultural issues “go beyond maternity services”

Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) returned to the fallout from the Cwm Taf maternity scandal. While she accepted that it’ll take longer than 6 months to transform a culture, the public may not understand this. When will the Minister be able to assure people in the area that services are safe? She received correspondence suggesting the cultural issues might go beyond maternity services.

“I recently met a family who gave me evidence of grave issues regarding the treatment of both of their elderly parents separately in different parts of the Cwm Taf over a period of a couple of years. Now, these issues raise similar themes as to some of the issues around experiences in the maternity service – issues around lack of respect, around not listening to patients and their families, lack of basic care, like supporting eating and drinking for older people. This family then went on to have a very unsatisfactory experience….of the complaints procedure.”
– Helen Mary Jones AM

The Minister repeated that he wasn’t going to set any “artificial timelines” for intervention to end and he was guided by advice given by officials.

Helen Mary Jones mentioned issues around scrutiny (or lack of) by independent members of the Cwm Taf board, raised at a recent Health Committee meeting, saying the Minister had to take some responsibility for appointing them. The Minister said changes have been made to the induction process for independent members so they fully understand their jobs.

Anti-vaccination movement “has done real damage”

Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) raised the matter of a mumps outbreak at several universities in the south. Last year, the UK lost measles-free status – although vaccination rates are higher in Wales than England. What was the Welsh Government doing to improve vaccination rates by 2-3% to hit the 95% coverage target?

The Health Minister said the reason the UK is no longer deemed measles-free is a lengthy period of low vaccinations in England, no doubt caused by disgraced Andrew Wakefield’s anti-MMR drive.

Caroline Jones added that when celebrities and so-called experts spread myths and lies on social media it makes the job of Public Health Wales much harder. The Minister agreed:

“We regularly provide statements to reassure the public about the safety and efficacy of all the vaccines that are provided and the science and the evidence base behind them, as opposed to the suspicion and the growth of fake news in particular, a range of its proponents in a variety of different positions of influence.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

Picture by Daniel Reche from Pixabay

Health Minister launches anti-obesity strategy

Yesterday, the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), went through the Welsh Government’s new 10-year anti-obesity strategy Healthy Weight, Healthy Wales (pdf).

In summary, by 2030 the Welsh Government expects to have:

  • Made healthier food more widely available, including a promotional campaign for healthier foods (to compete with less healthy options), more healthy options in vending machines, a ban on advertising food high in salt, fat and sugar in public places and improved labelling.
  • Considered possible tax options if advertising clampdowns don’t work.
  • Banned the sale of energy drinks to young people and limited the number of takeaway outlets near schools.
  • Created environments to encourage exercise, including the wider use of 20mph speed limits and continued support for active travel schemes.
  • Introduced stricter nutritional guidelines for schools and the NHS, as well as having ensured food is included in the new curriculum, with all primary schools also introducing daily physical activity.
  • Ensure all expecting parents have information about healthy life choices with enhanced support in communities with the biggest health inequalities.
  • Introduced a clinical-led obesity treatment pathway and a diet-based approach to reducing Type 2 diabetes.

A complex issue

The Minister said obesity was “a complex issue” with many contributing factors and its impacts are disproportionately felt in Wales’ poorer communities. The proposals were developed off the back of a consultation which involved 1,000 people and presents a 10-year vision to make healthy choices the easier choices.

No targets will be set, but progress will be monitored:

“I have previously stated that we will not set superficial targets and that the strategy is focused on delivering outcomes. To supplement the strategy, we’ll publish an outcomes framework in the new year, which will help us to monitor and track change. We’ve begun to explore new data sources to develop this work. This will provide us with a range of indicators that are linked to behavioural change.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) gave the new strategy a guarded welcome but was somewhat surprised by the lack of references to personal responsibility. Instead, the emphasis was on what the government, communities and healthcare professionals can do. We all had to do our bit to control our weight.

She also stressed the importance of exercise and asked what discussions have been had on increasing the amount of physical activity in schools? The Minister (somewhat cheekily) called back to comments Angela made the last time this was discussed that “not everyone enjoys sport”.

Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) described obesity as “an emergency”, adding that there’ve been calls for things like advertising crackdowns and planning changes for years with very little happening – plus some measures are currently non-devolved.

“I think the Government needs to get real and tough about food and drink legislation and start to view food and drink companies…. a bit like we view big tobacco. Let’s not have any more volunteering or voluntary agreements. Let’s legislate….I know there’s a sugar tax, but we have very little control over it. We need to have control over it here so that we can spend what comes from the sugar tax here in Wales on what we want to do in the obesity agenda.”
– Dr Dai Lloyd AM

Minister explains delays to Autism Code

FE colleges could do more with stronger student union lobbying power

Here’s a round-up of questions to the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor).

Giving FE students a stronger voice

Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West) asked about support for students’ mental health. While at university level it’s funded to the tune of £2 million extra this year, further education colleges received just an additional £175,000 despite there being more FE college students. Student unions often played a key role in lobbying for extra funding.

“One of the reasons universities put forward or campaigned for money for mental health initiatives was due to the work that the NUS did in part of that process working with the Government on it….I was a former sabbatical officer at Aberystwyth University, so I saw and implemented those particular policies. But many in FE are still not experiencing that student voice or are not able to access that student voice as much as their higher education peers.”
– Bethan Sayed AM

The Minister told her that discussions with Colegau Cymru on this issue were ongoing. There were also examples of good work within some FE colleges that have effective student unions. Student voices are expected to be strengthened in a forthcoming post-compulsory education Bill.

Shadow Minister taken to school

Shadow Skills Minister, Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East), asked what seemed to be a reasonable enough question on teachers’ workloads. Last year, an independent panel said it could only be addressed by looking at the wider issue of how schools schedule work and the school day itself – more or less unchanged since Victorian times. He thought it might be worth setting up a commission to look at it.

It seems though that the Shadow Minister didn’t do his homework.

“I have to say, Presiding Officer, it would be helpful if the Member could keep up. That commission was established several months ago under the chairmanship of Mick Waters. It includes headteachers from Wales and school governors from Wales as well as independent experts outside the Welsh education system.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

When Mohammad Asghar moved on to the issue of school funding and providing cash directly to schools, the Education Minister brushed it off by saying it would help if UK Government austerity ended.

Education to prevent homelessness

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) asked about what information and education offered to young people to prevent homelessness. With the Youth Parliament recently calling for better teaching of “life skills”, he added that “the skill of keeping a tenancy going, and the skill of knowing where to go for help when things break down is an essential one”.

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) believed the only way to change attitudes and misconceptions about homelessness and homeless people was education and she suggested homeless people’s experiences should be used to inform young people.

The Minister was clear that homelessness required an approach across all public services, with youth services taking the lead within education.

Not being in education, training or employment was often a “warning sign” of a young person in danger of becoming homeless, so it was important to encourage good attendance. She also expects the new curriculum to be flexible enough to allow students to meet and discuss issues with people who have direct experience of them.

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