Today’s Senedd Roundup: Newport relief road put on hold and the crisis in child health

Picture by Phil Dolby (CC BY 2.0)

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Starting off First Ministers question, the Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), asked how long we could expect for a decision or recommendation to be made regarding the Newport bypass?

“Well, as the Member knows, advice has been published. That makes it clear to me that a decision on the M4 relief road is captured by the civil service rules of purdah….the Government is unable, prevented by the right-and-proper rules, from making an announcement that could have an impact upon a local by-election of that sort. So there will be no announcement formally. I am unable to make any announcement, until that by-election is concluded (on April 5th).”

    – First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

Paul wasn’t happy; it was “one excuse after another”. Labour have dithered on the issue for 20 years and despite spending £44million on the public inquiry, we’re still waiting for a commitment. He called on the First Minister to share the report as soon as possible.

The First Minister stuck to his guns and wasn’t going to budge; he’s bound by purdah rules. He did, however, maintain that the Senedd will get a binding vote on the project at the appropriate time.

Poverty and place

Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) brought up the First Minister’s recent speech to the Scottish Labour conference in which he said class rather than geography was the most powerful factor in shaping lives. Then why was it that:

“…..life expectancy is falling in Wales faster than anywhere else, indeed, faster than anywhere else in Western Europe? To depart from the language of a seminar here, let’s spell out what that actually means: the chances of a child born today….n Wales living to the age of 90 are significantly lower than they are in England. Will you accept that this now represents a full-scale public health crisis here in Wales?”

    – Adam Price AM

Adam said there were a string of public health problems: diabetes cases higher than anywhere else in the UK and 8% of the population in Gwent, there was last week’s Health Committee report on physical activity amongst children and 27% of three-and-four-year olds were either overweight or obese. He accused the Welsh Government of not treating it with a sense of urgency, with commitments – like changes to the curriculum – earmarked for 2022 and later.

The First Minister urged caution in the interpretation of life expectancy figures; the fall was very recent. There was only so much the government and NHS could be blamed for on this when the wider issue was poverty and the impact that has on diet and exercise.

“….we are not waiting for particular events in order to make a difference. We’re already doing things. The Active Travel Act 2013 passed by this Assembly makes a difference every day to the chances that children can walk or cycle to school. The actions that we are taking in the food field to try to make sure that those families that need the most help to make sure that they are able to access the type of diet that they need, to provide families with the skills they need in order to prepare food that is good for the long-term health of their children those are programmes that are happening in Wales today.”

– First Minister, Mark Drakeford

Narrowing the gap between haves and have-nots

John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) said that a person’s social class will determine a number of life outcomes from birth until death including education, health, life expectancy and job security; those born in lower income groups were disadvantaged, so what were the Welsh Government doing to create a fairer Wales?

The First Minister said more equal societies promote better economic chances; he cited the fact that Japanese women born today will live on average to be 100 because the gap between top and bottom in Japanese society was narrower. It was important to start early:

“….here in Wales, we are determined, as part of our Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015, to create that more equal Wales, and that does mean, as John Griffiths has said, investing in those earliest years, those first 1,000 days of a child’s life, because of the way that that goes on making a difference to the rest of the life course.”

    – First Minister, Mark Drakeford

 

Dr. Dai Lloyd. Picture by Plaid Cymru (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Welsh children “graded F” for sedentary lifestyles

“We have heard perhaps some of the starkest evidence yet that we are facing a national crisis in our children’s health. The evidence supporting the need to teach Fundamental Motor Skills at an early age is compelling and there is real concern that vital physical activity is being squeezed out by other priorities in our schools.

“But of course, it’s not just about schools. Physical inactivity is a national problem that affects us all, and requires a cross-departmental commitment from the Welsh Government to tackle it.”
– Committee Chair, Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West)

1. Secondary school children display abnormally high levels of sedentary behaviour

The guidelines laid down by the chief medical officers of the home nations state that under-18s should take part in at least 60 minutes of “moderate” physical activity a day and at least several sessions of “vigorous” physical activity (such as strength-building exercises) per week.

The available figures differed from each other but showed the same trends.

Sport Wales say 48% of young people meet physical activity guidelines, while the Welsh Government say that while 51% of all 5-17 year olds meet the guidelines, amongst secondary school pupils (11-17 year olds), only 14-17% of children do so. There was little information on the under-5s.

59% of children used electronic devices for at least 2 hours or more on a weekday, while 80% spent at least two hours sitting on weekdays – rising to 87% at weekends. The situation is so bad, Welsh children were graded “F” in a report on the general state of physical activity.

They didn’t do much better on active travel, being graded “D-“; just 44% of primary school pupils and 33% of secondary pupils walk or cycle to school.

Slovenia and Finland were cited as examples of best practice. In Slovenia, all 6-19-year-olds are measured on motor skills and children receive 226 hours a year of in-school PE – whether formal PE lessons or elective sports. In Finland, their strategy includes reducing the amount of “sitting time” for pupils, longer breaktimes and opening school sports facilities for use by the community.

Public Health Wales told the Committee that being active “was no longer the norm” and it was important for parents, not just schools, to instil exercise in their children’s’ daily lives

2. The Welsh Government have the right idea, but PE is being squeezed out of the curriculum by schools

The Welsh Government have introduced a number of in-school programmes to boost physical activity, including 5×60, Dragon Sport and Daily Mile (primary schools running, walking or jogging for at least 15 minutes a day). The latter was deemed “achievable” because it doesn’t cost anything and the target was realistic.

The two main problems identified by witnesses were funding and time pressures. Schools were unsure how programmes like 5×60 could be maintained with cuts to school budgets, but the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) pointed to an additional £30million invested in school sport between 2001-2016.

While there’s a recommendation for all pupils to receive at least 2 hours a week of PE in schools, the target isn’t mandatory; it’s often dropped in Years 10-11 to be replaced with additional lessons in core subjects as part of GCSE preparations. A similar thing has happened to breaktimes.

A number of witnesses (though not teaching unions) supported extending the school day to 4:30 pm.

Others ideas put before the Committee include a £35-per-child, per-year “SKIP” (Successful Kinaesthetic Instruction for Preschoolers) programme to train teachers, teaching assistants and parents about the importance of motor skills in child development. Former weightlifter, Ray Williams, suggested 3×40 minute fitness sessions a week from the age of 5 and a “fitness passport” – which he hoped would turn exercise as habitual as brushing teeth.

3. There are a clear and ever-present gender and inclusivity gaps (but things have improved)

A running theme in this inquiry and others in the past (I’ve been around long enough to remember the last several times the Senedd – and Tanni Grey-Thompson – looked at this: Fat of the Land, Physical Literacy, Off the Bench, is a difference in attitude between boys and girls as well as a lack of inclusivity for the disabled.

The 2018 schools survey showed similar proportions of boys (50%) and girls (46%) taking part in sport three or more times a week – which is a sign the gender gap is closing. However, while primary school pupils were equally likely to enjoy PE regardless of gender, at secondary school, 64% of boys enjoyed PE compared to 45% of girls – body image issues being cited as the main reason behind the difference.

There were calls to move away from specific sports being stereotyped as “male” or “female”, with boys predominantly playing rugby and football and girls netball and hockey; though this was said to cut both ways, with boys not being able to take part in dance classes or netball.

There are signs of improvement amongst disabled children too, with 45% of disabled children taking part in sport at least 3 times a week compared to 48% amongst the non-disabled. Disability Sport Wales did, however, flag up specific issues such as cost, availability and accessibility of disabled sports.

The biggest gap in participation was caused by deprivation. In 2018, 42% of children who receive free school meals were said to be “hooked on sport” compared to 55% of non-FSM pupils.

Welsh Government committed to accelerating woodland creation

Woodland

The Welsh Conservatives are due to hold a debate on the future of the recently troubled Natural Resources Wales (NRW) later this week.

Ahead of that, the Energy, Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) updated AMs on Welsh Government support for woodlands – something which they have a pretty dismal record in at present.

“Important part of our natural landscape”

The Minister described forestry as an important part of the natural landscape and a key social, economic and environmental asset. Taking into account the recommendations of the Environment Committee, the government’s strategy has been refreshed to provide clearer direction.

“The Welsh Government is committed to accelerating woodland creation and our refreshed strategy gives guidance on the kinds of trees and woodlands we need in Wales and clear direction to woodland managers. To complement this, we are preparing woodland creation guidelines for land managers, businesses and NRW in order to help them make better and quicker decisions on which trees to plant where.

“In order to progress the Welsh Government’s plans to increase the area of new woodlands in Wales – as well as the First Minister’s commitment to creating a new national forest for Wales – a further round of Glastir woodland creation will open on 1st April.”

   – Energy Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths

The Minister said £480,000 would be put towards co-operative planning for new forestry in local communities, alongside an additional £5million for timber investment and another £2million for improvements to existing forestry.

“Not a brilliant track record”

Shadow Rural Affairs Minister, Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), said that while the Welsh Government’s track record was less than brilliant, the forestry industry in Wales still had a turnover of £520million a year and employed 10,000 people.

“As we know from the work that has been undertaken, instead of hitting the 5,000 hectares-per-year target, in the total run only 3,700 hectares have been planted in that time. In 2016, only 39 hectares of productive forest were planted here in Wales. Really, we’ve just got to get this right, and in particular you, as the Minister, now need to take the business by the scruff of the neck and work with the industry so that we can build on those numbers that I touched on….”

   – Shadow Rural Affairs Minister, Andrew RT Davies AM

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) said there was no doubt that missed targets had impacted the government’s ability to deliver on flood prevention, biodiversity and climate change – but the new guidelines were welcome.

He asked if the Minister had confidence in NRW’s ability to deliver? Was it also still appropriate for NRW to manage commercial forestry in Wales?

The Minister didn’t want to repeat debates previously held in the chamber on the need for independent inquiries, while NRW has accepted all of the recommendations from the Grant Thornton review. She had full confidence in the new chair, chief executive and board.

Call for better protection

Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) called for better protection of red squirrels, as current legislation means a felling licence can’t be rejected in order to preserve or enhance flora or fauna under the 1967 Forestry Act.

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) raised concerns about the felling of landmark trees – in this case, a redwood in Penllergaer. He called for enhanced protection as tree protection orders “give illusionary protection”. David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) raised the slow pace of replacement planting for trees felled in the Afan Valley due to disease – this was particularly damaging to the area’s tourism industry.

The Minister told AMs the new strategy acknowledges the importance of ancient woodlands and the careful management of “veteran” trees. She was willing to learn lessons from a review of forestry laws in Scotland (with regard to wildlife conservation) and was also seeing what additional funds could be provided for re-forestation efforts in Neath Port Talbot.

Kurdish hunger strike nears 90 days as campaigners protest outside Senedd

Left to right: Imam Sis, Hüseyin Teki, and Furkan Doğan.

Supporters of 32-year-old Imam Sis, from Newport, held a protest outside the Senedd yesterday afternoon (11th March 2019).

A hunger strike – which a number of members of the Kurdish diaspora around the world, including Sis, are participating in – is in protest of the imprisonment of Abdullah Öcalan, the former leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), by Turkey.

Campaigners argue that since Öcalan’s imprisonment in 1999 for treason – originally a death sentence later commuted to life imprisonment – he’s been subjected to inhumane treatment, including solitary confinement and being denied access to legal counsel.

While AMs and MPs – namely from Plaid Cymru and Labour – have either endorsed the protest or raised the matter in the Senedd chamber, the campaigners are demanding an official statement from either the Senedd or the Welsh Government calling for Turkey to allow anti-torture officials to visit Öcalan in prison.

It doesn’t matter if the institution and building share the name “Senedd”

 

The Constitutional Affairs Committee discuss the proposed change of name from the Assembly to Senedd.

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