Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd13/12/2016
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call the National Assembly to order.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question, Gareth Bennett.
Alleviating Road Traffic Congestion in South Wales Central
1. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to alleviate road traffic congestion in South Wales Central? OAQ(5)0344(FM)
Well, sustainably improving infrastructure and transport links, reducing journey times and increasing transport choice, and focusing on the safety and reliability of the road network are priorities for this Government.
I thank the First Minister for his answer. As you will no doubt be aware, there are major housing developments planned for the edges of Cardiff, which will, undoubtedly, increase road traffic congestion in the next few years. Of course, we’re hopeful that the south Wales metro will eventually arrive. But, in the medium term, are there any steps that the Government here could take to alleviate any potential increases in road congestion, which could possibly turn Cardiff into what, increasingly, road users are saying is a glorified car park?
Well, it’s a matter, of course, for the local authority to ensure that, when there is a development, section 106 is used to its fullest extent and that the community infrastructure levy can be used in order to make sure that infrastructure can be provided where there is development. And I’d expect any local authority in Wales to be able to do that. And, of course, the metro, in time, will be able to extend its reach to parts of the city and, indeed, beyond, where there is no heavy rail link and where light rail, for example, would make perfect sense in terms of moving people around.
Does the First Minister agree that the completion of the cross-Valley link road in Mountain Ash will reduce congestion in this particular part of South Wales Central and, moreover, that it will play an important part in assisting the two-way flow of capital and labour in future economic schemes such as the Cardiff capital region?
Yes, I do. Transport links are important for two reasons, as the Member said—firstly, to enable people to get to work more quickly, but, also, to enable investment to flow more easily to communities where investment has been hard to attract in years gone by. So, for me, schemes like the metro, like the cross-Valley link, are important schemes in ensuring that people and investment can move more freely around.
First Minister, in Europe, 460,000 people die prematurely each year from air pollution. Worldwide, the figure is 6.5 million. In Wales, thousands die every year, and the World Health Organization lists Cardiff as one of the worst areas for air pollution. Now, Labour’s plans for Cardiff include putting 10,000 extra cars on the roads. So, how is this consistent with the goals of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, taking into account that those 10,000 extra cars will breathe poisonous fumes all over my constituents?
Well, I fully expect, as I said earlier on, that any development should include the maximum use of section 106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy in order to make sure that sustainable transport links are put in place to those developments. It is correct to say that the days when development was driven entirely by the car have come to an end, and it’s important that all local authorities in Wales are able to, or do, look at sustainable transport options, as development occurs.
First Minister, I’d invite you to walk through Cogan if you want to really experience poor air quality—it’s quite astonishingly bad there. I walk through Cogan quite frequently. It’s clear that we need to reduce the number of needless journeys, or journeys that are not shared—so, you know, just one occupant driving the car. There are many quick wins we can gain, and that ought to be the other half of our active travel strategy. We’ve got a good law; we need to start to implement it.
Well, firstly, this is a multi-pronged approach. Where there are immense traffic problems that cannot be resolved through public transport, they need to be dealt with. The M4 is such an issue. But we can’t rely on car-based transport forever. When the franchise transfers to the Welsh Government, we want to make sure that we have better-quality rolling stock on Cardiff suburban lines, the development of the metro, more light rail, in years to come, so that communities that have perhaps lost their links years ago to the heavy rail network are reconnected via the light rail network.
When it comes to cycling, we are very, very keen to make sure that more cities see cycling not just as a recreation but as a mode of transport. Cardiff has a network of cycle routes—they’re not all connected. Other towns and cities don’t do so well. It’s important for many cyclists that they’re not in the same lanes as traffic—their confidence isn’t strong enough for them to do that. So, we must do more through active travel, as the Member says, to make sure that all modes of sustainable transport are promoted.
2. When did the First Minister last meet with the Prime Minister to discuss constitutional developments in Wales? OAQ(5)0330(FM)[W]
I met her at the Joint Ministerial Committee on 24 October, and many things were discussed at that time.
Could the First Minister now give this National Assembly an assurance that there will be no diminution in its legal powers due to the exceptions to the Wales Bill, the so-called Brexit process or the unconstitutional questions posed by some Conservative Members of Parliament?
In terms of the Brexit process, there are two things that are vital here, the first of which is no diminution in powers for this institution and, of course, ensuring that the powers that reside in Brussels now are transferred to this institution and to the people of Wales. Those are the principles that we continue to pursue through the discussions that we’re having with the UK Government.
May I start by thanking the First Minister for continuing the negotiations between his party and Plaid Cymru on the constitutional future of Wales, and specifically for the meeting that we had yesterday? We look forward, of course, to seeing the amendments to the Wales Bill in the House of Lords in order to secure these processes.
I would like to raise another issue with him today, an issue related to another Parliament. The presiding officer of the Catalunyan Parliament is facing a court case in Spain for allowing a debate on the constitutional future of Catalunya—that is to say that they allowed a debate in the Catalunyan Parliament on independence. We all know that Spain is very sensitive on the issue of independence, but, in a democratic nation, as we have seen in Scotland and as we see here in Wales, a debate on the future of a nation is crucially important to demonstrate that that nation can move forward, step by step together in that process. Can you therefore raise these issues with the Westminster Government, expressing concern that the speaker of a Parliament is facing a court case for allowing a debate in that Parliament?
Could I consider that in more detail? I will do that and I will write to the Member regarding the details. I know that the situation is different in Spain. When I went to Catalunya to meet with the Catalunyan President at that time, one of the questions asked of me in the press conference was whether I had had David Cameron’s permission to go to Catalunya. I said, ‘No, and I wouldn’t expect to have permission and David wouldn’t expect me to ask for permission anyway.’ However, that is the context in Catalunya. But, could I consider the situation in more detail, and I will then write to the Member?
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders
Questions now from the party leaders and, first of all, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, before I start my questions, can I wish you the compliments of the season, and best wishes to your family over the festive period, and best wishes for the new year in particular as well?
Last week, we had the really good news about Tata Steel and the announcement of the agreement that seemed to have been reached between the unions and the company. Bearing in mind where we were this time last year, with 700 job losses announced, and then the devastating news in March that many of us in this Chamber engaged with, and right the way through the election process, it was looking rather bleak. It’s unimaginable to be in the positive territory we’re in at the moment. But there is an important caveat that the deal has to be ratified by the workers around the pension pot and the pension arrangements going forward. Are you confident that that is a deal that should be endorsed by the workers when they’re balloted on it?
Could I first of all reciprocate and wish him the season’s greetings as well, of course? He raises an important issue about Tata. Tata would not be in the position that it’s in at the moment in Wales if it wasn’t for the help that we’ve given, and not just the financial help—the £60 million package—but also the hard work put in by officials of the Welsh Government, in many, many meetings. I’ve spoken to Tata many, many times, both here and in Mumbai, and, in fairness to Tata, they are a company that listens. They are prepared, if you put up the right case, to listen and to move forward, and last week’s announcement illustrated that.
It’s a matter, of course, for the workforce as to what they do, but, if I can put it this way, it is unclear what the future would be if the deal wasn’t accepted. These are difficult times, and I think the emphasis has to be on continuing steel production in Wales, and there will be some difficult decisions around that, I understand. Nevertheless, that has to be the main objective.
I do want to push you on this, First Minister, because I do think it’s important to get a signal from you of endorsement for that deal. And in the response to my first question, you clearly haven’t given that endorsement. Rightly, you’ve pointed to the support that Welsh Government have given, and the UK Government has given as well, and also the change of direction from the Tata main board, with Ratan Tata coming back in and assuming the reins of that company. I think that’s an important development in the direction of Tata and the way it looks at steel, because the takeover of Corus was very much his takeover. But it is important that you occupy a role here in Wales as the most senior elected politician, as First Minister. That deal is on the table and it’s a relatively simple question: do you endorse the deal that’s on the table for the workers to vote on?
[Inaudible.]—yes, I endorse the deal. I think it’s a very good deal, compared particularly to where we were in the spring, when the situation was particularly bleak for steel—the heavy-end steel making in Port Talbot. And it is a tribute to all the hard work that’s been put in by many, many people that we are in a situation now where Port Talbot particularly can look forward. And certainly, I think this deal is a deal that I can certainly endorse and a deal that can provide a future for the plant.
And thank you for that unequivocal endorsement of the deal; I think that’s important to be on the record. As I said, it is the final piece of the jigsaw that does need the agreement of the workers, going forward. But what was important as well in the negotiations were the issues around business rates. Again, I appreciate the comments that you’ve made on that. That’s a very complex area, and the Government were going to engage in discussions with the European Union to see whether there was a possibility of bringing forward a more favourable business rates regime for the Tata operations, which obviously pays business rates to the tune of about £12 million. And this was a direct request to the Welsh Government as to whether it could actually help. But, also on business rates, I had hoped that today we might have had an announcement more generally on business rates here in Wales as to maybe an early Christmas present for businesses around business rate relief—as it has filled postbags of Assembly Members across this Chamber. Are you able to say whether the Government will be coming forward with an enhanced transitional relief programme for businesses here in Wales that have found themselves on the wrong end of the valuations that have gone out before Christmas, because, once we get to the other side of Christmas, many of those businesses are going to be in a very, very difficult place? So, we’d be grateful to get some clarity as to whether the Government are coming forward with an announcement to assist those businesses.
Well, this is something that we’ve been considering as part of the final budget, and an announcement will be made very soon in relation to that.
In relation to business rates at Tata, well, the package we’ve put on the table is £60 million—it’s the equivalent, effectively, of five years free of business rates. It goes beyond what we could have offered in business rates, in any event. Of course, it’s very difficult to offer business rate relief for one particular business in one particular sector without others asking why they shouldn’t have the same thing. So, what we have is a package of support that is state-aid proof, but it’s targeted particularly at Tata.
I have to say, it is important now that the UK Government doesn’t lose sight of the fact that not just Tata but many other industries are saying that energy prices are too high in the UK. So, energy-intensive industries will need to see more done in order to help them. We cannot afford to be seen as an economy where we are uncompetitive because of the price of energy. Our energy mix is very similar to many, many other countries in Europe, but because of the obscure nature of what alleges to be an energy market in the UK, it does make the UK more expensive, and more work needs to be done by the UK Government in that regard as well.
The leader of the UKIP group, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch, Lywydd. At the end of the year, it’s a time when we can look back on the last 12 months on what we’ve achieved, or not, as the case may be. And I wonder if the First Minister can, in all candour, tell us today what he thinks the greatest failure of his Government has been. Would it be in schools, where the PISA results have shown that Wales is ranked worst in the UK yet again; would it be in the health service, where half our health boards are either in special measures or targeted intervention; or would it be more widely in poverty in Wales, because, having been second from the bottom of the income table of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom when Labour came to power nearly 20 years ago, now we are actually at the bottom of the heap?
Well, we have seen poverty—household poverty—decrease in Wales, actually. We’ve just had the latest figures—the first time in many, many years. We’ve seen what’s happened with social care in England and the crisis that exists there, and we’ve seen health spending in Wales increase over the years, and we’ve seen the same with education. But he asks me a fair question, and I’ll give him a fair answer. What is the greatest failure? The greatest failure as far as this Government is concerned is to see him opposite me asking questions in this Chamber.
Well, I’m grateful for the compliment, even though it’s only implied. But, as regards education, the PISA report says that 21 per cent of students at the age of 15 can’t read well enough to participate effectively and productively in life, that 23 per cent can’t solve problems routinely faced by adults in their daily lives because they can’t count, and this is the fourth set of PISA results in which Wales has performed worse than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Wales and Scotland are the only parts of the UK to have gone backwards in the last decade. Isn’t that the real failure of his Government?
That’s not true if you compare the figures over the last three years, though we know there are challenges. I remind the leader of UKIP of what the OECD have said, and that is that Wales is on the right track, that we should stay with what we are doing, that we’re going in the right direction and we will see improvements in the future. We’re seeing it with GCSE results, we’re seeing it with A-level results. What the OECD have said is that they would not be supportive of selective education. I know that’s a major policy plank for his party, but the OECD don’t support that. They see that as making it even more difficult for children from poorer backgrounds to succeed in education. They don’t support the policy that he advocates.
We’ll return to this no doubt in due course. But without wishing to spoil the genial asperity of our weekly exchanges, can I compliment him on the style and finesse, the skill and dexterity with which he occasionally answers my questions and more often swerves around them? After many years in a similar position in politics, he compares very well with all the opponents that I’ve had across the despatch box. I wish him all the best for the next year and I hope his Government is more successful than it has been in the last.
He has, through those words, probably undermined my position amongst my own group more than any other over the past few months and years, but I’ll take his words at face value and wish him the compliments of the season as well. Of course, I’m sure that all Members look forward to us crossing swords in this Chamber for many, many months and years to come.
Arweinydd Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood.
Diolch, Lywydd. First Minister, can you tell us the difference between yourself and your UK Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, on immigration policy and specifically relating to the question of the free movement of people?
Yes. I think I’m closer to her position as leader of Plaid Cymru, actually, than any other. She and I said something very similar last week, namely that there should be freedom of movement for work. She made the point on freedom of movement to look for work within a certain amount of time. I think there’s merit in that. In fact, it’s what the European regulations actually say, if you look at them with the strictest interpretation. I don’t believe that she and I are in a very different position when it comes to freedom of movement.
Well, it seems to me that there’s very little difference between yourself and your own party leader on immigration, and it’s quite heart-warming to see the Labour Party actually united on something for once. But actually, you said last week that there is a difference between yourself and your leader, when he said that he would not play the numbers game or fan the flames on immigration, yet your comments on immigration on 9 December suggested that there was a split or major disagreement with your leader and you made out that you were on a different page to him—that you were somehow tougher on the question of immigration than he is.
First Minister, only 2.6 per cent of the entire Welsh population come from other European countries. That’s 79,000 people. You know that Wales has a low proportion of EU migrants compared to other parts of the UK. You’ve interpreted your leader’s view on immigration as playing into the hands of UKIP. But by implying there isn’t really much of an immigration problem here in Wales, it’s you that is dancing to UKIP’s tune. You will know, as well as I do, that Welsh communities need to attract and retain people to work hard and to generate tax revenue in this country and that we need workers from overseas in our health service and some sectors of the economy. So, why are you making out that we don’t? First Minister, can we now move on from perceptions and have an honest debate about immigration, public services and the economy here in Wales?
I’m surprised because, as I said earlier on, she and I have said almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the issue of freedom of movement. What she says is perfectly correct. Of course we’re reliant on workers from abroad to fill so many vacancies in the Welsh economy. That said, neither she nor I, I don’t think, can deny that the issue of immigration loomed large in the referendum. It was perception rather than reality, that much is true, given the numbers, and so, from my perspective, I don’t believe that we can say that the current system gets the wider support that it should, so we have to look at alternatives. She has made the point, and I’ve made the point, that there can be a modification of that system where there’s a freedom to move to a job or freedom to look for work in specific circumstances. I think that’s reasonable; I think the majority of the people of Wales would think that’s reasonable, and I would think they would see that as a system of freedom of movement that they could support. I really don’t see there’s much between us.
First Minister, you should be dealing in realities and not perceptions. You shouldn’t be playing along with the myths, okay? We need to have this honest debate on immigration. You shouldn’t be implying that we’ve got a problem when we don’t have a problem. There is a migration issue in Wales. We have a problem of emigration. Too many younger and skilled workers are leaving this country, and there’s also an imbalance within Wales with jobs and prosperity not spread evenly throughout this country. We’ve got no problem in attracting people here to retire and those people remain welcome here, but overall, we are facing a situation where our working-age population is set to decrease in the coming years while the retired population will increase. As well as impacting upon Welsh communities and the Welsh language, the overall situation is simply not sustainable. That’s why Plaid Cymru put forward the policy that we did on higher education during the last election to deal with the problem of emigration. In terms of solutions from Labour, you’ve offered nothing except to fuel this myth on overseas immigration—internal rows with your Labour leader in order to deflect from your own policy weaknesses. First Minister, instead of pandering to UKIP, when are we going to have a real debate about the real solutions about the real migration problem here in Wales?
I regret the fact that the leader of Plaid Cymru didn’t listen to the answers that I was giving her, answers that I thought were reasonable and not in any way hostile. [Interruption.] And now she shouts. The point that I have made is that she and I are not very far away, but she must understand—I know she understands—that perception is important, and where people believe something to be true, it’s hugely important to make sure that they see what the reality is. That was the problem in the referendum in June; people’s perception was stronger, she was right to say, than the reality of the situation. She and I have both suggested a modification of the current freedom of movement rules. We’re very close in that regard. I think that there are sensible ways forward here that don’t let loose the jackals of racism and don’t let loose a system of politics that seeks to blame others for economic ills.
She makes the point about the economy. Unemployment is very low—lower than in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It’s true to say that some communities have moved further ahead than others in terms of economic development, yet we see towns like Merthyr—Merthyr is doing very well—where there were great difficulties for many, many years after the 1980s, and we know full well that it’s important to attract investment into as many communities as possible. That’s why, of course, we have Tenneco and General Dynamics in Merthyr and TVR coming to Ebbw Vale. These are all significant investment projects that, 10, 15, 20 or 25 years ago, wouldn’t have come to Wales, but we’ve been working hard to make sure that that happens. We know that Wales is an attractive place to come and live and an attractive place to come and work, and a welcoming place, and we will continue to be an open and welcoming country whilst considering, of course, how we can make sure that the concerns of some about freedom of movement are addressed, but addressed in a sensible, rational and fair way.
The Welsh Housing Quality Standard
3. Will the First Minister make a statement on progress being made towards achieving the Welsh housing quality standard? OAQ(5)0328(FM)
All social landlords, including Swansea council, are on track to meet the standard by 2020. The latest annual statistics show that in March of this year, 79 per cent of existing social homes now meet the standard—an 8 point rise over the course of the year—and nearly 18,000 households now live in better-quality homes than in the previous year.
Thank you, First Minister. Can I congratulate the Welsh Government on the success of reaching the Welsh housing quality standard, and can I also say it’s an example of an ambitious target that has been financially supported and that has improved the lives of many, many people, including many of my constituents? But can the money currently allocated to upgrading council properties, when all of them have met the Welsh housing quality standard, be allocated to the building of new council properties?
Yes, we’re very keen to make sure that more councils are able to build council houses, and we’re interested, of course, in looking at every innovative way to increase housing supply. The 20,000 affordable homes target includes local authority on-lending to housing associations to enable them to develop. The advantage of that, of course, is that the local authority can borrow from the Public Works Loan Board at a lower rate than would be available from traditional lenders. There are examples of partnership between local authorities and housing associations as well. We’ve moved a long way from the day when local authorities couldn’t build council houses. It’s important that local authorities are able to provide for their populations and, importantly, that the accommodation that’s provided is of the best standard possible.
No-one would doubt the fact that the Welsh housing quality standard is ambitious, and I would be supportive of that. But, as Assembly Members, we continue to receive a number of complaints about social housing services, for example that work isn’t done in a timely manner, that there’s a poor response from some of the housing services in the context of the fact that it’s the winter months, and that people are waiting a long time for work to be carried out. So is there any survey that you as a Government have issued to ensure that every housing association is working effectively, to ensure that people are more content with the services that they receive in this area?
Of course. As a Government, we expect housing associations to ensure not only that they build, but that they maintain houses as well, and ensure that the houses are in a good condition. Sometimes, there are complaints. I’ve had the same thing as she has, and the complaints, in my experience, are dealt with in quite a fast way. But we are keen to ensure that the quality standards are put in place when houses are built and, of course, when they are maintained throughout the lifetime of those houses.
In 2012, which was when the standard was supposed to have been achieved by all social landlords, the Wales Audit Office said that the main shortfall in meeting the standard was in areas where tenants voted against proposals to transfer. Your then housing Minister subsequently stated that three authorities hadn’t got realistic business plans and had to resubmit new ones, which were approved by a subsequent Minister. Given that the limit set for housing-related borrowing as part of the agreement to exit the housing revenue account left an estimated borrowing headroom across all authorities of just £471 million to achieve the Welsh housing quality standard, how can that be achieved to the standard originally intended with the additional bits—wider community regeneration—when that only leaves estimated borrowing for Wrexham at £118 million—that’s good—Swansea at £74 million, but Flintshire at only £25 million under that headroom established?
We expect the affordable homes target to be met in a variety of ways, whether that’s through local authorities, through housing associations, through partnerships, of course, between the two, and other ways, to see where it’s possible to intervene in the local market to make sure that there’s a sufficient supply of housing, particularly in rural areas. All these things are under consideration, as we look at innovative ways of dealing with this issue.
But what’s important as well, of course, is, as we make sure that there are more affordable homes available, we don’t see the plug being kept out of the bath at the other end and those homes being sold. You can’t possibly reach a target of 20,000 affordable homes if you’re building on the one hand and selling with the other, which is why, of course, we’re ending the right to buy.
Transforming Rail Services
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on the pace of change needed for transforming rail services in Wales? OAQ(5)0341(FM)
Rail infrastructure is not devolved. Following years of underinvestment, we are taking steps to address this where we can through our procurement of the Wales and borders franchise and the metro. But it’s true to say that the UK Government must do more to invest in Wales or devolve power and funding so that we can.
Given that Network Rail has said that it’s going to take 28 years to bring the rail industry up to the standard required in Wales, which seems to me much too long in the light of the discourse we had about road congestion earlier on, I’m pleased to hear you mention the importance of light rail in that context. Looking at the south Wales metro, I just want to look at how light rail can run much closer together, which means that trains can slow down and accelerate much more quickly, which means that journey times from, say, Merthyr, would be reduced from over an hour to 40 minutes, which is competitive with the car. So, I want to have some understanding as to how vehemently the Welsh Government is proceeding with light rail for the south Wales metro, which, it seems to me, will deliver the outcomes that we want.
Yes, the metro will be a mixture of light rail, heavy rail and faster bus services. There will be some lines that will be more appropriate for light rail than others. I need to add at this point that we have made absolutely clear to the trade unions that if we move towards light rail in some Valleys lines, that is not a reason to cut jobs or terms and conditions. We absolutely know that it’s hugely important that those who are working on those lines now have the same terms and conditions in the future as they do now. Ken Skates is not Chris Grayling. He won’t thank me for that comparison, I don’t think, but there we are. And we are to work with the trade unions in that regard. But, of course, the advantage of light rail is its ability to extend into parts not just of Cardiff but of Valleys communities where heavy rail is not going to go because of cost and because of topography. The metro that we have foreseen is one where we have a combination of fast transport options that form part of that. We can’t wait for Network Rail to get its act together. We’ve had issues with Network Rail where it’s not clear that they actually know what the condition of the asset is, or whether there’s a proper survey or whether it has been for 25 years, but we want to make sure that we get on with the metro to serve our communities as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
First Minister, you’ll be aware of last week’s announcement by the UK transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, as you mentioned, with regard to joint management teams for rail franchises, and also that the new varsity line between Oxford and Cambridge, announced in the autumn statement, will be designed, constructed and run by a new body called East West Rail, totally separate from Network Rail. So, following that announcement, do you agree there is scope to develop a different model for railway management here in Wales by establishing a Welsh version of East West Rail, and where funding decisions around railway infrastructure would be made here in Cardiff and not in London? If so, given recent announcements, will you step up efforts in making the case to the UK Government with regard to the devolution of the management of the railways?
I think it’s pretty fair to say that we’ve been relentless in that regard. We have 9 per cent of the track. We don’t get 9 per cent of the investment. Another issue that we have been pursuing with vigour with the UK Government is the situation that currently exists in the Wales Bill where it will not be open to the Welsh Government to consider a public sector agency to run the railways, whereas the Scottish Government will be able to do that. It’s clear discrimination, bluntly, if you want my view on it. So, from our perspective, it would be far easier if the track and the operators were dealt with in the same way. The same organisation. It’s too easy for the bodies responsible for the track, Network Rail and the operators to blame each other when there are problems. It’s far easier to have an integrated system rather than the fragmented one that we have at the moment.
The Mineworkers Pension Scheme Surplus
5. Will the First Minister provide an update on efforts to secure a review of the Mineworkers Pension Scheme surplus? OAQ(5)0331(FM)
Yes. As I indicated in the Chamber last month, we do acknowledge the need for proper, safe and well-managed arrangements for this pension scheme. Pensions are not devolved, but we have pressed the UK Government on this, and we continue to do so.
I thank the First Minister for his answer. It was very pleasing that, a few weeks ago, the National Assembly unanimously passed a motion calling for a review of the MPS surplus, and also that motion mandated the Welsh Government to build alliances with regional leaders in England and with other devolved Governments to put increasing pressure on the UK Government. Can he give assurances that that mandate that he’s been provided with by the National Assembly will be furthered in the new year and that this will be a priority for his Government in 2017?
A letter was sent in June of this year to Amber Rudd. We were in contact with UK Government officials this morning. Their position is, essentially, unchanged. The difficulty is that the trustees haven’t raised any issues with the UK Government about wishing to change the current process. So, there’ll be a need to ensure that the trustees are happy with any changes as well as, of course, the UK Government.
First Minister, the Welsh Government has consistently supported the National Union of Mineworkers’s call for the surplus to be put back in the scheme for the benefit of the retired miners and coal industry workers. Mr Ken Sullivan, who has collected a petition of 8,000 names from my constituency, worked in Oakdale colliery near Blackwood for 24 years. The people of Islwyn, like my grandfather and my great-uncle, like so many in the south Wales Valleys, worked in hard and dangerous conditions, often to the detriment of their health. What further representations, then, can the Welsh Government make to the UK Tory Government in denial for them to play fair with Welsh miners?
There is a duty, I believe, on the trustees to make sure that they explain to the pension scheme’s members exactly what they are doing, so that members in the scheme feel content and feel that the scheme’s treating them fairly. So, there is an emphasis on them to do that, but we will, of course, continue to press the issue with the UK Government, as we have been doing since June, at the very least.
Steffan was right when he said that the whole Assembly in that debate has backed the Welsh Government's position on this. It is important that the former mineworkers' pensions are protected and that there are arrangements with the UK Government that are transparent and fair. What discussions have you had with the UK Government regarding the need for them to continue to guarantee the pension fund? And with regard to the surplus, it does look as though the surplus-sharing arrangements have benefited the Government more than they have the mineworkers over the last few years, so what discussions have you had on this, and have you made clear that this isn't just the Welsh Government speaking; this is the National Assembly as a whole that is making these points?
Well, those inquiries were made this morning, as I’ve said. The UK Government has taken note of the view of this National Assembly. The particular arrangements that revolve around the pension scheme mean that, yes, indeed, it's right to say that the UK Government does get the benefit of any periodic surplus in the scheme funds, and we have made the point that we believe that that surplus should be recycled back into the scheme for the benefit of its members, rather than to the UK Government.
Heathrow Rail Link/Spur
6. What recent discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding the Heathrow Rail Link/Spur? OAQ(5)0332(FM)
International connectivity via Heathrow is important to Wales’s economy. In early 2016, Network Rail consulted on plans to improve rail links to Heathrow. In response to this consultation, we welcomed the journey time reductions the proposed rail link would offer.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. As he knows, the Reading-Heathrow rail link will hugely improve access to Heathrow Airport for leisure and business travellers from south Wales and the south-west, and the west midlands and many other areas. It will reduce travel times down to around 26 minutes, reduce carbon, and transport more people on to rail and away from private transport. But it's also true that 1.3 million people have jobs with a foreign-owned firm that are facilitated through travel through Heathrow, and 8.8 per cent of those live in Wales—it's the biggest proportion of any part of the UK. So, in future discussions with the Prime Minister, but also with the Secretary of State for Transport in the UK Government, could he ram home the importance of this rail link? Regardless of Heathrow capacity expansion, this rail link, this spur, could deliver for people, for Wales, in very short order. We understand that the decision is going to be made sometime in early 2019; let's make it the right decision, because bold government is good government, as we have shown with Cardiff Airport.
Well, indeed. Heathrow is by far the busiest airport in the UK, and it'll continue to be that way. Its geography demands that it will be that way; Gatwick is just too far from most communities in the UK to get to the same level as Heathrow. But it's hugely important, building on the theme from earlier on, that people feel that there are viable and seamless public transport options for them. Rather than getting off in Reading and onto the rail-air coach in Reading, it's hugely important that people can get into Heathrow Airport in the most seamless way possible, and that will encourage more people out of their cars and, of course, will help congestion around the airport.
The expansion of Heathrow Airport is undoubtedly a major boost for trade and tourism in Wales. Now, in contrast to the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government seems to have failed to attract much of a positive boost for Wales in return for the Welsh Government's support for the expansion. In a memorandum of understanding to the Scottish Government, the Scottish Government secured 16,000 new jobs, a £200 million construction-related spend in Scotland, a £10 million route development fund, and a landing charge discount. Now, do you regret not securing a similar memorandum of understanding as your Scottish counterparts managed to achieve?
Well, we've looked at the memorandum, and I'm not sure exactly what it delivers, actually. There are words in it, but in terms of actions, it's not clear at all. I mean, it's not possible in terms of procurement to designate a certain amount of money for procurement to Scottish firms. That goes straight against the procurement rules. So, it's not entirely clear what it means. From our perspective, however, we have been working for some time with Heathrow Airport on reaching agreement with them on a statement of intent that will look at things like the supply chain, like transport, like aviation and marketing opportunities as well. The issue of landing slots is not particularly relevant to us; it is much more relevant in Scotland. That's true. But what we're exploring is the opportunity to market Wales better in Heathrow, emphasising the point, of course, that south Wales in particular is very close to Heathrow Airport and it can be a major gateway to tourism.
7. Will the First Minister make a statement on rheumatology services in Wales? OAQ(5)0338(FM)
Yes, through the development directive for arthritis and chronic musculoskeletal conditions, we continue to raise awareness and support people to reduce their risk of these conditions and, where they do occur, to assess, diagnose and provide ongoing care as locally and as quickly as possible.
Thank you. First Minister, the ‘Rheumatology in Wales: The State of Play’ report has found that referrals for diagnosis to rheumatology departments have now increased by 66 per cent since 2012, yet just 22 per cent of patients diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis were seen by a specialist within three weeks. Thirty-five per cent found it difficult to get any appointment, and 20 per cent had waited over two years to begin treatment. A significant number have now resorted to paying for a private consultant for diagnosis as a result of NHS waiting times in Wales. What immediate action will you now be taking to ensure that your health service complies with National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance and that arthritis sufferers in Wales are no longer let down by this Welsh Labour Government?
Well, I have to say, in 2015-16, where there is the latest available data, there were just under 94,000 rheumatology outpatient attendances across Wales; 24,000 were new attendances and the remainder were follow-ups; and 2,300 outpatients didn’t attend their appointment, which is never, obviously, helpful in terms of being able to organise the service.
At the end of October there were 14 people waiting over 36 weeks for an appointment, and of these, two were waiting for a first outpatient appointment, both in Cardiff and the Vale. So, yes, some people, it’s true to say from those figures, have waited longer than we would want, but the vast majority of people get seen as quickly as possible.
Bear in mind, of course, that rheumatoid arthritis is not that easy to diagnose. There are many other conditions that GPs will tend to look at first before looking at rheumatoid arthritis, before the blood tests are then conducted looking at the—I think it’s called the rheumatoid factor, as far as rheumatoid arthritis is concerned. So, it’s not that easy to diagnose as a condition, but we want to make sure that general practitioners are more aware, of course, of the need to refer and ultimately, of course, that people get treatment—well, first of all, diagnosis, because the earlier the diagnosis, the better for rheumatoid arthritis, and ultimately, of course, the right level of treatment for them.
Very often, people link arthritis with older people, but it is something that can affect people of all ages. Wales is the only nation in the UK that doesn’t have a paediatric rheumatology service, although patients from north Wales can be treated in Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool. Does the First Minister believe that Wales should be able to offer paediatric rheumatology services?
It is true that rheumatoid arthritis can strike anyone at any age. It’s not something to do with things wearing down but the body attacking itself—it is an autoimmune disease, therefore. We have to be careful here. I don’t want to see people having to come from Anglesey to Cardiff, for instance, to a national centre. So, the geography of Wales indicates to me that it’s important that people can have treatment as close as possible to their homes.
I apologise for a similar question, but, First Minister, with around 400,000 children living in south Wales, the fact that the region is still without a dedicated multidisciplinary paediatric rheumatology service is shocking. Currently, services are being provided part time by an adult rheumatologist, but there is no formal clinical network or adequate multidisciplinary input. What plans does the Government have to establish a tertiary paediatric rheumatology service in south Wales?
Much depends, of course, on the throughput of patients as to whether the unit could be specialised enough. It’s the old question we always face to be effective. But what I’ll do, both as far as the Member for Ynys Môn’s concerned and the regional Member, is to write with further details about paediatric rheumatology to explain why the situation is as it is.
Taking Wales Forward
8. How will the policies contained in the Welsh Government's "Taking Wales Forward" programme contribute to alleviating persistent poverty in Wales? OAQ(5)o326(FM)
Well, job creation, closing the education attainment gap and improving skill levels are our key priorities and they represent the most effective levers at our disposal to tackle poverty in Wales.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. I recently visited the Jamia mosque in Newport, which is the largest in Wales at the moment, with the director of the Prince’s Trust Cymru, Mr Philip Jones, to raise awareness of the work the trust does to help young people in most deprived communities to fulfil their potential in their lives. Since your Government is phasing out the Communities First programme, will you advise the Assembly what consideration you are giving to using the programmes of organisations like the Prince’s Trust Cymru, which has a proven track record of great success in alleviating persistent poverty in Wales, in meeting the Welsh Government’s anti-poverty objectives?
We’re looking at new ways of working and working with organisations that have proven experience on the ground without losing, of course, the expertise that has already been built up over the years through Communities First. It’s heartening to see that the number of households in poverty has dropped in Wales for the first time in some time. That is an indication that what we are doing in terms of enabling people to have the skills that they need for the future, in terms of attracting investment into Wales, are beginning to bear fruit.
Promoting Tourism in Wales
9. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh government's strategy to promote tourism in Wales? OAQ(5)0335(FM)
It’s now three years since the launch of the strategy for tourism 2013–20. That sets a target of 10 per cent growth in real terms in respect of overnight visitor expenditure in Wales by 2020. We are on track to exceed that growth target.
Thank you, First Minister, for that answer. Every opportunity that I have, I try to take to promote the benefits of tourism in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, particularly around our rich industrial and social history. I’ve been looking into improving signposting to some of the many attractions that the area has to offer. However, my inquiries have revealed that, since August 2013, any tourist destination located further than 10 miles from a motorway or grade-separated dual carriageway is not eligible for tourism brown signs. Signage that predates that are left unaffected.
Clearly, I recognise that there is a need to manage any proliferation of signs, but it does seem illogical to me that those attractions that are not immediately off the main highway into south Wales, i.e. the M4, which could benefit most from promotional signage, are not included, whereas those that are signed already enjoy the advantage of being located near the highway, i.e. within 10 miles. So, can I ask the First Minister to look into the possibility of revised criteria that would allow greater flexibility over the location of tourism signage, so that areas like Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney are not further disadvantaged because they are more than 10 miles away from the nearest motorway link?
In relation to signage, it’s not just the motorways, but trunk roads. So, for example, destinations up to six miles from a single carriageway or 10 miles from a grade-separated dual carriageway or motorway may be eligible for tourism signage. The A470 and the A465 are both trunk roads, so they are included in the criteria. I can say that we do encourage local authorities, and we’d encourage Merthyr, to apply to get signage for tourism attractions. That offer, of course, is still on the table.
Thank you to the First Minister.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
I have accepted an urgent question under Standing Order 12.66. I call on Mohammad Asghar to ask the urgent question.
Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s review into acutely sick patients’ care following the highly critical investigation by the Public Service Ombudsman into the care of a 93-year-old patient at the Royal Gwent Hospital? EAQ(5)0096(HWS)
Thank you for the question. In response to issues raised in the ombudsman’s ‘Out of hours’ thematic report, and some subsequent cases, arrangements for a peer review programme focusing on the management of acutely sick patients in acute hospitals will be finalised shortly. The work of the peer review will commence early in the new year.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Last week, the announcement of a review came after the publication of a highly critical ombudsman investigation into the care of a 93-year-old man who died three days after being admitted to Newport’s Royal Gwent Hospital. The report found that the man was not seen by a doctor for more than six hours on Sunday, the day before his death, and that was despite concerns about his deteriorating health and the guidelines indicating that he should have been medically reviewed within 30 minutes. This appalling lack of care also involved the failure of nurses to escalate concern about the delay, meaning antibiotics were not given in a timely manner. The undignified end to this patient’s life is disgraceful and, sadly, a case we have seen too often in our hospitals in Wales. Cabinet Secretary, we have heard warm words before, but, sadly, very little improvement in outcomes. What confidence can we have in your Government to ensure that high levels of care are delivered on weekends for patients across South Wales East and the rest of Wales, and not to have these sorts of things happening in this country again?
The Member’s question comes on the same day that the Care Quality Commission in England have indicated that no NHS trust in England is properly investigating deaths. There are challenges right across the NHS family here. What we are looking to do here in Wales is to have a proper approach to a peer review for those patients we should rightly be concerned about. One instance of this sort of care is one instance too many. The challenge for us is: how do we ensure we have a proper approach to that peer review to ensure there’s proper scrutiny, learning and, importantly, improvements within our national health service? I think it’s a sign of honesty and maturity in our system that we’ve agreed a proper peer review process. I will ensure that Members are kept up to date. The initial stage will focus on Aneurin Bevan, it will then roll out across the country, and, over the next year, I expect to be able to report back to Members on what’s been found within that peer review or what improvement actions will be taken within the national health service here in Wales.
I want to declare an interest, that my wife is employed by the NHS. The Cabinet Secretary mentioned in his previous answer the review by the Care Quality Commission in England that found that there is a failure there to learn from patient deaths and other serious errors in the system. That prevents and inhibits processes being put in place in the future, because there isn’t the culture of sharing, not just best practice, but worst practice, actually, because much more can be learnt, sometimes, from when things go wrong. I’m concerned that the public service ombudsman’s report on the failings at the Gwent has some parallels with the report from the quality care commission in England—that similar issues and similar mistakes are being repeated, often repeated in silos, with patient care suffering. Even the health board’s own investigations are identified as failing to highlight the root problems when they arise. So, what assurances can the Cabinet Secretary give patients in the Aneurin Bevan area in particular that there are efforts in place to standardise and improve the investigatory process into patient deaths and other significant mistakes in the NHS system, to make sure that those mistakes are not repeated over and over again?
I thank the Member for his question. As I indicated earlier, one instance of this sort of care and challenges in care that lead to undignified endings for individuals in Wales is one instance too many. We already have a range of actions in place. There’s been a mortality review of different case notes. We’re the first nation within the UK to undertake that approach. That is all about learning from what happened. That’s the whole point—how we learn from what happens and how we try to improve. Now, I regularly get asked questions in this place and others about what the NHS does, and I think it’s really important not to either try to claim that everything is wrong where something does go wrong. We know that when things go wrong in the health service it has a significant impact on individuals and their families. I don’t try to hide from that or that reality, but the great majority of the time, it does not go wrong. I don’t want to see these really tragic cases used to try and attack the whole health service, to try to give the impression that everything is wrong. What we need to do is understand the nature of our challenge and properly address it.
In fact, what we did was we got together the 1000 Lives Improvement programme—representatives from the medical world, nursing, ambulance and the chair of the rapid response for acute illness group to come together to design this specific peer review process to make sure that we are addressing the concerns set out by the ombudsman in his thematic report. We then can have some proper learning with real scrutiny in public—the report will be published and made available—and the improvement actions, importantly, to come from that. Always, we need to look at what we can do to improve our whole system to make sure that if you or I or one of our loved ones were in this position, we could have some reassurances it would not be the case, and we’d certainly minimise and level down the opportunity for it. We’re constantly looking for opportunities to learn and to improve.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary.
The next item on our agenda is the business statement and announcement, and I call on Jayne Hutt.
Diolch, Lywydd. I’ve no changes to report to this week’s business, and business for the first three weeks of the new term is shown on the business statement and announcement found among the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
This week, once again, in Cardiff council, we’ve seen a councillor resign. We have—[Interruption.]
Well you may well—. [Interruption.] With—
Allow the Member to be heard, please.
With the greatest of respect, I’m raising a very important issue of female politicians in this city being bullied. I’ll declare an interest, because I’m a councillor on that authority. This is the third time that I’ve raised this matter. Yet another female has resigned. There are headlines in today’s paper that she was visited at 9.30 p.m., at night, at home, and lots of other unacceptable things that have gone on. Will you please make a statement that the Welsh Government will finally take forward a survey of all female politicians in Wales and please put a timeline on it?
This is a business statement for the business of this National Assembly for Wales and for the Welsh Government, and I did respond to this question appropriately a few weeks ago.
The business Secretary will know that today I hosted an event in the Pierhead building, close to here, at our Welsh National Assembly, which highlighted the dramatic decline in species and habitats globally. There was recognition, I have to say, in that event of the good steps that the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales have supported, not least with the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and so on, but I wonder—. One of the areas that was highlighted was the issue of procurement. Indeed, it’s welcome to see that in the public sector now we’ve embedded the issue of the sustainable sourcing of fish, which is a major issue, not just globally but in the North sea, the Celtic sea and so on. I wonder whether we can find time for a statement to debate sustainable procurement, so that we can look at not only the way the public sector can lead on sustainable food sourcing, but sustainable timber sourcing, which is not just an issue of feeling good about where we’re getting timber from, but actually supporting indigenous communities on the far side of the world that otherwise will find that their habitats, their livelihoods and their communities are being denuded.
I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that question. I’m glad to hear that you had a very successful event at lunch time. I am very pleased to confirm that sustainable procurement is at the heart of our Wales procurement policy statement, which was published last year in June 2015. I think that if we look at the issue in relation to sustainable risk assessments of all our contracts and frameworks, promoting the use of sustainable MSC-certified food is crucial for that. We do encourage the use of that sustainability risk assessment across the Welsh public sector. Of course, this also applies to our new National Procurement Service food contracts, which are about sourcing sustainable fish, for example. I think this is a question also where the launch of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is also very relevant, and this dovetails into many elements of the Act in terms of sustainable procurement. I’m sure there will be an opportunity to debate or have a Government statement on this in due course.
December the third was the twenty-fifth United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities, with the theme being achieving 17 sustainable development goals for the future that we want. In this context, could I call for, ideally, a debate, or at least a statement, on this year’s objectives under the international day, which include assessing the current status of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and laying the foundations for a future of greater inclusion for persons with disabilities in Wales? I know the Welsh Government didn’t include the convention on the face of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, but it did include it in the Part 2 code of practice. Despite that, there’s clearly an understanding gap, where one local authority, for example, told me that they didn’t believe this applied to the tender process, another said it didn’t apply to employment and another said it didn’t apply to the redesign of services for people with hearing loss and deaf people, despite them saying that their independence was being taken from them. In this context, on this timely twenty-fifth anniversary, I hope you will concur that a debate or at least a statement would be merited.
I thank Mark Isherwood for that question, because it does provide us with an opportunity to remember and reflect on the fact that 3 December was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. And, of course, this is where, in fact, in responding to the previous question, there is an opportunity in Wales, I believe, in developing our code of practice, for example, for ethical procurement, where we can look particularly at these needs and issues. But I would also say that I’m very proud of the fact that the Welsh Government is very clear in terms of its strategic equality objectives, and, of course, the recent report and debate here in the Chamber highlighted what we are doing to not only assess how we are implementing the status, in terms of responding to the UN objectives for the international day, but also how we are delivering that on a day-to-day basis.
I thank the Minister.
The next item of business this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language on the Additional Learning Needs and Educational Tribunal (Wales) Bill, and I call on the Minister to make his statement—Alun Davies.
Diolch yn fawr, Lywydd. I was pleased yesterday to introduce the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Bill, with its explanatory memorandum, to the National Assembly. Reform of the current statutory framework for supporting learners with special educational needs and learning difficulties and/or disabilities has been on the agenda for over a decade. We are now making it a reality.
Nearly a quarter of children and young people in Wales will have some form of additional learning need during their education. The current legislative framework for supporting them is based on a model introduced more than 30 years ago, which is widely recognised as being no longer fit for purpose. The Bill proposes a complete overhaul of the system, which will affect nearly every early years, school and further education setting in Wales.
The Bill responds to concerns from families, who say that the current system is inefficient, bureaucratic and costly, and is not either child-centred or user-friendly. Needs are sometimes identified late, and interventions are not planned or implemented in a timely or effective way. Families say they have to battle at each stage of the process to get the right support for their child, and that they do not know where to turn for advice and information. The Bill targets directly these concerns, whilst building on what works well in the current system. It will place the learner at the heart of the process, and make the system more equitable, far simpler, and less adversarial for those involved.
The Bill will create a single statutory system to support children and young people from birth through to 25 who have additional learning needs, instead of the two separate systems currently operating. It will replace the terms ‘special educational needs’ and ‘learning difficulties and/or disabilities’ with the new term ‘additional learning needs’. It will replace the system of statementing, and create a single statutory plan—the individual development plan—to replace the existing range of statutory and non-statutory plans for learners, ensuring equity of rights regardless of the learner’s level of need or the educational setting they attend.
It will ensure the views of learners and parents are considered throughout the planning process, so that they view it as something that is done with them rather than done to them, and that the child or young person is at the centre of everything. And, finally, it will encourage better collaboration between agencies, by introducing and establishing new statutory roles in health and education, so that needs are identified early and the right support is put in place.
The Bill has, of course, already been the subject of extensive consultation. It has been informed by action research and two White Paper consultations. A draft of the Bill was published during 2015 for consultation, and was the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny by the former Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee. This has served to reinforce the legislative proposition that we have presented, and informed the development of an ambitious package of wider reforms. In response to feedback received during the consultation on the draft Bill, we have developed the legislation in some key areas, including, for example, on the role of the health service and the position of Welsh-medium support. I have no doubt at all that we will debate these issues as the Bill makes its way through the scrutiny process, but I am also confident that the Bill is robust and operationally sound—something we have key stakeholders and professionals to thank for.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
I would also like to thank professionals and partners for the role they have played in co-producing the next working draft of the additional learning needs code. An extensive programme of work has been undertaken to develop the draft that we published in September 2015. Deputy Presiding Officer, I will be making this available in February 2017, with a view to it supporting the scrutiny of the Bill. At the same time, I intend to publish for consultation options for introducing the new statutory system. There are various ways we can roll out the new system, and I want to ensure timely access to the benefits of the new approach, whilst ensuring the time frame is realistic and viable for delivery partners. So, I would like to hear their thoughts on the approach that we take.
We have been clear from the outset that we recognise that moving from the current system to the new system will be challenging. We will be asking a lot of delivery partners, but they will have our absolute support. Our additional learning needs strategic implementation group is already in place and is already working on practical approaches to the challenge of effective transition. We will also be providing a significant package of financial support. This has already begun, with a £2.1 million innovation fund in place for the next two years. I will say more on our intentions regarding the transition funding next year.
Whilst legislation provides the statutory framework and drives change, it cannot and should not be the whole story. That is why the Bill is part of a wider programme aimed at transforming the additional learning needs system to secure successful futures for all our learners. Our additional learning needs transformational programme includes a comprehensive suite of work streams aimed at delivering improvements in practice now, today, to benefit learners within the current system, a fundamental aspect of which is development of the workforce. But we also need to make the cultural and operational changes required to ensure effective implementation of the new system, including the development of a multi-agency working practice. It is important to keep in mind that these reforms are not a peripheral issue. They will directly affect a quarter of learners in Wales, and the impact will extend beyond this. Getting it right for children and young people with additional learning needs means getting it right for everyone. So, the improvements the Bill and the wider reforms will help deliver will lead to better outcomes for all of our learners.
It is also the case that delivery of the wider system reforms, such as the vision set out in ‘A curriculum for Wales’ can only happen if we have a system, and a workforce, that embraces inclusive education and delivers for every learner in every setting. This is about whole-system improvement. It is a cornerstone of our ambitious programme of educational reform in Wales. So, we will now move to a new phase with these reforms. I wish to continue the debate, but I also wish to move the debate forward. I have made clear my intention to work collaboratively and across all parties in this place today. I want a good Act, and not a quick Bill. We have a duty to deliver the best deal for our most vulnerable learners. That is our collective challenge, and I look forward to working together to deliver it. Thank you very much.
May I thank the Minister for his statement and welcome the fact that the Bill has been tabled this week, and also declare an interest, of course, as a school governor, because there are responsibilities placed on boards of governors through this Bill, of course? May I also say that I agree that getting a good Act, rather than a swift Bill, is the important thing here, although I do think that it’s about time we got to this point after many years of recognising that the current regime possibly wasn’t fit for purpose?
Plaid Cymru supports the objectives of this Bill as you’ve outlined them in your statement. The Bill, of course, was in our manifesto, and, of course, it was part of the agreement that we drew up with the Labour Party after the election in May. So, securing new legislation on additional learning needs is a priority of ours, but, of course, not just any old legislation, and we, like all other parties, will be scrutinising the Bill as it travels through this Assembly in order to make sure that we do have robust legislation that will make a real and positive difference to the education and lives of those with additional learning needs.
Now, the Bill, of course, places a duty on health bodies, and that has been the cause of some debate in terms of the previous draft Bill and so on, but, in the tabled Bill, you mention a duty to ensure a treatment or service to a child or young person when that is necessary and available, but can you give us some clarity as to whether that will be at the expense of the health service, or the school through the board of governors, or the education authority? Can you expand upon how this question of who pays will be answered in this Bill? Because there is huge pressure on school budgets, as there is across the public sector, and the concern is that this could be the cause of conflict when it comes to service provision. Is there a risk, Minister, in your view, because of the lack of resources, that the threshold for intervention or additional support will be raised continuously in order to avoid expenditure? How does the Bill tackle that risk? What is there contained within the Bill that will guard against that kind of situation arising?
Now, the Bill also, of course, creates additional learning needs co-ordinators—quite a responsibility for an individual, perhaps—and that requires a range of skills and relevant experience. You are perhaps going to tell me that that will not be too different to the current SENCOs in terms of some of those responsibilities, but, in section 54 of the Bill as tabled, you say that regulations will be made in order to make it a requirement that these co-ordinators do have designated qualifications or experience or both. Now, those regulations have yet to be drawn up, but do you anticipate a change in terms of those responsibilities as compared to the current SENCO system? Do you believe that we will need a higher level of skill, a higher level of experience, and how will that be provided if it is the case, and how will it be funded? Because teachers are concerned that, as a result of this Bill, there will be a significant burden falling upon them.
It’s good to see that there are elements that are strengthened in terms of advocacy in the Bill and the right to advice and information, and that’s certainly to be welcomed. In terms of Welsh-medium provision, and this is something that was covered in the media last night, I see in the Bill that all reasonable steps should be taken—that’s the quote—to ensure additional learning needs provision through the medium of Welsh. Now, everyone accepts, of course, that there is a shortage of practitioners in some areas and that it won’t be easily achieved, but can you expand upon your plans to ensure that the appropriate workforce will be in place, and not just in a specific language? We know that educational psychologists are few and far between, as well as a number of other disciplines, perhaps, but, particularly, how can we ensure that there are more Welsh speakers available to secure this provision? Will you perhaps consider, from the point of view of this Bill, that language is a fundamental need on the face of the Bill, and, through that, establish a right to a service or support through the medium of Welsh? It’s not just the workforce that’s important here in terms of the Welsh language, resources are also an important part of that equation: resource for diagnosis, for example, test material for dyslexia. We know that are deficiencies in terms of Welsh language provision in that area. So, how do you hope that this Bill will assist in resolving some of those challenges?
Now, the code of practice that you referred to is going to be quite crucial—almost as crucial as the Bill itself—in terms of the scrutiny process, and I am grateful that you are willing to release a draft of the additional needs code as part of the scrutiny process in February. Now, the aim of the legislation, or one of the aims of the legislation, is to reduce conflict within the process, but it is inevitable that that will arise on occasion, particularly in the early years, and, at the moment, as a fellow Member of mine, Steffan Lewis, has highlighted recently, there is no specialist legal firm specialising in education in Wales, and there are only three educational companies throughout England and Wales, and all of them happen to be in England. Now, getting access to specialist support of that kind is going to be difficult. Whilst the Bill and the new tribunal system, or the proposed system, will reduce the need for specialist independent legal support, what will the Welsh Government do to ensure that children with additional learning needs and their families can have access to the necessary advice that they will need when that problem arises?
You’ve mentioned in response last week to a question on concerns from Diabetes UK and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health on the concerns that children and young people with special healthcare needs have—. What assurance can you give to those with these additional healthcare needs, who perhaps feel that they have been confused or left in limbo, that their needs will also be met under this Bill?
And, finally, whilst the provision and responsibilities are clear in this Bill for those children and young people of statutory education age, I’m not sure if it’s true to the same extent for those who are of preschool age and older people up to the age of 25, for example, in terms of workplace training, apprenticeships, and so on. It was a concern identified by many in the draft Bill, so can you perhaps expand upon how you have responded to those concerns in this Bill? As I say, we generally do welcome what’s contained within the Bill but obviously look forward to scrutinise the issues that I’ve raised and I’m sure that there will a number of other issues that we will want to raise as we scrutinise this Bill in the Assembly.
I’m grateful to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson for his words of support. Let me say this as a general point before attempting to answer the particular questions: I think it’s important that we do have a wide-ranging debate on these matters in the way that the Member has sought to commence, and it is important that we do look at the issues that he and others will raise this afternoon. I want to listen to those concerns and those questions. I want to seek to answer them today and during the Stage 1 scrutiny, but I’m also prepared to listen again if those answers are not sufficient. I think it is important that, as a Government, we not only listen to what is said here but across the professions and listen to practitioners and continue to listen. So, this is the first start of a process that will involve significant debate, further debate, and, at all times, I can give an undertaking that we will seek to actively listen and to hear what is said and then, if necessary, make the amendments that we need to make.
The Member began his substantive comments in relation to the health service, and he will recognise a significant strengthening in the Bill that was published yesterday as opposed to the draft that was published last year. I hope that goes some way, or goes a long way, to answering the concerns that were raised during the committee’s consideration of this matter before the election this year. It is clearly a matter for the health service, if they identify and diagnose particular issues or conditions, to ensure that those conditions are treated and treated according to the diagnosis made by health professionals, and I would expect and anticipate that to happen. There is no threshold in this Bill or this legislation for conditions that would enable a request or enable an individual development plan to be written for an individual learner. We understand that other legislation does include those thresholds. This does not. This seeks to be a comprehensive response to the needs of learners at whatever age or in whatever setting. So, there is no threshold for treatment, there is no expectation that this will involve an additional administrative burden on the schools, and, certainly, the experience that we have had so far in piloting this system is that practitioners found it a system that enables them to work more effectively together, that provides a far richer person-centred, child-centred, if you like, plan that is delivered by agencies working together, and that is certainly our ambition. It is not to create additional bureaucracy, but to bring people together and in doing so reducing the burden on individual practitioners.
So, yes, there will be new responsibilities, and yes, there will be additional responsibilities on the staff identified in section 54, as he’s pointed out. We will ensure that there is training provided, and this is why I try to be very, very clear, in debating and discussing this legislation, that the Bill we published yesterday is an element of, and a part of, but not the totality of, the transformational programme that we are seeking to undertake at this time. We will be ensuring that training is available for the professionals delivering the legislation. We will ensure that the statutory guidance, which will be published in February, is available for consultation so that those people who will need to work with it understand it and have an opportunity to scrutinise it before we actually bring it in front of this place. And we will ensure that, when we do have new responsibilities, training is available for them.
On the issue of resources, which has been raised by the Member, he understands that £2.1 million was made available in the statement I made some weeks ago. We will be looking, and we will continue to look, at the issue of resources. He’s absolutely right in his analysis—unless we have the resources available to support the introduction of this system, it will not work and we will not achieve our vision, therefore we will seek to ensure that resources are made available. And in doing so, let me say this and make this absolutely clear: it is absolutely wrong that parents and families have to fight, fight and fight again to get the support needed for their children to learn effectively and to achieve their potential. It is absolutely wrong. The purpose of this legislation is to move away from that system, which has not delivered in the way that we would expect and anticipate, to move away from the adversarial nature of all too many of these cases, and to move to a child-centred system where people work and collaborate together and don’t have to fight and campaign for education that should be delivered as a right. The tribunal system is there where there are issues that need to be addressed, but I think that if this Bill is to work and the transformation programme is to deliver our vision, then we want to see a reduction in the need for legal representation and legal support. That is one of the criteria against which we will judge this Bill in the future.
Whenever I debate and discuss any of the services available to children under this legislation, take it as read that I expect those services to be available bilingually and in the Welsh language where necessary. I hope that the wording we have found in this legislation is sufficiently strong to deliver that, but it is not my expectation in any way at all that we will deliver a system that delivers for people in the English language only. This has to be delivered bilingually across Wales, and children have to be given the support they require in either one of our national languages where necessary. I’m absolutely clear in my own mind that, in pursuing this legislation, our expectations as a Government are that service providers will deliver the services required in the English or Welsh languages as necessary, and that all children who require services in the medium of Welsh will receive them.
Can I also make a declaration of interest as a school governor? I’m very grateful for your statement today, Minister, and, indeed, for the briefing that you and your officials provided last week. I know that you are personally very committed to addressing the shortcomings in our existing statutory framework for learners with additional needs, and I do appreciate the way in which you’ve responded to the concerns that have been expressed by the children’s commissioner and all of the other stakeholders following the publication of the draft legislation earlier this year. We all know that the current system isn’t working, and you’ve alluded to the fact that many people spend far too long having to fight the system in order to get the support that they need for their children at present, and it simply isn’t good enough. When you consider the fact that just 23 per cent of pupils with additional learning needs last year achieved five GCSEs or more compared with 59 per cent of their peers, we know that the system simply isn’t working. We’ve got to improve our game.
We very much welcome some of the provisions in the Bill. I appreciate the work that you’ve done to extend the scope of the Bill right up to the age of 25 so that young people accessing college and other places of education are able to benefit from some support, and, indeed, the redress opportunities that come if they don’t get that support. They currently don’t have that, of course. And I also appreciate the work that you’ve done in order to improve the Bill in terms of making sure that we’re holding the national health service to account for the provision of access to health professionals and, indeed, for them to meet their obligations to meet the individual needs of learners. We also appreciate the work that you’ve done to increase the emphasis on Welsh-medium support, and I very much welcome the comments that you made in response to Llyr Huws Gruffydd on that.
But I do have some concerns. I know that I’ve discussed some of these with you, but I think it’s important that we also put them on the record here in the Chamber, particularly in relation to those learners with health needs. They may not have additional learning needs, but they may have health needs that require some interventions in the classroom or their place of learning. Those with diabetes, epilepsy and other conditions, for example, are not currently within the scope of the Bill, but it may well be necessary to manage their conditions during the school day, during educational hours, to ensure that their needs are met so that they can sustain their learning in the classroom. I’m very concerned that, with them not being included in the Bill, we may well be falling foul of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. So, I would appreciate it, Minister—and you’ve already indicated that you’re prepared to look at amendments to the Bill in the future and I know that that’s a genuine offer, as it were—if you could consider that more widely and perhaps tell us what you might do to address those particular concerns.
The Bill also, of course, fails to touch on home-to-school transport, specifically. We know that this Assembly passed legislation in the learner travel Measure many years back in respect of home-to-school transport, but some individuals require special home-to-school transport arrangements by virtue of their additional learning needs or by virtue of their health needs, particularly if they’ve got very long journeys to school, as is often the case in rural parts of Wales. So, I wonder whether you might tell us whether the code that is well under way, in terms of the working on the code, will actually address some of those issues.
One of the important features, of course, in the Bill is the introduction of these new individual development plans and the support that they will underpin. You’ve made it quite clear in the past, although not in your statement today, that one of the main features of that is that it’s going to be portable between local authorities in Wales, so that people don’t have to face what can be a devastating upheaval if they relocate from one local authority to the next and they then have to restart the battle, reboot the battle, with the new local authority to get the support that their child needs in school. I know that that is something that this Bill seeks to address by ensuring that there will be that portability, but that is only portability within Wales, of course, particularly in my part of north Wales and, indeed, in other parts of Wales, the issue of people relocating from one country to the next, into Wales, is an issue. I wonder, Minister, whether you can tell us what your plans are in terms of making sure that there are some short-term interim arrangements for those pupils moving from an education system elsewhere in the UK into Wales with a package of support that they’ve been used to having, and whether that is something you would expect local authorities and schools to continue to maintain in the short term, while they transition into our new framework, once this Bill ends up being law in Wales.
The education sector unions quite rightly have expressed some concerns regarding the demands that the new legislation might place upon the education workforce. You’ve touched on this in your response to Llyr Huws Gruffydd, just in terms of the capacity building that needs to be done within the education workforce. I know that you’ve made some resources available to upskill the workforce, and I think everybody in this Chamber would want a professionalised workforce dealing with what can be a very specialised area, but, clearly, the capacity of smaller schools in particular is going to be a challenge to meet these new obligations. I wonder whether you can tell us whether you want to see schools working together to ensure that they have adequate specialism being developed, which is local to them, as it were, and easily accessible to them, in order that the vision that this Bill seeks to achieve is actually fulfilled.
Can you also give us some assurances about the access to health professionals? We’ve heard about educational psychologists, and many of us in this Chamber have been lobbied by educational psychologists about the need for them to be involved, as appropriate, in ensuring that there’s an appropriate package of support, but what about speech therapists and other health professionals who, sometimes, a parent or a school may not know they need to access in order to ensure that a young person is adequately assessed? I just wonder whether the code might have something to say on this and about that sort of access, particularly for those parents who may be trying to navigate what is a complex system, sometimes for the very first time.
Finally, just on transition to the new arrangements, this is a cause of quite a bit of anxiety at the moment, particularly for parents and pupils that are already in the current system receiving excellent support, in some cases, across the country. Many of those parents will be very concerned that the new arrangements may mean that their children get less support in the future. I think it’s important, Minister, for you to put on the record some sort of guarantee about the support being provided to them: that that will not be diminished as a result of the Bill, and that those children who are already in the system, receiving support—. Yes, absolutely, it is appropriate that that support is reviewed from time to time, but there’s nothing in this Bill that would cause that support to be diminished of right to those children. I think, perhaps, Minister, if you could give us some assurances on that, it would be very welcome. As I said at the start, I’m very pleased to see the Bill being published. I very much appreciate the way in which you’ve been working on a cross-party basis, and with stakeholders thus far. I look forward to working with you to improve this Bill through the legislative process before it finally becomes law.
I’m grateful to the Conservatives’ spokesperson for his kind remarks. I know that the Conservatives have played a significant role in the development of this legislation, with Angela Burns chairing the committee in the previous Assembly. I would certainly put on record my thanks to Angela for the work that she did at that time. It has certainly helped us in developing the new draft.
I’m grateful to Darren for looking at the Bill, both in terms of what we published yesterday, but also the wider transformational process and programme upon which we are embarking at the moment. Without wishing, then, to become immediately churlish, I would say very gently that we’re not seeking to hold the NHS to account in these reforms. What we’re seeking to do is to ensure that the NHS works seamlessly with local authorities, with schools, with the educational services, in order to ensure that the child comes first and not the ease with which some professionals might see these services being delivered. It’s the child’s needs that we’re talking about it, and it is the interests of the child that should come first, second and third. It is the purpose of this legislation to bring those services together. The final point that was made about existing provisions and support for existing learners is one where we wish to build upon and not diminish. It’s certainly the importance of ensuring that we do have those services in place to build upon—that is what we’re seeking to do as part of this wider transformational agenda.
Let me say, in terms of the health needs and the issue that was raised by Llyr Gruffydd as well—which, I apologise, I didn’t answer in full or, in fact, at all. I apologise for that. We believe that local authorities and governing bodies already have responsibilities to support children and young people who do have healthcare needs. We are delivering and revising specific guidance on these matters, which will be published in the new year. If Members, having read through those guidelines, believe that they need to be improved or strengthened, then we’ll have an opportunity to do that in the new year. Let me say this: the Bill is silent on those issues, but our minds are open to conversations on those matters. If the guidance that will be published does not deliver the sort of certainty that people wish to see, then we will consider that at Stage 2.
In terms of transport, we are aware that learner transport is already covered by legislation. We do not believe there is a necessity for an additional layer of legislation on these matters, but we recognise the force of the argument, and we recognise that what has been said about the ability of people to access the courses and the support required will sometimes require access to transport as well. If we believe, looking through the scrutiny of this legislation, that the existing transport legislation requires strengthening, then, clearly, that is something that we are prepared to consider. At the moment, we believe that the existing legislation does cover all of these matters.
I've been in correspondence with the United Kingdom Government in recent days on cross-border issues. We’re having a conversation on these matters. On some of these matters, we’re having a robust conversation; on others, we're having conversations of a different nature. But let me say this: the United Kingdom Government recognises the policy agenda, and I think both Governments share the same ambition for our learners, and what we will seek to do is to ensure that we do have a seamless service available across the border. It is important, as far as learners are concerned, that the border becomes almost invisible and that people are able to access the services that they require wherever those services are located, and that we deliver legislation that enables that to happen. There have been some cross-border issues. I recognise that, but, certainly, I hope that those are being addressed in the legislation.
Members will be aware that the Cabinet Secretary for Education has already been very, very clear that she wants to see schools sharing services and sharing facilities, and that what we want to do is to introduce flexibility for particularly smaller schools to be able to access excellence in terms of the support required for learners. This legislation will build upon those ambitions, and this legislation may well be a test for those ambitions as well. Certainly, the changes that the Cabinet Secretary outlined here some weeks ago will enable and, we hope, will ensure that schools do have the flexibility to ensure that we do have access to the best services and that they will be able to share services where necessary.
In terms of health professionals, the wider transformational agenda, and the wider transformational programme, is one that looks at bringing people together, strengthening the system, strengthening what we have available to us, enabling people to work together. A designated clinical lead in each individual health board will, I hope, enable that to happen, so that we don't have the cumbersome, overly complex ways of working that we’ve seen all too often between different elements of our public services. So, when we debate and discuss these matters at both Stage 1 and Stage 2, I hope that we will have the opportunity to test the strength of this Bill—to test the strength of the Bill and the code, the statutory guidance that will be published in February—to enable us to understand whether we need to make further provisions to ensure that these services are able to work together.
And, in closing, I will apologise to the Deputy Presenting Officer, who did, of course, chair that committee. [Laughter.]
That's quite all right. Lynne Neagle.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer and former Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee. [Laughter.] And what a fine job she did of it, as well.
Thank you for your statement, Minister. I was so pleased to see this Bill introduced yesterday, and I think the exchanges here today demonstrate the almost unprecedented level, really, of cross-party support that there is for getting a piece of legislation that really works for children and young people in Wales, mindful of the difficulties that you've highlighted with parents often finding themselves in the middle of a prolonged battleground to get the services that they need. I also personally want to welcome the collaborative approach you’ve shown towards me as Chair of the committee and the assurances you’ve given the Chamber about continuing in that vein today.
Many of the points that I would have wanted to make have been covered, and I’m looking forward to the detailed scrutiny in the committee. I did just want to pick up on two particular points, both related to health. The first was: in your answer to Darren Millar, you said that you don't see the Bill as being a vehicle to hold the health service to account, which I fully recognise. But can I ask you whether you also recognise that, in a lot of cases where parents are fighting to get services, it is the lack of access to a health service that actually puts the barrier to their getting the educational support that they need? It is absolutely critical that we address that through this legislation.
The other point was also on the medical needs issue. As you know, I've been working with Diabetes UK and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health to try and see if we can get that included in this legislation. I hear what you’re saying—that it’s not in there at the moment—but also your assurances that you’re open to listening to views on that. Can I just ask whether you recognise that, although new guidance is being developed, there is a very strong feeling there that, without the inclusion on the face of the Bill of a statutory duty to meet medical needs, too often that guidance is implemented in a patchy way, and sometimes ignored? Thank you.
Thank you very much. I clearly have got myself into terrible trouble by trying too hard to be too nice and too generous. I can assure Members across the Chamber it won’t happen again.
I’m grateful to Lynne for the approach that she’s taken as Chair of the committee. Members will know that the committee system is something that I hold very dear, and I’ve served both as a Member and Chair of committees. I hope that we will be able to provide the committee with all the information necessary in order to provide the fullest possible scrutiny of this legislation. It’s absolutely essential that we provide yourselves with the information—the financial information and the explanatory memoranda that are demanded by the Standing Orders—but also that we go further than that and deliver to you the sort of guidance that we will intend to deliver to public services in order to deliver this legislation. We will also be seeking to consult on how we seek to implement this legislation as well, and I’d be very grateful for the committee’s views on all of those matters.
In terms of the points that were made Lynne Neagle, I absolutely agree that all too often it is lack of access to NHS services that has impacted and affected families up and down the country. This is unacceptable. Let’s make it absolutely clear: it is unacceptable, it is wrong, and we will not tolerate a system whereby families and parents have to continually fight to get the sort of support their children require in order to learn at school, or whatever the setting happens to be.
That is the purpose of this legislation. It is the purpose of the wider transformational programme. It is the vision, but it is also what we will be held to account for in achieving. We will have failed if there remain parents who have to fight tooth and nail year after year to get the support that their children need, require and should have as a right. It is the purpose of this transformational programme to change that and to deliver real change for people across the country. I hope that by bringing the system together, by putting the child at the centre, what we are doing is delivering not just a new structure, a new process, a new way of working, but delivering cultural change within a number of different public services in order to deliver those services. I have to say this to Members: we are piloting this in different schools at the moment, and what I’ve seen has been absolutely inspiring in terms of people being brought together, working together and delivering through the IDP system support that the child needs when they need it. It is working where we’re able to deliver it. Our challenge today is to create a statutory framework that means it will be delivered across the whole country.
I understand the point that has been raised on medical needs at school. I’ve got no issue with what has been said be Members this afternoon. I would say: look at the guidance when it’s published in the new year. The invitation to continue the conversation is an open invitation, and it is one where I hope that we will be able to reach agreement. If Members or if others continue to believe that the guidance that we will publish in the new year is not sufficient, then certainly we will give serious consideration to making changes and making amendments at Stage 2 during the debate on the Bill.
Thank you for your statement, Minister. The additional learning needs Bill has much to recommend it, although the Bill does raise a number of questions in my mind. In principle, the provision for a code of practice is a good step. However, much will depend on the content of the code and how it’s applied. How will you ensure that the code of practice is achieving its objectives? Although the Bill sets out persons who must be consulted on the content of the code, groups representing children and their parents are not included. What’s the reason for this? Why isn’t a duty being placed on Welsh Ministers to consult parents, children and young people on a code that will directly affect them? I welcome that the Bill places a requirement on decision makers to involve children, young people and their parents in the decision-making process, but what weight will be placed on their views in that decision-making process? The requirement will ultimately be meaningless if their views and wishes aren’t given sufficient priority. An effective structure will also need to be in place to ensure that their views are properly taken into consideration. How will the Minister ensure that this duty is operating to the benefit of people with additional learning needs and that the relevant decision makers have the resources to involve learners and their parents effectively?
I welcome the provision in the Bill to favour placing children with additional learning needs in mainstream schools where possible. Making it more difficult for mainstream schools to refuse a child with additional learning needs is a good step. However, it should be kept in mind that if a mainstream school refuses a child with additional learning needs, this may well be because they simply don’t have the resources to cater for that child. How are you going to ensure that mainstream schools are given the support they will need? The duty placed on maintained schools to admit children with additional learning needs, if that school is named in the individual development plan, sounds like a positive measure. However, there is no requirement that the school has the capacity to take the additional learner. The duty could therefore be a recipe for disaster if the necessary resources are not put in place at the school.
But there is little point providing the resources if you can’t guarantee that they will be spent as intended. Can the Minister give us an assurance that sufficient resources will be provided to these schools and that any funds provided to local authorities for that purpose will be ring-fenced? I note the Bill provides for a registration system for independent providers. Can the Minister provide some detail on how the registration system will work, and in particular, will independent providers be vetted carefully before being placed on the register?
The Bill doesn’t appear to require independent providers not in receipt of moneys from local authorities to be registered, which would appear to leave parents sending children to specialist schools privately on their own with regard to the quality of education being offered or the standards of staff. Will the register be available for inspecting by parents? As I said earlier, this Bill has much to recommend it. However, to operate effectively, local authorities, schools and other decision makers will need the processes, staff and money in place to be able to implement it. Without that, the Bill won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. Thank you.
I’ve said a number of times in answer to a number of questions that we’re seeking to achieve cultural change as well as structural and statutory change. Let me say this: I trust health professionals and I trust school leaders. The tone that we’ve tried to adopt in Government has been to work with professionals and not against them or work on the basis of mistrust. If you listen to the work that the Cabinet Secretary is undertaking in terms of educational leadership, it is about creating a team of people who will work together. It’s not about putting in place structures that are open either to abuse or are there in order to deal with mistrust. That’s not the approach that we take in this Government and it’s not the approach that I would want to take with this legislation.
The code of conduct will be statutory guidance. It will have the force of law and it will be something that will ensure consistency of delivery across the face of the country. It has already been informed by consultation with the professionals and practitioners and with stakeholders over the last few years. It will be published in February in order to continue to both inform scrutiny here in this place but also to enable practitioners, stakeholders and others to understand not simply the legislation but how that legislation will be implemented. We will then consult again on issues of implementation to ensure that we don’t simply deliver the best possible system but we deliver it in the best possible way.
All of those different means of consultation, debate and discussion are designed to enable us to hear from people and to work with people. I’ve always sought to place a great emphasis, both in terms of what we’re seeking to do here and in other fields as well, that we work with professionals and that we work with them on the basis of trust.
The issues about decision making are issues that are well made. There are, all too often, cases where families, parents, young people and children feel that decisions are being taken for them and communicated to them, not with them and by them. The tenure and tone of this is to move away from that system: that we create a system that is child or person centred, that decisions are taken with the family, with the individual, with the child, with the young person, and that those decisions are taken collectively, using the help, support and advice of professionals and practitioners who have the knowledge and the expertise to inform those decisions. These are decisions that are taken with the child and with the family, not simply for them and presented to them. That is the sort of cultural change that we are seeking to pursue and to deliver through this transformational programme.
In terms of the resources available to schools, clearly we want children who have additional learning needs to be educated as part of the wider community. We don’t want those children taken out of their own communities, except where that’s absolutely necessary and where specialist help and support is required, and we’ve discussed issues of transport and how we do that, whether it’s in Wales or across the border, in order to do that, and certainly, we will do that where necessary. But the key thing that we want to achieve is for everybody to feel a valued part of the school community and a valued part of the school environment. What I hope we’ll be able to do, working with school leaders, is to deliver the resources they require in order to do that. I feel very strongly that we have great leadership in schools and colleges across Wales. What this Government wants to do is to work with those people to deliver the very best for our children and young people.
Thank you very much. We have had all the main speakers, and I have allowed them to ask several questions. That leaves us with a dilemma: we have five speakers and we have very little time left. So, can we ask for just quick opening statements and then a question? Minister, if you can respond briefly as well, that would be helpful. Julie Morgan.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I welcome the Bill, and lots of Members have already referred to the battles that families feel they have to undertake in order to get the right opportunities for their children with additional learning needs, so I think this is definitely a step in the right direction, and I welcome it very much. Lots of the points have been covered. The one particular point I wanted to raise was the involvement of the children and young people in the process. I am very pleased that the process will now be centred around the needs of the young person and of the family, but I am particularly concerned that every effort is put in to support, particularly, the young person in that process. I think we’ve already had some discussion about the support for the family, but some of these children and young people may have very complex needs, and I think it’s very important that if they have communication difficulties, for example, every opportunity is used to provide them with a range of different resources so that their views can be understood and they have the opportunity to express themselves. I think that’s the point that the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists make in particular: that children need visual aids, talking maps and a whole variety, if it’s going to be meaningful and if the children and young people and the families are going to be at the core of this legislation. And if they are, it will be a success; it’s bound to be. We will have to make great efforts to ensure they are supported and that the children, in particular, have this individual support to let their views be known and to be part of the process.
I absolutely agree with the points made by the Member. I think she’s absolutely right. There’s no point a Minister standing up in this Chamber saying that it has to be person centred and child centred if we don’t put in place the means and the mechanisms to ensure that happens in reality. That means looking at all the issues that the Member has raised and ensuring that all those matters are put in place to enable the individual child or the young person to not only be at the centre of decision-making theory, but at the centre of decision making in practice as well.
Well done, Minister. I’m really pleased to see this Bill before us today. I truly didn’t think we would see it and, in fact, Huw Lewis, to his eternal credit, pulled the last one, because he was unable to make great inroads into the provision of the health element that we need here. You’ve done that and I am very pleased with it. It’s not 100 per cent right—there’s still a lot that could be done, and I could go through it line by line, but I’m not going to, Deputy Presiding Officer. I am really pleased to hear this, especially as I organised and led the opposition coup that made your Government agree to bring this Bill forward.
There are two things I think this Bill has to achieve. The first is a good education for those children who need it, because 22 per cent—just under a quarter—of our young people will grow up to be just under a quarter of our adults who are not able to be the best they can be and are not able to contribute to our society, help our economy, add to us and just feel respect for themselves. So, to be able to educate them is absolutely your prime objective.
The second objective, Minister, and I’m so glad to hear all of the things you’ve said this afternoon, is to rebuild trust with the families and the parents. On Friday, I saw a couple with a very autistic child, who came to see me because for years SNAP Cymru had been working—one official there—with them to get a statement for them. That official now works for the local council and, suddenly, that same person with the same training is saying, ‘You don’t need a statement for that child—that child doesn’t need our extra help.’ Why? Finances. County councils have a different agenda and the third sector has a different agenda to families. Anything and everything that this Bill does must be about getting rid of that tension and allowing parents to go back again and again to the relevant authorities, because their children will change and develop—some will get better, some will improve, some will never change and some will get worse.
The one thing that the Bill does have, which I have a slight concern about, is that it appears to give an inability to go back for a reassessment once you’ve had that first assessment. I look forward to working with you through Stages 1, 2 and 3 to bring this.
My last question to you is: could you, for the record, make an absolute commitment—? The legislative process tends to have an axe of its own—time. We’re very committed to all of our stages—it has to go through committee in the appropriate way. If, during this process, it becomes apparent that we need to take a pause, take a small breather, consult with more parents and consult stakeholders, will you commit to halting that legislative process? I’m not asking you to put it on the backburner or halt it for months—literally, we’re just talking about making sure that there’s adequate scrutiny by all parties, because this is the one Bill that all of the parties and all of the politicians in this place could really bring forward for Wales that would make an outstanding difference to the people in our country and, ultimately, to our country.
I hope I can give you that commitment. The legislative process, of course, is a matter for the National Assembly and not for the Government, but let me say this: it is not my intention to stick to a timetable if that timetable isn’t delivering robust scrutiny and enabling us to make amendments that we feel are required by that. I know that Lynne Neagle, as Chair of the committee, is absolutely committed to ensuring that we do have that robust scrutiny in place, and I’m absolutely confident that this National Assembly will have the opportunities in order to scrutinise, but then, crucially, to make amendments that we believe are necessary.
Let me say this: I’ve sat on enough legislation committees and I spent many years on the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, so I hope that I have an understanding of these matters. It is not my intention—. I will not simply seek to block opposition amendments because they are worded poorly or we disagree with this or that. My intention is to pursue a process so that this Bill will become law. It will become good law, it will be great law and it will deliver what we are saying—it will deliver our vision, it will deliver our ambitions, but, most of all, it will deliver for the people who require this legislation.
The people who you described that you met on Friday—. Let me say this to you: I met parents of autistic children yesterday in my constituency and had a very similar conversation with them. I am determined not to let them down, and if that means that we take one or two months extra to get it right, so be it—let’s be absolutely clear about that. You’re absolutely right: we need to rebuild trust, and you don’t rebuild trust by trying to rush something through.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I will try to keep this brief but I—
Yes, just a question, please.
I’m not sure that I can, so if you’re going to stop me—
I will stop you. Go on—carry on.
[Continues.]—then I may have to write to the Minister, because this is quite a complex issue.
I recently hosted an event here at the Senedd, to raise awareness of something called Irlen syndrome. For those of you who weren’t able to come along to that, Irlen syndrome is a visual perceptual problem that can affect children and adults of all ages, but parents of children with Irlen syndrome are having difficulty in (a) getting it recognised, and (b) getting it actually dealt with. It causes reading and learning difficulties, light sensitivity, headaches, migraines, problems with depth perception, and so on. And it’s particularly significant at a young age, as it impacts on a child’s performance, and is generally not recognised as Irlen. It is commonly misdiagnosed as dyslexia, and, as a result, appropriate treatment is not provided, despite it being very simple to address with coloured overlays and lenses. So, when a child is not progressing at an early stage, schools should be looking at Irlen syndrome as being a possible cause, before they start looking at dyslexia or ADHD, or at the very least at the same time.
Can you come to a question, please?
The question is, because I have also written to the education Secretary and the health Secretary about this, because there is only one local authority in Wales—Caerphilly council—that actually recognises Irlen syndrome, and has Irlen screeners in the schools, who are working at an early point to try to diagnose this particular problem. Now, the question, I guess, is whether the Minister can look at the potential, within the parameters of this Bill, and under the code, whether the provision of early screening for Irlen in all schools could fall in line with the draft code stated, and that early identification and intervention would fall within the scope. There’s an awful lot more to it than that, Chair—
I gather there probably is.
I think you’ve got the point.
I think we have the point, but I think there are many other conditions that people would want to raise as well. So, Minister.
Can I say this? The Member has clearly got a very good point to make in her remarks. Her remarks are on the record. I will write to her to give a fuller response to that, and I will place that correspondence in the Library for all Members to see.
Thank you. Mark Isherwood.
I believe I may be the only Member left of the committee in the second Assembly that produced the three-stage report on which these proposals are based. It does go back a long way, and this does replicate many of the recommendations in that committee. We took evidence from Baroness Warnock, whose original recommendations led to the introduction of statementing in 1981. And she told us that the system had become needlessly bureaucratic, that it was originally intended that 1 per cent of pupils might need statements and it had risen to 5 per cent, but, nonetheless, that the needs of that particular cohort with complex specific needs still needed to be protected.
How will you ensure, therefore, and assure parents like me, and many others, who had to battle for a statement to access the services otherwise being rationed; parents like me and others, who, once armed with a statement, could, only because of its legal status, access services that were withdrawn from my child and others in his unit, because we had that statement; and parents across Wales who’ve seen the rate of exclusions of children without statements, but with additional learning needs, doubling since the emphasis on statements was withdrawn, that replacing a legal document, which the statement is, with your proposals for a generic individual development plan meeting the needs of all learners, will not water down the legal status and strength that that legal document—that very important statement—provided for parents like me, and continues to provide for many other parents across Wales?
I recognise the power and the strength of his arguments, but the purpose is to move away from that system. The Member has described very well a system that is failing, and we do not want to pursue or to sustain a system that is not delivering the services we require, whether it’s for his family or for other families. And, as a consequence, the foundation, if you like, of this new system is the individual development plan, which will enable us to understand the needs of a child and then deliver those needs without the need for the confrontational campaigning, the arguing and the fighting that have been well described by the Member and others this afternoon. We recognise that the current system is not fit for purpose, it is not working, and that is why we want to replace it with a different system, a system that means that we move away from that sort of adversarial approach to one which is based on collaboration and co-operation. We need the experience and knowledge of Mark Isherwood and others to enable us to get that right, and I look forward to continuing the conversation during the scrutiny process.
Thank you very much, Minister.
We move on to item 4 on the agenda, which is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure on the development bank of Wales. Ken Skates.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I am pleased to announce that my officials have received a business plan for the development bank of Wales, which remains on target for its launch in the first half of next year, subject to regulatory approval. The bank will be headquartered in north Wales, and its key priority is to help micro to medium businesses in Wales access finance more easily, and specifically to address funding gaps where market failure exists. Working alongside other financial providers, the development bank of Wales will maximise private sector leverage. Working alongside Business Wales, the bank will provide a range of support services and management advice. Better funding, better support will make for better business. Finance Wales have consulted widely with key stakeholders to ensure their business plan takes account of the financial issues businesses faces, and to identify appropriate solutions.
I am particularly pleased that they have developed a close working relationship with the Office of National Statistics in Newport, and will also be engaging with academia. They are creating an intelligence unit to track the range of financial issues that businesses in Wales face from time to time, and identify how these could be best addressed for the benefit of the Welsh economy. This intelligence unit will develop into a strategic research function, generating a range of innovative new solutions from co-investment funds to tailored industry-specific funds. In this way, the bank will help individual businesses to grow turnover and jobs, while collectively helping to grow the economy of Wales.
The development bank will increase funding support to Welsh businesses, with a target to provide more than £1 billion of investment support over the next five years. I say ‘more than’ because I want the development bank to be ambitious and to explore innovative ways to improve private sector leverage. The bank will create and safeguard over 5,500 jobs per year by 2022. The bank is tasked with increasing direct investment levels to £80 million per year. I am also challenging the bank to continuously improve its value for money, and to work towards ambitious private sector leverage to reduce cost per job. It will work closely with Business Wales to ensure that funding support comes with the necessary leadership, mentoring and training support to help entrepreneurial and growing businesses be successful. I am challenging the bank to improve the simplicity and accessibility of its digital platform. I am keen to see it work with Business Wales to create a single point of access gateway and increase the number of businesses that receive advice from Welsh Government from the current level of 30,000 per year.
The bank will be able to support programmes across a number of portfolios, including those that fall under my esteemed colleague Carl Sargeant Assembly Member, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children. It will continue to work with colleagues in housing on the successful Help to Buy—Wales scheme, and deliver our £290 million investment in a second phase to support the construction of over 6,000 new homes by 2021. The extension of the Help to Buy—Wales scheme has been widely welcomed by aspiring home owners and house builders alike. The extension will also help the Government to meet its manifesto commitment to make an additional 20,000 affordable homes available across Wales. Plus, there is also the new £136 million Wales business fund that I announced back in September. This fund, jointly backed by the Welsh Government and the European Union, will be a mainstay of the bank, as it will offer flexible funding solutions to hundreds of Welsh SMEs over the next seven years.
The development bank will seek to strengthen and grow the financial ecosystem in Wales. It will not seek to crowd out or compete with other financial providers, but rather work with them to support their funding for businesses. It will work alongside business and banks, providing top-up finance where necessary. The credit crunch saw widespread failure in the financial markets across the world and caused the deepest global recession in a generation.
Today, in Wales, the financial markets have been slowly but steadily reopening to support our recovery, but market failure still exists in areas like micro and small businesses, in start-up companies and in entrepreneurial businesses where the business model is not proven. The development bank recognises how difficult equity finance remains for small and medium-sized businesses. The bank will host an angel investor network across Wales and encourage equity investment in growing Welsh businesses through a joint angel co-investment fund. As medium-sized businesses plan to grow, the bank will facilitate links to larger equity houses in London. It will also help Welsh businesses access crowdfunding and other innovative sources of funding.
As the economy continues to recover, we expect the nature and scale of market failure to alter and I’m pleased to see that the bank will monitor market conditions and changing business needs, responding accordingly with new products and new approaches. As a not-for-profit organisation, I expect the bank to have an affinity with mutual and social enterprises, including support for co-ops, employee buy-outs and credit unions. I am asking the bank to shadow the National Infrastructure Commission and to explore opportunities for partnership.
As the development bank makes private finance more readily available, the need for Government grant support will diminish. By providing funding support through the development bank and maximising private finance leverage, the development bank will help to dramatically improve value for money for Welsh Government and Welsh taxpayers. I believe the development bank will become a strong Welsh brand, providing positive funding support where it is most needed to maximise the beneficial effect for the Welsh economy. I am now asking my officials to engage with all key stakeholders across Wales to ensure that the new business plan for the development bank of Wales fully meets the needs of businesses and helps each to realise its potential.
The development bank of Wales is a clear signal of the strategic approach we are taking to deliver a Wales that is more prosperous and secure. It is an example of how we are enabling the conditions needed to allow businesses to thrive and to create and retain high-quality jobs. The progress we are making shows how we want to focus our interventions on delivering greater financial security for businesses so that they can build growth and prosperity for all.
I very much welcome this update from the Cabinet Secretary and the advance copy of his statement. It’s 30 years since Wales lost its only independent banking institution at the time, the Commercial Bank of Wales, and I think we’ve suffered as a result of that glaring gap in our institutional architecture as an economy. I think the question that has to be posed now is: are we going to grasp this opportunity fully, because we’ve been here before? Finance Wales itself, of course, was created in 2000 as a quasi-bank and, as it turned out, it was more quasi than a bank. And we’ve seen other efforts, haven’t we: the Green Investment Bank, the British Business Bank, the Scottish Investment Bank, which is effectively a publicly capitalised fund run by Scottish Enterprise, not a true bank in the colloquial or the technical sense that we understand it.
So I think that’s the standard that we have to hold this new institution to, and it’s in that regard, really, that I’d like to have a sense from the Cabinet Secretary of what his ambition is, how high his ambitions are for this bank, and what breadth and scope he sees for it developing the kind of innovation that he’s referred to in the years ahead. Will it be involved in things like the loan guarantees that are being offered through the Scottish growth fund, export guarantees, which are crucially important as we enter these choppy post-Brexit waters? He’s talked about leverage. Of course, one of the best forms of leverage that any bank will know is, of course, fractional reserve banking, becoming a deposit-taking institution, whether those are deposits as in some public banks, which are actually from the public sector—we’ll be having our own tax receipts soon, what could we do with those, used judiciously—or it becomes a deposit-taking institution from its business clients. So, is there the ability for this bank to develop in that direction?
And there are a few things, of course, that maybe the access to finance review suggested that the bank shouldn’t do and it appears it may well still go ahead and do: the reference to actually running funds, managing funds, in England. Does that actually lead to it losing its focus on its principal public policy goal? Can the Cabinet Secretary confirm that there are plans by Finance Wales and therefore, presumably, the development bank, to run five or six funds in England? Venture capital funds, as well, was another area where the access to finance review suggested that, actually, as with the life sciences fund, that would be better outsourced to specialist venture capital funds rather than done in-house by Finance Wales. Is that the model that will be developed by the development bank? Finally, so that we can have these necessary debates in greater detail than we are able to do now, could we please see a copy of the business plan, so that we can have proper scrutiny on these and many other issues?
Just finally finally, I welcome the fact that this important new national institution is not going to be based here in Cardiff but actually in north Wales. Plaid Cymru has previously referred to Wrexham as the financial capital of Wales. I’m sure he’d agree with that. But can we just have some numbers as well in terms of the number of people who will be based in the headquarters? And is this—. As we’re talking about new institutions—the Welsh revenue authority, why not put that in north Wales as well, and actually build up, both on the commercial funding side, but also on the fiscal side, some real expertise and build up a regional capital for Wales in the north?
Can I thank the Member for his questions and say I would agree with him on many of the points that he’s made about the need to ensure that we do decentralise where we can and share opportunities right across Wales. I’d be more than happy to discuss with my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government, the idea of also ensuring the Welsh revenue authority is located away from the capital, potentially in north Wales, potentially in Wrexham.
In terms of the move to Wrexham, we are looking at two business case options concerning the headquartering of the bank in north Wales, although only one offers a suggestion of the likely cost. That stands at £5 million. But I do think it’s absolutely essential that we do consider all opportunities for, as I say, decentralising not just national institutions but a lot of the wealth-creating activity within our gift. The preferred option to consolidate officers and certain functions in north-east Wales has not yet been costed at this time, but it is something that officials will be evaluating once further data are available, and officials need to see that detailed analysis and the costings of that particular option before any conclusions or recommendations, of course, could be brought to me in the new year.
In terms of the other points that the Member makes, it is 30 years since the loss of the last Welsh commercial bank, and time has moved swiftly. But, since devolution, I think it’s fair to say that we are soon to be banking and building as never before since 1999 and I very much welcome the Member’s positive contribution to today’s debate. As a background, the origins of the development bank for Wales do come from the task and finish group and also two committee reports from the previous Assembly. In terms of ambition, it’s my ambition for the development bank to identify and to address any and every barrier that a micro, small or medium-sized enterprise faces in drawing down the necessary finance to grow and to create jobs. I’ve already set certain targets, including that of raising at least £1 billion over the next five years, but there will be annual remit letters, so we’ll set specific targets and ambitions and there will be regular monitoring and evaluation sessions built into each financial year.
In terms of operating in England and the plans for managing funds outside of Wales, I do recognise that this is something of a controversial issue, but the extent of this activity that has taken place and will take place is strictly limited, and does not detract, I think it is important to say—does not and should not detract—from Welsh businesses or the support that is available. Indeed, I believe that there is a maximum cap on the amount of income that can be raised through activities outside of Wales, currently set, I believe, at 10 per cent, and I would wish to see a cap maintained. I do think that activity outside of Wales is a sign of, currently, Finance Wales’s, and, in future, the development bank of Wales’s, professionalism, and does demonstrate as well that they’re able to compete effectively for contracts outside of Wales. It’s also important that staff within the development bank of Wales go on constantly improving in terms of skills and knowledge, and, again, experiencing activity across the border can help in this regard.
In terms of the question that concerned the outsourcing of venture capital funds, when Welsh Government sought competitive bids from fund management services, there were instances where there were no other bidders except for Finance Wales. I think the Member is aware of this. And the development bank for Wales business case states that investment management and support services for Welsh Government would be agreed on a case-by-case basis, depending on individual project requirements. In terms of that business plan that I refer to, the Member has raised this question in the past and I’m pleased to say that I will commit to publish the business plan once it’s ready. At the moment, it’s still in the draft, and we are continuing to take account of feedback from interested stakeholders, but I can commit today to publishing it.
Deputy Presiding Officer, the Cabinet Secretary has said that the development bank will be launched in the first half of the new year, but I do think it is a bit disappointing that the Cabinet Secretary has provided very little in the statement today in terms of the business case for the hybrid model of the development bank to allow for scrutiny today from Members of the Assembly. I am pleased with the Cabinet Secretary’s commitment that he will provide a business case to Members. Perhaps if you could let us know when you expect that to be, that would be helpful today.
In a sense, to me, all that has been announced today, it would seem—. It seems to me that it is a cosmetic rebranding exercise, and the inclusion of the administration of the help to buy function, which is already exercised by Finance Wales, I think lends weight to that point. I do have a few questions, Deputy Presiding Officer. I’d be grateful if the Cabinet Secretary could set out why he chose to opt for this hybrid model explicitly, going against the task and finish group’s recommendations, which did not want to see Finance Wales evolve into a development bank. Finance Wales recently mooted that business support would be part of the development bank’s remit, but that doesn’t seem to be the tone of your statement today. What will happen if Business Wales eventually becomes part of the development bank? I’d be grateful for your views and some clarity around that.
Have you ruled out the Scottish Government’s lead in providing funding in the form of flexible loan guarantees without requiring collateral? This could, of course, support some of the most innovative small businesses in Wales that have the greatest potential for significant growth, but do not have, of course, the assets to borrow against.
You’ve also said that the bank will not compete against other private sector lenders, but instead provide top-up finance to address market failure, and provide funding to those SMEs who would not otherwise have it. How will you ensure that the development bank is not seen as a lender of last resort, and will leverage private sector funding? And is it your expectation that the bank will ultimately be self-financing, and, if so, what assessment have you made of the implications of this on the rates of interest required to turn a profit?
I also welcome, like Adam Price, the decision to locate the development bank outside of the capital city. That’s very much welcomed by me, as well. Will current Finance Wales staff move location, and, if they will, is there a cost implication to that and what is that cost? What consideration did you give to a model that would see small and medium-sized businesses have the opportunity to access finance locally, via a system of geographical accountable regional investment banks that would bring finance closer to businesses in different parts of Wales? Finally, could you expand on how you see the development bank’s relationship with the national infrastructure commission?
I’d like to thank the Member for his questions and, again, his broad support for what we have presented today to the Assembly. I’m also pleased that the Member recognises that the business case will be published. I would hope to be able to be in a position to publish that early in the new year. Again, it is conditional on receiving the feedback from interested stakeholders and taking account fully of that feedback, so that the business plan can move beyond the draft form.
I do not believe that it is simply a cosmetic rebrand of Finance Wales, because, in essence, the development of the bank of Wales actually reflects two committee reports, the first from 2014. The then Finance Committee published its report on Finance Wales, stating that it found that Finance Wales, on the whole, was making a positive contribution to the Welsh economy and that what was needed was a clarification of their role and remit rather than a full-scale overhaul. And then, in 2015, the then Enterprise and Business Committee and also the Finance Committee both stressed the importance of building on the expertise and experience of Finance Wales as the basis for the development bank model. So, I think what we are presenting fully reflects what committees in this national institution were calling for, but, at the same time, sets out ambitious targets for increasing the availability and improving the access to finance for small, medium and micro-sized businesses.
In terms of the question of flexible funds, perhaps it would be beneficial if I were to outline where we currently are with the development of the Wales flexible investment fund, which is an area that I know the Member is very interested in. My officials are developing that new fund with Finance Wales, and, subject to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government’s agreement, the fund size could be £77.75 million, with an aspiration to ultimately reach a total of £100 million. The intention would be to launch that particular fund by March of next year.
We will be, of course, challenging the development bank of Wales to lever in additional private finance, and this will be set out each year in the remit letter, with targets that should be reached. Over the course of each financial year, there will be, as I said earlier, monitoring of the performance of the development bank of Wales to ensure that they’re using every lever at their disposal to increase the degree of private finance that they attract and to ensure that that is being utilised to best effect by business customers.
I think the Member raised the question of interest rates and the cost of finance. It is worth outlining, I think, that Finance Wales’s annual interest rates range from 4 per cent to 12 per cent. I recognise that an often quoted criticism of Finance Wales is that it’s been too expensive to borrow, but that’s not correct, given the evidence that is available to us now. In fact, in 2014, the Welsh Government commissioned an independent review of interest rates chartered by Finance Wales and it found that more than 70 per cent of businesses were charged below market rates, and 6 per cent were judged to be at the market rate: an overwhelming majority, therefore, borrowing at or below market rates. This I would expect to continue into the development of the new bank, and I would expect businesses of all sizes to be able to realise those lower cost forms of finance.
In terms of staff—and, again, I’d very much thank the Member for the support that he shows for establishing the development bank of Wales in the north of Wales. In terms of the staff that will be moving there, as I outlined to Adam Price, there are two proposals that have been presented. One comes with a cost—an estimated cost of £5 million; the other doesn’t yet come with an estimated cost, but we will be scrutinising that second option as soon as more detail is available to us. In terms of regional investment banks, this would, I believe, take longer to establish, but I do think that there will be a role and a duty on the development bank of Wales to be relevant and to be accessible in all communities across Wales. So, it will be absolutely vital that they work together with Business Wales to promote the opportunities and the activities that they are engaged in.
I welcome the statement today. Could the Cabinet Secretary tell us how he plans to expand the skill set—the pool of people who are available to work in the development bank and build it up? Because, obviously, it is difficult to attract people who have knowledge and skills of the financial sector, where London is so dominant. I am very pleased that Finance Wales is underpinning the development bank, because of its positive record of achievement. And would he agree that the fact that it has actually provided services in the north-east and the north-west of England is really a tribute to the skills of Finance Wales and, really, a feather in their cap? I was on the Finance Committee that he’s referred to in his statement today that did look at Finance Wales, and we certainly did come up with the recommendation that Finance Wales should have its remit clarified and it should be allowed to develop. So, I think this is absolutely the right way to go. I wondered if he could give us his views about how we can expand the number of people here in Wales who are able to contribute to this development.
I also welcome very much the fact that the development bank will look at innovative ways of funding. I think he referred to crowd funding and other innovative ways of funding. I don’t know whether he can expand on that at all—how they will help small businesses to do that. I also particularly support the support that’s going to be offered for co-ops and for credit unions. I don’t know whether he could expand on that.
I’d like to thank Julie Morgan for her questions. I’ll be as brief as I can in answering them. First of all, with regard to crowdfunding, there is an estimate that crowdfunded finance will grow by a huge amount by the end of this decade. The problem that we face is that not all businesses, and indeed not all third-sector organisations, are aware of the potential or how to go about attracting crowdfunded resources. There will be a role here not just for the development bank of Wales, but also potentially for Business Wales, and also, I think it’s fair to say, for the Wales Co-operative Centre, who have already been able to provide sound advice to many third-sector organisations on the potential of crowdfunding.
In terms of activities in England, I’d again agree with the Member and say that I think it demonstrates the success of Finance Wales that they’ve been able to secure contracts across the border. I think it’s essential, in growing the skills base of staff within the development bank, that they should be able to access opportunities across the border and learn from the best. The Member is absolutely right: we are far away from London, but I would expect the development bank of Wales to be able to make contacts and to be able to establish relationships with financial houses in London that could then be utilised to support Welsh micro, small and medium-sized businesses. In terms of expanding the skills base, at the moment the Member will be aware that Finance Wales has new non-executive directors, a new chair and a new chief executive. I can also inform the Member that Finance Wales also propose to undertake a review early in the new year to identify the optimum capital and corporate structure.
Firstly, Cabinet Secretary, can I confirm that my party wholeheartedly believes in the concept of a Wales development bank? That said, we believe that its remit must be specific and designed to deliver its primary objective, which is supplying funds to the small business sector, where they cannot access funds without the direct intervention of the WDB. Having read the feasibility study, which is of course a comprehensive report, I'm a little dismayed at its recommendations. It appears to promulgate the idea that the development bank of Wales should be a lender of last resort, rather than one of first resource. And would he not agree that the report specifies the use of private capital leverage, such as high-street banks, investment institutions, angel funding, loan guarantee schemes and a plethora of other lending options, with the bank only being a provider where there’s a proven gap in the lending structure? In other words, borrowers must jump through a substantial number of troops before even being considered by the direct development bank loan or, indeed, any form of direct intervention by the bank.
Does he not agree that the report seems to suggest that the bank is nothing more than a signposting institution, merely pointing potential borrowers to other lending institutions? It appears that the very businesses, start-ups, microfirms, SMEs and even medium-sized firms that the bank is to be set up to help will have to explore a plethora of alternative lenders before they are able to access funds from the development bank itself, rather than that which is desperately needed: a streamlined application process giving direct access to funds. Surely, this is what the bank is supposed to be set up to do, to be the first and direct lender to these small businesses. The whole reason and raison d’être for this bank is the fact that, obviously, small business cannot access funds from normal commercial banks.
We in this party, I can assure you, would never condemn this Government for taking risks with lending to other businesses, and if there is a consequence, as some of those businesses that sometime in the future will actually not develop or not grow in the way that is anticipated by the Government, we will not condemn this Government for doing that, or the bank itself. Thank you.
Can I thank the Member for his questions and say that the remit will be clear? It’s not the lender of last resort, but this is an institution that will be addressing market failure and gaps where they are known to exist, and I think that that is already reflected. The fact that interest rates are lower than many actually believe they are already reflects the fact that it is addressing market failure, rather than charging high rates as a lender of last resort. But this work will go on, and there will be, as I say, an annual remit letter that is going to be set for them, with high expectations of being able to invest in small, micro and medium-sized businesses. But it's going to be more than just a signposting body, as the Member fears it might be. And let me outline why, principally based on two accusations. First of all—and the Member actually covered one—the accusation that Finance Wales is too risk averse. Well, the fact of the matter is that the development bank will be operating in a market segment where it will be taking more of a risk than Finance Wales, and this is a key issue that officials are looking at as part of the business plan evaluation. It’s often an accusation that’s levelled at Finance Wales, and it’s one that we’re acutely aware of, but the development bank will operate where the private sector will not intervene at all, or where there is an undersupply of finance in the marketplace. Its primary purpose will be to remedy market failure. As such, the development bank will need to price its investments at a level that is commensurate with the risks that it takes, of course, and in areas where the private sector largely does not operate. That said, the interest rates will of course remain competitive.
In terms of the accusation that is levelled against Finance Wales, that it competes against the private sector, well, the development bank of Wales will not be competing with the private sector; instead, it will be seeking to work closely with market providers and complement and supplement where there is a degree of market failure at present, as I’ve said. And this is because its primary role is to fill the funding gap created when the risk appetite of the private-sector funders cannot meet the needs of finance-seeking small businesses. It will therefore, I think it’s fair to say, purposely aim to avoid crowding out the private sector, and will work with early-stage business start-ups where the market cannot assume the financing risk.
I welcome the statement by the Cabinet Secretary, and in particular his comments about filling the market gap, if you like, in relation to the availability of finance for certain parts of the sector. In addition to small businesses, of course, medium-sized businesses have particular needs, and one of the issues has been incentivising owner-managers not to exit their companies early in the life cycle of the business. Will he give particular thought, in the remit of the development back, to encouraging it to provide patient capital solutions for some of those businesses, which would incentivise retaining their equity over the lifetime of the company, rather than bringing forward the point at which they sell?
I thank Jeremy Miles for his question. Actually, the idea of the patient capital is an excellent one, and it could well form part of the remit of the development bank of Wales alongside other Welsh Government manifesto pledges, principally one that concerns the growth of Welsh indigenous medium-sized enterprises to become businesses that have true global potential. I think that between the support that the development bank of Wales could give and the support that Welsh Government can give via Business Wales in terms of support, advice and de-risking the growth and, in particular, de-risking the recruitment of additional staff, we will be able to grow more medium-sized enterprises in Wales to become large scale and global in their operations.
Cabinet Secretary, in your statement you say you’re keen to see the development bank work with Business Wales to create a single point of access gateway. Can I stress the absolute importance of the development bank working constructively, proactively and effectively with Business Wales, and additionally for the development bank and its functions to be accessible to microbusinesses? Finally, it would obviously be remiss of me not to welcome the development bank being headquartered in north Wales, and whilst I’d expect the bank to serve business the length and breadth of the country, I hope that the location of the bank will enable new employment opportunities in the area itself.
Can I thank Hannah Blythyn for her questions? With regard to the interface with Business Wales, it’s going to be absolutely essential that the development bank of Wales and Business Wales work closely together to ensure that there is the appropriate support, advice and guidance given by the respective bodies.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I am looking to establish a rapid response working group of senior Business Wales officials, and Finance Wales, to develop this area further and to define a detailed approach in terms of support for microbusinesses. The Member is absolutely right, and I am aware of many microbusinesses in the constituency of Delyn. Professor Dylan Jones-Evans himself believes that the development bank should provide greater levels of investment for small businesses and microbusinesses, and I would agree entirely. To back this up, I can confirm that Welsh Government has published an allocation within the draft budget of £46 million for the development bank of Wales, which will include additional funding for the Wales microbusiness loan fund. I am pleased that we are going to see an institution such as this headquarter in north Wales, and I am confident that, as the regional capital for finance—as Adam Price identified, Wrexham—grows, so too will opportunities for people to be employed in this enormously important sector.
And finally, Nick Ramsay.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Cabinet Secretary, can I thank you for your statement this afternoon? A quick question from me: what are you doing to localise the new development bank? I understand your reasoning for locating it in north Wales. We welcome that, and other Members have done so. But part of the criticism of Finance Wales has always been its lack of a local presence in towns and cities across Wales. That was part of the reason why, a few years ago, we brought forward our plan for ‘Invest Wales’, which was designed to have more of a high-street presence, if you like—certainly a local presence. So, how will it be made to feel like a bank for all of Wales, not just north and south, but also for high streets up and down the nation?
I’d like to thank Nick Ramsay for his question. He makes a very important point, not least because I know Members across the Chamber are grappling at the moment with high-street banks that are looking at closing branches on their high streets and town centres. But we must also reflect on the fact that more activity is being undertaken online. For that reason, I’ve tasked Finance Wales with reporting on how it will improve the digital gateway and digital services as it evolves into the development bank for Wales. I think it’s absolutely essential that the development bank for Wales is seen as a facility and an institution that will be able to support every community in the north, south, east, west, and in between, and that it is relevant to every business’s operations.
Again, it will be built within the remit letter to prove where its investments are being made and I would expect, through demonstrating where those investments are being made, that we will be able to ascertain its relevance to all parts of the country. If gaps emerge, then we would expect the development bank for Wales to then address them.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.