Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd23/05/2018
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Education, and the first question is from Jane Hutt.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on school reorganisation in the Vale of Glamorgan? OAQ52234
Thank you, Jane. The responsibility for the planning of school places rests with local authorities. Local authorities have to keep under review the extent to which their existing pattern of school provision meets current and forecast demand for places and the requirements of a modern curriculum.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. You will be aware that the Vale of Glamorgan Council proposal to relocate Llancarfan village school over six miles away to a new site in Rhoose has attracted widespread opposition to its recent consultation. The school is rated good by Estyn, and it's commended for its use of the rural environment and woodland in which it's located. In fact, Estyn said,
'Pupils make good use of the outdoor learning environment and its wildlife and wooded areas...Staff use the locality well to extend pupils’ experiences, such as pond dipping in the local ford.'
The school doesn't have a significant level of surplus places. The Vale council has announced a new consultation period, with an updated consultation document, as a result of the concerns raised so far, and I'm glad that my representations regarding the lack of community impact assessment are being addressed. Can you clarify, Cabinet Secretary, on what grounds proposals affecting Llancarfan Primary School can be raised with Ministers as there is concern that these proposals will not conform to the school organisation code, and there's a lack of confidence in the consultation process?
Thank you, Jane. As you said, I understand that the Vale of Glamorgan Council has decided to restart and re-issue its consultation because of concerns that were raised about the adequacy of the initial consultation proposal, especially a lack of an adequate community impact statement. I would urge all those that have an interest to make their views known to the council before the close of the consultation on 9 July. I expect all local authorities, when considering school organisation and school closures, to have due regard for the school organisation code and to comply with that code. If there are any suggestions that any local authority is not complying with the code, then I would be happy to receive those representations.
I'm pleased also that this decision is being reconsidered, and I also made representations in writing and by meeting the senior figures in the Vale of Glamorgan Council. I think there's been some confusion locally as to the presumption against the closure of rural schools, which you outlined in the consultation on the revised school organisation code, and I stressed to the council that I thought the proposed revision is likely to become a live document. I think it's received a lot of support in the consultation, and they should be using that presumption at the moment as to what is likely to be the case. Given that this school is in such a rural setting, it seems to me that it should be given due weight even before it formally becomes a requirement in terms of the status of the current organisation code.
Thank you, David. You're absolutely right to say that it is my intention to revise the school organisation code to include a presumption against rural school closures, and to designate a list of rural schools. Work is continuing on those proposals, but the direction of travel of policy in this area is very clear to all 22 local authorities, and I would hope that they would bear that in mind when undertaking any review of school organisation proposals in their own area.
2. What is the Welsh Government's policy on school closures in North Wales? OAQ52214
Thank you, Mark. The responsibility, as I said earlier, for the planning of school places rests with each local authority. Local authorities do have to keep under review, as I said earlier, the extent to which their current provision meets the number of children they are statutorily required to educate now and in the future, and the needs of a modern curriculum.
Diolch. I previously raised concerns with you that, in Flintshire, in the past, old and inaccurate data was used in breach of the school organisation code in terms of school closures in Llanfynydd, Flint Mountain and John Summers High School. There are now proposals to close and forcibly amalgamate Lixwm County Primary School, which I hope will be on your list, because it's very much a rural school in every sense of the term. The consultation recently closed. Although it identified a high level of pupils with special educational needs or additional learning needs, it didn't then meet the code's requirements in terms of the matters that need to be reported in the consultation document. It consulted with the school council, but I understand from governors that the initial engagement didn't present them with the option of closure and they were quite relaxed. When the actual options were given to them subsequently, of course they opposed the proposal for closure and amalgamation, and much more besides. I have submitted a consultation response making these points, so you've no need to suggest that I might, but, given your response just a few moments ago, and your response to Darren Millar in the Chamber on 25 April, as I've said quite clearly, my expectation is that local authorities should be working the grain of the new code, with the presumption against rural school closure within it. What action can you now take if a council proceeds with proposed closure in accordance with consultation if the evidence suggests that the content of that consultation did not reflect the current circumstance?
I would expect all local authorities to be designing consultation documents on school closures or mergers that contain accurate information. If they do not, then that simply is not good enough, and if the Member has any evidence that the consultation documents that are currently being issued with regard to the closures that he refers to do not contain accurate information, then I would be very glad to receive that evidence.
We are working as quickly as we can to publish the new schools organisation code. I'm very pleased to say that the initial consultation had a broad level of support, but there were also responses to the consultation that urged the Government to go even further, and to publish a more extended list of schools. Because it's a consultation, I am minded to take those representations on board and, as a result of that, I have now written to all local authorities and dioceses to indicate my desire to extend the list of schools that we initially consulted on. There is a short, focused consultation, and I hope to publish the revised code and the first ever list of rural schools as quickly as possible.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Mohammad Asghar.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, the growing skills gap, particularly in the field of digital skills, is hindering the ability of companies to find the workers they need. Science is essential for people thinking about a career in areas such as IT, engineering and medicine, but a third of Welsh school pupils shunned specialist science GCSEs, a problem that you yourself have acknowledged. What action will you take to increase the number of pupils, especially girls, studying science in our schools?
Diolch yn fawr, Mohammad Asghar. You will be aware that we are intensely aware of the need to upskill our workforce in areas where employers are telling us that there is a shortage, and that's why we've got this structure called the regional skills partnership, which has been set up to ask those employers to feed into those structures, to say, 'What are the skills that you are looking for as employers?' We know that they've come back to us in every one of the three regional skills partnerships and said, 'Digital skills are really important. We need to drive up the level of those skills'.
We've now provided a £10 million funding pot for further education colleges to respond to the needs of employers, and digital skills, I am sure, will be reflected in terms of people pitching into that pot and saying, 'This is how we're responding to the needs of the employers.' I know that the education Secretary has done a huge amount of work in terms of driving up the standards relating to digital skills in our schools and that we are working very hard to make sure that the new school curriculum will reflect the needs of the new economy.
The Welsh Government has a target of 100,000 new, high-quality apprenticeships. I believe that the take-up of apprenticeships in Wales would be incresed if the benefits they can bring are explained to people at an early stage and age also. Good careers information in school is vital, but there are issues with the quality and availability of careers advice, including the lack of trained careers advisers and a lack of knowledge of apprenticeships and vocational training by school staff. What is the Minister doing to improve the quality of careers advice and ensure that apprenticeships are properly promoted here in Wales?
I think you're absolutely right; we need to do a lot more to make sure that people understand that apprenticeships are a real route to quality employment. We have a whole series of initiatives that are helping us to try and engage people, in particular in some of the STEM subjects that you talked about earlier, to make sure that they are responding to what the economy needs. So, we have a whole series of initiatives. One of the best is a thing called Have a Go where we invite literally thousands of schoolchildren in to really test out their abilities to work and to apply themselves in a more practical way with vocational skills. I think that is already having an impact, but we are trying to do a lot more to help the careers service in Wales to make sure that they are imparting the skills that they have to the schools so that they can give the advice that you talk about.
It is 55 years since the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, warned that, if the country was to prosper, a new Britain would need to be forged in the white heat of a scientific revolution. That was Mr Wilson. Today, technological changes are so fast that skills are changing faster than formal educators can keep up with them. By the time a curriculum is crafted and approved by the various bodies and students finally graduate, their digital skills may not have kept pace with the technology. How will the Minister ensure that the educational institutions in Wales keep up with the pace of change in this world?
Thank you. You're absolutely right; it really is time for us to rethink that phrase 'the white heat of technology' and to adapt it to a new age. You're right; if we thought that was going quickly, I think the next phase is going to be even quicker. So, you're absolutely right; we need to have a much more flexible response to the changes that are going to be taking place. So, already, the digital skills that we're teaching our children will be out of date in a few years' time. That's why, first of all, we need to make sure that the people we have in, for example, our further education colleges, are up to speed, up to date, and that they have the right kind of technology and kit within their schools, and we're helping to fund some of that. But also that we underline the importance of lifelong learning, because unless we all start to take lifelong learning seriously, then I think we're going to get into trouble as a nation in terms of how we position ourselves for the future economy.
The Plaid Cymru Spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Diolch yn fawr. Does the Cabinet Secretary accept that school funding in Wales has reached crisis point?
Llyr, what I accept, because of continuing austerity, is that education is having to work in an atmosphere of restricted budgets. I acknowledge that and that's why I'm taking every opportunity that I can to get as much money to the front line as I can.
Well, I didn't expect you not to recognise as much, to be honest, but the front line is now saying quite clearly that there is a crisis and that we have reached that crisis point. It's leading to increased class sizes, which I know is something that you don't wish to see. It's led to an over-reliance on teaching assistants, who very often aren't properly paid. It's having a detrimental impact on the curriculum, with reduced contact hours, teachers having to teach a broader range of subjects, and some subjects indeed just disappearing altogether.
I'm just wondering whether you have in your mind a minimum level of per-pupil funding in Wales that is necessary to make sure that each child receives a decent education. I'm not going to ask you what it is, but I'm sure you do have, or least I hope that the Government has, some sort of idea of where the line is that we mustn't dip under at all costs. Indeed, at its national conference in November, NAHT Cymru said that school leaders simply don't know if there's enough money in the school system anymore and they called for a national audit of school budgets. I'm wondering whether you would consider undertaking such an audit.
I am aware that it is the policy of NAHT to have a national funding formula. At this stage, I don't believe that that's appropriate. We have a diverse education system in Wales, whether that is delivering education in a very small rural school where the costs, obviously, are higher, or delivering education to a highly deprived community, where we know we need to put additional resources in to support those children. We have, as a Government, tried our very best in the recent budget funding rounds to protect local government spend, because that's where most schools get their resources from, through the revenue support grant. On top of that, I as the education Minister have increased the amount of money going into the pupil development grant, despite the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. We have also identified money to assist with the reduction of class sizes in those areas where we know it'll make the biggest difference. All local authorities have seen the benefit of that investment.
But the funding picture is a rather discombobulated one, isn't it, when you look at, for example, the way the Government funds education. Some money goes to consortia and some money goes to local authorities—some of that goes to local authorities through the RSG, some of it goes to local authorities through grants, some goes straight to schools and, of course, we have 22 local authorities in Wales, which, basically, means 22 different formulas and, potentially, a postcode lottery in terms of how much funding is spent on each child depending on where they live.
The reality, of course, is that the education budget has dropped this year. We've seen reports recently as well of sixth-form funding dropping by a fifth in the last six years, and even today reports of £4 million being drained out of education towards the apprenticeship levy. So, do you not believe that it is time to at least bring everybody together—all of the stakeholders: the councils, the consortia, the teachers, parents and pupils—just to look again at how Welsh schools are funded?
Well, Llyr, you're right; there are a number of ways in which individual schools are funded. I continue to believe that local authorities are best placed to be able to identify need in their own local area and respond accordingly. I was very grateful to receive assurances from Debbie Wilcox, leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, that local authorities would continue to prioritise funding in education. Where we have concerns that maybe money isn't getting to the front line, officials are involved in those discussions with regional consortia and individual local education authorities. As I've said previously, if people have concerns about the way in which notional education spend is calculated for the RSG, both I and the Cabinet Secretary for local government have said that we are happy to look at that data. But there is an understanding between us and Welsh local government that that will not be imposed upon them. They have to come to the table to ask that of us, but we stand ready to work with them if they feel now's the time to update the data with regard to calculations for education in the RSG.
UKIP spokesperson, Michelle Brown.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Cabinet Secretary, as you have overall responsibility for the education system in Wales, it's ultimately your responsibility to ensure that public funds are applied properly to the benefit of children and young people in Wales. How do you monitor how educational budgets are being used by local authorities, schools and consortia?
I would refer you to the answer I gave to Llyr Huws Gruffydd. We have in-depth conversations with individual local authorities, with the WLGA and with the regional consortia. If we are unclear that the funding is being allocated in a way that is satisfactory to us, then officials work with that organisation to provide clarity and we act accordingly.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. You'll perhaps be aware that the BBC reported today that approximately £4 million is being taken out of school budgets to pay for local authorities' apprenticeship levies to the UK Government. They're also reporting that while some councils are paying this levy out of the overall budget, 13 of them are paying it out of the school budgets. Amongst councils that are paying it out of the overall budget, their educational budget may well be affected unless the council has ring-fenced it. I know that the apprenticeship levy is a UK tax, and that you and the Welsh Government have absolutely no control over it, but can you tell us what impact that paying that apprenticeship levy is having on school budgets and the staff levels of schools?
The Member is right; the apprenticeship levy is not something that we have control over at the Welsh Government. We have raised, as a Government, our concerns with Westminster on how the apprenticeship levy is working. Officials meet regularly to raise concerns with the Department for Education on issues linked to apprenticeships, and we understand that officials in the Department for Education—[Interruption.]
We don't need a supporting act from Darren Millar to the Minister.
We understand that officials in the Department for Education are currently reviewing the operation of the apprenticeship levy and—[Interruption.]
Sorry, Cabinet Secretary, but we now we have one of your fellow Cabinet Secretaries joining in, so let's stop it and allow the Cabinet Secretary to continue.
As I was trying to say, Presiding Officer, we are in dialogue with the Department for Education at Westminster regarding the operation of the apprenticeship levy. We have an urgent need to minimise the levy's impact on the apprenticeship programme in Wales. I understand why it is so frustrating that schools find themselves in this position, and that's why we need this programme to be reformed.
Cabinet Secretary, I'm very glad to hear that you're having conversations with Westminster about the impact of the apprentcieship levy. The additional learning needs Bill has introduced a presumption in favour of pupils with ALN being placed in mainstream schools. This is a move I wholeheartedly applaud. I grew up in an era when people with additional learning needs and disability were effectively segregated from the rest of the population. I really couldn't be happier that it's been consigned to the dustbin now. But at a time when there are increasing burdens on schools—school budgets being hit, as you've described—ALN provision is now in danger of being detrimentally affected, and I'm already hearing reports from constituents that support staff for children and young people with additional learning needs are being cut. However, Wales gets a payback from the UK Government from the apprenticeship levy. So, what discussions have you had with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance with regard to compensating local authorities and schools for the losses they've sustained because of the levy, such as refunding the levy paid, so that at least the schools don't lose out?
I can assure the Member that I have numerous conversations with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance over my priorities for investment in Welsh education. With regard to special educational needs, I welcome the support of the UKIP Member for our policy of transformation in this area of schools. If we are to raise standards and close the attainment gap, we cannot do that without supporting all of our students who have additional learning needs, and that's why we've allocated £20 million to implement the new legislation that this Assembly recently passed.
3. What measures has the Welsh Government taken to improve educational standards in Montgomeryshire? OAQ52212
The Welsh Government, regional consortia and local authorities are collectively supporting schools in Montgomeryshire and, indeed, throughout the whole of Wales, to improve educational standards, in line with the priorities as set out in 'Our national mission'.
Cabinet Secretary, the governing body of Ysgol Bro Hyddgen in Machynlleth is proposing not to have an English language stream from September for the new intake of pupils into reception year. Every child in that year will be taught through the medium of Welsh. I've received a large number of concerns from parents in this regard, and there was a public meeting in Machynlleth on this matter on Monday evening. Of course, parents are concerned about the educational outcomes of their children. So, essentially, the English stream is being removed from the school for this particular year group, and is being done so without full formal public consultation. The local authority is saying this is a matter for the governing body. Is the governing body permitted to do this without a full public consultation? I'd also ask: the next English-medium school is my old school in Caersws, which is a 45-mile round trip, an hour and a quarter extra journey time for a young child in reception year. I'm sure you will agree with me, Cabinet Secretary, that that would clearly be unacceptable. So, can I ask you to examine this situation and provide a Welsh Government response?
Thank you, Russell. I am aware that the governing body of Ysgol Bro Hyddgen has recently decided to combine the Welsh and English-medium streams at their reception class, beginning in September 2018. As I understand it, this decision was due to the small number of pupils enrolled in the English-medium stream. Powys County Council as well as the school are providing advice and support to parents wishing to discuss the situation in greater detail, and as you alluded to, there have been opportunities for parents to meet. What's really important is to reassure parents that the school will continue to provide a bilingual education for all pupils, ensuring that they leave school fluent in both the Welsh and English languages, and my officials continue to discuss with Powys County Council how this change is occuring.
Of course, it’s important to highlight that Welsh-medium education can also enrich the education and attainment of pupils and there is unmistakable proof of that. I turn to the other end of Montgomeryshire to ask a question of the Cabinet Secretary on the reorganisation of schools in Newtown. There’s almost £120 million allocated for that purpose and that’s been approved by Government, including the provision of a Welsh-medium lifelong school in Newtown for the first time. I’m pleased to see this transformation in the attitude towards Welsh-medium education in Powys in the Welsh in education strategic plan that's been approved. I’d like to ask the Cabinet Secretary what other steps she’s discussing with Powys council at the moment to increase Welsh-medium education and to build on some of the foundation and the steps already taken positively to date.
Presiding Officer, perhaps I should declare an interest as the parent of three children who attend a bilingual school in Powys and have received their education through the medium of Welsh in the primary sector and are now doing their best to receive as much Welsh-medium secondary education as they can—in some cases it's proving challenging. So, I can attest on a personal basis the benefits that a bilingual education has offered my children. I'm very proud that my daughters can do something that I would only dream of being able to do, and that is to be able to converse fluently in both the languages of our nation. I certainly don't see it as a detriment to their educational achievement—it's been a positive enhancement. I'm very glad that we seem to see, within the county of Powys, a new determination to ensure that those children whose parents want them to be educated through the medium of Welsh or bilingually—that they are pushing ahead with these plans. If we're to reach our Government's target of a million Welsh speakers by 2050, then education in all parts of Wales has a crucial part to play in helping us achieve those targets. I'm glad that Powys is taking the opportunity to respond to the demand that there is in the Newtown area and, indeed, other areas of Powys, for Welsh-medium and bilingual education.
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the importance of breakfast clubs in schools? OAQ52230
Thank you, Dawn. School breakfast clubs are an integral part of the Welsh Government’s wider work to improve food and nutrition in school. They are intended to help improve the health and concentration of children in the school day by providing children with a healthy start to that day.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. You may not be aware, but this week Merthyr Tydfil council has started a 45-day statutory consultation period with trade unions around cuts to the vital service provided by breakfast clubs across the borough. There are 150 or so staff who are likely to be affected by this proposed cut; they are predominantly female, part-time and low paid. I think it's important to note that these cuts need to be seen in the context of a local authority that still has areas with levels of deprivation that are amongst some of the highest in the UK, let alone Wales. Given what you've said about the benefits of breakfast clubs, I'm sure you'll agree that these proposed cuts, alongside a cut of £465,000 to the school budgets this year alone, which I've mentioned to you previously, are a threat to the well-being and life chances of local children, some of whom are in our poorest communities. However, since the setting of the budget, the council now seems to have found money for other things, such as grass cutting, which, whilst desirable, I don't think can be as important as maintaining the breakfast club service at its current levels. So, given how important you consider this issue to be, I'd like to know what you would do to ensure that this short-sighted decision is reversed.
Well, Dawn, Wales was the first home nation to introduce free breakfasts in primary schools in 2004 and under the School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Act 2013, local authorities have a duty to ensure the provision of primary school free breakfast continues. I would be the first person to admit that I was highly sceptical of the introduction of free school breakfasts, but actually independent research that was carried out by Cardiff University has gone on to demonstrate, and has certainly convinced me, that the provision of free breakfast actually does have an effect on educational attainment. We need to do everything that we can to ensure that that benefit is not lost to children, neither in Merthyr Tydfil nor anywhere else in Wales. It is disappointing to read reports in local media that there seems to have been a choice made to prioritise, as you said, grass cutting, which I'm sure is very much needed, but it is difficult to understand why that is a priority for this local authority rather than an evidence-based policy that investing in school breakfasts actually helps children do better. That is especially true for children from poorer backgrounds, for whatever reason, whose families may find it difficult to give them the healthy start to the day that they need.
Breakfast clubs provide children with a healthy and varied breakfast meal, an opportunity for social interaction and support for parents, particularly those who work and rely on breakfast club as a means of affordable and reliable childcare. In a recent report, some parents expressed concern that children were allowed to add sugar to breakfast cereal, some of which may already have a high sugar content. What guideline has the Cabinet Secretary issued to schools about monitoring pupils' sugar intake at breakfast club, please?
The Member will be aware that we have quite stringent regulations around the healthy nature of foods that should be supplied to children in school. We all know the detriment a diet that's high in sugar has for all of us, and I'm sure we would all wish that, if children are partaking in a free breakfast in school, it is of a high nutritional standard and is not one that adds empty calories to their diet.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on capital expenditure on schools in the next financial year? OAQ52238
Diolch yn fawr, Llyr. The capital available for schools next year will be £133 million and match funded by our partners. The twenty-first century schools programme operates a series of investment waves over financial years, with the first wave providing £1.4 billion and the second wave of the twenty-first century schools programme starting in 2019 providing a further £2.3 billion.
Councillors have contacted me, and they're concerned that the councils are only given a month to prepare bids for the capital grant this year, which comes out of the underspend of the previous year, and that those bids have to be on the basis that there is an assurance that they will spend the funding in the current financial year. Now, we've been discussing a shortage of public funding, so it's crucial that we make the best of every penny available. So—I'm sure you share my frustration that this is the situation—what will you do to ensure that councils don't have to scrabble together some plans in order to shift the funds?
Well, clearly, we always want to give local authorities as much notice as is possible for moneys that are available. Sometimes, with the best will in the world, additional resources may become available and in the desire—as I said I wanted to do earlier—to get as much money as possible to the front line, sometimes, we do need a quick decision and a quick submission of bids to allow money to be spent in-year that we hadn't anticipated would become available. I'm not prepared to let perfect be the enemy of the good, and in this case I want the good to be more money to the front line.
Cabinet Secretary, the Welsh Government has put a tremendous amount of capital into the twenty-first century schools programme. You have seen in my constituency Awel y Môr and Ysgol Bae Baglan, which are two brand-new schools operating and three new schools due to be operating in September, Ysgol Cwm Brombil, Ysgol Gymraeg Bro Dur and the new Briton Ferry primary. However, there is an issue on maintenance aspects of some of the schools. Very often, we see that many schools, which are not being proposed for new replacements, are in very difficult times because they are being told that they need £3 million-worth of maintenance done to them. For example, Cymer Afan is one of those that they claim is needing that. What are you doing to assess the cost of the maintenance of the schools so that we can not only get the brand-new schools but also keep the schools that are not to be replaced up to standard?
Thank you very much for that question. There are two things that we're doing. We have made available at the end of the last financial year £14 million to schools across Wales to help cover some small-scale maintenance costs. That's money that became available that we were able to get out to schools as quickly as we could. What's also important to note is that, as local authorities put their bids together for band B of the twenty-first century schools programme—as I said, a programme that will see over £2 billion being invested in our school and college premises—one of the new mechanisms for distributing that money actually does allow for a maintenance contract to be a part of the bid, thus covering maintenance costs for some twenty-plus years after the school is built, and many local authorities are looking at that mechanism for addressing the very point that you talk about.
Cabinet Secretary, the auditor general looked at twenty-first century schools in the report issued May last year, I seem to remember, and in that, whilst he was broadly supportive of the project and thought money had largely been well spent, he did recommend that some adjustments be made if the funding or approach changed for the next band of investment.
Band B is less focused on reducing surplus places and more on improving the condition of the actual school estate itself, and also increasing community engagement. Can you tell us—? Often, these schools are not just schools, but they're fantastic buildings at the heart of communities. Can you tell us what advice you're giving to local education authorities so that they really are at the heart of the community, and the community locally benefits as much from those buildings as possible and gets value for money?
Thank you, Nick. You raise a very important point. We are investing significant amounts of public money in the creation of these new facilities, and they can't just be facilities that are used during the school day, during the school term—we need to make sure that those facilities are available for the community at large.
Only this morning, I had the pleasure and privilege of opening the new eastern campus in the constituency of the Cabinet Secretary for health. It is a truly, truly impressive building that combines 11 to 16 facilities, but also Cardiff and Vale College facilities on the same campus, and fantastic outdoor playing facilities—a floodlit 3G pitch—and those facilities are going to be available, not just for the use of the schoolchildren, but actually the use of the community at large. And I know that that kind of investment in eastern Cardiff, as I heard this morning, is long overdue and is much, much welcomed.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the development of a new school curriculum in Wales? OAQ52225
Diolch yn fawr, Dai. A new transformational curriculum is central to our national mission. The network of the pioneer schools is continuing to work with national and international experts to design and develop the new curriculum and assessment arrangements. We are on track to delivering the draft curriculum for feedback from schools in April 2019.
I thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. Now, Government statistics show that loneliness is endemic amongst Wales's young people. Despite this, the Welsh Government has shown a complete disregard for this issue for years, with not a single statement nor report on youth loneliness being published since at least 2011. Now, equipping young people with the skills to tackle loneliness is vital, so will you commit to ensuring that our schools help young people in the future to avoid the pain of prolonged loneliness?
Thank you, Dai. I'm sure that you are already aware that one of the six areas of learning and experience in our new curriculum will be health and well-being. That will have equal status alongside the five other areas of learning and experience. Presiding Officer, only yesterday we debated at length my decision to include statutory relationship and sexuality education in the new curriculum. Relationships are a key to combating the loneliness that Dai Lloyd just described, and I'm determined that we will have world-leading education in this area in our schools.
Cabinet Secretary, I'm sure you'll agree, as part of the curriculum, having young people understanding what their legal rights and responsibilities in society are, if they're to play a proper role and be prepared for joining society fully as adults—. I wonder what progress, therefore, is being made to develop and incorporate within the curriculum public legal education. Also, I'd ask you, as part of that, under the Legal Services Act 2007, there is an obligation under the legal services board to basically take steps to increase public understanding of the citizen's legal rights and duties. I wonder if it would be appropriate for there to be contact with them as to what contribution they're making towards the issue of legal education amongst our young people. It seems to me the two go hand in hand together.
Thank you very much, Mick. I don't believe we can achieve the four purposes of the new national curriculum without addressing the issues that you raise. I can tell you that the humanities group has received input from a range of experts and stakeholders, including input about public legal education, in the support of its work. The group has developed a draft 'what matters' statement that supports this particular area, which states that learners will understand their rights and responsibilities as ethical citizens, and the importance of ensuring that they respect the rights of others. Learners understand individuals' legal and moral responsibilities and the consequences of failing to act accordingly.
The group continues to share its draft work with key stakeholders with an interest in this area, and that does include Wales's Children's Legal Centre, which, of course, is based at Swansea University.
Cabinet Secretary, in the list of 'what matters' in the health and well-being area of the new curriculum, there's clear focus on learners' own health and well-being, of course, but no learning statement on how pupils might help others look after their health and well-being. You may remember back in February 2017, Assembly Members supported my proposals for age-appropriate teaching of life-saving skills to be a mandatory element of the curriculum—something you supported before you were in Government. So, now is your chance, if I can put it like that.
If it's not under the health and well-being area, where would you see this proposal, supported, of course, by the Assembly, children and their families,
the British Heart Foundation, St John Cymru and a host of other interested parties, fitting into that new curriculum? I hope you'll be able to come to the Welsh Hearts event I'm sponsoring tomorrow to see just how easy some of these skills are to learn. Thank you.
Thank you very much for the invitation. Unfortunately, I won't be able to join you tomorrow—diary commitments unwilling on this occasion. But I have been fortunate enough to visit schools where the use of life-saving technology, such as defibrillators and emergency first aid skills, has been demonstrated. You will be familiar with Ysgol Penmaes in Brecon, which is a special school in the town. It was great to see staff from the Welsh Ambulances Service NHS Trust working alongside those children to develop these skills. We have written to all schools to encourage them to participate in such programmes.
The areas of learning and experience have not yet completed their work; they continue to receive feedback and to reflect on what will be included within the curriculum. We will wait to see how that develops as we go forward.
7. What steps is the Cabinet Secretary taking to help schools to promote mental wellbeing? OAQ52241
Thank you, Lee. 'Our national mission' makes clear that through a new curriculum with a distinct emphasis on the well-being of learners, developments in professional learning and the child and adolescent mental health services inreach pilots, we are taking action to help schools promote and support positive mental health and well-being.
Thank you. I know the Cabinet Secretary will agree that early recognition is important in providing support for children and young people, and schools sometimes struggle to provide the most appropriate support, both in terms of having the skills and capacity within the school, but also in accessing services in the community and through CAMHS. Mental health charities and schools report that the range of mental health interventions going into schools often isn't joined up and can be confusing. So, what can the Cabinet Secretary do to ensure that the different actors co-ordinate and that there's a clear route to access information and signpost pupils to the support they need?
Thank you, Lee, for that important question. Having recognised the difficulty that some schools can have in obtaining specialist services, I and the Cabinet Secretary for health have been able to join forces and to combine a monetary resource from both of our budgets to joint-fund the £1.4 million CAMHS inreach project that is happening on a pilot basis in a number of areas across Wales. The purpose of that pilot is to understand how best we can support teachers and school staff to support their children and what the most effective mechanism of putting specialist mental health services into schools actually is. We will be reflecting on that pilot with a view to, if possible, if it's a success—and I believe that it will be a success—rolling that programme out further.
As we develop our new curriculum, it'll be important that we are in a position to provide the professional development opportunities for teachers so that they know how best to address some of these issues, and we continue to look at innovative practice across Wales, where we can to see if we can make improvements. So, recently, at the invitation of Paul Davies, I was able to visit Ysgol y Preseli, which has a very innovative approach to promoting children's health and well-being as part of an international research project with Harvard University. The impacts there are very, very real. It's innovative work and I was very pleased to see it. Officials will be exploring whether there is more that we can do in other parts of Wales to build on the experiences of Ysgol y Preseli, where the focus is very much on early intervention and building children's self-esteem, their self-worth and positive attitudes towards their learning and building up their optimism that, actually, they can succeed in school and that, by succeeding in school, they can live a better, happy, healthier life.
Cabinet Secretary, you'll be aware that the Children, Young People and Education Committee have expressed concerns about the lack of resilience amongst children and young people in our schools. But it did highlight, in its recent report on this issue, some excellent practice that is going on in my own constituency in north Wales at Ysgol Pen y Bryn in Colwyn Bay, which you have also visited with me to see the mindfulness programme that is working in that school.
One of the tragedies about that excellent practice is that the pioneer schools that are developing the new curriculum have not attempted to try to access the expertise that is available in that school. What action are you taking, as the Welsh Government, to ensure that where there is good practice, it is being engaged with in terms of the development of the new curriculum, so that more people can benefit from it?
Thank you, Darren. As you say, there is an array of interventions that can be successfully used in school to address pupils' well-being—mindfulness being one that I know is particularly successful in the school that we visited together. Through the pioneer school network and the individual areas of learning and experience, they are taking a range of evidence and advice from expert groups. Now that we're at this stage of the development of the curriculum, I would expect to see a far greater level of interaction between pioneer and non-pioneer schools, working in their cluster arrangements, and I've already received feedback from some schools that were previously critical of a lack of interaction, saying that things are now much better.
I'm not sure if the Member was in the Chamber yesterday to hear me say that, actually, I've written to the Children, Young People and Education Committee offering to organise specific visits for committee members out to pioneer schools, so that this work can be seen by Members on the ground, and I hope that the Member will be able to avail himself of the opportunity to do that. But I want to see as much dialogue as we can between the pioneer and non-pioneer networks.
I would be interested in seeing the pilot that you mentioned—
I'm ever so sorry; it's disappeared.
Okay. I'd be interested in—. Is it working?
Nothing. Sorry. I'll borrow Lesley's—I hope your ears are clean. [Laughter.]
Is it working now? Is that okay?
I would be interested in hearing about the pilot that you mentioned in answering Lee Waters, because I’ve been asking, over a number of years, about work in schools in the context of self-confidence, given the work that I’m doing on the cross-party group on eating disorders. On that basis, I’d like to ask you what work you have been doing with the health Minister on the eating disorders framework, which is currently being reviewed. There are workshops happening across Wales. In the last meeting that we had of the cross-party group, there was mention of how important it is to merge health and education in this area, because the sooner that we can see that a young person has an eating disorder, then the less likely it is that things will worsen, if there’s a strong educational system in place to help them not have to deal with the problems that emerge from eating disorders. So, I would urge you to be part of that framework review, if you’re not already, and also to share that pilot that you mentioned today.
Thank you, Bethan. The Cabinet Secretary for health and I recognise that by working together, the impact of our actions will be so much greater. We also recognise that, unless we address a child's health and well-being, especially their mental health, they cannot make the most of their opportunities within the education system to achieve their very best. How can we expect a child who is in mental distress to be able to access a curriculum? And so, we are continuing to see where we can, across our portfolios, work together to make that impact. That's the reason why we are funding the CAMHS in-reach project in a number of local authorities across Wales, so that we can better understand how we can support schools, as I said, to support their children better and have quick access to more specialist services if that is needed. But I will specifically, as a result of your question, sit down with the Cabinet Secretary for health if he is willing to do so to discuss, on this particular issue around eating disorders, what more we can do to join up work in both our departments.
Finally, question 8—Mike Hedges.
8. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on schools in Wales graded excellent by Estyn? OAQ52210
Thank you, Mike. Over the 2010-17 inspection cycle, 175 schools received an 'excellent' judgment for either their performance or prospects for improvement, and 21 per cent of schools have been rated as 'excellent' for at least one judgment. I am pleased to see that there is so much excellence in the Welsh education system.
Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that response? Will the Cabinet Secretary join me in congratulating Cwmrhydyceirw on achieving 'excellent' in both categories in its recent inspection? Is the Cabinet Secretary considering visiting the school to see some of its excellent practice in action—excellent practice that was identified by Estyn in their report?
Mike, I am always very pleased to see excellence wherever it is in our education system. I congratulate the school involved. It's a testament to the hard work and dedication of the staff within that school and their determination to provide the very best educational opportunities for their pupils, and I would be very happy to visit that school. I would also be very happy to see them at the Estyn annual awards, which take place now every year, where those schools that have received an 'excellent' categorisation are brought together to celebrate and to share good practice.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.
The next item is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services, and the first question is from Jenny Rathbone.
1. Following the publication of the task and finish group report on breastfeeding, how will the Cabinet Secretary increase breastfeeding rates across Wales? OAQ52244
Thanks for the question. I made a written statement on 11 May about the recommendations of the breastfeeding task and finish group. One of the recommendations was the creation of a national breastfeeding action plan and a strategic oversight group to support delivery. I expect work on the implementation of the action plan to commence in July 2018.
One of the issues of concern is that only 60 per cent of women, at birth, start breastfeeding, and that's down to less than 30 per cent at the six-week check. So, clearly, we have a very steep mountain to climb. There were some interesting points from the task and finish group around a couple of things I'd like to ask you about. One is: one of the reasons why people give up breastfeeding is because of an undiagnosed tongue-tie, so I was very pleased to see that Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor have been delivering a tongue-tie clinic led by a midwife since 2005, because that's absolutely crucial to ensure that a tongue-tie is accurately diagnosed and then dealt with very quickly. So, I'd be interested to know what services for tongue-tie exist across Wales, seeing as this seems to be an increasingly common presentation.
The second point: given the huge disconnect between the numbers who ought to be breastfeeding and the numbers who actually are, and in the context of 26 per cent of children in Wales being overweight or obese, I wondered what engagement the task and finish group had with third sector organisations, because I understand there wasn't anybody from the third sector on the actual board of it. How is the Government now planning to engage with voluntary and community sectors to increase breastfeeding rates across Wales, along the lines that Aneurin Bevan is planning to do with a peer-support group system, which seems to me is required to battle both the resistance and the prejudice against breastfeeding?
Thank you for the comments and the questions. We do recognise that both initiation rates and continuing rates of breastfeeding are not where we want to be and this is not a challenge for mothers; it's a broader challenge for all of us about not just being supportive partners, but actually being more supportive about the environment that is created, where lots of women are put off breastfeeding by the attitudes of other people. So, it is partly about, again, our societal challenge to re-normalise breastfeeding. It is an entirely normal activity and it is a big problem for all of us that it is not seen in that light by a number of people.
But turning to your two points, on tongue-tie, depending on the definition used, between 3 per cent and 10 per cent of babies have a form of tongue-tie, and I'm pleased that you've noted the good practice example in north Wales. I'm happy to confirm that issues like tongue-tie will be included within the action plan developed. You can expect to see something specifically in there on tongue-tie when that action plan is provided. We will also include something about the role of peer supporters and voluntary groups, to see how they can be further incorporated into service provision. There are a number of people on the expert group who have been directly involved themselves with peer supporters and voluntary groups as well and, in fact, the report does talk about the excellence and good practice that exists. But again, it's the consistency of that support that we want to try and do something about. This has come from a recognition by a number of people that we haven't got to where we want—the task and finish group, a number of people on it—and what we will continue to do is recognise we have a great deal more to do. It's good for mothers, it's good for babies. Ultimately, it's good for all of us.
Diolch, Llywydd. [Interruption.] Thank you. Diolch. Cabinet Secretary, one aspect or consequence of impending fatherhood is that my colleagues now allocate me every question relating to babies and children and all aspects of children's health. [Laughter.] But I've taken it well. Well, for today, anyway.
Cabinet Secretary, there's been a good scheme in Newport recently: a successful scheme that's encouraged local shops, cafes and the like to display a sticker in the window showing their support for breastfeeding. It might be a small scheme, but within that area it's had a significant effect. Can you tell us what consideration you're giving to building networks with health providers and local communities, so that businesses can show their support in that way and we can increase rates in a natural and progressive way?
I entirely agree with the point you've made, and I'm delighted to see you supporting the point made in this Chamber by Jayne Bryant previously, on exactly the same scheme. It is important that—. The normalisation of breastfeeding is something that businesses have a part to play in, definitely. Some of the things that make me most angry about breastfeeding stories are when businesses have asked people to leave their premises. So, that's part of the challenge for all of us, about making, obviously, the environment right, but actually the points that Jenny Rathbone was raising as well about how you provide support to women, to families, on both their initiation and continuing as well. It isn't the case that this is something that happens easily and naturally for every single person. Some people do need support, and as a not-so-recent father, I recognise, actually, that the support that we got both from the health service and on a volunteer basis made a big difference to our family.
2. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on training occupational therapists in north Wales? OAQ52243
Thank you for the question. The number of occupational therapy training places in north Wales has increased from 12 in 2013-14 to 34 in 2018-19. In addition to the full-time programme, our commissioners are working with Glyndŵr University to consider arrangements for a part-time programme in 2019-20.
Thank you very much. In 2014, the training courses for occupational therapists came to an end at Bangor University and, as a result, Wrexham is now serving the whole of north Wales. Now, there is a recruitment problem in the north-west, and as you know, there is evidence demonstrating that students tend to remain in the areas where they trained, and that is one of the many reasons why Plaid Cymru is calling for the establishment of a medical school in Bangor. Will you look at the possibility of reintroducing a training course for occupational therapists in Bangor, which would also include Welsh-medium training in order to respond to the needs of the north-west?
Thank you for the question. We've actually seen a more than 50 per cent increase in our national training for occupational therapy between 2014 and 2018. So, we're continuing to invest in this group of workers, to recognise that they're good, not just within the hospital sector and a range of sectors, but also within local healthcare too. Interestingly, I had the mirror image of this discussion with representatives about nurse training, where Bangor won the contract to deliver all the nurse training in north Wales, and Glyndŵr no longer provide that NHS training. So, this is part of the challenge about how we go and we commission on an effective, quality basis, training for a range of different professionals. I'm happy to consider how and what we commission again, and how Health Education and Improvement Wales commission the training from appropriate training providers, bearing in mind the needs of the population, and, of course, language need is part of the need, as opposed to preference. So, I do recognise the point that's being made, but it's something that we will consider together with HEIW.
Occupational therapists, of course, are not only performing an important role in the community for the wider population, but they can also offer a service that is an occupational health-related service for the people who work for the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board. One of the things that has been very concerning in recent days is to see reports of a 17 per cent increase in the number of staff days of absence in relation to stress-related sickness—almost 77,000 days last year, costing over £5 million. What support are you putting in place for front-line staff in our national health service in places like north Wales, where they do feel as though they're firefighting because of the pressure on resources and because of the significant number of vacancies that are now appearing, not just in our nursing ranks but in some of the other ranks too?
Well, I think it's a bit of a stretch to move from occupational therapy to the stress-related absences in north Wales, but nevertheless we are looking at what's happened within north Wales. Actually, part of what's happened is that people are more accurately describing their rates of sickness and the reasons for it, because, previously, a number of people chose the 'other' category, and more people are now actually choosing the reason for that. North Wales has actually had one of the better sickness absence records across the national health service. There are a range of measures in place that are being considered to consider how we better support people who deal with what is, at times, a stressful and difficult job. The First Minister answered this question yesterday. We have a number of initiatives in north Wales specifically about that, and I'm more than happy to write to the Member with a range of those initiatives that the health board are undertaking.FootnoteLink
Questions now from the party spokespeople. UKIP spokesperson, Caroline Jones.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, two weeks ago, the former head of the NHS counter fraud service warned that not enough was being done to tackle fraud in our NHS, and that as much as £200 million a year, or 3 per cent of the budget, is being lost because of fraud. The scale is appalling when you consider that, each year, we lose the equivalent of two and a half times the total new treatment fund. What is your Government doing to combat this fraud, given the staggering amount of loss?
Well, we start from a point of basic disagreement, because the research undertaken in Portsmouth is not something that we recognise—or indeed NHS England recognise—in terms of the scale of NHS fraud, and there are a number of suppositions within the research. So, it just isn't a figure that we recognise. We do, though, take seriously challenges about NHS fraud activity. We have a counter fraud unit that works not only in Wales but works with colleagues in England too. Part of what the research was talking about were things that you wouldn't necessarily consider to be fraud. You think about the commercial abuse of some relationships, which is part of what they were thinking about, and, actually, we have a range of legal actions, together with other jurisdictions within the UK, about infringements of patents and about abusing market positions. The Counsel General has to look at some of these issues as well about our position on legal action ongoing, but at present, of course, we're able to do that most effectively because we're able to make the best use of European Union regulations. That, of course, will become more difficult should we leave the European Union in due course.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. I welcome the fact that there is zero tolerance to fraud within the NHS in Wales. Last month, two former employees of a GP surgery in Newport were convicted of fraudulently filing prescriptions and ordered to pay back thousands of pounds to the NHS. Cabinet Secretary, what further steps can be taken to prevent this type of fraud, which costs the NHS millions of pounds? Have you explored whether technology can offer a solution on prescription fraud?
The answer to that is a simple 'yes'. Of course, we take a zero tolerance approach to fraud, but, actually, better use of technology will help to minimise the risks for fraud. In particular, we're looking at e-prescribing, making it easier to prescribe, actually saving people's time, and actually being able to track effectively what's being done by healthcare professionals at various points within the system. Our ability to do that does depend on our continued investment in not just the healthcare records, but actually the ability for healthcare professionals to access that record and be tracked in doing so. That was part of the barrier that prevented our earlier access to Choose Pharmacy. When I chose to invest in Choose Pharmacy, we'd reached a position where both the British Medical Association and community pharmacy themselves agreed on the investment, and they agreed on a method in which the healthcare professionals could be tracked on entering the GP record itself as well. So, actually it's improved our ability to audit and that should help us in our attempts to counter fraud within the NHS.
I'm pleased to hear that, Cabinet Secretary. I have in the past raised the issue of European health insurance card fraud, and at the time you said you didn't believe it affected our NHS. However, journalists working for national newspapers revealed how easy it was to obtain a card in someone else's name. Cards were obtained in the name of Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Donald Trump. According to a whistleblower at the NHS Business Services Authority in England, as many as one in five applications are fraudulent. As the card is often all that is needed to obtain treatment, it is believed that this fraud has cost the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds. Cabinet Secretary, how can we be sure that this type of fraud is not affecting our NHS in Wales?
That's an utterly speculative accusation to make—that there are hundreds of millions of pounds being siphoned off—by an unnamed national newspaper looking at a wholly anecdotal exercise. If we want to get stirred and stoked up into this, we can all follow where this leads. I am not at all interested in diverting attention away from the NHS doing its job to properly service the needs of the public and, yes, to properly think about dealing with fraud where it exists, but I'm not going to be led by the nose by a right-wing campaign that is all about our relationship with Europe. Our NHS relies on its relationship with Europe, not just for staff, but the way that we share knowledge, the way we share regulation, medical devices—our exit from the European Union on the terms that are potentially available at present with the chaos in the UK Government would do great and lasting damage to our national health service. That is the biggest barrier, the biggest challenge, to our national health service and our continued relationship with Europe.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Diolch, Llywydd. At the end of last month, Cabinet Secretary, you wrote to all Assembly Members explaining that the party opposite's claim of falling nurse numbers at Betsi Cadwaladr, a claim based on freedom of information data, was wrong. You instead claimed that Betsi, like the rest of Wales, had seen an increase in qualified nurse numbers. Now, we've looked into the Stats Wales figures, and do you know what? Those figures do show that between September 2015 and 2017 Betsi has seen a small increase in qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors. Now, a cynic would say that you deliberately chose September 2015 as your starting point. If we chose September 2014 as the starting point, then the same Stats Wales figures show a decline in the number of full-time equivalent nurses in Betsi Cadwaladr compared with September 2017. Will you accept that things aren't really quite as rosy as you suggested in that letter last month?
My letter was factually accurate, unlike the claims made by the Conservatives. It's interesting that Plaid ride to the rescue of the Tories and look to make common cause with them. The undeniable truth is that we have more registered nurses in our national health service here in Wales than ever before. We invest more in our staff than ever before. I am proud of the record that we have here in Wales. You see a real difference in values between ourselves and the party opposite, and, obviously, in the investment choices we make, in which we choose to support people as well. I'll never pretend that it is an easy exercise to get all the staff that we want, in particular in the times of the twin clouds of Brexit and austerity. But I say to the Member behind me: this Government will remain committed not just to the values of the national health service, but to the need to have the right numbers of staff, and we will do so in these most challenged of financial circumstances.
Let me turn to figures from the Nursing and Midwifery Council. Incidentally, they show EU nurses leaving the UK in droves because of concerns over Brexit—hugely worrying, but that's for another day. The general Welsh data shows over 300 fewer nurses in Wales since 2012-13. Now, cynics might say that what I did there was to pick a starting point to suit my narrative. Its data actually does show a slight increase on last year. But let's take your narrative and my narrative out of it and turn for a more balanced view to the Royal College of Nursing, who say that:
'Overall numbers of employed NHS nurses are static. This does not reflect increased patient numbers, higher patient dependency and higher bed occupancy. The overall numbers can also obscure very sharp shortages of registered nurses and nursing in some specific fields, e.g.
Neonatal nursing and childrens nursing in the community.'
Do you accept that that is a far more accurate picture of nursing in Wales than the complacency that I think you showed in that letter of April 2018?
I'm certainly not going to apologise for taking on Tory misrepresentations of the truth within the national health service. A claim was made in leaders' questions that simply was not true. It is absolutely right that we stand up for the health service and correct the Tories when they get the facts wrong. I'm still staggered that Rhun chooses to align himself with that point of view. It is a fact that we have more registered nurses in NHS Wales than ever before. It is also true that we have a number of areas where there are vacancies and there are challenges, and I've never tried to hide—the idea that I'm complacent about the challenges affecting the future of the national health service is absolutely farcical. All of these challenges require us to be honest and grown up. They also require us to do all that we can in a time when you recognise, as I do, that because of eight years of Tory austerity we have less resource right across public services than we have ever had before. Despite that, this Welsh Labour Government has continued to invest in the national health service—the only public service where we have more staff now than at the start of austerity. That is a measure of our commitment and I will not apologise for the actions of this Government in living our values and protecting the future of the national health service.
It's a damning indictment of your Government, as I say, that, if you are continuing to spend more, we're getting less results in terms of full-time equivalent nursing numbers, as I have factually stated, based on your Stats Wales figures. I am merely aligning myself with those facts as your statisticians put them forward. Now, we also know that the Welsh NHS continues to demonstrate a heavy reliance on nurses working overtime—71 per cent of nurses working overtime at least once a week. That's 16,000 nurses having to go over and above the call of duty every week because of understaffing. Just recently, we heard those BBC figures, based on FOI, that Betsi Cadwaladr lost over 77,000 days to staff experiencing stress and anxiety, which illustrates the problem of overworked staff in understaffed environments. Now, three options for you: you can either send a letter to the BBC saying that they've got their figures wrong, you can repeat what you said earlier that it's not about stress but about better reporting of stress, or you can accept that in recent years Wales has been substantially understaffed with full-time fully qualified nurses, and that as a result the nurses that we have are under unreasonable pressure and patients haven't received the very care your Government admitted could only be achieved through safe staffing levels.
Well, it's a very strange pitch that the Member makes, but I'm happy to say again: we have more registered nurses than ever before in the national health service in Wales. And your comments about overtime and bank arrangements—some people choose to undertake those arrangements. We also know some people are working together in a range of different circumstances. We have a range of measures in place to think about the accuracy and the efficiency of bank arrangements. We're taking on ideas put forward to us by the Royal College of Nursing on having an all-Wales bank. We're taking up the opportunities for e-rostering, because they are better arrangements for people who have their own needs about how they wish to live their lives, but also at meeting the needs of the health service. We are actively recruiting nurses. The 'Train. Work. Live.' campaign is actively going out and selling Wales successfully as a destination for people to come.
I'll tell you—I was in Belfast at the Royal College of Nursing congress, the only UK health Minister to be there with the Royal College of Nursing at their congress, and the welcome that we had, not just from nurses in Wales, but from right across the United Kingdom and Ireland, was significant. They recognised that, in Wales, we do value nurses, we are serious about recruiting and retaining nurses. They also recognised we're serious about promoting reform and making the very best use of people within the nursing family. You could not understate the enthusiasm of Welsh nurses for the environment they work in, their pride in the service, and the fact that they know they have a Government that is on their side. You would not find anything like the same feeling from nurses working in England.
Conservative spokesperson, Suzy Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, first of all, congratulations on the new responsibility added to your already very busy portfolio. At the launch of the older people's commissioner's latest impact and reach report, you said that the human rights of older people will be put at the heart of public services in Wales. As some councils are looking at closing care homes or day facilities, are you confident that older people are being appropriately consulted? Because I'm not sure that they are. But then older people don't have the right to be consulted about change that affects their lives in the same way that children do under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It's a Welsh Conservative policy to further enshrine the rights of older people within Welsh law by placing that due-regard duty on public bodies, not just Welsh Government, and we'd do the same for children's rights as well. Will you be prepared to adopt those policies?
Thank you, Suzy, for that question. I'm delighted to take on explicitly those new responsibilities for older people. It was great to be at that legacy event last week with the older persons' commissioner. My officials, in fact, have met with her, I think, on three occasions over the last month, working forward on a set of proposals to, as she put it, and as I will reiterate here, 'make those rights real'—those high-level rights that we already have enshrined in our legislation, making them real.
I think that's the focus, rather than a grand new shiny piece of legislation. I love bringing legislation forward, but sometimes there's a better, more immediate way to do it. Just to reiterate some of the ways, because some of these are in statutory areas and some in non-statutory—. So, for example, advocacy is key—absolutely critical—to older people. How much does an older person—? If you went out to the middle of Carmarthenshire and said, 'What do you know about advocacy?', I think most people would say, 'What the heck is that? What right is it that I have to that?' So, getting the awareness out there, but also getting the advocacy, both informal and professional, right—. So, we will revisit Part 10 of the code of practice on advocacy, with a view to developing real practical guidance, making those rights real for people and demonstrating due regard to the high principles.
We will, on commissioning, develop a national framework for independent advocacy services for adults in Wales. We will consider introducing a stewardship function for advocacy in line with recommendations from the Public Policy Institute for Wales. There are many more areas, such as looking to the regulations under Part 9 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 and how we can update those—the guidance that flows from that—to have due regard to the UN principles and, again, making the rights real.
But, I will ask the new commissioner as well, as she comes in, to chair a working group. It's up to the new commissioner what programmes of work they take forward, but I hope the new commissioner would be open to chairing a working group on taking this work forward and making those rights real for older people without the necessity for a grand flagship Bill, but actually making them bite.
I think my response to that is that if you want to make rights real, you enshrine them in legislation and make them enforceable by the courts.
I'll ask you something else now, though. Local authorities are currently in the process of submitting their annual reports setting out how they've used Welsh Government funds to help with respite for carers in their areas, which I think we'd all agree is very important.
These reports, of course, could hold very important information on best practice and good ideas that would run well in different parts of Wales. No-one has a monopoly on good ideas, as both our parties are inclined to say. Can you confirm that these annual reports will be publicly available, to help share good ideas not just between local authorities but with other providers as well? Can you confirm whether the reports will be specific as to the source of money used for providing that respite care, whether it's from the RSG, direct grant funding from Welsh Government, shared budgets with the NHS or any other partnership funding? Following the money in this policy area is pretty difficult, and I'm looking to you, Minister, to help with a little bit of transparency on this.
Indeed. I will check on whether those reports are going to be made publicly available, and I'll write to you and to other Members who are interested on that. On the issue of the traceability of the funding, I'm not sure that they'll actually say whether this has come from information and communications technology—the £3 million being set aside of the £50 million of ICT funding—whether it is from other sorts of funding that are already within the RSG funding, or whether they are within other tranches of funding that are being brought into this. One of the things that we've done for local authorities—at their request, I have to say—is we've given them the flexibility around this in order to actually focus on the outcomes for respite care. In fact, the older people's commissioner made very clear in her 'Rethinking Respite' report that there wasn't sufficient flexibility; it was too hidebound with traditional approaches to respite. Both she and local authorities have said, 'Give us the flexibility—give us the funding, but give us the flexibility'.
So, I think the thing we need to be measuring is not so much which piece of which funding goes into it, but whether they've actually delivered the outcomes—that there are co-produced packages of respite care flexible enough to cater to each individual that have been delivered. There's the real outcome, as opposed to where the particular tranche of funding came from to deliver that outcome. But, I will write to you on the issue of whether those reports will actually be publicly available.
Thank you for that. On the issue of outcomes, I don't think anyone here would disagree that that's the most important thing, and, in fact, the integrated care fund has had a lot of praise from a number of people I've spoken to. But I don't think the Welsh Government can take its foot off the pedal in helping on transparency so that we can actually understand the budgets that you bring forward every year. To try to move away from that as being unimportant, I think, is not impressive, I'm afraid to say.
What I would like to welcome is your planned establishment, through Carers Wales, of a Wales hub for Employers for Carers, something that, obviously, England's had for 10 years now, and I'm really pleased it's coming here. From some of the discussions I've had with people involved in caring at different levels, it seems to be pretty clear that many businesses don't really understand what the role of a carer is, what their rights are and what kind of support could be offered, as it varies, of course, greatly from business to business and carer to carer, sometimes even within single departments in bigger companies. Welsh Conservatives, as you probably know, would like to introduce a financial incentive for young adult carers to stay in post-16 education or apprenticeships so that they don't lose out on career progression, but we recognise—and I wonder if you agree with this—that some employers offering apprenticeships may be deterred from offering them to young adult carers because of those caring responsibilities. If so, how do you think your hub might help employers see beyond those responsibilities to the highly motivated young person who really wants that apprenticeship?
I think you're absolutely right; if we are genuinely interested, with the demands in front of us of a diverse workforce, in utilising the skills of every person of all different ages, including those with caring responsibilities as well, then there is a real job of awareness raising and support for employers to actually identify the needs of those individual carers, respond to them, and to enable them to enter the workplace along with caring responsibilities. Now, if a carer is a young adult carer, for example, aged between 16 and 25, as part of their assessment in transitioning forward, it must include an assessment of, for example, current or future transitions that that carer is likely to make into further or higher education, or to training, or to employment, and it must have due regard to what that young adult carer wishes to participate in. So, part of this is working with the individual carer on their individual plans, and then it's also working with employers. There is a big job of work to be done here with employers, particularly small and medium-sized employers, to open up the world of work then for carers, and to work with them on that. But we will take that forward, and I look forward to the work now of the ministerial advisory group on carers as well on taking forward all of the work streams that, Suzy, you referred to there, and feeding back to me as a Minister.
3. Will the Cabinet Secretary outline how the Welsh Government's social care policy supports disabled people? OAQ52233
Indeed. I'll respond, Caroline, if I may, on behalf of the Cabinet Secretary. The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 sets out our commitment to ensuring the provision of services, care and support for all people, including disabled people, with the key priority being on improving their well-being.
Thank you, Minister. As you're no doubt aware, one of my constituents, Paul Davies, an inspirational paralympian, is struggling to train for Tokyo 2020 because of a lack of support from his local authority social services department. Unless Paul gets the help he needs to attend training sessions, he will not qualify and not only will Wales lose one of its medal hopefuls, but we will be denying Paul the chance to reach his full potential. Minister, if Paul lived in a different local authority, he would be supported, as has been proven in my research. I've almost exhausted all channels here with Paul Davies, who is a bronze medallist already. So, what is the Welsh Government doing to end the postcode lottery in social care, and, on this particular case, will you work with me to find a resolution so that Paul can attend? Thank you.
Caroline, I think you've probably done a favour in some way by raising it today, because the local authority, who are minded, by the way, to put the very right care and support, not simply for care but also for independent living, and part of independent living also is the ability to pursue sports, hobbies and the lifestyle that everybody should be entitled to—. Now, I know that they are keen to do that. It's difficult for me to comment on the individual case, but I think, in raising it today, both the local authority and the sport governing bodies as well will be acutely aware of the necessity of protecting the lifestyle and the interests of Paul, who has excelled as a paralympian. He looks to do more in the future as well, and we wish him well with that as well.
Could I suggest that, if you can, with your constituent, you continue to engage with the front-line social services who are trying to devise a package with Paul? It's an ongoing procedure, so I understand. It's highly complex, but they have a willingness to engage with it, and I hope they can come to a point, in line with the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 and in line with that idea of co-producing packages that are agreed with individuals rather than imposed on individuals—I know it's a difficult process—where they come to the right package for Paul that allows him to pursue not only his sporting ambitions, but also that independent style of living. I know there's a willingness from the local authority to do that, so please engage with them.
In your response there to Caroline Jones, Minister, you mentioned improving the well-being of disabled people, which would, of course, include wider public understanding of some of he barriers that they may face. In January this year, I held a short debate on a scores-on-the-doors policy about disabled access, following a petition from the Bridgend Coalition of Disabled People. At that time, the Cabinet Secretary said he was keen to hear practical suggestions about how such a scheme could work. One of the other objectives of the policy is to nudge businesses into wanting to improve access to buildings. The principal advisers on that, of course, should people with disabilities, but I can see that occupational therapists, either NHS or local authority, who work in reablement, would also have advice to offer here when it comes to the design of those improvements. So, would you be happy to meet representatives of the Bridgend Coalition of Disabled People to learn more about their original idea and to flesh out some of the practicalities?
Thank you. We have a way of working in Wales that is to do with sitting down with people and working through things together. I'm more than happy to meet. I know Simon well, personally and individually—you do as well, I know. He's a great individual. He's a campaigning fireball, he really is. It is an interesting idea and I think it does have some merit. We need to think it through though and we probably need to talk this through: what is the best approach that will make it a situation where any person with a range of disabilities knows—and he's flagged it up in terms of the food signposting that we do, the hygiene ratings and so on—whether there is some way of doing this? It might be his model or it might be something else, but I'm more than happy to sit down with you and others, and with Simon as well, and talk through what we may be able to do and to avoid any negative unintended consequences. Let's get it right if we're going to take something forward.
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the delivery of renal dialysis services in Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board? OAQ52229
Thank you for the question. The Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board and the Welsh renal clinical network are currently going through a dialogue process with service providers for chronic haemodialysis service. It is recognised that Wales leads the UK in terms of access to renal dialysis in ensuring that over 90 per cent of the population can access dialysis within a 30-minute travel time. In north Wales, we want to see an expansion of the service to further support this approach and continue to improve both access and outcomes for patients.
Thank you for that answer, but I understand that the renal services are currently delivered either by the NHS, an independent provider or a combination of both. In February, the health board stated that the current independent provider was due to be recommissioned in the Bangor unit and the satellite unit in Alltwen. Following on from this, concerns were raised about potential changes to terms and conditions for staff taken on by whomsoever might win the next contract. Cabinet Secretary, I would like to know if the existing workforce will be guaranteed the same terms and conditions as they previously enjoyed and that patients will continue to receive the same high standard of care that they deserve as close to home as is possible.
Thank you for the question. I know there have been questions about this broad area previously. I want to reiterate that the opportunity has been taken to look at the whole service to further expand and improve the service to make sure that care is closer to home for a greater number of people. So, patient representatives, trade unions and HR representatives have been invited into the process to develop renal services, together, of course, with clinicians. I'm happy to set out again that all specialist renal services and consultant care will continue to be provided by the national health service. No decision has been made on the final model, but I want to reiterate this very clearly: this Government will not approve the transfer of NHS staff into the private sector. I want to be really clear and upfront about that, because I do know that some members of staff are concerned about their future within the national health service.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for that clarification. Under the new arrangements, I think you've confirmed that there won't be any NHS staff moving to the private sector, but if there's any change at all with regard to staff moving from any NHS body to another third party, can you confirm that staff pension rights wouldn't be affected in that regard? Also, there are some concerns about a change leading to patients paying for additional services in Welshpool, and I wonder if you could comment on that. Some of the recreational and medical equipment that has been purchased for the renal unit has been supplied by the North Powys Kidney Patients Association. So, in any change, can I ask what the position would be on the ownership of these particular items? Can I also ask whether patient transportation will be affected in any way in any change?
I'm happy to reiterate the answers that I've given to Joyce Watson to try and deal with the points that you raise. In terms of pension rights, given that this Government won't approve a transfer out of the national health service of staff, the issue doesn't arise. If people choose to transfer and move their employment, that's a matter for them. We can't force people to stay within the national health service; people do move jobs from time to time, as we know, but there will not be a new service provision that requires people to move out of the national health service.
In terms of Welshpool, NHS services will remain commissioned and provided by the national health service. Even where there are partnerships with the independent sector, that doesn't mean that people would end up paying to go and have their treatment; it is an NHS service. So, I really hope that it's helpful to quash some of the rumours and some of the way in which this conversation has run around in areas—it just is isn't possible and there's no tenable reason to think that that would actually happen. To give that assurance to staff and to patients, it won't affect patient transport, it won't affect having to pay for services—it is a national health service—and it won't affect staff being required to transfer out of the national health service. I don't think I can be any clearer than that.
Cabinet Secretary, you just told us that staff and unions are part of negotiations about the future of the service, but I quoted yesterday to the First Minister a letter from staff saying,
'It's a disgraceful way for a responsible employer to conduct itself in such a process.'
Because they are aggrieved that they have not had the engagement that you're potraying they are having. They say that
'The staff feel that, throughout this process, the communication has been poor and not undertaken in a timely manner, effectively preventing union representation and causing serious distress and worry to all staff concerned.'
Now, I asked the First Minister yesterday whether he would look into this to give us assurances that this is not the case, or at least that, if it is, it will change. Can you also give us that assurance, please?
I'm happy to do that, because if there has been a problem with the way that staff have been engaged I expect it to be rectified. But I do know that health service trade unions have been engaged in and around the conversation with this service. Again, I say that national health service staff will not be required to transfer their employment; I expect staff to be properly involved, and their representatives, in conversations about their future. If there is a real problem—and I have read the letter from the Welshpool staff—then we will ensure that the national health service employer rectifies the process to make sure that people are properly engaged in the conversation about their future.
I think this is taking away from the success story of renal dialysis services in Wales. We have the best story to tell in the whole of the UK about the quality of care, about the outcomes and travel time. We are in a much better position than in Scotland and in England, and that is because of the hard work of the Welsh renal clincial network, the nursing and additional care staff, including healthcare support workers, who directly deliver this service. I'm proud of the additional investment we're making and have been making in this area since 2009. It's a programme that will continue and patients in Wales will get better care as a result.
5. What further steps will the Welsh Government take to prevent and treat respiratory illness? OAQ52222
Thank you for the question. Our approach to tacking respiratory ill health is set out in the respiratory health delivery plan for Wales, which was updated and republished this January. We continue to invest in respiratory care, and, in Wales, spending has risen from £338 million in 2009-10 to £432 million in 2016-17.
Cabinet Secretary, the Asthma UK survey 2017 found over 300,000 people in Wales living with asthma, thousands of annual emergency admissions and 62 deaths in 2016. Two thirds of the deaths are thought to be preventable with better basic care, and standards of basic care are said to be achieved in over 48 per cent of cases in Northern Ireland but, at the other end of the scale, only 26.1 per cent in Wales. So, what further steps will Welsh Government take to drive up standards in Wales?
I'm happy to recommit ourselves to driving up standards right across respiratory conditions. We'll have more to say on that in the coming months. There's an interesting project led by a number of people about the possibility for a respiratory innovation centre, which I'm particularly excited about. There could be economic benefits as well as healthcare benefits to that. On asthma, the thing about the report provided by Asthma UK is that, given the size of the sample, I wouldn't quite agree with all of the assertions they make about the comparative nature of care being provided within different nations in the UK, but they are broadly right that we could and should improve on healthcare, both at primary care level as well as at specialist level.
We're actually in a position where virtually every general practice participates in the clinical audit for primary care for asthma and COPD. That gives us a good picture of the quality of care delivered locally and areas for improvement. And this is a key area where we're actually improving value, because a number of clinicians have actually looked at the treatments available and they choose what they think is the best value product, which isn't always the highest priced product as well. So, we'll get better value for care, and, of course, in asthma care, we've seen some of the new drugs and treatments available being made available faster here through the new treatment fund, delivering on our manifesto pledge to the people of Wales. So, we recognise we have more to go, but we have a real commitment, and I think really good reasons to be positive about our prospect of improving care outcomes here in Wales in the future.
Cabinet Secretary, we in the Welsh Conservatives launched our urban strategy last week, and we put in place some measures to improve air quality, such as the requirement on all schools and nurseries to have air quality monitoring on their premises. I wonder what sort of conversations you're having with your Cabinet colleagues, particularly the Cabinet Secretary for the environment, to start tackling the blight of poor air quality in Wales in a multifaceted way, as the future generations Act, of course, requires you to do.
I'm happy to confirm that there are conversations that do take place across Government, not just with the Cabinet Secretary, but with the Minister, who leads on the clean air plan for Wales. There's something here about understanding the contribution of the national health service and what we can do both to improve the quality of air, but the way the national health service itself operates. It's the biggest employer in the country; we were talking earlier about the fact that it's the only public service to have an expanding number of staff, and more than 90,000 people are employed by the national health service. So, how people get to work, how we make it easier for them to get to work and how we actually then improve the running of significant parts of the NHS estate are part of what we can do, as well, of course, as thinking about the consequences of poor air quality in terms of health service need.
I visited a fantastic example of looking at the way in which we reduce our footprint in actually having a smaller number of movements on and around hospital sites recently in St Woolos, looking at the new Sterimelt innovation, which is actually converting some of the equipment used in hospital theatres and converting it into larger blocks that can then actually be used for 3D printer filament. So, that's actually a really good way to have put a waste product, that was previously going to a landfill with lots of lorry movements on and off, previous to that technology—reducing the number of lorry movements needed to do that. Now we actually have that product turning into a different, useful product. And the good thing is it's been developed by a company in Wales, still based in Wales—I should say, Presiding Officer, within my constituency—but we actually have a real opportunity to see that go into a more useful product to be delivered again through the national health service.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on GP services in Pembrokeshire? OAQ52209
Thank you for the question. GP services are a core component of primary care and the delivery of a sustainable health system. Our drive for continued improvement is backed by the nearly £43 million primary care fund that is driving change and innovation across Wales, including, of course, Pembrokeshire, and £4.69 million of the fund in 2018-19 has been allocated to Hywel Dda for their plans for service sustainability, better access, and to deliver more services locally.
Cabinet Secretary, Hywel Dda university health board has recently approved the application to close St Clement's surgery in Neyland in my constituency, which will have a huge impact on patients at the surgery who will now have to travel to Pembroke Dock for treatment and incur financial costs due to travelling over the Cleddau bridge. In light of these circumstances, can you tell us what discussions you've had with your colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport—who's in his place at the moment—given that the Welsh Government has committed to abolishing the tolls on the Cleddau bridge, so that patients in my constituency will not have to incur financial costs for accessing vital GP services?
I'm sure the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport will be happy to outline the progress this Government is making on the Cleddau bridge in due course. In terms of general practitioner and primary care services within Neyland, I recognise the point that the Member makes, and there are ongoing conversations to consider which services can still be provided within that area to reduce the need to travel to other parts of the health board area for further treatment. So, we'll continue to work alongside the health board, as required, to help them, but this is actually a choice that the group itself has made about closing a branch surgery, and that's within the rules in which general practice operates with this significant independent contractor. But I'm confident we'll still be able to deliver a significant range of local healthcare services within the Neyland area to reduce the need for anyone to travel to Pembroke Dock, including before the time when we make further progress on the tolls.
Well, I'm afraid the vision that you've set out is not the reality in Pembrokeshire for access to GPs. In the last two months, I've had constant updates from Hywel Dda health board about the lack of availability of GPs over the weekend. Only last week, a Narberth constituent contacted me after having phoned her GP surgery 82 times before she got an appointment. My discussions with my constituents about the Hywel Dda health reorganisation proposals have really turned around the fact that there's an informal rationing system for GP access now in both Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire that relates to making it blinking impossible to get hold of a GP and to get an appointment. When will you actually do some strategic work to ensure there is sufficient GPs in Pembrokeshire, but more than that, that we have a proper out-of-hours service provided by GPs so people don't turn up at A&E and report inappropriately to that area?
There are two points there, aren't there? There's the point about access in hours and the work that's being done in making sure people get to see the right healthcare professional. Sometimes that will be a GP, other times it will be a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, or a nurse, or a pharmacist, or a different healthcare professional. I'm pleased to see that in both the north and the south Pembrokeshire clusters, they're investing in those different staff to provide that wider service.
I don't recognise the point you're making about deliberate rationing to make it impossible for people to see a healthcare professional. I do recognise, though, there are localised challenges that really do exist in different parts of the country where access is difficult; I recognise that exists around the country. There are also parts where access isn't a challenge. It's part of the negotiation we're actually having with the British Medical Association on changing the contract for the future, because they too recognise that access is a real cause for concern, with doctors themselves recognising the unhappiness of staff who are placed in that position.
In terms of out-of-hours, we're actually rolling out the 111 service; it's across part of the health board area already, in Carmarthenshire, and that will help us to have a more robust and sustainable model of out-of-hours provision. But I do recognise there are challenges in this area too, and actually, what hasn't happened, of course, is the taxation changes made that the Member for Llanelli has raised on more than one occasion, and that is actually putting people off. Conversely, though, of course, the steps that we have made, and will continue to make, on GP indemnity insurance will help to provide more people to work in the out-of-hours service, because actually, not resolving that issue is a bar to people working in both out-of-hours and in-hours. So, there are good reasons to be positive, although not complacent, about the future.
7. What steps is the Cabinet Secretary taking to ensure that Hywel Dda University Health Board consults widely on proposals for hospital reorganisation? OAQ52240
Thank you for the question. Hywel Dda university health board is currently consulting on proposals to transform community and hospital services across mid and west Wales. I expect the health board to follow the process set out in the guidance for engagement and consultation on changes to health services and to encourage it to ensure the public has every opportunity to participate in the process in traditional and more non-traditional means as well.
Thank you very much. As the Cabinet Secretary knows, there's a lot riding on the results of this consultation, and from the countless conversations I've had, awareness is low, and it's fair to say there's a degree of suspicion that the health board have made their mind up in advance. They've only printed 10,000 copies of a quite hard-to-follow questionnaire, and they're making no envelopes available. I've been contacted by a constituent from Cross Hands last week who wants me to ask you whether or not you'd ask the health board to write to every household in Hywel Dda to make sure that they're aware of the proposals and encouraged to take part.
The health board are holding drop-in sessions, but their session in Llanelli yesterday had fewer than 100 people turn up. And a public meeting I supported, along with Nia Griffith, two weeks ago, had over 200 people turning up and the health board refused to send anybody along to engage in a dialogue and explain to people what the proposals were. Would the Cabinet Secretary ensure that Hywel Dda understands that if they want to take the people with them, they need to engage openly and be seen to be engaging openly?
I do recognise the point the Member is making, and of course, in addition to the traditional paper consultation exercise, there is the challenge of having drop-in sessions, which they've decided to run, where they've got extra sessions that they're putting on through the rest of the consultation period, which doesn't close till, I think, the second week of July. And there's a challenge about whether they will attend public meetings or not. I would expect that there will be members of the public who are also members of the health service who are engaged in those meetings in order to provide a clinical view on it.
What I do recognise is that in social media, and in terms of social media use, they have got a range of clinicians talking about the proposals. I don't think I'll be asking Hywel Dda to write to every household. Part of the challenge is about what you do and how far you go. The cost in actually requiring every consultation to go out, and the return on that, I'm not sure is a sensible one, but I do recognise that they need to take up opportunities to recognise where people aren't being properly reached. I don't think anyone could pretend that there's a low public profile about changes to healthcare proposals in west Wales, but I'm more than happy to sit down with you, if there are specific proposals, to try and look at what could be done to improve the way in which the health service engages with the public and to ensure that Hywel Dda takes up every reasonable opportunity to engage with the public.
And finally, Paul Davies.
Cabinet Secretary, you're already aware of my outright opposition to this consultation, given that all three of the health board's options will actually result in Withybush hospital being downgraded to a community hospital with no accident and emergency facilities. Now, given that you, as a Government, will not intervene specifically on this matter, why will you not, at the very least, confirm that funding will be allocated for all three proposals, so that people can be sure that these proposals are realistic in the first place? If you can't do that, then I put it to you that this consultation is an absolute farce.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Well, I just don't accept that at all, and Paul Davies revealed his position at the outset: he is opposed to any change. And look, that's a position for him to take and for him to explain. This is a consultation that the health board are running that takes seriously the challenges it has and will have in the future. I don't have a view on any of the three options that are available, because I may have to make a choice. I can't therefore confirm that I'm going to fund any of the three options because I put myself in the position where I can't then be a decision maker on what is, potentially, going to be my responsibility. It is also entirely possible that, during the consultation, if it is a real consultation, that some of the options may change. So, actually, you'd be asking me to sign up to funding something that may not be the actual proposal at the end of it, otherwise there would be no consultation—[Inaudible.]—potentially changing or refining any of the proposals.
I go back again to the example of Gwent. Healthcare in Gwent changed significantly because of the clinical futures exercise. It brought together staff who agreed on a broad model and it brought together a wide range of public stakeholders as well. That still took, though, a process to have not just a view about the future, but then to develop a business case for changing the hospital estate as well as community services too. And what has now happened is that this Government has invested in the Grange university hospital to deliver the final piece of that vision that will also require changes to the way that other hospital services are run in other other sites, and most significantly of all, a change in the way in which local healthcare is delivered. Over 90 per cent of our healthcare interactions are within local healthcare. We spend nothing like 90 per cent of our time discussing local healthcare in this Chamber or otherwise.
I will do what I said I would do at the start of this term. I will provide the space for the national health service and the public to have a consultation, a conversation about the future of healthcare and the necessary changes that we all recognise would need to be made when every single party in this place signed up to the parliamentary review. We knew there would be difficult choices to be made at the end of it. I am not going to walk away from potentially having to make a choice, but this is a consultation for the public to be involved and engaged in, for staff to be involved and engaged in, and I look forward to seeing the outcome of that very public consultation.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.
Item 3 on the agenda this afternoon is topical questions. The first topical question this afternoon is to be answered by the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport. Russell George.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the role of Transport for Wales in the new rail franchise which has been announced today? 178
Yes. Transport for Wales will manage the Wales and borders rail services contract, putting the passenger at the heart of what they do to ensure a customer-focused service.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. The Public Accounts Committee yesterday published a report on the Circuit of Wales project—and there is a link here, Deputy Presiding Officer—which deliberately focused on two very specific areas of scrutiny. The first was the Welsh Government's managerial approach to ensuring that the Circuit of Wales project delivered value for money, and secondly, the Welsh Government's decision-making process that ultimately led to the scrapping of the Circuit of Wales scheme.
Now, that report identified specific failings in relation to the Welsh Government's method for ensuring value for money, including confusion in relation to the complex web of supplier relationships and overall approach to protect management that could have exposed the Welsh Government to undue risk. So, can I ask what new and specific measures were put in place by Ministers, and followed by officials, in order to guarantee that the procurement process to award the new franchise delivers the highest possible value for money for taxpayers? And can you assure us that, like in the case of Circuit of Wales, similar stringent measures have been put in place to protect the Welsh Government from the possibility of legal challenge, following the completion of the tendering process?
There have been some concerns expressed about the transparency in the current process. Now, the Department for Transport publishes the specification that they are asking people to bid against, and on announcement day, they always give an overview of what the new contract will contain, and they have the same 10-day challenge period also. I'd appreciate any comment on that.
Also, 12 months ago, you stated that the benefits of the new franchise would be felt by passengers immediately, and last week, the First Minister stated that improvements resulting from the new franchise would take years. For passengers' sake, I wonder if you could clarify who was right.
And very finally, when do you plan to bring forward a statement to the Chamber, an oral statement, with regard to the new franchise following today's announcement?
Can I thank the Member for his questions? I'm very pleased to inform the Member that, in the last 24 hours, I've spoken with a number of UK Government Ministers who've conveyed their very warm congratulations on what is seen as a huge success for the Welsh Government and for work between Governments in making sure that we can award the next franchise, which the Member, based on a report that his own committee produced, identified as a heroic ambition. That ambition today is being delivered.
But the Member is wrong in a number of respects concerning the process that is being followed right now and in the next 10 days. We have to operate, to law, a 10-day standstill period during which we cannot comment, nor can the preferred bidder. That's because it gives time for the non-preferred bidder to raise a challenge if they so wish. I would dearly love to begin unwrapping the presents today, but the Member and everybody else, including me, will have to show patience over the next 10 days.
I also take issue with the Member for linking today's announcement to a report on the Circuit of Wales project, and specifically with the press release suggesting that individuals within Transport for Wales are not able to manage the franchise because of that very issue. I should point out to the Member that the same officials have delivered record inward investment, they've delivered record employment and they've delivered a record number of business births. They delivered Aston Martin, they helped Cardiff Airport stay open, they helped deliver CAF. They've helped deliver the Newtown bypass. I have every confidence in those officials. I've every confidence in Transport for Wales, and given that they and we have delivered on our heroic ambition today, I think all Members should have confidence in Transport for Wales.
Thank you. Adam Price.
Cabinet Secretary, I can understand why Tory Ministers are congratulating you for slavishly following their privatising agenda, but the fact that we are now poised to hand over responsibility for our national railways to a French-Spanish consortium of transnational corporations is surely not a source of celebration. It's a source of regret and political soul-searching by the Labour Party. Surely, your own manifesto, which I think, Cabinet Secretary, you had a hand in writing, promised that you
'will deliver a new, not-for-profit, rail franchise from 2018'.
Now, anyone reading that would assume that this is going to be a state-run operator. Well, of course, it is state-run, except it's not the Welsh state—it's majority owned by the French state. The current one, of course, is majority owned by the German state, so I suppose that's some form of progress—is it? Because, what, effectively, we're doing—we are binding the hands, not just of the next administration, but the administration after that, and, indeed, the administration after that.
So, can I ask you, Cabinet Secretary, you have promised—[Interruption.] Can I ask you, Cabinet Secretary, you have promised that the next Labour Government that you're always talking about will change the Railways Act to enable the Welsh Government to have the power to have a public sector operator, so have you done what the Scottish Government has done and introduced a break clause in the contract so that you can, at the earliest possible opportunity, ensure that you deliver on what you promised to have—a not-for-profit operator?
Can we also ask as well, in the event that the contract is handed back, as has happened in a number of cases, will the Welsh Government be the operator of last resort? This is the third time I've asked you that question, Cabinet Secretary, so I would appreciate if you could respond.
I'm pretty astonished by the Member's cheap opportunism today, given that the Member knows full well that the Railways Act 1993 prevents public sector bodies from coming forward to bid directly for a franchise. I'm astonished, because his own Members of Parliament, including his own MP, worked with Labour MPs to bring about an amendment in the Wales Bill, but sadly that amendment was voted down.
I really am tired of the rather hysterical hyperbole relating to this matter. I reflect back on 16 August last year—a very special day for different reasons—when the Member was predicting that we would never be in this place today of having awarded it and would never be in this place that the process that he and his colleagues on the committee had described as heroically ambitious would not be completed. He said that the responsibility for transport should be taken from me, but I'm pretty confident—I'm pretty sure that had the Member been standing where I am today, announcing what I am today, having delivered what everybody around him described as being heroically ambitious, his parliamentary colleague would be starting a petition for a grand bronze to be commissioned in honour of the prophetic son. I'm equally sure that the Member would sign that petition. I can assure the Member that after the standstill period of 10 days, all details will be released.
I have noticed the press release that has been issued by Plaid Cymru today saying that the bidding process has been flawed from start to finish, and yet the same Member who has this quote attributed to him is part of a committee that described the process as being heroically ambitious. There's something of a schism here. I would agree with the latter, given that we are at the point today of having been able to announce the preferred bidder. The press release goes on to say that it's inexcusable that there should only be a one-page written statement. The whole reason why it's a one-page written statement is that we have to have, by law—not by style, by law—a standstill period. So, I ask the Member, in return: given that it's not a matter of style, that it's a matter of law, would he want to break the law? Would he want to jeopardise the future of the franchise? I can only conclude, I'm afraid, deputy Llywydd, that the Member would prefer the current franchise to continue.
No, sorry, Llywydd. I'm sorry.
No? Oh, sorry. Vikki Howells.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Cabinet Secretary, I welcome your statement today, and the south Wales Valleys I think are a hotbed of rail expertise, with many small and medium-sized enterprises engaged in rail engineering, in construction and other maintenance services, with employers who are locally based and often very highly skilled as well. Now, many of these tell me that they spend up to 80 per cent of their time working outside of Wales, with employees living away from home for long periods of time and therefore spending their money outside of the local community as well. Clearly, there are huge economic benefits to be had if companies like these are able to bid into contracts through Transport for Wales, and that local workforces can therefore spend their money more locally. So, my question to you is: what plans does Transport for Wales have to ensure that smaller, local rail companies are able to access some of these contracts and not be submerged by the big companies in this sector?
I'm very pleased to respond to the Member, and I recognise her keen interest in the procurement process and in ensuring that it delivers not just improved rail services but improved economic opportunities, particularly for small and micro-sized businesses in her constituency. I'm pleased that we are currently in the process of identifying opportunities for infrastructure development partners who will work on the south Wales metro. That work continues. I'm confident that we'll be able to ensure that a significant degree of spend in this game-changing project will be delivered for Welsh SMEs, including those in her constituency.
It feels a bit like this Government is lurching from one shambles to another. The Welsh Government has today awarded a £5 billion rail franchise to the majority state-owned French rail company Keolis, and Spanish infrastructure corporation Amey—both for-profit, multimillion-pound international corporations.
Now, I'd like to pick up on a question that has been asked, but hasn't yet been answered. Can the Cabinet Secretary explain how this decision squares with the commitment on page 20 of the 2016 manifesto, on which he was elected, that said a Labour Welsh Government,
'will deliver a new, not-for-profit, rail franchise'?
I believe he even wrote the manifesto. Before there's any claim that the involvement of Transport for Wales will mean that this is a not-for-profit operation, can I just remind him that Keolis made a profit of €313 million in 2016? I think they would be quite surprised to hear that they will not be making a profit from this contract.
Of course, the Cabinet Secretary will argue that his hands have been tied by the Wales Act 2017, and as I'm sure he will remember, Plaid Cymru did not support that legislation. He voted in favour of the Wales Act, however, in the full knowledge that it would preclude him from delivering a not-for-profit franchise. The Scottish Government, under their settlement, can procure a public sector operator. Why has the Welsh Government failed to obtain the same deal as their Scottish counterparts?
The Cabinet Secretary has claimed—
Are you coming to a—? Can you wind up please?
—this for-profit railway will deliver benefits for passengers. Does he accept that it will deliver fewer benefits than a not-for-profit railway? If not, why then did he commit, on multiple occasions, to deliver a not-for-profit railway?
There are many more questions, Dirprwy Lywydd, but I will finish with this. Today, the Labour Party are holding a debate in Westminster on nationalising the railways. His party leader has spoken of a people's railway. He stood on multiple manifestos, promising to deliver a not-for-profit railway. How, therefore, can he justify doing the exact opposite of his party's priorities that he was elected to deliver? Do you—
No, I'm sorry; you've gone on far too long. I'm sorry; that was far too long.
Can I thank the Member for her questions and her speech? I assure her that we have gone as far as possible in delivering on the manifesto pledge, ensuring that where we can operate concessions on a not-for-profit basis, we will do, but ensuring as well, through the competitive dialogue process, that we have an astonishing deal for Welsh passengers. And that's what's of most interest to the people out there—the people who wish to have a relevant debate in this Chamber on the future of services.
I must reiterate the point that her Members—and by the way, I've never served in Parliament—but her Members, behind her, sat on a committee that signed off a report that described this process that you are now criticising as 'heroically ambitious'. Now, the people of Wales can only therefore conclude that, across this Chamber, Members agreed that the way that the Welsh Government was going about procuring a new operator and developer and partner would be heroically ambitious for the people we serve. Today, we have delivered on that, and this is only just the beginning.
I can understand your annoyance at the posturing of Plaid Cymru over this matter, but you probably take some satisfaction from the recognition that what Plaid Cymru say is true, to the extent that we desperately need a Labour Government in Westminster because it's the only way that we will actually be able to abolish section 25 of the Railways Act 1993, which prohibits public ownership—and, of course, the hypocrisy of the Tories, who have nationalised the east coast railway. It's the third time they've re-nationalised it because every time it goes into the private sector, after the private sector fails it goes into the public sector, makes a profit, they privatise it, it loses money, it goes back into the public sector. So, there's total hypocrisy there. But we desperately need that Labour Government in Westminster to do that.
What I was going to ask you, though, Cabinet Secretary: of fundamental importance is the workers in the industry. To what extent have you been able to engage with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, with the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen and with the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association—the people who will actually be required to work in and to deliver that—that their position will be protected with guards and so on, and on the extent to which they actually welcome this initiative so far? Also, within Transport for Wales, which I very much welcome, coming into Pontypridd to help regenerate the town, to what extent is there the flexibility within the system, when Jeremy Corbyn is Prime Minister, when we have a Labour Government in Westminster and we've abolished section 25, to bring this and the rest of the railway network into public ownership, with the Labour Party as the only party that is actually able, capable, of delivering that?
Can I thank the Member for his question? The Member is absolutely right. We've worked closely with the RMT and ASLEF and perhaps I can offer some assurance to the Member, and to other Members on opposition benches, who have raised the question of whether the unions support our decision. Well, let me read what Mick Cash has said:
'RMT policy is for a national integrated railway under public ownership, and the Welsh Government has made it clear that this is their aspiration as well if they did not have to work under the pro-privatisation legislative straitjacket imposed by the UK Government.'
He went on to say:
'However, RMT welcomes the fact that despite these constraints the Welsh Government has committed to keep a guard on every train alongside other commitments to work with RMT to protect jobs and conditions of rail workers in Wales.'
This is Welsh Labour working with the unions, working with passenger groups, and delivering the very best for the people of Wales.
Thank you very much. The second topical question this afternoon is to be answered by the Minister for Housing and Regeneration. David Melding.
2. What is the Welsh Government's response to the final report of Dame Judith Hackitt's independent review of building regulations and fire safety? 180
Thank you. Dame Judith's report, although focused on England, provides a robust basis from which to work here. We've moved quickly to take this important work forward and I've today announced my intention to establish an expert group to develop the recommendations into detailed and practicable changes for Wales.
Can I welcome that initial response there? As you know, the review concluded that indifference and ignorance led to a race to the bottom in building safety practices, with costs prioritised over safety. It was also said that a new standards regulator should be the centrepiece of a reformed system, but the use of combustible materials was left unclear. Flammable insulation and cladding products are currently being stripped from hundreds of high-rise homes in England, and also some in Wales. Yesterday's announcement from the Welsh Government that it would fund the replacement of cladding on three Newport tower blocks is very much to be welcomed in this regard.
As you know, on 27 February we asked for a statement on the progress that is being made with the cladding safety tests in high residential buildings in Wales. I should say that we must remember those in the private sector here, because I know you'll probably have something very specific to respond to in terms of those in the social sector that are considered at risk. But do you agree that this group needs to resolve the situation very quickly? We need a clear statement on the removal of flammable cladding materials and there should be, in my view, an immediate ban on their use in new construction until we can be absolutely sure about their safety and appropriate use.
Thank you very much for those questions. I agree with you that the report is an extremely sobering read in terms of the changes and the breadth and depth of changes that we need to be making in terms of the regulatory system for high-rise buildings here in Wales. Although the report was very much focused at England, we take it very much in a Welsh context too, because of the very clear similarities in our regulatory regimes across the border.
I'm very pleased to be able to say today that, although Dame Judith did deliberately avoid making any comment on banning any particular materials, we're keen to address this matter, and subject to a legally required consultation we will move to ban the use of combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings. I say 'subject to a consultation' because it is a requirement of the Building Act 1984 that we consult with the building regulations advisory committee on that. But I hope that today I'm sending a very clear message that we will not welcome the use of these combustible materials on buildings in Wales.
Ever since the Grenfell Tower disaster we have worked really hard in order to establish where our high-rise buildings are in Wales. We've now got to the point, or we did quite some time ago, where we've managed to identify every single one of those buildings, and we've taken a casework approach, developing an individual relationship between Welsh Government and those building owners and the landlords of those buildings in order to ensure that we're sending out the correct and detailed safety advice that those buildings need. In Wales we differ slightly to England because of the scale here. We have just over 100 high-rise buildings, so we've been able to take a casework approach, keeping that business in-house, whereas across the border in England, again because of the scale, it's been led on a local authority basis. So, in terms of the cladding that failed the large-scale BRE tests, there are 12 in the private sector in Wales, and we're working with those landlords on that in order to ensure that that cladding is removed and replaced. As you've mentioned, yesterday, we were able to provide funding for Newport City Homes in order to replace the cladding there.
Addressing the cladding issue is only part of the picture. We've been very clear that building owners and landlords must work very closely with experts in order to undertake a review of the safety and of the status of those buildings, because we've been very clear that every building is an individual building and should be treated as such. I think that's really recognised in chapter 8 of the Hackitt report, which says that there should be a golden thread running though buildings so we can understand, from the concept of the building right through the lifetime of the building, any changes that are made to that building. I think, although Dame Hackitt is very clear that her report should be seen in the round, actually, that was one of the chapters that really stood out to me as something that can really make a big difference.