Talking Politics and More with Cynon Valley AM, Vikki Howells

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Over the last year, I have been influenced by a series of political events and decisions which has led me to think about the day to day role of a politician. Therefore, I contacted our local assembly member for the Cynon Valley, Vikki Howells. The purpose of this interview is to give young people in our local area; Rhondda Cynon Taf, a broader and a more in-depth look at Vikki’s profession as an Assembly Member for the Cynon Valley and the process of Devolution, with regards to the Welsh Government.

What school did you attend and did it encourage your desire to work in politics?

I attended St. John The Baptist, the Church school in Aberdare, and it was my history lessons really. I think that’s where the connection with politics sprang from. Particularly, when I was doing A-levels where we looked at the rise of trade unionism and lots of things about the industrial revolution in Wales. I think if you study that period of history in your local area it is very difficult to see it as anything other than a period of tension between those who had the wealth, the coal owners etc, and those who were carrying out the jobs, in very difficult conditions and often being exploited. So, that was what led me really towards the path of socialism.

Did you have any other jobs before entering the world of Politics?

I was a history teacher for 16 years, I taught in a secondary school in Caerphilly called St. Kenneth. I loved that job! I have always loved working with younger people and when I was a student in university I ran a play scheme in Cwmbach for five year; entertaining children from the age of 5 to 14. Over a 100 of them in a day! I really enjoyed it and if I could have done that as a full-time job, I would have, but I then realised that children had to go to school, and therefore, if I wanted to work with children on a full-time basis, then it was probably better if I worked for a job in teaching. So, I did my history degree and became a teacher in Caerphilly for 16, very happy years.

Could you explain your job role as AM for the Cynon Valley and what it entails?

I represent the whole of the Cynon Valley which stretches from Penderyn and Rhigos in the North down to the northernmost reaches of Pontypridd, so that’s Cilfynydd and Glyncoch. Although people voted for me in the election based upon my policies and the fact that I was Labour politician, now that I am elected my job is to represent absolutely everyone regardless of who they voted for or even if they voted, or not. People can come to me; here at my office in Aberdare, with any problems that they need sorting out. I am available for two full days of the week for people to come and make appointments with me and share whatever their issues are.

The most common issues we get to deal with are things based around health, education, and I find that side of my job very, very rewarding. In addition, I feel that my job, locally, is to attend lots of local events and support local causes. So, for example I do lots of work with schools visiting speaking in assemblies and prize nights and concerts etc. I do the same sort of thing with local charities; any sort of local group that would like me to visit and to take on board what they do and if there is any way I could help them, so I see myself as a bit of an ambassador for the area, maybe.

So that is like the first half of the role as AM, the other half of the role is the work that I do down in Cardiff Bay at the Senedd. That is where I take part in Wales-wide issues and voting on nationwide things/issues, and taking part in debates on issues that are Wales-wide. And I try to focus many questions that I put to the First Minister; or other cabinet ministers, on local issues and of significance here. But my wider interests are very much based around the economy so I take part in a lot of debates and focus groups on issues surrounding the economy.

Before the interview started, I was greeted by one of Vikki’s behind the scenes workers, Robin. So, I was intrigued to unpick what his role entails and to see what the rest of the team get up to both in Aberdare and in Cardiff Bay.

So, I asked Vikki: How important is your behind the scenes team?

They are absolutely crucial to me and any politician who tries to make out that they do it all by themselves is quite frankly not really telling the truth. This is one of the best things that I have found about being an assembly member, is that you have got those extra pairs of hands to help you and that’s amazing. So, I have got three members of staff, I have Jackie who is my office manager, she leads on community projects. I have Sue, who is my Senior Case Worker, she takes care of all the phone calls, writes letters and deals with anyone who has issues concerning their lives, on my behalf. And then I have Robin, who you met at the start when you come in. He is a Political Researcher, so anything I want to speak about in the Senedd, he will go away and research all the facts and figures and make my life so much easier.

I love working so much as a team, and I think often people who work with politicians in that regard they don’t want to be at the forefront and they want to remain behind the scenes, but I think their role is so important that I wish the public knew more about them.

What is your favourite part of the job?

My favourite part is the variety, the fact that there are so many things that you can be doing. You can be down in Cardiff in the chamber, voting on a Wales-wide issue, and then you can drive home to the Cynon Valley and maybe attend a school concert in the evening. So, it’s nice to be able to mix it up and have a difference. And I think when you’re down the Bay, it’s a very affluent environment and the Senedd is an amazing building and you can be drawn into that bubble thinking that is a normal life, but normal life is here in the Cynon Valley with working class people and working-class issues, and I really like to have the balance between those two parts of the role.

For many viewers, I know that they do not understand the whole Devolution process, could you please explain what the role of the Welsh Government is?

Well, it is a problem; not just young people, but with everybody in Wales. There are even times when us politicians have to double check is that a devolved matter or not. So, there are 21 areas that the Welsh Government has powers over in Wales; the most important ones being Health & Education. So, the policies we have in Wales are completely different to those in England and that’s really important, but also incredibly difficult for people to understand because the media don’t report it properly. You can watch the BBC UK wide News, you can pick up a newspaper; even one that is considered to be a good quality newspaper such as the Guardian, Telegraph or the Times, and often they will refer to matters as though they are pertinent to Wales and England and they are not. So, it is very difficult for people to see that difference. So, for example, in England you have a system where Theresa May is pushing for Grammar schools and where there are free schools – basically the privatisation of education – and that will never happen in Wales with the Labour Government that we have here. Also, you have the junior doctors striking in England over their terms and conditions which again is not happening here in Wales. But it’s difficult for ordinary viewers when they switch on the TV or read the newspaper or look online to identify the different systems of Government.

I haven’t heard any news recently regarding the South Wales Metro. So, my question is, will it go ahead, or was it simply another project that the government cannot go through with due to uncertainty over funding it?

It is definitely going ahead, there should be a statement at the end of the Autumn as to which company has won the contract. That is why it has been quiet recently as there are four bidders who have to put in their bids about they see the whole system being designed so there is not a lot that can be reported on without confidentiality being broken. I think the metro has got the potential to be really transformative for the Valleys and it’s so important that it is not only done, but it is done right. So, I am perfectly confident that it is going ahead but what I am trying to do is to push to get the very best system for the area. So, the things that are important to me is ticket price; so it needs to be accessible, people can afford to use it and that it’s not out of their reach. The proximity of the services, they need to be a lot more regular than they are now, needs to link up with buses because so many of our villages are far away from the stations.

I also think another key thing is to have the bus connections going across the top of the hills into the other valleys, so for example if you live in Mountain Ash and you have a job in the Rhondda, you should be able to get there easily. It shouldn’t be all about herding people down the valley to Cardiff, we need those over valleys connection as well. Plus, Sunday services, so that is what I am pushing for!

What is the current situation and progress with the Cynon Valley Cross Link?

The Cross-Valley Link is coming along really well, they have just announced the contractors for that. The building work will be going ahead, if you look across there you can see there are a whole lot of things going on in preparation for it, and it should be completed by the end of 2019. I think that is going to be a really big boost for Mountain Ash.

And lastly on the subject of our local area; I for one have complained about the same issue numerous times and yet the council can’t seem to commit any action. The issue is unavailable parental parking at the local primary school. Whilst I understand that many parents live far distances from the school, my issue lies with the parents who lazily drive from the next street over to bring their children to school, even on pleasant days. Where I live is a terraced residential street right next to a primary school and the problem there is one I fear could cause an accident one day. Will there ever be an enforced solution to this problem, or is it key to keep on educating the pupils and parents to start being more environmentally friendly and walk?

I completely agree with you with what you say there about the problem and I think even if we had a different geography here with plenty of space, I think it’s terrible that so many children and teens get dropped off and picked up from school, every day, rather than walking. We have got, here in RCT, the highest rate of childhood obesity in Wales, it’s so important, that people get that regular exercise.  I do think it is a cultural thing, it’s very difficult for the council or indeed the Welsh Government to legislate because as you say you know some parents are legitimately travelling because they are coming from further away or maybe they have a child who is disabled.

And briefly, your thoughts on two stories that I read online the other day and I quote the following:

“A dead patient was left on a busy hospital ward for eight hours. The University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff has apologised – and said an investigation has been launched. The elderly woman died at 7am but was still in her bed during afternoon visiting hours. The hospital launched an investigation into claims the delay was because of NHS staff shortages at weekends.” – WalesOnline.

“The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has criticised Betsi Cadwaldr University Health Board following an elderly woman’s death on a hospital trolley.” – ITV Cymru Wales.

Do you think the NHS is being sufficiently funded, or would you agree that finances could be more appropriately spent on things other than contentious issues, such as our nation’s Foreign Aid budget?

What I would say is this, currently we are spending almost 50% of the entire Welsh Government budget on the NHS, which is more really than any other country in the World. I think what we need to do is look at the ways of doing things. Of course, it is important to invest in our NHS, but in proportion of our spending it is definitely getting a really good slice of the cake. So, we need to look at the systems that we are using and to make them as best we can. In any hospital, there are always going to be issues unfortunately when you are dealing with so many people on a daily basis, but that is by no means to excuse the incidents that you described there. I am so glad that none of those are within our health board area, the Cwm Taf Health Board. And in response to the second part of your question, I think we give a very small proportion of our GDP to foreign aid, it is actually just 1%, and not a lot of people know that. And the reason for that is because the media propagate that the government are giving millions and millions of pounds away while there are issues in this country that are unresolved. Of course, we have issues in this country that we need to addres.

Are saying that it’s false reporting by the media, leading the public to believe mass amounts of money is being ploughed into Foreign Aid when in actual fact it isn’t?

Well that is my stance /take on the situation, Brad, because I see myself as not just as a Welsh socialist or a British socialist, but an international socialist. And we still remain in the top 10 of the World’s Richest countries, regardless of any measure that you look at. So if we can’t give 1% of our countries wealth to help the least fortunate, then I think there is something very wrong with British or the Welsh psyche. But I think it’s very sad when media uses that budget as a scape goat for other domestic issues because you can do both, you can help people who are much more vulnerable than us overseas while also tackling problems at home.

As you said there, Vikki, we are one of the richest countries in the world, yet we cannot finance our own NHS properly, it just baffles me.

What would be your key advice to someone wishing to enter the world of Politics?

I would say: do it! (laughing) Brad, I think Politics is fantastic. One thing I have learnt from being elected is that even people from parties whose ideas I disagree with, they are all in it because they have got the same passion as me, in a different way. All any politician really wants to do is make a difference to their community and country, and to make those better. If you love politics, it is wonderful to just have a job which is basically your hobby and passion.

And finally, what message would you send out to those who are either starting their GCSE’s /A Levels or University in the coming weeks?

I would say that it’s really important to work as hard as you can to get those qualifications to set you up for the rest of your life, but there are some students who get very stressed by the exam system, and as a former secondary school teacher myself, I know this all too well. It I s about striking that balance to focus on your studies but also to make sure you have healthy outlets and hobbies like sports or reading or whatever gives you that down time and to realise that if you do your best, that is all anyone can ask of you. There are plenty of people in this world who have made a success for themselves despite not having formal qualifications, I think that we need to really embrace vocational qualifications more, you know if you are someone who struggles with literacy or numeracy but you have a real talent for carpentry or gardening, then focus on that for your career, and don’t ever feel like you are second best to someone who may be able to get higher academic grades than you.

Yes, wise words, Vikki. Thank you very much, indeed.


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