Assembly Government needs to speak up for people of Merthyr

The Merthyr Liberal Democrats first became aware of Covanta’s proposals for an incinerator in 2008 and immediately organised a public meeting in the town centre.

From then on we have been trying to raise awareness of this issue.

This is not what some might describe as Nimbyism (‘Not in my back yard’). This is making sensible arguments against proposals that are too large and clearly contradict Welsh Assembly Government policy.

For example, the Government’s policy on waste states that any incinerator needs to function at 60% efficiency (or better) in order to be environmentally acceptable. To achieve this, incinerators must generate electricity and fully utilise the heat as heating for homes and for industry. These proposals suggest this will not be the case.

The size of the plan would demand that Assembly Government accept this single incinerator to deal with all the residual waste in Wales. That would require waste to be moved from all aprts of Wales. This is also against Assembly Government policy.

The incinerator planning process is an example of democracy not working. The consultation with local residents has been poor. It is startling the number of people I have spoken to who weren’t aware of the proposals, or at least were not aware of the size of the development planned.

I must question the Assembly Government’s role in these proposals.

Only recently I quizzed the First Minister on his Government’s involvement in the proposed incinerator. He informed me that it was “not a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government” !

In the past the First Minister has said that he would not be able to intervene because his Government was not a statutory consultee in the IPC’s (Infrastructure Planning Committee) application process. However, on the IPC website, it clearly states that the Assembly Government is a statutory consultee at both the pre-application and examination stage of the process.

The fact is that the Assembly Government could have influence if it wanted to. Carwyn Jones needs to explain why his Government has decided to stay silent on this.

The IPC suggest it may be useful for the local authority to receive comments from local people to help them compose a Local Impact Report. I believe there is a strong moral obligation for Merthyr Council to do this and I suggest that residents send their views to the Leader of the Council.

The incinerator would create a handful of jobs, but this would be incredibly short sighted: A recent report showed that increased recycling could provide more than 3,000 new ‘Green Jobs’ in the Heads of the Valleys. The research said that recycling creates 10 times as many jobs as incineration and the region could have a green, successful and thriving future. This is the direction the region needs to be heading, rather than the unsustainable incinerator.

First published in Merthyr Express.

Much needs to be done to deliver the mental health services that Wales needs

We all want to be physically healthy but, from time to time, we will experience ill health – whether it’s a simple cold or something more serious.

And, just like our physical health, we will, from time to time, experience mental ill health too.

Statistics show one in four people will develop some kind of mental health condition at some point in their life. This means that we will all be touched by mental ill health, either ourselves or our family.

In Wales we have made good progress in improving mental health services recently with the passing of the mental health Measure.

But as encouraging as this is, there’s still much to be done. Legislation doesn’t fix everything and there are a multitude of issues we need to tackle in order to deliver the mental health services Wales needs.

A healthier, more productive and fairer society is one in which we recognise difference, promote mental health and wellbeing and challenge health inequalities.

We need mental health services in Wales, which prevent ill health, intervene early when it occurs and improve the quality of life for people with mental health problems and their families.

A mental health strategy should focus on measurable outcomes based on people’s experience of the services they receive. A service should be considered successful based on its quality, rather than on the basis of a top-down target, which measures success on how many people can be pushed through the system.

Improved mental health and wellbeing is associated with a range of better outcomes. These include improved physical health and life expectancy, better educational achievement, increased skills and reduced health risk behaviours.

By focusing on outcomes rather than process we will not only deliver better mental health services but services that have a cumulative positive impact on other health areas.

The UK Government has just released the report No Health Without Mental Health, which sets out the English strategy for mental health services.

Maybe a similar report in Wales would be useful to set out exactly how we should deliver mental health services – Wales has different needs and issues which need to be addressed.

For example, we still lack an anti-stigma campaign. The English and Scottish campaigns have been hugely successful at raising the profile of mental health problems and tackling the unfair stigma that surrounds them. I stand firm in my belief that Wales could benefit from such a campaign.

We hear every day about the financial difficulties the country is facing but this needn’t be a hindrance. A small, focused campaign aimed primarily at employers, could do much to help. It would lay responsibility on employers to ensure the work place is a stigma-free environment by providing information and education on mental health disorders.

Ultimately, I would like to see a mental health strategy which delivers a robust, holistic service under strong leadership, in the form of an experienced and committed individual. I feel mental health is significant enough to warrant a dedicated government representative.

Crucially, Wales needs a timely and effective service aimed not only at those who suffer from mental health disorders but also their families.

Often families don’t understand these conditions or they don’t know how to deal with a loved one who has a mental health disorder. It is also often the case that when caring for someone with mental health problems, they have nowhere to turn themselves or push their own mental health to the side.

We should be looking to ensure that no matter how you are affected by mental ill health you have somewhere to go for support.

Written for the Western Mail.

Our communities offer highly-skilled health experts – let’s start using them

WHAT do you do when you or one of your family feels unwell?

Do you try to treat yourself? Ring NHS Direct? Book an appointment with your GP?

You may even decide the only option is to visit the emergency department or perhaps a minor injuries unit more suitable.

The default is very often the GP surgery, especially when we aren’t sure of what to do and what other choices are available but this may not necessarily be the most appropriate place to go.

In Wales we need to have more information available to signpost us to the best route for treatment when we fall ill or suffer an injury.

It can be incredibly confusing, particularly at the weekends to know what to do and where to go. If we want to see our emergency departments working more efficiently we must ensure that it is only patients who require urgent care who attend them.

There is much good work being carried out in ensuring that non urgent cases are referred elsewhere by the ambulance call centres, but there is more to be done.

We also know that there are a range of highly-skilled health professionals in our communities such as pharmacists, optometrists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and community nurses, but we don’t always make full use of their expertise or we simply don’t know how to access their services.

Last week I met with community pharmacists who had some exciting and innovative ideas for extending the services to patients.

Pharmacists are the medicines experts available on every high street, so we should use them more.

One of their ideas is to roll out a minor ailments scheme where the pharmacist can prescribe for certain conditions.

This in turn could substantially reduce pressures on appointments at GP surgeries and this has been operating successfully in my region, Torfaen.

It has given patients access to treatment when it is needed, seven days a week in their local community. Essentially this service gives GPs the opportunity to deal with more serious problems and illnesses.

Not only that, Community Pharmacy claim that such a scheme could save up to £30m a year.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy is another organisation that is campaigning for improved direct access to healthcare professionals, such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists.

Self-referral gets faster access, without increased cost, and early intervention for lower back pain, for example, which can reduce recurrences and prevent lost working days and even more GP appointments.

It is patient centred, it saves valuable GP time. A self-referral pilot scheme is already running in Bridgend with some excellent results.

I see absolutely no reason why it can’t be delivered across Wales. It has the potential to benefit so many people in so many ways, both patients and healthcare professionals.

It’s a new year and a new chance to work hard to deliver a Health Service that really works. In the coming months I will be continuing to campaign to get the best out of the Welsh Health Service.

Article printed in the Western Mail

Christmas and the health service

The Christmas season is now well and truly upon us. It’s a time for celebration, a time to perhaps eat (and drink) a little too much and a time to spend with your loved ones. Most of all it is a time to forget work and relax. For some though Christmas is another day at work.

Whilst Christmas brings with it many reasons for celebration it also poses its fair share of problems. Among other things, it marks the beginning of flu season, the usual over indulgence and not forgetting the cold weather.

We are currently in the grips of an especially harsh British winter – over the past few weeks it’s been impossible not to notice the chaos the weather has caused across the country – and with it come increases in traffic accidents, broken limbs and other problems linked to cold weather such as hypothermia.

All this puts a huge strain on all of our public services, but none more than the Welsh Health Service, and with the extremely cold weather potentially running well into the New Year the increased pressure on the Health Service looks set to continue.

At a time when most of us are preparing for an enjoyable Christmas and New Year with family and friends, the Health Service is preparing to tackle everything from falls (caused by slippery conditions) to flu (Seasonal flu, and more recently the increase in swine flu cases in Wales will add to the workload as patients have their jabs and seek treatment).

The fact is that people’s healthcare needs do not end at Christmas. Where there is someone who needs caring for weather it is in a hospital, an A&E department or in a residential care home then there will need to be someone to provide that care.

At Christmas it is all too easy to get wrapped up in everything, the shopping, the cooking and the gifts, but we need to spare a thought for those who have to work on a day which many of us are lucky enough to have off work. Healthcare professionals work so hard every day of the year to provide us with the best healthcare they can and Christmas day is no exception.

The reality today is that the Welsh NHS should be a 24 hour, seven days a week service, Christmas or not. The least the Labour-Plaid Government can do is provide healthcare professionals with the best possible conditions to work in and make it possible for them to do their jobs to the best of their ability, uninhibited by restrictive and overly bureaucratic targets.

According to BMA Wales, “Recent figures reveal that Wales is short of almost 400 hospital doctors. We have seen hospitals being downgraded, wards closed, and inappropriate workloads being forced upon employees – which inevitably hamper the quality and safety of care patients are receiving. Many are working in excess of their contracted hours to fill the gaps caused by recruitment failures”.

Despite this, health care professionals have shown and continue to show amazing resilience in the face of enormous difficulties and that is something to be commended. Whatever your point of view, we can all agree on this point.

It is for these reasons that in the New Year I will continue to campaign for a more efficient, effective health service which delivers for the patient and staff alike.

In the days running up to Christmas I would like to convey my thanks to all those who have worked so hard and who will be working throughout the Christmas period to provide us with the security and the care which we have come to expect.

Unacceptable number of people waiting over 36 weeks for treatment

Welsh Government figures released yesterday show that for the fourth month in a row, the amount of people waiting longer than 36 weeks for treatment has gone up, from 333 to 1,774, an increase of 500% from May to September.

Government statistics for the month of September released yesterday, also show that the number of people waiting longer than the government target of 26 weeks has gone up by over 2000 from 11,227 people in August to 13,536 in September.

Cardiac treatment waiting times are also up with 72 people waiting more than 36 weeks for treatment compared to no one waiting for treatment in April.

It is unacceptable that 13,536 people are waiting more than 7 months for treatment in the Welsh NHS, longer than the Labour-Plaid Government set targets. What gives more cause for concern is the number of people waiting over 10 months to begin their treatment. This figure has shot up from May to September with 1,774 people waiting for an unacceptably long time. What is happening to our health service?

The Health Minister clearly doesn’t have a grip on waiting times as cardiac referral times are especially worrying with 72 patients waiting more that 36 weeks to start their treatment. Waiting more that 10 months for cardiac treatment is horrendously long and for many patients could mean the difference between life and death.

The people of Wales are not getting the health service that they deserve and the Labour-Plaid government is failing the people of this country. Unsafe hospital buildings, inadequate cancer care, worse ambulance response times than England and Scotland, massive waste and inefficiency and now longer waiting times are just the some of the problems facing the service. It’s time the Health Minister got a grip of a worrying situation.

My visit to Pen y Dre High School

Veronica and pupils from Pen y Dre High School

Last week I had the privilege to visit Pen y Dre High School to hear about the brilliant community group activities that their pupils have been up to.

I arrived early so I could attend one of the weekly fundraising coffee mornings. It was clear from the very beginning that this is something that everybody looks forward to and it really was lovely to be welcomed to such a friendly atmosphere.

Each year group chooses a charity, then at the coffee mornings a year representative is invited to speak to raise awareness for their chosen charity. A grand total of £5000 has been raised throughout the year already!

Following the coffee morning, I visited a classroom to hear about the schools ‘Linking Hands Across the World’ project. Here I heard how this group grows from strength to strength raising awareness of their work with Eqinisweni School in South Africa. The pupils managed to raise enough money to fund a visit to S. Africa where they worked with their peers from Eqinisweni school making improvements like painting, gardening etc. I must say it really was inspiring to hear how passionate everyone was!

Talking of inspiring, it was absolutely brilliant to hear of some of the Peer schemes that the school has been running. Firstly, there is the Peer Mentoring Scheme. Here Year 12 students, trained by ‘Safer Merthyr Tydfil’ in mentoring skills, work with vulnerable Year 7 pupils who find the experiences of transition from junior to secondary school a traumatic experience. The Buddy Scheme is similar, where trained Year 8 students help out those in Year 7 that might be having a tough time in school. Finally, there is the Hype scheme where Year 12 pupils, who are trained to become drug awareness peer tutors, work with Year 8 pupils on drug related issues.

That is basically the schemes in a nut shell, but in truth I haven’t done them justice as they are a great deal more thorough and brilliantly organised. It was fantastic seeing how the pupils work together to help out those pupils that might be struggling with school life. Young people often don’t want to talk to their parents and their teachers, this scheme gives them someone else to turn to. A special mention must go to head pupil Rebekah or ‘Rea’ Hughes for all of her hard work in setting such a good example for the students at the school

What a pity that Sky News didn’t come to film here at Pen Y Dre in the Gurnos. This would have given a very different picture of the young people of Merthyr than was portrayed in the programme ‘A Town Called Merthyr’.

I look forward to visiting the school again – but it will have to be on a Friday – the cakes are so good!

Meeting Baroness Shirley Williams

Yesterday I was proud to welcome Baroness Shirley Williams, former Lib Dem leader of House of Lords, to South East Wales when she visited the Drill Hall in Chepstow. After holding a book signing for her new book she took time to meet with members and discuss a range of issues from the Welsh NHS to the Severn Barrage.

I was encouraged too when she highlighted the importance of parties from across the political spectrum working together if they are to achieve the goal of keeping Newport Passport Office open.

It was a pleasure to listen to Shirley speak so passionately about things that have happened throughout her life. To hear of how she overcame prejudices that she faced as a woman was a true inspiration and illustrated how much things have improved.

She continues to campaign relentlessly around the country and in the House of Lords fighting for civil liberties that over the years have sadly been eroded. She is an enormous asset to the Liberal Democrats and respected by politicians from across all parties. It was an honour to have met such a respected politician.

My thanks go out to those who helped organise the event as well as to the members who attended and contributed to the lively debate which I know Shirley enjoyed very much.

Wales needs a cancer plan

Veronica German, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokeswoman, explains why Wales needs a comprehensive cancer strategy.

Article written for the Western Mail.

CANCER is a disease that affects everyone.

With more than one in three people likely to develop cancer at some point in their lives we all likely to be touched by it.

It is essential we have a cancer strategy in Wales able to cope with this life-altering disease. A recent report, published by Cancer Research UK, said we in Wales aren’t getting the cancer service we need.

The report analysed cancer strategies across the UK between 2006 and 2010. It found that Wales was seriously lacking compared to England, stating: “A more comprehensive plan should be developed to ensure consistent delivery, implementation and integration across Wales.”

When Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams asked First Minister Carwyn Jones if he planned to follow this advice, he failed to provide a satisfactory answer.

We are again falling behind England because of inaction by the Assembly Government. One example of this is in the provision of intensity modulated radiotherapy This allows tumours to be treated very accurately, which is particularly important in the pelvic area and in head and neck cancers where there are a number of organs and structures that could be easily damaged.

In England this treatment has been available for five years and 42% of cancer patients are receiving it. But in Wales only two patients a month with head, neck and prostate cancer are receiving this form of radiotherapy.

In England, the UK government has just committed £60m over four years to introduce new state-of-the-art screening programme for bowel cancer, different to the test currently available. Wales has a higher incidence of bowel cancer than England – in fact we have higher levels of male cancers than any other part of the UK and our survival rates in Wales are well below the European average.

We have heard nothing from the Labour-Plaid Government about establishing a similarly new bowel cancer screening programme here.

The Cancer Research UK report is proof that we need to establish a fully-inclusive, patient-centred, contemporary cancer strategy.

I would like to see a cancer strategy that is truly holistic and an all-encompassing service that is focused on the patient and their family from diagnosis, treatment through to aftercare and remission.

We need a service that doesn’t stop when the treatment stops. People are at their most vulnerable – both physically and mentally – when they are suffering from an illness such as cancer; it simply isn’t good enough to treat the body without treating the mind.

We need a service that addresses a patient’s psychological and emotional needs as well.

A Welsh cancer strategy must also offer practical advice on issues that often get ignored, such as financial issues.

Furthermore it needs to provide services for families – such as counselling and advice – to help them cope when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer.

Macmillan Cancer Support already offers a holistic service. In August the charity launched a ground-breaking counselling service for people whose relationships have been affected by a cancer diagnosis.

It is a first in Wales, and only the second of its kind in the UK, and offers free help to individuals, couples and families who have been affected by a cancer diagnosis.

I would love to see a cancer strategy that, like Macmillan, offers a holistic service.

But the sad reality is that before we can even begin to think of what we want, we have to think about what we need.

First and foremost we need a strategy that delivers the best treatments possible for the people of Wales.

The Labour-Plaid Assembly Government needs to act now and give us a cancer strategy that at least puts us on an even footing with those in England.

Good news for people with mental illness to access work placements

One group of disadvantaged people are those who suffer who have suffered fron serious mental illness. Their chances of finding or keeping a job are drastically reduced compared to others.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Gofal Cymru’s GAteway Project in Newport.
This excellent scheme is helping people who suffer or have suffered from serious mental illness by providing them with much needed opportunities such as work placements, training and self-confidence workshops.
I asked the Minister for Local Government and Social Justice if he would engage with local government and other public bodies to encourage and facilitate such placements.
I am pleased to say that he did not disagree and I look forward to chasing progress on this.

On the first week back – the report that was not

The first week back of term at the Welsh Assembly has been an eventful one especially for health. It’s been difficult to avoid discussion of the McKinsey ‘report’.

Last year the Health Minister commissioned management company McKinsey and Company to examine the Welsh NHS and make recommendations based on their findings. The main remit of the report was to look ahead to the next five years and suggests ways to improve the finances of the Welsh NHS.

Unlike the English report, the Welsh Assembly Government commissioned McKinsey in such a way that its findings would not have to be published and made available to the public. The Government have referred to it as a commission and called it a ‘process’ serving to inform the Welsh Assembly Government’s decision making, rather than culminating in a final report.

This meant that the general public, as well as professionals working in the health sector, were unable to view and scrutinise the documents that these decisions were based upon.

In Wales, McKinsey’s findings were set out in a document named Delivering a Five-Year Service, Workforce and Financial Strategic Framework for NHS Wales. This document sets out the Government’s strategy for the Welsh NHS for the next 5 years.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats along with other bodies have been asking to see the McKinsey document for some time and now that it has been revealed, I can see why the government was so keen to keep it under wraps.

It lists numerous shortcomings in the Welsh NHS. It states that ‘strategic objectives are too numerous and not prioritised, so none or the wrong ones are implemented’. It points out a ‘gap between policy leads and operational delivery’. Possibly most damming of all the document states that initiatives, set out by the Government, are ‘financially unaffordable’. With a copy of the report now placed in the public domain, questions to the Health Minister were dominated by ‘McKinsey’.

Assembly debates this week have pushed into harsh light the lack of transparency in our government. Documents of this nature need to be in the public domain so that they may be publically scrutinised. Only then can the recommendations be discussed by those who are affected by them and those who have to implement them.

These views are shared by Andrew Dearden of BMA Wales. He has contributed to the document but hasn’t even seen it himself. He told BBC Radio Wales: ‘In our view, as the BMA Wales, we have asked for copies of the document, we have asked to review it because we were actually asked to give evidence, so if it was full of positive comments, I suspect it would have been made public.’

Of course, this isn’t just about a document. This is about people and a service that we all rely on every day. It seems to me that frontline staff have been completely ignored. The document even says that frontline staff ‘do not own’ strategies set out by the government. It is essential that they have a say in a service that they have to implement.

I intend to press the government on this issue. By asking questions and continuing to talk to frontline staff I will attempt to get to the root of the substantial problems the NHS in Wales is facing.

The McKinsey document has unveiled the need for serious change in the Welsh NHS. This document will have come at a substantial cost to the government. Its criticisms were substantial and worthy of public debate. Equally they are worthy of a substantive government response. So far the Health Minister is refusing to answer detailed questions about the McKinsey report. It is incumbent on her to do so.

Sadly though, I fear that ultimately it is not the Government who will pay the price, it is the people of Wales who will bear the real cost of the government’s ineptitude.