Today’s Senedd roundup: Tories attack appointment of £2,000-a-day management consultant 

Mark Drakeford. Picture by NHS Confederation (CC BY 2.0)First Minister’s Questions

One story that made the headlines around the UK recently was the revelation that a management consultant brought in to help troubled Betsi Cadwaladr health board is working for £2,000-a-day from his home in Marbella – something which rankled Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.).

“….the Member refers to a director in the Betsi Cadwaladr trust who has been appointed following the advice of the Public Accounts Committee, that said that the health board should take immediate and urgent action to appoint a director to assist the health board to carry out the necessary reforms. So, the health board has followed the advice of the committee chaired by his colleague (Nick Ramsay), and I’m sure he’ll be glad that the health board has listened so attentively to that advice. “
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

Paul Davies countered by saying there was no way the Public Accounts Committee recommended the salary or the working location. Did the Welsh Government accept that the £360,000, nine-month contract would take money away from frontline services, letting north Wales patients down yet again?

The First Minister said the Tory leader can’t dismiss committee advice when it doesn’t suit him. The sums of money reflect the NHS market that’s developed in England and is the sort of money paid to people in similar positions there. It was unfair to attack the integrity of someone on the floor of the Senedd who wasn’t there to defend himself; it was an “old Tory trick” of weaponising the NHS before an election.

First Minister won’t be drawn on PISA test “hypotheticals”

The latest round of results from the international PISA test – a consistent source of woe for AMs for the best part of two decades – are due to be published in December.

By and large, Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) went through a series of quickfire questions where the First Minister confirmed that Wales’ PISA results will be published alongside everyone else’s and the Welsh Government haven’t yet received any advanced notice of the result, but:

” (The) Education Minister said in 2017 that we need to make progress in the next set of PISA results if we’re to hit the next target. If the news for Wales on 3rd December isn’t positive at all, or isn’t positive enough, what will the response of the Government be in that situation? Will you accept the strategy isn’t working? We’ve had a PISA target since 2006 after all. Will it be a catalyst for a much-needed boost in funding for the education system in Wales? Or will you be tempted to do what you often do under these circumstances, which is to drop the target?”
– Adam Price AM

The First Minister refused to speculate on a set of hypothetical results, describing it as a “wholly meaningless question”.

Unnamed Labour AM accused of verbally abusing Brexit Party staffer

Someone else who was firmly in election mode was Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) and he was none too happy with what he described as Labour hypocrisy:

“One of your AMs in my region has said (the snap election is) a mistake of historic proportions. Another has said that it’s unsafe to have any election until the electoral system is reformed and abuse of politicians is dealt with. Since that Labour AM….told a female member of my group to ‘F off’ just two weeks ago….Do you not agree that is rank hypocrisy and that the real reason Labour resisted having an election is that you fear you will lose and you prefer to block Brexit in this House of Commons?”
– Mark Reckless AM

The First Minister said categorically that any issues regarding conduct of a Labour AM is a matter for the standards procedure – this isn’t the way to deal with it. Contrary to what Mark Reckless said, the First Minister was looking forward to the election. It’s a choice between a backwards-looking, privatising Conservative government, or a Labour government committed to a fair future for all, not just a privileged few.

Police in Wales (CC BY-SA 2.0)Under-pressure police praised for handling of mental health emergencies

Health & Social Care Committee
Mental health in policing & police custody (pdf)
Published: 30th October 2019

“We have heard of some concerning evidence but also some excellent best practice. Frontline police officers are providing support for individuals who have been in a mental health crisis, however, policing should not be used as a substitute for mental health services.”
– Committee Chair, Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West)

  1. Detentions under the Mental Health Act are increasing

The Mental Health Act 1983 gives police officers certain powers in relation to people who are suffering a mental health crisis – including detention. Following changes to the law in 2017, the police must consult mental health professionals and should only use police stations for detention “under exceptional circumstances”.

The Committee was assured that the number of people being detained at police stations was falling (only 20 cases in 2018-19 compared to 117 in 2016-17) and provision of mental health care for people detained by the police for mental health reasons was generally good (which I turn to later). However, the number of detentions overall has increased from 1,722 in 2014-15 to 2,256 in 2018-19.

A number of witnesses said the police were becoming the main agency for dealing with mental health emergencies, which was described as “unsustainable” in light of budget cuts to policing. The National Police Chiefs Council told the Committee that the police were being too involved in health or social care issues.

  1. The police are praised for their handling of mental health crises, but there are a lack of safe spaces

Mind Cymru said many families who have sought police help for a mental health crisis have been grateful for the support they received. Homelessness charity, The Wallich, also praised the police, saying they were often more helpful than (NHS) Crisis Teams.

Other witnesses described the police’s response to mental health emergencies as kind and compassionate – though there were concerns over a lack of what is described as “health-based places of safety”, which are usually located at psychiatric hospitals or mental health wards at general hospitals.

There was also said to be a marked increase in the number of detainees who are drunk, drugged, aggressive or a combination of all of them, often meaning the police have to stay for longer while mental health staff can’t undertake an assessment.

The Committee recommended that work should start on developing non-healthcare based places of safety which can offer short-term accommodation to people suffering a mental health crisis – particularly for people at risk of suicide.

Given that a majority of detainees are brought to a place of safety by the police and not by ambulance – which is contrary to the legal requirement to protect dignity and privacy – the Committee demanded an urgent Welsh Government review of mental health patient transport.

  1. There’s a “revolving door” when it comes to care planning

Mind Cymru told the Committee that the majority of people (68%) detained under the Mental Health Act are eventually discharged following an assessment because they’re not deemed to require urgent inpatient treatment.

The National Police Chiefs Council raised concerns about a “revolving door” as 50% of people the police deal with were already patients in some form – though Cardiff & Vale Health Board said people repeatedly detained under the Mental Health Act should have a care and treatment plan in place to prevent a relapse.

Photo by Jonathan Velasquez on UnsplashGreater collaboration with the BBC and government key to community radio’s survival

Culture Committee
Community Radio (pdf)
Published: 29th October 2019

“….we discovered the wide range of benefits that these stations provide the communities they serve, as a community link and hyperlocal news provider. They also provide a route for people to gain valuable training and experience in radio, whether they are interested in a career or just want to learn new skills and meet new people.”
– Committee Chair, Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West)

There are currently 10 community radio stations broadcasting in Wales with an eleventh due to start broadcasting soon. The Committee organised a conference for community radio stations as a follow up to their previous inquiry into the state of radio generally in Wales.

  1. A new Community Radio body for Wales should be established

Networking was said to be an important way in which community radio stations overcome the obstacles facing them – an example was given of one station assisting another to solve a long-term technical issue.

There were also skill shortages in terms of backroom support and fundraising. With no central body representing the sector in place, there’s no collective voice when dealing with government or regulators (namely Ofcom). A new body for the sector could help fill these skills gaps.

There were also calls for a simplified way to monitor community radio audience figures.

  1. Community radio needs greater collaboration with the BBC and Welsh Government

One of the Committee’s recommendations was for public information campaigns to be run on community radio stations as a way of generating income (in the same manner as long-standing calls for local authority notices to be published on hyperlocal news websites and alike).

As community radio is part of a broader hyperlocal news sector and offers training opportunities for volunteers and people seeking a full-time career in radio broadcasting, it was believed that the BBC should actively engage with the sector. Some suggestions include giving community radio access to the Local Democracy Reporting Service and collaboration with the BBC and commercial radio sector on training.

A practical-minded recommendation was for the BBC to give community radio stations first refusal when selling off old equipment.

  1. Ofcom has a limited understanding of the sector

Some issues with Ofcom were raised, with suggestions the regulator was more preoccupied or focused on commercial radio stations, meaning they issue guidance that isn’t entirely suited to the community radio sector. Applying for Ofcom grants was also described as complicated, with many community stations lacking the necessary expertise to navigate the process.

While digital radio (DAB) was seen as an opportunity for community stations – and it’s becoming a cheaper option – the time was coming for Ofcom to work with the sector to develop an affordable DAB platform for smaller stations.

Picture by Welsh Youth Parliament

Education Minister cautions against overcrowded curriculum in response to Youth Parliament report

On October 25th 2019, the Welsh Youth Parliament held its second plenary session at the Senedd.

The session was dominated by their recent report (link), which made the case for key life skills to be included in the new national curriculum, but MWYPs were also updated on work regarding their other two chosen priorities: mental health and plastic waste.

Responsible Global Citizens

Finlay Bertram (Newport West) said life skills teaching was necessary for young people to develop into responsible global citizens; they can’t expect to survive adulthood if they’re leaving school “as A* robots”.

Gwion Rhisiart (Cardiff Central) said the report’s findings highlighted inconsistencies. 85% of young people had lessons on internet safety before the age of 18, but just 12% had lessons on dealing with grief, 11% sign language and 10% political education. Lloyd Mann (Monmouth) added that 48% received life skills lessons once a year or less.

Betsan Roberts (Cardiff North) said there was support for a mix of life skills teaching being provided by form teachers, subject specialists and external experts – but only 25% of people received lessons from external experts. Rhys Lewis (Preseli Pembs.) added that one constant theme was a need to ensure a balance between life skills and preparing people to pass exams.

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), was “absolutely clear” that there was a need to do more to support teachers to deliver life skills successfully. Investment in teacher training is a priority and she saw opportunities to do more with the online Hwb platform. 400 young people took part in feedback on the draft new curriculum and raised challenging questions for the government.

Then the session moved to questions.

Johnathon Dawes (Clwyd West) asked how consistency will be guaranteed? The Minister told him that the new curriculum shouldn’t be seen as a free for all; there’ll be a common set of expectations on what should be covered. However, she cautioned against overcrowding the curriculum as there are long lists of things people expect to be taught, but including all of them leaves less space for topics like life skills.

Tommy Church (Merthyr & Rhymney) said that 44% of teachers weren’t confident in their ability to teach life skills; how could the government ensure teachers were comfortable? The Minister didn’t directly respond to that but said that secondary school teachers were often experts in a single subject, but it would be jarring for them to all of a sudden be asked to adapt to something different.

In response to Ellie Murphy (Partner Member), the Minister made it clear that exams would continue to be important but wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all.

Replying to a separate question from Ruth Sibayan (Swansea East), the Minister didn’t want life skills to be taught during convenient time slots for teachers; it needs to be embedded across the curriculum. She gave an example of teaching about tax which covers maths, financial literacy and political education.

Updates on mental health and plastic waste

Updating the Youth Parliament on their mental health committee’s work, Talulah Thomas (Clwyd South), said several issues have arisen and will be explored further. These include raising awareness (of mental health), training for those working with young people and the impact of social media. She added that the situation getting worse, with more children than ever before on treatment waiting lists.

Hasna Ali (Partner Member) – a refugee from Syria – raised the matter of specific mental health issues relating to refugees and asylum seekers, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. UNICEF puts a strong emphasis on education; she had to learn a new language after moving to Wales, but education has helped her adapt to a new life.

There was a more activist-focused theme on plastic waste with many MWYPs outlining what they’ve done in their schools and local communities to either clean up waste or reduce it.

Anwen Rodaway (Partner Member) said she had been campaigning to reduce single-use plastics at her school. Angel Ezeadum (Partner Member) helped introduce meat-free Mondays at her school, with the school also banning single-use plastics having introduced a demerit system for using them.

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

 Call for substitute AMs to cover maternity leave

Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West) called for locum AMs to be introduced to stand in temporarily for AMs whilst they’re on maternity leave.

Sayed is expecting a child in 2020 and told S4C’s Newyddion 9: “I’d like to see a locum AM be able to be me on the ground, go to community groups or public meetings on my behalf. When it comes to votes, we don’t have proxy votes, would I have to come in for very important votes?”

New mothers are currently entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave.

The Senedd’s remuneration board are considering the issue as part of a review of AMs’ expenses.

Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) – who served as an AM whilst pregnant – said: “In effect, I had a maternity leave….for three months but the reality was I was back doing constituency work within a matter of weeks. A combination of factors, on reflection, led me to work probably sooner than I would have liked to.”

 

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