Interview with Cardiff Central’s Jenny Rathbone AM

Prifysgol: Rathbone is a keen supporter of Cardiff University's research work. Source: Jenny Rathbone

By Lowri Pitcher

Jenny Rathbone AM is a Labour Party politician who was elected to the Welsh Assembly in 2011. The seat had been held by the Liberal Democrats since the turn of the millenium until Labour won the seat in 2011, Jenny has since increased her majority from an initial 38 votes to 817 in the 2016 Assembly elections.

As well as representing her constituents, Jenny is passionate about delivering the Well-Being of Future Generations Act of 2015, which seeks to ensure that public services in Wales are delivering sustainable services long into the future. She also sits on several committees: the Equality, Local Government, and Communities Committee; the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee and the External Affairs (Brexit) Committee.

Read our interview with Jenny below:

Can you tell me about the work you have done, and the work that Welsh Labour is currently doing to resolve issues facing students?
I chair the cross party group on womens’ health, we’ve done quite a bit of work on abortion and contraception, both of which are really imporant issues for students. It’s really important that people have quicker access to the services they need both to ensure that they are having safe sex and also if things go wrong, where they can go to get quick advice and medical help. If we are advocating for people to have safe sex we have to make sure we have the services available to enable people to access them.

What are some of the issues you are planning on working on in the future?
I’m about to launch a charter for student mental health which I’m hoping that all Assembly Members except for ministers, who are not allowed to sign, will sign. There has been a huge increase in the number of students declaring that they have problems with their mental health and therefore we have to ensure that the services are there because ultimately this can be a very dangerous situation.

We have to ensure that students know how to keep themselves well; if they never eat anything other than junk food and always go to bed late and get up without getting a proper night’s sleep this is not going to help their mental health, it’s going to make then feel depressed. All of these things are really important and it’s excellent to see how many societies there are [in the Students Union] that are supporting and promoting good physical and mental health.

You are quite supportive of Extinction Rebellion, a group which a lot of students are interested by. What do you think about that group, from their tactics of arrestation to holding demonstrations that block the streets, as has been seen in Cardiff recently?
I don’t think it was terribly clever to block the buses going through because people who use buses are doing the right thing, therefore why are we inconveniencing them? I think they need to think much more carefully about what they’re trying to achieve here. Surely, their message is that we need to have people leaving their cars at home for short journeys and if we’re blocking the buses, that’s not a good message.

We need to ensure that students in particular who, in the main, are physically healthy people, should be either walking or using a bike to get around for nearly everything. Most of you live in the lowland of my constituency, so you could be walking or cycling. Why anybody would bring a car to Cardiff is completely incomprehensible to me.

If you need to rent a car in order to go off for a weekend etc then those services are available. But don’t bring a car which will clog up the streets, I think that’s one message to students.

The other is that we really need to tread more lightly on this earth otherwise there isn’t going to be much for you to inherit. We have the third best recycling rates in the world but we need to do even better, we need to move towards a zero carbon Wales and that means we need to think about not creating food waste. Do not buy things that you are not going to eat, do not be taken in by the ‘buy one get one free’ deals that the supermarkets offer. Think about what you’re going to be cooking, cook rather than buying processed which is full of all the wrong things, loads of processed foods are full of fat and salt or sugar – they’ll kill you. They’re almost a recipe for diabetes type 2. Don’t do it.

Extinction Rebellion advocates for people to get arrested in order to change the system and make authorities pay attention, is it wise to advocate for a group where if students were to get arrested it could damage their future?
Students would be wise to consider whether they really want to get a criminal record and they certainly shouldn’t get involved in damaging property and certainly not anything that can physically hurt somebody.

Last winter we saw quite a number of tents for the homeless in Cardiff which caused quite a lot of controversy, what have you and Welsh Labour done about this?
It’s a huge problem, some of which is beyond the control of the National Assembly and Welsh Government. The Universal Credit system is designed to make some people homeless because the payments aren’t arriving on time and people cannot predict the amount of money they’re going to get from one month to the next so that is definitely one of the things fuelling the housing crisis.

There are also other issues that contribute to people becoming homeless and that is the mental wellbeing of people who become addicted to one thing or another. It affects their ability to manage their money, leaving them not paying their rent and then they get evicted. The First Minister was really clear on this we need to ensure homelessness has to be a rare event and is not repeated. We must instantly have the services in place to ensure people are supported into Housing First. So if someone has an addiction problem, it isn’t a solution to just give them another property as they will become homeless again, we have to ensure they are housed safely and that we then support them to get over the causes of becoming homeless.

Cardiff Council is doing a hugely fantastic job to ensure that people living on the streets come in, we have people going out at least three nights a week to talk to people living on the streets and urging them to come inside and to have their problems dealt with. Living on the streets is dangerous, you can get assaulted and it’s bad for those with mental health issues. The stats on life expectancy if homeless is scary.

We have to ensure cooperation between the National Assembly and local authorities, we are also working closely with all other voluntary and community organisations such as the Huggard and the Wallich; as well as many other services feeding homeless people and driving vans around at night. We can’t have all the homeless of Wales or the UK coming to Cardiff just because we offer good services. We have to have the power to say to somebody, actually you would be better off going back to the community you live in. We will pay for people to return to the place they become disconnected from and ensure they get the services they need there.

If there are tents out on the streets, is it going to be a council policy to try and get rid of tents?
No certainly not, that’s really dangerous, that’s ridiculous. We are trying to encourage people to use the support services, but in some cases some people absolutely refuse. I talk regularly to people on the street and ask why they are homeless, why they are living on the street. They say that they are about to get a house in two weeks, but we tell them that they could be in a hostel in the meantime while the flat becomes available.

A lot of voters in South Wales vote Labour but also feel very passionately about delivering Brexit so do you think that that voter confidence in you and your party will be lower in the next assembly election or general election?
I think we have to be clear that Labour is the only party offering a People’s Vote. I find it extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats are saying they will simply revoke Article 50 before having a referendum. You can win power in a UK election or assembly election with a mere 35% of the vote but in a referendum need at least 50% so it would be extremely dangerous for the democratic discourse in our society if we don’t give people another opportunity to tell us what they want, we have to say if you want to leave, this is the best deal that we have been able to negotiate otherwise choose to stay. People themselves have to make that decision, it isn’t wise to say we will simply decide on your behalf.

During the most recent election you increased your majority but the Liberal Democrats still closely follow you, given the Lib Dems’ clear Brexit policy compared to Labour’s somewhat ambiguous stance, what must you do to make sure you’re safe in the next election?
Welsh Labour has a really clear policy, campaign for a referendum and to recommend remain in the event of a referendum. I appreciate that if people read the newspapers they are mainly written in London and the nuances of devolution pass most papers by. The national Labour Party position is, if you want to have a choice on whether or not we remain in the EU or whether we go for a negotiated deal then Labour is the only party that will give you that option.

Do you think there will be a general election?
I have no idea, there certainly will not be a general election until the Labour Party is certain that Boris Johnson will not crash us out of the EU. Jeremy Corbyn has been absolutely clear that we cannot go for a vote of no confidence until we are sure we will not crash out of the EU which would be simply catastrophic for Wales. We cannot be advocating that. After we’ve ensured we either have a deal or extension there may be a general election. Personally I’d prefer a referendum to get the Brexit issue resolved and then to go for a general election but that may not happen between now and 2021, therefore it is perfectly possible we’ll still be discussing this in the next assembly election.

Going back to the Charter on student mental health and the increase in mental health issues among students, who do you think that is?
Students are facing a lot of pressure while at university, by coming to university most students are incurring huge amount of debt, that isn’t the case if you are a Welsh student, but if you’re an English student, the cost of going to uni is really significant.

There is pressure on students to ensure they use their university stay wisely and then achieve the grades that they are going to need to get a job at the end of it. This has really taken away some of the purposes of education, which is to make people into better citizens. The wider benefits of education are slightly lost in this marketised version of education.

I think social media puts huge pressure on young people to look like a perfected image of themselves, I think that there’s no question that bullying goes on on social media. I think all of that is very worrying and we need to educate pupils to simply turn it off. You do not have to be online all the time. There are also other online risks that students face, online gambling is a massive problem not spoken about, gambling addiction is rising up the agenda.

There are criminal gangs targeting students which I have tweeted about. They are targeting students on their initial nights out, people get too drunk they don’t understand what’s going on and then they get photographed in compromising positions and then they are blackmailed. That is a massive issue, and people need to say no. If you get targeted by someone trying to blackmail you, you must act, either go to your students unions or the revenge porn helpline who will help you combat these criminal gangs because paying them money will not make the problem go away, they will simply come back to haunt you 10 or 20years later.

I want to make a plea to any students living in Cardiff Central have an issue with any of the public services they use, it’s nearly always a national assembly responsibility and you need to come to me.

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