ABERFAN – Disaster and Recovery

Aberfan, Gaynor Madgwick & Greg Lewis

Via Y Lolfa

On the 21st of October 1966, the village of Aberfan in south Wales was shattered by one of the worst disasters in Welsh and British history.

Following days of bad weather, water from a spring had destabilized a huge coal slag tip – one of the black man-made mountains which surrounded the village. Thousands of tonnes of coal tip waste slid down a mountainside and devastated the mining village of Aberfan. The black mass crashed through the local school, where pupils were celebrating the last day of term.

One hundred and forty-four people were killed. One hundred and sixteen were schoolchildren. Gaynor Madgwick was there. She was eight years old and severely injured. Her brother and sister were in  classrooms either side of her. Both died.

Recalling the horrific event in a diary four years later, Gaynor wrote, ‘I heard a terrible, terrible sound, a rumbling sound. It was so loud. I just didn’t know what it was. It seemed like the school went numb, you could hear a pin drop. I was suddenly petrified and glued to the chair. It sounded like the end of the world had come.’

In Aberfan – A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One Of Britain’s Worst Disasters, Gaynor tells her own story and interviews people affected by that day – from the bereaved and the rescuers, to the police and royalty. She explores the nature of courage, grief and faith, to create both a moving personal story of one family’s pain and a definitive account of the events that shook the nation and the world.

‘For the past 50 years I have lived as a sort of prisoner or victim of my past. Now I am trying to break free.’ said Gaynor. ‘I started this book by looking again at the writings of my young self. I’ve tried to explore the determination, courage and resilience which got me through. Then, I set out on a journey, to find those same qualities in my community, to see how it had coped, survived and often thrived.’

The Earl of Snowdon – who was there hours after the disaster – described it as ‘one of the most moving experiences of my life.’

‘Gaynor Madgwick’s book, Aberfan, is a brave, heartbreaking and inspiring journey in which she re-visits the story of what happened to her and to the whole community of Aberfan on that dreadful day.’ he said. ‘It is a book that should be read by all of us in memory of those who died and those who survived.’

Broadcaster Vincent Kane said, ‘Gaynor Madgwick was pulled injured from one of the classrooms where her friends died. She was left behind to live out her life. This is her story, sad, sweet, sentimental, and authentic. I commend it to you.’

‘October 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of that awful day. For 50 years we have been trying to recover from the Aberfan disaster. It’s a long road, and we take it one day at a time.’ said Gaynor.

‘I’ve tried to tell this story in a way in which it has never been told before, beginning by reliving Aberfan through the eyes of a survivor.  As a survivor, now 58 years old, I have been haunted by the memories of the Aberfan disaster.

‘I wanted to create the fullest picture of the disaster and its aftermath while people were still around to tell their story.

‘For me, I can’t start the next chapter of my life if I keep rereading the last one; this book will help me move on. My hope is that it will help others move on too.’

Aberfan – A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One of Britain’s Worst Disasters by Gaynor Madgwick (£9.99, Y Lolfa) is available now.

Nursing Matters: A celebration of nursing

I was delighted to be involved in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Royal College of Nursing in Wales, marking the work of nurses today and over the past five decades.

I produced these films (edited by Collin Games and filmed by Paul Roberts and Gareth Thomas).

And there is also a commemorative book, Nursing Matters.


As actor Michael Sheen states on the back cover, “There is no more fundamental or valuable service than to devote yourself to the care of others in their times of greatest need. It is the most noble of tasks and the highest of aspirations.”

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New Call For Public Inquiry Into Child’s Death

A leading GP and writer on medical issues has called on the Attorney General to launch a public inquiry into the death of a 10-year-old boy from Wales.

Dr Phil Hammond said the UK Government had to allow a public inquiry into the death of Robbie Powell, from Ystradgynlais, and into the events which followed it.

Robbie died in April 1990 of a rare but treatable condition called Addison’s Disease.

He had been seen by five different doctors in the fortnight before he died.

Over the years there have been several investigations into the care Robbie Powell received. But none of these has provided the family with satisfaction.

When Carwyn Jones became First Minister, he wrote to the UK government for permission to include the actions of the police and CPS in a public inquiry. It refused.

So Mr Jones set up a non-statutory independent inquiry to be conducted by a leading barrister, Nicholas David Jones. Unlike the public inquiry which the family wanted, it would not be able to force witnesses to give evidence.

When the report was published in July 2012, Carwyn Jones issued an apology on behalf of the Welsh Government for the failures in the system which led to Robbie’s death.

Last month ITV Wales’ Wales This Week programme revealed that the First Minister had overseen a number of redactions to the report.

These included the removal of the inquest verdict.

Carwyn Jones refused to answer questions on individual redactions in the programme but did an interview on the report in general.

In a statement, the Welsh Government said: “When deciding what to redact, it was necessary for the First Minister to take into account the fact that some documentation was held under a duty of confidence, as well as the need for compliance with data protection requirements and the need to present a fair account.

“The First Minister is content that the redactions did not detract from the overall conclusions and issues that were identified.”

Opposition Leader Andrew RT Davies told the Senedd the day after the programme that the First Minister should make a fresh statement to assembly members explaining the reasons behind the removal of parts of the report.

Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said the Wales This Week investigation had revealed “unusual and questionable” redactions.


The Real Merthyr

Merthyr Tydfil is most often in the news for the wrong reasons.

But statistics about poor health and high unemployment don’t tell the whole story.

In this programme, Merthyr-born reporter Hannah Thomas goes behind the headlines to try to find the true heart of her home town.

One point made, in particular, about the stats that leaves the town on the wrong end of too many league tables is that the size and economic make up of the borough skews the figures.

Because Merthyr is such a tiny unitary authority with many deprived wards and no affluent areas its average is always much lower than anywhere else. In other words it has no wealthy streets to balance things out.

The programme has received an incredible response.

Watch Wales This Week: ‘The Real Merthyr’ here.

No public inquiry into Robbie Powell’s death

The Home Office and Attorney General’s Office have blocked calls for a public inquiry into the death of a 10-year-old boy who died after a failure to carry out a medical test which would have identified a rare treatable condition.

Former First Minister Rhodri Morgan became a late convert to the idea of a public inquiry into Robbie Powell’s death just before he retired from office a year ago.

His successor, Carwyn Jones, also felt an inquiry might help the Welsh NHS “learn lessons” about future care.

It would also, no doubt, help Robbie’s family – considering they have spent years campaigning for the full facts about Robbie’s death to be made public.

However, Mr Jones took advice from Whitehall departments on the matter of a possible joint inquiry. The Welsh Assembly Government said this week: “Confirmation was received during the summer that the Home Office and Attorney General’s Department were not agreeable to the setting up of a joint inquiry.  Since then the First Minister has been considering the matter further.

“ The First Minister’s decision is not to cause a public inquiry into this matter under the Inquiries Act 2005, but to initiate an independent investigation and report into this case, which will make recommendations with a view to the future running of the health service in Wales.  The details of the investigation, including its starting date and the name of the investigator, will be made known shortly.”

Robbie Powell, of Ystradgynlais, died at Morriston Hospital, Swansea, in April 1990 of Addison’s disease after a test that could have diagnosed this rare but treatable condition was not carried out.

An inquest in 2004 returned a verdict of death by natural causes aggravated by neglect.

His father, William Powell, has campaigned for a public inquiry ever since.

Mr Jones said many issues raised by the case fell outside the Welsh Assembly Government’s responsibilities.

“The issues that fall within the Assembly Government’s remit mainly touch upon the operation of the health service in Wales,” he said. “An independent investigation by one person simply doesn’t meet the needs and requirements of this tragic case.

“While the structures and systems in the health service have changed significantly over the years, I am of the opinion that the facts of an individual case can illustrate weaknesses, or potential weaknesses, which did exist and which are relevant to the workings of the system and arrangements now in place.”

Nick Bourne, leader of the Welsh Conservatives at the Assembly, has urged Carwyn Jones to reconsider the decision.

“The process announced by Carwyn Jones is a long way from what is needed – an open and transparent review into the circumstances surrounding Robbie’s death,” he said.

“This is what Robbie’s father has been tirelessly campaigning to achieve and it is what I have been calling for since 2003.

 “An independent investigation by one person simply doesn’t meet the needs and requirements of this tragic case.

 “Before his departure from office, former First Minister Rhodri Morgan agreed that a public inquiry was the right course of action and I urge the current First Minister to look again at (his) decision.”

Children who should be in our care

Fresh questions today about the way our society treats vulnerable children.
Firstly, the Welsh Refugee Council has taken the unusual step of going public with concerns about an individual case – an Afghan refugee named Mashal Jabari, an orphan who arrived in the UK last October.
At the heart of the case is a dispute over Mashal’s age.
When Mashal arrived in the UK, he was assessed as being over 18 and was sent to Cardiff where he was initially placed in a hostel for adult new arrivals.
The Welsh Refugee Council was convinced he was clearly only 14 rather than 18. It says that both his GP and social workers in Cardiff also believe he is under 18 (although social workers never got to carry out a full age assessment).
However, they have not been able to persuade the UK Border Agency.
In November, Mashal was refused asylum. On Monday, Mashal went to the Border Agency office in Cardiff with documents from his brother, Zaki, asking for his case to be reassessed because his brother has been given refugee status.
Mashal was taken into detention and spent a day in a police cell. He has now been sent to Campsfield detention centre in Oxfordshire ready to be “removed” on March 9.
According to the Welsh Refugee Council: “Our children’s advocacy officer visited him in Cardiff Bay police station and he was distraught beyond description. He had been put in padded clothing for fear of self-harm.”
One wonders how our society could treat a traumatised person of any age like this.
Secondly, figures revealed by the office of South Wales West AM, Alun Cairns, today again highlight the desperate shortage of social workers in Wales. The shortage means that hundreds of children have not been allocated a social worker.
“These figures show a worrying number of at-risk children in Wales have not been allocated a social worker,” said Mr Cairns.
“I was very concerned to learn that councils in my own region had large numbers of at-risk children, with 116 unallocated cases in the Swansea Council and 120 in Bridgend.”
The figures reveal a snapshot of the situation on September 1 last year but council funds are going to be squeezed further and recruiting social workers remains a difficult task.
And while vulnerable children wait to be allocated a social worker, it is impossible to know whether or not they are at serious risk.

Hidden Killer in our Schools – UPDATE

Fresh fears are raised today about the way schools are protecting teachers and pupils from potentially-deadly exposure to asbestos.
The leading authority on asbestos, the Asbestos Training and Consultancy Association, took a snapshot of 16 UK schools and found that none was meeting health and safety rules on managing the substance.
It reports: “All of the schools inspected contained asbestos with the majority being of an age and type that would be expected to contain considerable amounts.
“None of the sixteen schools were found to be fully compliant with HSE guidance and only four could be said to have an adequate standard of asbestos management. The majority had unacceptable standards which were either ineffective or unworkable and with the potential to cause a contamination or exposure incident.
“In one school the system of asbestos management was virtually non-existent despite the fact that there was a significant amount of asbestos known to be present.”
According to the chairman of ATAC John O’Sullivan: “These are not minor problems that have crept in over recent years; rather they are fundamental problems that are endemic in schools in the UK.”
And leading campaigner Michael Lees, whose wife contracted mesothelioma as a teacher and died in 2000, said: “The Government’s policy of managing asbestos in schools has failed, for this report is but further evidence of the appalling standards of asbestos managements in many schools.
“It is unacceptable that in the 21st Century a civilised society has failed to implement measures that protect the most vulnerable people in that society – our children.”
Last year What Is Wales? investigated concerns about asbestos in Welsh schools. Read the report here.

The death of Dr David Kelly

The UK Government yesterday claimed that the post mortem examination report into the death of biological weapons expert Dr David Kelly was being kept secret to protect his family.
Campaigning MP Norman Baker asked Justice Minister Michael Wills who had made the decision that medical reports and photographs connected to the death of Dr Kelly should not be closed for 70 years.
He also asked on what legal basis the decision was made.
Mr Wills told him: “No determination has been made that the medical reports and photographs connected to the death of Dr. David Kelly should be closed for 70 years.
“Rather, Lord Hutton noted in his statement on 26 January that he had requested that the post mortem examination report relating to Dr. Kelly not be disclosed for 70 years in view of the distress that could be caused to Dr. Kelly’s wife and daughters.
“The Ministry of Justice is now considering the most appropriate course of action. The options available will need to be considered carefully.”
Rhondda-born Dr Kelly became caught up in media allegations that 10 Downing Street had interfered with an intelligence report ahead of the invasion of Iraq.
On July 17, 2003, after two days of a grilling by MPs, Dr Kelly left his home in the Oxfordshire village of Southmoor and went for a walk. His body was found in woods nearby the following day. There was a knife at the scene and a cut to his left wrist.
The official line taken by the 2004 Hutton report is that Dr Kelly took his own life. But there’s still been no inquest, the usual procedure in sudden or violent deaths. A group of doctors has raised objections about Lord Hutton’s conclusions.
Last September, for a programme called Wales This Week: The Welsh Connection, I interviewed a friend of Dr Kelly’s, Welsh author and security expert Gordon Thomas.
He also disagrees with Lord Hutton.
“Twelve or thirteen doctors are saying he almost certainly was murdered,” said Thomas. “I don’t believe he committed suicide but I don’t know for certain who murdered him.”
He called for a full inquest into Dr Kelly’s death.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office, which deals with MI5 and MI6, told me at the time it was “long-standing government policy not to comment on intelligence issues”.

What price the McKinsey report?

The NHS in Wales is to come under the scrutiny of management consultants McKinsey and Co, it was revealed today.
This is the same company which early this year was employed by the UK government to find out what changes could be made to the NHS in England.
McKinsey and Co recommended slashing 137,000 jobs in England – a suggestion that was then rejected out-right by the UK Health Minister Mike O’Brien.
WAG stresses that the terms of reference agreed with McKinsey and Co “states that there will be no compulsory redundancies.”
The health union Unison today said WAG’s deal with McKinsey and Co – which has been asked to develop a five-year “strategic plan” for the Welsh NHS – is a complete waste of money.
But how much money will be spent on the consultants exactly?
When the English NHS report turned out to be useless, the UK government refused to say how much it had paid the firm.
“It was part of existing work that McKinsey was doing for the department,” a Department of Health spokesman said at the time. “There isn’t a breakdown of the individual cost of the report.”
Will the Welsh Assembly Government be more forthcoming?
Er, no.
While it expects “the cost of hiring McKinsey to be outweighed by the efficiency gains we will realise over the next five years”, it won’t say how much it is costing.
“Due to commercial sensitivity, we are unable to provide details of the value of the contract,” a WAG spokesperson told me.

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