Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Local Healthcare

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a representative of the British Medical Association on the radio. He was talking about health care provision and made the point that people wanted the best quality service they could get, but also wanted it delivered on their doorstep. He went on to say that the two things are impossible.

Everybody wants a hospital close to them, and there will be services that a local hospital can provide. It’s not possible though for every hospital to have every kind of machine though. Take CT scanners for example. These are expensive pieces of kit, and worth having if they can be used by many people in one day. This means that they have to be concentrated in larger hospitals. It would make no sense for every hospital to have one, only for them to be used perhaps once a day. That wouldn’t be a good way to spread resources.

Less obvious however, is the question of availability of medical staff. A friend of mine is a consultant in Cardiff. He is one of the best in his field. I asked him if he would ever consider moving further west and his answer was an unequivocal “no”. He likes being in a teaching hospital and values the fact that he has colleagues around him that he can talk to and share experience with. No amount of money would shift him from where he is, showing that throwing money at a problem does not necessarily solve it.

There is also the question of whether it’s safe to provide certain services locally. Let me give you an example. There are some illnesses that are so rare that if district general hospitals had to deal with then a doctor might only see one case every ten years. There’s no way that a doctor can build up expertise in this illness if that’s the case. If you refer every case to one centre like Great Ormond Street, or to a small number of large centres then a doctor might see ten or twelve cases a year, so getting the expertise to deal with the illness.

We have some experience in our family with leukaemia and with the treatment available at the Heath Hospital. It’s a centre of expertise, and they get many cases a year and have learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to treatment. There are a number of expert doctors there who have built up expertise as a team. If you spread them out across Wales you’d make the treatment worse and more people would die of the illness. It’s like taking at international rugby team and splitting it up so the players have to play in fifteen different teams. They will never be as effective.

Local does not always mean good nor indeed is it actually safe to provide some services locally. We all want good local health services, but it’s worth remembering that if we want the best, then we will sometimes need to travel.

(Article first published in the Bridgend & Valleys Recorder)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Domestic abuse must not be tolerated

Women, children, young people and men – all across Wales, people's lives are affected by domestic abuse.

Commonly defined as the controlling and forceful behaviour from one adult towards another within the context of an intimate relationship, it can take the form of sexual, psychological or emotional abuse. Financial abuse and social isolation are also familiar features.

There are many myths surrounding this type of abuse but people suffer domestic violence regardless of their social group, class, age, race, disability, sexuality or lifestyle. Despite incidents being notoriously under reported, it accounts for almost one fifth of all violent crime with, on average, 35 assaults taking place before a victim calls in the police. The lives of two women each week and 30 men per year are lost to domestic violence and it is an issue that will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime.

Although the statistics are horrific, the problem is not insurmountable. A lot has been done to support the victims of such crimes but a lot more is still needed.

New laws were brought in with the Domestic Violence, Crime & Victims Act 2004 which increased the protection, support and rights of both victims and witnesses. It gave the police and other agencies the tools to tackle the perpetrators at source.

Specialist courts have been set up to deal with domestic violence cases using a combined approach by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, magistrates and other agencies. They work together to identify and track each case, support the victims and share information more efficiently to ensure more offenders are brought to prosecution.

This joined up approach across the criminal, civil and family justice system is having significant results and, having been tested in several pilot areas, is now being rolled out across the country.

The Welsh Assembly Government has also shown its commitment with the launch of its All Wales National Strategy to tackle domestic abuse and the production of a Good Practice Guide for people working with children and young people to help protect them and to reduce future incidents through preventative work.

Funding has been given to projects across Wales and an extra £250,000 has recently been invested to extend a free, confidential helpline to allow it to offer 24 hours a day, 365 days a year coverage. The number for the hotline is 0808 80 10 800.

Domestic violence must not be tolerated. I believe that by working together to change attitudes, hold perpetrators to account and provide support to victims, we can make a real, tangible difference.

(Article first published in the Bridgend & Valleys Recorder)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Post offices are vital to our local communities

Small businesses are the backbone of community life in all parts of Wales. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the way in which Post Offices provide a valuable service to communities across Bridgend and the surrounding area.

They not only gave an important focus to life in our towns and villages but also provide a lifeline for the elderly, disabled and those in deprived areas to access their pensions, benefits and other financial transactions.

Last week, I convened a meeting with sub-postmasters in my constituency to hear directly from them the problems that they are facing in keeping their offices open. We are now in the process of formulating a joint action plan which will help us to secure the future viability of post offices in Bridgend.

The Welsh Assembly Government’s policies have been designed to safeguard and develop Post Offices as core community amenities and features. Through the Post Office Development Fund, over £4.1 million in grants have been distributed to 106 post offices – 60% in isolated urban areas and 40% in rural areas – with the primary aim being to prevent the closure of loss making post offices.

Recently announced plans to reform the business rates system in Wales will also play a part in improving the viability of local post offices. The proposals will mean Post Offices with a rateable value under £9,000 will receive 100% and those with a rateable value between £9,000 and £11,999 will receive 50% relief.

The new system will be fairer and easier to understand. Because rateable values tend to be lower in the poorer areas of Wales, the focus of the policy on smaller Post Offices will be of particular benefit to poorer areas, urban or rural.

A major concern for all sub-postmasters is the ending of the Post Office Card Account by the Westminster Government in 2010. They fully understand the need for all the possible options to be explored when spending public funds but, and I fully support them on this, a compromise has to be reached that gives the taxpayer the best deal for their money whilst at the same time taking into account the wider interests of the people who rely on the services that Post Offices provide.

Thriving communities need thriving post offices. They are businesses but they are also, essentially, public services. People can do their bit by using their nearest post office as often as possible to pick up their benefits, purchase stamps and access their high street bank accounts closer to home.

We must do all we can to ensure that locally available post office services are maintained and strengthened. By customers, sub-postmasters and elected representatives working together in partnership, I am confident that we can continue to make progress to achieve this.

(Article first published in the Bridgend & Valleys Recorder)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tackling crime in the longer term

Last week I spent an interesting two hours in the company of the Probation Service in Bridgend.

Never an easy job, the service has to contend on occasion with the London newspapers' determination to make the criminal justice system fundamentally flawed.

Many of you will remember the Craig Sweeney case from the summer when some in the media gave the impression he was only going to serve five years in prison for child abduction and assault. In fact he was sentenced to imprisonment for life, but you wouldn't have received that impression from what you read.

Probation is certainly far harder now that it was 10 or 15 years ago, and the officers in Bridgend are a realistic and professional bunch. Of the statistics we discussed, one of them stood out more than any other - their rough estimate that about 70 per cent of offenders committed their crime as a result of drugs. This ranged from those stealing to support a heroin habit to those who became violent when drunk.

To my mind this shows the importance of making sure that, along with a robust system of dealing with these people through the court system, we also need to make sure we have the ability to treat people who are drug addicts if we really want to move them away from crime.

I also get a lot of people contacting me over youth annoyance, and until recently Wildmill was one of the areas where it was at its worst. This week I also visited the youth club on the estate and was impressed by what was being done there. Until the club opened, there was absolutely nothing for youngsters to do there. Small wonder that older residents were plagued by some of the youngsters.

Since the club opened, the amount of youth annoyance has dropped substantially. It still exists of course, but not at previous levels. Give kids a chance to do something, or better still, to broaden their horizons, to show what the world can offer, and many of them will change for the better.

Nobody seriously argues that the courts shouldn't be hard on those who commit crime. Nobody would suggest that serious or persistent offenders shouldn't be imprisoned. Certainly nobody would suggest that dangerous offenders should be allowed out of prison, and I doubt if Craig Sweeney ever will be. I worked in the system long enough to understand that some people cannot be reformed and must be taken out of society for the good of the public.

If we can divert youngsters away from crime at an early age then that is in their own interest and everybody else's. That means making sure we have enough youth clubs and facilities for young people and we do as much as possible to steer them away from drugs in the first place.

It won't end crime, but it can certainly limit it.

(Article first published in the Glamorgan Gazette)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Problems at Parc

Once again Parc Prison is in the news for the wrong reason.

Despite the fact that progress has been made in some areas such as in the young offenders' institution, the prison is falling down in some crucial areas according to the findings of the recent report by the Inspector of Prisons.

Parc is a private prison, and I have always been sceptical that the private sector can run such an institution. The prison has had a difficult history since it opened in the mid-1990s. At the time, I was the county councillor for Coity Higher, and the prison was in my ward. I remember the public meetings that took place at the time, and I remember well the assertion by one of the prison's representatives that there would be a proportion of nine trainees to one experienced officer. I felt it was a recipe for trouble, and said so.

Sure enough there were serious riots in the prison; there have been several suicides, especially amongst the younger prisoners. Governors of the prison came and went without any continuity in management. When so many at the top leave so quickly there is a serious problem in any organisation and it's no wonder that problems still remain there.

I've visited the prison many times, and have always been impressed by the dedication of those who work there, particularly those on the 'shop floor' of the prison. They are being let down by the revolving door at the top. No matter how good the people are on the ground, if there is no long-term direction from those managing the prison then it cannot hope to succeed.

Strangely enough, this is probably the best report that the prison has had, and at least there has been improvement in some areas. Unfortunately, it's still a poor report, and people's patience is wearing thin. We have heard a lot from the prison over the years about how things are changing for the better, but this has not yet been shown to be correct.

The next report must be better, for the sake of those who work there, for those who are interned there and for the community in which the prison is situated.

(Article first published in the Glamorgan Gazette)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

BCBC Electoral Services in disarray

The events of the last few weeks at Bridgend County Borough Council have troubled many people, and you will all know my view on what's gone on there.

It is a fact that there are serious management problems at the council and that the Welsh Local Government Association has been brought in to try to help.

It is a fact that the Electoral Services department is in turmoil. We are awaiting a report about the serious situation there, and I have already seen one report that causes me cause for concern about the state of the service.

It is a fact that children's social services is in a dire state. Despite great efforts by the staff there the problems seem to remain. Nobody can be happy that a service dedicated to children is in trouble.

There are of course other departments within the council who are doing a good job, and there are many officers who are very good at what they do. Unfortunately, there are still serious problems in the structure of the council which remain unresolved.

None of these problems are new. I have been writing to Keri Lewis, the Chief Returning Officer, for some years about the state of electoral services in the council, as have many of my colleagues. The 1999 Assembly election was a shambles, with ballot papers being thrown onto a stage which the public had access to. I have also been concerned for years that people have been deprived of the ability to vote because polling stations have been closed. Despite the fact that portable cabins are used as polling stations elsewhere, BCBC refuse to use them as a cost cutting initiative. This means that the people of Old Brackla and Brackla Meadows don't have a polling station, and that perfectly acceptable stations like St Illtyd's Church Hall were closed. The council should look at opening more stations, not closing them down.

Yet despite all this, senior council officers are being offered incredibly generous retirement packages, sometimes even with the promise of a reference for another job! This is why I am critical of the Rainbow Alliance and the way they have handled things. Why should council taxpayers foot the bill? Why should voluntary organisations not get funding from BCBC when they can find hundreds of thousands of pounds to allow officers to retire early at a time when the council is in turmoil? We've never had an answer.

It's in nobody's interest to have a council in this state, and the new Chief Executive will have my full support to try to turn things around. The council needs strong leadership, and only he can give it.

The people of Bridgend deserve nothing less.

(Article first published in the Glamorgan Gazette)