The Assembly met at 1.30 p.m. with the Presiding Officer (Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
Looked-after Children and Young People
1. What measures is the Minister taking to assess the attainment of looked-after children and young people? OAQ(4)0298(ESK)
The educational attainment of looked-after children can be measured from our annual children in need census for Wales. A strategy to support our objective of raising the educational attainment of looked-after children is being developed, to improve our ability to coordinate activity and to share good practice.
Minister, I am sure that you are aware of the Wales Audit Office report of last August that referred to the attainment of looked-after children. That report indicated that the Welsh Government and local authorities had not assessed whether there was capacity to achieve significant improvement, and that they lacked shared delivery plans. Do you intend to review the implementation of current policies that are designed to improve outcomes for looked-after children before attempting to devise any new strategies?
I thank Aled Roberts for delivering this subject as the topic of my very first question in my new role as the Minister for Education and Skills, because this is a subject area in which I intend to take a personal interest. We have many statutory duties, and, as I say, we have the development of policy going on now. However, the last few years have seen slow progress in terms of the attainment of looked-after children. We need to track the progress of the children in question properly. I intend to take an early look at the process and practices in Wrexham, which, I understand, are the best across Wales, and to learn as quickly as possible from the good practice in Wrexham.
I am pleased to hear reference to Wrexham; I was not aware that it was the best across Wales, but there we are. Minister, when you are undertaking this review, could you consider the University of Edinburgh’s report published last week and which was commissioned by the Government, with regard to two issues that concern me? The first issue is that, since 2009, the Government is not requiring the registration or the notification of pupil referral units. Secondly, there is evidence that there are large numbers of looked-after children and pupils with additional learning needs in those units. If the Government is not requiring the reporting of those units from local authorities, how can the Government target whether the attainment of looked-after children and those with additional learning needs is being properly targeted within those units?
I will take on board Aled Roberts’s points. I have not yet had an opportunity to acquaint myself with the University of Edinburgh report. However, these are concerning matters, and I will undertake to take a close look at the implications and to write to Aled in terms of what we intend to do as a consequence of the report.
Minister, the Wales Audit Office report, to which the previous speaker referred, showed how work experience placements can play an important role in inspiring looked-after children and young people into further education and learning. How is the Welsh Government promoting work experience for looked-after children and young people so that they can fulfil their potential?
I thank Rebecca Evans for the question. We have developed a youth engagement and progression framework, which is based on the good practice that has been identified by local authorities, to ensure that young people are engaged with education and training, and are progressing into employment. However, it remains the fact that schools are primarily responsible for providing young people with an experience of the world of work, as part of the careers and the world of work curriculum. Our guidance to providers on the delivery of careers and the world of work states that learning providers must work to reduce environmental and social barriers to inclusion, and offer opportunities for all learners to achieve their full potential in preparation for further learning and life, and, where appropriate, they need to plan and work with specialist services to ensure relevant and accessible learning experiences. As part of my look at this area for this particular group of children, this will be an issue that will be at the forefront of my mind.
Minister, I go back to the comments made by Aled Roberts about the numbers of looked-after children and children with additional learning needs who are currently in pupil referral units. This has grown substantially from 2006, with an upward trajectory the whole time through to 2012-13. Can you give us an idea of when you will be able to progress with the development of the independent learning plan? A lot of these children are there because they have not received the correct statements. Local authorities are on hold because no-one is really doing much and we have children who are in the wrong setting.
I understand the concern around this issue and thank Angela Burns for that point. I can only repeat the answer I gave to Aled Roberts: I will equate myself with the facts, and with the University of Edinburgh report in particular, and report back to Members on how consequent action will arise.
First of all, congratulations on your appointment as the new Minister for Education and Skills. We know that, in Wales, far fewer looked-after children are in education, employment or training when they leave care as compared with other children. What action will you be taking to improve on this regrettable situation? Rebecca Evans referred to work placements, and some local authorities, as you are aware, ensure that their care leavers are in workplace situations. I believe that all local authorities in Wales should provide such important work experience opportunities.
I thank Lindsay Whittle for those points. Our corporate parent guidance is entitled ‘If this were my Child’, and I know that I will be approaching my thinking and policy development on this issue with that phrase very much in mind. The corporate parenting responsibility is there and is a reality for local authorities, and it needs to be translated into real life chances that are really cared about in real time for individual children. It is that kind of bespoke thinking and care around the educational path of each individual child that needs to become a reality.
Children in Women’s Refuges
2. Will the Minister make a statement on educational provision for children in women’s refuges? OAQ(4)0288(ESK)
Local authorities are obliged by law to ensure that all children of compulsory school age receive appropriate education. This is particularly important for children in women’s refuges, and statutory guidance requires local authorities to establish local protocols and processes to ensure continuity of educational provision for them to prevent disengagement.
I have had brought to my attention an issue around school transport costs, which are not covered as a matter of routine for children who are in refuge as a result of domestic violence. Often, a mother will find herself not able to get a child to school because of the disruption that living in a refuge has caused. Can you liaise with your colleague Edwina Hart to look at widening the criteria for school transport to try to address this problem?
I would be more than willing to speak to my colleagues about the issue. Where children are living in Women’s Aid refuges as their ordinary place of residence, if you like, if they meet the statutory distance criteria, there is already a duty on the local authority to take care of that situation and provide transport for those children to get to their place of learning. Local authorities already have discretionary powers to provide transport for children in such circumstances who live outside the statutory distance criteria. The first question that needs to be asked is of the local authority itself, in terms of whether it is aware that it has these discretionary powers and whether it is employing them as part of its duty as a corporate parent.
Every day, many children across Wales unfortunately experience the awful effects of domestic violence in the home. Women’s refuges continue to provide a safe haven for those who have been able to flee this abuse. All women and girls have the right to be free from violence and abuse and if we are to continue to promote the importance of gender equality and healthy relationships, would you agree that prevention through education is vital? With the forthcoming violence against women Bill, will you make this a priority in your discussions with the Minister for local government, who will be bringing the Bill forward?
I will make it a priority, and I know that my predecessor worked closely with the Minister for local government on these aspects of the Bill. My officials continue to engage with officials in the violence against women and domestic abuse team to take forward these policy and legislative proposals. I am very supportive of the aims of the White Paper and I am pleased to see that there is overwhelming support coming through from the consultation for the White Paper proposals. My officials are working on ways to support schools to help achieve those aims.
In gathering evidence for the Communities and Culture Committee report on domestic abuse in the last Assembly, I visited a number of refuges. A refuge in north east Wales told me that ‘there was a massive gap in services for children.’ The Flintshire domestic abuse panel and domestic abuse safety unit on Deeside at the time identified a lack of core funding for child-focused workers in refuges as a particular problem. Given the passage of time since then, what action has the Welsh Government taken to address that, or is proposing to take, in its forthcoming legislation?
As I have outlined, Presiding Officer, I will be taking a very close look at these issues as the aims of the White Paper and the consultation that has followed from that take shape in terms of policy making. I would be more than happy to follow through on those issues with Mark Isherwood and others to ensure that we are addressing these very important issues.
Minister, the charity Refuge says that welfare benefit rule changes may mean that its refuges may no longer meet the criteria of supported exempt accommodation. So, women and their children fleeing domestic violence may not then be eligible for rent support. What discussions have you had with colleagues on the impact of this change on the educational chances of those children in those particular refuges?
The impact on those children’s educational chances will be part of a toxic mixture of blows that will be rained down on many families as a result of the welfare benefit changes that are currently being put into force. The reality of many of these changes means that there are two types of casualty: those that are intentional casualties of things like the bedroom tax; and those that are, perhaps, unintentional casualties that have not been thought about or considered in terms of what these welfare changes actually mean. Children in refuges would be a part of that group, I think. I will undertake to speak with my colleagues about how we can address the particular issues that have been raised by Jocelyn today, and I know that they are of concern to many other people too.
Improving Standards in Core Subjects
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s plans for improving standards in core subjects such as mathematics, science and reading in schools in Wales? OAQ(4)0304(ESK)
I would refer Janet Finch-Saunders to our ‘Improving Schools’ plan, which sets out the actions we are taking to raise standards and improve attainment in education. It makes clear our priorities: literacy, numeracy and tackling disadvantage. It also provides the framework through which we will deliver improvements underpinning our Science for Wales strategy.
Thank you, Minister. In the previous rankings of the 67 countries that took part in the PISA assessments, Wales was thirtieth in science, thirty-eighth in reading, and fortieth in mathematics. What real actions are you taking to improve the international standing of Wales as a symbol of excellence in education?
I take it that Janet Finch-Saunders has taken a look at the ‘Improving Schools’ plan, which sets out radical action to address these core issues of literacy, numeracy and tackling disadvantage. The plan sets out our approach to the quality of learning and teaching, and it describes our new national literacy and numeracy programmses. It also describes how we expect every teacher to become a teacher of literacy and numeracy, with descriptions of how we are changing the landscape of teachers’ professional development and our emphasis on inclusion, particularly as regards vulnerable learners and learners from deprived backgrounds. All of this is very much dependent on leadership in schools being of the highest possible quality. These actions and this work are at the heart of my priorities over the coming period.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
I have taken a look at the school improvement plan, Minister, and I note that you have a target of 65% of 15-year-olds leaving school with level 2 skills, including English, Welsh and mathematics, by 2015. Last year, 51% achieved those level 2 skills. At this rate of progress, you will not achieve your target in 2015—you will not even achieve it by 2025. Are you confident that you can deliver on the targets in the plan?
The targets remain our targets. Of course, the condition in Simon Thomas’s question is if we maintain this rate of progress. I am confident that we will see increasingly rapid progress as the school improvement plan takes hold, in terms of it being adopted or owned by the wider teaching and professional community as well as our partners in local government. I intend to drive with as much energy as I can muster those central priorities of literacy, numeracy and tackling disadvantage.
I am glad to hear that you have that confidence and that you want to drive those improvements. Could you clarify for the Assembly whether you expect to see those improvements emerging in the Programme for International Student Assessment results in December? There seems to be some confusion here. Last year, the previous Minister said that he did not expect any real improvements, but on 7 May, in answer to a specific question on PISA, the First Minister said:
‘We expect to see improvement in the results of any tests that are taking place’.
You are the new Minister. Do you expect to see those improvements in the PISA results in December?
I can assure Simon Thomas that I have not had any kind of private preview of the PISA results and we will see what they are when they are released. I can only reiterate my confidence in the fact that we are addressing the central issues that are of concern to all of us in terms of the quality of teaching and learning across Wales.
Minister, the question from Simon Thomas was: what is your expectation of what those PISA results will be? Of course, they will be what they are. The previous Minister for education said that he did not expect improvement. The First Minister has been very clear in answer to me that he does expect improvement. What is your expectation of those PISA results when they are published later this year? What will success look like for you?
There are two parts to Kirsty Williams’s question. The first, at the risk of being flippant, I would answer by saying that I bring many talents, I hope, to this brief but clairvoyance is not one of them. My expectation and ambition is to see—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
If you want to listen to my answer, you may. My expectation is to see Wales where it ought to be—in the top 20 of the PISA results nations, while bearing in mind that PISA does not measure everything. There are many aspects of education that we need to nurture and cherish that are not measured by the PISA results, but I will not belittle them as irrelevant. We are concerned about them; I am concerned about them. My ambition is to see Wales moving up the PISA ranking.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the opposition spokesperson, Angela Burns.
You are quite right, Minister, that there are a number of ways of judging education, but PISA looks at reading, mathematical and scientific literacy and the applications of that knowledge bank. Given that the previous Minister for education wrote off the last few years of teenagers by saying that we cannot expect any improvement for the 2012 results, do you have any plans for running a programme that might be able to go back to those pupils who have missed out on essential skills to try to bring them up to speed for the sake of their futures?
I am not aware of any of my predecessors writing off Wales’s children. Comments like that are perhaps best directed at the UK Government for its relentless pursuit of public sector spending cuts and the inevitable effect that that will have on the wider world of education right across the UK. As I say, I will be concerned about the PISA results when we see them. I will not see them before anyone else gets to see them; I do not get private previews of these things. It would be my ambition to take them as they are, to face the reality of that situation and to be ambitious for Wales's children and young people in that regard.
In terms of catch-up measures, this is quite a detailed subject and one that is perhaps difficult to address in an oral questions setting. However, I will also be very concerned during my time in this office to make sure that we do have a comprehensive look at catch-up educational provision for children in all age groups.
I fail to understand why you keep referring to the UK Government when education is completely devolved. You now sit in a Cabinet that is stuffed full of ex-Ministers for education. For the last 10 years, education in Wales has been in a troubled spot. I do not doubt that you are attempting to improve literacy and numeracy, but, ultimately, what I am very keen to understand is, given the lack of confidence in any improvement for 2012, what are you putting in place to ensure that the literacy and numeracy framework that has been put in place, which our children will be measured against by outside organisations such as PISA—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you coming to the question?
—not only measures their academic capability, but also the application of that knowledge? That is something that I remain unconvinced of, Minister, and I would like your view.
I refer Angela Burns once again to the improving schools plan, and I look forward to the point when that has been absorbed by opposition parties and we can have a constructive debate about the whys and wherefores of it. To have any kind of debate on any kind of provision in the public realm without being aware of the radical, right-wing manoeuvres of the UK Government is literally to become almost childlike in one's innocence. Are we to ignore the fact that we have a Government at Westminster that is intent on a radical, small-state ideology that will have a huge impact on the life chances of the most vulnerable children and young people in Wales?
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I would just remind Members that—[Interruption.] Order. I remind Members that concise questions and answers will move us on a little more swiftly.
Continuing Professional Development
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the support provided by the Welsh Government to support CPD for teachers and teaching assistants? OAQ(4)0303(ESK)
Continuing professional development for all school practitioners is key to supporting the effective delivery of national priorities, and forms part of a coherent system comprising professional standards, performance management and professional development. The sum of £28.8 million is available this year through the school effectiveness grant for schools to access a range of CPD activities.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. May I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your new post? On taking up your post, you stated your intention to continue the focus of your predecessor on improving standards. Do you agree with me that one way to improve standards is to ensure that there is appropriate and targeted CPD for what is now known as the education workforce, including teachers and teaching assistants, particularly for the career development progression of headteachers by gaining NPQH? What analysis will the Welsh Government make of the provision of CPD across education authorities and the effective use of that spending?
The effective use of the school effectiveness grant and the other financial streams that assist with the various forms of CPD that David Rees is talking about, is absolutely critical. Part of the work that I intend to undertake, as soon as I possibly can, is to look at the focus of the spend and what it is delivering for our professionals across the teaching and support professions that we are talking about here. I held my first meeting with the combined teacher and support worker trade unions just this morning, and this was very much at the forefront of everyone's thinking in the discussion that I held with them. This is part and parcel of looking at the wider workforce in teaching and support, and at how we support the professional development not just of teachers, but of support workers, too. However, in difficult times, financially speaking, the focus of that £28.8 million needs some special attention, and I will be doing that work personally.
Minister, given the special attention that you will be giving to that £28.8 million fund, will you take into account the views of headmasters and headmistresses of special educational needs schools? One of the concerns that they have raised with me over visits in my region has been that they are relatively restricted in the choice of courses that they can offer to their teachers because of the restrictions around in-service training days. Could you, therefore, look at whether headteachers who teach in those special category schools—I am talking about specialist SEN schools—could have the flexibility to choose courses that would help the pupils they are trying to support?
I would be more than willing to take a look at that as a particular issue. If Antoinette Sandbach had a particular issue or school in mind, if she would write to me, I would be more than happy to look into that.
Raising standards among teachers and headteachers is extremely important, but the national professional qualification for headship has led to a situation where there is a shortage of candidates for headteacher posts in our schools. Do you believe that that is acceptable? Do you propose to increase the number of prospective headteachers?
I regard the role of headteacher as being the critical role in the delivery of good-quality education and learning for our schools. It is the lynchpin position. I will want to take a look, first, at the professional development of our headteachers, and if there are recruitment difficulties, these will also receive my urgent attention.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on home education in Wales? OAQ(4)0302(ESK)
Following the consultation on home education, my officials have reviewed the 550 responses that we received and we will shortly publish a summary of those responses. In due course, I will make further statements setting out how I intend to take forward policy development on home education in Wales.
A number of my constituents have made the choice to home school their children, but they have come across difficulties, for instance, in accessing Welsh-language provision—there are huge costs as children in the home education system are not entitled to Welsh language classes. In addition, when it comes to the examination process, parents have told me that they have great difficulty accessing the places that are available within the locality—in my own constituency, for instance—to sit the exams. Will you pledge your support to help those wishing to home educate their children? What further support do you intend to give as regards the concerns that I have raised?
I will take a look at your concerns. Every child in Wales deserves a level playing field in front of them when they set out on their education, and there should be no unfair barriers placed in the way of any child, whether they are home educated or educated through other means. I have to say that there has been a large volume of detailed responses, some of which I assume came from Janet Finch-Saunders’s constituents. There are around 1,000 home-educated children in Wales, and we had 550 responses, which gives some idea of the level of interest within the home-educating community. It is almost unprecedented in terms of consultation responses, in my experience. Once I have had the opportunity to go through that volume and detail, as I say, I will make statements setting out how I intend to take forward policy on home education in Wales.
Walking or Cycling to School
Minister, the Government embraces the principle that a healthy body can help to develop a healthy mind, and that the fitness that you get from walking or cycling to school can benefit a child’s education. Do you agree—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Will you ask the question on the paper?
I am so sorry.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
You were chatting to Byron Davies, you see—that is the trouble.
Massive apologies; I am sorry, Presiding Officer.
6. What assessment has the Minister made of the benefits that walking or cycling to school can have on a child’s education? OAQ(4)0295(ESK)
Physical activity is essential for both short and long-term physical and mental health and is also associated with academic and cognitive performance. We intend to encourage more pupils to walk and cycle to school through the Active Travel (Wales) Bill.
Thank you for that response, Minister; I am grateful for it. Would you agree that a child’s fear over the safety of a journey to school could distract from those policy objectives, good ones as they are? Will you speak to your colleague, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, who I understand is hoping to adopt a common-sense approach to what constitutes a safe route to school?
Yes; I intend to continue the good work of my predecessor on this issue. I know that co-working with my colleague the Minister for transport will be an essential part of this. The Bill will require local authorities to map appropriate routes for children and young people to their place of education, with safety as a core consideration of that. Any parent has safety in mind when they think of their child setting off to walk or cycle to school.
However, Suzy Davies is quite right to say that a commonsensical approach is what we need. It is estimated that around one in five cars on the roads on any given morning in Wales is participating in the school run. That is bad for the environment, it is not good for children and it is something that we need to get away from through good management of safe routes to school.
Last week, I took part in Malborough Primary School’s annual walk to school, accompanied by 225 other people from the school. This walk takes place every single day of the term time. What can the Minister do to promote more 20 mph zones? Although this walk is well supported at the school, the speed of some of the car traffic was absolutely terrifying and would not assist people who were not part of a walking-to-school crocodile.
I thank Jenny Rathbone for that question. Personally, I am a great fan of 20 mph zones. However, I would advise that this question is, perhaps, best directed to my colleague.
Minister, the terrible accident in Rhoose just two weeks ago reminds us of the importance of encouraging people out of their cars, not only for health and educational reasons, but for the safety of our children around our congested schools. Obviously, safety is the key issue here. What support does the Welsh Government give to schools to enable pupils to learn about road safety and cycling proficiency during the school day?
I thank you for that question. The very grave incident that happened in Rhoose concentrated all our minds on the bind in which I suppose we find ourselves, given that there are too many cars on the road, perhaps moving too quickly in the vicinity of schools in some instances. In order to get a good proportion of those cars off the road during the school run, we need to encourage walking and cycling to school. We then have the concerns around the safety of those children who are walking and cycling. Careful management of this situation is, therefore, very important indeed.
As I say, I will be working as closely as I can with colleagues on the development of the Active Travel (Wales) Bill. I will have a particular interest in what support is being offered to schools and local education authorities in terms of guidance and, perhaps, in terms of resource to tackle this difficult but resolvable issue. This is a situation on which other European countries have made enormous progress, and that is something that we really need to emulate here in Wales.
Literacy and Numeracy Skills
I extend my personal congratulations to the Minister on his new role. I hope that he will do a better job than his predecessor.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Excuse me, Mohammad Asghar; I think that that was rather ungentlemanly.
I am sure that he will do a better job.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Stop digging and ask the question.
7. What action is the Minister taking to improve the literacy and numeracy skills of children in key stage 2 and 3? OAQ(4)0290(ESK)
I was going to thank Mohammad Asghar for that question, but perhaps I will just answer it. [Laughter.] My department has set out comprehensive national programmes to ensure that significant improvements in standards of literacy and numeracy skills are achieved at key stages 2 and 3 in schools across Wales. We are providing significant support to teachers and learners to deliver these programmes.
The Minister will be aware of the decline in the key skills of literacy and numeracy as highlighted by Estyn. The Welsh Government is pinning its hope on the new literacy and numeracy framework to raise standards in these key skills. However, the secretary of NUT Cymru has suggested that the system of literacy and numeracy tests will be counterproductive to raising standards. What action will the Minister undertake to listen to these concerns and to work with teachers to ensure that standards in these key skills are improved?
That is a very good question. I am willing to listen to all considered opinion, which may or may not include Mohammad Asghar’s, on these issues, but I can reassure him of this: our national literacy and numeracy programmes that require every school in Wales to focus on the development of literacy and numeracy skills are not going to go away. They will be absolutely central in terms of delivery for those young learners, and I look forward to working closely in collaboration with professionals at all levels to ensure that those programmes succeed.
What will your priority be in your new portfolio? Will it be improving numeracy and literacy, or a stern focus on reducing surplus school places? I suggest to you that, in my constituency, for example, a less heavy handed attitude by Government towards surplus school places and the formula that manages those surplus places, which does not represent the reality of rural education, would release the education authority to concentrate on improving educational standards.
I will reiterate: my focus is on literacy, numeracy and the attainment gap that is being faced by our least-well-off children and young people. I am always prepared to listen to, as I say, considered opinion on surplus places or any other issue. However, it remains the fact that local government will face increasing pressures in terms of finance over the coming years, and I think that every reasonable person accepts that we have a surplus- places problem in Wales of some considerable scale and that it needs to be addressed.
Post-16 Education in Torfaen
8. Will the Minister provide an update on the provision of post-16 education in Torfaen? OAQ(4)0293(ESK)
My officials are currently working with Torfaen County Borough Council and Coleg Gwent to assist in the development of plans to improve post-16 education in Torfaen. As a result of considerable work, it is anticipated that a final report will be available before the end of July.
Thank you, Deputy Minister, and many congratualtions on your new role.
While I recognise that there will be many competing issues vying for your attention, I urge you, once and for all, to tackle the scandalous lack of post-16 provision in north Torfaen. Five years since Coleg Gwent in Pontypool was stripped of its A-level courses, many young people in the north are still forced to travel to Newport and on to Crosskeys if the wish to continue with their studies. Deputy Minister, will you meet me at the earliest possible opportunity with Torfaen council and Coleg Gwent with a view to bringing to an end this unfair and iniquitous situation?
I thank the Member for Torfaen. I must say that I believe that her constituents are very fortunate to have such a dedicated Member. I know that you have raised this matter on numerous occasions and it would be a pleasure to meet with you to discuss this matter further. On the decision and the appropriate option for the local authority and Coleg Gwent to take, I have no further information and neither am I able to comment on the merits of any particular plans. If a statutory proposal is published and there are objections, it will come to Welsh Ministers for determination. I will, however, be taking a keen interest in progress and look forward to viewing developments in the near future. I will say this: mergers are not just about delivering efficiencies; they are about improving the learner experience. All colleges and local authorities must make sure that that is their top priority, so that the architecture of further education meets the interests of learners.
I congratulate the Deputy Minister on his new post.
He will not say the same about you. [Laughter.]
You have spoiled my afternoon.
Deputy Minister, I ask you to take a keen interest, as you put it, in the provision of post-16 education within the Education Achievement Service for South East Wales. This body manages and co-ordinates the 14-19 learning pathways initiative in Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Monmouthshire, Newport and Torfaen. Is it really viable for the EAS to oversee a different post-16 education strategy for each of these authorities?
This is an issue that I will be looking at very closely, and I would be delighted to update the Member accordingly. I can promise you, and other Members in the Chamber, across all parties, that if you are willing to accept my offer, I can promise that my door will always be open to dialogue over meaningful and constructive ideas to improve skills and training in Wales.
Prior to you congratulating me, Ken, I also offer you my congratulations on your appointment.
As the preferred option of Torfaen is, in fact, to close all sixth forms, including the current Coleg Gwent campus in Pontypool, and to integrate everything on one site, this will inevitably mean job losses. How would that factor in to the Government’s decision-making process, and what discussions have you had in the last week with teachers and unions to mitigate the impact if the reorganisation proposals are approved?
Actually, I would like to congratulate the Member as, with regard to the jacket that he wears, it really requires some courage to wear that sort of fashion.
The discussions you mentioned will be forthcoming and I will be having them very soon. Of course jobs are crucial to the economy. My primary objective, with any changes that occur, is that the learner experience improves and that we continue in the vein of the former Minister for Education and Skills and the former Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology to drive up standards in education, skills and training.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you very much. I do not think that we expected fashion advice as well as replies, but there we are.
9. What recent discussions has the Minister has regarding financial pressures within his portfolio? OAQ(4)0305(ESK)
I have had an early discussion with my director general and received a detailed budget briefing from my officials, which includes any pressures within the portfolio.
Thank you, Minister, for that response. We have heard today that the focus on standards is still important to you, and that literacy and numeracy, and dealing with surplus school places are important to the Government. Can you give the Assembly an assurance today that there will be no cuts in-year to your budget for schools and colleges?
I can assure the Member that this Welsh Government will protect schools spending.
Minister, you will be aware that the direct funding of schools is something that we have been advocating for a long time—and, incidentally, this was never rejected by your predecessor—and is something that could alleviate financial pressures within the education system. Given that the previous Minister for Education and Skills seemed to be open-minded about this, could you confirm that this is something that you, too, are open-minded about and that you will consider this?
Minister, I accept that the statement on the attainment review has been deferred, but has the Government allocated the money that will need to be set aside for a communications strategy to deal with the outcomes of the review?
I am sorry, Presiding Officer, I did not quite hear that. Were you asking about money set aside for—
I was asking for money to be set aside for the communications strategy, albeit that the announcement on the review of qualifications was delayed yesterday. Has the money been set aside for the communications strategy?
I ask the Member to forgive me; I will need to look in detail into that question and I will write to you with the outcome of that.
10. Will the Minister make a statement on any plans the Welsh Government has to review the school curriculum? OAQ(4)0294(ESK)
A review of assessment and the national curriculum is already under way. This review provides an important opportunity to make sure that children are developing the knowledge and skills that are necessary for the twenty-first century. It will report to me later this year.
Thank you for that reply, Minister. Your Labour colleagues in Westminster are currently looking to free-up large parts of the curriculum. I wondered whether a similar approach here might give you an opportunity to reprioritise elements of the compulsory curriculum. Minister, would you consider finding a mandatory place for teaching emergency life-saving skills—very twenty-first century skills—on the curriculum to save me from sending Vinnie Jones round to persuade you?
I am aware of the Member’s sincere interest in the issue of life-saving skills and that she has been a champion for this issue in this and other fora, as well. As I said, there is a review of the national curriculum under way at the moment. I am going to take a completely open-minded look at the results of that review. Curricula, I think, need to be under pretty much constant scrutiny in terms of the usefulness and appropriateness of their content. I would be happy to talk about this issue further as the agenda develops.
Would you agree with me that Welsh history is given its proper place in our schools, particularly in our examination courses?
I am a little bit confused as to whether the Member believes that it does have its proper place at the moment or that it does not.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
You cannot ask him a question.
I cannot ask the Member the question, but let me say this. The Member may be aware that the consultation led by Dr Elin Jones on the Cwricwlwm Cymreig has just closed. I just today received the first draft of that review. As well as looking more widely at the national curriculum implications for what might be said in terms of the outcome of that review, this is a topic that is very much at the forefront of my mind. However, it is very early on in terms of the work that we are doing as regards the review of the curriculum more widely.
Minister, given your previous portfolio, you will be aware of the importance of sustainable development education delivering key objectives of the Welsh Government. Would you briefly outline your views on the scope of the current review that is going on into sustainable development and global citizenship education and give an undertaking to update the Chamber at an early opportunity?
I will undertake to write to the Member with the details of how things are developing at the moment. I can tell him that I would be very keen to see, as we move towards Wales’s first sustainable development Bill, or, as I think we are learning to refer to it now, the future generations Bill, that children and young people at schools and education institutions of all kinds are very much a part of the ongoing discussions about sustainable development that feed into the consequences of that Bill and the new methods of working that I know it will recommend.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Alun Ffred Jones, to ask the first question.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on rail electrification in the Valleys and north Wales? OAQ(4)0290(EST)
I am currently looking at all options for rail in Wales, post the current franchise and the introduction of electrification.
I understand that negotiations have taken place between the Welsh Government, the UK Government and the European Union on the EU transport policy and the trans-European transport network. As a result of these discussions, have you applied pressure for the north Wales coast line to be included as part of the railway network that connects Dublin, London and Paris in order to promote its electrification in the future?
I agree with you that it is important that we prioritise the electrification of the north Wales line for economic development purposes and for the links to the continent.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Do you have a second question?
No, it is okay.
Minister, now that we have the timetable for implementation of the Valleys electrification, alongside that of the Great Western line, will you outline what plans you have to support new rolling stock to coincide with electrification? Perhaps you could share with us any discussions that you and officials may have had in looking at second-hand or new fleet trains with regenerative braking systems to supply and use electricity on the new grid.
Electrification of the Valleys lines remains on target for delivery in 2019, and I am sure that we are all, across the Chamber, delighted with that. We are looking at the issues of what stock will be on the line, and I will update Members accordingly when discussions are concluded.
Minister, in your letter of 15 May, when the north Wales integrated taskforce was set up, you indicated that it would be reporting to you by the summer. Are you able to update us with regard to the situation, and also with regard to the business case in respect of north Wales electrification? Your predecessor indicated that it would include transport links with Manchester. Is that the case, and does it include Manchester and Warrington?
The north-east wales integrated taskforce report landed on my desk this week. We are now analysing that report, and I would be delighted, if Members wish, to perhaps make a written statement before recess indicating how I intend to take some issues forward. You are correct in your assumption and about what the previous Minister for transport said. I have also been looking at the opportunities of electrification into HS2 perhaps and all those issues, which I will also update Members on in due course.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to secure investment in Wales? OAQ(4)0284(EST)
We continue our efforts to attract inward investment into Wales through activities such as my recent successful mission to Japan.
Thank you for that answer. Minister, recent announcements of Welsh Government funding to help create a pharmaceutical hub in the bay are most welcome. How do we ensure that people in Islwyn consider careers in this industry, which could be so valuable to Wales?
We very much hope that the hub in the bay will be a national and international focal point and a nerve centre for the life sciences in Wales. We will ensure that an extensive network of support is available from there, and we will be working hard with the education department and Careers Wales to ensure that everyone can take up exciting career opportunities within life sciences.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the opposition spokesperson, Nick Ramsay.
Minister, I think that we would all welcome the recent Ernst and Young investment figures, which clearly show an improvement on inward investment into Wales, certainly compared with the dismal performance of the previous few years. However, do you agree that there is a lot more to do? Wales is starting from a lower base and we have to catch up with other constituent parts of the UK. How do you propose to do that?
Like you, I am very pleased with the figures that we have seen from Ernst and Young, but one swallow does not make a summer, so we are duty bound to carry on our activities in that area. I thank all Members for the support for the activities that the Welsh Government is undertaking. We are doing trips abroad to encourage investment in, but there is still a lot of work to do to ensure that Wales’s message gets across.
I know that you have been building a good relationship with Tri-Wall Limited, a Japanese-owned company in my constituency, and with some other companies as well. However, would you accept that that is not enough? As you will know from your own discussions with Tri-Wall, it has identified the development of networks between its suppliers and customers as key to its future competitiveness. So, aside from simply giving financial support and advice to those companies, how are you going to help support and develop networks, not just within supplier and customer chains within Wales, but also within England and the UK, because it is one larger market? How do you propose to do that?
Thank you for the excellent visit that I had with you to Tri-Wall. It enjoys excellent relationships both locally and nationally as a Japanese company. I make it quite clear that the work on the supply chain is absolutely essential for all businesses where there is a supply chain wider than Wales. If you look at the example of Hitachi coming to north Wales, we have done a number of events around the nuclear industry and who can supply from Wales and further afield. In terms of automotives, we look at the relationship of the Welsh supply chain to England and centres there. So, you are quite correct that the supply chain issue is absolutely essential.
Minister, connectivity between our communities must be a priority for investment. Can you tell us about any progress made in securing funding for the Valleys metro?
Yes. We will be working very hard through the summer on the proposals for the Valleys metro. I anticipate having a report in September. I will then be initiating the type of discussions that we need to put flesh on the bones in terms of the amount of cash that will be required. I have spoken to the city region group and to local authority leaders about the importance of developing a coherent plan, and I hope that I will have something to share with Members in the autumn.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Eluned Parrott.
Diolch, Lywydd. What is the Minister doing to attract investment in the Central Cardiff enterprise zone?
The Central Cardiff enterprise zone has its website and its own proposals for attracting investment, as well as what we help to do, centrally, in Government.
Thank you. Land is important to the investment, and, as you are aware, Councillor Russell Goodway has said that Cardiff Council agreed to purchase a parcel of land in Callaghan Square, following a letter from the Welsh Government advising him that a third party wanted to purchase the site and land blanket, and that it would be sterilised for a number of years. Councillor Goodway claims that he shredded the letter and has failed to provide any evidence of its existence. So, I have made a freedom of information request to your department, as you know, Minister, and, two months later, I still have not had a response. Does this letter exist, or is it a figment of Councillor Goodway’s imagination?
There is a correspondence that has occurred between us, on numerous occasions, and the City and County of Swansea—Cardiff Council, I mean. That was a Freudian slip, Presiding Officer. [Laughter.]
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the support available for small businesses in Aberconwy? OAQ(4)0295(EST)
Yes. Through the Business Wales service, we provide a wide range of information, guidance and advice to support SMEs across Wales.
Thank you, Minister. As you have rightly pointed out, the importance of small businesses cannot be overstated, with 10% of all Welsh businesses being retail, and 131,000 people working in this industry. Next week, I will sponsor the reception launch of a cross-party group on small shops to facilitate a forum where Assembly Members can engage with this sector. Minister, will you acknowledge the importance of this backbone of our Welsh economy? Also, will you, hopefully, attend the meeting and continue your support in this regard?
I concur with you: the retail sector is important to the Welsh economy and the high street. It is very important, I think, to support small businesses, particularly, in that sector, which are the lifeblood of the economy in certain areas. As to attending, I am not certain of my diary commitments at this stage.
Tourism Brown Signs Policy
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s tourism brown signs policy? OAQ(4)0293(EST)
Rwy’n ystyried y canllawiau diwygiedig sydd wedi eu paratoi gan fy swyddogion ar hyn o bryd.
Thank you, Minister, for your answer. Many businesses in my constituency are eagerly awaiting the finalised Welsh Government policy on tourism signs. They desperately want to improve the signage to attract new business, particularly those just off the main trunk road. With that in mind, can you provide any further details about when the new policy is likely to come forward?
Thank you for that. Your constituents—like myself—are eager to see progress on the matter of brown signs. I was not satisfied with the first advice that I had in terms of how we should deal with brown signs; I felt that it was too rigid a policy and we had to reflect, in terms of signage, what the requirements are of Wales as a nation, and not look necessarily at models across our border, where some of the tourist attractions are much larger. That is why there has been a delay. I am currently asking a member of my tourism sector panel for their views on the proposals in front of me, and I do not anticipate a further delay. I should be able to advise Members before we go into recess.
Minister, I very much welcome the approach that you are taking in recognising that the policy in the past has been too rigid and has prevented people obtaining brown signs that would have been beneficial to themselves as businesses and to the public seeking out businesses, especially in rural areas. Sometimes, rural tourism facilities are only open for part of the year, during the high season, and that has been a reason sometimes that has stopped a brown sign from being acceptable. Will you look at the issue that, in some cases, tourism businesses can only operate during the high season and that should not be an excuse to deny them a brown sign?
Yes. I must say, why you cannot just put ‘Open April to October’ on something, I do not understand. So, you can be assured of that.
Faith Tourism Opportunities
5. Will the Minister make a statement on faith tourism opportunities in Wales? OAQ(4)0283(EST)
Gwnaf. Yn ddiweddar, rwyf wedi cymeradwyo cynllun gweithredu twristiaeth ffydd Llywodraeth Cymru, sydd â’r nod o ddatgloi potensial economaidd addoldai a safleoedd sanctaidd eraill.
Thank you, Minister. I congratulate the Welsh Government on an excellent faith tourism action plan. I look forward to you visiting north Wales for an official launch of the plan in the near future.
One of the issues identified in the plan is that some financial resource will need to be put alongside it for it to be implemented fully. What consideration have you given to the financial resources? Perhaps you can tell us what investment you expect to make over the coming few years.
Yes. I am looking at the financial resources issue in the context of my budget, but I am very keen on this faith tourism action plan and its delivery, and I am delighted that I will potentially be doing the launch of that plan in north Wales.
One of the most important places for faith tourism in Wales is in my constituency. St Winefride’s well in Holywell has attracted pilgrims and visitors for centuries to worship at the shrine. Indeed, it is known as the Lourdes of Wales. There are many other tourist attractions around Holywell. Therefore, Minister, can your officials look at these attractions in the round, and see to them becoming part of a wider tourist attraction, to attract many more visitors, which will benefit the town, and the rural economy?
Yes. In developing our tourism destination plan, Flintshire County Council has identified several key attractions, as you have illustrated, which we can bring together. That will be vital to the visitor economy in that area. We are looking at the issues around access to facilities. Furthermore, my department is working closely with Cadw to deliver its £19 million heritage tourism convergence project and pan-Wales heritage interpretation plan, which will help in terms of delivering information on key heritage sites.
The pilgrim’s way to Bardsey island was a very popular route in the Middle Ages. On the way, you had Bangor Cathedral, which was a very important destination. The name ‘Bangor’ means the land around a church. So, when the Pontio centre opens its doors in the city, may I invite you to visit the church, and the other historical features in the ancient and beautiful city of Bangor?
I would be delighted to accept that invitation. Bardsey, which is the island of 20,000 saints, was of great interest when I visited Japan on the trade delegation, and spoke to them about the project at Hitachi. They asked about Wales, and about where they were going, and I explained about Ynys Môn and Bardsey, and there was enormous interest in the fact that that was the home of 20,000 saints. It is interesting how culture, and such issues, can consolidate business relationships, as well as an understanding of the nation with which the relationship is going to take place.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Cwestiwn 6, OAQ (4) 0286 (EST), wedi’i drosglwyddo i’w ateb yn ysgrifenedig, a chwestiwn 7, OAQ (4) 0287 (EST), yn ôl.
Links Between The Welsh Language and Economic Development
8. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to strengthen links between the Welsh language and economic development? OAQ(4)0296(EST)
I am very pleased to say that I have set up a task force to recommend ways in which the Welsh Government, and others, can develop and deliver a strategy for jointly promoting the Welsh language and economic development. I attach great importance to this, and I very much look forward to its findings. I wish to put on record my thanks to the previous Minister for Education and Skills, for all the help and assistance that he gave in helping to deliver this policy.
I thank the Minister for that encouraging response. What can the Government do to encourage small businesses to recognise the Welsh language as an asset to their companies and to local communities? Furthermore, could the Minister consider any incentive for small and medium-sized enterprises that strive to support the Welsh language?
The task and finish group on the Welsh language and economic development is looking at how we might identify ways of fostering a positive relationship between the Welsh language and economic development, particularly with small businesses. I very much hope that the work that I am doing with the Teifi valley local growth zone, which is looking at developments in that area, and is looking, in particular, at some of the linguistic issues, will also help to assist the development of this policy. I would welcome and encourage any initiatives that help to support small, independent businesses, and recognise the contribution that they make to local economies, whether that is through the medium of Welsh or English.
Minister, on 6 February, I asked whether your task and finish group was considering the role of the Welsh language as a marketing tool to attract tourists. You said that you would be more than happy to make a statement on that group’s role before the summer. Minister, can you give us an idea of when you might be making that statement, and whether you will deal with that particular issue?
The group is making good progress, but perhaps not necessarily the progress that it would want. It had its last meeting on 27 June 2013. I am currently reviewing the minutes of that meeting, to see what progress was made in certain areas. Your point has been taken into account, but, if it would be helpful—and if it would not overburden the system, Presiding Officer—I am more than happy to put a little written statement out in terms of updating.
Minister, may I welcome the statement that you made yesterday on the Teifi valley local growth zone. I very much hope that that is a pattern that we could see reflected the length and breadth of Wales, if it is a success there. I look forward to ‘Y Gynhadledd Fawr’—the ‘big conference’—that is happening in Aberystwyth tomorrow, where the Government is holding a debate on supporting the Welsh language. What contribution can your department make to that big conversation, and how will you be able to encourage more innovation by Welsh speakers?
The First Minister is leading the discussion on behalf of the Government tomorrow in Aberystwyth. When my group reports to me, I might want to have to start a conversation within Wales about how we deal with some of the issues around the economy and the language.
9. How is the Welsh Government helping small and medium sized construction companies in Delyn access finance to create and safeguard jobs? OAQ(4)0291(EST)
Through Business Wales, we provide a wide range of financial advice and initiatives to support small and medium-sized businesses across Wales.
With so many construction companies in Wales being of the small and medium-sized variety, we have to provide support where we can for them to compete. I know that the Wales property development fund is a welcome innovation for construction companies. However, how are we going to ensure that this fund is widely promoted so that all companies that wish to access finance are able to benefit from it?
Finance Wales, which administers the fund on my behalf, will be promoting and publicising it in the sector. If Members feel that it is not adequately advertised in the sector, I would be grateful if they could advise me, because it is very important that it is aware of what is going on. Also, we continue to do a lot of work with tier 1 and tier 2 contractors to ensure that, as sub-contractors, they can meet the standards to be expected, and that work has to continue.
A family construction company in Delyn has previously raised concerns with me about the barriers that they have encountered with the local planning authority when seeking to deliver shared equity affordable housing. When considering whether to support, and how to support, a small construction company that is encountering such problems in a place such as Delyn, what support can your department give to help such companies overcome the wider barriers that they might be facing?
As you alluded to planning, I will pass on your comments to the Minister for planning, as it directly relates to concerns over planning.
10. What discussions has the Minister had with banks regarding support for businesses? OAQ(4)0288(EST)
I have discussed with the banks the importance of ensuring that Welsh businesses—SMEs and microbusinesses in particular—are able to access the finance that they need to grow and thrive. As a result of Professor Dylan Jones-Evans’s report, I am upping the ante in terms of discussions with them.
I am sure that you are aware, Minister, of the mis-selling of interest rates swap agreements to SMEs by some banks. Some businesses in my constituency have been devastated by these products. Incredibly, this type of loan containing a swap is not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Since these loans are crippling some businesses in Wales, will you make representations to the UK Treasury and the UK Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, to require the FCA to investigate these loans and ensure a fair redress to those businesses affected?
There has been a substantial increase in complaints about this—anecdotally with Members as well, I am sure—with regard to the issues surrounding this. I will be more than happy to raise this; I was due to meet Vince Cable tomorrow, but, unfortunately, he has had to reschedule a meeting, but I will certainly put in on my next agenda with him. I am aware that the complaints are across the UK and we need to have these matters resolved.
Minister, last week, I believe you said that, as a Government, you need to do a little more with banks in order to get the position streamlined together. In light of these comments, can you give us an indication today what your intentions are with regard to streamlining the position?
I am about to start a series of dialogues with the banks. I have written to them on the basis of Professor Dylan Jones-Evans’s report. I have done that on a local level and I will now write to them at a national level. I have had the opportunity of meeting the banks nationally at quite a high level before, and it is my intention to hold these meetings during the late summer/early autumn. I will certainly report back to Members on that, because I think the point is well made.
My recent casework also indicates, as you rightly say, that there is considerable concern in the small and medium-sized business community regarding the availability of finance. In the context of the points that you have again emphasised today, will you give consideration to calling a round-table meeting with the directors of the relevant banks in Wales to take forward this agenda with some relevant stakeholders and businesspeople?
It would be very nice if I could actually do the round-table meeting, because the trouble is that some of these decisions are taken outside of Wales. This is one of the key concerns, which is a concern that you have raised with me before, namely where decisions are made with banks. I am certainly having discussions with them; whether it will turn out to be a round-table meeting, I am not sure at this stage, so I will keep Members updated when I report back on the work of Professor Dylan Jones-Evans.
Promote Wales to Air Travellers
11.Will the Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to promote Wales to air travellers, including both tourist and business travellers? OAQ(4)0292(EST)
The programme for government sets out our proposals to promote Wales in the UK and worldwide.
We all know about the great improvements at Cardiff Airport that have been made recently. As you know next year will hold a major celebration of the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth. I know that Dylan Thomas is featured in some of the improvements at Cardiff Airport already. Swansea is pulling out all the stops to ensure that we have a celebration worthy of Dylan from the Do Not Go Gentle festival, to Karl Jenkins’s premiere of ‘Llareggub’, and to the new monthly local produce market in Dylan’s birthplace in Uplands. As Dylan is such an internationally recognisable figure and such a big draw for tourists and businesses alike, will the Minister consider specifically promoting the centenary celebrations at the Wales international airport?
Obviously, the airport is not managed by the Government; it will be a matter for the airport board. However, I will certainly draw this to its attention. It has already done quite a lot on Dylan Thomas with poetry and artwork in the corridor and so on. However, the point with the airport and the board is that there is an understanding that, when we have major events in Wales, they should publicise them proactively in the airport.
My director has regular meetings with Visit Britain, as does the chair of the tourism advisory panel, who represents us on the Visit Britain group.
Priorities for Promoting Science
12. Will the Minister make a statement on her priorities for promoting science? OAQ(4)0297(EST)
The ‘Science for Wales—Delivery Plan’ and the ‘Delivering Science for Wales 2012-13’ annual report have both been published and contain key actions, timings, targets and updates on progress.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I particularly welcome the Government’s Sêr Cymru programme and linking science development with the importance of higher education and universities. Although it may be between two portfolios, I would like to know what discussions she is having within Government regarding how we ensure that science developed in our universities stays in Wales and has the support from her department to produce spin-off companies and to develop in that way.
In terms of the science strategy, that is a strategy that was easily agreed with Cabinet colleagues and there has been massive co-operation across all portfolios. That is not in any small part down to the fact that John Harries, as our first adviser, has such international respect, and everybody understood what he was trying to do in terms of the economy. I had a particularly close relationship with the Minister for health on the delivery, because he has responsibilities for National Institute for Social Care and Health Research. I can assure you that a lot of good joint working is going on. We are delighted by the first appointment in Cardiff, and let us hope that we have further good news during the summer.
Minister, I am sure that you agree that it was very sad that Dave Rees’s cross-party group on science was squeezed out of the Assembly agenda last night. There was something else going on, I think, in the building. [Laughter.] Nonetheless, that group has done a lot to raise awareness of science issues in Wales. You will agree that a strong scientific community is vital to driving research and development and to supporting the Welsh economy. The recent comprehensive spending review has attempted to ring-fence capital spending on science in England. How do you intend to support and protect science budgets in Wales, given their importance, certainly in applying for future European funding? We have to prove as a nation, as you do as a Government, that science is being factored into all economic issues.
That is quite key. We also need to look at what the priorities of the European Union are in terms of structural funds and how that links into what we might be doing to support business and industry. That is very much at the forefront. In terms of my budget, I will have to make several difficult decisions, but I am not inclined to make difficult decisions regarding the science budget. On the other hand, you might want to address other matters to the Minister for Finance.
13. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s transport priorities for mid Wales? OAQ(4)0294(EST)
My priority is to ensure that we have a transport system in mid Wales that improves economic competitiveness and provides enhanced access to jobs and services for communities across the region.
I am pleased to hear that answer, Minister. I raised the issue of the hourly service with you at the beginning of May and, in your response, you raised the issue of transparency for Members to understand the current situation and what the barriers are. Having spoken to Arriva Trains Wales yesterday, I am struggling to understand what the barriers are. Are they infrastructure, finance or capacity issues? Is there a problem with the original business case? I would like to get a complete picture from the Government, from Network Rail and from Arriva Trains Wales. If you could map that out, I would be extremely grateful.
It is always interesting that, when organisations speak to Assembly Members, they speak to you in a slightly different way in terms of what they may wish me to do as a Minister. They always paint the picture that suits them best on these matters. I do intend to make an announcement on my transport priorities before the summer recess, and that issue will be included in that announcement.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 14, OAQ(4)0285(EST), has been transferred for written answer.
15. What plans does the Welsh Government have to improve and increase the availability of public transport across south Wales before the next Assembly election? OAQ(4)0289(EST)
Obviously, I am committed to improving public transport in Wales, and I am considering options for further investment across south Wales. However, we need to recognise that we are facing difficult pressures on the budget available, particularly in light of the outcome from the comprehensive spending review.
I think that we all recognise the difficult times, but will you, when you are conducting a review of your transport priorities, give special regard to the social role of bus transport within our transport network? Buses carry a lot more passengers than trains do and often reach much more deprived communities. However, cuts recently have had a detrimental impact and there is a lot of constituency casework that we have received on the issue.
Yes, I will take that very much into account because I do recognise the importance of buses. It is not just about taking people to work and vice versa; it is about that social engagement that some people from poorer areas would not have without the availability of services. I am also conscious that I must get a balance between rural and urban areas because, sometimes, some of the issues in the rural areas are absolutely devastating in terms of transport. There also needs to be more transparency and discussion about the routes that are available and those that will not be available.
Will the Minister confirm that the Welsh Government will fulfil a commitment to completing the Ebbw Vale to Newport line before 2016?
I have no indications to the contrary, but now that you ask me that question, I am slightly suspicious about why you have asked it. Perhaps someone has been lobbying you, so I will check these matters with my officials.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee to move the motion.
Motion NDM5283 Nick Ramsay
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Enterprise and Business Committee on the inquiry into Integrated Public Transport in Wales, which was laid in the Table Office on 22 May 2012.
I move the motion.
The Enterprise and Business Committee’s inquiry into integrated public transport in Wales sets out a clear vision, which is for passengers in Wales to experience an easy, seamless and comfortable public transport system: a system that links rail, bus and community transport services across the country, and a system that is understood and trusted by all our citizens.
We are under no illusion about the obstacles to achieving this objective. They were articulated to us in a wide range of evidence and documented in our report. However, we have focused on how those problems would be overcome and how the Welsh Government can help in that process. The answers include the exercise of more devolved powers, but I will say more about that later.
So, why did we look at integrated public transport in Wales? Public transport is a lifeline not only for sustaining communities, but for enabling Wales to compete for inward investment and business with other parts of the UK. The main aims of our inquiry were to explore how well public transport is integrated; which factors limit integration; how successful the legal, policy and delivery frameworks are in supporting integration; and what steps could be taken to improve integration. In terms of how we went about our inquiry, we wanted to focus on the public transport user. We therefore launched our inquiry with a world cafe public engagement event at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. We hosted an online survey to canvass opinion, and we held evidence sessions with stakeholders. Many others sent their comments to us in writing. I am grateful to all those people who took the time and effort to contact us with their views, particularly those who attended our events and meetings. I also thank fellow committee members, Alun Ffred Jones and Eluned Parrott who, like me, produced video diaries of their own public transport journeys. The edited versions can be viewed on our website.
What did our inquiry find? From the outset, it became clear that Wales’s ambition to achieve a fully integrated public transport system is being compromised by a lack of powers. Professor Stuart Cole of the Transport Research Centre told us that the accountability of the traffic commissioner and the regulation of the bus industry would need to be devolved to Cardiff before Wales could even think about having a fully integrated system.
Several witnesses praised the more devolved structure of Network Rail in Wales, but a strong case was made for putting its relationship with the Welsh Government on a statutory footing. I am glad that the Minister agrees that the devolution of rail franchising powers and funding will be significant and extremely helpful in shaping the future of integrated transport in Wales. Strong arguments were also voiced in favour of introducing a passenger transport executive model in Wales. The committee was persuaded that such an approach could bring a formal governance system, together with fair and proportional representation, which, in turn, would help to establish a common strategic direction.
I welcome the Minister’s agreement to evaluate a PTE model as part of strengthening regional transport structures. Integration is not all about the accumulation of extra powers, however. Some witnesses, including Sustrans Cymru, wanted to see stronger strategic leadership and integration skills within the Welsh Government. The committee also heard that the current regional transport plans predate the national transport plan. We therefore identified the renewal of the national transport plan in 2015 as a key opportunity for ensuring a more co-ordinated approach to transport planning and delivery.
The issue of collaboration between bus operators is contentious—as, I am sure, the Minister is aware—owing at least in part to a lack of clarity over the Transport Act 2000. The committee heard that the threat of fines from the Competition Commission and fears over loss of revenue have deterred some operators from collaborating with each other. There was some misunderstanding, as we were talking about them collaborating more with each other than with the Welsh Government.
Many witnesses remarked on the need for more efficient interchange between buses and trains. We also received an emphatic steer on the need for operators to simplify and integrate fare and ticket systems.
On the issue of service accessibility, annex B of our report includes a catalogue of problems faced by disabled passengers. We were very concerned about this, especially given that the Equality of Opportunity Committee published a report on this issue over two years ago.
The committee heard about some good examples of tailored and innovative public transport schemes in rural areas, such as the Bwcabus service and community transport services. I welcome the Minister’s positive response to our recommendations on community transport, particularly her acceptance of recommendations regarding funding levels and the provision of longer-term financial stability for the sector. I would, however, welcome further detail on how the regional transport services grant for the current year represents an ‘effective doubling’ of funding available to the sector, as the Government’s response seems to suggest. Also, when we can expect a conclusive answer to the issue of multi-year funding?
Turning to what we recommended as a committee, in all, we made 25 recommendations to the Welsh Government. I am pleased that the Welsh Government’s response to our report is generally positive, accepting 18 of our recommendations outright and six in principle. One recommendation was rejected, and I shall turn that to in a moment.
If I may, I will highlight a few of our key recommendations. The Welsh Government should continue to lobby the UK Government for a statutory relationship between the Welsh Government and Network Rail, and for an enhanced role in the rail franchising process as it affects Wales. Also, it should continue to lobby the UK Government for bus regulation and registration powers to be devolved to Wales, for the traffic commissioner to be accountable to Welsh Ministers, and to strengthen regional transport structures, including an evaluation of a passenger transport executive model.
It should use all the powers at its disposal to drive public transport integration and to ensure that staff at all levels of government have the skills and tools to deliver effective public transport policy. We further recommended that the Welsh Government should press transport operators to work together—as I mentioned earlier—and with all relevant stakeholders to implement best practice in co-ordinating timetables, connecting services and publishing real-time information to provide seamless links, or as seamless as possible, between bus, rail and community transport networks.
Regarding recommendation 6 about strengthening the planning system so that all major developments include adequate public transport provision and actively promote sustainable integrated public transport, and that transport planning agencies should be consulted at an early stage, I do believe that the Government has missed a trick by not sending out a clear policy signal. During our inquiry, we heard extensive evidence of developments constructed without adequate regard for public transport needs, and we heard the strong message that planning guidance on the matter is ineffective. We therefore believe that it is vital that any new development should be integrated with public transport networks and services, and I would urge the Welsh Government to reconsider its rejection of our recommendation on this issue, or otherwise to set out how the current failures of the planning system will be addressed. I think that simply rejecting that recommendation is not sufficient.
To conclude, Presiding Officer, one of the key witnesses to this inquiry told us that integrated transport was a ‘seductive notion and a simple idea’—I like that quote. Further—and I think you are aware of this quote yourself—it was described as a ‘devilishly complicated thing to achieve’ in practice. Integrated public transport demands an integrated set of measures: further transfer of powers to Cardiff; integration of transport with other policies; and a step change in imagination and drive among all those responsible for its delivery.
Finally, Sustrans Cymru told us that 1.5 million people in Wales—nearly half the nation’s population—are at risk of becoming isolated and unable to access key services because of inadequate public transport. Needless to say, that is an extremely worrying prospect. I very much hope that our report and recommendations being discussed today will signpost the way to a more integrated and connected Wales of the future. I look forward to hearing all contributions to today’s debate.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute. As a member of the committee, I enjoyed the opportunity to look at this subject and to take part in the inquiry. For me, the policy behind this concept is broad and one which overlaps. A characteristic of innovative nations is the provision of transport systems that are fit for purpose and meet demand. From an environmental point of view, it is crucial that we promote the use of public transport.
The report starts by saying that there is a hidden problem of transport poverty in Wales, the effects of which should not be forgotten. It is likely, and unfortunate, that many of these people also suffer as a result of other forms of hardship. In its evidence, Sustrans said that 20% of those on the lowest income spend a quarter of that income on running a car. For all those dependent on public transport for social purposes, it is crucial that we integrate and invest. In the Chancellor’s statement of last week, there was a disappointing settlement in terms of capital. We must consolidate and try to make the best of what we have.
As the report states, a lack of awareness of the options is one of the greatest barriers to using public transport. I am pleased that Carmarthenshire is cited in the evidence as a rural county that is effective in providing information on bus timetables and that, in conjunction with Ceredigion, it provides the Bwcabus service in rural areas. Furthermore, as we have seen following changes to services in Powys, the county was successful in increasing the numbers making use of buses. So, there is best practice out there.
The Welsh Labour manifesto commits to considering alternative models of ownership on renewal of the Wales and borders franchise in 2018. I have met several times with representatives of the Heart of Wales line, and they believe that services could be improved on that line through local management. That would mean greater freedom to consider restructuring in order to better meet the needs of local communities. Given that the report looks at community management and the 2018 franchise, I would like to make the point that it would be beneficial to have further discussions as an Assembly on this matter, and to include the Heart of Wales line in those discussions.
I very much wanted to contribute to today’s debate on the Enterprise and Business Committee’s report on integrated public transport in Wales. As a member of the Enterprise and Business Committee, this was an inquiry that met, I felt, with much enthusiasm from the committee, and I endorse many of the points that have already been made by Nick Ramsay, the Chair, in his opening remarks.
Broadly speaking, the Government has accepted our amendments bar recommendation 6, and while welcoming the acceptance of the amendments, I have concerns in relation to the rejection of recommendation 6, a matter that I will return to shortly.
Prior to that, I want to make some broader points that I think go to the core of some very practical problems with the Government’s approach to integrated transport—specifically, as has already been mentioned by Nick Ramsay, the bus networks and operators. There are all manner of powers available under the existing legislation—the 1985, 2000 and 2008 Transport Acts—to enhance and co-ordinate services across Wales. There is more than enough, really, but I fear they are currently being underused.
Bus operators are particularly mindful of the 1985 Act, which made them subject to the normal private sector control of the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission—formerly the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. This can mean that operators are very nervous about what we would call integrated transport. Simply discussing timetable integration can land them in a legal minefield. This can easily be mitigated by clear local government leadership through voluntary partnership agreements, a statutory quality partnership scheme or timetable qualifying agreements. Experience has shown that leadership and direction on this issue has been less than ideal, and we are struggling on this very practical level; I think that this has to be addressed.
Bus operators need a third party, ideally local government, to lead integration. Failing that, Welsh Government will have to act to bring them together and legally ensure that we properly integrate transport. In the not too distant past, we have seen that there are great legal difficulties of which to be mindful. A good example, of course, is the Cardiff Bus case, where the OFT issued a decision that Cardiff Bus had abused its dominant position. This led to the competition appeal tribunal making the first award of exemplary damages in a UK competition law case. This will mean that we have a very nervous industry, which again emphasises my point about requiring leadership to integrate from an independent body.
I move on to mention recommendation 6 in particular, which the Government has not accepted. I do not share the Government’s belief that the town and country planning Order sets out requirements strong enough to tackle the points raised in our report. I would like to see changes to the planning system through your forthcoming planning reform Bill, to strengthen the requirement for all major development schemes to include adequate public transport provision and actively promote sustainable integrated public transport. I think that it is somewhat short-sighted not to accept, at least, that your planning reform Bill should look into that aspect of major developments. It is disappointing that the upcoming reform seems to be already ruling out large areas of the planning system from reform if you believe that there is no need for change.
In closing, I urge the Government to review its decision on that recommendation. Frankly, I fail to see how a failure to examine this area of the planning system will assist in providing a successful and integrated transport system in Wales. I do not think that it is appropriate for you to prejudice, at this stage, the outcome of that Bill. I thank you for accepting the vast majority of the report. I look forward to you embracing these recommendations and hopefully giving further consideration to recommendation 6.
I thank everybody who participated in this inquiry. I believe that there was great consensus in the committee on the report. There were a number of recommendations, and the matter that I want to talk about is quite central in terms of analysing the recommendations and the Government response.
A number of the recommendations presume further constitutional or devolution changes. This is relevant from the point of view of the railways and the powers, or the lack of powers, around the bus system. Integrating our networks and our transport structures is dependent upon securing additional powers in this field, in terms of rail and buses. That is central to this, and underlines why moving forward with the Silk commission recommendations is vital—and that is just the first step.
One of the recommendations refers to creating a statutory link between Network Rail and Welsh Government, for example. There is already a practical link, but if you want to create a statutory link, it is obvious that you are talking about the devolution of further powers. That would take us closer to a position that is more similar to that in place in Scotland. Of course, a number of steps have to be taken before that. We must ensure that, in devolving Network Rail responsibilities, we have a clear understanding of the funding in place to support that devolution, because investment is essential if we are to create a stronger and practical network that will serve our communities in the south Wales Valleys and in the more rural areas.
Welsh Government needs to be part of this process on the new franchise. I would ask the Government to state clearly how it intends to participate in that process, what its policy is and how it would, in due course, like to see that franchise, because growth must be secured into the next franchise, rather than just accepting the status quo. We expect that there will be electrification of the Valleys lines and in south Wales, so that will have to be factored in to any agreements made.
A number of steps have to be taken before we can realise many of the recommendations made by the committee and for us then to ensure that bus services—which, in fact, are more important to the majority of our communities than the railways—can work with rail services and that both can complement each other. We will definitely need additional powers from the point of view of bus arrangements, in terms of timetabling, better integration of services, and in order to be able to implement either pan-Wales or regional ticketing. The committee was not in total agreement on which would be the best model, and we need to look at that again in practical terms.
There has been reference once again to the Bwcabus model, which appears to be a very interesting model, which works in a slightly different way to what we have been doing in the past. Certainly, these days, when public funding will be scarce, we must look at alternative ways of delivering services in rural areas, where passengers are few and far between and buses are often not running half empty but totally empty. That does not make a real contribution. It is vital that we look for models, such as Bwcabus, that will serve those more rural areas in a practical way that meets the needs of our people.
Therefore, I believe that this is a useful report, and I hope that the Government will be able to take action on it in due course. However, I would like to hear from the Minister today about her intentions, and those of the Government, in seeking further powers in order to implement some of the report’s recommendations.
I, too, would like to thank the witnesses, who gave evidence to us on a very complicated area, the clerking team and the researchers, who helped us to understand a lot of complicated issues.
When we took on this inquiry, we did not realise the size of the can of worms that we were opening. Nevertheless, I think that we uncovered some really surprising issues that we did not anticipate that we would look at. We had evidence that problems in customer experience of passenger transport in Wales often track back to some fairly fundamental problems in the structures and governance of public transport. The Chair said that it was devilishly complicated, and it certainly is. For example, one of the things that we wanted to look at was improving the information that is available to passengers so that they can plan and prepare for their journeys. It seemed like a simple enough prospect. How hard can it be to make sure that there is a timetable on the bus stop, that the information boards are running accurately and that you can find this information easily? Actually, it is really complicated. It involves GPS technologies, people running different kinds of systems and those systems not working with the nature of hills that we have here in Wales and other challenges to do with geography. It involves things such as how often a bus stop is vandalised, whether a bus company will replace the timetable, how many bus companies are serving that bus stop and even the role of the traffic commissioner. So, some seemingly very abstract concepts have a direct impact on the experience of passengers using services on a day-to-day basis.
Looking at, for example, recommendation 3, which recommends the devolution of bus regulation and registration to the National Assembly, there are benefits in terms of allowing the National Assembly to have control and to judge accountability for those services and to overcome some of the language barriers and difficulties that are experienced at the office, which is currently located in the north of England. However, it would also help us to improve the flow of information on changing bus services for passengers, because one of the registration requirements is that bus companies, when they change a service, make the traffic commissioner aware of that. They send a paper form to the traffic commissioner’s office. That form then has to be typed up and sent back out to any number of other places to start to communicate with the public. That is an absolutely crazy and extremely old-fashioned system. If we do get control over it here, could we not set a system that, first, is bilingual in the first instance and, secondly, is computerised, so that all of that information can go out to all of the places where it needs to be? Could we not just make sure that those are co-ordinated and controlled in a more organised fashion on a smaller basis? There are direct benefits from really quite abstract concepts. That is something that we had not necessarily anticipated when we started this inquiry.
In driving integration forward, the role of the regional consortia in Wales is crucial. It became very clear to us that, if we wanted to see true integration—and I am not just talking about through-ticketing and e-purses, but a transport system where your bus links to your train, which links to a place where you can take your bike, or that you can take your bike on to a train and continue your route via an active form of travel—we had to ensure that the regional bodies with the responsibility to deliver this have the tools to deliver this as well. It did not seem to me, from the evidence that we received, that those regional bodies that we have, the current consortia, necessarily have the resources or, indeed, the powers that they need to really be a driver of this agenda. They seem to be, in many ways, passively trying to cope with the information that they are given to manage and do not really have the capacity then to take the strategic view that is really needed.
If we want agendas like active travel to work, and if we want them to work effectively with the public transport that we pay for and support, and with private transport, too—let us be realistic; that is a part of our world as well—then we need to make sure that that strategic agenda is at the forefront and not something that is constantly on the back burner because of the pressures of the day-to-day work that they do. Passenger transport executives are an interesting model that we need to consider, and I would encourage you to do so.
Finally, I will turn to the issue of planning, as there really is a need to look at that. It is especially important, if we want to see Wales change from a nation that is linked up by clogged-up roads to one that is linked up by paths and cycle paths, trains, bus routes and options for people in terms of their transport, to realise that what we have now just is not working. It is not delivering our objectives, and I do not believe that it will deliver the kind of transformational change that we want to see if the ambitions laid out in the national transport plan and the Active Travel (Wales) Bill are to become a reality.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister to speak on behalf of the Government.
I very much welcome the report from the Enterprise and Business Committee on integrated public transport and thank the Chair, the Members and the officials who were involved in its production. As Eluned Parrott has just illustrated, with these reports, sometimes you start off in a clear direction of travel, you think that it will take you somewhere and then all of these other issues start to tumble out with regard to the question: if we had further devolution, what is the reality of how we would operate systems better for the good of the citizen?
I have obviously considered in detail the recommendations made in the report, and I am pleased to accept the majority of the recommendations. As I outlined in my response to the committee, work on the implementation of many of the recommendations is already well under way. The Chair, when he outlined where the committee was, gave a very fair analysis of some of the key issues, whether in relation to the traffic commissioner, what is happening on rail, passenger transport authorities, or bus operators. Also, very importantly, he referred us to the issues relating to disability and access for all to public transport, which is a key issue in relation to the transport system. However, if I may, I would like to concentrate on the few recommendations that have been spoken about in particular by Members.
Alun Ffred spoke about the devolution of powers. As he knows, we are already discussing the further devolution of rail powers with the UK Government. Decisions will be made on the basis of a comprehensive analysis and understanding of the costs and risks. There is an issue on costs and risks in these difficult times to make sure that, if you do take something over, you have the right cash put into the Welsh block grant. We would also need new powers to be accompanied by the transfer of budgets. That would be essential. We are closely involved in that process of identifying priorities as well for a new Wales and Borders franchise specification also within these discussions. That work is carrying on.
I was also particularly taken with the issues relating to the recommendations on bus regulation and powers. We obviously have to work on that. We all know that bus regulation is one of the areas that we identified collectively for further devolution in our evidence to part 2 of the Silk commission. However, it was interesting to hear what Eluned Parrott said about the way that systems work in certain offices.
That would be the challenge if we have all of this, namely, how we make those systems work. One of the key recommendations that the Chair alluded to in his remarks was about public transport integration, which I think is very important and is a priority. It is reflected in our grant programmes, for example, in the regional transport plan grant and in our approach to developing the metro concept in south-east Wales. However, from April 2013 our funding support of socially necessary bus and community transport services is aimed at encouraging multimodal and cross-boundary strategies. Future funding will depend on operators meeting the minimum quality standards that passengers wish to see, which include integration and other modes. I think this issue about how we integrate all those is particularly important. However, I was taken by some of the comments about whether the bodies that are in place dealing with these are just, as it were, administering a system or whether they have a real role and function in terms of how we should deliver that. I certainly will reflect in light of the debate today on what further work I might have to do in that area.
I also think that much has been made by a number of people, including Byron Davies and various others, about their concerns regarding planning issues. It is not the intention of the Bill to cover policy issues that have already been addressed by the planning policy framework for Wales. ‘Planning Policy Wales’ and TAN 18 already require new developments to be built in locations that are accessible by integrated public transport. There is already a duty to consult the highway authority—I see the paperwork myself—and Welsh Ministers in relation to planning applications for major developments. I understand that there was concern in the committee that nothing immediately had been done on this agenda, but that is the current position of the Government. However, I notice that the previous Minister for transport and the current Minister for planning has sat through the debate and I am sure that he will take on board some of the further comments made to see if we can do anything further around that particular issue.
We have had a lot of discussion, of course, in recent weeks with my colleague John Griffiths about how we are going to deal with the Active Travel (Wales) Bill and how the links between public transport and active travel provision can be included in the delivery guidance for the Active Travel (Wales) Bill. I think that we need to do more to encourage bus operators to consult passengers on the demand for bike-carrying facilities, because it fits in very nicely with this agenda. The timeliness of services and on-board spaces are issues that affect the provision of buses and trains. Therefore, I think further work, definitely, has to be done in that area. We talk about encouraging, but perhaps, when we are looking at grant mechanisms to these operators to allow them to run services, we should go a stage further and be bit stronger in our engagement with them on these particular issues. I have obviously accepted the recommendation on integrated transport task forces, because I think it is important that I look at the arrangements for the co-ordination and delivery of transport and highways services at a local, regional and national level to see what improvements can be made.
One of the key issues that also emerged—I think it was from Keith Davies’s comments on this—was that we have to look at a transport poverty issue and the paucity issues of people’s availability. That came out in questions to me today, for example, where people are located, and where services come from. This is a key issue with it, because if you are excluded in respect of the income that you have where you live, it is important that we try to address that imbalance in terms of where we are and what we can do within the confines of the budget. This report has now given us an opportunity to focus very well on some of these other issues.
In terms of bus services, bus regulations are non-devolved matters. I accept the underlying principle of greater regulation of the bus market. Local authorities already have the powers to make bus quality contracts, which are franchises. I am using our funding to leverage better outcomes on this. This might start to include quality partnership schemes between local authorities and bus operators as part of this, and the provision of accessible and up-to-date information. You are right that bus shelters get vandalised and there is no information, and something happens to signs and there is no information, and that is very irritating for passengers and it does not encourage people to use public transport if they are not aware of what is going on with routes et cetera.
Currently, we fund three full-time bus compliance officers. I am committed to continuing to support this activity. This report has gone a long way in developing our thoughts about what we do in terms of public transport. Even if you look lightly at recommendation 16 on public transport interchanges, the future funding of our bus services would depend on bus operators and others meeting quality standards about interchanges, and we have supported the development of a number of public transport interchanges in Wales. The point about public transport is that it is a vast agenda, there is limited resource, and we have to work smarter in terms of how we allocate resources and what we do. So, I am delighted to support the report today. In terms of the in-principle recommendations, if it would be helpful to Members, specifically on those, I will provide an update in the autumn on the progress that we are making on them.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee to reply to the debate.
Thank you, Minister, for those comments. I thank everyone who has contributed to today’s debate; I think that it has been a really good debate on the back of what was a very useful, thorough and engaging inquiry.
Turning to some of the points made by the various speakers, I thank Keith Davies for the points that you made. Key to what you said, Keith, was the importance of a local management model, which ties in with the idea of the Assembly having further powers in this area, not just residing here, but also allowing local areas to develop their own models that are suited to their particular problems and issues, and to respond to customers’ needs in those areas. I think that that was a very important point. You also mentioned the need for co-ordination, and the need to look again at how lines such as the Heart of Wales line can be best supported. It is great that lines such as that have survived over the years, but it is not enough for them to survive—we need to support and encourage their growth in the future.
Byron Davies spoke of voluntary partnership agreements. I liked the phrase that you used when you spoke of it as being a ‘nervous’ industry. I know that the Minister was nodding at that point as well. We need to deal with that nervousness, because if the industry is nervous, it will be worried about making changes in the future and we are not going to have the transformational change that we need, certainly not the change that the customers—the people of Wales—who want to use that service need.
You spoke about the usual problems—the lack of interconnection and the lack of intercommunication—which were points that I made in my opening remarks. These clearly need to be dealt with. Like you, I am also unhappy with the rejection of recommendation 6. I am pleased that the other recommendations have been taken on board, but it is short-sighted not to allow a planning reform Bill to look more seriously at the issues that have been raised.
Alun Ffred Jones referred to the Silk commission, and reinforced the need for the devolution of powers in certain transport areas so that the Welsh Government can start to get to grips with some of the problems facing our public transport infrastructure. You also said that the status quo is not acceptable. You said that bus services can and should work together and that we need to integrate timetables. You also made the point that although we looked at all aspects of public transport, for many people bus services are what they use most on a daily basis. If we do not get that part of the chain right, there is no point in us trying to address the other issues further down the line.
Eluned Parrott, in her characteristic frank fashion, spoke of the can of worms that the committee had not realised it was opening. Actually, I think that you realised full well what can of worms we were opening, Eluned Parrott—I was aware of it too—but perhaps we did not care and felt that it was about time that it was opened again to try to deal with some of the problems. You spoke about the difficulties of even providing timetables in some areas, and the fact that the sustainability of the timetables that are provided is often dependent on local vandalism rates, crime, how often they are monitored and the companies that use those particular areas. I sense that you thought that we needed to co-ordinate all these different areas. I have to repeat this: you cited the old-fashioned, crazy, monolingual bureaucracy—actually, I am paraphrasing you slightly there, but that is what I would have said if I had been saying it—currently running services from the north of England—again, in your characteristically frank fashion—and the need for us to localise resources here, as Keith Davies said.
An important point is that every bus shelter should have a street light nearby. Vandalism of bus shelters is terrible because there are no street lights there. That is certainly true in the Newport area.
It is a point well made, Oscar. It is always good to have Members contributing who are not on the committee, so thank you for that.
Minister, turning briefly to your comments, thank you for accepting most of the recommendations. You mentioned minimum standards and I am pleased that you realise that some of the bodies need to be looked at afresh—they need to do what they say on the tin or the can, if I go back to Eluned Parrot’s comments. It is not enough for them simply to be part of an administrative system, sometimes responding to problems and issues of yesteryear when what we all need, of course, is for them to respond, first, to the problems of today and then to look at the problems that are going to face us further down the line.
I really would urge the Welsh Government to reconsider the rejection of recommendation 6 or, at the very least, to look at some way of addressing the concerns that have been raised. If we cannot get the planning side right, I really think that there is going to be a big hole at the centre of Welsh Government public transport strategy. You seem to be very understanding in your comments about the need for greater co-ordination and we will certainly be following developments very closely. The committee is not just looking at this and intending to leave it and move on. We are going to continue to monitor this and to make sure that what has happened too often in the past, where these issues are raised, a lot of fuss is made and then they die away and the public is still faced with the same issues year after year. We do not want that to happen.
On transport poverty, I would simply say, yes, it is out there. We all know that. Let us do something about it and develop a public transport system that is suited to the twenty-first century, and not a system, as I think it is in some cases, that is more suited to the nineteenth century. Thank you to all who have contributed to today’s debate. It was a fascinating report to be involved in and I look now for action from the Welsh Government.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? I see that there are no objections, so the motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order No. 12.36.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 3.26 p.m.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee to move the motion.
Motion NDM5284 Nick Ramsay
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the Stage 2 report of the Enterprise and Business Committee on the inquiry into Horizon 2020, which was laid in the Table Office on 31 May 2012.
I move the motion.
It is the Nick Ramsay show today, is it not? Again, thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. As Chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee I am pleased to be able to open this debate on our stage 2 report on Horizon 2020. It is a particularly topical subject given that the Irish presidency has only recently secured agreement on the new programme. Horizon 2020 is the European Union’s proposed research and innovation fund to succeed the framework 7 research programme. It is worth €70 billion and presents an invaluable opportunity for Wales to exploit opportunities in the field of research and innovation.
It is a pleasure to be talking about this issue within the spirit of the Welsh Government’s recent policy statement on higher education. That policy focuses heavily on the importance of the Welsh higher education sector in stimulating innovation, job growth and creating high-value industrial clusters and taking advantage of European funding to support those activities. It also underlines the importance of increasing the mobility of research staff, their capacity to network with international peers and their ability to engage fully with competitive research funding processes.
May I say at this point that I am grateful to the organisations and individuals that engaged with us during our inquiry, particularly the witnesses from Scotland and Ireland, and also the pro vice-chancellor and senior staff of Cardiff University who hosted our visit at the start of the year? Our report has also drawn on the conversations that we held in Brussels last autumn with key players in the European Commission and European Parliament, and I am grateful to Gregg Jones, the head of the Assembly’s office in Brussels, for organising those meetings. He did a sterling job.
The report that we are debating today follows publication of our report in July last year, which called for Wales to be more streetwise in accessing EU research funding, and to achieve greater synergies between projects funded through Horizon 2020 and EU structural funds. I am therefore pleased that the Government’s policy statement on higher education agrees that Wales must have a more joined-up approach in using structural funds and Horizon 2020 to link investment in jobs and infrastructure with investment in research and innovation.
May I thank the Minister for her positive, prompt and considered response to our stage 2 report, in which she accepts 10 of our recommendations in full and seven in principle? One of our recommendations this time around was for the Welsh Government to provide an update on progress against the 16 recommendations from our first report on Horizon 2020, and I am grateful to the Minister for her update on each of those points.
I wish to highlight three key themes that emerged from our stage 2 inquiry. First, our main message to the Minister is that the Welsh Government needs to strengthen its strategic approach to Horizon 2020 so that Wales can maximise the opportunities that will be available under the new framework, particularly by capitalising more on Wales’s strengths in accessing the funding. The Enterprise and Business Committee was struck by the focus and energy of the approach that has been developed in Scotland, as well as in Ireland, in preparing to secure funding from Horizon 2020. Both countries have brought together all the key players in research and innovation. We were concerned that Wales could already be falling behind in its preparations to engage in the new framework. It is therefore essential that the Government look at the strategic approaches that have been developed in Ireland, as well as in Scotland, so that good practice can be applied in a Welsh context to facilitate full engagement with the Horizon 2020 framework. I am pleased that the Minister has accepted this recommendation.
The second main conclusion of the committee is that Wales needs to focus on working ‘on the inside’ in Europe to benefit from the new funding programmes. We have recommended that the Welsh Government develop and manage flexible support schemes that encourage and sustain individual academics and researchers from Wales in engaging with European networks.
Key to Wales’s success in this is the role of the new Horizon 2020 unit that has been established by the Welsh Government within the context of the Welsh European Funding Office. We outlined some tasks for the new Horizon 2020 unit, such as raising Wales’s profile in Europe and brokering partnerships between European industry and academic and research institutions to ensure that innovative research carried out in Wales goes on to bear fruit in the commercial world. We further underlined the importance of getting the right technical and scientific expertise into the support structures in Wales. We therefore recommended that staff within the new WEFO unit have the necessary mix of technical, scientific and business skills and expertise that have proved so successful in other European regions. The Minister’s response states that the new unit will have access to that body of expertise, rather than have the expertise embedded within the unit itself. I am not sure that this will give the new unit the credibility or the edge necessary to operate as effectively as similar units in Ireland and Scotland, and, indeed, in the Spanish regions of Aragon and Catalonia, which, we found, have the in-house skills that allow them to engage their business and research sectors fully.
The third main conclusion of our report is that it is vital that there should be closer relationships between the business and higher education sectors. This is especially important given that Horizon 2020 is expected to place a much stronger emphasis on multi-disciplinary research, and the greater priority that it will give to innovation and the commercialisation of research outcomes. We believe that there needs to be clarity regarding whether Wales has the right coherent partnerships and leadership in place to drive forward the Science for Wales and innovation strategies with engagement in Horizon 2020.
Perhaps I could end with one final suggestion, which the Minister has accepted in full, which is for Wales to host a Horizon 2020 conference or science week in Wales to raise the profile of European Union funded research, the point being to broker ideas and to showcase successful projects. In particular, there is an urgent need to raise awareness of the opportunities for Welsh institutions and businesses offered by the new programme of knowledge and innovation communities—or KICs for short—something that was close to Ken Skates’s heart when he was on the committee. We looked closely at knowledge and innovation communities and at how they can work. That process will commence in 2018, and Wales needs to be prepared for that. Minister, we need to start building now the strategic capacity for Welsh partners to engage with those knowledge and innovation communities.
In conclusion, one of our witnesses described the current approach to gearing up to Horizon 2020 as not so much strategy as serendipity. I believe that, in our report and recommendations, my committee has presented the Welsh Government with a solid suite of ideas for developing a more strategic approach to bringing in the business and research sectors in effectively engaging at a European level. I very much look forward to hearing what other committee members, as well as the Minister, have to say during the debate.
I am also very happy to take part in this debate. It seems, having read the response of the Welsh Government, that our report has been accepted more or less in full, with all of the recommendations accepted either in full or in principle. A lot of my thunder has been stolen already by the chairman, Nick Ramsay, but I would like to touch on a couple of issues.
Before briefly touching on the report, I would like to reiterate his point and dwell on the energy and drive of the approaches seen in Scotland and Ireland in preparing for Horizon 2020. I know that Nick Ramsay touched on this briefly, but I was really taken aback by their focus in bringing together the key players within their respected nations. The new framework, which requires a seamless link between research and innovation, is clearly advanced in both their arenas. I genuinely think we can learn a great deal from their approach.
It is obvious from our recommendations that this view was unanimous in the committee, and I am especially glad that the Welsh Government has highlighted ongoing dialogue with the programmes of both countries. I want to highlight that there is no need to reinvent the wheel here. I am sure that a lot of the best practice in Scotland and in Ireland could easily have a Welsh dragon slapped on the side of it and be adopted here.
I will quickly sound a note of caution, which is that, within your response, Minister, you noted that you have continuing dialogue and meetings. That is fine and I accept that, but I reiterate my key point that we, as a committee, felt that Scotland and Ireland are well placed to maximise the benefits of Horizon 2020 and we should not only have an ongoing dialogue, as I said, but also accept their best practice and adopt it.
The other big issue for me within the report was ensuring that the Welsh European Funding Office is staffed appropriately. There is a very real acceptance of this and I welcome the honesty about the last round not going as well as it could have. We did not maximise the benefits of European funding streams. This is a good starting place, and, in this round, we must maximise the benefit for long-term sustainable employment opportunities. With this mission in mind, we must discuss staffing at WEFO and ensure that it is well placed to broker deals and deliver partnerships between Wales and Europe, alongside industry and, indeed, academia. This recommendation, in my opinion—accepted up to a point by the Government—is a clear step change in the current WEFO offer.
I will not dwell on any other issues. The Chair has made the points well. Many of the points, as I said, have been raised in this debate and in committee. I feel that our readiness for Horizon 2020 is getting an appropriate level of scrutiny. There is a lot more work to do and it is an opportunity that we must grasp. I thoroughly enjoyed stage 2 and look forward to further developments as the Government implements our recommendations.
I am very grateful to the witnesses who presented their comments and to the research staff for organising the information. One of the small pleasures of being a member of any committee, of course, is that you get an opportunity to learn about things that you knew nothing about previously, and that was certainly the case with this inquiry into the field of European Union research. One of the things that I realised in listening to the witnesses is that there are no easy answers to trying to attract research funding under European Union programmes. First, you have to have departments and faculties with sufficient expertise; you have to have world-class modern technological resources in the scientific field, and, more often than not, you have to create partnerships, not only within Wales, but outside, in England and also across the European continent and beyond.
In addition to that, you have to invest time and work behind the curtains in drawing up bids. That has proven too great a burden for several of our universities in the past, bearing in mind, of course, that many of our universities do not undertake world-class research. You are depending, therefore, on a handful of higher education institutions to make these bids, bearing in mind that, at the same time, every other university of any value across Europe is bidding for the same money. However, it is such a substantial amount that the sector in Wales cannot ignore it.
Looking back at this inquiry, there are two or three things that stand out to me. First, our universities—that is, those have world-class research capacity in Wales—do not always collaborate sufficiently in preparing to make bids. Bearing in mind that our universities are not very large—Cardiff University is quite substantial, of course—very often, departments need to come together in order to make meaningful bids that have a chance of success. It does happen—let us not be too critical—within the higher education sector in Wales, but we need to do far more, I believe, to ensure that our bids succeed, in bringing various areas of expertise together within our universities here in Wales.
Secondly, I had the impression, which is to be seen clearly in the recommendations, from the evidence from Ireland, that Ireland is better at harmonising its efforts. Ireland’s national support network for the FP7 programme seems to be a very effective body, with expertise and good connections in Brussels. That is very important. Having said that, the Irish are always very good and appear confident and successful, and, very often, you have to look under the surface to see the reality. However, it is worth looking in great detail at the model in Ireland, and, to an extent, the model in Scotland too.
The Horizon 2020 unit created within WEFO intends to do the same sort of work, but that department must be on the same wavelength as universities, and must avoid becoming a clumsy, bureaucratic body. The lady who spoke from Ireland was clearly on top of her game and understood the requirements of the European programmes.
One point made more than once was the need for Welsh universities to be more energetic in the central European structures in order to understand, in good time, the direction and needs of research programmes. Investing time in order to have a presence in committees in Brussels was vital to the success of applications, it seems. Some witnesses made this point time and again: you could not stay here, wait for the forms and then hope to fill them in successfully. You needed to be in Brussels—not arguing, but talking—in order to understand the requirements and directions.
I will close with one further message, namely that there were not many examples of collaboration between universities and industry in the field of research in Wales, which reflects, it seems, the weakness of the economy here. However, we must also look for those opportunities, in order to ensure that the Welsh economy takes full advantage of these programmes.
I welcome this debate on Horizon 2020 and I am very pleased to note that agreement was reached last week by our Members of the European Parliament on a €70 billion new research and innovation programme. This is an enormous boost of EU funding for the UK economy and for our research community in particular, as, historically, the UK has got back around £1.40 for every £1 paid into this funding stream.
I think this new agreement will see a very different scheme from the current EU framework programme, and we hope that the recommendations put forward by the committee will help the Welsh Government in gearing up for the new funding framework as it becomes available.
Over the past five years, the current EU framework programme, FP7, has brought £3.73 billion into science funding in the UK. Although it remains disappointing that Wales has secured only 2.2% of the UK total, compared to the 9.9% secured by Scotland, a number of very significant and ground-breaking projects have been based in Wales, such as the Seren Project at Cardiff University, which looks at energy use, and European space agency projects such as the Herschel and Planck telescopes. Exciting projects such as those have been based here in Wales and we can all be proud of that, but the real question is how we build on the successes that we have had and make sure that other research centres have the opportunity to bid successfully for funding too.
One key theme arising from our inquiry was the lack of awareness of the opportunities of Horizon 2020 funding, and, during our visit to Brussels, we heard from European Commission officials that engagement in the Marie Curie actions was not so good from the business sector in Wales, particularly SMEs, which seemed to lack awareness and, perhaps, some of the other infrastructure that they might need to engage fully with programmes in the future.
I am pleased that, in accepting the committee’s recommendations, the Minister has emphasised that increasing the participation of Welsh businesses, particularly SMEs, in accessing Horizon 2020 is to be a key aim of WEFO’s Horizon 2020 unit. However, I think that more needs to be done to increase business engagement. What support is there for Welsh SMEs in Brussels right now? Are we really being proactive enough in selling these opportunities to our SME community? Can we invest more in that particular element of our Brussels presence to make sure that our businesses have the kind of opportunities that businesses from the other parts of the UK seem to have?
Collaboration is also a key issue. Universities in Wales have a strong reputation in terms of engaging with businesses and generating income from collaborative research, and they have the highest levels of engagement with SMEs of any region in the UK, which is wonderful and stands us in good stead, moving forward. However, I do not think that we can become complacent, as there is a global market now for research and development investment. That means greater competition, not just from within the UK but from the world’s great universities as well—outside of Europe as well as within Europe—for the kind of commercial opportunities that help to develop the research capacity in our universities that will allow them to bid successfully and be lead bidders in European framework programmes in the future.
One final point that I would like to make is to do with the arts and the social sciences, and the role that they have in our research community in Wales. In the committee’s first report on Horizon 2020, one of our recommendations was to seek clarity on how research in social sciences, arts and humanities will be supported by the EU proposals, and how they sit within Horizon 2020 in particular. The Welsh Government’s response to our report highlighted that there had been no significant change, but that the proposals to divide the six societal challenges into two should provide social sciences, arts and humanities researchers with clearer access to funding in key areas. However, it is simple things like terminology and using the word ‘science’ to mean ‘research’ coterminously that undermines researchers in the arts and humanities when they are looking at research programmes. They do not believe that those programmes are for them if they are not described in appropriate terms. We need to be careful about that.
Arts and humanities have great importance, particularly in terms of knowledge exchange with other disciplines, and the contribution of social sciences and humanities should be addressed across all societal challenges. It is only by understanding the underlying societal, cultural and behavioural challenges that we can tackle each challenge, from health and wellbeing to climate change and resource efficiency, as holistically as we might.
In recognising the European Commission’s proposals to mainstream research in the social sciences, arts and humanities through Horizon 2020, we must replicate these efforts to bring together these disciplines and to give due prominence to the arts and humanities across the societal challenges in Wales and in our own research efforts. I ask the Minister, in responding to this debate, to tell us what support the Welsh Government will be offering to help universities to collaborate more effectively, so that examples of best practice can be shared and replicated and that universities can then adopt a more strategic approach to maximising the funding and income opportunities available, not just here, but elsewhere, too.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Finance, Jane Hutt.
I welcome this opportunity to contribute to this important debate. I thank the committee for its stage 2 report and for its inquiry, which has been both informative and comprehensive, following the stage 1 inquiry. The report and Members here today have raised some very important points on the lessons learned. The report will be very valuable in terms of the delivery and implementation of Horizon 2020 in Wales. There were important points on lessons learned and good practice, so that Wales can increase its share of EU research and innovation funding and its global competitiveness. You will have seen from my written statement today, and it has been acknowledged in this debate, that I was pleased to accept or accept in principle the report’s recommendations, and this debate provides me with an opportunity to respond to the committee inquiry and to address some of the main issues raised in the report and raised this afternoon.
The Welsh Government fully recognises that much needs to be done to increase research and innovation levels so that we can create the globally competitive nation that our ambitious programme for government and ‘Science for Wales’ strategy are seeking to deliver. European funding has an important role to play in driving forward these goals through the structural funds and through Horizon 2020. Maximising EU funds like those is key to ensuring that Welsh organisations in higher education and business can work together to develop groundbreaking products for commercial success. I was fortunate this morning to go to the Liberty Stadium in Swansea to meet CEMAS, the Centre of Excellence in Mobile Applications and Services, which is led by the University of South Wales. It was important for me not only to hear about the successful outcomes of CEMAS, which has the benefit of European structural funds, but to meet the businesses that are benefiting as a result of that investment—businesses that could show me the groundbreaking digital application, which is now successful in the market.
Nick Ramsay did refer, as did Eluned Parrott, to the EU budget last week. We were pleased that the EU budget was approved, but I have to say—and this is hot off the press—that the European Parliament has again supported the resolution to support the EU budget today. So, we are now very clear as to where we are in terms of not only the overall quantum but also the regional distribution of the EU structural funds for Wales. Of course, you all received my statement on this last week. It is a big step forward, presenting significant challenges when added to other pressures from the spending round, particularly for Wales’s most vulnerable region of west Wales and the Valleys. Of course, the regional allocation of £1.67 billion at 2014 prices will be a reduction compared with current allocations, but it is important that we are now clear about the budget regional applications, and that we can move forward in the new year with the next round of programmes. That means that it is all the more critical that we maximise the opportunities offered by externally administered EU funding streams like Horizon 2020. As has been said, given the scale of such investments, which are worth €70 billion across the EU member states, no-one can argue against the benefits that EU membership and such EU funds can bring to Wales.
So, in relation to the points made this afternoon and the recommendations, I believe that we are making good progress in terms of rising up to the challenges and opportunities of Horizon 2020, putting strong foundations in place to maximise this funding stream. The report acknowledges that a Horizon 2020 unit has been set up in WEFO, with many benefits to this arrangement. Of course, it does draw on the resources in WEFO, which is already playing a central role in supporting the knowledge economy. It is well placed to explore the complementarities and synergies between the structural funds and Horizon 2020 to maximise the impact of funds. It has also established the contacts and networks, which is important—responding to the points made this afternoon—including those with the European Commission, which has already commented favourably on the bringing together of EU funds in one unit. I was able to talk about this on my recent visit to Brussels to meet those officials responsible for Horizon 2020, and to make the case and to get that favourable response.
Both Nick Ramsay and Byron Davies referred to recommendation 6: the capacity and engagement of the unit within WEFO that we have set up. I think that I made clear in my written response that I believe that the unit, in its early stages, has been proactive, working closely with stakeholders and the type of support that they need to maximise the opportunities that Horizon 2020 presents. It has also been working with the economy, science and transport sector teams and Welsh stakeholders, identifying external funding-ready researchers and businesses. That, of course, is where we can engage in collaborative research, particularly in the ‘Science for Wales’ Grand Challenge areas. That is also beginning to identify potential investments that could build capacity directly to improve access to EU research funding.
It is also taking an initial review of partner needs, which has led to the launch in May of the more flexible financial fund called SCoRE Cymru, which is about widening participation among Welsh organisations, helping them to develop collaborative and competitive bids. The unit is also developing several targeted awareness events, and it has already delivered the highly successful Horizon 2020 workshop at the high-profile Digital 2013 event in June.
So, I can assure the Enterprise and Business Committee that not only have we been driving forward that objective in terms of the key links that the unit will make, internally and externally in Government, but also in establishing close links with the devolved administrations, learning lessons, of course, from Scotland, Northern Ireland and others in Europe, identifying best practice and informing the development of the unit. We are also ensuring that, where practice is in evidence, and it is applicable to Wales, we would build on that. Those are just a few examples of how the Welsh Government is looking to improve the support system in Wales for accessing Horizon 2020.
It is important that we are having an independent evaluation that will report in the autumn; that, too, will inform further developments.
Finally, we are committed to learning lessons and supporting continuous improvement, so that Wales is a European leader in maximising the opportunities that Horizon 2020 offers, to secure global competitiveness and in creating growth and jobs in Wales.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Chair to respond to the debate.
I thank everyone who has contributed to today's debate. I am mindful, in dealing with these sorts of issues, that some Members are not so involved in issues like Horizon 2020 and may sometimes find themselves wondering what these issues are that we are talking about—do not worry; it was a learning curve for the committee at the start as well, and it has actually been a very rewarding area to look at for the committee. I think that if our recommendations can help the Minister and the Welsh Government in tapping in to future funding streams better, it will be a good thing.
Turning briefly to the speakers, first of all, Byron Davies mentioned how, in the past, we have not previously maximised European funding streams as we could have, and that we need to bring together academia and industry. I think that Byron will agree that it is only through collaboration, as found on the committee, that the Assembly and the Welsh Government will in future be able to tap in to those streams in a way that has not always happened in the past—or at least not as much as they should have, anyway.
Alun Ffred Jones took a slightly different angle. You concentrated primarily on the university sector, and I am glad that you did, as it is a very important area of Horizon 2020. You pointed out, interestingly, that only a handful of universities carry out research of the highest quality, and you made the point that many cannot afford it. If universities do indeed have research capacity, they often do not work closely enough together to maximise their ability to make bids. The Welsh Government will, hopefully, be able to develop policies to address that.
Yes, we do need to look at Ireland. I remember the witness that you were talking about very well; the session was on the video link. It was clear to the committee that Ireland really is ahead of the game. Scotland is there as well, but Ireland has been doing some very impressive things over the past few years to prepare itself for the new Horizon 2020 structure. And, yes, we certainly do not want WEFO to become more a bureaucratic body than a hands-on, on-the-ground body that is helping to drive change and helping collaboration between universities, academia and, indeed, industry.
Eluned Parrott, I think I got you right: you said that we get £1 back for every £1.40 put in.
Is it £1.40 for every £1 put in?
That is it. [Laughter.] You can always rely on Eluned Parrott to give the detail in these situations—you are definitely the details person on that committee, Eluned.
You mentioned FP7 and the small amount of the UK's total of FP7 that is coming to Wales. That was a worrying statistic. You did, however, make the positive point that there are exciting projects that have happened from the current accessing of funding. I think that you mentioned Herschel, for example. So, I think the moral here is that there is good success happening, but that it is limited, and it could be far better in the future. Indeed, it needs to be. You also said that there is a need to increase business engagement. You said that collaborative research is good, but that there is also a global market to tap in to. All these are things that came through in our evidence to the committee, and they are all things that I would agree with. We certainly cannot stand still.
Finally on your comments, Eluned, you flew the flag, as usual, for arts and social sciences. These are subjects close to Eluned Parrott's heart, and, yes, they should be recognised. Science is not simply research and, vice versa, research is not simply science; there are other areas as well.
So, I think the key, Minister, is how we can get all these different areas to work together. We have tried to make the report as useful as possible; there were very many issues that could have gone into it, but I think that, from your point of view, it is more helpful that it is focused and you get some key priorities and key areas where things can be improved.
If I can just mention your response, I am really pleased that the Welsh Government has recognised the need to increase research and innovation levels in order to maximise future funding streams. We have not always done as well as we could in the past, but, to be honest, Minister, even if we had, it would not be good enough now, nor in the future. This is a fast-moving and developing race, and if Wales is to compete with other European nations, and indeed in other parts of the world, over the years and decades to come, then we have to get this right now.
It has been a pleasure to be involved in, first, the initial look at Horizon 2020 last year, and now this one. I thank again all the committee members who have worked hard on this report in an area that is not that straightforward, but I believe that some of the solutions can be straightforward. We urge the Welsh Government to take on board our recommendations. Let us start the ball rolling now to tap into funding better in the future.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The question is that the motion be agreed. Are there any objections? I see that there are not, therefore the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order no. 12.36.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1, 6, 7 and 8 in the name of Aled Roberts, amendments 2, 3 and 5 in the name of Lesley Griffiths, and amendment 4 in the name of Elin Jones. If amendment 3 is agreed, amendment 4 will be deselected. If amendment 5 is agreed, amendment 6 will be deselected.
Motion NDM5282 William Graham
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the huge potential for tourism in rural Wales and urges the Welsh Government to address industry concerns about how the new strategy for tourism will work in rural areas.
2. Calls on the Welsh Government to encourage local councils to implement Tan 6 planning guidance to support the sustainable rural economy and encourage diversification in rural areas by enabling automatic conversion of redundant farm buildings into business premises or accommodation.
3. Recognises the difficult environmental conditions that face farmers working in Less Favoured Areas (LFA) and calls on the Welsh Government to implement an LFA support package to address these unique challenges.
4. Notes the importance of sustainable bus services as a lifeline for rural communities and calls on the Welsh Government to provide sufficient funding for rural bus services.
5. Further notes the importance of the Royal Welsh Show and National Eisteddfod in supporting the rural economy and promoting Welsh culture.
I move the motion.
You will see from the way that the motion is drafted that Welsh Conservatives recognise that the opportunities and challenges in the rural economy are different to those in urban areas. We believe that rural Wales needs to be supported in a way that properly takes into account those differences, and in a way that capitalises on the enormous strengths of the rural economy. Our motion covers a broad range of areas where we believe that the Welsh Government should improve its support, and I can confirm that the Welsh Conservatives will be supporting amendments 1, 6 and 8. We will not be supporting amendments 2 and 5, and we will be abstaining on amendment 7.
The natural environment is a huge economic asset for Wales, both in terms of production and, for example, in the tourism economy, yet it is a fact that over 80% of the land in Wales is classified as ‘less favoured area’ because the conditions for farming it are so difficult. Farmers working on the most marginal land naturally find it harder to make a profit, and the latest figures show a 39% drop in LFA farm incomes, with the average figure standing at just £16,300. Specific LFA support is provided in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not in Wales, where farmers have been put at a competitive disadvantage by the decisions of Welsh Ministers. I accept that there is a need to look at the current designations of the LFA, and I welcome the Minister’s consideration of support under the ‘area of natural constraint’ designation in the next rural development plan. However, this cannot escape the fact that, right now, farm businesses in the uplands have been put at a significant disadvantage by the Welsh Government, and dedicated LFA support needs to be looked at and reintroduced as a matter of urgency.
Given this serious competitive disadvantage, on-farm diversification becomes even more crucial. Our motion has been drafted to encourage and support the freedom of farm businesses to adapt and diversify. First, these businesses need the infrastructure to allow this to happen, not least in terms of better broadband access and, more particularly, the elimination of rural notspots. Secondly, they need policies in place that give them the freedom to diversify and allow them to do it quickly. That is why our motion recognises the provisions in the TAN 6 document, and recognises that it is a good tool for rural diversification. However, it needs to be properly implemented and interpreted by local authorities if they are to have any impact. All the signs are that the provisions are currently being ignored by local councils or are being applied in an overly cautious manner. Just 80 applications for rural enterprise dwellings have been considered since July 2010 in the whole of Wales, and one in three of those was rejected.
The proposal in our motion to allow the automatic conversion of redundant farm buildings into business premises or accommodation would have a tremendous effect in boosting the competitiveness and resilience of the rural economy by giving farm businesses the freedom to diversify. It would also create spaces where local businesses could set up in their local environment and, perhaps, address issues around the availability of local housing. This would have considerable benefits in terms of jobs and the multiplier effect on the local economy. I urge Ministers to reconsider their opposition to this commonsense proposal.
On rural tourism—I am aware that my colleague, Suzy Davies, will be addressing this more fully—I would say that the Welsh Government’s claims that it rural-proofs its policies ring particularly hollow when there is just one reference to rural tourism in the new strategy. Wales has huge assets in the natural beauty of the rural landscape and its unique culture. Promoting and encouraging tourism in rural areas is crucial to ensure that the rural economy as a whole is sustainable and that there are jobs and opportunities available for the people who live in rural Wales.
Of course, the National Eisteddfod and the Royal Welsh Show are fantastic opportunities that promote that kind of rural tourism. Not only are they events that are of huge cultural and social value to Wales, but they provide an invaluable opportunity to bring people together to exchange ideas. As an example, the Royal Welsh Show attracts over 200,000 visitors a year. About 50% of all UK visitors to Wales visit the countryside, which highlights the role and importance of farmers as the guardians of the landscape. It also emphasises the importance of appropriate infrastructure.
Finally, for people living and working in rural Wales, there are the long-standing problems of isolation and the lack of access to services. Increasingly, these services are being concentrated in areas of high population density, and, in my own region, along the north Wales coast. It is an inescapable fact that rural communities suffer the most from this process. Without better support for rural public transport, this trend will only get worse in the coming years. I know that my colleagues are going to speak in more detail to the other points in the motion. We have outlined our proposals to support the rural economy, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of other Members to this debate.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Rwyf wedi dethol yr wyth gwelliant i’r cynnig. Os derbynnir gwelliant 3, caiff gwelliant 4 ei ddad-ddethol. Os derbynnir gwelliant 5, caiff gwelliant 6 ei ddad-ddethol. Galwaf ar William Powell i gynnig gwelliannau 1, 6, 7 ac 8, a gyflwynwyd yn enw Aled Roberts.
Insert as new point 1 and renumber accordingly:
Recognises the importance of a high street bank to the rural economy and regrets that, according to a recent ‘Last Bank in Town’ analysis by the Campaign for Community Banking Services, there are now thirty-eight communities in rural Wales with only one bank remaining.
In point 3 delete all after ‘(LFA)’ and replace with:
‘; notes the potential of Areas of Natural Constraints to recognising these conditions and calls on the Welsh Government to explore the implementation a dedicated support package for LFA/ANC equivalent areas that could be delivered through rural development regulations akin to other counties and regions within the European Union.’
Insert as new point 4 and renumber accordingly:
Recognises the essential role European Union funding plays in supporting the rural Welsh economy and therefore firmly believes that Wales’ interests are best served by remaining a committed part of the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Insert as new point 5 and renumber accordingly:
Notes the importance of accessible rail services to the delivery of an integrated transport system in rural areas and calls on the Welsh Government to support the re-opening of suitable railway stations across rural Wales.
I move amendments 1, 6, 7 and 8 in the name of Aled Roberts.
I thank the Welsh Conservatives for bringing forward this important debate. As Members will be aware, this debate covers a great number of the issues that I have sought to raise in recent months in the Chamber. As such, our amendments are a genuine attempt to contribute positively to taking these issues forward, rather than seeking to diminish what is already in the motion.
When talking about the rural economy, it is only natural that our discussion should focus on the many villages and towns, and the perilous state of many of our rural high streets. On that note, week after week, we receive news of the proposed closure of yet another bank in rural areas—the latest hit my inbox just last week with HSBC’s intention to walk away from the community of Llanidloes in Montgomeryshire. Figures from the Campaign for Community Banking Services published in September last year show that, in the last 10 years, just under 2,000 bank branches were closed across the UK. There are now 900 communities that have only one bank branch and 1,200 communities with no branch at all. The traditional big four banks closed 178 branches in 2011 alone. Estimates suggest a similar rate of closure for 2012 and, indeed, the present year.
The closure of these banks can have devastating consequences for our rural communities and the ability of local business to get swift and effective finance, as I raised earlier with the Minister with responsibility for business and enterprise. While there is the option of online banking, the truth is that, at present, internet provision is simply not good enough for many areas of rural Wales to make this a practical option. While I strongly support the progress that has been made in this regard, it is still clear that alternative financial infrastructure models must be fully explored if we are to build a rural economy that is fit for our time.
I have also previously spoken about the need to improve the practical implementation on the ground by local authorities of technical advice note 6. While the guidance is certainly of value and was trumpeted at the time of its launch, it remains disappointing at the moment as to how many practical examples there are across Wales of the TAN actually delivering what it was intended to deliver.
Looking to less favoured areas, Members will be in no doubt of the position my colleagues and I have taken in this regard over recent months, calling for the reinstatement of appropriate support levels for farmers who operate in those difficult upland areas. It is therefore with a degree of relief that I read the Government’s fifth amendment on exploring the use of areas of natural constraint. This represents a very valuable move towards the request that my party colleagues and I have been seeking to make inside and outside this Chamber in recent months. Naturally, we will be supporting our version of this amendment, given its greater strength, but it is positive, at least, to see that we are on the same page on this issue. To that end, I would be grateful if the Minister could outline in his reply his current thinking and timetable of his intentions with respect to the areas of natural constraint.
Obviously, many hill farmers are keen to not wait until 2018 for this matter to be resolved. After all, many could have been driven out of business in the meantime, with all the environmental problems and difficulties that that will create for them and their families. Can we expect to see any further detail on this matter by the end of term? Furthermore, can you please detail whether you would seek to deliver such support, via axis 2 of the rural development plan, rather than through top-slicing. Pressing ahead, such funding opportunities clearly demonstrate the great value of Wales remaining at the very heart of the European Union. While the present settlement may not satisfy everyone, I would like to thank the Minister for the positive role that he has recently played, and the energy that he has committed to negotiating jointly the position in the councils of Europe.
Finally, I want to make some remarks on transport and the specific importance of rail services in connecting rural Wales to the wider Wales and UK network. My colleague Mark Williams in the House of Commons continues to push for the instatement of the hourly service on the Cambrian line. That is of real importance to the people of mid Wales.
In conclusion, this debate is well considered and well timed. The Royal Welsh Show and the Eisteddfod are less than a month away. I very much hope that all parties here will be fully represented at these important events.
Amendment 2—Lesley Griffiths
In point 1, delete all after ‘urges the Welsh Government to’ and replace with ‘work with the industry to develop that potential by taking forward the new strategy for tourism’
Amendment 3—Lesley Griffiths
Amendment 5—Lesley Griffiths
Delete point 3 and replace with:
‘Recognises the difficult economic and environmental conditions that face farmers working in the current Less Favoured Area (LFA), notes the Welsh Government’s work in developing the new Areas of Natural Constraint designation in advance of the final deadline of 2018 and further notes the Government’s commitment to use this new designation to help address these unique challenges.’
I move amendments 2, 3 and 5 in the name of Lesley Griffiths.
In point 2 delete ‘automatic’.
I move amendment 4 in my name.
I welcome the debate this afternoon tabled by the Welsh Conservatives. There are several different aspects to the motion and to the amendments. Several aspects of rural life are reflected in what is before us today. I am sure that there is 10 debates’ worth of topics in this one debate this afternoon. Therefore, I will limit my comments to some of the points that arise.
The aim of TAN 6 is to be a rural planning approach that reflects a different approach to planning in rural areas. I am supportive of a very flexible approach to allowing developments in rural areas; some sort of postcard rural Wales, with an ever green rural scene in which nothing ever changes, is not my rural Wales. I want to see people living and working in our rural areas, and to ensure that we need new developments and to build houses and places of work in rural areas. Rural Wales should not be an unchanging landscape.
My initial intention was to support point 2 in the motion this afternoon to allow empty farm buildings to be turned into business premises or accommodation automatically. However, the term ‘automatic’ causes me some problems, particularly in the context of converting farm buildings into houses. Converting them to business premises automatically may be possible, but I believe that the planning authority must retain the right to determine the number of homes that should be allowed in any area, and I would not want to see a ‘free for all’, to all intents and purposes, where developers could buy farm property and develop it into houses automatically. That is the rationale behind our tabling of that specific amendment to delete the word ‘automatic’ from this part of the motion. By the way, I would support automatic permission for the conversion of farm buildings into accommodation for farm workers or family members who are part of the farm business. That is a different matter.
I would like to raise one other point on TAN 6. The One Wales Government amended the guidance to allow a second home on a farm, and that was a very important issue for me as Minister at that time and as the Ceredigion representative. However, problems remain with the implementation of TAN 6, and attracting funding from building societies to build a new house in this category continues to be problematic. Local authorities have various versions of the section 106 agreements related to such developments. It would be very useful if the Government had a consistent national framework for Wales on the section 106 agreements that are used by local authorities. That, in turn, would promote greater confidence by the finance sector to lend under the conditions of TAN 6 and section 106 agreements.
I will turn to agriculture more specifically. Last week, I had a meeting with NFU farmers from Ceredigion—and they send their regards, Minister. They had strong views on a number of issues, as usual, but perhaps the strongest message that they conveyed to the Assembly, and the Government specifically, was that they expected an early discussion and agreement on the implementation of the new common agricultural policy in Wales. They were particularly eager to see the Minister giving assurances that the new payment system would be put in place seamlessly and efficiently as the work is done to convert from one funding system to the next.
I would like to conclude by thanking the Tories for tabling this debate this afternoon, and for the focus given by Antoinette Sandbach in her contribution to the importance of tourism, particularly to the rural economy. It is summer, and I urge all Assembly Members to visit and to spend part of their summer holiday in rural Wales—in the most beautiful part of rural Wales, namely Ceredigion.
As a representative of a largely rural constituency, I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak today. Some 76% of Wales is rural and one-third of its population live in our rural communities. However, for too long, this sizeable portion of Wales has come to expect lesser services and outcomes than their more urbanised compatriots.
The importance of the tourism industry to Wales cannot be overstated. Deloitte and Oxford Economics estimated that the total contribution of the tourism industry to the Welsh economy in 2010 accounted for £6.2 billion of GDP, which is 13.3% of the total economy, compared with 10% in Scotland, 8% in England and 4% in Northern Ireland. Rural economies have an even stronger link with the tourism sector. In fact, Conwy has the highest link of any county in Wales, with 16.7% of employees working in the tourism industry. In the Conwy valley, attractions such as Tree Top Adventure, Zip World, Go Below, the beautiful falls at Betws-y-Coed, Plas y Brenin and, of course, the marvellous market town of Llanrwst, with its array of quality shops on the high street, support and serve our local visitor economy, bringing much needed jobs to replace those lost in areas such as manufacturing. However, we also have amazing hotels, caravan parks, restaurants and bed and breakfast accommodation that are far too numerous to list by name. That is why it is so vital that we pay sufficient attention to this essential sector and that we properly capitalise on the resultant growth to strengthen Wales and its future.
Acknowledging the importance of the tourism sector to Wales’s economy, I was, like everybody else, pleased to see the arrival of a tourism strategy for Wales. There are things to be largely welcomed in this strategy, such as an emphasis on the sector’s importance, promoting the esteem of careers in tourism and recognition of the need to rejuvenate its infrastructure. However, even in this strategy there is a lack—I think that, in the 30-page Government tourism document, the word ‘rural’ is mentioned only once. Even the Welsh Government website states that
‘there is no specific policy or programme targeting support for rural tourism’.
We would ask the question: why are you neglecting the potential of rural Wales for tourism? It is objectionable that the document contains minimal quantifiable targets for the rural tourism sector. I urge the Welsh Government to take real action to support rural tourism and the economic engines that it powers.
However, today’s debate, of course, is wider than rural tourism. It is about addressing shortfalls in Government policy, which failed to adequately support rural Wales. In rural areas, residents are more dependent on public transport and have been unduly hit by the cut of some £8 million in the Welsh Government’s subsidy for bus routes, while at the same time, fares have increased above the rate of inflation, with an average increase of over 47% since March 2005. This is definitely having an unfair impact on people in our rural communities. One such example is Mrs Randall. She lives in a rural part of the Vale of Glamorgan and she has taken the time and courtesy to write to us. She commutes nine miles to work every day. The journey should take 25 minutes but, as a result of a cut to her bus service, it is now taking over two and a half hours. This is just the tip of the iceberg on an issue that is affecting wide swathes of Wales. Therefore, I would urge the Welsh Government to bring forward some funding for a sustainable bus service to support our rural communities.
It would be impossible to debate the rural economy and not pay sufficient heed to our agricultural sector. Around 80% of Wales’s agricultural land is in what is considered to be a less favoured area. These areas were disproportionately affected by the recent cold weather and are still reeling in its aftermath. In Scotland, where 85% of its agricultural land is in LFAs, the Government has brought forward the less favoured area support scheme, which is a £56 million fund paid to 10,000 claimants. In addition, it has established a £6 million weather aid scheme to support those affected. We should be doing these sorts of things. I would ask Welsh Government to implement a support package for our farmers.
To reiterate, rural Wales has the potential to be an intrinsic cog in the engine for growth that pulls Wales out of financial strife and supports our economy to thrive. It cannot do it alone. The Welsh Government needs to implement a firm, measureable plan of action that builds on what is already a solid base for growth.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call for action to promote business, livelihoods, tourism and Wales.
I am sure that the Minister would agree that effective Government is about listening, acknowledging problems, agreeing actions and delivering better outcomes. The statement by the outgoing chairman of north Wales tourism in May, that the Welsh Government
‘needs to get its act together’,
and provide more support for the region’s tourism, needs to be taken seriously. He added that he was chairman from 1983 to 1990, when there was strong support from central Government in London, but
‘then it was reorganised and now it feels like the industry is being…paid lip service to.’
He added that
‘the Northern Ireland Tourist Board is doing a great job. The Scottish Tourist Board are knocking spots of what is being done to attract tourists to Wales.’
He also said that
‘there is a complete lack of communication with Welsh Government and they have to allow themselves to be questioned’,
‘for Wales to be more competitive with other parts of the UK – never mind overseas – there has to be more support’.
An estimated 50% of all UK visitors to Wales visit the countryside, and tourism supports almost 40,000 jobs in north Wales alone. North Wales accounts for 1% of the UK population, but for 3% of domestic tourism nights. Tourism is worth some £166 million each year to Flintshire alone, sustaining jobs and supporting the rural economy. Flintshire tourism association was established to deliver joined-up working in north-east Wales and to improve the north Wales borderlands brand and image. North-east Wales is within the reach of 15.5 million potential visitors—a bigger pot than even Cardiff can call upon. It needs to be marketed far more in the midlands of England and north-west England accordingly. However, only last weekend, a Caravan Club site owner in Flintshire told me that, although visitors love what Flintshire offers, too few knew about it because it was poorly represented in promotional literature.
During the last Assembly, the then Minister developed the north-east Wales cultural action plan, designed, among other things, to establish a programme for the Pontcysyllte world heritage site as an attractor, and as the basis for tourism, cultural and wider development projects. However, only this week, key stakeholders raised questions with me about whether the Pontcysyllte aqueduct as a regeneration site and tourism area has a high enough profile. They expressed concern that no clear, co-ordinated group was championing the aqueduct, that no named person was associated with the aqueduct and that there was a lack of progress with all parties engaged in the aqueduct in Trevor basin in moving the regeneration opportunities forward. The Minister’s attention, alone or with colleagues, to this matter would be welcomed.
The north Wales economic ambition board stated in April that there seemed to be a good working relationship developing with officials from Welsh Government. However, it added that, at a recent meeting of lead members from across Wales, in Cardiff, there was concern at the lack of commitment and understanding from Welsh Government when it comes to the regional boards.
The north Wales local authorities’ document, ‘Economic Ambition—A Strategy for Change’, states that tourism is vital to the economy of our remoter rural communities. In total, local authority expenditure in north Wales exceeds £3.7 million and employs 65 staff directly on tourism. It has said that there are opportunities for streamlining activity and that integrally linked to rural development and tourism initiatives are the rural development plan funds. It said that this might also be an opportune moment to relook at ways in which these funds are delivered. This should include discussion of the merits of targeting the funds on a needs basis, including, notably, the former mining communities of north-east and north-west Wales, as well as ensuring that the funds are sufficiently flexible to support entrepreneurs and innovative ideas. However, I understand that it is still waiting for a response from the relevant Minister, and that it is beginning to feel a sense of urgency regarding that.
Disability groups have told me that tourism could be increased if Wales is seen by overseas and domestic visitors as an accessible and welcoming holiday destination. However, Arfon access group, which has been carrying out a review of the Visit Wales website and local authority marketing materials regarding appropriate information for disabled people to plan visits to places of interest around Wales, advises that even before it completed its work, it became clear to the group that little such information had been incorporated.
So, if the potential of tourism in rural Wales is to be fully exploited, the concerns that I have raised on behalf of, and at the request of, a number of other parties must be addressed.
I have to confess to being conflicted. On the one hand, I am glad of the opportunity to discuss these things and to debate how they affect people living in rural communities. On the other hand, it is a bit of a job-lot of a debate, lumping together complex issues and disposing of them in one go, like a city slicker who does summer weekends in the country. Of course, rural circumstances require tailored policies, and I support the Government’s pledge to strengthen rural-proofing at the earliest stages of policy making. However, rural communities are not pastoral idylls; we are a small country, and our rural areas are closely linked to our urban ones, literally and otherwise.
So, I am going to confine my contribution to a few practical points. Members have this afternoon debated integrated transport. Fully integrated services are especially difficult to realise in rural areas. Limited services mean long waits between connections. People without access to private transport are forced to arrange their lives around bus and train timetables rather than the other way around.
A few weeks ago, I met a group of bus users in Barmouth, and I was told that the reduction in bus services there has particularly affected both the young and the elderly alike. The young struggle to get to college and work on time under the current schedule, and the elderly are finding it more difficult to access local facilities, such as shops, post offices, surgeries and pharmacies, where they exist.
Transport services are integral to tourism and we have heard an awful lot about tourism here this afternoon. We do indeed have record numbers of tourists coming to enjoy our magnificent coast and countryside every year. They must have the flexibility to explore our nation and be confident that there will be a bus or a train to give them a ride back to their hotels or campsites.
We also know that money is tight. We know that our budget is being slashed by the Westminster Government, so—
Will you take an intervention?
In a minute. I did not get my intervention, so I do not think that I will. [Laughter.]
In Pembrokeshire, we have a successful Puffin Shuttle coastal bus service. In Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, we have a Bwcabus service that the Welsh Government does indeed support. With the new regional transport services grants prioritising expenditure according to local circumstances, and essentially dropping subsidies for dead miles, I would ask the Minister to liaise with his colleagues to see what more community transport can deliver.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate this afternoon, particularly as we get ever closer to the Royal Welsh Show. Many of the issues that we are discussing will undoubtedly become talking points over the weeks ahead.
The two areas on which I want to focus my attention in this debate are the planning system in aiding economic diversification and point 4 of our motion, which looks at rural transport.
I hope that we could all agree that the planning system has a key role to play in supporting the delivery of sustainable rural communities. Yes, it must of course protect and enhance the natural and historic environment and safeguard the countryside and open space, but for rural communities to be viable and sustainable, the system must enable the growth of individual rural economies, which create jobs, and it must be a vehicle to attract and keep people in those rural areas, which requires the creation of more affordable homes for people to live in and develop families. The overall goal for the planning system has to be to support living and working in rural communities, so that they are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable.
To be fair to the Welsh Government, technical advice note 6 identifies many of those issues. The TAN confirms that a strong economic base is essential for sustainable and vibrant communities to support social inclusion and retain local services, and that the planning system should support rural diversification and infrastructure provision. The question for us is: why has that not been properly implemented by local or planning authorities on the ground? I know from my own constituency that traditional farm buildings are the most ever-present of historic building types in the mid Wales countryside. They are not only fundamental to its sense of place and local distinctiveness, but they also represent a major economic asset in terms of their capacity to accommodate new uses. The restructuring and adaptation of farm building stock should be seen as a priority for local rural planning authorities and should be designed as such in their local development plans. They should be seen as a living building in a living landscape and the planning system should reflect their sustainable reuse by enabling automatic conversion of these redundant buildings into business premises, or accommodation.
I also believe that the drive to re-establish or reuse building stock should not just be confined to agricultural structures, but should include other buildings in rural Wales that reflect the nation’s industrial past that have been left to go to rack and ruin. One example that springs to mind is the former Laura Ashley building in Carno. I drive past that on a regular basis. Once a vibrant workplace, it is now boarded up, with weeds growing up the side of it and bollards at the front. Is a business going to move there? It is not likely at the moment, because of the poor broadband in the area. As chair of the cross-party group on digital communications, I do not need to emphasise to the Minister, or his colleague the Minister for the economy, how important the delivery of the Superfast Cymru project is and the need to keep Members fully updated on its roll-out.
Finally, I want to touch briefly on point 4 of our motion: transport poverty and rural isolation are significant barriers to social inclusion. Sustrans did a research piece on this last year and the Commissioner for Older People in Wales again raised the issue last week when she launched her ‘Standing up, Speaking Out’ report. Last week, I had the opportunity of meeting with the Dial-a-Ride service in Llanidloes, which is at financial breaking point. The people involved want to know why the Welsh Government has £50 million to spend on an airport in south Wales while Mrs Jones is in real danger of losing her lifeline to the outside world. What am I supposed to tell them? Perhaps Joyce Watson can answer them, but I will not take an intervention. [Laughter.]
Sufficient funding needs to be given to local authorities to deliver these vital bus services. The Welsh Government has to do more to convince the people of rural Wales that it really is listening and that it is genuinely delivering.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Natural Resources and Food.
How can I follow a feast like that? I am grateful to the Welsh Conservatives for the motion that they have presented us with this afternoon. I will say at the outset that we will support the majority of today’s motion and many of the amendments—most of which seem to be declaratory in form rather than simply asking us to commit to particular issues.
We have had a wide-ranging debate this afternoon, which started with a discussion on tourism. I am glad that Members across the Chamber have welcomed the new direction for tourism in Wales, which is supporting growth during the coming years, and reflects the changing internal and external influences affecting the industry. The Minister for Economy, Science and Transport launched a new tourism strategy earlier this year, and it is designed to ensure that tourism, which is already making an increasingly important contribution to the rural economy, will be able to do more in the future. I listened to some of the remarks made by the Conservative Members this afternoon, and they do not seem to appreciate or understand that the nine predominantly rural local authorities in Wales represent over half—55%—of the total tourism contribution to Welsh gross value added and employment. Therefore, the contribution of tourism to the rural economy is well understood, known and mapped and is something that underpins the work of that strategy.
We also appreciate the impact of tourism in supporting many rural businesses, ranging from garages, post offices to shops, which simply would not be viable without the impact of tourism. The tourism strategy and action plan will support this by encouraging a partnership approach at a local level, ensuring that development is managed with an eye to long-term sustainability.
This is something that has been worked up with the industry and has its support. Therefore, we will continue to work with the industry to improve the quality of the product to attract higher spending visitors, support measures to improve skill levels, and ensure that the local economy benefits through improved local supply chains and opportunities to develop new businesses.
We also know, and many of us appreciate, that Wales possesses some of the world’s best producers of food and drink. High-quality local ingredients—I am surprised that the Conservatives did not mention this at all—distinctive food and drink, and interesting places where good-quality food can be eaten are increasingly important to visitors. It is something that underpins our tourism strategy and something that we will continue to support.
Will you take an intervention?
I will in a moment. Our best hospitality businesses are earning a reputation for excellence. We know that there is more to be done.
I am grateful to the Minister for taking an intervention. One of the things that we are lacking in Wales is processing capacity, whether it be in the red meat sector or in the liquid milk sector. I have pressed the Minister several times on this in the Chamber. Is he any further forward in his deliberations as to how we can increase the ability to turn the primary product into the finished product and add value to the food chain?
It is a good question. We have been restructuring the food division within Welsh Government, and you will have seen from the business statement earlier this week that I will be making a statement on taking forward the Government’s food strategy when we return from the summer recess in September. However, I would be quite happy to have discussions with the leader of the opposition before then, if he so wishes.
We have also had a debate on planning policy. We have a positive planning policy framework in place, which is why we cannot accept the motion as it is drafted. As many people will be aware—and I think that Elin Jones referred to this in her contribution—you cannot simply enable automatic conversion of redundant farm buildings into accommodation because it does require changes to secondary legislation. However, we have a national planning policy for the rural economy that we expect to be delivered by local planning authorities and others, which should be able to underpin strong rural economies, which are essential to support sustainable and vibrant rural communities. Our policy is hard-wired to deliver this.
The TAN reflects our commitments to underpinning economic activity and economic growth across the whole of rural Wales. I will give you an example of what I mean. Farm diversification is already encouraged to provide employment opportunities, to increase prosperity, and to minimise the need for travel. Permitted development rights for agriculture are in place to enable new farm buildings to be developed without the need to first get planning permission. TAN 6 also provides advice on affordable housing and rural enterprise dwellings. Guidance prepared on rural enterprise dwellings includes help to new entrants to farming by making succession easier and with a new dwelling possible for a retiring farmer or part-time worker.
I noticed that Elin was meeting the NFU in Ceredigion last week. I can give the NFU in Ceredigion and elsewhere the assurance that they seek. I met with NFU Cymru, along with other farming unions, over lunch today to brief them on the outcome of the talks in Luxembourg last week. I will be making a statement on how we take CAP issues forward next Tuesday, and I will be launching a consultation at the Royal Welsh Show to start the conversation, which Elin Jones discussed and referred to.
One of the key issues that we will face in the discussion of CAP, and any other schemes that are run under CAP, is the reduced budget that CAP will have over the coming years. The 13.2% cut is a direct result of the policy followed by the United Kingdom Government. Also, the United Kingdom Government was one of the only member states—in fact, I think that it was the only major member state—during the European Council in February not to seek any additional support at all—none whatsoever—for rural development of the rural communities. Every other member state, even those which were seeking cuts in the budgets, said, ‘We want a cut in the overall budget, but we want a protection for our rural communities’. The United Kingdom Government was alone in not seeking those budgetary assurances. As a consequence, although it has not achieved all of its policy objectives, such as significant reductions in pillar 1— this was the policy objective set by the United Kingdom Government—that was exactly what the UK Government sought to do in reducing direct payments to farmers.
Will you therefore condemn the Labour Members of Parliament who moved to cut the CAP budget?
I will condemn the Plaid Cymru Member of the European Parliament who voted this morning to stop the European budget going through the European Parliament, which would have prevented any payments to anyone taking place after next year. [ASSEMBLY MEMBERS: ‘Oh’.] It is all very well—. I know that you intervened to save the bacon of your new friends on the Conservative benches, but I have to say that it is the height of hypocrisy to come here and grizzle about what is going on elsewhere, and then Plaid Cymru Members voting to prevent a budget being passed at all. [ASSEMBLY MEMBERS: ‘Oh’.] I seem to have woken up the Plaid Cymru benches; there we go.
I will make a statement on CAP reform next week. I will be making that statement next week. I think that even Bill might welcome it on this occasion. I do not know whose opinions he will be using next week, but whoever’s opinion it is, and whoever he has had the opportunity to meet in the intervening time, I hope that their opinions will be satisfied by what we have to say.
This Government will continue to work within the new rural development plan to provide financial support to rural communities across the whole of Wales. We will seek greater targeting of funding and support to ensure that the next round of EU funding focuses on promoting agricultural competitiveness in the rural economy and helps to create prosperous businesses throughout rural Wales.
I see that my time has ended. What we are seeking to do, and what we will start in the conversation that I will launch at the Royal Welsh Show, is to have a conversation about how we as a Government can act as a catalyst, can invest in the future of the rural economy, can underpin rural communities, and can ensure that what we deliver for our future generations is a rural Wales that we can be proud of, where people want to live and work, and where they can live and work and enjoy their leisure time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
You must finish, thank you.
That is our vision, and I challenge other parties to let us hear theirs.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Suzy Davies to respond to the debate.
I thank Members and the Minister for taking part in this debate. While the motion actually does, Minister, call for specific action on the part of the Welsh Government, we as Welsh Conservatives were hoping that this broad motion—I like to think of it like that, Joyce, rather than as a job-lot motion—did engage Members in an open and, at least, not too partisan exchange of ideas about the rural economy. I thank Members who contributed in that spirit.
Before I try to draw together some of the conclusions from everyone’s welcome contributions, I would like to make some particular observations in support of point 1 of the motion and to explain why we cannot support the Government’s amendment 2. In doing so, I recognise that it is not you, Minister, who has specific responsibility for this particular policy area. I would just reassure Members that this is not a wholesale rejection of the Government’s tourism strategy; Janet Finch-Saunders pointed out that there are some very positive elements, which we hope will work, but it is, however, a warning to the Government that, despite its work, there is still considerable and widespread worry within the tourism industry that it will not translate into the marked improvement needed. That we raise these concerns briefly—and it can only be briefly in this particular debate—is not just a case of opposition attacking Government; we raise these concerns because they are fundamental and are evidence-based, and they shed light on a growing distrust by the sector of the Government’s commitment, and possibly capacity, to deliver on what is needed.
First of all—and this observation, I have to say, is made absolutely without criticism of any individuals—there is disquiet about the way the Minister for economy has chosen members of her tourism sector panel and how that panel is now intended to function as a critical friend to Government, which I hope it will be. There is disquiet that the consultation document that developed into the strategy was not open to all, and that, in the engagement exercise that followed, responses were invited only from individuals and bodies personally approved by the Minister.
There is disquiet that, in the underlying action plan, Visit Wales, which is responsible for rural tourism, is leading on a range of actions where there is minimum confidence in its capacity and, more recently, in its expertise to maintain that role. There is also disquiet that, although the lack of a budget expenditure line makes it difficult to pin down what the Government commits to tourism, it does seem that the spend on tourism is just 2% of that economy budget, and 0.09% of the overall budget. The Wales economic growth fund assisted just two tourism businesses, and I do not think that that is much of an investment in a wealth-generating sector of the economy that employs so many people. Janet Finch-Saunders drew our attention to some of the figures on that.
The Minister may take the view that this is a largely private sector element of the economy and that it should take more responsibility for its contribution to the Welsh economy. However, far from allowing that, she is perceived as assuming a command-and-control role via Visit Wales, and this will be a barrier to co-operation—critical to the strategy’s success—rather than an incentive to it. So, Minister, I hope that the Minister for economy will bring forward a debate on the strategy in Government time. My purpose for asking for this is that I think it will help the Government to know more about this level of disquiet, because it genuinely risks the potential modest success that the strategy is capable of, and we do not want to see that happen any more than you do.
For the purposes of this rural affairs debate, let me give you one example of why a ‘sham’ consultation—those are not my words, Minister, but a description given by a respected advocate for the sector—has been counter-productive. As Antoinette Sandbach pointed out, the ‘Partnership for Growth’, your strategy, uses the word ‘rural’ just once. More importantly, the underlying action plan refers to selling the rural environment, but there is not a single action point highlighting how public money will be used to deliver that. I can tell you from the preliminary findings of our own programme of consultation with the industry that there are plenty of ideas out there about how to capitalise on Wales’s rural assets—not just the physical product, but the experience of it, and the lateral thinking that helps it fit into a responsible—and I emphasise the word ‘responsible’—demand-led marketing concept. That is not just locally, but in a way that could have informed strategic direction as well as the action plan. Yet neither the strategy nor the action plan signal any real interest in new ideas about how to distinguish the value of our rural environment from rural environments elsewhere, and how that would be communicated by an eventual brand for Wales.
Turning to some of the other contributions in this debate, Antoinette opened by mentioning the potential that rural Wales has for greater economic performance, and it was a point reinforced by Elin Jones and, I think, Joyce Watson: rural Wales is not just a chocolate-box cover. Members will be aware of our group’s view on what is happening with the LFA, but I think there is a competitive disadvantage, which Antoinette referred to, in comparison with other parts of the UK. To mitigate that—this was primarily the purpose of her speech—she gave examples of how Government can act to support diversification. Broadband is an obvious one and, as several Members mentioned, there is also the better monitoring and—I cannot say ‘implementation’, because it should not be for the Government to implement this—oversight, shall we say, of TAN 6, to make it easier for buildings to be converted; something which was called ‘disappointing’ by William Powell. While we accept completely Elin Jones’s point about buildings being available for farm workers and other local people, the point is that these buildings should be available—living buildings, as I think Russell George called them—to work in the rural environment in which they are located to best advantage for that environment.
Antoinette also mentioned the Royal Welsh Show and other festivals, many of which take place in rural areas. Of course, they have the potential to attract people into the rural economy as tourists, but only if some real energy is put into rural transport. I welcome the contributions by William Powell, Russell and Joyce Watson on that, although perhaps I should remind Joyce that, whatever the budget is, it is the Welsh Government that decides how it prioritises it.
William Powell was quite right to draw attention to access to finance. It is something that we discuss quite a lot in this Chamber, but we tend to talk about it in the context of deprived areas in south Wales. It is just as much an issue in rural Wales. It is encouraging that Members of all parties have been thinking about examining local banking, or access to local finance more generally, and I recommend that Members read our own position paper on that.
Elin Jones also mentioned that it was essential to listen to people earlier. She was talking about the NFU at the time. Listening to the people who will be affected by your strategy, whatever the policy area, is essential to the successful implementation of that Government strategy—particularly when it is controversial. It is pretty important, I would say, that the views of the people who have to live with the consequences of the strategy—particularly if they are also asked to implement it—are firmly adhered to, however those are expressed. Mark Isherwood made the point that listening is pretty crucial to the success of any strategy, and he wondered, in a tourism context, why ideas from north-east Wales were not reflected in a rural tourism strategy, but also whether the Welsh Government was successful in communicating the availability of support for tourism, and whether it reached all parts of Wales in a targeted way. He also made a very important point about accessibility to tourist sites and accommodation, and that applies across Wales, of course, not just in rural areas.
Minister, I am grateful for your general support for this motion today. I think it would be fair to say that Members acknowledge the role of local authorities in promoting tourism. I would argue that they believe they could do more if the financial support they receive was more targeted in areas where tourism is an economic priority, rather than spread evenly across the councils. I see that I am short of time; perhaps I could just acknowledge your response on TAN 6, Minister, and look forward to the Government acting on the suggestions made to it today. Members will have heard your views on CAP and on the UK Government. We look forward to understanding further your commitment to mitigating what you see as the problem, and making sure that you listen to people when you are asking them to act on this.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? I see that there is objection. I will, therefore, defer all voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Voting time now follows. Before I proceed to take the vote, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? There are not.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5282.
Motion not agreed: For 13, Against 35, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to NDM5282.
Amendment agreed: For 48, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to NDM5282.
Amendment agreed: For 26, Against 22, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to NDM5282.
Amendment agreed: For 26, Against 22, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 5 to NDM5282.
Amendment agreed: For 31, Against 17, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 7 to NDM5282.
Amendment agreed: For 30, Against 5, Abstain 13.
Result of the vote on amendment 8 to NDM5282.
Amendment agreed: For 48, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Motion NDM5282 as amended:
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the importance of a high street bank to the rural economy and regrets that, according to a recent ‘Last Bank in Town’ analysis by the Campaign for Community Banking Services, there are now thirty-eight communities in rural Wales with only one bank remaining.
2. Recognises the huge potential for tourism in rural Wales and urges the Welsh Government to urges the Welsh Government to work with the industry to develop that potential by taking forward the new strategy for tourism.
3. Recognises the difficult economic and environmental conditions that face farmers working in the current Less Favoured Area (LFA), notes the Welsh Government’s work in developing the new Areas of Natural Constraint designation in advance of the final deadline of 2018 and further notes the Government’s commitment to use this new designation to help address these unique challenges.
4. Recognises the essential role European Union funding plays in supporting the rural Welsh economy and therefore firmly believes that Wales’ interests are best served by remaining a committed part of the United Kingdom and the European Union.
5. Notes the importance of sustainable bus services as a lifeline for rural communities and calls on the Welsh Government to provide sufficient funding for rural bus services.
6. Notes the importance of accessible rail services to the delivery of an integrated transport system in rural areas and calls on the Welsh Government to support the re-opening of suitable railway stations across rural Wales.
7. Further notes the importance of the Royal Welsh Show and National Eisteddfod in supporting the rural economy and promoting Welsh culture.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5282 as amended.
Motion NDM5282 as amended agreed: For 35, Against 0, Abstain 13.
I have agreed to give Aled Roberts and Joyce Watson a minute to speak in this debate. I am grateful for the assistance that I have had from the Stroke Association in Wales in putting this debate together. The Stroke Association is the biggest funder of stroke research in the UK, and the work that it undertakes is invaluable. It is currently running an awareness-raising campaign backed by celebrities, called the ‘Solidarity String’. I am pleased to be wearing my own solidarity string here today, and I know that a number of other Assembly Members have also purchased them; I thank them for that.
I am sure that everyone will agree that one area where we want to see more delivery in the community and out of hospitals is stroke rehabilitation. I have chosen to use this short debate to highlight the vital role that rehabilitation plays in helping people to lead an active life following a stroke, and we need to do more in Wales to reduce the inequalities that currently exist across the country.
Stroke is the third biggest killer in Wales, after heart disease and cancer, and the leading cause of adult disability, but despite the work of the Stroke Association charity, it does not always receive the same level of attention as those two awful diseases. Research shows that 2% of the population has suffered a stroke, but throughout the UK fewer people are dying from strokes, resulting in more people surviving and requiring the important rehabilitation to help them regain a normal life.
One high-profile stroke survivor is the BBC journalist Andrew Marr, and as with many who have suffered an illness, hopefully his experiences will help to draw much-needed public attention to the challenges facing those patients fortunate to survive this debilitating disease. It was great to see him make an appearance back on his Sunday-morning politics show recently, and I am pleased to hear that he aims to return to the show full time in the autumn and to campaign for stroke issues.
We have seen an improvement here in Wales when it comes to acute stroke services, but the real issue at the moment is what happens once these patients are discharged. Without effective, tailored and well-resourced rehabilitation services, many patients will not make the full recovery that is possible. The Royal College of Physicians’s clinical guidelines for stroke recommend that patients with stroke should be offered a minimum of 45 minutes of each appropriate therapy that is required, for a minimum of 5 days a week, at a level that enables the patient to meet their rehabilitation goals for as long as they are continuing to benefit from the therapy and are able to tolerate it.
The problem here in Wales is that we have been falling below these targets. Thirteen of the 14 stroke units are delivering well below these national guidelines, resulting in Wales being the worst of the UK nations in delivering this much-needed aftercare. None of the 14 units in Wales have the appropriate number of therapists per 10 stroke beds as per the national clinical guidelines, meaning that not one Welsh hospital is positioned in the top 25% of hospitals in terms of performance against these national clinical guidelines. Additionally, only one, Wrexham Maelor Hospital, offers an early supported discharge scheme, but without the required number of therapists to provide the full service. Ninety-five per cent of patients identify the need for this kind of ongoing support to aid their recovery, and they are being failed at the moment.
The stroke delivery plan, launched in December 2012, sets out the direction for the NHS in Wales in this area. The then Minister for health stated that she wanted to make us the best in Europe for stroke treatment and outcomes. While progress has been made in acute services, rehabilitation services are still underperforming. Therefore, when we hear from the new Minister for health, I hope that he will be able to outline some of his priorities in this area, to make sure that these services can catch up over time.
Let us look a little closer at why this ongoing rehabilitation is so important. Andrew Marr stated that, in his experience, overall in the UK,
‘The NHS is very good at acute treatment, but too many stroke victims are dumped by the system once that’s over … Statistics show that 50,000 people of working age have a stroke each year and most never return to work because they haven’t had enough therapy ... Shouldn’t we be spending money to help people help themselves get back to work, rather than treating them as welfare recipients for the rest of their lives?’
I am sure that no-one here would disagree with those comments. While these figures relate to the UK as a whole, they are especially true here in Wales. Many specialist stroke physiologists are based along the M4 corridor, leaving many stroke sufferers miles away from units that can provide them with the support they require. The therapy required is not only physical, but mental. More language physicians and speech therapists are needed to help patients to recover what they have lost. Many are emotionally bereaved of their former life and need encouragement to help to regain their confidence. With strokes being no respecter of age, this is vital for younger people who could, with the necessary support, find a way of returning to work and not find a stroke as a life sentence from which they have no hope of escape. As Anne Freeman, the clinical lead for strokes in Wales has stated, therapists do not get funding in the same way as medical equipment does. She says that we need to consider how we can best address these needs and change this culture as, in the long run, it can help people get their lives back and help reduce welfare costs.
This lack of support for therapists appears to be especially true in my constituency, where there has recently been a serious problem with a lack of physiotherapists, particularly in the eastern part of the county, and I think that is true of most rural parts of Wales.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines, which aim to improve outcomes in stroke rehabilitation, recommend that people should be given targeted therapy immediately or as soon as possible after the stroke while staying in a dedicated stroke in-patient unit, to give them the opportunity to relearn old skills and gain new ones. When returning home, they should receive care from a specialist community stroke team, including an occupational therapist. There is some good practice. Nevill Hall Hospital in my constituency has a good reputation for the initial treatment for stroke sufferers; it is just a shame, then, that there is not the follow-up support to help them to recover in the best way possible.
Some of the other suggestions that this report mentions include regular support and training for family members and carers, workplace visits and liaison with employers to help sufferers to have a graded return to work and signposting stroke support groups and support patients in achieving goals focused on their leisure time and hobbies. That is, tailor-made, bespoke support and treatment that allows people to return to their lives as quickly as possible. The guidelines should not be looked at as a standalone solution, but should be considered alongside the report by the Royal College of Physicians that I have already mentioned.
Dr Fiona Jones from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has said that the guidelines contain welcome measures to make the system more patient-centered, which is a very important step. She said that it should help stroke survivors to feel that they are more involved in the decision-making process about their rehabilitation, rather than having it dictated to them. However, she said that, for patients to benefit from these things, they must be able to access services in their area, which is not always possible at the moment—and how often do we talk in the Chamber about the importance of the local delivery of a whole range of health services?
We should not just take clinicians’ views into account here—of course not. One stroke survivor from Cardiff suffered a stroke in France and, following initial treatment there, was transferred to the local stroke re-education unit where, through occupational therapy and gym work, they managed to progress from a wheelchair to a walking frame, then to a stick and were sometimes able to walk unaided. However, when they returned to Wales, they were placed in a hospital ward, taking up a bed and, due to the minimal amount of physiotherapy received, were unable to keep up their walking. The best place for this patient would have been back at home with a community support team, where the support received in France could have been built upon. We should not be the poor relation to our European neighbours due to the apparent lack of direction in providing rehabilitation.
I accept that times are tough in the NHS—we all know that—with financial constraints, and it is difficult to deliver everything that people want. It always has been and always will be. However, surely we are failing the people of Wales on a number of counts if we cannot provide the support that we need to help stroke patients to recover later on in their treatment.
In March 2010, the Assembly’s Health and Social Care Committee published a report into stroke services in Wales, making a number of recommendations, especially around rehabilitation services. They included recommendations that, as a matter of urgency, attention should be given to the needs of those living with the after-effects of strokes and that the needs of younger stroke survivors needed to be addressed in stroke policy documents and to ensure that all stroke patients, regardless of their age or severity of their stroke, receive the rehabilitation that is appropriate to their needs. I am led to believe that a number of these recommendations are yet to be implemented—and the Minister may well want to correct me on that. I hope that they will be implemented in the near future, or certainly as soon as possible.
Finally, I would like to make a special mention, as the constituency Assembly Member for Monmouthshire, of the work that the Chepstow stroke group in my constituency undertakes in providing support to stroke survivors. It is a fantastic group where people from a broad range of backgrounds have come together to help each other and to help to develop stroke issues. I have been there to speak on a number of occasions, and I know that Andrew Davies, the leader of the opposition, has done so as well. I am sure that the Minister or the Deputy Minister would also be welcomed if they wanted to go along. It is a great group and really does have a lot to give in discussions around this area. I am in regular contact with its chairman, Mr Geoff Harries, on a number of issues and I am pleased to be able to support them whenever I can. I do not underestimate the good that support groups like that group and groups around the rest of Wales do. They often do it with very little support and very little recognition, but they are doing that work and they are relieving pressures on the health service.
In conclusion, I am delighted to have been able to raise these issues again with the Minister and with other Assembly Members. I urge you to find a way of prioritising the cause of stroke rehabilitation and remind you again of the pledge made a number of years ago in a previous Assembly—admittedly before you were here; well, not in your current role, anyway—that tackling stroke is now one of the Welsh Government’s top priorities for the NHS and social services. Stroke rehabilitation ticks all the boxes when it comes to reducing the reliance on district hospitals and providing care in the community, and any commitment to working towards achieving improved rehabilitation services will be gratefully received by the thousands of stroke survivors throughout Wales.
I thank Nick Ramsay for bringing this matter before the Assembly. Minister, I think in a written answer to Kirsty Williams in May, you referred, of course, to the stroke delivery plan that Nick Ramsay has referred to and indicated that there would be an annual report dealing with how that plan was responding to the recommendations of the Health and Social Care Committee. I have been in correspondence with the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board and the six authorities in recent months. Given that Betsi itself does not have a stroke rehabilitation unit at all in north-west Wales, none of the six authorities—none of which identified stroke victims as far as their ongoing service delivery is concerned—mentioned that they had been involved in any discussions with Betsi with regard to a stroke delivery plan. I think that there is a need to check delivery against national strategies.
I want to thank the Member for Monmouthshire for tabling this debate. I am chair of the Assembly cross-party stroke group. I am glad that we have focused here today on rehabilitation and also on the statistic that 50,000 people under the age of 50 have a stroke. I am married, as many of you know. My husband is now 65 years of age and had a stroke at the age of 27. He went on to live a full life. We have a son and my husband is still working part-time. I would like to re-emphasise all those things that have been said today that you absolutely have to give people a chance to live their life after a stroke. Forget this idea that they are people who are past help and unable to piece their lives back together.
We have come a long way, medically. I thank the Assembly for its policies. We have dedicated stroke units—although, clearly, some of them are not working as they should be—and clot-busting medication being applied quickly where appropriate. However, I feel strongly about supporting and enabling people to get on with their lives. I also support strongly, from my own experience, the need to understand that people should have, and are able to have, the opportunity to live a very full life, once they are given that opportunity. The Stroke Association does fantastic work and I have visited many of its groups. I have also visited many young people who, with the association’s support, have put their life back together.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Mark Drakeford, to reply to the debate.
I would like to thank Nick Ramsay for using today’s short debate to draw attention to the importance of stroke services. Each of us here today will know about the impact that a stroke can have on people’s lives and the damage it can cause. We also know how important families, carers and friends are in helping people through difficult times. The commitment of those organisations that provide support and back-up and argue the case for those affected is hugely important.
Let me begin by associating myself with what Nick Ramsay said in paying tribute to the invaluable work of the Stroke Association, both in raising awareness of this condition and, importantly, the services they provide to support stroke survivors and their families. I, too, have my Solidarity String in my hand at the moment. It was presented to me earlier this afternoon by Edwina Hart, the former Minister for health, under whose stewardship of the health portfolio much of the work that has been commented on this afternoon in the acute sector, particularly, began and has gathered strength.
Working with the Stroke Association has been an important part of the landscape in Wales. It and its dedicated volunteers work tirelessly. It was good to learn recently that an individual from Wales had won an adult courage award at the national life after stroke awards, for not only dealing with the devastating effects of both of her own strokes, but for using her experiences to support and provide comfort to other stroke survivors.
With regard to the Stroke Association’s volunteer-led groups, the Chepstow stroke group—whom I have met, although I have not been to Chepstow to see in action—is a fine example of what volunteer-led groups can do. They and local stroke clubs are vital in bringing stroke survivors together to help them deal with the emotional and practical implications of having a stroke.
We can all be encouraged by the examples of good practice and projects that are already in evidence in Wales. We have heard of the early supported discharge service in Wrexham, but there are good examples of innovative work in other parts of Wales, such as the reablement homecare service in Hywel Dda LHB area, and the stroke outreach service in Cardiff, which helps people to manage the transition between hospital and home.
Another good example of working together, again led by the Stroke Association, working collaboratively with health boards and local authorities, is the provision of a national stroke information and support service. It aims to provide a single generic service throughout all 22 local authorities in Wales.
1000 Lives Plus life after stroke programme was launched earlier this year, and implementation has begun across all areas of Wales. The programme aims to improve the support available for stroke survivors when they return home from hospital by ensuring better co-ordination and accessibility of services across the health, social care and voluntary sectors.
This is an area where that co-ordinated approach is essential. We hear a lot about the difficulties that people who have had a stroke experience in knowing about the services that are available to support them. When you begin to investigate why that difficulty might take place, you find that it was not the case that information was not provided to people while they were in hospital and during the process of transition, but that information is provided to people at a point in their lives where they have to take on so much that is new—so much that is obviously devastatingly new to them. Although information might be provided, it is information that is not recalled, does not remain accessible and at the point where it could be useful to them, it has disappeared from the lives that they are then leading. So, the 1000 Lives Plus life after stroke programme is designed to try to ensure that people not only have information, but that they have it at a point where they are able to use it. That is a rather different thing, and it is something that we have learnt from talking to stroke survivors.
Would you consider giving some guidance to local health boards on how to deal with local stroke groups, because, in my experience, their attitude to them can sometimes be brusque to say the least, and I do not think that that pays proper tribute to the work of those groups?
I would be disappointed to hear if those relationships were of that sort, because they certainly ought not to be. I am very much a believer in some of the things that Nick Ramsay mentioned towards the end of his contribution about the importance of self-help in this type of condition. I think that people gain an enormous amount from talking to others who have gone through the same experience—that sense of isolation that we are likely to experience when something enormous happens to us, the belief that you are on your own and that no-one else has understood what you are going through. Meeting and talking to people who have been through that experience is an enormous benefit not simply in the practical way that those people are able to offer suggestions, but also the emotional support that people need as they come to make adjustments to their new lives.
Local health boards, I hope, understand the value of that work and certainly need to ensure that they are in constructive dialogue with those groups that provide that service in their local areas.
None of this is to say, as ever, that there is not more that we can and need to do. That is partly why the stroke delivery plan was launched by Lesley Griffiths, my predecessor, in December last year. The need for psychological support is built into that stroke delivery plan. A response to the committee report of 2010 can be found in the plan; that is not to say that everything that that report called for has yet happened, or is happening, but the report has not been forgotten. It is picked up in a very real way in the plan and it is because of all the things that Nick said: stroke is one of the top three causes of death in Wales; it is a leading cause of adult disability; and it is an illness that has a significant impact on the health of our nation. It remains a real and ongoing issue for Wales, if only, but not only, because our population is ageing, so the number of people who live with a stroke is increasing.
As Nick Ramsay was good enough to acknowledge, and as we heard from others, there have been real improvements in stroke services in recent years. There is now a much greater chance of survival overall in Wales, with people with strokes being assessed, diagnosed and treated more promptly. That is a 20-year pattern in Wales, with a particular acceleration in the later part of it. That is partly because there is a new culture of recording data for clinical audit to improve services to the standard of the best, which is now embedded in the clinical community. New drugs and technologies have been introduced, along with new treatments such as the 24-hour, seven days a week thrombolysis service, which are contributing to better outcomes for people in Wales who have had a stroke.
At the heart of this has to lie local multiprofessional service planning and delivery. We have to find a way of making sure that systems grow and mature in which health and social services meet together to focus on the needs of the individuals and their families. Health boards have to take a lead in all of this, and engage with their local populations and other stakeholders, including local authorities and the third sector, to demonstrate the health and wellbeing needs of individuals, families and local communities, and then to discuss together how best those needs can be met. Once planning has been carried out, local health boards must also deliver effective, evidence-based stroke services through well-organised multidisciplinary teams.
People need to be placed at the centre of stroke care, so that their individual needs are identified and so that they feel well supported, informed and able to manage the effects of stroke. As this debate has highlighted, more people now survive stroke, meaning people have to manage the effects of a stroke for many years. Sometimes, these are complex care needs that must be anticipated, where possible, and recognised through routine assessment and care planning.
There is NICE clinical guidance to help local health boards in meeting those responsibilities. Published last month, the ‘Stroke rehabilitation: Long-term rehabilitation after stroke’ guidelines are a real and new asset to local health boards in planning and delivering services for patients.
As Nick mentioned, sadly, it remains true that both the chances of having a stroke and the chances of survival are worst in our most deprived communities. None of us here would find that inequality acceptable. That is why our aim, in all four areas of the stroke delivery plan, is to bring more consistent outcomes across Wales. One of the four areas that we need to do that in is preventing stroke, by helping people to be aware of what they can do to protect themselves. The health committee in this Assembly term has done work on arterial fibrillation, and it was good to see Public Health Wales, the Stroke Association and Community Pharmacy Wales make this a particular focus of a month-long stroke prevention campaign that was run in pharmacies across Wales in May this year. When we do what we can to prevent strokes, we need to detect strokes quickly when they happen, so that there is early diagnosis and treatment. When we know that the treatment is needed, it needs to be fast and effective, so that people have peace of mind that the best possible chance of treatment is available to them. When treatment has been provided, we have to work with people to support life after stroke, so that, as I said, people feel well supported and informed.
Around all of this, we need a new vitality in the research agenda in Wales. I was lucky enough, only a week or two ago, to attend a dinner organised through the stroke network here in Wales, which was part of a two-day-long research seminar. It involved people from outside Wales and people from beyond the United Kingdom coming to Wales to share information on the best recent research to improve services for people. I talked to Dr Anne Freeman at that event about the ways in which we can regalvanise research among clinicians in Wales on this really important agenda.
We have made progress. I agree with the sentiments expressed in this debate, namely that there is more that can be achieved, in the rehabilitation field in particular. However, we will do that best by working together, making sure that the voice of people who have experienced stroke is at the centre of what we do, using the third sector as well as our public services and, in that way, trying to bring about a concerted effort to improve services for people who find themselves in that situation of having had a stroke and now needing to remodel their lives to live with the after-effects.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister. That brings today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 5.27 p.m.