Today’s Senedd Roundup: Senedd stings UK Government over WASPI women

Helen Mary Jones. Picture by the National Assembly (CC BY 2.0)

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Senedd stings UK Government over WASPI women

The Motion

The Senedd:

Recognises the continuing women against state pension inequality (“WASPI”) campaign.

Calls on the UK Government to make fair transitional state pension arrangements for women born on or after 6 April 1951, who have borne the burden of the increase to the state pension age with lack of appropriate notification.

Calls on the Welsh Government to make representations to the UK Government in support of the WASPI campaign.

Calls on the Counsel General to consider what action the Welsh Government could take in relation to expected litigation against the Department for Work and Pensions for the mishandling of raising the state pension age for women born in the 1950s.

Plunged into serious poverty

Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) wasn’t opposed to an equal pension age (previously women retired aged 60 and men 65), but the manner by which this change – introduced in 1995 – has been handled has plunged many women into serious poverty.

The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition decided to accelerate the equalisation of the state pension in 2011 and many of the women affected were only given a year’s notice of a six-year delay to their state pension age.

“Some of those women have had to carry on working in roles that they are no longer physically strong enough to undertake safely – for example, caring – and I have seen doctors’ letters to women advising them not to carry on….when they have no choice. Some have been forced to rely solely on partners for support….but in some cases that leaves women vulnerable to financial abuse and having to stay in abusive relationships….Many of them are living on their limited savings, and many of those savings are now gone. All are poorer than they expected to be after a lifetime of work, paid or unpaid.”

– Helen Mary Jones AM

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) said the rules were changes without consideration of the fact women born in the 1950s often spent the earlier parts of their working lives without access to equal pay and fair access to pension funds. The UK Government has ignored WASPIs and it was part of a catalogue of bad decisions and poor communication.

Increased longevity

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) said the changes introduced in 1995 and later years were a result of increased lifespans and to prevent the state pension system becoming unaffordable.

“Back in 1926, when the state pension age was first set, there were nine people of working age for every pensioner. The ratio is now 3:1 and is set to fall closer to 2:1 by the latter half of the twenty-first century…..The number of people receiving a state pension is expected to grow by one third over the next 25 years and, by 2034, there will be more than twice as many people over 100 as there are now.”

– Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood

Undoing the 2011 changes would cost £30billion and returning the retirement age of women to 60 would cost £77billion by 2021.

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) listened to Mark Isherwood’s speech and not once did he hear an apology to the WASPI women. It was about time the Conservatives took responsibility for their actions.

“Some are able to have occupational pensions but…. hey came from an age where they weren’t entitled to occupational pensions; they weren’t included in that. Some of them didn’t start work until later in life, because of the tradition in those days where they started looking after the family and then came into work later on, sometimes part-time and built them up.”

– David Rees AM

Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) said when the first pensions were introduced it was at age 70 and if you didn’t have good character you were still expected to work; this policy was akin to returning to Victorian times.

Caroline Jones AM (Ind, South Wales West) – whose contribution was originally attributed in the transcript to Carwyn Jones, suggesting the beard was the only thing he changed since December – said she has herself fallen into the WASPI trap.

“I, like thousands of my compatriots, was not personally notified of the changes. I received no letter, I received no explanation, and no-one told me my retirement plans would have to change. But unlike many other women in this situation, I am fortunate, I am still in employment and I am not facing destitution. Sadly, many women have been badly affected by these changes, and I have read of at least one women who took her own life as a result of the financial black hole she found herself in.”

– Caroline Jones AM

Poor and untimely communication

While pension policy was non-devolved, Deputy Minister without portfolio, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), said the Welsh Government has made representations to London on this, placing the blame squarely on “poor and untimely communications”. The Welsh Government would support the motion.

She paid tribute to WASPI campaigners across Wales who’ve got their message out in a creative way. The Welsh Government will closely monitor a judicial review in the High Court, due to take place this June.

Health Minister Vaughan Gething

Health Minister dismisses “rumours” of Withybush maternity downgrades

This week’s short debate was led by Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies (Con, Preseli Pembs.) on a subject he’s raised several times – the future of Haverfordwest’s Withybush Hospital.

“I refuse to apologise for raising this vital issue once again”

Paul Davies said Hywel Dda health board has undertaken a “ruthless” centralisation programme and service have continued to move from Withybush, with the mooted proposal for a new general hospital located between Narberth and St Clears. Now there were concerns over maternity services:

“So, let’s fast-forward to 2019, and where are we now? Well, there have been recent reports that the health board are once again revisiting how maternity services should be delivered in Pembrokeshire, following media speculation that Withybush Hospital’s midwife-led maternity services are set to be reduced to a day staffed service. This would effectively mean that midwives would be on-call for women who want to give birth at Withybush Hospital out of designated hours.”

– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies

Constituents and petitioners have long raised concerns that the downgrading of one service will have a direct detrimental impact on other services provided at the hospital and the deterioration on services has become so bad that many people are calling for the health board to be placed into special measures.

It’s done nothing to attract new doctors and, while people in Pembrokeshire accept having to travel for specialist services, doing so for emergency and life-saving services (if Withybush’s A&E is replaced with a part-time minor injury unit) was “dangerous”.

Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) raised a trust issue within the community – people didn’t believe they would be listened to. Meanwhile, Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) asked the Health Minister directly to dismiss rumours about the maternity unit….and he did.

“No threat” to midwife-led maternity services

“There is absolutely no threat to 24/7 deliveries being made at the Withybush midwife-led unit, and I do hope that will put an end to the scaremongering that is taking place. It is actively scaring members of the local community who rely on those services.”

– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething AM (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth).

The Minister said contentious decisions will always be made when it comes to health but change was vital to ensure health services remain safe and viable into the future. He understood why people had an attachment to their local hospital, but technological changes require more modern working environments and building to attract and retain the best staff.

A new hospital in the area is expected to cost around £350million – not £500million as Paul Davies suggested in his speech – and £15million has been invested at Withybush in pathology, various inpatient services and dialysis.

He added that new general hospitals, like the Grange Hospital in Cwmbran currently under construction, take time. Until a strong business case has been put forward for a new west Wales hospital, services will continue to be delivered via the existing set-up.

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

AMs back call for international observers to visit imprisoned Kurdish leader

The Motion

The Senedd:

Notes that, whilst foreign affairs is a reserved, the Government of Wales Act 2006 provides that “The Welsh Ministers….may make appropriate representations about any matter affecting Wales”.

Notes that Welsh resident – Imam Sis – is on an indefinite hunger strike (alongside Kurds around the world, including Turkish MP, Leyla Güven), to protest the isolation of the Kurdish (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999 under conditions which are understood to contravene human rights conventions Turkey is a signatory to.

Recognises the ultimate aim of the hunger strikes is to see a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey.

Calls on the Welsh Government – on the Senedd’s behalf – to write to the Committee for the Prevention of Torture calling for them to visit Imrali Prison to assess the condition of Öcalan.

Solidarity with the Kurdish people

Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) went straight to the point, saying there was a life at stake “not 15 miles away from us”. Imam Sis’s hunger strike was nearing 100 days, but Leyla Güven is close to death. Regardless of devolved powers, it was important for the Senedd to acknowledge the part that a Newport resident was playing in promoting human rights abroad:

“I’ve written to Leyla (Güven) and to the secretariat for the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and my letter called on them to review their investigation….Unfortunately, they do not have the necessary powers to ensure Mr Öcalan’s human rights are enforced, which is why those campaigning for him have resorted to extreme measures to try to secure (sic) that his legal rights are honoured.”

– Delyth Jewell AM

Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West) contested claims the PKK were terrorists; they were, in fact, used as a boogeyman to justify Turkey’s poor human rights record. Kurdish politicians have been harassed and innocent people imprisoned, when all they were doing – after centuries of conflict – was looking for somewhere to call “home”.

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) said it was hard to describe how far Imam Sis has deteriorated, but she remembers him as a committed anti-racism campaigner. International pressure on Turkey needs to increase and the Welsh should have sympathy with “a people subjected to all kinds of denial, annihilation and assimilation policies.”

“Oil speaks louder than human rights”

There was support from the Labour backbenches. Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) said we all had to reflect on why people were desperate to get their cause heard. Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) said there was plenty of blame to go around:

“…the plight of the Kurdish people is one we should be ashamed of, because over decades….our governments have been complicit in turning a blind eye to the abuse of basic human rights, just as we have of the Palestinians. It seems that we are forever to put our economic and vested interests ahead of the basic rights of the Kurdish people and the undemocratic and increasingly oppressive actions of the Turkish (Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi) Government…. It seems that yet again oil speaks louder than human rights.”

– Mick Antoniw AM

A good use of the Assembly’s time?

The Conservatives opposed the motion from the outset. Shadow International Affairs Minister, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), said many would find it distasteful for AMs to debate a motion which sympathises with a convicted terrorist. He recognised the sincerity behind the hunger strike, and Turkey’s actions against the Kurds weren’t without question, but the PKK aren’t cuddly freedom fighters:

“….the PKK has been accused of being involved in the narcotics trade, child smuggling, tax evasion and counterfeit-money production. As recently as 2016, Human Rights Watch alleged that groups affiliated to the PKK have recruited boys and girls to be soldiers in their cause.”

– Shadow International Affairs Minister, Darren Millar AM

Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East) said it would open Pandora’s Box and set a precedent for similar causes; citing Northern Ireland, he said things can change and Kurds, Turks and other nationalities in the region can learn to live together peacefully.

Öcalan “isn’t in total isolation, has access to counsel”

Replying on behalf of the government, Minister for International Affairs & Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales), said she condemns all forms of persecution and violence, but in this case:

“I’ve spoken to the Turkish ambassador (to the UK)….where I raised the concerns of Welsh citizens about the worsening condition of Imam Sis and….his hunger strike. The ambassador asserted that in March 2018, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture published a report that highlighted that the conditions under which Öcalan was being held had materially improved since their previous visit in 2013. He also suggested Öcalan’s brother had been to visit him in January this year, and as far as he knows – and I think it’s probably worth checking this – Öcalan has access to lawyers.”

– Minister for International Affairs & Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan

The government expects Turkey to ensure prisoners’ rights were upheld, but the Welsh Government has no authority to issue statements on foreign policy. While Ministers couldn’t support the motion, Labour backbenchers were given a free vote.

Vote

Former First Minister, Carwyn Jones AM (Lab, Bridgend), and most of the ministers and deputy ministers abstained – the exception being Deputy Economy Minister, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), who voted in favour. UKIP’s David Rowlands also broke ranks and supported the motion (whether by accident or not, I don’t know).

Ombudsman Bill passed by Senedd

Following amendments to the Public Services Ombudsman Bill last week, yesterday afternoon AMs voted on the final version of the law, which will expand the powers of the Public Services Ombudsman – particularly their ability to carry out investigations under their own initiative – as well as ensuring the evidence gathering process during investigations is more accessible.

The member in charge, Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales), said this marked the end of almost four years of work, starting with a committee inquiry in 2015 which recommended changes to how the Ombudsman worked.

Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) praised the non-partisan approach to the law, which had broad support from across the Senedd. His amendment calling for complaints to take into account whether bodies or individuals have adhered to the Nolan Principle of Public Life was unsuccessful – something he regretted – but the Tories would support the Bill.

Finance Minister & Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), was happy for the Welsh Government to support the Bill:

“The Ombudsman helps those people who have been let down by services and haven’t received the level of service that they’re entitled to expect. This Bill will support access to the Ombudsman’s services for vulnerable people, including, for the first time, those who have been let down by private healthcare companies. It grants the Ombudsman the new powers to investigate systemic problems on their own initiative where there is evidence of widespread, repetitive and deep-rooted problems, and it will also allow the Ombudsman to play a leading role in improving standards in complaints handling across the public sector.”

– Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans

The sole objection came from Neil McEvoy AM (Ind, South Wales Central). He said Wales was increasingly doing “politics by tribunal”. He said the Ombudsman system lacked integrity and the Ombudsman themselves lacked accountability. He also

“The local government ombudsman in Wales is used as a political weapon to stamp out the sense, to stop questions being asked, and it’s a way of trying to exert control over politicians. I will oppose this legislation because this office of the Ombudsman….is used in a highly undemocratic way, and I will not support this legislation.”

– Neil McEvoy AM

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North), Lee Waters AM (Lab, Llanelli) and Jane Hutt AM (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) all abstained.

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