I know that all members are saddened and appalled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, causing a devastating humanitarian crisis that is unfolding, daily, live on our television screens.
The people of Bridgend County Borough and this Council continues to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine as they bravely resist Putin’s armed forces.
As an area which already provides a home for both Russian and Ukrainian nationals, we stand together with our Ukrainian neighbours, and cannot imagine how they are feeling and coping, not knowing if their loved ones in Ukraine are safe and will survive the bombs and shells.
We also value and support our Russian residents who, like us, have condemned the illegal un-provoked aggression instigated by President Putin and continue to stand with Ukraine.
Just as Wales is a nation of sanctuary, so is Bridgend County Borough a place of sanctuary, and it has been heartening to see our local communities coming together to offer their support to the people of Ukraine with their messages, prayers and donations of money, medicine and other essential items.
An emotional public vigil took place at Dunraven Place in Bridgend town centre last Friday and was very well supported with very moving contributions from Ukrainians living in Wales, A second vigil is set to take place at Maesteg market square this Saturday 12 March at 10.00am.
Numerous local communities are organising their own collections for food, medicines and other essential items, and the Bridgend Association of Voluntary Organisations has been accepting drop-off donations of toiletries, personal hygiene and medical items at its community hub.
Alternatively, and this is the most effective way to help, people can donate funds to the Disasters Emergency Committee so that items can be purchased for Ukraine without the need to transport them from the UK. Our people have shown their generosity, kindness and willingness to act even offering their own homes for the refugees fleeing the terror of war. We need the UK government to match the people’s commitment.
Last week all Council Leaders in Wales through the Welsh Local Government Association met with Welsh Government Ministers to discuss our joint response to the humanitarian crisis in the country that grows by the day. Leaders confirmed that all local councils in Wales are ready to do whatever we can to help those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine and are making preparations, however our preparations are limited, as we have not received the information we urgently need from UK Government.
Over the weekend our WLGA Leader, Andrew Morgan wrote to the Prime Minister about the conflict, and this week as Presiding Officer together with all Group Leaders in a unanimous cross-party response reiterated the call for the UK Government to provide much more clarity and act with far greater urgency in responding to the refugee crisis. We have called for the current restrictive and bureaucratic visa scheme to be scrapped and scrapped now to enable those people trying to escape the war in Ukraine to come to Wales and find a safe place as easily and as quickly as possible.
Our European neighbours have moved at great speed, streamlining processes and rules and have opened their doors, opened their borders, open their homes to Ukrainian refugees. The UK Government should do the same and do it now. We will be ready when it does.
As we approach the second anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic in Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford has announced that major changes to coronavirus restrictions will be made later this month.
Introduced as a result of high vaccination rates and low infection levels, the changes will mean that from 28 March, local residents will no longer need to wear face coverings in most places or practice self-isolation.
While businesses and employers will remain subject to health and safety laws, they will no longer be legally required to carry out specific covid risk assessments, or to take reasonable prevention measures.
Schools will continue to operate using the national framework and will be able to determine their own procedures for the use of face coverings in indoor communal areas.
The routine use of PCR tests for the general public will end, and mobile testing sites will be gradually shut down in the run-up to this.
Testing will remain in place for people admitted to hospital, care home residents, prisoners with symptoms and health and social care staff.
Lateral flow tests will also continue to be available for anyone with symptoms and will be free to obtain.
These changes represent the efforts that people have made in coming together as a single community and doing all that we can to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
While this does not mean that the pandemic is over, it is a welcome return to normality.
Finally, we have received some positive news which I would like to share with members.
Bridgend County Borough Council has now been officially recognised as a Real Living Wage accredited employer by the Living Wage Foundation, an organisation which uses wider cost of living factors to calculate more realistic hourly rates of pay for people aged 23 and over.
Intended to provide employers with a voluntary benchmark so that staff can earn a wage they can live on, the Living Wage Foundation estimates that almost a fifth of all workers in Wales currently earn less than they need to get by, and that around 223,000 jobs pay less than the real Living Wage.
Employers who sign up to the Real Living Wage agree to pay their staff a minimum of £9.90 an hour instead of the £8.91 national rate.
While this council first made a commitment towards paying the Real Living Wage more than two years ago, gaining official accreditation sends a signal to prospective employees that we are a responsible employer.
The accreditation follows a great deal of hard work carried out alongside Cynnal Cymru.
It reflects our desire to improve terms and conditions, and to ensure that staff are treated properly for delivering important public services, often to the most vulnerable members of the community.
By leading by example, we are encouraging our contractors and suppliers to also pay the Real Living Wage in line with our commitments under the Ethical Employment in Supply Chains Code of Practice.
I am sure that Members will want to join me in congratulating everyone who has helped the council to gain this accreditation.
The Group Leader – Independent Alliance advised that he would like to associate the Group with the words of the Leader in providing our unified support in solidarity with the people of Ukraine as they suffer this brutal and unprovoked Russian incursion into their independent democratic nation.
We must condemn the actions of President Putin in the strongest of terms but also support the bravery of those Russian people who have had the moral decency to call him out on his inhumanity.
I would also like to congratulate all of the community leaders including Cllr. David White and others for their work in arranging the vigil which took place last week in Bridgend and say thank you to all of those residents who have shown such kindness in generously donating essential supplies through the Disasters Emergency Committee and other charities such as the British Red Cross.
The scenes from Ukraine have been heart-breaking which makes the UK Government’s dithering and bureaucracy in Calais all the more shameful as we witness the effective closure of our borders to Ukrainian people in their hour of need while innocent people die in their homeland.
I would urge us as “One Council” to compel the UK Government to make every effort to relax immigration conditions immediately and lead the world (rather than follow) when it comes to receiving Ukrainian refugees fleeing persecution, as well as providing more humanitarian support to the courageous and defiant people who remain in Ukraine, demonstrating incredible resolve.
If the UK Government does eventually step up to the plate, we could see many thousands of refugees landing in Cardiff so it would be useful if an accurate assessment could be made of how many Ukrainian refugees we can take and ensure that we in Bridgend County Borough are in a position to lead Wales in this effort. Foreign Office Civil servants and officers have learned a lot by developing skills and networks in supporting Afghans who have come to Bridgend which could be put to good use in supporting Ukrainians seeking safety from persecution. I also support the Leader in his assurances that we will do all we can to support the existing but limited Ukrainian diaspora here in the County Borough.
We are all standing with Ukraine now and to paraphrase the Ukrainian National Anthem: “Ukraine has not yet died, nor her glory, nor her freedom. Fate shall smile on her once more. Her enemies will vanish, like the dew in the sun, and she too shall rule, in a free land of her own.”
The Group Leader – Llynfi Independents stated that he wished to associate himself and members of his group with the comments and sentiments of the Leader.
In doing so, we recognised a deep unity of purpose not just here in Bridgend, or Wales, or the UK, but globally. That purpose being support for and solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
I was heartened to attend the vigil in Bridgend town centre on Friday evening where at least a couple of hundred people packed the pavements to stand side by side with our Ukrainian neighbours. I’m confident of a similar level of support in Maesteg this coming Saturday morning.
From war emerges both the worst of humanity, but the best of it too, and I’ve received phone calls and messages from residents in my ward over the last few days keen to host Ukrainian refugees in their own homes. That speaks volumes as to the welcoming communities that make up our County Borough.
That sentiment unfortunately meets barriers when you consider the woefully inadequate and seemingly indifferent response of the UK Government, we are the embarrassment of Western Europe where sanctuary is being offered to refugees with open arms.
But let us not forget the many millions of Russians for whom this war is the antithesis of their beliefs and, for whom, the economic consequences in particular will be dire.
History looks perilously close to repeating itself in Eastern Europe, but as we hope and pray for further diplomatic efforts and a de-escalation of the war, I am proud to be a member of a Council that stands ready to act in the interests of humanity and compassion as we have done with Afghan and Syrian refugees in the not too distant past.
The above sentiments were echoed by both the Leaders of the Conservative and Plaid Cymru groups.