Thank you for the opportunity to bring the amazing work Guide Dogs Cyrmu do for blind or partially sighted Welsh people to the light. Before I start, I would like to place on the record my thanks to Guide Dogs Cymru for the assistance that I have had in putting together this debate.
The aims for the debate this afternoon are to raise awareness of the challenges facing blind and partially sighted people, secondly to outline the services and campaigns run by Guide Dogs Cymru and thirdly to call on the Welsh Government to consider to do more to support this organisation and people in Wales that experience sight loss.
I have chosen this topic because an event held in the Oriel on 7 October 2014 gave me a great opportunity to learn more about the difficulties and dangers blind and partially sighted people face when negotiating barriers in our streets. I was impressed to hear the personal experience and stories of guide dogs owners, how much support they received from Guide Dogs Cymru and how having a guide dog changed their lives in a positive way, offering them more independency and a chance to a life closer to normal.
This debate is important to all of us in this Chamber. The Royal National Institute for Blind People’s Chief Executive Lesley-Anne Alexander said “Every 15 minutes someone in the UK starts to lose their sight, but people do not always get even basic emotional and practical support at this critical time. No one should have to face the prospect alone or without the support they need to help them through the situation”. There are around 100,000 people in Wales living with sight loss that need our attention, and over the next 25 years the number of people with sight loss is expected to double. This means that we all have constituents who struggle with sight loss and we can’t ignore them or fail them.
The guide dog story in Wales began in the mid-1930s when blinded war veteran Thomas ap Rhys from Bangor became the first Welsh guide dog owner. It is particularly poignant this month that I am able to recount that Thomas was blinded by mustard gas in the First World War in 1917. Thomas was provided with 5 guide dogs during his lifetime. There have been great changes since Thomas was being guided regularly along Bangor Pier in those early pioneering days.Today there are more than 250 guide dog owners in Wales and nearly 4,700 guide dog owners in the UK.
If you are blind or partially sighted a guide dog could change your life. Losing sight can happen at any age and, in their attempt to offer support to all people that suffer from partly or total sight loss, Guide Dogs Cymru extended their activity and now are able to work with children and young people under the age of 16. You don’t need to have lost all your sight –most people who own a guide dog still have some vision. Guide Dogs Cymru provide all the essential equipment and, if more support is needed, they cover food and veterinary costs to make sure that the guide dog owner doesn’t feel his companion as a burden. The guide dog service receives no government funding and depends entirely upon public support. It costs £5 per day to support each working guide dog partnership. The lifetime cost of a guide dog is around £50,000. It may be a high cost, but one that has an incalculable payback.
Since Thomas first took to the streets of Bangor in the1930s Guide Dogs has trained and partnered over 30,000 guide dogs. Others require different support and help and Guide Dogs Cymru is continuing to develop other services for those for whom a guide dog is not the answer. “My Guide” is one of the programmes that match a person who is blind or partly sighted with a trained volunteer. The volunteer guides the person who is blind or partly blind so that they can reach their mobility goals, from a visit to the doctor to a walk in the park.
Guide Dogs Cymru’s My Guide volunteers are specially trained to help people get out and about with confidence. They work with local organisations, businesses, community groups and members of the public, equipping them with the skills and understanding to become effective sighted guides. Guide Dogs Cymru work with people to understand what they need to do, and will match them with a volunteer who can help them to go out regularly. My Guide is available to anyone over 18 who is blind or partially sighted and who wants to get out and about, whether or not they want to have a guide dog. It can also support guide dog owners at times when their dog is unable to work. In Wales this year 30 My Guide partnerships have been created.
Blind Children UK Cymru (formerly The National Blind Children’s Society) is now part of the Guide Dogs group, which gave Guide Dogs Cymru unprecedented opportunities to expand their services and enable children with sight loss to learn the skills of independent mobility and reach their potential as adults who can play an active role in society. During 2013, across the UK, they supported 1,210 children and young people and their families. It is early days in Wales but Guide Dogs Cymru has already recruited 4 full time staff to take forward a range of children’s services including providing practical and emotional support to blind and partially sighted children and their families.
Buddy dogs service was launched in full in January 2012 and matches specially selected dogs and place them with a school, organisation or family environment for the benefit of children and young people that are blind or partly sighted. Buddy Dogs started their lives as potential guide dogs, but they proved themselves better on improving the quality of life of blind and partly sighted people, enhancing their confidence and self-esteem and improving their communication and mobility skills, rather than being mobility assistance dogs. Buddy Dogs can also help a young person counter the isolation and depression that is often associated with sight loss. In 2014 3 buddy dogs have been placed in Wales.
But Guide Dogs is not resting on its laurels. Earlier this month they launched a new project ‘Cities Unlocked’, a partnership between Microsoft, Guide Dogs and Future Cities Catapult which uses new technology to assist getting around in towns and cities.
All these services give people the tools to be mobile which alleviates social isolation and promotes wellbeing. Guide Dogs Cymru welcomed the publication of the Wales Eye Care Delivery Plan in 2013 but know how important it is that there is no slippage in the continued provision of statutory intervention for both rehabilitation and habilitation particularly for young children. Protecting levels of this support means that people with sight loss can gain independence which will reduce pressure on caring services.
Alongside direct service delivery Guide Dogs Cymru campaigns passionately on issues that affect the independence and mobility of people with sight loss.
We will all remember the successful “dangerous dogs” campaign that Guide Dogs Cymru ran for many years that culminated in the UK Government changing the law earlier this year. Since the law was changed there have already been two successful prosecutions in North Wales. In addition Guide Dogs has recently agreed a new service level agreement with police forces in England and Wales. The agreement shapes the way police officers respond to reports of attacks on guide dogs.
Guide Dogs Cymru want to ensure public transport in Wales enables blind and partially sighted people to get around in the way they want to. They are lobbying for legislation that will oblige buses to announce the next stop and final destination– something that would be a big benefit for blind and partially sighted people, the elderly and anyone on an unfamiliar route. Following much lobbying a number of bus operators in Wales, including Newport Transport, Cardiff Bus and Arriva Buses Wales, have introduced audio announcements. I call on the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport to support the improvements that will make public transport more accessible to the Welsh people that are suffering from partial or total loss of sight.
Guide Dogs Cymru want improvements to towns and street design that will give blind and partially sighted people the same access as everyone else. They work with local councils and street designers – and encourage everyone to make their streets inclusive for all. They have recently been dealing with problems with Ceredigion and Newport Councils on the design of their new bus stations. They are also working very hard to ensure that the new Active Travel Design Guidance is clear, unambiguous and achievable in relation to the advice it contains about protecting vulnerable pedestrians from the dangers posed by shared space schemes.
I know that the Minister for Natural Resources is also aware that Guide Dogs Cymru and many other Welsh charities, that support disabled people, are deeply worried about the proposal in the Planning Bill to remove the mandatory requirement for design and access statements. I have no doubt that members of the Environment and Sustainability Committee, who are currently scrutinizing the Planning Bill, will be very mindful that there are no unintended consequences likely to arise as the result of the Bill.
Another big challenge that blind or partly sighted people is parking on pavements. This creates real dangers for blind and partially sighted people. Guide Dogs Cymru has called for a new UK-wide law on pavement parking in a response to a UK Government consultation. Guide Dogs Cymru wants to bring Wales into line with Greater London where pavement parking is prohibited except in areas where it is expressly permitted.
Parking on pavements can result in blind and partially sighted people injuring themselves by walking into the car. It may also force people to walk out into the road, which is very dangerous if they are unable to see oncoming traffic or if their return to the kerb is obstructed by a line of cars.
I will finish by acknowledging what a wonderful job volunteers and dogs do as part of Guide Dogs Cymru’s work. They truly support blind and partly sighted people in every constituency in Wales and they couldn’t achieve all positive outcomes if there wouldn’t have been help from the community. I, you, everyone in this chamber can help Guide Dogs Cymru reach more people and change their lives. I hope that the Welsh Government will consider if there is any support they can offer to Guide Dogs Cymru and the people of Wales with sight loss and I would be happy to see all of us as representatives of our constituencies, get involved and help blind and partly sighted people to have a normal life.