Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
Childrens Educational Attainment
1. What plans does the Minister have to shrink the gap in children’s educational attainment in schools? OAQ(4)0335(ESK)
I thank the Member for Cardiff North. Reducing the gap in attainment between deprived pupils and their peers, along with literacy and numeracy, is a key priority for me. As well as securing additional funding for this issue, we are developing a comprehensive programme to tackle deprivation to equal the work on raising standards.
I thank the Minister for that response. Does the Minister agree that a child’s attainment improves when parents or guardians are actively involved in the learning process? It makes absolute sense. Does the Minister support the recommendations in the recent report by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which highlights that the reading age of children can improve as well as the skills and employability of the parents involved? How can we make more of our schools as family learning environments?
I agree wholeheartedly with NIACE. Parental engagement in family learning has a proven positive impact on children’s learning and brings measurable benefits to their literacy, language and numeracy skills. Our family learning programmes grant is one of the means we have of providing support through local authorities to families where low levels of literacy and language development act as barriers to a child’s development. That fund will be enhanced over the coming years. It is being protected even in these very difficult bugetary circumstances for 2014-15 through to 2016. We are also progressing work on pilot projects to extend family learning programmes to cover early years provision to develop approaches to help parents to support very early learning and language development. In addition to that, we can also take advantage of the Communities First match fund, and I would encourage applications along the lines of family learning for that fund.
Minister, another way of helping to close that attainment gap would be the implementation of the individual pupil learning plans. Will you give us an update on this? I know that, in some areas, it is not really taking off and the individual recognition of pupils’ needs is being stopped in anticipation of the learning plans taking effect.
I would be very concerned if we were not getting consistent development on individual pupil learning plans. I will undertake to look into the matter and write to the Member with a response.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
Minister, education commentators are agreed that we need to shrink the gap in children’s attainment in Wales if we are to climb the Programme for International Student Assessment league tables. On 8 October, the First Minister said that he expected to see an improvement in the PISA results in December. On the other hand, people such as Professor David Reynolds have said that the best that we can hope for is to stay as we were. With whom do you agree?
We are just about 12 months into our school improvement journey, which was initiated, through multiple initiatives, by my predecessor. The next PISA results will relate to 2012, when hardly any of those programmes for improvement had had a chance to bite into the system, if you like. Therefore, I would anticipate that any realistic person would look to the next set of PISA results with a great deal of caution.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Do you have a second question?
Yes; thank you, Presiding Officer. I note that the Minister for Education and Skills does not think that the First Minister has been very realistic in his ambitions for PISA results in Wales. [Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. Can we stop having interventions from a seated position? Will you carry on, please, Simon Thomas?
Thank you, Presiding Officer. It is ironic, however, that all countries are trying to improve their PISA results, including, for example, Scotland, which has just established a purpose-built academic research institution at the University of Glasgow—which, ironically, is named after the great Welshman Robert Owen—to raise performance there. Similar moves are happening in Wales, with the launch of a centre for equity in education at the University of Wales Trinity Dewi Sant next month. Do you feel that we have enough international comparison, and enough of an academic, rigorous, evidence-based approach in Wales to really raise our PISA results, whether it happens this year, or in two years’ time?
Of course, there is a great deal of existing evidence out there. In large part, we know what kind of interventions can give us results in terms of international studies, comparators, and so on. However, I welcome the equity group’s establishment in west Wales, and I will be meeting with it. I read with interest about the developments up in Glasgow too, around the Robert Owen Institute—which I think they are calling it. I will be visiting Scotland to take on board several initiatives that the Scots are undertaking in their educational journey, which I find quite interesting, and I hope to include a discussion around the research capability that the Robert Owen Institute will give them.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Aled Roberts.
Minister, you have referred to your school improvement programme. That is based, to a large extent, on the sharing of good practice. In a recent conference in Cardiff, a number of speakers suggested that there were problems with sharing good practice as a result of the competition created by the banding system, and that schools are unwilling to release teachers and headteachers to share that good practice. Do you accept that there is a problem with regard to how much good practice is being shared in Wales at the moment?
I find that a surprising observation. It is certainly not something that has reached me through any observer or participant in terms of the school improvement discussions—and I have had many since my appointment. I think that the key to forward momentum, in terms of this agenda, is to get our regional consortia working properly. The Member will be aware of some of the breakthroughs that have been made in the last few weeks surrounding co-operation between the Welsh Government and local government, in ensuring that those regional consortia for school improvement are up and running—and are firing on all cylinders, if you like—by next April, at the very latest. One of the key requisites of those consortia, in terms of their good operation, will be the sharing of good practice. I will be very concerned to learn if any individual school is holding back, if you like, in terms of that agenda; it would be no good for them, and no good for their neighbours.
May I deal then with one particular group? A recent Welsh Government Green Paper identified that 81% of the most prolific offenders had no qualifications whatsoever. In April, I asked your predecessor whether the Welsh Government had responded to the UK Government’s Green Paper on education in youth custody. He confirmed that it had. What discussions have taken place between the Welsh Government and the UK Government since, given the Welsh Government’s responsibility for education in youth custody settings?
I will need to look into the matter, and write to the Member on that point.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I ask Members for shorter questions and, perhaps, more succinct answers, Minister, otherwise we will not get through very many questions today.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the assessment process for Dyslexia in school pupils? OAQ(4)0328(ESK)
I thank the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. Local authorities must provide suitable educational provision to all children. In doing so, they must also have due regard to the special educational needs code of practice for Wales, which provides practical advice on carrying out their statutory duties to identify, access and make provision for children’s SEN, including those with dyslexia.
Minister, in order to make that provision for dyslexic pupils, those pupils have to be assessed by a psychologist. Wales Dyslexia tells me that there is a problem right across Wales in terms of timely access to that assessment. A constituent has complained to me that his child failed to get such an assessment and that, as a result, the school was unable to provide the child with the exact kind of education that you are talking about. Will you review the situation across Wales in order to ensure that these assessments for dyslexia are available for pupils in a timely manner?
The Member is quite right to underscore the importance of early identification of any kind of learning or language problem. At that point, of course, when that identification is made, we can then refer to special teachers, local authority advisers or, as he mentions, educational psychologists. I would be more than happy to look into the individual circumstances of your constituent, if you were to write to me on that issue. I will undertake also to take a snapshot of the overall Welsh picture as regards early identification and referral.
Minister, the Welsh Government hosted a dyslexia networking event to try to see what good practice was going on around Wales and maybe identify what poor practice was going on. That event was held in the middle of October. With this question in mind, surely you are in a position to give us some update as to the outcomes of that event, or I hope that you would be in a position to give us an update. What tangible things came out of that networking event that you believe will help inform Government policy to better support people with dyslexia?
I was not able to attend the event on 17 October, although I have heard good reports of the usefulness of the networking event. In addition to that we have, of course, established a task and finish group, established by my predecessor back in March, to develop a specific learning difficulties framework for Wales. Work is ongoing and the action plan for that framework is to be developed early next year. I would expect the dyslexia networking event input to be a live part and considered as something important to be taken on board in the development of that action plan.
Minister, constituents tell me that many schools are only referring pupils for dyslexia testing if they are failing to hit their base level literacy and numeracy targets, meaning that many of the more intelligent and talented young people with dyslexia are not being diagnosed in school and, in many cases, not until university. It means that they are having to work twice as hard just to get along and are not being able to achieve their full potential. What guidance have you offered schools and local education authorities to ensure that all children in Wales are given the support that they need to reach their potential and not just hit the target?
I am unclear as to the Member’s intent in terms of this question. I will answer as best I can. Our guidance on the reading tests encourages and empowers schools to make suitable adjustments to the test in order to support and help all learners to access them. The tests themselves are, if properly used, an aid to early identification of problems. In that regard, they have a great deal of usefulness. As I say, guidance is there to allow tests to be delivered in chunks, by allowing rest breaks, by working in small groups and by providing extra time. I will be listening carefully also to any feedback from schools in terms of best practice with the reading tests in this regard.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the role of school governors? OAQ(4)0342(ESK)
The role of school governors is to work in partnership with the headteacher and senior school staff to set policies and targets and provide the necessary challenge to improve school performance and raise standards of attainment for pupils.
Being a school governor is a wonderful way in which people can contribute back to their communities. How is the Government seeking to encourage a more diverse pool of people to put themselves forward as school governors, to give a fairer representation of the community to the school and also to offer the school a wider pool of talent and expertise on which to draw?
We are engaged in a number of intitiatives surrounding support for governors, which I hope would encourage wider groups of people to put their names forward for what can be an intimidating agenda. When you go along to your first governors’ meeting, it can be something that is off-putting, to say the least. This is a very exacting job of work for anyone to undertake. We are involved with putting out guidance and support through our ‘School Governors’ guide to the law’. We have our new governor training; we have introduced mandatory induction training for newly appointed and elected governors in particular. Other training courses include our understanding data training, and crucially, the chair of governors training too. I would hope that this most supportive environment around governors would assist in encouraging more people to come forward.
Minister, can you outline the lessons learned for schools governor training and their role in scrutinising the performance of schools, particularly teaching staff, for the poor performance of schools, particularly those in south-east Wales?
I am sorry, Presiding Officer; I did not quite catch the question.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I am sure that he can repeat it.
Minister, would you outline lessons learned from school governor training and their role in scrutinising the performance of schools and teaching staff, particularly in the light of experience for the poor performance of schools in South Wales East?
I beg your pardon, William. A great deal of information is continually flowing back to officials and to me around lessons being learned, and, of course, we have Governors Wales acting as a conduit through its conferences, its helpline and the independent advice that it offers to governors. That is considered in an ongoing process.
Minister, you will be aware of the constituency case that I recently wrote to you about involving the general point of support for chairs of governors in disciplinary proceedings involving headteachers. What steps will you take to ensure that the legislation and the guidance is followed as intended, and will you agree to meet with me to discuss this important matter?
Yes, of course I would agree to meet with any Member with a concern of importance such as the one the Member describes. I would not like to outline on the hoof here measures that we would need to take for dealing with what are necessarily rather complex situations. I am well aware, and I think every Member in the Chamber is aware, of circumstances in which relationships between chairs of governors and governing bodies, between heads and governors, and between LEAs and governors and so on, can become fraught or even break down, and we do have to be clear, I think, in terms of what kind of guidance and support is offered to all parties. We have had several instances over recent months, going back some years now, of impasses being reached in terms of this sort of breakdown of communication and we need a better structure around the rules, regulations and guidance in this regard; I do accept that.
Friday of this week will mark the anniversary of the creation of the task and finish group on school governance, which was identified as a requisite of school improvement. In July, the Cabinet decision report indicated that, due to the illness of the chairman, the group had been reformed and that the report was expected this autumn. Has that report now been received and will you be willing to publish it?
I can update the Member, yes. My predecessor, Leighton Andrews, recognised the important role that governors play in school improvement and commissioned this task and finish group to look into the role of local authorities, governing bodies and heads. The governors task and finish group is due to report back to me by the end of this week. I await its final report with interest and I will make a statement in December.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 4, OAQ(4)0337(ESK), is withdrawn.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on how the education system in Wales is supporting employers of the future? OAQ(4)0327(ESK)
We are doing more than ever to ensure that young people have access to high-quality labour market intelligence through the learning and skills observatory and CareersWales.com. We continue to develop our national traineeship programme, our apprenticeship programme, and to develop qualifications that promote employability skills, including our new Welsh baccalaureate.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. Evidence shows that many apprenticeship schemes and careers within engineering and construction are male dominated and that a discriminatory culture often continues to prevail. We know that if we are to break down the barriers to girls pursuing careers in such areas then intervention to change their career aspirations needs to be earlier in their education. Would you agree, Minister, that there has not been the desired shift in the career choices for girls, and what further work could be done with teachers, careers advisers and employers to break down the persistence of gender stereotyping and make young people aware of the broadest range of opportunities that are open to them?
The Member makes a number of important points and I would agree that, while we have seen a shift in the career choices of girls, there is still far more to be done. I would add that parents have a crucial role in encouraging and advising their daughters on careers in engineering, manufacturing and construction.
I am pleased to inform the Member that I have just established the Wales strategic forum for career development to draw together various members of the careers family. Indeed, the issue of how we build an economy where gender balance is secured across all sectors is very much at the forefront of considerations. In addition, my officials are working on a major employer engagement programme to bring together employers and schools in a way that will also aim to break down gender stereotypes in the world of work.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the opposition spokesperson, Nick Ramsay.
Deputy Minister, we all recognise the importance of vocational courses and you have just spoken about the importance of increasing employability in the workforce. Do you share my concern at the recent Estyn report, which commented that courses in construction, planning and the built environment too often fail to be matched to local employment needs? With the best will in the world, Deputy Minister, you can have the best courses in the world, but, if they are not actually matching local employment needs, we will end up with an even bigger problem than before.
Nick Ramsay raises another important point, and, indeed, this is something that I have discussed with the Construction Industry Training Board and college principals. It is important to note, however, that, within the Estyn report, a number of colleges and institutions have been highlighted as providing excellent service, such as Coleg Cambria in the north, and other colleges around Wales. So, there are many important best practice examples that other further education institutions should draw on.
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. To turn to another Estyn report—Estyn has been very busy in recent months—the second report that I want to draw your attention to is that which showed that 44% of Welsh employers have had to invest in numeracy skills training for school and college leavers in their employment, the lowest performance indicator being the core subject at key stage 4. This has been a long-standing problem and it does not seem to be getting better, certainly not fast enough. Would you agree with me that, in the twenty-first century, it is unacceptable that employers should have to do a job that should have been done at an earlier stage by teachers? Will you agree to work with the Minister for Education and Skills to make sure that the situation is turned around?
Yes, I do, and yes, I will. In January next year, I will be launching a skills strategy that deals specifically with the points that you have raised.
I am keen that everything possible should be done to make sure that career aspirations can be met and that includes those who want to set up their own businesses. The Jobs Growth Wales scheme allows young people to get a bursary of up to £6,000 to enter self-employment, but, according to Menter a Busnes Môn, young people who want to start their own businesses have been prevented from doing so if they are on the work programme. Does the Deputy Minister agree that young people in Wales taking part in the work programme should be able to leave the work programme in order to be able to benefit under Jobs Growth Wales?
The Member’s question is very timely, as I have just agreed to meet the Minister of State for Employment in Westminster in two weeks’ time, when I will be discussing that very point.
Following on from that point about young people who want to set up their own businesses, what provision is made available in schools and colleges to teach the art of entrepreneurship?
A package of support is available via the young entrepreneurship strategy and through the curriculum on careers and the world of work. Indeed, we are finding that attitudes towards self-employment and entrepreneurship among young people are rising fast.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the draft budget’s implications for Welsh for Adults Centres? OAQ(4)0330(ESK)
No decisions have been taken on the 2014-15 funding allocations for the Welsh for adults centres. A decision will be made once budgets are finalised in December.
Thank you, Minister. I am sure that you would join me in congratulating the Welsh for adults centre in Bangor, which has received a mark of excellent from Estyn, but the centre has not received an increase in its budget for five years, although it has increased its number of learners. How does the Government intend to increase the number of adults learning and speaking Welsh, in light of the disappointing 2011 census figures, without increasing investment?
Those census figures are a cause of concern for all of us. There are currently around 18,000 adults learning Welsh through the Welsh for adults centres across Wales, and I remind the Member that, back in July 2012, the then Minister for Education and Skills established a group to review the provision of Welsh for adults, and the report of the review group was published in July this year. I am currently considering the recommendations of that group and will publish my response in due course, and I will have the Member’s questions very much at the forefront of my mind when we are considering our response to those recommendations. I have, though, been very open about the stark reality of the financial challenges ahead for all aspects of educational provision, and we are facing difficult decisions. As I say, budgetary decisions will be made in December.
Minister, it is important that any funding provides value for money for the taxpayer. You may be aware that the Welsh for adults centre has been teaching John Lewis staff in a brand new course called ‘Welsh with your customers’, commissioned by John Lewis to enable staff to use some Welsh with its customers. In light of this, what is the Welsh Government doing to promote good practice such as this and to encourage other businesses throughout Wales to fund or part-fund courses that teach Welsh to their staff?
I must say that I was not aware of the specific John Lewis example, but I think that the Member does put his finger on important point here: in times such as these in particular, we have to seek the best value for money that we can possibly find. It is not just a question of the overall quantum of the budget, but how that budget would be used, and I would agree with him that encouraging employers to step up and contribute to the Welsh language education of their staff is something that we need to promote.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact European Social Funding has had on FE colleges in Wales since 1999? OAQ(4)0341(ESK)
Since 1999, the further education sector in Wales has been, and continues to be, a key deliverer of interventions supported by the European social fund. My officials are actively working with the sector to explore continued opportunities for delivery under the current and future rounds of European structural funds.
I thank the Deputy Minister for that response. As somebody who used to be an FE college lecturer, I am well aware of the huge impact that the European social fund has had on further education provision in Wales. Unfortunately, we now have less of it under the new Objective 1 system than we used to have under Objective 2. Deputy Minister, we know that there are tough times ahead for further education due to a shortfall in our block grant from Westminster. What further use do you believe that FE colleges can make of European social funding to support adult retraining and adult education in order to get people back into work?
My officials are at advanced stages of exploring the potential for maximising the use of ESF money throughout the future 2014 to 2020 programme period, as well as continuing to make the most of opportunities in the current round. Officials have been discussing with stakeholders for some months the development of a strategic framework for future employment and skills delivery, which we anticipate will form the basis for future ESF considerations. As part of this ongoing dialogue, discussions are being held with FE colleges about their future plans for post-19 training. I think that the Member will be interested to know that, since 1999, FE colleges have benefited from at least £108 million in ESF moneys. That not only illustrates the incredible value of Britain’s membership of the European Union, but also the transformational quality of FE in terms of skills and training.
Deputy Minister, within the Finance Committee’s report on the effectiveness of European structural funds in Wales, Coleg Morgannwg’s evidence was that it had taken a decision to reduce its dependency on ESF funding specifically to avoid becoming over-reliant upon it. This is obviously a very real concern in FE, evidenced by the report, and also a very real concern for the communities that need ESF programmes such as training through FE. What specific measures have you taken since the publication of this report last year to tackle the issues of ESF being underused in areas of high need?
It is absolutely crucial that all stakeholders involved in ESF programmes make maximum use of the money available, which is why I said that my officials are in discussions with stakeholders at the very moment with regard to that matter. With regard to the particular example that you mentioned, I think that it is a matter for that institution itself to make the decision. However, again, I would urge that ESF money is used to the maximum effect.
8. What progress has been made in increasing opportunities for Welsh medium learning in further education? OAQ(4)340(ESK)
I express my thanks to the Member for Ceredigion for that question. The 2011-12 lifelong learning Wales record data shows that the percentage of FE-level learning activities pursued by learners aged 19 or under in further education institutions through the medium of Welsh or bilingually has increased from a baseline of 4.7% in 2007-08 to 6.7% in 2011-12.
Thank you for the response. I know about the good work carried out by Coleg Ceredigion in my constituency to try to expand the Welsh-language and bilingual provision. One of the problems that face the development of Welsh-medium and English-medium courses for students is that sufficient numbers of students are needed to draw in the funding. That can be particularly problematic in rural areas. Would you consider how we could be more flexible in terms of the numbers required for each course in order to allow colleges to be able to increase the provision that is made through the medium of Welsh?
The Member raises an interesting point. Of course, things are going in the right direction here, and we are on track to meet our stated targets as regards provision. Our bilingual champions are out there now, working in all 17 FE colleges. Sgiliaith continues to provide that support to lecturers and tutors, and we have, of course, our sabbatical scheme for lecturers and tutors. This work is, of course, on the sort of supply side of the provision of courses and of the staff to deliver them. However, I would agree with the Member that there is a worry around the numbers of students actually stepping up to take advantage of the provision. I would be open to discussions with other parties or with any individual or organisation that has some good ideas—within the constraints, of course, of a budget that, in this case, has been protected but is a limited budget nonetheless—about how we can improve this matter. If the Member were to write to me with some suggestions, perhaps we could discuss this further. I will be very open in terms of listening to ideas.
Minister, your Welsh-medium education strategy sets a target for further education institutions to have 1% of learners studying subjects through the medium of Welsh by 2015. According to the latest figures, only 0.4% of learners did so last year. Could you tell the Chamber whether your strategy is on course and whether you can achieve your targets? Thank you.
I am a little bewildered as to where the Member mines his information. These figures bear no relation to anything that I understand around the targets that we have set here. I will spell it out: the target is to increase the number of students aged 16 to 19 studying subjects through the medium of Welsh or bilingually in colleges from a baseline of 4.7%, as I mentioned, in 2007-08 to 7% in 2015. I will remind the Member, as I mentioned earlier, that we are already at 6.7%. So, in answer to the question as to whether we are on target to reach 7% by 2015, I would say ‘Of course we are’.
9. What assessment has the Minister made of the provision of quality school meals in Mid and West Wales? OAQ(4)0339(ESK)
I do not assess the quality of school meals. The healthy eating in school regulations set out the types of food and drink that should be provided during the school day, and defines the nutrient content of school lunches. This explicitly describes the quality of provision that I expect.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I have had some casework coming in from Ceredigion recently where concerns have been expressed about queueing arrangements and the availability, within a realistic timescale, of hot meals in school. Consequently, pupils are seeking alternatives, including fish and chips, kebabs, and other things that are available from vans outside school premises. Would the Minister consider what was brought to the Petitions Committee last year, namely a potential exclusion zone to stop hot food takeaway vans positioning themselves in the vicinity of schools, which could be disadvantageous for pupils’ health?
I am very sympathetic to calls that have been made over time regarding fast food and mobile food outlets and their proximity to schools. I will say this: I will undertake to discuss with my officials further what may be possible in moving forward on this agenda. We have to be realistic about things like the legislative timetable during this very crowded Assembly term, but I will also undertake to discuss with the Member further how we might encourage best practice on the part of schools’ governing bodies and, indeed, the role of local authorities in this regard. However, I do recognise the problem that the Member raises, and I am sympathetic about trying to find ways forward in order to encourage children to eat healthily and, preferably, in school.
I raised the issue of school meal provision with your colleague the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty a few weeks ago, and he committed himself to discussing the issue with you. Will the Minister agree with me that portion provision for primary school children is best made at a local level in each individual school and at the discretion of canteen staff and teachers, rather than by a uniform regulation by the local education authority? Also, is he satisfied that there is flexibility in Welsh Government guidance, specifically 'Appetite for Life', that allows schools to do that?
Well, I am satisfied, yes. The 'Appetite for Life' guidelines provide suggested portion sizes, which would cater for the nutritional requirements of children. Specifically, it gives guidance on how children, as they grow older, require larger portions in order to be satisfied, if you like, in terms of their meal. I would also offer my personal opinion, which is that a large dose of common sense would not go amiss in the local interpretation of those guidelines. The guidelines are there because they offer a proper nutritional balance for our young people, and that is something that we have been working towards for a long time, and now we have it. So, the guidelines matter, but so does common sense.
Minister, of course, the Government, in its different ways, supports two types of school meals in Mid and West Wales: school breakfasts and meals at school dinner times. Do you do any work as a Government to undertake and analyse which are the best nutritionally for helping children to study? There is some evidence that school breakfasts allow a better period of study in the morning, settling the class down, which leads to better outcomes. Although school dinners are very good, and free school dinners would be a good thing to have, the school breakfast is the key to improving some of our standards. Do you have that analysis as a Government?
I do not think that, as a Government, we have undertaken a study such as this, and although I cannot reference it off the top of my head at the moment, I am sure that I will be able to track down and write to the Member on the good research that is out there that shows us that it is a good, healthy, balanced breakfast that provides the best educational benefit in terms of children being settled at school and not starting their school day hungry.
10. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of education in west Wales? OAQ(4)0329(ESK)
I am committed to ensuring that all learners have the support they need. I have therefore put in place a range of measures to support learners at all stages of education in west Wales and throughout the whole of Wales.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I have received a number of representations regarding the potential closure of Ysgol Dewi Sant in St David’s in my constituency. This week, Pembrokeshire County Council has decided to undertake a preliminary consultation process on this particular issue, but not ruling out any options for the school at this stage. Do you agree with me, Minister, that the views of the whole community must be taken into consideration, and that there should be a full, robust consultation process on this issue? If so, what guidance has the Welsh Government issued recently to ensure that this is the case?
Of course I would agree. Pembrokeshire County Council, like all other local authorities in Wales, is grappling with these issues at the moment, and the county council should be well aware of the legislation and guidance concerning this sort of procedure, and the consultation that is a necessary part of it. If the Member is uncertain as to whether Pembrokeshire County Council really has absorbed this guidance I would be more than happy to write to the council to remind it of it.
Minister, we all know that the concept of consultation is a very loose concept in the context of the Welsh Government as well as local government. What can you do to ensure that when a consultation takes place with parents, or with a whole area, regarding changes in the education system that all options are treated equally? The feedback that I often receive is that there is one option that local government favours, and that the consultation is a process that will lead to the conclusion that that is the option for all.
All I can say is that we are no strangers to consultation in Wales. We probably consult more and better than any other part of the United Kingdom, and perhaps even Europe. In terms of the way we consult, it is a well-worn path. There is clear and explicit guidance as to how consultation should be conducted, and, of course, there is redress if members of the public or others think that that consultation has been handled badly.
I do not think that there is anything to add other than to say that even a good consultation does not necessarily end with a result that everyone would like.
11. Will the Minister make a statement on the eligibility for free school meals in Wales? OAQ(4)0332(ESK)
Pupils whose families receive certain support benefits are currently eligible for free school meals. The introduction of universal credit will mean that the criteria for determining eligibility will need to change. We are considering a range of potential options for setting new eligibility criteria under the new universal credit regime.
How do you respond to comments by Alan Milburn three weeks ago in the state of the nation report that, 14 years after devolution, the poorest children in Wales are significantly less likely to do well at school than children from similar backgrounds in England; that pupils eligible for free school meals in England are 50% more likely to obtain five good GCSEs than their counterparts in Wales; and that Wales performs less well than all regions in England, including comparably deprived regions like the north east?
I read the headlines surrounding Alan Milburn’s report, and no doubt the Member has also. It comes as no surprise to me, and it should not come as any surprise to any intelligent observer of the Welsh political scene, that we are grappling here with deep-seated problems that are economic, social and educational in terms of the improvement journey that we are engaged with. I would point the Member, though, to a recently published study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which points out that Wales has, in its opinion, the very best strategy for dealing with child poverty and its associated problems of any of the constituent members of the United Kingdom.
As a chair of school governors in the Caerphilly school that I attended, where 50% of pupils receive free school meal entitlements, I am aware that many parents are not claiming the free school meals that their children are entitled to. What efforts are you making to encourage schools in Wales to inform all parents about their children’s possible entitlement to free school meals?
This is an important job of work, and I would place the onus on the local authority to ensure that this kind of information and even encouragement in terms of the take-up of free school meals happens at a local level. I do not think this is a job that the Minister can undertake, realistically speaking. It is a job of work that local authorities need to do, and they need to revisit it regularly. It can only be of benefit, of course, of any local authority in times like this to try to approach the 100% mark of people claiming free school meals if they are eligible, because so much hangs upon that proportion of pupils in terms of the funding that local authorities would be eligible for. The pupil deprivation grant is just one that could make an enormous difference. What that means is that the money that we are allocating towards these very important programmes is heading towards the right places, the right families and the right children.
Female-led Business Start-ups
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the number of female led business start-ups in Wales? OAQ(4)0318(EST)
We are taking action to address issues to improve women’s standing in the economy. For example, we are working with key organisations, such as Chwarae Teg, to increase the number of women accessing business support in Wales and encouraging women to sign up to the Business Wales mentoring service.
Thank you, Minister. The 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor shows that, in nearly every economy across the world, there continue to be fewer female than male entrepreneurs, as well as a reluctance to scale their businesses or to enter new and less-tested markets. To quote the report itself:
‘Few resources are as underutilised in these ecosystems as women.’
Minister, what steps is the Welsh Government taking to foster an environment that encourages women to see entrepreneurship as a viable career option? What is it doing to equip them with the tools to build their own businesses as well as increase awareness among stakeholders that will support their efforts in this?
Work is currently being undertaken by my department, through the equality impact assessment process, to address issues relating to women in non-traditional sectors and improving women’s standing in the economy. In addition, Chwarae Teg has hosted round-table discussion groups on behalf of the business start-up service to seek the views of female entrepreneurs as to how the service can better meet the needs of women accessing our services. I fully accept the points that you make in respect of GEM 2012.
Minister, you may or may not be aware of Network She—a professional networking site exclusively for women, which is based in north Wales, Chester, Liverpool and Yorkshire. That was created to fill a niche for a network that understood and supported women at all stages of their careers. It has had a number of successes, including supporting a female footballer in Flintshire, who has secured sponsorship through the network. What actions can you take, Minister, to improve awareness of networks like Network She and professional women’s programmes?
I, like you, am very keen to see women taking a full role in the development of businesses within the economy. We try to be as supportive as we can in terms of the resources that we have, to ensure that women are aware of the opportunities that are there and that they are given support if they are setting up businesses. In the light of your comments about what you regard as a very successful network, I will certainly ask my officials to do some follow-up work in that area.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Alun Ffred Jones.
Thank you very much. Not only are there fewer women taking the leap into business, but unemployment among women has increased significantly over the past year. What work has your department done to analyse the reasons for that?
Yes, we are trying to analyse the reasons behind this, because we need clarity on the information so that we can put in policies that will assist.
What specific programmes do you have in place in order to encourage women to enter business?
I think that we try to encourage them with our entrepreneurship and business support programmes, as well as the business start-up Service, which we have concentrated on. This shows that about 43% of all discussions with the registration and start-up service are now with women. This was between April 2013 and the end of September 2013. So, we are seeing a gradual improvement.
2. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding the development of the HS2 railway? OAQ(4)0317(EST)
I have not had specific discussions with the UK Government on the development of the HS2 railway.
Thank you for that response, Minister. I am sure that you would agree that the situation beyond the next spending round in 2015 is extremely important. A sum of £35 million has been secured for the current spending round. What discussions do you or the Minister for Finance intend to have in order to ensure that that expenditure is also available after 2015?
The Minister for Finance and I have discussed this issue, and, as you will be aware, at the spending round in June the UK Government allocated funding for HS2 for 2015-16 through the UK Department for Transport’s capital budget. We received a consequential of £84.5 million, and we will continue to press the UK Government on that particular issue, because I think it is important to recognise that there are implications for Wales. You only have to look at the KPMG report about possible effects on the Welsh economy as a result of HS2 and those impacts. Therefore, cash will always be gratefully received.
Minister, accepting your previous answer to Rhodri Glyn Thomas, what discussions might you have had to maximise the potential benefits to Wales of the two key interchanges from HS2, namely the planned Old Oak Common interchange for HS2, which will connect with the Great Western main line and Crossrail, improving the connectivity for south Wales, in addition to the HS2 interchange at Crewe, making north Wales easily accessible for passengers?
One of the reasons for setting up the task group within north Wales on transport under my colleague the Minister for local government, Lesley Griffiths, is to look at these issues, and HS2 will come into that equation. We are looking at an official level, and my officials are discussing the possible benefits within south Wales. I see all these projects as enormous opportunities for Wales.
Bontnewydd and Caernarfon Bypass
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the timetable for developing the Bontnewydd and Caernarfon bypass? OAQ(4)0322(EST)
Yes. We will appoint advisers this year and a design-and-build contractor next year. Draft orders will be published in 2015, followed by a public inquiry, if required. Construction would then commence in 2016.
Thank you for that confirmation, Minister. Will you also confirm that the steps in the original timetable for the bypass are being followed, in accordance with what you said some months ago?
Yes. That is my understanding, but if you know something that I do not, I will certainly check with my senior transport officials that that is the case and confirm if it is not.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the opposition spokesperson, Byron Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, you stated in correspondence that you took the business-impact study into consideration in making your very quick decision to move the bypass from the consulted route to the yellow route in May 2013. How did you do that, given that the business-impact study was not issued until 12 August 2013? Also, more importantly, the report states that the full information to assess Gwalia Garage is not available.
As far as I am concerned, the decision has been made. I think that the decision was the right decision. I took into account the relevant information, and the yellow route has given significant cost savings with regard to delivery, which will allow reinvestment of the savings into other transport projects.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I asked in a formal written question what representations were made to change the Bontnewydd bypass route, following the last formal announcement and prior to the route change. Your answer was that a number of representations were made, which I have to say seems a little churlish. Therefore, in the interest of transparency and accountable government, will you commit to publishing all those representations made? Could you also outline to the Chamber how you plan to mitigate a 300m-long concrete structure that is over 70m high at its highest point and overlooks the world heritage site of Caernarfon?
There will obviously be detailed plans for the road, and I am sure that I can send those to the Member concerned.
4. What are the Minister’s plans for tourism marketing in west Wales? OAQ(4)0326(EST)
The new tourism strategy launched in the summer identifies a product-led approach to developing and marketing tourism in Wales. I was delighted to see the formal opening of Llanelly House last week, one of the most outstanding early Georgian buildings in Wales.
The tourism industry is worth £0.3 billion to the Carmarthenshire economy, with almost 3 million visitors and more than 6,000 employees. There are exciting years ahead for Llanelli: you have just mentioned Llanelly House, which opened last week; the 2014 Carmarthenshire Eisteddfod is to be held in Llanelli; and Kidwelly will celebrate 900 years in 2015. Given the Welsh Government’s objective to increase tourism spend by more than 10% by 2020, how do you intend to work more closely with stakeholders and the local tourism industry to make the advertising of these events as strong as they possibly can be and to help local businesses to take advantage of the benefits that they will bring?
We have an excellent relationship with the local authority in Carmarthenshire with regard to promoting events; it works very well with us. Carmarthen is also part of the city region, which is focusing heavily on tourism within that area. I indicated to Visit Wales officials that we need to do more joint working in terms of publicising what is on offer in Wales.
Minister, I recently attended the Fishguard autumn festival, which was fantastic in showcasing local businesses and local produce. With first-class food, drink and a range of other products locally sourced in Pembrokeshire, it is essential that these festivals are marketed effectively and supported by the Welsh Government, given their importance to the tourism sector and to the Welsh economy. Therefore, Minister, what specific steps are you taking as a Government to promote events such as local festivals across west Wales, which are very often tourist attractions?
There is an issue here about joining up more across the piece. It will be important, when we have our national strategy, to publicise what is available locally, so that when we have more local information, we can feed it to tourists as they come to Wales. That is the focus of the work that is currently being undertaken by the tourism panel.
Minister, tourists need an effective transport system, and, in west Wales, this is at risk following Arriva’s announcement that it is to withdraw bus services between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. Are you in a position to give us an update on your negotiations with the local county councils in order to find a solution to this problem for the benefit of tourists and, of course, of local people?
It is very important that we recognise the importance of public transport for many tourists, particularly in the areas that you have indicated. We have had some discussions with the local authorities, and I have also been discussing recently with my officials the issues around some of the routes that you mentioned, particularly the routes between Aberystwyth and Cardiff via Carmarthen, Swansea and Bridgend, and the route between Aberystwyth, Synod Inn and Aberaeron. I will be asking officials to bring forward proposals so that they become Welsh Government strategic bus network routes.
Minister, faith tourism is an important way of promoting the very rich heritage of Wales, and a particular example of that is the Cistercian Way, which is the longest footpath in Wales, linking a lot of Cistercian sites around the country. How can you help promote this, and would you be willing to meet with me and the academic who has been working on this to see what more can be done by the Welsh Government to promote this particular route?
I feel very strongly that we need to do more on the faith tourism agenda. There are some fabulous walking routes and historic sites within Wales that people would benefit from visiting, and which would then benefit the economy. So, I would be delighted to take up your invitation to meet with the academic who is undertaking this work. We have a very fine example in your region, namely Neath abbey, which is a beautiful Cistercian abbey.
5. How is the Welsh Government supporting Welsh companies involved in online development? OAQ(4)0329(EST)
Through the Business Wales service, we provide a wide range of information, guidance and advice to support businesses, including dedicated support on e-business.
Thank you for that response. Do you have specific information regarding the funding that your department gives to companies in the South Wales West region? I ask because, having looked at the websites of many companies, the picture varies in terms of how much information they can publish on those sites, and the quality of websites vary in relation to company size. Therefore, it would be good to have some further information on that issue.
If you would like to write to me formally with your concerns, I would be more than happy to arrange for a response to be sent.
Minister, I do not know whether you have had an opportunity to see in today’s ‘Daily Post’ the problems being experienced by a couple in Gwynedd, where, despite a superfast broadband connection to an exchange, BT is threatening their local business. Their existing broadband is being cut off, and they are going to have to close their local furniture business, which uses local and recycled materials. Would it be possible for you to write to me indicating what assistance they could expect from the BT superfast broadband scheme?
It might be helpful for the Member to write to me formally and then I can ensure that there is an appropriate investigation into the issue that she has now raised in the Chamber.
6. Will the Minister outline what she is doing to improve tourism in the Vale of Clwyd? OAQ(4)0321(EST)
Over the summer, we launched our new tourism strategy, which identifies a product-led approach to developing and marketing tourism in Wales. This means working with iconic, high-quality, reputation-changing products and events to support and develop the tourism industry across Wales.
Minister, I was very pleased that you chose St Asaph Cathedral to launch your faith tourism action plan the week before half term. St Asaph Cathedral has many links to our religious history—such as the story of Mary Jones, who walked to pick up a Welsh translation of the Bible. It is also the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary this year of the passing of the Act by Parliament, with the help of Henry Llwyd, the MP at the time, in relation to the translation of the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh, which was a significant move forward for those people who used the church as a way of learning. Those are significant issues, but there are many more, and I know that you will know that visitors spent £12 million visiting places of worship in Wales over the last year. How will your faith tourism action plan work to develop that industry, and the potential of that industry, encompassing all of the faiths that we now embrace in Wales?
I was very pleased to see you and so many other Members at the launch of the faith tourism action plan, and I extend my thanks to the bishop for agreeing to host the event. The aim of the plan is to increase the number of visitors to our places of worship and sacred sites and identify significant events. When I was in the cathedral, I looked into matters such as the translation of the Bible, and it is about interpretation and the way in which we interpret some of the very wonderful stories there are about Wales. Therefore, it is not only about iconic locations, but about churches and chapels, which have a presence in every community, and the ways in which, in Wales, they have helped the language, culture and way of life to develop. Those are some of the issues that we will be taking forward.
There are many self-catering tourism businesses in the Vale of Clwyd and across north Wales and the rest of Wales. In June, you and your colleague the Minister for Local Government and Government Business announced that you had commissioned independent research to examine the operation of the 70-day rule and its impact on self-catering businesses that have not been able to secure 70 nights of bookings in the current climate. When do you expect the findings of that report to be made publicly available?
I have yet to discuss this formally with my colleague, but I can let Members have a note later this week on when I expect to be able to share that with you.
Will you join me, Minister, in congratulating those responsible for the recent Denbigh Plum Festival? That is a classic example, perhaps, of how it is possible to use local produce in a creative way to promote tourism. The festival itself is one thing, and the Denbigh Brewery produces Denbigh plum beer, and even the chocolate shop has been innovative by using plums in the manufacturing of a special chocolate. This is an example of taking advantage of unique local produce for the benefit of tourism. Is this not the type of project that we should promote in Wales?
Yes, I believe that it should be promoted more in Wales, because it is very important that uniqueness is promoted. It is wonderful to think of anything that involves the manufacture of chocolate. [Laughter.]
7. Has the Minister or her officials had any discussions with the Bank of England about addressing regional imbalances in economic recovery? OAQ(4)0331(EST)
The First Minister regularly meets with representatives of the Bank of England and his discussions cover all aspects of economic performance, including regional imbalances.
Thank you for that answer. I was just wondering how much of the discussions with the Bank of England were informed by matters such as what has happened with regard to the Unity mine in my region. I know that many areas have been hit by job losses, but we are hearing some about worrying cases from staff at the Unity mine who are worried about their future and various things that I do not wish to mention here at the moment. Will you be talking to the Bank of England about this, because Wales is suffering more than other areas of the UK in terms of coming out of this recession?
Obviously, we are all very disappointed with the news with regard to Unity mine. However, I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to address some of the issues around Unity mine currently, in this forum, because there are ongoing discussions. Obviously, in terms of those jobs, it has been very disappointing for the community. We recognise that the Bank of England can use its influence to help to address regional economic imbalances, but the key is that we cannot rely on it for action—we have to get on with things ourselves in Wales. Our agenda is to secure jobs and to go through recovery. We must remember that the Bank of England is there to look at issues for the whole of the UK.
Minister, when it comes to regional imbalances and economic recovery, I am sure that you will agree that providing comprehensive broadband across Wales—urban and rural—is key. We had a question earlier from Antoinette Sandbach about some flaws in BT’s approach to this. Do you share my concerns that, in a number of cases, BT is being less than transparent in terms of providing adequate, comprehensive information about the start and completion dates of certain schemes, particularly in rural areas? Until we have that sort of certainty, it will be very difficult for businesses, as well as up-and-coming businesses, to plan for the future. Will you have discussions with BT to try to resolve this?
I think that, as an Assembly Member and Minister, I tend to hear about the complaints and not the good news stories. At the end of the day, we have successfully dealt with a number of broadband issues, across Wales. It has been a very successful programme, and we have a good relationship with BT. However, I am always happy to deal with any individual issues that Members might raise regarding any concerns to do with the contract.
8. What use has the Minister made of the UK Government’s procurement framework when appointing research companies? OAQ(4)0332(EST)
I am not aware of any instance where my department has used the procurement framework operated by the UK Government.
Minister, one piece of research work is currently being done by your department on the use of Welsh in business that I felt was commissioned under that framework. According to a letter from Huw Lewis, the Minister for Education and Skills, it was a requirement that the survey was available in Welsh and English. However, I am aware that a number of companies, when asking for the service in Welsh, were told by a company from England that that service was not available. However, following a letter from me, the call back was made in Welsh. Do you fell that the tender is adequate in such cases?
To be frank, I am quite unhappy about the points that you have raised with me today. If you will allow me, I will take it back to my department, to look further into those issues. In many ways, I think that it is important that information is available bilingually.
Would the Minister outline the criteria in the Welsh Government procurement procedure that allow, after a lengthy tender process, a new preferred bidder to be appointed, after a preferred bidder has been appointed?
That is a technical and detailed question, William, and I will have to respond to you in writing.
Minister, you will no doubt be aware that the percentage of contracts awarded to Welsh companies varies widely in Wales, and across many public bodies. I am sure that you will agree that, if we could only raise the level to 75%, we would create 50,000 jobs. What efforts are you making to improve on this acceptable situation? We heard today that registered social landlords are doing a good job, and I could quote the example of National Museum Wales, which is not doing a good job. We need to really clamp down on this now.
The new Sell2Wales procurement porthole went live to existing and new users on 30 June 2013. That is a key element of our efforts to improve the effectiveness and the efficiency of public sector sourcing and supply chain development. However, the Minister for Finance and I keep a very close eye on these matters, to see improvement.
9. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for industry? OAQ(4)0324(EST)
We are supporting industry through advice from experienced staff, grant support, and our wider assistance on infrastructure, innovation and improving the business environment.
I often welcome Welsh Government investment in industry in Mid and West Wales, through various grants, to safeguard jobs and to help businesses grow. How can the Welsh Government ensure that its investment leads to quality, permanent jobs, rather than simply to an increase of agency staff, who tend to receive inferior pay and conditions for the same work?
I would be grateful if you could give me examples of those jobs in the companies that we have supported that are only temporary jobs. There are very strict criteria in place about the creation of jobs, the value of the job, and so on.
The Minister will be aware of the potential threat to 40 jobs at Thomas and Betts in Newtown. I am pleased that the Welsh Government has made contact with the business, to offer support and advice and I am happy to support you in any way that I can. Could you provide an update of progress in terms of what further discussions and meetings have taken place, what initial assessments you and your officials have made of the company’s situation, and whether there are any potential solutions on the table?
Yes. I will share with all Members, by the end of the week, an update on this issue.
As the Minister knows, we have, unfortunately, lost many industries from Ynys Môn recently, including the abattoir in Gaerwen. The site is on the market once more, and I know that Government Ministers are very keen to take action. There is great interest in Ynys Môn in the idea of potentially trying to reopen the abattoir as a co-operative venture. Can the Minister tell us what assistance the Welsh Government can provide for a feasibility study on the possibility of reopening the abattoir as a co-operative venture?
Yes, I will be pleased to have any formal representations from the Member and any interested parties regarding the possibility of us assisting with a feasibility study.
Minister, further to the announcement on Monday from Sapa aluminium, could you give us an update on any discussions that you have had to offer support to the company, and could you tell us how confident you are that you will be able to safeguard those jobs at risk in Bedwas?
I am being kept updated by my officials and will share with you, when available, what information I have.
The potential loss of any manufacturing facility is worrying in Wales and, for the long-term health of the Welsh economy, Wales needs to be making and exporting, even if only as far as England. As the economy grows, Minister, with new opportunities maybe emerging for Welsh firms, will you agree that now is the time to be developing a Welsh manufacturing strategy, to make sure that the manufacturing industry in Wales has the opportunity now to thrive?
I think that you will find from the sectoral approach that we have taken for a number of years with the advanced manufacturing sector, which clearly looks at these issues, that we feel that we already have a strategy in place.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 10, OAQ(4)0325(EST), is withdrawn.
11. What progress has the Minister made towards the development of a network of community banks in Mid and West Wales? OAQ(4)0330(EST)
I commissioned Professor Colyn Gardner to consider the role of community banks for Wales. I am considering his findings. Of course, Professor Dylan Jones-Evans’ further report on banking will be available next week.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Following your warm response to the short debate that I led earlier in the year, we still have difficulties around bank closures and we have had the recent difficulties with the Co-operative Bank as well. I am sure that the Minister would agree that the recent announcement of £1 million grant by the Big Lottery Fund to the Newtown-based Robert Owen Community Banking Fund is good news. Would the Minister consider, subject to diary commitments, coming to the bank to meet the officials and to find out more about how this could be a model of good practice that we could roll out across Wales?
Thank you for that kind invitation. I would be delighted to meet them in Newtown or possibly here. I think that it is important that, when we look particularly at Professor Gardner’s report, he concluded that to set up a new community bank in Wales we would need to look at the best practices that have been adopted in these particular areas. I think that would be an opportune discussion.
The Minister will be aware that it was the Welsh Conservatives, in ‘A Vision for Welsh Investment: Invest Wales’, who called for the provision of more regional and community banking. In that report we set out a number of potential models that the Welsh Government could examine further, because there is no doubt that local businesses would benefit from local access to finance. Ten months on since that report publication, what assessment has the Government made of our policy proposals and what progress has been made to develop more regional community banking models in Wales?
All reports are of interest to us when we are looking at the future or what we might do in terms of banking, irrespective of where they come from. Obviously, Professor Dylan Jones-Evans has been looking at some of the issues that we have raised across this Chamber and he will be reporting—I think that I am scheduled, looking at the Minister for business, to make a statement on this particular issue shortly.
Minister, I know that you take an interest in the meeting organised tonight by my colleague Elin Jones on the misselling of interest rates swap agreements. Do you agree with me that one of the reasons that businesses have unfortunately fallen into this trap and misselling—and many of my constituents will be there tonight as well—is that there is a lack of choice for small businesses in mid and west Wales of alternatives, like peer-to-peer lending, and they are being forced to look therefore at what are called ‘innovative’, but are actually exploitative methods of supporting their businesses? Is there anything that the Welsh Government can do to promote alternative ways that businesses can get involved as well?
I think it is very important that we look at alternative ways of lending money. What is coming through, through the strand of reports I have commissioned, is that we have to be more proactive in that area. I look forward very much to meeting with Elin Jones and some of her constituents to discuss this particular issue later.
12. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government plans to support Small Business Saturday on 7 December? OAQ(4)0323(EST)
We will be supporting the Small Business Saturday initiative and dedicated social media campaign on supporting small and local businesses in Wales that will lead up to 7 December.
Thank you, Minister, for that response. Does the Minister agree that activities around Wales’s first Small Business Saturday on 7 December can be a boost to the local economy, and would she congratulate the efforts of the traders on Whitchurch high street in my constituency of Cardiff North, where local businesses and the community have come together and plan to hold a Christmas market on that day, to create special Small Business Saturday shop window displays, and to offer local discounts to shoppers to help raise awareness around this very important event and to emphasise the importance of small businesses?
I am very happy to be nice about Whitchurch, but I am also very happy to congratulate all those who are doing what they can to boost the local economy. It is very important that we see traders and the community coming together to raise awareness around this campaign. It is also very important that people who shop and who go into shops and so on recognise that we need to use these small businesses, because if we do not use them, we will lose them.
That is heartening to hear. The recently formed cross-party group on small shops is working with Small Business Saturday in order to publicise the importance of our small businesses, of which our small shops and independent retailers are a large part, employing 22,000 people, and it is an industry that is growing at a rate of 4.6%. However, the Association of Convenience Stores 2013 Local Shop Report shows that Welsh retailers are far less optimistic about the year ahead than the UK average. So, in real terms, what is the Welsh Government doing to support our independent retail sector?
We are doing quite a lot, I think, in terms of assisting with marketing. What we are doing in terms of the digital campaign, which will be delivered with the marketplace in Wales, will be very successful. It does provide a platform for small businesses across Wales to receive business support through the Welsh Government’s start-up service and Business Wales to showcase their products and businesses. However, you are right; perhaps we need to look at what we are currently doing and whether there is anything further we can do to promote small, innovative businesses. When you see new businesses on the high street, they do not half boost the trade for other traders. When you see something new and a nice shop window that is selling something different, it draws people in.
13. Will the Minister make a statement on economic growth in Wales? OAQ(4)0327(EST)
Thank you for that question. We have taken a wide range of actions to support jobs and growth across Wales. Since devolution, we have seen a greater growth in employment in Wales than in England.
Capital Economics projected in October that the Welsh economy will experience a growth rate of 2.7% up to 2020, but that is far behind the 3.8% comparable to the UK as a whole. Further to this, just last week, the new governor of the Bank of England highlighted how Wales continues to lag behind other parts of the UK. What lessons could you and your Government learn from the UK Government in getting our economy growing?
I am always happy to take help and advice from any source. However, in terms of what we are doing with the economy, with all the schemes we have to offer business and the support we give to business, I think we are doing a very good job.
14. Will the Minister outline her strategy to support the aviation industry in Wales? OAQ(4)0320(EST)
I intend to publish the draft strategy at the end of this year.
West Wales Airport at Aberporth is the heart and technical cornerstone of the already established National Aeronautical Centre. This is a partnership between West Wales Airport and Newquay Cornwall Airport, where the combined capabilities of the two facilities are able to deliver all that is required for the development and testing of unmanned aerial vehicles for the next 20 years in the UK. Given that, Minister, what business case exists for the Welsh Government to invest in new infrastructure at Llanbedr airfield for the same purpose? The owners have previously reported that UAV operations will not create any additional employment. Also, £17 million of taxpayers’ money has already been invested in Parc Aberporth, but there has only been a 60% uptake in the technical buildings there.
I am currently looking at some of these issues around UAVs and development in terms of what we have available in Wales and what the market is. I would be more than happy to come back to Members in due course when we finish our analysis of how we are taking business forward in that area.
Strategic Bus Transport Routes
15. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s priorities for strategic bus transport routes? OAQ(4)0328(EST)
Local authorities are producing regional bus and community transport strategies to identify key strategic bus routes. I will review the support for the key bus routes once I have considered all these strategies. However, as I indicated in response to a question on tourism, I am minded to move ahead with some of the strategic bus routes.
I thank the Minister for that response, and the earlier response, which confirmed her intention to include that important link in my constituency between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen as part of the national strategic routes. That link connects two railways—in Aberystwyth and Carmarthen—and is part of the path across west Wales, from north Wales, from Bangor, down to Carmarthen and then on to Cardiff. So, will you ensure that you as a Government are giving clear guidance to local authorities that they need to think strategically and to work with you to provide buses that will be a means of ensuring national long-distance links, as well as the important local services that they provide?
I concur with your comments. In the department, we are currently going through all the issues regarding bus services, national routes and how things are dealt with on a local and regional basis. I dare say that I will be announcing some changes in due course.
Minister, I recently attended an open meeting in the village of Rhoose, which my colleague Alun Cairns, the constituency Member of Parliament, held. It was quickly pointed out to members of the community there that the Welsh Government spends £600,000 on bus services to the village of Rhoose—£475,000 for the airport bus and £125,000 for the shuttle bus between the station and the airport—yet the village does not benefit from one single service bus operation for the general community to use. Are you committed to trying to alleviate the problems that many of those villagers find? Will you be putting forward proposals shortly that will address some of the problems that the community of Rhoose faces?
I am aware of the issues that you raise. They have already been raised with me by my colleague Jane Hutt, as has the whole issue of rural services in the Chamber. I think that what the issues in west Wales have highlighted for me is the problems elsewhere. We are undertaking a comprehensive look at some of these issues now and I hope very much to be in a position to make announcements before Christmas.
The Minister for Health and Social Services has, of course, ordered an inquiry in relation to a particular matter. There are no particular matters within the NHS that deserve an inquiry to be held, generally. What the Minister for health has done is to hold an inquiry in relation to something that is specific to what happened to an individual. I do not accept that the situation exists in Wales where there is a need for a general inquiry. Yes, there is a need for one in England because the NHS in England is in crisis because of your Government. You only had to see the front page of ‘The Observer’ on Sunday to see the disaster that is awaiting people in England, sadly, because of the actions of his party. One thing that we will not do in Wales is impose the chaos in England on the people of Wales.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I understand that Paul Davies will be moving the motion on behalf of the committee.
Motion NDM5345 Jocelyn Davies
The National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Finance Committee on its inquiry into Asset Management in the Public Sector, which was laid in the Table Office on 23 August 2013.
I move the motion.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I rise to open this debate on behalf of the Finance Committee Chair, who cannot take part in this debate due to other Assembly business. I pay tribute to the Chair and thank her for her leadership on this issue. I also thank the clerk and his team for their efforts throughout this inquiry.
Asset management is becoming an increasingly important tool in the current challenging economic climate. With less money available, the more efficiently assets can be managed, the more money there is to spend on delivering services. Through the Finance Committee’s previous inquiries into borrowing powers and innovative approaches to capital funding and the invest-to-save scheme, as committee members we saw examples of millions being saved by simply rationalising office space or installing solar panels. So, we conducted this inquiry to ensure that the Welsh Government is effectively managing its own assets and providing strong, clear guidance and support in this area to the wider public sector. On behalf of the committee, I would like to thank all those who gave evidence to the inquiry. As always, the contributions helped us to reach the conclusions and recommendations in our report. I would also like to thank the Members and everybody who supported the committee for their work on this report.
So, what did we find? We found some positive examples, which suggested that Wales was ahead of the game in asset management, and that other parts of the UK were looking to us and our lead. However, the picture is not consistently rosy.
Within the Welsh Government, we found a confusing sub-division of assets, where individual ministerial fiefdoms take priority over an integrated whole. Across the wider public sector, it is clear that, where there is advice, it is not always being followed and inconsistent data makes effective monitoring practically impossible. As a committee, we have made 14 recommendations, which we hope will achieve the necessary step change in asset management, and ensure that Wales maximises the potential for savings in this area.
Our first two recommendations ask the Government to get its own house in order by producing an asset management plan for its entire administrative estate and an overarching asset management strategy to cover all of its assets. We felt that it was difficult for the Government to be setting standards for and having expectations of the wider public sector that it does not achieve itself.
One of the key tensions throughout our inquiry has arisen from the fact that the Welsh Government’s ‘State of the Estate’ report is not an asset management plan for the administrative estate. In general, there appeared to be a lack of interest and engagement with regard to asset management from across the public sector, although the economic climate has pushed it up the agenda. In response, we have made a series of recommendations. Recommendations 3, 4, 5, 6 and 10 are aimed at the Welsh Government working with the public sector to raise the profile of asset management and to ensure that it is incorporated into projects at an appropriate stage.
The evidence that we received raised serious questions about the priority given to asset management, particularly at the most senior levels, and there seems to be a near universal recognition that, while tough economic times have driven a greater interest in this field, there remains more to be done. That is why we have recommended that the Welsh Government report back annually on how it is working with senior leaders across the public sector to highlight the importance of, and benefits that can be derived from, sound asset management, as outlined in recommendation 3.
We have also recommended that consideration be given to asset management plans for all public sector bodies and the development of indicators for monitoring the condition and performance of assets. The correct incentives are necessary to achieve the potential savings available through asset management, both in the Welsh Government and the wider public sector. However, we found that the limited value that health bodies can keep of disposed assets has discouraged large-scale activity, and that Ministers were reluctant to transfer assets due to the potential negative impact on their own departmental budgets. To this end, we made recommendations 7, 8 and 9, aimed at ensuring that all public bodies are able to keep an appropriate proportion of any cash generated by transfer and disposal of assets.
During the course of our inquiry, the committee took evidence on the use of the Welsh Government’s land transfer protocol and the disposal of land for affordable housing protocol. We looked at the transfer of land assets within the Welsh public sector and how the protocols are being developed to improve the current arrangements. Therefore, we have recommended that public bodies be given greater incentives to effectively manage their assets by ensuring that they keep an appropriate proportion of any value accrued by transfer or disposal, as noted in recommendation 8.
To conclude, Presiding Officer, asset management is an area that needs to be given a greater priority. It is essential to get this right in order to ensure that frontline services are delivered in the most efficient and effective way. We hope that, if nothing else, this inquiry has raised the profile of asset management and highlighted the benefits available to the Welsh Government and the wider public sector. I look forward to listening to Members’ contributions in this debate, which, I am sure, will be very constructive and useful.
In times of reducing public expenditure, the best use of assets is one area that can be used to support the public sector without affecting services to the public. I wish to concentrate on four of the committee’s recommendations and end with a general overview.
The first recommendation is that:
‘the Welsh Government draws up an Asset Management Plan for its entire administrative estate, (or revises the content of the State of the Estates Report) with appropriate targets, and reports regularly on performance against those targets.’
Assets exist for a reason. However, sometimes the reasons for holding those assets change. I am well aware—as probably most people here are—of houses that have been bought by councils or by the old Welsh Development Agency for road schemes that never actually took place. Therefore, we have a lot of examples of this happening, where people buy things because they need them at one time and then things move on, not through anybody’s fault, and they find that they are no longer necessary.
When the reason an asset was needed disappears—as I said, often due to unforeseen events—it is important to realise the value of that asset. At the heart of asset management is knowing what you have, why you have it, reviewing whether you need it on a regular basis and if you do not need it, selling it and saving the costs of keeping that asset and realising a capital receipt.
We also note that local government, which is required to have asset management plans, is widely acknowledged to be stronger in this area than other areas of the public sector. We recommended that the Welsh Government considers whether the requirement to have an asset management plan should be extended to other parts of the public sector. I am very pleased to see that it is an area where local government is in the lead, and I believe that all areas of the public sector should have an asset management plan. People need to know what they own and why. They should have a five-year plan for all assets, which would include disposal if no longer needed, because that could be used to reduce fixed costs for rates, rent and heating, or for security. Those costs are down there, they are hidden and they have got to be paid, so people tell you that if you get rid of the assets they do not have to be paid and it produces money to be spent on providing services. A simple mantra is this: if you do not need it, have no immediate plans for it and see no use for it in the future, get rid of it. Reducing the fixed costs of rent, rates and security or gaining a rental income should be key areas that the public sector organisations look at in order to reduce fixed costs and to treat fixed costs as something that they can deal with, and not just look at variable costs and see what they can reduce. Asset management can actually generate money for use in services.
We further recommend that the Welsh Government makes a thorough review of the incentives and disincentives that exist to asset transfers within both the Welsh Government and the wider Welsh public sector. In particular, we believe that the fact that health bodies can keep only the first £500,000 of any asset deal is discouraging large-scale activity. We recommend that it should be replaced with an agreed proportion of the total value of the asset to encourage large-scale strategic transfers where they represent appropriate management of property. What a perverse incentive exists, if you parcel something up in 10 plots and you can get the first £500,000 for each one of those, whereas if you sell it for twice as much, you will still only get £500,000. It really is a perverse incentive for health bodies to get rid of land in small chunks rather than the large blocks that would bring greater income. Such perverse incentives, I believe, have no role in twenty-first century Wales and certainly not at a time of massively reducing public sector capital allocations.
The last recommendation that I wish to comment on is recommendation 9, which recommends that
‘the Welsh Government‘s Asset Management Strategy…is used to aid in identifying assets and property available for transfer, either between departments, or to other organisations, to tackle the perception’—
is it only a perception?—
‘of silo working in departments. It should be ensured that such transfers contribute to the wider strategic goals and objectives of the Welsh Government’.
This is key, and while the committee did not recommend the central holding of all Government assets, I would urge the Welsh Government to at least consider such a move if the transfer of assets unused by one department to another cannot be achieved easily. There is an awful lot of land that could be used for an awful lot of good that would only need to be transferred from one department to another.
My final, general, comment is that departments do not own assets, the Welsh Government does not own assets and the National Assembly does not own assets, it is the Welsh people who own these assets, and it is the duty of the Welsh Government to maximise the use of those assets for the people of Wales, especially at a time, like now, of reducing capital expenditure.
I am heartened to follow that contribution by Mike Hedges, who reflected the old Liberal song, ‘God gave the land to the people’. Clearly, that is the case here, but I think that the important part of this report is making sure that the Welsh Government uses the assets that it has effectively and efficiently, given the economic climate that we find ourselves in and given the fact that we have a shortage of capital resources, and that we realise those assets and use them in an intelligent and effective way to deliver the services that the people of Wales require of us. I think that that is the target and the objective of this report, and I hope, given that the Minister has accepted the vast majority of the recommendations outright and just two in principle, that that indicates that the Government recognises the importance of this subject and the need to take some action to improve its past performance in managing assets. In a sense, local government is required to have an asset plan. Local authorities do have asset plans, and they have guidance from the Welsh Government on how to manage their assets. If that guidance applies to the Welsh Government, this report would not have been necessary. The fact is that the Welsh Government was not acting on its own guidance as it delivered to local government. In a sense, that reflects the silo working within the Welsh Government in this respect because, obviously, that guidance was issued by the Minister for Local Government and Government Business, whereas the assets are being managed by the Minister for Finance. I think that that silo working is very much highlighted in this report, as is how we need to make sure that the Welsh Government is working in a joined-up way to realise the assets that it has and to use them in a way that delivers those services.
The Welsh public sector spends £500 million on running land and buildings worth £12 billion. It is prudent for the Welsh Government to use that property portfolio not only in terms of generating new capital but also to achieve other objectives, which are often stated in the Chamber in fact, for example making sure that we have land available for affordable housing, which I think was my initial motive in asking the committee for this review and report to be carried out.
I noticed that the committee noted CIPFA’s criticism regarding the absence of targets in ‘The State of the Estate’ report. While there is a need to be flexible regarding asset management we need to have those targets if the Welsh Government is to meet its aims. I am pleased that the Welsh Government has accepted that and that it will be introducing specific performance targets for the future. However, ‘The State of the Estate’ report is not an asset management plan in itself. It is a snapshot of where we are at the moment. It is not a plan for the future. With regard to whether the Welsh Government actually had a plan, evidence was given to us that the four large landholding departments, namely BETS, Cadw, transport and the national assets working group, were operating independently in terms of asset management and did not have that overarching plan. Instead, they were relying on one produced five years ago. Frankly, that is not good enough and I am pleased that the Minister has now agreed to address that.
The absence of transfer protocols was also of concern. Obviously, the development of e-PIMS to allow public access portals to be available to third-sector groups, such as housing associations and other public sector bodies, was welcome. However, evidence presented to the committee suggested that only two or three housing associations had been engaged with regard to the release of Welsh Government-owned land for development and the e-PIMS system. The committee also reported that there was no single protocol for land transfers between Government departments—that is clearly something that needs to be addressed, particularly as Ministers obviously have their own objectives. I think that the Minister for economic development gave some very compelling evidence about how she needs to maintain a land bank to pursue her own aims, and that when she is asked to give that land over to another department, she clearly needs some incentive to do that because, otherwise, that land is no longer available for the economy and to develop the economic wellbeing of Wales. I think that those protocols have to be put in place to make sure that we are delivering in that way.
The committee noted from its evidence during this inquiry that there is an issue of information and that there is a lack of available data. I think that that was also concerning. Of course, the issue, which I think Mike Hedges referred to, about the incentive for health bodies in particular to give up land, and the fact that they are only able to retain the first £500,000 of any asset deal, has discouraged any large-scale activity.
So, in conclusion, I think that we need much more joined-up working; we need incentives for public bodies to be able to dispose of land and to give up land for other uses; and we need to have a proper target and a proper asset plan so that we can ensure, and be confident, that the land and the assets that the Welsh Government has at its disposal is being used to meet the Welsh Government’s aim and the needs of Wales.
I am pleased to make a contribution to this debate. The previous speakers have gone through most of the recommendations in some detail, but I do think that we have some very important lessons to learn from this inquiry. First, there is the key issue about how the public sector must learn to work together. I know that we hear that time and again—we talk about collaboration—but I think that this came clearly out of this inquiry. I think that we all know that it is not easy to collaborate when different bodies have different structures. However, certainly, in this inquiry into asset management, this emerged as one of the key things.
In 2010, the Wales audit office said that the Welsh public sector spends over £500 million per annum running lands and buildings worth some £12 billion, which is an absolutely huge resource for the public in Wales. However, the conclusion was that it could be managed better.
We learned how important it is not to work in silos, and previous speakers have referred to that. There is only a small pool of expertise, and it must be shared. I think that the recommendation was that good practice can be shared through the public service leadership group, because we concluded that the Scottish way of dealing with this, through the Scottish Futures Trust, was a centralised way of dealing with it that was not necessarily what we would want to follow here in Wales.
I think that the previous speakers have spoken about the fact that each local authority is required to have asset management plans, but that there is no requirement for the Welsh Government to have an overall asset management plan. That is one of the points that I would like to highlight in terms of our recommendations, namely that there should be an overall plan for the whole of the estate, and not just for the Welsh administrative Government estate—one that would cover the business portfolio, Cadw and all the assets of the Welsh Government. The committee thought that this was important.
I was trying to think of examples in my constituency of where there had been good asset management or not. I have a lot of hospitals in my constituency. Whitchurch Hospital is next door to Velindre hospital—they actually overlap. Whitchurch has a lot of buildings and a lot of land, but the move is towards more community-based mental health services. Velindre is crammed onto a small site, with more and more needs for equipment as more patients need to be treated for cancer. For many years, it was not possible to make sense of this, because they were managed by two different trusts. It seemed to me, representing that area for many years, that there ought to be some way of rationalising the situation, of sharing the assets and of working together to ensure that the needs of one hospital could be promoted for the good of both. That seems to me an example of where we work in silos in managing our assets. Fortunately, the situation has moved on a lot; there is now an LHB and a trust, and progress has been made in looking at the assets of both hospitals. I think that that was an example of where, if you have good asset management in the public sector, you collaborate and you make sure that it works for the benefit of all the agencies involved.
The last point I want to make is that I think it is very important to bring in the voluntary sector. We did take evidence on this during the course of the inquiry, but we felt that not much progress had been made in bringing the voluntary sector in. Given its very close links to the public sector and the fact that it is often delivering public services, we thought that it was important that the voluntary sector should be part of the asset management development.
I welcome the Finance Committee’s inquiry report on asset management in the public sector; I consider it to be helpful and relevant, and it will assist in raising the importance of effective asset management in these difficult financial times. I am pleased to say from the start that I accept all of the committee's recommendations, in full or in principle, and I want to put on record my appreciation of the hard work of the Finance Committee in gathering the evidence and in presenting its findings. As the Chair, Jocelyn Davies, said in her foreword, this raises the profile of asset management. Also, I thank Paul Davies for presenting the report this afternoon.
I can assure Members that continuously driving forward the efficiency and effectiveness of our public services in Wales is a main concern for the Welsh Government. We need to make optimum use of the resources that we have at our disposal, and all those who have contributed this afternoon have made that very clear point. We have an obligation to find different ways to deliver services more cost effectively, maintaining or improving on quality. The challenge has never been so great, as Mike Hedges said. Innovative and effective management of public assets is vital to achieving that.
It was good to see that the committee responded positively to the work that has been taken through the national asset working group. That is a work stream for the public service leadership group, which you also acknowledged, and which is chaired by the Minister for Local Government and Government Business. I accept the committee’s findings that there are areas relating to the Welsh Government’s own estate that need looking at. I accept that. There are important lessons to be learnt, and I have written to the committee Chair, Jocelyn Davies, with my detailed responses. Members will see those, in terms of the recommendations.
Just drawing out some of the key points that have been made this afternoon, the committee identified the need for the Welsh Government to draw up a corporate asset management plan for its entire estate, which would set out a clear strategy for the management of assets linked to wider objectives. It is crucial that the Welsh Government demonstrates strong leadership in this area, and I quite accept the challenge from Peter Black on this point—if we are going to take that leadership, we have to be clear that we do lead by example in making the most efficient and effective use of our own assets. I am responding positively on this. I accept the recommendation. Work has begun on developing an asset register and a corporate asset management plan, and that will, of course, importantly, inform and support housing and economic regeneration priorities.
Paul Davies drew attention to the ‘State of the Estate’ report, which, of course, is not an asset management plan, as he quite rightly said. In fact, an update will be published very shortly, and we are again going to provide a snapshot of our property performance during the last financial year; that in itself is important in terms of, as it says, the state of the estate. However, it is not the corporate asset management plan that we are now developing. The importance of aligning the asset base to support Government services and business, pushing hard for efficiency services, is clear, and that is where the ‘State of the Estate’ report will provide valuable information. It will be available not only on our website, but in an executive summary as well.
Again, the point was made about the public estate being estimated to be worth £12 billion, and annual running costs of around £500 million. There are clear savings to be made, and it is now the time for organisations to work together more collaboratively, to be more innovative in the ways in which public land and property assets are used to drive savings. I think the approach does work. Julie Morgan referred to her own constituency in terms of the considerable health service assets in that part of Cardiff. It is interesting that Cardiff Council has run its own asset review, which included 11 other public sector organisations, including the health service, and which identified potential capital receipts from surplus property of £174 million, and annual running cost savings of approximately £7.25 million per year. The Minister for local government has drawn the attention of political leaders in local government and at the partnership council to the opportunities to share that good practice. It is about learning from the new approaches that have been adopted and recognising that the work of the national asset working group is of course Wales-wide work. That group can influence organisations in taking this forward. We also had the launch of the Asset Cymru website in July, with its strapline of ‘making better use of our public assets’. That provides a central point of information for anyone with an interest in managing public land and assets.
Members have also brought to the fore this afternoon the issue of our land transfer protocol, and I can assure Members that we are revising this. We are looking at ways to make the transfer of land or property across Welsh Government and between public sector organisations easier, and without those adverse effects in terms of transferring departments' or organisations’ budgets. It was good that you looked at these issues in your inquiry. Mike Hedges referred to the recommendation on incentives and disincentives, and issues were raised by Peter Black as well. We are developing a Wales public sector estates co-ordination protocol. That is the kind of joined-up route we want to take. So, again, I have to say that this report and inquiry has been extremely valuable and we need to take this report forward as a Government to enable us to get that engagement and improve collaboration across the public sector.
Finally, I think the outward-facing work will be supported through the Welsh Government through the public service leadership group and the reform delivery group chaired by the Minister for local government. I believe that greater engagement across the public sector, the third sector and the voluntary sector in Wales, as Julie Morgan says, is crucial and that they are part of this in terms of their assets. That will result in transformed services being delivered more efficiently. The Welsh Government is committed to keeping the profile of this work high on the agenda, and it is in the interests of not just me as the Minister for Finance, but all Government Ministers to engage with this.
The committee’s report and the evidence gathered during the inquiry provides that valuable information and evidence to assist us in prioritising and planning how we manage the land, as has been said, and which is so important to the people and the economy of Wales.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Paul Davies to reply to the debate.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I thank Members for taking part in this debate this afternoon. I think that we have heard very useful and thoughtful contributions on an issue, which is very important—given the substantial sums of money invested in managing public assets in Wales.
The first contribution we heard was from the member for Swansea East, who concentrated on four recommendations in our report. Quite rightly, he focused on the value of an asset, which is critical. He is spot on to say that if the asset is no longer generating money, then, in the interest of value for money, that asset should be disposed of. I think that he also turned to recommendation 9, and it is absolutely essential to use an asset management strategy to identify assets and property available for transfer between departments to tackle the perception of silo working in departments.
The Member for South Wales West concentrated on the Welsh Government’s need to use its assets in an intelligent and efficient way. I think that he is absolutely right in saying that local government is required to introduce asset management plans. If the Welsh Government was required to produce an asset management plan, then this report would not have been produced in the first place.
The Member for South Wales West was also right in highlighting the lack of available data with regard to asset management planning, and how information is crucial, so that we can improve the way that we manage our public assets.
The Member for Cardiff North rightly focused on how important it is to see all of the public sector working together, so that we see a real improvement in asset management. She also highlighted the fact that the Welsh Government has no asset management plan currently in place. I think she also touched upon the fact that it was important to engage with the third sector, to help develop asset management plans in the future, as this sector plays a vital role in managing public assets.
It is essential that the Welsh Government is committed to making better use of its existing assets, as careful management of assets can save the Government money, which can then be redirected to front-line services to improve the lives of the people of Wales. The Wales Audit Office tells us that the Welsh public sector spends over £500 million per annum running land and buildings worth some £12 billion. Therefore, it is crucial that we see value for money for the Welsh taxpayer. The Welsh Government correctly points out that there is a responsibility on public sector leaders to engage with this agenda. Therefore, I hope that the Minister and her officials will continue to work closely with public service leaders on this issue and that the Welsh Government does all that it can to promote further engagement in this area.
I am pleased that the Minister has accepted in principle all of the recommendations in this report. I am also pleased that the Minister recognises that work needs to be done, and that an asset register is now being developed. I am also delighted that lessons need to be learned, and that those lessons learnt will be used to improve the current situation.
Members may already know that the Welsh Government’s latest ‘State of the Estate’ report was published last November. It was the fourth annual report on the Welsh Government’s administrative estate. Despite the focus on efficiencies, ‘State of the Estate’ reports, as the Minister quite rightly said earlier, are not asset management plans, but they simply show the performance of the administrative estate at a single point in time. These reports only cover specific office accommodation, and estates such as the Royal Welsh showground pavilion and estates outside of Wales are not included. It is crucial, therefore, that the Welsh Government develops a robust asset management plan for all of its properties, including the ones I have just mentioned. Therefore, I am pleased that the Minister has accepted recommendations 1 and 2, and I look forward to seeing the Welsh Government’s asset management plan and its targets being introduced.
In closing, it is essential that the Welsh Government is effective in managing its own assets. It is also essential that the guidance it issues is effective and that the support it gives to the wider public sector in Wales is robust. I think that this has been a good debate, which has highlighted the importance of having a robust framework in place to manage public assets. Clearly, making sure that efficient and effective asset management plans are in place is crucial, because it will lead to efficiency savings and ensure value for money for the Welsh taxpayer. Therefore, in the light of this debate, given that the Government has accepted, or accepted in principle, all of the recommendations, I hope that it will now proceed to implement them as soon as possible.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to note the Finance Committee’s report. Does any Member object? There are no objections. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 15:26.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Elin Jones, and amendments 2, 3 and 4 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Motion NDM5346 William Graham
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Believes that high quality care and treatment within the Welsh NHS is integral to eliminating avoidable deaths.
2. Calls upon the Welsh Government to commission an independent review into Welsh hospitals with higher than average mortality rates to determine whether failings in the quality of care and treatment are a factor.
I move the motion tabled in the name of my colleague William Graham.
I am grateful for the opportunity to bring this important debate forward this afternoon. I want to begin my contribution by paying tribute to the hard work, professionalism and commitment of the medical and nursing staff in the Welsh NHS. There is no doubt that debating a topic of this kind can sometimes lead to criticism of politicians for, perhaps, focusing on the negative in the NHS. Therefore, it is important to recognise at the start of this debate the excellent care that is given throughout the NHS on a day-to-day basis, 365 days a year. I want to focus on that right at the start of this debate.
Most people receive high-quality care in the NHS, and they far outweigh the number of people who have a poor patient experience. However, there are some indicators that we bellieve as a party suggest that things are not as they should be. As Professor Marcus Longley has said:
‘Outcomes [in Wales] seem to be poorer than elsewhere.’
The British Medical Association and others have regularly highlighted the difficulties in recruitment in Wales, which appear to be more acute here than in some other parts of the UK. The Royal College of Nursing has warned that staff do not always have the time for training and development. These issues, alongside the decisions made by managers in the face of unprecedented financial cuts to NHS budgets, have made it increasingly difficult to work in the NHS environment. Clinical staff need to be given the time and the tools to provide the high-quality care that they aim to deliver. While the Welsh Government may gloat that Wales has not seen a scandal like that of Mid Staffordshire, that does not mean that there is not one out there, lurking beneath the surface. In the words of Ann Clwyd, high mortality rates are
‘a smoke signal for something that’s wrong’.
That was certainly the case in Mid Staffs, where the mortality data helped to expose the scandal and triggered the Francis review and subsequent wider Keogh review. When five health boards and 10 hospitals in Wales have higher death rates than should be expected, this should be a cause of great concern. We know that mortality figures appear to show that death rates in hospitals in north Wales, for example, have risen over the past 12 months. However, as yet, we have no clear explanation as to why these differences exist, but the quality of care could be an issue. Peter Watkin Jones, a lead lawyer in the Mid Staffs inquiry, has said that a culture change is needed in the NHS in Wales and that there is no room for complacency. Statements like this from such a senior figure must be extremely worrying to patients across the country.
However, there is more than just mortality data that prompts us to call for an independent review into Welsh hospitals. Before I go on to some of the other issues that have led us to conclude that we need an independent review, I want to confirm that we will be supporting all of the amendments that have been tabled to the motion today. There is simply no point in collecting data if they are only to sit in a filing cabinet, when they could be utilised to improve services. Data should be accessible, digestible and comparable, and they should lead to action where they identify or indicate a problem.
In recent months, there has been a catalogue of failures in NHS Wales that have contributed to avoidable deaths. In north Wales, the recent C. difficile outbreak shocked many people, as did the revelation that the Welsh Government simply accepts the data that are provided to it by health boards, without those data being quality assured. We know that hospital-acquired infections are linked to avoidable deaths. Yet the sad truth is that we now know that these have been far more prevalent than had previously been suggested in north Wales, and we cannot be confident that the published data have been of sufficient quality elsewhere. In his report on the north Wales outbreak, Professor Duerden concluded that more must be done to improve infection prevention and control. The tragedy is that we still do not really know how many people have died prematurely during the C. difficile outbreak. However, what we do know is that C. difficile was mentioned as a contributory cause of death, or on death certificates, in 211 cases in north Wales between 2008 and 2012.
However, sadly, it is not only infections that are contributing to avoidable deaths here in Wales. Just weeks after severe criticism of cardiac surgery delays in Cardiff—
Would Darren Millar not agree that infection rates generally, throughout Wales, are falling?
That certainly appears to be the case on some of the latest data that have been released for RAMI. However, they are still higher than elsewhere and, of course, they are going up, unfortunately, in some parts of Wales.
Just weeks after the severe criticism of cardiac surgery delays in Cardiff, a report confirmed that patients have died while waiting for cardiac surgery. Speaking of delays at Cardiff, the Royal College of Surgeons said that the current situation represents a severe risk to patients, and that urgent action is required. It found that more than 2,000 operations were either not scheduled, or were cancelled, between January and March of this year, and that 152 patients had died in the past five years while waiting for cardiac surgery in either Cardiff or Swansea. Postponed and cancelled operations, along with low staff morale, are deep-rooted problems faced by large parts of the NHS, and not just in hospitals in Cardiff and Swansea. There can be no coincidence that these cancelled operations, and insufficient attention to infection control, are going hand in hand with desperate attempts by health boards to break even. I know that that is something that the Minister is trying to address through his finance Bill, but it does not take away from the gravity of the problem that is currently out there.
As well as the shocking large-scale problems in care, we have seen some deplorable individual cases. We have been speaking this week in the Chamber of the mistreatment and neglect of Lillian Williams in Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board, which was wholly unacceptable. It is very welcome that the Minister has announced an investigation as a result of that particular case. However, we must remember that, initially, the Welsh Government was saying that no investigation was required. It was only pressure that was brought to bear by this party, the media, and others, that eventually turned that situation around. That investigation falls far short of a full, independent review into care standards across the country.
We know that Lillian Williams’s situation is not necessarily unique. Ann Clwyd, again, in July of this year, cited a number of cases in the House of Commons of people who had suffered brain damage as a result of a lack of quality care. A lady testified that her father said that the conditions in the hospital in which he was treated were worse than they were in the second world war. Another person said:
‘I left my wife with the assurance from nursing staff that she would be given a bath. I found her the next day, some 15 hours later, in her own excreta and vomit. Her face had been wiped clean, nothing else. I was told that the hoist was not working, and that the bath was not plumbed in, and, in any event, nursing staff did not have the time to bathe her.’
This gentleman then went on to find the equipment in full working order. You just could not make it up. That is why we are calling for an inquiry. We are not calling for an inquiry simply to draw attention to worrying failures in care. We want to see solutions. We want to see triggers being put in place, in terms of mortality rates, that trigger independent reviews. We are not alone in our calls. The north Wales community health council has supported our calls and written to the Minister saying it strongly recommends that he commissions an independent review. We have already cited Ann Clwyd, who has also said:
‘You cannot bury your head in the sand and pretend that everything is well because it isn’t.’
The Royal College of Surgeons has admitted and said that there is merit in reviewing hospitals in Wales. I believe that an independent review would help us to get to the cause of these problems and failures in care, and determine what action we can take in order to put it right.
Carwyn Jones has claimed that a Keogh-style inquiry would cost about £1 million to undertake and that that is a price that is not worth paying. This is the same First Minister who found £52 million in unplanned expenditure to nationalise an airport in south Wales and £3.2 million to refurbish Welsh Government offices in Cardiff bay. How he can put a price of £1 million and say that it is too expensive for the Welsh public sector to fund at a time when people have died as a result of poor care is beyond belief. We have seen these reviews. Communities the length and breadth of Wales deserve to have confidence that their relatives are getting the best quality of care possible. We believe that it is time for an independent review to ensure that that is the case. I urge Members to support this.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the four amendments to the motion and I call on Elin Jones to move amendment 1 tabled in her name.
Add as a new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to publish mortality rates for each hospital site on the ‘My Local Health Service’ website.
I move amendment 1.
I welcome today’s motion. In principle, we as a party are supportive of the idea of commissioning a review of care in hospitals where mortality rates are higher than the average. I move the amendments in the name of Plaid Cymru. It is now important that we should move quickly to publish mortality rates for each hospital individually. I say that they should be published on the Government’s new website, ‘My Local Health Service’. Statistics at a health-board level are not detailed enough to identify potential problems in care. Indeed, perhaps we should look at publishing statistics on an individual ward basis within hospitals if those statistics allow that level of detail and if the data are statistically correct.
Information, data and transparency are some of the important lessons to be learned from the Mid Staffordshire disaster. I think that the mylocalhealthservice website is a means of creating a platform for enhancing transparency in terms of the performance of the health service and understanding and awareness among patients and people more generally of the performance of the health service and, very specifically, the hospitals that they use. I am pleased that the Minister has taken on board the concept of the website and has implemented that, following a debate that we initially had in this Chamber some months ago.
The need to review care is important, but it is also important that we should be clear as to when and why specific reviews should be conducted. I hope that the Minister, in his contribution this afternoon, will outline the criteria for commissioning independent reviews following the announcement, which I welcome, of course, last week on the commissioning of a report on hospital care in Abertawe Bro Morgannwg. However, of course, a number of very critical ombudsman reports have been published on hospital care in many parts of Wales—I can think of some that have affected my constituents in Ceredigion—but no Minister has previously commissioned an independent review of care in those cases. So, we need clarity from the Minister on the criteria that trigger such an independent review.
The same is also true of the reviews conducted by other bodies of care and decisions taken within our health boards. The Auditor General for Wales confirmed in the Health and Social Care Committee a few weeks ago that it was on the basis of risk that he and the health inspectorate made any decision to hold a joint review, such as the review into the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health board. However, we were not given an explanation at that point by the auditor general of the risk criteria used. I am of the opinion that the auditor general needs to review the recent decision of the Hywel Dda Local Health Board to postpone all orthopaedic operations for five months of the year. Certainly, there is an enhanced risk for some of the patients affected by this decision, particularly those who have contacted me and who also suffer other conditions as well as the need for a new hip or knee. However, in addition to the risk to patients, the recent decision by Hywel Dda Local Health Board raises some serious questions on best use of public money and resources. Without doubt, there will be clinicians who will not have surgery lists over the next few months, and theatres will be underused during this period. It is clear to us all that Hywel Dda health board has to save money, and that that is the real incentive behind its decision, but there is a major question as to whether this decision is the right one to have taken in these circumstances.
I want to conclude my contribution by noting that we are concentrating on poor care for patients and individuals in this debate today, but it is very important that we should not lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of people in Wales are given excellent, wonderful care by our NHS. So, I conclude as Darren Millar began his comments, by praising the work done in our NHS every day of the year.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to provide an update on action taken by the Welsh Government to support Local Health Boards to address the backlogs in clinical coding.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to provide an update on action taken to establish a mechanism to investigate hospitals or Local Health boards who consistently exceed a specific RAMI threshold over a period of time.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to work with other UK administrations to ensure the availability of comparable mortality data.
I move amendments 2, 3 and 4.
I feel so very strongly that the Welsh Government cannot afford to be complacent on these issues or to pretend that we could never have a problem here in the Welsh NHS. The First Minister’s answers to questions in this Chamber are somewhat predictable, but I think that it would be more helpful if we could all acknowledge that it could happen here and then identify and take the steps needed to drive up improvement and quality and to eliminate risk wherever possible.
The issue of mortality data figures very heavily in the motion and in the amendments. However, we need to explore the importance of mortality data. They can only exist if cases are coded. We know from previous debates in this Chamber that consistency of clinical coding and backlogs in clinical coding have been a big problem; hence our amendment 2. I hope this afternoon that the Minister will be able to give an update on the work that has happened since we last debated this in July and on what is being done to address inconsistencies and backlogs in clinical coding.
We must then ask ourselves what is the nature of mortality data and what can we usefully do with them. At present in Wales, we use RAMI. I want to make it plain that mortality data should not be the unequivocal markers of hospital quality; no single indicator ever could be. However, what mortality data can be are the smoke alarm. If your smoke alarm goes off, it does not mean that your kitchen is on fire, but it does mean that you should take a look to see if anything is wrong. Hence our amendment 3. We discussed back in July that 11 out of the 17 district general hospitals in Wales had RAMI data that were higher than average. In that debate, the Government accepted and passed the Liberal Democrat amendment to support LHBs in identifying why that was the case and what they were going to do about it. I would like to know from the Minister this afternoon what has happened since he supported those amendments in that debate back in July.
I move on to the issue of the nature of the data that are collected. As I said, at present, we use RAMI. England has moved to a system of summary hospital level mortality indicators that focus not just on patients who have died within the hospital, but also include deaths out of hospital within 30 days of discharge. I think that that is a more comprehensive look at how quality of care is being delivered. What is really important to give Welsh patients confidence is to work with other administrations to work on a common set of indicators so that we can benchmark ourselves against providers in England and Scotland, so that we have a common understanding of what good data include, do not include, and whether we are performing in a comparable way. However, as I said, we need to look at what kinds of data we are collecting. It is acknowledged that national clinical audit data provide a more robust basis for informing healthcare professionals, patients and, dare I say, politicians, about the quality of care delivered by an organisation. We need to look at developing clinical indicators that are condition or procedure-specific if we are to have a true understanding of what is going on in our hospitals. However we decide to do it, the methodology needs to be in the public domain, and there needs to be a clear understanding of how those data can be used by patients and professionals in making informed choices about future healthcare delivery.
We cannot close our eyes to these problems. We need a robust system within Wales if we are to attract high-quality medical professionals to work in our service. We need to begin to repair the undoubted damage across the NHS—not just in Wales, but in other places—that recent scandals have created. The Welsh public wants to have confidence in skilled professionals working in our hospitals. Those professionals want to be able to demonstrate that they are delivering a good service, and it is the job of the Welsh Government to provide the framework for that to happen.
Barely a day goes by without some new shocking health statistic or sad story making the headlines, such as over 13,000 patients waiting more than nine months to start any treatment, a 19% fall in the number of beds, ambulance response targets routinely missed, and, ominously, the vast majority of local health boards—11 out of 17 district general hospitals—reporting high mortality rates on RAMI, some as high as 115. Ann Clwyd MP in her report said that high mortality rates are a smoke signal that something that is wrong. These figures alone are or should be a tipping point in this debate.
I would, at this stage, like to endorse the recognition of our superb medical and nursing staff across Wales, and, as Elin Jones AM said, the vast majority of good care that is available. However, an inquiry would support this dedicated team of staff that we have across Wales. Minister, with 30 deaths from Clostridium difficile in four months in just one hospital, 61 cases of C. difficile per 100,000 patients in Wales compared with 27 in England, with 152 patients in south Wales dying while waiting for cardiac surgery, and a 72% rise in cancelled operations, I ask you, in all honesty: if you do not agree with our call for an inquiry, would you tell me and this Chamber what would be the catalyst that would persuade you to hold an inquiry? Can you please state today how low the bar needs to be before you acknowledge that something is wrong?
The Welsh Conservatives are in no way laying blame on our front-line staff. We must all pay tribute to our nurses, healthcare assistants, consultants and staff for the wonderful work that they do. However, there is a catalogue of failure across our health boards in Wales, and, where there is blame and where there is failure, it must be addressed. The Keogh inquiry identified that high mortality rates were not usually attributed to a rogue surgeon or a single speciality, but rather usually stemmed from a combination of failings likely to be experienced in all hospitals.
The Wales Audit Office report into Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board’s management structure resonated with me in highlighting a fundamental disconnect between the ward and the board. One of the significant findings of the report involved detecting a number of quality issues of which the board was simply unaware. The Keogh inquiry also found that financial pressures, where hospitals and trusts needed to make large savings, were an area in need of dramatic improvement. This parallels the situation in Wales, where the Auditor General for Wales identified that many boards were relying on unsustainable one-off savings to meet targets. Local health boards operate in Wales with one nurse for every seven patients on average during day shifts, which echoes the Keogh inquiry’s identification of the positive correlation between in-patient to staff ratios and patient mortality. Further to this, the Royal College of Nursing highlighted the urgent need for recruitment challenges in the Welsh NHS to be addressed, mirroring once again Keogh’s findings of high rates of sickness absence and a reliance on agency staff—another direct correlation. The evidence is unambiguous. The failings identified by Professor Sir Bruce Keogh are many of those that we face in Wales. It is not enough to continue addressing these failings on an ad hoc basis. Decisive action must be taken now to root out aspects in need of desperate attention.
I find it rather troubling that the First Minister can cite costs as reasons not to act, yet can sanction burning through £1.6 million for a martial arts centre that never opened, £1.2 million on the failed Tŷ Siamas, £36 million on the redundant Genesis 2, or an eye-watering £32 million on an airport. Minister—and First Minister, wherever you are—you cannot seriously put a price on people’s health and, ultimately, their lives. The Welsh Conservatives’ call for a Keogh-style inquiry is not a matter of bluster, not a matter of partisanship and not a matter of point scoring. It is a recognition that there is something wrong with our Welsh NHS. Please, rise above party politics and listen, all Members, irrespective of party affiliation, to our call, and to the call of the highly-respected Ann Clwyd MP, who recently has bared her own soul to point out the failings and has echoed our calls. You owe it to the people of Wales, you owe it to this Chamber and, most of all, you owe it to those working day in, day out, in your failed health service.
It is our job as Assembly Members to be critical friends of the NHS, and that means that we have to have a balanced relationship with our colleagues in the health service. The NHS is a very complex organisation and many things can, and do, go wrong, but, most of time, things are going absolutely right. We do not hear often enough about that. I disagree with the Conservative motion’s proposed diverting of resources to unnecessary independent reviews. We are a small nation in Wales, so we already have the mechanisms in place to do what the Keogh inquiry in England did. I find that the arguments put forward by Darren Millar and Janet Finch-Saunders are out of date. The Longley report was published in July 2012 and a great deal has happened to improve the health service—
Will the Member take an intervention?
No, I will not. You have already had your piece.
We know that there is a lot of resistance from some of our colleagues on the other benches to some of the reorganisation of the health service that Professor Longley’s report indicated. Nevertheless, there is progress in that regard to improve the quality of the services across Wales. Shroud waving is no substitute for careful and up-to-date analysis of what is going on and the use of resources that is required. As Kirsty Williams has said, the RAMI data cannot be looked in isolation. We can all agree that a hospital exceeding 100 RAMI requires our attention, but that should be read in the context of many other things and in terms of whether or not things are improving. Other people have mentioned Mid Staffs, but we have very clear leadership here, in our Minister for health, to ensure that we do not have the same things going wrong here in Wales. We have to acknowledge the progress that has been made. For the fourth year running, there has been a fall in the number of deaths in Wales associated with MRSA and C. difficile.
Will you take an intervention?
There was a 10% reduction last year and, since 2008-09, there has been a reduction of 50%. Is that going in the right direction? Absolutely. We know that 71% of the 2012 cases were in those over 65, who make up 85% of in-patients. Of course, the risk of infection increases the longer a patient is in hospital. I agree with Elin Jones that the Auditor General for Wales might usefully look at orthopaedics at Hywel Dda Local Health Board, and action that might need to be taken as a result of its response to unscheduled admissions. I am not familiar with the detail there, but I suggest that the Conservatives study carefully what has been achieved at Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board. Darren Millar is familiar with this, as he chaired the Public Accounts Committee meeting yesterday in which the chief executive outlined the progress that has been made, but he has chosen not to mention it because it undermines the Conservatives’ case.
Following a very critical Royal College of Surgeons visit in April 2013, Cardiff and Vale LHB has reviewed the effectiveness of what it is doing with its in-patient beds and has taken very effective action to improve the way it is using its resources. So, despite having to cancel 2,600 non-emergency operations last winter, Cardiff and Vale now has 100 more patients being admitted every day than this time last year, and that is into fewer beds. How did it do that? In-patient stays are two days less, on average, than they were before. How did it do that? It does not have people waiting to leave hospital after their clinical care in secondary settings is complete. How? By having a good relationship with its two local authorities, it is tackling the roadblock that is described so accurately in the Royal College of Emergency Medicine report that was published last week. That includes the co-location of staff.
Fewer beds means more money invested in the ones that it retains, which means better care, responding to the Francis report. That requires leadership, and that leadership by the board to get everybody working together is something that was obviously absent in Betsi Cadwaladr LHB, but is entirely present with the Minister for Health and Social Services, who is on top of what is going on.
We have just had a dramatic demonstration of the ostrich-like abilities of Welsh Labour to stick their heads in the sand. In July of this year, a report by the Royal College of Surgeons highlighted major concerns with cardiac surgical provision and waiting times and said that patients were dying regularly while waiting for heart operations.
A Wales Audit Office report on Betsi Cadwaladr LHB found that there were serious concerns about the governance arrangements at Betsi Cadwaladr. In fact, C.difficile problems there have been in the news very recently, and the failures that are there. Healthcare in Wales is an issue that has the capacity to affect every one of us. Through refusing to undertake a Keogh-style inquiry into the Welsh NHS, what the First Minister and the Minister for Health and Social Services are doing is ignoring those problems and demonstrating their fantastic ostrich-like qualities of ‘Let us sweep them under the carpet; let us stick our heads in the sand, and we will just tell everyone that everything is okay’.
Over 2,000 responses were received to Ann Clwyd’s request for information, and 25% of those letters related to care in Wales. Wake up, Minister. Ann Clwyd is a member of Welsh Labour. She supports our call for this independent review and she recognises the dire need for it. Despite the focus of her report on England, the strength of feelings among Welsh people who wrote to her led to her reading and putting onto Hansard some of the truly shocking findings and patient experiences in Wales.
One family of an 89-year-old patient wrote to her saying that she was not eating, was not given enough fluids and was severely dehydrated, and, while she was in bed, the staff neglected to move her regularly, which resulted in circulatory problems and ultimately necrosis of both feet. She also developed many infections, and the wound on one heel was so advanced that the bone was visible.
There was a man whose son suffered further brain damage due to a lack of care. These are Welsh cases, Minister:
‘He was left lying in his own urine, faeces, etc. He was left without fluids for over 12 hours then he had a huge seizure. The doctor would turn up at 5 o’clock stating ‘What’s the plan for today?’ when the day was clearly over…I witnessed nurses allowing drugs and feed to go to the floor…the floor was in such a state my feet were sticking to it. You can’t blame the cleaners for MRSA!’
Minister, may I suggest that you have a look at Hansard for 17 July 2013 and have a look at what real patients are writing about their experiences in the NHS here?
There are a number of recommendations that Ann Clwyd has made, but, Minister, I would urge you not to stick your head in the sand and to have some political courage to face up to some of the problems that are clearly present and being indicated through the above-average number of deaths in our hospitals. In relation to Ann Clwyd’s inquiry and what she has come forward with, she has made the point that complaints often go unheard as patients or relatives are too traumatised and stressed from the poor experience that they have received at a difficult time to be able to face formally lodging a complaint and all the stresses that accompany that as well. It found the public unwilling to complain despite bad standards and that 48% of the public felt that their complaints would not be dealt with anyway.
I would like to give you a quote from Sir Bruce Keogh:
‘Transparency has been key to this process…. For these hospitals the public have now become not just informed participants in the process, but active assessors and regulators of the NHS. This represents a turning point for our health service from which there is no return.’
That is a turning point that has been reached in England, Minister, and I would like to know why you do not want that turning point to be reached in Wales by having a similar inquiry?
I wanted to take part in this debate to talk specifically about the independent review that has been announced with regard to Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board. As you will know, Lilian Williams was a resident of Porthcawl, and her family has been calling for an inquiry for a long time. I know that it is an emotive issue, but having since spoken to the family, I remain concerned by the relationships that lie at the heart of this issue. The concern of family members over the inquiry into Abertawe Bro Morgannwg is that it must cover the period when their mother was receiving treatment, when the current director general of health and social services in Wales was chief executive of this health board. At the moment, we do not know, still, the detail of the terms of reference of that inquiry. It is essential, in many people’s view, that the complaints about Lilian Williams’s treatment made by the family are included.
Mr Sissling’s department told the family that a POVA—protection of vulnerable adults—investigation was under way in 2010. It was only when family members spoke to police and social services that they learnt that this was not the case. This, obviously, has been admitted by ABMU, and it has apologised for misleading the family. There was a POVA investigation, but it covered just May 2012 and not the two years covering Mrs Williams’s treatment, when Mr Sissling was in post. The family says—and I sincerely hope that its claims will form a major part of the inquiry—that medical records were doctored, drugs not administered correctly and that Mrs Williams was left in soiled sheets. The family regards the way in which the board oversaw the complaint as tantamount to covering up what was happening and that these concerns should be part of any review that is undertaken by the Welsh Government now. I am sure that the Welsh Government will understand why the review must have the widest possible retrospective remit so as to ensure proper accountability for what has happened and transparency within the system, because the only comparison that the family can think of is to compare it to what has recently happened in Mid Staffs. Therefore, I believe, as a local representative, that there should be no stone left unturned and no barrier put in place when it comes to providing answers and protecting our patients.
Mr Sissling’s current close proximity to the heart of decision making within the Welsh Government adds weight to the need for openness. A less than satisfactory inquiry will not bring an end to this matter and could undermine the credibility of the Welsh Government. We do not want to say, ‘We could have done this; we should have done something’, in years gone by when we have the opportunity now to look at this effectively and change the situation for the future.
The Wales Audit Office report on health finances confirms that although there have been real-term increases to health budgets in the other UK nations, only the devolved NHS in Wales has faced a real-terms reduction since 2010, which it described as unprecedented in UK history.
The husband of Ann Clwyd, Member of Parliament, died at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff after being kept on a trolley in the emergency department for 27 hours. She said that her husband was treated with coldness, indifference and even contempt by NHS staff who ‘didn’t care’. It was only last weekend that a widow, herself a retired nurse, made a similar comment to me about her husband’s experience earlier this year in Wrexham Maelor Hospital. Only this Monday I received an e-mail from a Wrexham constituent who states that she had to wait nine hours in an accident and emergency department before being admitted to the acute coronary unit. She described the lack of care as ‘significant’.
Yes, the Prime Minister asked Ann Clwyd to review how NHS hospitals handle complaints in England, but as we heard Ann Clwyd confirm to the House of Commons in July, after reading from a number of testimonies detailing lack of care and compassion experienced by patients and their families, all of the testimonies that I have read out came from Wales.
Eleven NHS trusts in England were put into special measures by the UK Secretary of State for Health after an independent investigation by Professor Keogh found a catalogue of failures of hospitals with high death rates across England. Professor Keogh had been appointed by the UK coalition Government after the previous UK Labour Government had rejected requests for a public inquiry. With only 5% of the population that England has, Wales has nine hospitals with equivalent high death rates, but this First Minister and Welsh Government have rejected requests for an independent investigation here. Three of those nine hospitals are in north Wales under the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board, and two in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board area. A review of another of Abertawe Bro Morgannwg health board’s hospitals revealed intolerable working conditions and a significant number of patients dying while waiting for cardiac surgery. An inquiry into Abertawe Bro Morgannwg has now been announced by the Welsh Government after the serious neglect of an elderly patient at two of its hospitals.
A damning in-patient survey at Betsi Cadwaladr, produced by the Picker Institute Europe, shows that the health board has scored significantly worse, on average, in areas including patients not receiving any information explaining how to complain, not receiving copies of letters sent between hospital doctors, and their GPs not being asked to give their views on the quality of care. Betsi Cadwaladr states that it has fully accepted the conclusions of the damning review of its governance arrangements by the Wales Audit Office and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, and apologised for the failings that have occurred. An external support team was established by the Minister for health to lead the board’s response to the review, led by the chief executive of, yes, Abertawe Bro Morgannwg health board, in conjunction with the acting chief executive of Betsi Cadwaladr. The same Abertawe Bro Morgannwg health board, with high death rates, is now under investigation over neglect, and it is the same Betsi Cadwaladr board acting chief executive, who was in that role during periods to which the damning Wales Audit Office governance review applies.
The Countess of Chester Hospital was built 30 years ago with the remit to service parts of Flintshire. I am told that it is now seeing referrals for elective treatment from north Wales reduced or cancelled, with Betsi Cadwaladr health board pulling activity back, but not having the capacity. It described a real concern that clinical trust was being broken, that the focus should be the patient, and that it wants to contribute to a cross-border model built on collaboration, providing quicker, better and more economic care.
As we have heard, the north Wales community health council has strongly recommended that the Minister commissions an independent review, perhaps led by Professor Keogh. However, when I wrote to the Minister for health about the community health council’s concerns, he simply said that it was the responsibility of the health board. Our health boards fire the bullets loaded for them by this Welsh Government and then take the blame for the consequences. There must be an independent review into Welsh hospitals with high death rates. After all, if it happened to Ann Clwyd’s husband, it can happen to our loved ones, too.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Health and Social Services, Mark Drakeford.
The Government will oppose the motion put forward for debate today. We do so not because of the first proposition, which sets out a position with which it would be difficult to disagree, but because the second part of the motion cannot be supported. A number of Members in this debate have roamed very far and wide in attempting to corral every complaint they have ever heard about the Welsh NHS, but I will at least pay this tribute to the motion, in that I will deal with its subject, rather than the accretions that have been added to it during the afternoon. In doing so, I want to explain why it is the case that an independent review on the terms set out in the motion is not the right response at this time to RAMI scores in Wales.
In my first week as Minister for health, I faced a decision on whether or not to go ahead with the publication of the first set of RAMI scores in Wales. I was very keen to support their publication, both then and on a regular, quarterly basis ever since, because I believe firmly that greater information, provided that it is accompanied by better explanation, is a powerful tool in the ongoing business of making our services as effective as possible. A great deal of effort was expended in March, largely successfully, on explaining the sort of conclusions that can and cannot be drawn from data of this sort. As the information has been placed in and debated in the public domain, however, so we have become more, not less, aware of its current limitations.
We have heard a lot about Sir Bruce Keogh this afternoon. Let us not forget that he described the sorts of conclusions about death rates, which we have sadly heard echoed in the Chamber this afternoon, as simply ‘clinically meaningless and academically reckless’. He was speaking in the context of England, where, in over and above the 150 English trusts involved in RAMI data, there are two different mortality measures in use, both of which, Sir Bruce concluded, have real weaknesses. In England, they use summary hospital-level mortality indicators and hospital-standardised mortality rates. Bruce Keogh said that if he had chosen 14 hospitals with scores under the first measurement, and 14 hospitals with scores derived from the second measurement, there would not be a single hospital that appeared on both lists. Here in Wales, as far as RAMI data are concerned, half the hospitals in the last quarterly figures have a rate of above 100, and half have a rate of below 100. The problem is that it is a different half from three months previously, and in the next three months, figures will have moved again. As they currently stand, RAMI data simply will not stand up to the sort of conclusions that too many people in the Chamber have tried to draw from them this afternoon. They operate through a series of proprietary algorithms, which are complex and inaccessible to the general reader, and with all such measures, relatively small changes in methodology can produce pronounced swings in figures at individual hospital level. If day case surgery patients are included, for example, RAMI figures for a hospital go down, because day case patients to not die in hospital. If palliative care patients are included, because people are there as part of their end-of-life care, figures go up.
Figures are also very sensitive, we know, to issues of coding, both in its timeliness and in its accuracy. In the Cardiff case, for example, the published RAMI scores between March and September for the University Hospital of Wales have reduced from 128 to 109, and that is a significant reflection of improvements in coding completeness. Now, what it all means, as Kirsty Williams said, is that the use of RAMI data continues to be best compared to a fire alarm. If an alarm goes off, it should be taken seriously and followed up carefully, but not every fire alarm turns out to be evidence of a fire.
Earlier this week, the ‘British Medical Journal’ published a set of papers that explored the complexity of mortality indicators and measures. It cast doubt on using them at all in isolation as a performance indicator. Let me be clear: what I want is a way of reporting hospital mortality figures that is reliable, capable of being interpreted accurately and uniformly, and fit for drawing comparisons across the Welsh NHS and, if possible, more widely. The Government will support the final amendment on the order paper today on that basis.
What are we doing, then, to arrive at the position that we need to be in? Kirsty Williams asked what has happened since we last discussed these matters. Since then, we have established the mortality and transparency taskforce led by the deputy chief medical officer, which brings together statistical colleagues, medical directors, and lay members of the public through CHCs to develop a set of simple, non-adjusted, crude mortality measures, both for hospital spells and which will capture deaths for up to 30 days post discharge. They will do what both Keogh and the Francis reviews have urged us to do, which is not to rely on a single mortality metric, but to bring together a set of measures that together tell the true picture. I want to strengthen the task group. It has met five times already, and I want it to be able to produce a statement on progress within the next couple of months. I am very willing to offer access to the developing work of that task group to opposition health spokespeople so that we can have as sensible a debate as possible about reaching the place we would all like to be at.
Does all this mean that the circumstances can never be envisaged when an inquiry should be established? It does not. Members will be aware of my intention to involve an independent reviewer, Professor June Andrews from Stirling University, in reporting on nursing standards in parts of Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board. I took that decision, I assure you, not because of any political pressure or any media pressure, but because, having met members of a family concerned with those issues, I was persuaded that independence was necessary to give them assurances about standards of care in that hospital.
The son of Vivian Williams is in the Chamber today and would be grateful if you could give some indication today on the terms of reference of that review, to reassure him that the time period during which his mother was in hospital will be covered thoroughly by this investigation.
I will give you this assurance: there will be nothing in the terms of reference that would prevent Professor Andrews from looking at care standards in those hospitals at the time that Mrs Williams was a patient.
Does this mean as well that I would never contemplate a review of the sort called for in today’s motion? No, it does not. If in the future the data point reliably to a cause for concern in any particular Welsh hospital, then an independent review would be one of the options that any Minister would want to consider.
I will now turn to the amendments. The Government will be supporting all of the amendments. In relation to Elin Jones’s amendment, I can say that we are going to publish the data on an individual hospital level, and I hope that that will be done next week. We are about to do that, and that is how it will be done, for everything that we have—on an individual hospital level, not just at health board level—in future.
As far as the Liberal Democrat amendments are concerned, I have already noted the improvement in compliance with coding standards at Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board. I expect similar efforts to be made at all LHBs and for that to be reported publicly at their board meetings. The second Liberal Democrat amendment is very close to the position I have tried to set out this afternoon, and I am very surprised to find the mover of the motion prepared to accept it, because it seems to me to take a rather different approach to the one that his own motion set out.
I am happy to support the Liberal Democrat amendment because what it suggests is that, when we have a reliable threshold, and if that threshold were to be consistently exceeded over a period of time, then quite certainly a mechanism would be needed to ensure that investigation followed. That is not the position we are in today, and that is why the motion itself must be rejected.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Andrew R.T. Davies to reply to the debate.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I welcome the opportunity to wind up the Conservative motion this afternoon and I thank everyone who has contributed.
I want to begin by echoing the comments that have come from several speakers, but particularly from Darren Millar, in that we all appreciate the wonderful work that does go on within the Welsh NHS. We all accept that the majority of people go into the NHS, have a very positive experience and are put on the road to recovery very quickly. However, many examples have been brought forward today, particularly by the people behind me—Mark, Antoinette and Janet—to highlight issues, in their own areas of Betsi Cadwaladr, where patients and their families have had huge problems in the level of treatment and care they experienced in particular episodes when they have gone in for NHS treatment. Bethan Jenkins, from South Wales West, highlighted a particular constituent, and her son, who is here today, and the experiences that they have gone through. I have been in dialogue with the son and can fully sympathise with the roadblock that many people feel when they get into the bureaucracy of the NHS, if something tragically has gone wrong. All that they are seeking to do is to put things right so that other people do not have to go through the horrendous experience that, sadly, their loved one had to go through in that particular episode of NHS treatment.
Turning to the comments made by the spokespeople from the two other opposition parties, Elin Jones touched on the scope of how inquiries are created and what activates those inquiries. In particular, she touched on how she believed that the auditor general should look into the Hywel Dda proposals for deferring elective surgery. I think that she will find that that resonates around the whole Chamber. We have had the debate and discussion across this Chamber many times since that announcement was made.
Kirsty Williams highlighted quite clearly that no one single figure is the alarm that goes off, but it is the warning sign that you need to take note of that there could well be some far bigger problems under the radar. If you address that early enough, then you can stop a lot of the tragedies that Members have talked about today.
I was a little surprised by the contribution from the Member for Cardiff Central, Jenny Rathbone. It was only in March of this year that she said that anyone who suggested that what happened in Mid Staffordshire was an isolated example that could not possibly happen here was misguided. In six months, she seems to have had an about-face on that issue. I believe that the evidence that was put here today, clearly shows that there is cause for an inquiry into the NHS—to celebrate and to look at what is good practice, but also to root out what is wrong in certain LHBs. There should be a uniform approach to that, rather than a postcode approach of picking off the LHBs one by one or just having that internal inquiry. Many Members talked at length of inquiries that have gone on, from the Royal College of Surgeons or from the audit office and, in particular, about the confidence that people can have in the data that are put forward—such as in relation to C. difficile in north Wales, which was clearly underreported. If you are basing your judgment on data that cannot stand up to scrutiny, how on earth can you be addressing the real concerns that are so evident, when so many people, regrettably, have these poor episodes of care within the Welsh NHS.
The Minister obviously took the Government line—that it is not going to have an inquiry. I hear what the Minister says about isolated pieces of action that the Government has undertaken, but it is just not good enough to work in isolation. Surely, what is required is a whole-NHS approach in Wales, to look at the NHS in its entirety. I do regret that you could not have been more accommodating, although I do take on the points that you have raised today. I can assure you, Minister, that you will be scrutinised from this side on the actions that you have put in motion, such as the task and finish group. I also look forward to the recommendations or outcomes of the work that is being undertaken in Abertawe Bro Morgannwg.
I will just finish on one quote from you, Minister, that talks of the inquiry that we propose today. You say
‘of the sort that he advocates’—
I think you mean me, when I was questioning you before—
‘this would be a massive distraction from the clinicians and managers right across Wales’.
Actually, the huge distraction and tragedy here is that, regrettably, a significant amount of families are losing loved ones when they are put in the care of our NHS. That cannot be allowed to continue, and I urge you to consider fully the comments that have been made here today and do what is right for the NHS in Wales. That is why I stand here proudly supporting the motion today, in the hope that other Members will join the Welsh Conservatives in allowing this motion to pass.
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. Therefore, I defer all voting until voting time.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1, 3, 8, 9 and 10 in the name of William Graham, and amendments 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Motion NDM5344 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises progress made to date in implementing the National Transport Plan.
2. Acknowledges the role of transport in connecting Wales internally and externally.
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to:
a) seek ongoing Barnett consequentials or any other compensatory financial settlement in relation to the UK Government’s HS2 project;
b) review the functioning of the Regional Transport Consortia and transport governance generally;
c) reaffirm its commitment to integrated public transport; and
d) make representations to the UK Government, to ensure that the northern and southern Welsh transport corridors are included in the European Commission’s TEN-T new core network.
I move the motion.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to move this motion, tabled in the name of Elin Jones. Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas was to open this debate but, as he is unwell, I am pleased to step into the breach to discuss the national transport plan.
The national transport plan was introduced during the previous term of government, which was the One Wales Government, with the clear aim of improving Welsh connectivity and to tackle further climate change, to adapt to changes already happening and to have a single, integrated transport system that could work more effectively. The previous leader of Plaid Cymru, Ieuan Wyn Jones, noted, in introducing the national transport plan, his clear desire for Wales to become a sustainable nation. We should stick to our commitment to sustainable development as a central guiding principle. In that period, we saw, for the first time I believe, the Welsh Government spending more on public transport than on road programmes. I think that that was a very important shift and one that demonstrates the commitment of this party and, I very much hope, of other parties in the Assembly, to sustainable development and development that tackles the major challenges that climate change poses.
We can acknowledge today that the current Welsh Government inherited that plan and progressed many of the commitments contained therein. The Government has also made a number of transport interventions outwith the plan, and we have supported some of those. However, in the light of last week’s announcement on taxation powers, and borrowing powers in particular, we are concerned that the general transport policy in Wales could be moving away from the original objective set out in the plan.
One of the main objectives of our motion is to acknowledge the role of transport in connecting Wales internally and with the rest of the UK and continental Europe. We know that the Welsh Government is consulting on building a new M4, although, it would appear that the United Kingdom Government has jumped the gun on that consultation by offering a deal to Wales to borrow money in order to proceed with the plan. We note that there is no borrowing proposal in place for any other transport policy in the south-east, such as the metro, for example. Plaid Cymru has stated that it would be acceptable for new projects to appear outwith the national transport plan, but not on the scale of a new motorway at a cost of £1 billion. The new M4 would clearly be a key connection between east and west, but we need an opportunity to scrutinise the process and to ask whether this level of investment gives value for money. That is the important thing here—value for money, and that is to be assessed in more than pounds, pence and miles of tarmac. We need to take account of the wider considerations of climate change and other public transport plans that are currently being discussed, such as the metro. We must be able to look at the project’s impact on the environment and ask whether other measures were given full consideration and to what extent the expenditure will affect our ability to sustain borrowing in the future. Therefore, this will have an impact on decisions as regards proceeding with or delaying other projects that are very important to the rest of Wales.
We would encourage the Welsh Government today, in proceeding with the national transport plan, to return to the original agenda set out and to commit to more sustainable transport and to commit to more sustainable transport. That does not mean ignoring expenditure on roads—I would be the last person to say that—but it does mean that we ensure that every part of Wales should benefit from investment in transport, and that priority is also given to railways within the current set of powers. Some of the amendments reflect that.
The motion reflects that by asking the Welsh Government to confirm its commitment to integrated public transport. This should include a vision of rail and bus travel, including how any further powers devolved would be used to integrate services and how the next all-Wales rail franchise will be decided upon and implemented.
Plaid Cymru is further calling for a review of the operation of the regional transport consortia and for action on the crucial issues regarding HS2 and the European transport corridors. I hope that some of my colleagues will refer to some of these issues in more detail later in the debate.
Transport is at the heart of promoting the economy of any nation. All of us who travel through Europe will know of the excellent links that there are within nations and also between nations.
Turning to the amendments, we will oppose amendment 1 in the name of William Graham, because we cannot acknowledge that the UK Government is committed to Wales given the scale of investment proposed for HS2. A proper and consistent commitment would include confirming consequential funding for Wales from HS2, and the details of that have not been agreed.
We support amendment 2 in the name of Aled Roberts. We do not usually support amendments that delete parts of our motions, but as Aled Roberts is a gentleman, we are happy to support this amendment. We too have campaigned consistently in Ceredigion on the Cambrian line, and have gathered 6,500 local signatures in favour of that.
We will support amendment 3 in the name of William Graham. We agree with the amendment and believe that there is a need for a long-term solution to cuts in spending on buses. I know that Elin Jones and Dafydd Elis-Thomas have been working hard on issues related to bus services in Ceredigion and beyond. The Government needs to confirm the importance of bus services across Wales; in fairness, the Minister has acted quickly on those issues, and we thank her for that.
We will support amendments 4 and 5 in the name of Aled Roberts. We have no problem in acknowledging that the UK Government has agreed to electrify the Valleys network, which is exceptionally important. We should praise the current Government in London for taking this important step, after decades of inactivity.
We will support amendment 6 in the name of Aled Roberts, who has been very busy. The recent announcement on the metro is encouraging, but it would be good to hear further details on how the system is to be developed. We need to see the metro and other rail developments in the context of an integrated transport plan that includes road programmes.
We will support amendment 7 in the name of Aled Roberts and oppose amendment 8 in the name of William Graham. We do not believe that the advantages of connecting north Wales will be achieved unless we receive consequentials from HS2. There is no agreement on that.
We will support amendment 9 in the name of William Graham, and will oppose amendment 10 in the name of William Graham, because borrowing powers should be given to this Government without any conditions. It is not the role of the London Government to say which proposals should proceed in Wales.
If we are serious about the holy grail of integrated transport and a move towards public transport to reduce carbon emissions, we must have a national transport plan, and a plan that we consistently implement for the benefit of the future of our nation.
Amendment 1—William Graham
Insert as new point 1 and renumber accordingly:
Acknowledges the UK Government’s commitment to on-going transport infrastructure investment in Wales and the United Kingdom.
Amendment 3—William Graham
Insert as new point 2 and renumber accordingly:
Regrets the loss of bus services across Wales and calls on the Welsh Government to reinforce the National Transport Plan commitment to improving bus services.
Amendment 8—William Graham
Delete sub point 3a and replace with:
note the benefits of HS2 to North Wales connectivity and recognises the need for an integrated transport network across the United Kingdom.
Amendment 9—William Graham
Insert as a new sub point 3c and renumber accordingly:
note the Enterprise and Business Committee report on Integrated Public Transport in Wales.
Amendment 10—William Graham
Add new point at the end of the motion:
Welcomes the UK Government’s announcement of the transfer of new borrowing powers to the Welsh Government to fund improvements to the M4.
I move amendments 1, 3, 8, 9 and 10 on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives.
We will also support all the Liberal Democrats’ amendments tabled in the name of Aled Roberts. I also welcome the opportunity to discuss our transport infrastructure in the Chamber and I thank Plaid Cymru for tabling the motion today. I will talk to our amendments and, if time allows, make some comments more broadly on the motion.
Amendment 1 is very clear. I am sure that we all acknowledge, even across political divides, that the UK Government has embarked on major infrastructure investment in Wales and across the UK, easily observed with the upcoming electrification of the Great Western line and Valleys lines across south Wales. I hope that all Members across the Chamber support this amendment, because it sets the context for investment in our infrastructure. For example, a south Wales metro would not be possible without electrification, which will form the backbone of the public transport network in south Wales.
Amendment 3 includes an important point and I hope that it will be included in the substantive motion. The Welsh Conservatives regret very much the loss of bus services across Wales. Some could have been avoided, we think, through early intervention or greater consultation within the industry over alterations to important grants and subsidies. Our amendment calls on the Welsh Government to reinforce the national transport plan commitment to improving bus services. The national transport plan will not amount to very much if key promises such as improving bus services are not kept. It was a very broad commitment and one that I cannot see how this Government can deliver while, at the same time, reversing the bus industry into an ever-tighter financial corner through grant and subsidy cuts. We need some up-front honesty from the Government here, I believe: either acknowledge that you cannot keep the commitment to improve bus services, or reinforce your commitment and take action. Your franchising ideas may come too late if you do not act soon.
Amendment 8, which Plaid Cymru has said it will not support, seeks to point out potential benefits of HS2 to some areas of Wales and emphasises a point that I made to the Minister this morning about working to mitigate any effect of HS2. For example, there are opportunities that we should not overlook. Of course, according to KPMG’s report, ‘HS2 Regional Economic Impacts’, Denbigh and Flint will see an output increase of between £19.26 million and £33.49 million due to HS2.
Do you accept that the House of Commons Treasury Committee raised some very serious questions about the data used by KPMG when it was looking at the value of this to Wales? Therefore, those data, at the moment at least, are not data that we can depend on thoroughly.
Thank you for that, Rhodri Glyn. I am happy to accept that. I cannot talk with any authority on the data that have been used, but I am happy to accept that they may be flawed. I do not know, so I take your point.
There is also great potential to increase connectivity to Wales through the planned Old Oak Common interchange for HS2, which will connect with the Great Western main line and CrossRail, improving connectivity for south Wales, in addition to the HS2 connections with the West Coast main line at Crewe. By calling at the key interchange of Crewe, HS2 will become easily accessible for passengers in north Wales.
In amendment 9, it was felt important to note the work of the Enterprise and Business Committee in this area. As a Member of the committee, our report on integrated public transport in Wales supports this motion very well and, within the 25 recommendations, it covers much of point 3 within today’s motion. I very much hope that this non-political amendment can be accepted, to add weight to both the report and this motion.
Finally, on amendment 10, it would be remiss not to welcome the Conservative-led UK Government’s announcement of the transfer of new borrowing powers to the Welsh Government, which will fund improvements to the M4 and other schemes across Wales. This is a game changer in terms of the national transport plan and moves the document from a wish list to an achievable document. It would be churlish of any party, I believe—and I have heard what Plaid Cymru has said—not to accept this amendment. I hope that it will be accepted, welcomed and acknowledged that, without borrowing powers, funding major infrastructure projects will be nothing more than a pipe dream.
I realise that I have little time left, but I wanted to briefly touch on the motion more broadly. One key point is the European Commission’s TEN-T new core network and the importance of getting our transport corridors onto the network. Much like the battle for electrification in south Wales—and now in north Wales—we must work together to ensure that the Welsh voice is heard loud and clear. Behind this core network will be substantial European funds and it is essential that we are able to access this funding. I hope that our amendments are accepted and that we are able to support this motion. It is a key point to make and I thank Plaid Cymru for doing so. Therefore, I thank Members and I commend our amendments to you.
Delete point 1 and replace with:
Regrets the delay in implementing key pledges from the National Transport Plan including an hourly service on the Cambrian Line, which was due to commence in 2011, and the lack of direct Services between Newport and Ebbw Vale.
Insert as new point 2 and renumber accordingly:
Regrets the delay in introducing a ‘Welsh Oyster Card’ due to be introduced in 2014, which would have allowed seamless transfer between bus and rail services.
Insert as new point 3 and renumber accordingly:
Acknowledges the work of the UK Government in agreeing to electrify the Valleys Network and notes the absence of that scheme from Labour’s 2010 Election Manifesto.
Insert as new point 3 and renumber accordingly:
Welcomes the Welsh Government’s commitment to a Metro Style Transport System across South East Wales and urges the Welsh Government to bring forward a list of priorities with achievable targets for completion.
Insert as new point 3 and renumber accordingly:
Welcomes the work of the Welsh Government and UK Government to prepare a business case for the electrification of the North Wales line and believes this will be of enormous benefit to both passenger and freight services.
I move amendments 2, 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the name of Aled Roberts.
I thank Plaid Cymru for bringing this debate today. Obviously, the national transport plan covers all aspects of transport in Wales. Today, I want to focus primarily on public transport. We are, potentially, at a very exciting point in terms of public transport in Wales—electrification, as we know, and also the south-east Wales metro concept looking at bus, rail and other modes of transport around our most urban areas. However, people in north and mid Wales might well ask what is in it for them from that point of view, especially, after they have seen bus cuts that are having a devastating impact, particularly in Ceredigion and across parts of north Wales.
Therefore, we welcome the preparatory work that is being done on the business case for north Wales electrification, as we say in amendment 7. We thank both the Welsh and UK Governments for the work that is going on behind the scenes there, because it is important that infrastructure investment in Wales is spread across the whole of Wales and not concentrated in any one particular area.
I also welcome the commitment to providing an hourly service on the Cambrian line that was due to start back in 2011, and the question on my mind, really, is how much longer will we have to wait for that development? People in Ceredigion, particularly, but those along the length of the Cambrian line have been waiting for this and are actively engaged with the consultation at the moment. Similarly, in my part of the world, the half-hourly service on the Vale of Glamorgan line, and in south-east Wales, restoring the link between Newport and the Ebbw Vale line. All of these things have been promised but are no closer to reality, so I have concerns about how much of the national transport plan has been delivered to this point.
Part of the problem, of course, is the issue of rolling stock in Wales and the Wales and border rail franchise included no expectation of growth, and therefore, no planning for growth, and therefore, no requirement to invest in growth and no requirement to invest in rolling stock. So, in short, we simply do not have what we need. We do recognise that the Welsh Government has taken steps in the past to address that, but, as the Enterprise and Business Committee has been discovering, this picture is extremely complex.
We face an ageing fleet, which lacks the capacity that we need, and there are no spare diesel units that are suitable available in the UK at present, until electrification projects happen elsewhere. We have the electrification planned for some routes in Wales, but not all of them. So, while we need to plan for such things as the maintenance requirements of the new electrified fleets, we also have to plan for the diesel fleets that will continue to serve many of our routes.
We have new disability laws coming in, which means that we will have to make alterations to the fleets that we have and it will be expensive. It might well be difficult to convert much of the rolling stock that we already have, but sadly, the law comes into force before electrification will be complete on the Valleys lines, so we have the need both for new stock to be compliant and outgoing stock to be converted. All of these issues have to be reconciled and adding to the complexity, we have the letting of the new Wales and borders franchise thrown into the mix all at the same time; all when we ought to be in the process of ordering, or defining the requirements that we have for our rolling stock fleet for the future.
Turning to the amendments, I thank Alun Ffred for his very kind words in support of our amendments today. Aled may be a gentleman, clearly, I am not, but I would like to be a lady and accept most of the amendments that are being brought forward by the Conservatives today with the exception of amendment 8, which I have some concerns about; not because of what you have added, but what you would take away. We would not necessarily agree with that. I have some concerns, as well, about amendment 10 on the basis that you specifically tie the welcoming of those borrowing powers to the M4 relief road. I think that we would be unwise to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation process and exactly how we resolve those issues.
However, there are a couple of other things that I want to talk about in terms of the amendments that we have tabled today. Our amendment 4 talks about the Wales Oyster card. I am sure that we all would have hoped that it would have been in operation by now, that it would encourage public transport use, that it would improve services, that it would save time for customers and that it would help to deliver, in part, the kind of professional, modern transport network for Wales that we all want to see. So, we are disappointed that that has not happened, and I am wondering whether we are approaching a point in time when a card will no longer be the mechanism that we are looking at, but rather something like the new Iff smartphone app might be the preferred mode, if we are waiting much longer for it.
I would also say that we are obviously very supportive of the metro, but we cannot disaggregate the interrelationship between public and private transport, and I am disappointed, Minister, that the M4 consultation is a one-option consultation. The metro is surely a game-changer. If it is, it needs to be taken into account when we are looking at south-east Wales transport.
Plaid Cymru contends that the national transport plan is an important and dynamic document that sets out the principles for transport in Wales. The Party of Wales’s vision is of a connected Wales: a Wales connected not just within the country, but with our neighbours in England, Ireland and, of course, the wider world. For the purposes of today’s debate, I will focus on internal connectivity between different areas and regions of Wales.
My predecessor, the former Minister for the economy and transport, Ieuan Wyn Jones, recognised this and began to address it. Many people have noted that Wales has been an extractive economy. Our transport links are predominantly east to west or to the former great ports as opposed to north-south. This internal disconnect is deep-rooted; it is the result of geography, history and deliberate economic policy. Connectivity in transport terms means not just the road links between north and south Wales, but also public transport within Wales. Plaid Cymru is supportive of the metro in the south-east, whatever the eventual brand name ends up being. We must ensure that the benefits of this greater connectivity are felt throughout the region. The investment must create jobs and opportunities in all communities and not just continue the process of drawing jobs into our city centres. A balance needs to be struck. Transport costs are increasing, and we must make sure that job opportunities are created close to where people live if we are to improve our sustainability and keep businesses’ and individuals’ transports costs down.
The national transport plan developed by Ieuan Wyn Jones was an important document in setting out Welsh Government priorities for future transport developments. Of course, the plan must have the flexibility to ensure that, when changes are necessary, new projects can be included and developed, and this is especially the case as our financial powers change. In the future, we will have greater freedom to develop projects that will benefit Wales, and we need to make sure that Wales does benefit from improved employment and the tax take from that.
Plaid Cymru has also consistently argued that Wales should receive a full Barnett consequential from the HS2 development, and this could be worth several billions of pounds to Wales, depending on the final cost. Crossrail, a development in London, sets a precedent, as Wales receives a consequential.
Flexibility within the plan is essential to enable the Government to intervene in the event of market failure, as, for example, in the situation at Cardiff Airport or with regard to the Arriva Bus withdrawal from Ceredigion and parts of the north.
Plaid Cymru believes that the principles of the original national transport plan should be adhered to and reaffirmed, and we would call upon the Welsh Government today to repeat its commitments to connecting the whole of Wales together and to continue to allocate resources in a way that reflects that commitment to the whole of Wales. A national transport plan must be an all-Wales plan. An all-Wales plan means that all people in all parts of Wales will benefit.
Many of the things that I was going to say have been said, which I think indicates that there is a high degree of cross-party agreement on a whole series of transport issues. That is probably why, I think, a number of transport issues have started developing—philosophically, economically and politically—very positively. I would like to focus a little bit on the metro, because it is about two years ago that we started this debate, and I think that the vision that is behind it is something that has been taken on board, not only by all parties but by Ministers.
I praise Byron, for example, for the work that he did on that when it came to the whole issue of electrification, and the linking of that as being a trigger to the next stages and so on. It is also interesting because we all have very different individual political views with regard to transport. I see integrated transport as part of a socialist policy. I would like to see it go the full way in terms of full public ownership, and I am sure that Byron probably disagrees with me totally on that, and just sees the concept of the metro and so on as common sense and economic sense. That perhaps does not really matter as long as we are heading in the same direction and representing Wales in the best way that we can. However, I think that it is important to recognise the progress that has been made.
With the acquisition of the airport, I think that that has also opened out the whole issue of international interconnectivity that Leanne referred to. There is obviously still a lot of work to be done, and there is a lot of work that has to be done by the Welsh Government, and not only in developing a vision. I welcome the allocation of funding and the statements made by the Minister, but, clearly, we are at the start of a very long and complex process, and the mechanics of how we actually make progress and turn that vision into reality over the next decade or so will be the challenge.
I suppose that the key next step is the development of the metro structurally and the mechanism for implementation. Having reached a high degree of cross-party consensus, I suppose that it would not be appropriate for me to carry on without making some party political point or controversial point, particularly in response to the Lib Dems reverting by means one of their amendments, amendment 5, to a little bit of posturing. So, for the record, I will read out what the Labour manifesto did state in respect of electrification:
‘We will press ahead with a major investment programme in existing rail services…and electrifying new rail-lines including the Great Western Main Line from London to South Wales.’
Last night I had the great pleasure of looking through the Lib Dem manifesto for 2010. It certainly solved my insomnia, but there is no mention in that manifesto of electrification. I looked through it, but I could not find any mention of it whatsoever. I found lots of broken promises, such as that they were going to cut rail fares by 1%—there was no mention of electrification—the abolition of tuition fees, 3,000 more police. I could not find anything about supporting a bedroom tax either. It was a bit like reading the political equivalent of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’—pure fantasy with an element of sadomasochism—but there we are. However, probably what is important in this debate, despite the fact that we do have very differing views, is the fact that we have been able to work together collectively and that we have made progress. I think that we will carry on and collectively make that progress.
Like Mick Antoniw, I welcome the political consensus, although I think that he has just destroyed that consensus with his attack on the Liberal Democrats. However, we have to praise him for managing to read through the manifesto. I do not think that I would have succeeded in getting further than page 2 without falling asleep, but he bravely succeeded, in fairness to him, in getting to the end in order to try to find a reference to electrification.
I will confine my contribution to the HS2 scheme. I did have an opportunity, Minister, to ask you a question earlier on this and I was very pleased to hear your positive response to that question, because the fact that we have ensured that there is consequential funding within Barnett coming to Wales as a result of this investment in HS2 is very important in order to set a precedent in the first place. However, we must be aware that we are talking about a very small amount of funding in the first place. Nevertheless, the principle has been established and that is extremely important. The major question that faces us, as I suggested in my question earlier today, is: what happens after 2015? Will we be able to ensure that that funding continues? That will be an effort. Whatever happens in the general election in 2015, whatever Government is in power, difficult discussions will have to take place to ensure that we receive that funding.
I was very pleased that Byron Davies accepted that we have to question some of the data that KPMG has presented on the benefit to Wales of this scheme. I am not for one second suggesting that there will be no benefit; it is clear that there will be, but I think it is important that we do not overemphasise that on the basis of the current data, because the Treasury select committee in Westminster has raised a fairly serious question about those data, and it is important that we look at that again.
The important thing about the HS2 scheme is that we receive this consequential funding in future, and that that can be invested in a comprehensive transport scheme, with public transport—trains and buses—as a central part of that, connecting every part of Wales and connecting Wales with the rest of the UK, and that that transport system is fully integrated. That is, there is no point in us encouraging people to travel by train to a station if there is not a connection available there to take them further on their way. Otherwise, people will continue to choose to travel by car. Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party have had experience of working on this by emphasising the need to change the emphasis from being on transport by road to being on public transport on buses on the road, but also on transport by rail. So, I hope that we can continue with this consensus in order to ensure that this comprehensive system is available for Wales and is entirely integrated, and that we also ensure those connections beyond Wales’s borders to ensure economic benefits for Wales in future.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate today. Before I go on to focus on some aspects of the plan that are applicable to mid Wales, I pay tribute to the Minister, because, since transport has been within her portfolio, she has been very open to listening to and acting on the concerns of businesses and residents in my constituency. I should, of course, say that delivery is key. I also agree with amendment 2, laid by the Lib Dems, especially the first part, which highlights the delays in service implementation on the Cambrian line.
While I welcomed the recent Cambrian line survey, and did everything I could to promote that within my constituency, I am still interested in knowing what new information the Minister expects to gain from this survey that is not already in the public domain. Also, what does she intend to do with the survey results, and how will the results impact on the implementation of the hourly service? The Minister has said that she will provide further evidence to support the gut instinct that she and her officials have on the need for the service. However, as I and Elin Jones and others have said in this Chamber, there are already data sets out there that show that passenger numbers are increasing across all stations on that line. So, the growth is there, the demand is there, and, most importantly, there is a Government commitment in the national transport plan to deliver an hourly service—a service that should have been implemented two years ago, according to that plan. I appreciate that there has been an updated prioritised plan since then, but, of course, the commitment is still there.
While the Minister is perhaps not able to give me a comprehensive response at this stage, I would be interested in receiving her early analysis of the survey results—I understand that over 6,500 responses have been received. If the Minister responds to one point only from my contribution today, I would like it to be on this particular element: in terms of the seasonal service, I know that the Minister has been examining the implementation of an hourly service to increase capacity next summer. I understand that, at the moment, progress is being made to finalise the timetable in the next few weeks. So, can the Minister just tell me what impact she feels the survey results will have on this service timetable? Would it not be more sensible to analyse the results of the survey first and then shape the timetable? I am concerned that there is an element of not-joined-up thinking here; I think there would be some very frustrated Members if the timetable came out for next summer without the additional services detailed.
It has also been brought to my attention that there is a discrepancy for Powys passengers travelling on the Cambrian line via the concessionary rail fare scheme. I welcome the extension of the scheme until the end of the financial year, but I am troubled to hear that pass holders in Powys are being discriminated against and prevented from travelling for free on this service on the Cambrian coast line up to north Wales when pass holders in north Wales are travelling down at no charge. If the Minister cannot respond to me in any detail today on that, I would be pleased if she would investigate that matter and write to me with a fuller response.
Of course, I cannot go on much further without mentioning the Newtown bypass, which is also a key project within the national transport plan. I am pleased that survey work has now started, which will lead to the construction of the Newtown bypass in early 2015. I know the Minister has confirmed a number of times in correspondence that it will be early 2015; 1 January is a bank holiday, but I will be expecting the diggers to be in on 2 January. I thank the Minister for meeting with me recently to discuss the Newtown bypass and looking also at the short-term issues there.
There has been a lot of talk on the A4 relief road today and the Environment and Sustainability Committee took evidence this morning on the Government’s proposals. It was interesting to hear evidence from Professor Stuart Cole and from the Federation of Small Businesses representatives, who are concerned about the potential political and financial focus on the infrastructure project—so much focus on one project in south-east Wales, and the issues that may arise from that for other projects in other parts of Wales. When I put in written questions to you I always get that note at the bottom stating ‘subject to available finance’, which is always troubling. To conclude, I would be interested to hear your views on that, and whether this political and financial focus on south-east Wales will cause any potential delay to projects in mid and north Wales.
I welcome today’s debate. At the start I would like to recognise the transport investment that went ahead in my region of North Wales under the One Wales Government, but, of course, while doing that, I recognise that there is much more to be done.
Other speakers have made references to issues around borrowing powers, and there have been one or two references to the proposals for the new M4 as well. Plaid Cymru is emphasising that new powers in terms of borrowing should be used to serve the whole of Wales, and the First Minister has said that borrowing powers could be used to address issues on the A55, including across the Menai strait. However, of course, we do not yet know how much capacity we would have in terms of borrowing.
I feel that this debate is very timely because of some of the deliberations that we experienced in the Environment and Sustainability Committee this morning, and the major concerns—fears, in fact—around the proposals, in terms of them being looked at potentially in isolation, and not maybe considering the potential impact of the electrification of the south Wales main line, the development of the south-east metro, and the implications of the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 in terms of taking some of the pressure of that stretch of road. Questions are also being asked about the lack of a business case and a cost-benefits analysis, let alone the huge and very legitimate environmental concerns around one of the most sensitive areas that we have in Wales. Also, of course, there are the fears that I am already picking up in my region of North Wales that this extravagant project will consume the lion’s share, if not all, of the moneys available from borrowing, and will therefore undermine the potential to develop other projects in other parts of Wales.
Part of the Plaid Cymru motion today mentions the need for the Welsh Government to make representations to the UK Government over the issue of including our northern and southern transport corridors in the EU’s TEN-T network. This was raised recently by other Members in the Chamber, but also by Jill Evans, the Plaid Cymru—Party of Wales Member of the European Parliament. The reason this has been raised, of course, as many of us will be aware, is because of the fact that Welsh routes have been left off a recently produced EU map that shows main European transport priorities, which is cause for huge concern. The route as far as Holyhead is shown elsewhere in the document, of course, but the main map suggests that Liverpool is the main link between the British mainland and Dublin. Anyone who is familiar with Holyhead port, and the amount of traffic to Ireland that it handles, will know that this is an absurd claim. We have to ensure that this idea of a primary link between Liverpool and Dublin is not now part of the UK Government’s transport policy when it comes to Europe.
To resolve this, we are hoping that the Welsh Government will support our call today to make representations to get clarity that our two major corridors are still on the European agenda. Plaid Cymru also calls for clarity over what funding will be allocated to develop these routes, how it can be accessed and whether the devolved administrations can play a role in drawing down these funds.
For north Wales, we could be looking at the difference between electrification going ahead, and being delayed until some unknown point in the future. If, and when, HS2 goes ahead in England, the potential for connecting the north to that network is strengthened, if we see the north Wales corridor as a route between Ireland and, eventually, the European mainland.
Some of the opposition amendments ask us to welcome issues such as HS2 expenditure in England and other transport investment by the UK Government. Plaid Cymru’s message is clear: a business case for electrifying north Wales is not a strong enough signal to those communities that they are part of a bigger European picture. We need a commitment on north Wales electrification as soon as possible—including linking it to the wider agenda of connecting Europe. It is not an agenda that is popular with the current UK Government, but it is, of course, essential to Wales’s future.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, Edwina Hart.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I welcome the opportunity to have this debate today on transport, and there has been a great deal of consensus within the Chamber.
As a Government, our priority is to ensure that we have a transport system that helps to improve the economic competitiveness of Wales, that provides good access to jobs and services and reduces poverty for the people of Wales. Any business looking at the viability of investing in Wales will consider the transport infrastructure in place to support access to their business for customers, staff and suppliers, as well as their access to the wider market. A high quality, efficient and effective transport system is key to attracting that investment and enabling those businesses to grow.
Can I make it quite clear that the Government will be supporting the motion today? It is important for us to recognise, as several speakers, particularly Leanne Wood, have said, the issues around connecting Wales internally and externally. These issues are particularly important for us. So, we will be supporting that motion, which also calls for the review of the regional transport consortia and a commitment to an integrated public transport system.
To turn to the national transport plan and transport priorities, I believe that we have made significant progress in delivering transport projects in Wales. Since taking on the transport portfolio, I have had the opportunity to review investment in transport solutions, listening to the feedback from the business community. In July, I issued the two written statements, which set out my priorities for improving road and rail links in Wales. More recently, I have updated Members on progress on Mark Barry’s report on the south-east Wales metro. I have made clear that I intend to look for radical alternatives to providing bus services in rural areas. We will be drawing on industry expertise to help shape a new innovative approach.
It is my intention to ensure that Wales has excellent national and international connections to enable access to markets and to employment, education and services. That is why the routes across Wales, both north and south, are quite important to our ports, to Ireland and to link us into Europe.
In terms of regional transport, we need to look at all the issues around the help and assistance that we can give. As I outlined in my oral statement on 15 October, when I speak to various people across Wales they have the same message as is in this resolution, which is that the regional transport consortia have not been as effective at driving delivery at a regional level as they might have been. I am very happy to accept that point and to look at them.
At the same time, the city region model is taking shape. There is an opportunity for the boards to take a greater role in relation to transport. Recognising this, I have asked my officials to examine all of these options about how we could improve the delivery of transport.
I will look now at HS2, and the specific point in the motion. At the spending round in June, the UK Government allocated funding for HS2 in 2015-16. I answered a question earlier from Rhodri Glyn Thomas, and his concern, which he raised in the debate, is about the future considerations of consequentials, and I know that this is an issue that my colleague Jane Hutt will continue to pursue. We could be talking about large amounts of money that could come into Wales and help us with our own transport requirements and system.
With regard to the trans-European network, which Llyr Gruffydd has spoken about, Wales has not been left off the map. Under the EU regulations in 2014 the trans-European network will be based on a dual-layer network, a comprehensive network and a core network. The core network brings together the most important routes and hubs for transport flows within the internal market and between the EU and its neighbours. North and south Wales road and rail transport corridors are part of the core network and can access funding from the Connecting Europe Facility. The new networks also designate corridors, which are attuned to help to implement the development of the core network, particularly for co-ordinating cross-border projects. Wales is not currently part of the corridor covering the UK, and I, therefore, have written to the Secretary of State for Transport about the routing of the corridor covering the UK, which I think is quite important.
Turning to the amendments, we are very supportive of amendment 1 from William Graham, and we will be continuing to press the UK Government to increase capital expenditure over the next few years because of the importance of investment in infrastructure and jobs. With regard to Aled Roberts’s amendment, who you all consider to be a gentleman, we will be opposing amendment 2. In my statement on rail priorities on 18 July 2013, I made clear that the Welsh Government prioritised a series of rail service enhancements in 2011 on the basis of the revenue budgets being available. However, those revenue budgets are now increasingly constrained following the UK Government’s budget decisions.
The Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth railway liaison committee is co-ordinating work to look at services, and I am waiting for that work to come forward. I am sorry that I do not have the opportunity to deal in detail with all the points that were raised by Russell George, but I will write to him after this debate to clarify some of the issues. However, I can tell him one thing: the Newtown bypass is, as I have told him in my communications, on schedule, but I am not so sure about 2 January.
We very much support William Graham’s amendment 3 because the work that we are undertaking complements that. We will be opposing amendment 4 in the name of Aled Roberts, because, due to budgetary pressures, we are exploring the economic case for the implementation and, as the point made by Eluned Parrott, we are looking at more effective ways of delivering the scheme. That will also be part of my consideration. I will be returning to issues around this at some time in the not-too-distant future.
With regard to amendment 5, all parties were committed to support the Valleys line electrification, and at the end of the day, I do not think that we should differentiate.
We will certainly be supporting amendment 6 from Aled Roberts. I recently updated you on the report; it has milestones in it, and I think that Mick Antoniw outlined that the challenges will be going from the reality of a report to the implementation. That will be the key area. There has been a lot of focus by individuals on these things being around the south-east, but, at the end of the day, when you look at the south-east in terms of how we could deal with the metro concept, it is important to get that connectivity between those communities, to take people to work and to bring investment in.
We will be supporting Aled Roberts’s amendment 7, because that is quite important. The fact that the Minister for Local Government and Government Business is chairing a taskforce indicates that we, collectively in Government, regard this as an important area. It is also important that we have our strategic partners on board, namely the local authorities and business leaders. Therefore, it is important that we look at all of the issues there.
We will be opposing amendment 8 in the name of William Graham. We do not support the deletion of sub-point 3(a) as we continue to press the UK Government for the Welsh Government to receive consequentials from HS2. I think that it is very important that that amendment is defeated. We will obviously be supporting amendment 9. I was pleased with the report of the Enterprise and Business Committee on integrated public transport in Wales. So, I think that it is important, as that has widespread support, that we support that.
Turning to amendment 10, a lot of people have spoken about the M4. I cannot speak about the M4 because I am in a consultation period. The only thing that I can say is that the Government will be supporting the amendment because the changes announced by the UK Government mean that in the next few years Wales will be in a position to tackle improvements required for the M4.
Therefore, in terms of the issues that have been raised with me, I think that it has been a good quality debate. There are so many issues in transport; we could debate the topic almost every day of the week. However, the important thing is that we recognise that transport is about the needs of business, people and communities, and I am committed to enhance the transport system in Wales to demonstrate that we are open for business, to provide employment, to stimulate the economy and to reduce poverty.
I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. I clearly made a mistake in referring to Aled Roberts as a gentleman without having referred to William Graham in the same way. I was using the term ‘gŵr bonheddig’ or ‘gentleman’, but not in the way that Mark Antony referred to Cassius in Julius Caesar, for those of you who know your Shakespeare.
I welcome the Minister’s support for the motion and welcome her comments more generally. I do not want to rehearse arguments in concluding this debate, but I will thank those who have contributed. A number of salient points have been made, some more localised than others. Having mentioned in my opening remarks the holy grail of integrated transport, I was struck that we have heard too much talk and too much use of the term ‘integrated transport’ without there having been adequate action on the ground. In effect, that is what our motion aims towards—to ensure that transport developments integrate properly; they need to integrate literally where bus and train services meet, or where train and airport services converge, perhaps, but, more generally, they need to make sense, to be commensurate and to take into account the huge challenge that climate change poses us as a nation and on a global level.
I welcome the reference to the need for improvements to the Cambrian line; the electrification of the north Wales main line; the importance of getting the rail franchise for Wales right in order to serve passengers in all parts of the country; consequentials from HS2; the debate on the M4 relief road; and borrowing powers to promote other transport proposals. We should bear in mind the point made by Llyr Gruffydd on the recognition within the European Union of road, rail and port connections in linking Wales with Ireland and continental Europe, which are so important to us.
In looking forward to exciting proposals such as the south-east Wales metro and, perhaps, a metro in the Swansea area, we must have a vision for the whole of Wales, for every community, in order to ensure that our communities, be they in the Valleys or in rural areas, feel that they have not been isolated and that they come together as part of a scheme that will promote the creation of communities and a country that are prosperous, successful and sustainable. I believe that the word ‘sustainable’ is crucially important as we devise a transport system that will be appropriate for a modern, twenty-first century nation.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? There is objection, therefore I defer all voting until voting time. Voting time now follows. Before I commence, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? I see that there are three Members, therefore the bell will be rung.
The bell was rung to call Members to the Chamber.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I suspect that all Members who wish to vote are now present. I will proceed unless any Member indicates that I should extend the time. Okay; we will proceed.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5346
Motion not agreed: For 12, Against 40, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote amendment 1 to motion NDM5346
Amendment agreed: For 51, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote amendment 2 to motion NDM5346
Amendment agreed: For 52, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote amendment 3 to motion NDM5346
Amendment agreed: For 52, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote amendment 4 to motion NDM5346
Amendment agreed: For 52, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Cynnig NDM5346 as amended:
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Believes that high quality care and treatment within the Welsh NHS is integral to eliminating avoidable deaths.
2. Calls upon the Welsh Government to commission an independent review into Welsh hospitals with higher than average mortality rates to determine whether failings in the quality of care and treatment are a factor.
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to publish mortality rates for each hospital site on the ‘My Local Health Service’ website.
4. Calls on the Welsh Government to provide an update on action taken by the Welsh Government to support Local Health Boards to address the backlogs in clinical coding.
5. Calls on the Welsh Government to provide an update on action taken to establish a mechanism to investigate hospitals or Local Health boards who consistently exceed a specific RAMI threshold over a period of time.
6. Calls on the Welsh Government to work with other UK administrations to ensure the availability of comparable mortality data.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5346 as amended.
Motion NDM5346 as amended not agreed: For 26, Against 27, Abstain 0.
As required by Standing Order No. 6.20 the Deputy Presiding Officer exercised his casting vote by voting against the motion as amended.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5344
Motion agreed: For 35, Against 17, Abstain 0.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Will those Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly?
I have agreed to give William Powell and Joyce Watson a minute of my time in this debate.
When I first started discussing child safety online as an idea for a short debate, the reaction of some people was, ‘Hang on, that isn’t devolved’. At a superficial glance, they are right. It is for formal determination elsewhere what role the UK Government, search engines, internet service providers, social networks and so on should play in keeping children safe, although, we should make our views heard on those matters.
Many of the dangers facing children online relate directly to criminal activity beyond our scope, sometimes by an individual and sometimes by organised criminal gangs operating internationally. However, to shrug our shoulders and say that the challenges are too big, or that it is just not our job would absolve us from our responsibility to use every opportunity that we have in Wales to equip children, parents, teachers, youth workers and so on with resilience, knowledge and support, so that they are best able to deal with the challenges faced by children day in, day out, online—and it is day in, day out.
Most children now have a phone with internet access and nine out of 10 of them say that there are no parental restrictions on its use. For most children, their virtual lives are synonymous with their real lives, and what happens online affects them offline. We have a good, general understanding of the issues, but we lack a comprehensive, Wales-specific evidence base of the digital media habits and digital literacy of young people. I am pleased that Wise Kids are undertaking some work with year 9 pupils in this regard, and I hope that the results will inform the Welsh Government’s future work. The Deputy Minister may wish to consider whether further evidence gathering is necessary.
There are many organisations working in the field of child safety online in Wales and, together, they help us build a very good picture of the challenges. NSPCC Cymru and ChildLine have warned that many children are frequently taking big risks when making and sending sexual texts, photos and videos of themselves. They found that sexting is considered a normal, everyday activity among young people as young as 13 years old, with around a quarter of them having made photographs or videos to send on to others. Barnardo’s Cymru has also identified what it calls peer-based exploitation as an increasing trend.
Once the image has been sent on, it is out of the young person’s control and the Internet Watch Foundation has reported that images are regularly shared around school, uploaded to social networks and sometimes find their way on to paedophile websites. In just 40 hours, an IWF analyst found more than 12,000 images of teens that were originally sent as texts on 70 paedophile websites.
I warmly welcome NSPCC Cymru’s efforts to encourage parents to talk to their children about sexting and the possible consequences. There are some great resources on its website to help parents have those conversations.
After seeing calls about sexting rise by 28% last year, ChildLine has developed a fantastic app called Zipit, which provides witty and safe comebacks that children and young people can use to reply when faced with requests for explicit photos and so on. I would be grateful if the Deputy Minister would explore to what extent the Welsh Government can promote these and similar resources.
While sexting normally takes place between peers, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre has warned that children are increasingly being groomed over the internet by strangers for the sole purpose of online sexual abuse. As a result, hundreds of British children as young as eight years old are being blackmailed. This abuse is commonly conducted via webcams and instant messaging applications, and CEOP says that half of it takes place on social networking sites. Abusers from across the globe posing as children talk victims into sexual acts or sharing images and then threaten to send their pictures on to the child’s family and friends unless they continue to perform more and more extreme acts. They are sometimes asked to self-harm or pay cash, and some children have, sadly, taken their own lives as a result of the pressure and distress caused by this blackmail.
Just yesterday, we heard that more than 100 Britons were among 1,000 men caught trying to pay a lifelike computer-generated child to perform sex acts online after a Dutch children’s charity set up a fake profile. In a 10-week sting, a researcher posed as a 10-year-old Filipino girl. She was contacted by more than 20,000 men.
The role of social networking sites in online abuse is really significant. I was pleased to support the FBrape campaign over the summer. Led by Women, Action and the Media and the Everyday Sexism Project, the campaign sought to encourage Facebook to take action on the gender-based hate speech on its website and on content promoting violence against women. The campaign was a success, because money talks, and one advertiser after the other pulled their advertisements from Facebook when campaigners sent them screenshots of their adverts sitting next to disturbing and horrific images. Just two weeks ago, however, Facebook decided that it might be okay to quietly allow videos of beheadings back onto the site, although it quickly backtracked in the face of the outrage that followed, and will now decide whether to allow beheadings to be shown on the site on a case-by-case basis.
I mention this because you only have to be 13 to have a Facebook account, and there is no way to police this. We know that parents sometimes set up accounts for children who are younger than that and, in doing that, they are doing their children no favours at all. The most recent report on Facebook use found that, of the 20 million children who use Facebook, 7.5 million are under 13 and more than 5 million are under the age of 10. We know that unrestricted access to the internet can expose children to violent and sadistic imagery that experts warn distorts their attitudes towards relationships and sex. Even if they do not go looking for the content, their friends sometimes show it to them, or they may just stumble across it. A study earlier this year to mark Safer Internet Day found that very young children viewing clips of Peppa Pig on YouTube were just two clicks away from graphic adult material on the video-sharing site, thanks to the suggested videos feature. I was very pleased to hear the First Minister previously express his concern over the easy access to material online that would be illegal in a magazine. Academics have warned that watching extreme and violent pornography can influence children’s sexual attitudes, decrease their empathy for victims of rape and lead them to engage in risky behaviour and become vulnerable to abuse themselves.
I have really high hopes for the forthcoming violence against women Bill and its renewed focus on educating children about healthy relationships, consent and respect so that they grow up with healthy expectations of themselves and of others. This Bill must have a strong focus on educating children, developing resilience and support, and must be framed in the context of the online and offline challenges.
Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru told me, in preparation for this debate, that there is a real need for sufficient training for teachers and for teaching assistants to be better able to support and educate children about the dangers online. Parents also have a crucial role to protect their children from harmful content, online abuse and grooming. They are probably the most important defence that children have against the darkest elements of the internet, but they need our support to do so. We need to ensure that parents feel equipped with the knowledge and skills that they need to protect, support and guide their children, and we should explore whether we can be doing more through our wider work in supporting families in Wales. For example, parents need to know the warning signs that a child is being subjected to online abuse, such as becoming aggressive or withdrawn or self-harming.
Earlier this year, a web safety organisation called Knowthenet argued that parents are failing to protect their children in cyberspace, simply because they do not understand the net speak that peppers online exchanges. For many parents, their understanding of everyday slang starts and ends with ‘LOL’, but they can be sure that their children’s vocabulary is much wider. A Knowthenet survey, which was of 1,000 parents, found that the least understood term was ‘LMIRL’, which means ‘Let’s meet in real life’. Also among the least-known acronyms were ‘ASL’, which means age, sex, location and ‘POS’, parents over shoulder.
Life online also poses challenges regarding bullying. Online bullying is relentless; it is 24/7 and it follows bullied children everywhere that they go. They carry it around on the phone in their pocket. Funky Dragon recently undertook a survey that found that over a third of 11 to 17-year-olds in Wales who had been bullied had suffered from cyberbullying. I know that this is also of great concern to the children’s commissioner, so I would welcome an update from the Deputy Minister on how the Welsh Government’s work combating bullying is fully taking into account the unique challenges of cyberbullying.
There are other issues that time does not allow me to reflect on today, such as online gambling, the health impacts of spending large amounts of time online, identity theft, and the risk of downloading music or video illegally. However, despite everything that I have said, I do not want to give the impression that cyberspace is a wholly dangerous and nightmarish place to be avoided at all costs. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Access to the internet can be incredibly enriching. Children can talk to other children thousands of miles away and develop global citizenship and a sense of responsibility to other people on the other side of the planet. They can have fun and stay in touch with friends, and it is a wonderful learning environment and research tool, a gateway to almost limitless knowledge, and a forum to develop skills and ideas.
By educating children and those who protect and support them about the safe use of the internet, including recognising danger and the importance of privacy settings and content blocks, for example, we can make the internet a much safer place for them. By helping children to put what they see and experience online into context offline we can build their resilience. There is a huge amount of very good work already taking place in Wales by parents, schools, the third sector, police and others, and I would ask the Government to explore how we could bring all of this good practice together to make the internet a safer place for children.
I thank Rebecca for bringing this debate here today. It is timely. I attended a course in Saron village hall designed to help parents, carers and guardians to protect their children from sexual abuse. The Parents Protect course, organised by Stop it Now! Wales, in partnership with Plant Dewi and part-funded by the Welsh Government, helps adults to spot early signs of sexual abuse in children and worrying behaviour in adults and act upon those concerns. It delivers practical tips, advice and tools that help adults to keep their children safe. The discussions include information about online grooming and the behaviour that is appropriate for children as they get older. It is made up of one two-hour session per week for five weeks and it covers a range of topics, particularly internet safety, the appropriate sexual development in children and young people and, equally, the sexually harmful behaviour in children that Rebecca has already mentioned. It helps parents who do not understand the internet by giving them some tools to keep their children safe, very often against things that young people will do, thinking that they are safe and that they are not vulnerable, and teaching them how to deal with that.
I thank Rebecca Evans very much for bringing forward this important debate today. As a school governor, I know particularly how noxious the influence of cyberbullying can be and how profoundly distressing it can be for young people and, indeed, for their families. She is also right to point out the enormous force of good that the internet provides in terms of relationships and supporting educational activity. Liberal Democrats, within the coalition, have been working towards implementing the recommendations of both the Byron and Bailey reviews into internet safety, and I pay tribute particularly to the work of the former Minister of State for Children and Families, Sarah Teather, who was particularly active in this field. I look forward to taking these issues forward and to working with Rebecca and other colleagues interested in taking this issue forward in this place.
Thank you, Rebecca Evans, for raising this extremely important issue. It is an issue in which I intend to take a very close interest. Rebecca, you were right to identify that this is a responsibility that we all share. Not only have you proven that you are a champion for women’s rights and equality, but you have taken on the newspaper barons who control page 3 of many national press in trying to rid our society of those appalling pages. You are to be applauded. More power to your elbow. I also thank William Powell and Joyce Watson for their contributions today.
It is fair to say that exploiting the benefits of the internet while protecting children is a challenge. The internet is a tremendous resource for teaching and learning, and the Welsh Government has invested over £200 million over its lifetime to improve ICT facilities for schools, including the major investment in broadband and Wi-Fi for schools, which the First Minister announced in January. As we ask schools to make more use of digital technology, however, so we must help them to use it effectively.
In 2008, Wales was the first country in the UK to introduce the teaching of e-safety in primary and secondary schools—it is a mandatory element of the ICT programme of study for learners in key stages 2 and 3. There are also opportunities for schools to address e-safety issues across the curriculum, most particularly through the personal and social education framework. The approach that underpins our curriculum requirement is that we first teach children to use the internet safely under supervision, and then help them to develop the skills and understanding that they need to manage their own risk as they use the internet independently. I am aware that there have been calls for e-safety to be included in lessons for younger children, and of the introduction of the new computing programme of study in England, which includes a requirement to teach children aged five to seven to use the internet safely.
Last month, the Minister for Education and Skills published a consultation concerning the review of assessment and the national curriculum. Although primarily focused on integrating literacy and numeracy in the curriculum, the proposals also include the introduction of a statutory wider skills framework, which includes digital literacy. The second phase of the review will include revisions to the programme of study, including ICT. Issues such as e-safety will be a key consideration in developing the content of the new programmes of study and the digital literacy component of a wider skills framework. We expect curriculum changes to be introduced from September 2014.
Following the tragic death of April Jones, and the revelations that emerged in the trial, there has been a renewed drive to tackle unfettered access to pornography and child abuse images online. Action here is rightly taken at the UK and international level, as organisations such as the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the Internet Watch Foundation have already sought to do. The First Minister wrote to the UK Prime Minister earlier this year, stressing the Welsh Government’s support for realistic and workable measures to protect children. Over the next year, we will be intensifying efforts to educate and raise awareness of internet safety among children, parents, and adults who work with children, with a new programme of e-safety activities to run during 2014 and 2015.
One issue that has been raised with us a number of times in recent years is the impact of blocking social networking sites in schools. Colleagues will all be aware of the concerns about harmful content, user privacy and bullying on sites like Facebook, but we also know that children and young people use these sites as a matter of course—to them, the online world is a normal and natural extension of the actual world. As in ‘real life’, we must have concerns about the way in which those sites are regulated and used. There is evidence, however, that blocking access to social networking sites in schools removes an important opportunity for teachers to engage with their students on these issues. Are we helping to build young people’s resilience to the harmful things that they encounter online if we leave it to them to deal with those issues alone? This is a critical question, given the reality of what exists outside the school environment.
The former Minister for Education and Skills, Leighton Andrews, wrote to all local authority education cabinet members in February, advising that the Welsh Government would like to take a more positive and constructive approach to the use of social technologies in education. One of the key tools that we will be using to work with schools on authorities on this issue is Hwb, the all-Wales learning platform, which was launched last December.
As part of the 2013 Anti–bullying Week, from 18 to 22 November, the Welsh Government will be launching a campaign to raise awareness of cyberbullying and to highlight where to go for help. This year’s campaign is encouraging the use of new technologies, such as tablets and smart phones, to promote positive communication. The Welsh Government’s guidance provides advice to help schools to put in place mechanisms to prevent cyberbullying and to respond to it when it comes. The Welsh Government also provides support for all young people through services such as CLIConline.
Finally, I want to reiterate that safeguarding children is of paramount importance to the Welsh Government. In 2007 we published ‘Safeguarding Children: Working Together under the Children Act 2004’. This sets out how local authorities and other agencies must co-operate to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill is pivotal to implementing key aspects of our safeguarding and protection agenda. The Deputy Minister for Social Services has been clear that this important piece of legislation will strengthen safeguarding arrangements for children and adults in Wales. Likewise, as Rebecca Evans has identified, there is significant potential for this subject to be addressed through legislation on ending violence against women and domestic abuse.
Developing resilience in children is a much broader issue than just keeping children safe in an online environment. When safeguarding policies and practices are implemented in the classroom and across the whole school, then independent, resilient learners will have the skills to manage adversity in the real as well as the digital world, be it through computers or smartphones.
I will examine the solutions Rebecca Evans has highlighted to the problem of sexting, and I would be grateful if the Member would agree to meet me for a discussion about this whole policy area of child safety online.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Deputy Minister. That brings today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 17:46.