The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
1. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s position on the current services at Withybush Hospital, further to his meeting with the Save Withybush Action Team? OAQ(4)0408(HSS)
Thank you. I have had no such meeting. Provided it is able to adapt to changing conditions, a secure and successful future awaits Withybush hospital.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I would like to express my apologies for clumsily tabling this question, but it was very difficult to get it out. I understand that you met a number of people who came up with the Save Withybush Action Team when they came and demonstrated on the steps of the Senedd. I am interested to know, as are they, whether the concerns that they raised with you have in any way led to you changing some or part of your policy or analysis of the situation. Furthermore, what undertakings are you able to give them that, in turn, can be passed on to the people who came up as to the safety net that might be spread out before services are changed?
I thank Angela Burns for that question. She is absolutely right to say that I met a group of people, led by Joyce Watson and Rebecca Evans. There were people there who were members of the Save Withybush Action Team, I have no doubt, but that is not the capacity in which I met them. I was very impressed indeed by the people I met. I was impressed by their sincerity, by their commitment to their local services, and by their knowledge of the services that are provided.
In the end, I had to explain to them the expert basis on which my decision was based, and that I was unable to revisit that decision. What I did undertake to do—and will do—is to ensure that their concerns about the implementation of the decision, and the safety net arrangements that I outlined on the floor of the Assembly when I made my decision, are fully implemented by the local health board. I will ensure that my officials work very closely with them to make sure that those safeguards are fully honoured.
I was very grateful to you, Minister, for accepting the meeting, which I think everybody felt was open, frank and useful. Minister, at the meeting, you said that Withybush hospital has a secure and successful future, and that it is a necessary hospital for the people of west Wales. Is that still your view?
That is absolutely still my view. Not only was I impressed by the knowledge and the sincerity, and so on, of the people I met that day, but I was also very impressed by the careful and courteous way in which they came to express their views, which were very powerfully held. I do not suppose that it was an easy meeting for them, in many ways. I said to them, as I have said on the floor of the Assembly this afternoon, that a secure and successful future awaits that hospital, provided people understand that, like any hospital, in any part of Wales, that future depends on it being able to adapt to changing circumstances. There are those who believe that the way to safeguard its future is to freeze it in aspic, to think that nothing can ever change, but, actually, that is the way to make sure that the future for that hospital does not work out in the way that we want it to do.
Minister, the intention at Withybush hospital is to cut the provision of the paediatric care service from 24 hours a day to 12 hours a day. My concern, should the proposal be implemented, is that it would be contrary to the guidance of the College of Emergency Medicine, which refers to paediatrics as one of seven areas of expertise that would support an accident and emergency department. You will know that the intention is to retain the accident and emergency department at Withybush. Can you commit to that as being the Government’s intention also?
As far as the paediatric services are concerned, the health board is pursuing the proposal that it outlined over a year ago. It will still continue to provide a 12-hour paediatric ambulatory care service at Withybush hospital. That will be supported by clinicians working in paediatric services within the Hywel Dda health board. It is really important to remember that the vast majority of children who present themselves at a hospital come in as unplanned for assessment and are home again within 12 hours. The relationship between the paediatric service and the continuing 24-hour emergency care at Withybush is an important one, but the health board assures me that it is able to do both these things at once and that it can envisage no circumstances in which 24-hour emergency care at Withybush will not be provided.
2. What provision is the Minister making for diagnosis and support for those on the autistic spectrum? OAQ(4)0404(HSS)
It is for statutory authorities to assess people on the autistic spectrum and provide support to meet their assessed needs. We are presently refreshing the autistic spectrum disorder strategic action plan and considering what action needs to be taken to improve access to diagnostic services and the support available.
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Constituents who have issues around autism have been to see me to tell me that one of the problems that they face in dealing with the health service and with social services is the shortage of specialists in autism, particularly at consultant level in Wales, who are able to quickly diagnose and deal with their complaint. This obviously causes delays in the system, especially in terms of putting support in place. Is the Government looking at this issue and will it be able to address it in the near future?
Yes. There is an advisory group presently working with officials to refresh the ASD strategic action plan. A public consultation will begin on that later this year. The ASD advisory group has, in fact, recommended that a task and finish group be established to look at improvements to children’s ASD diagnostic services, and, since 2010, insofar as adults are concerned, we know that we have developed a diagnostic network. I take your point on the consultant issue, and I do believe that, when we publish this consultation, we need to feed all of that into it so that we do move forward with a refreshed plan that will definitely cover diagnostics.
When Careers Wales—I know it is not exactly your brief, but this will make sense—refers funding applications for college placements for young people with autistic spectrum conditions, it requires letters of support from social services in the relevant county council. The cross-party autism group has heard evidence from many families of severely autistic young people who are often given under a week between a decision on funding and their child starting college, despite the recommendations of the Enterprise and Learning Committee in the last Assembly, the casework of parents and Careers Wales being unable to get letters from social services by the 31 January deadline. Would you look at that with regard to the key role that social services plays, so that those funding applications from Careers Wales can get in in time to meet the needs of young people with autistic spectrum conditions?
I certainly will look at that. It has not been brought to my attention until now. I can see my colleague, Ken Skates, nodding his head and I am sure that we will want to look at this together. I will certainly take that away from the Chamber and come back to you.
3. What action will the Minister take in 2014 to tackle the problem of missed GP appointments in Wales? OAQ(4)0409(HSS)
Thank you for that question. Nineteen million patient consultations took place in primary care in Wales last year. The vast majority were taken up as planned. We continue to work closely with GP colleagues to reduce missed appointments, where those happen.
Thank you for your reply, Minister. The head of the NHS in Wales, David Sissling, told the Public Accounts Committee last year that reducing the number of patients missing doctors appointments was his top priority. Given that the Welsh Government does not collect information on missed appointments, will the Minister advise on how he intends to monitor progress in this regard?
It is for local health boards to do the direct monitoring of this issue, and I know that they work closely with their GP practices in doing so. They do it in a number of ways and they do it by spreading good practice between GP surgeries. There are many new ways in which GP practices now work to reduce missed appointments, such as text messaging people in advance of their appointment to remind them. A very simple thing is getting the patient to repeat over the telephone the date and time of the appointment that has been offered to them, to make it completely secure in their mind. It is surprising how that very simple thing has actually had an impact on reducing missed appointments. We work with our colleagues in local health boards to spread that best practice.
Minister, last week, I visited one of the GP practices in my constituency. I am sure that it does most, if not all, of the things that you describe. In fact, it gave me a read-out of all the missed appointments, by clinician and by month, in the last year; there were 2,300 appointments missed. In the main, these are not elderly people with dementia; these are, in the main, younger people. It does write to patients when they do not turn up to warn them that they will be removed from the list if they miss three appointments. What can we do to ensure that such good practice is replicated across other GP practices and to make younger people aware that these are public services that they have to use with discretion?
It is hugely frustrating for GP practices, which are under pressure much of the time to find appointments for patients, when they have appointments made that people do not then turn up for. When you look at the analysis of why that is, you find that, very often, it is for reasons beyond the control of the individual patient and that these are not wilful missed appointments. It is a matter, sometimes, of education. It is a matter of being able to make appointments in a more convenient way for people. The way that we spread good practice in future will depend on the new cluster of GP arrangements that we introduce on 1 April, as part of the new contract arrangements, which will allow GPs to talk to each other about techniques that they have developed to try to bear down on this issue.
Minister, you mentioned in your response to Mohammad Asghar about the importance of developing text messages. If I am going to have my hair cut or going to the dentist, I receive several reminders via text message or e-mail about the appointment. I never fail to attend, or I can respond to those messages. Is it a frustration to you that not all GP practices are using text messages and information technology to promote appointments? Further to that, whose responsibility is the development of systems of this kind and to invest in them? Does the NHS have to pay for that for all practices, or is it up to the practice to fund improvements itself?
Thank you for the question. More GPs are using text messaging as part of what they do to ensure that people do attend appointments.
We are moving to a new GP computer system in Wales, which is a once-for-Wales contract covering the whole of NHS Wales. We are very close to that happening now. It is paid for by the Welsh Government, not by individual practices. It will have a facility that will allow all GPs, everywhere in Wales, to use text messaging as a way of reminding patients of appointments.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the opposition spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Minister, I know that you agree with me that this is a problem in Wales, in terms of missed GP appointments. We know that, for every missed appointment, somebody else is deprived of an appointment. That could result in them going elsewhere for their care, including to emergency departments. There is a potential opportunity to address some of the concerns regarding missed appointments through the public health (Wales) Bill coming up. What action might you be able to take to ensure that patients are more responsible for the way in which they use the NHS and its resources through that particular legislative vehicle?
I agree with the analysis that Darren Millar has just set out of the impact on others of people missing appointments. He is quite right to point to the fact that there is a real responsibility on individuals who have appointments to make sure that every effort is made to keep those appointments. The bargain between the service and the citizen is one that, in future, we will have to be more explicit about with people in terms of the responsibilities that they have. That will be a theme of the public health White Paper, which I hope to bring before the Assembly before very many more weeks. There is a problem, when you move on from the general proposition in relation to appointments, as some people do, then argue that people who miss appointments should be fined or charged for the appointment that has been missed. That leads us into a whole series of practical and ethical problems. While I am keen, as Darren Millar has said, to reinforce the issue of responsibility through education and information, I do not think that we will be going beyond that.
Minister, thank you for your answer. I appreciate you giving an indication that the public health (Wales) Bill may be something that can be used to address one of these problems. Would you agree that one of the pressures on unscheduled care—particularly for GP appointments—has arisen as a result of your free prescription policy? Many people will make an appointment with a GP in order to access a free prescription for an inexpensive medicine that is available at their local pharmacy. Figures that have been released today indicate that, on average, people are accessing 25 prescriptions per head in Wales on an annual basis, at a huge cost. This is obviously costing the NHS money that could be invested elsewhere. Will you reconsider the free prescriptions policy for all and ensure that millionaires in Wales are not able to access prescriptions in the future, in order that those people who need access—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you coming to the question?
[Continues.]—such as cancer victims can access the medicines that they are currently denied?
There is absolutely no evidence at all to back up the assertion that the Member began with. There is no evidence of people making unnecessary appointments because of free prescriptions. What there is is evidence of people not needing far more expensive forms of treatment and far more time-consuming forms of treatment because they were unable to afford the medication that they needed in order to deal with a condition when it was created.
The Member’s acquaintance with millionaires is a good deal closer than mine, but the evidence that Welsh NHS appointments in GP surgeries are cluttered with millionaires looking for free prescriptions is, I think, fanciful, even by his standards. [Laughter.]
Princess of Wales Hospital
4. Will the Minister confirm whether the inquiry by Professor June Andrews into the Princess of Wales Hospital will deal with historic complaints more than three years old? OAQ(4)0403(HSS)
This is an independent review, and the matter raised by the Member is for the review team to determine. Based on its initial investigations, the team is now seeking the views of patients and families in reviewing how complaints have been handled between 2010 and 2013. Nothing in its terms of reference prevents the team from considering material more than three years old.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. There is a huge level of concern about incidents at the Princess of Wales, particularly among the families of patients who have had an unfortunate experience. I think that the majority experience is that the hospital has been good, but clearly there are exceptions to that. I think that it would be right and proper for you to make it clear to the inquiry that, although it would be independent, it would benefit everyone if it went back further than 2010 to take account of all those who have complaints about the hospital, so that we can get some closure on this issue and move on. I would be grateful if you would give me your thoughts on that point.
I thank Peter Black for that very constructive way of putting things and for his recognition that the vast majority of care at the Princess of Wales is of a very high and compassionate quality. Part of the purpose of the June Andrews review is to try to provide some closure for those people whose experience has been otherwise. I think that it is an important point of principle, however, that, where we set up an independent review, we do not seek to direct the panel in a very explicit way as to how it should go about its business.
Professor Andrews has completed the first part of her work—the deep-dive into conditions currently at the hospital. Her team decided that it wished to seek experiences from people between 2010 and the present day. It is currently competing that work. I will say again, and I have said this directly to the panel, that if that work leads it to believe that it is necessary for it to look back beyond the three-year horizon, there is nothing in the terms of reference that I have provided that would prevent it from doing so. It is a judgment for the panel to make.
Minister, Professor Andrews is independent, as you pointed out, from ABMU, the Princess of Wales Hospital and Neath Port Talbot Hospital, but ABMU also has concerns clinics, which have now been established. Do you welcome those? Could you clarify any details regarding the progress of those within ABMU?
I thank David Rees for that question. The board announced on 7 February that it was going to set up a series of concerns clinics. My understanding from the board is that the early series have been very successful. They provide direct access for patients who have concerns to senior clinicians and senior staff of the board, where they are able to discuss face-to-face the concerns that patients have. I understand that, as a result of the experience of the early clinics, the board has decided to continue them. There will be one at the start of April, and they will continue monthly thereafter, and some of the practical arrangements will have been altered as a result of the advice of the people who used the early clinics. However, the news so far is that the board believes that they are playing an invaluable role in learning from patients’ experiences and providing reassurances to those who need them.
Minister, I listened intently to what you said in response to the previous questions that have been asked, and I commend you for setting up the review and for taking the actions that have been taken so far. I am comforted by your saying that there is nothing to stop the review from going beyond the initial three years, because there are many people who will take great comfort from allowing that time frame to be examined so that it includes the time before 2010. Can you enlighten us as to exactly how you will be dealing with the report when it comes forward? Specifically, what time frame will you be specifying to deal with the recommendations that might flow from it? I appreciate that that is difficult in the absence of clear recommendations at the moment, but a lot of people are interested to know how this action will be taken forward.
I thank Andrew R.T. Davies for that question. The information that I have from the review team at present on the scale of work that it currently sees itself carrying out is that it expects to complete that work and to provide a report to me just before our Easter recess. My plan will then be to respond to that report as quickly as possible. After Easter, the report will quite certainly be published and be in the public domain. I will be very happy to discuss its conclusions with those who have an interest in them, and I hope to be able to act on those conclusions as quickly as possible, while allowing anybody who wants to be engaged in that process to have a chance to be engaged in it.
Minister, no-one is arguing that this review should not be independent, but to date, I have counted that some eight different reviews or inquiries into this area, namely ABMU, are ongoing in one way or another. I would like not only to ask a question as to how you would respond to that specifically, but how you will draw all of the things that are being said in the other reviews and inquiries together so that families and people who use the service at present can understand how you, as the Minister, can improve the situation strategically for the future. Why have you taken this option of having various inquiries rather than having a single public inquiry into the situation in ABMU?
It is an important question that Bethan Jenkins raises, but there is not an easy answer to it, I am afraid, because a number of the inquiries to which she refers are not inquiries that are being conducted under the control of my department or, indeed, under the control of the National Assembly for Wales. Therefore, I do not have the authority, necessarily, to draw all of the different strands to which she refers together in the way that she suggested. I felt that it was very important for me to begin with the things for which I was most able to try to provide a remedy. Of course, as other strands emerge, we will take them carefully into consideration.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the number of scheduled operations that have been cancelled over the last 6 months in hospitals in South Wales East? OAQ(4)0410(HSS)
I thank William Graham. The number of scheduled operations postponed in the six months from August 2013 to January 2014 in south-east Wales is 23% lower than in the same period 12 months earlier.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. Those figures are, probably, alarming and therefore mean that the costs will be transferred to the next financial year, therefore easing some of the burden on the health authority. However, I am particularly grateful to the Minister for being most assiduous in dealing with letters forwarded from constituents. Unfortunately, in one case, despite an internal inquiry, the operation was cancelled yet again. May I emphasise to the Minister the human cost of these cancellations? People, clearly, if they are going in for an operation are unwell. Very often, they are elderly or infirm. They psyche themselves up for the operation, they make arrangements with friends and family and then it is cancelled. Not only is it cancelled like that, Minister, but it is not a question of saying ‘Come in in a fortnight’, or ‘Come in in a week’s time’; it is ‘We will let you know’. That is not helpful.
I am very aware indeed of the human cost of cancelled operations. It is not just a matter of the numbers. I completely understand. These are traumatic events for people and when they find themselves unable to receive the treatment, the effect is more than just physical on their health. I am very well aware of that. That is why I am glad that the figures are 23% lower than they were this time last year. I cannot avoid saying, thinking of Mohammad Asghar’s earlier question, that, from memory, the single largest group of cancellations for hospital operations are cancellations by patients rather than by the service. There are some lessons to be drawn there, too, in making maximum use of the capacity that we have.
Minister, would it not be better to do what happened at the end of the day in the Hywel Dda Local Health Board, which is that operations were postponed rather than cancelled? It was much more successful, because it was done by prior arrangement and no operations were cancelled.
Thank you for the question. I remember, of course, the discussions that we had here on the floor of the Assembly back in October when Hywel Dda suggested the plan that it has introduced over the winter. Of course, this has been successful. There is a message there for the other health boards, I think.
Hywel Dda has not cancelled any planned orthopaedic operations since making its original decision to reduce the number that it had planned over the winter in order to be able to callibrate its capacity against the demand. There may be lessons for other health boards in planning work over the winter period so that they are better able to match emergency demands with planned operations.
Coming back to south-east Wales, one of my constituents, Mrs RD, attended the Royal Gwent Hospital on 13 March at 7.30 a.m. for an exploratory thyroid operation. She was one of 20 patients, and 17 of them were sent home because only three beds were available. The situation is made worse because the surgeon has told her he will operate on her on 1 April 2014, on his day off, but, again, he cannot guarantee that a bed will be available. Minister, what efforts are made by the hospital to try to arrange for operations to be carried out at another hopsital within reasonable travelling distance? I know that you care for these patients but this is not helping your waiting time targets at all.
Huge efforts are made by hopsitals to try to maximise the number of procedures that they are able to carry out. Spreading the load of planned surgery across hospitals is one of the ways in which they try to do that. I know that Keith Davies’s question was not about south-east Wales, but my point was exactly relevant to what Lindsay Whittle has just said. The way Hywel Dda has gone about things—not over-programming operations and then finding that it had to cancel them because beds were not available—is, I think, something that other health boards will wish to look at and reflect on.
6. When does the Minister expect to see systematic improvements to the NHS’s complaints handling processes, in light of the recently announced review into this issue? OAQ(4)0416(HSS)
The review conducted by Keith Evans, former chief executive and managing director of Panasonic UK and Ireland, began immediately after it was announced in February. It will last for three months and report as quickly as possible thereafter. In the meantime, the NHS in Wales does not stand still but continues to make improvements and learn lessons based on patient feedback.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. I commend you on establishing the review. The important thing in your answer to me, I think, was that the NHS does not stand still and does not wait in its entirety on this review. You will be conscious that many of the concerns that were raised in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg area related to the way complaints were handled by that particular health board. I do not think that they are in isolation. What efforts are you making to engage with the health boards to make sure that they do not sit back and wait for the review to report, but are proactively dealing with complaints across the NHS so that patients and clinicians can have confidence that their concerns are being taken seriously?
I agree with a great deal of what Andrew R.T. Davies has said. ‘Putting Things Right’, our policy approach to complaints in the Welsh NHS, is highly regarded and has been used elsewhere. The problem has been about some of the ways in which that policy has been put into practice. We know from the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales’s reports, as well as others, that hospitals struggle sometimes to get clinicians to take a direct interest in and responsibility for dealing with the complaints that come their way, and that it is left to people too low in the professional hierarchy to respond to those complaints and that they can become defensive in the way that they respond to patients. We absolutely know that what patients want is a timely sense that people are listening carefully to what they say, and that they are responded to in a human way. That message is well understood in health boards, well in advance of the Keith Evans review.
I am sure that we all deal with patient concerns about the services that they receive, and I am sure that everyone here will have heard concerns expressed by staff, both clinical and administrative. One case was brought to my attention recently where staff in north-west Wales are concerned that administration staff in the north-east, for example, are not giving appropriate consideration to the health needs of the north-west. What assurance can you give that there will be a fair process to deal with complaints from staff against senior managers, as well as complaints by patients in terms of the service that they receive?
It is very important that staff feel that they work in a culture where they know that if they have issues that they need to raise about the service that they provide or the way that they are treated, the service is open to hearing their voices. Some Members here will remember the staff survey that was published more or less this time last year. There was clear ground to be made up in our local health boards in making their staff feel that they worked in listening organisations. The First Minister and I spent a great deal of the summer out in every single health board and hospital in Wales, talking to staff and urging health boards to make sure that they create that sort of listening culture, where people are confident that when they come forward with genuine concerns, those concerns will receive a genuine response.
Minister, as you said, there was a great deal of consensus around the content of ‘Putting Things Right’. Once again in the Welsh NHS, it seems that implementation has been the difficulty. The guidance that you have set out to local health boards says that concerns need to be managed and investigated in line with Welsh Ministers’ guidance. Could you tell this Chamber what steps your department has taken to monitor the implementation of ‘Putting Things Right’, and what the levels of compliance are for timeliness of reporting back on complaints?
I can certainly assure Kirsty Williams that senior members of my department—the chief nursing officer and others—take a very close and direct interest in the ‘Putting Things Right’ policy and the way that it is implemented on the ground. Lots of their visits out to the health service involve them in talking to staff and those responsible for that policy about the way that it is being implemented.
I do not think that we should disguise from ourselves the fact that dealing with complaints is in itself a difficult area; you are talking with people who are distressed and who feel that they have been let down sometimes. Having a conversation with people where everyone is satisfied is not always an easy thing to do. However, we have to improve people’s skills and confidence in doing that. I do not have figures to hand on the final part of your question, but I will try to secure them for you.
I am grateful for that. Given that the chief nursing officer and others have been so busy in their visits, I am sure that such figures with regard to compliance with timescales will be readily available to you. There is also the issue of training. The guidance says that all staff in the NHS should receive training in the implementation of putting things right and that policy. When you write to me with regard to timeliness compliance, will you also be able to outline how many staff in the NHS have undergone training in putting things right?
I am very willing to try to secure that information for the Member. She is absolutely right that if we expect people to have these conversations and to interact with patients in those difficult circumstances, we have to help them to do that successfully.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on waiting list levels for cardiac treatment in south and west Wales? OAQ(4)0406(HSS)
A number of initiatives are under way to improve access to treatment for patients needing cardiac surgery throughout Wales, including south-west Wales. These actions are designed to reduce the number of patients waiting in the short term, and to develop a sustainable service in the longer term.
Minister, it is clear to everyone now that there is a lack of capacity in the surgical service at the Heath and in Morriston. One of the effects of that on patients in my area is that emergency cardiac patients are going into Bronglais but are waiting to be transferred to Morriston for surgery, and they are waiting in beds in Bronglais for weeks. I can think of one constituent who has been there for three weeks. He was moved yesterday, as if he knew that I was going to ask this question of you today. People are waiting for a bed in Morriston but there is no bed available. What are your plans to increase the capacity in Morriston and in the Heath for surgery, and to ensure that there is better co-ordination between these specialist cardiac hospitals and patients who are in health boards other than those two health boards?
Thank you very much for the question. I acknowledge the points that the Member makes.
I read in the report that Hywel Dda health board has secured from the Royal College of Physicians exactly the point that she raised. It says that patients at Bronglais wait 6.9 days for transfer to Morriston. There are capacity issues at Morriston. We are increasing the number of cardiac operations that will be done there next year and there are plans that the royal college report points to very directly for a third catheterisation laboratory at Morriston. It is about more than capacity; it is also about the relationship between the service in Hywel Dda and at Morriston. The hub-and-spoke model proposed in the report is one potential solution to that and Morriston has to play its full part in it.
I appreciate that you have referred to the Royal College of Physicians’ report this week. I am not saying this lightly; I have read the report very thoroughly—it is a report by a royal college, of course—and there is a serious lack of justification in the report, I believe, for moving towards a recommendation that is as far reaching as centralising consultant cardiac services from Bronglais, and Withybush in that regard, in Glangwili, which is only 20 minutes away from Morriston. You have commissioned work for an independent report on the future of the health service around the Bronglais area. Are you willing, therefore, to allow the health board to make such a far-reaching decision as centralising cardiac services before the independent report has reached its own conclusions?
I made sure, on the day that the royal college report was published, that a copy was sent directly to the team that is carrying out the work to which the Member referred. I expect the health board and that team to make sure that they talk to each other about the implications of this report for the work that they are doing. It is for them to discuss that and to resolve the timing issue that the Member refers to, rather than me imposing a solution on them from the centre.
Minister, the Royal College of Physicians’ report places great emphasis on extending the role of specialist nurses in cardiac care. Has the Government taken, or will the Government be taking, steps to increase the number of such nurses in the Welsh NHS, especially in parts of mid and west Wales where it is proving difficult to recruit consultants with an interest in cardiology?
For anyone with an interest in the reputation of the Welsh NHS, the strongly positive things that the report, from people independent of Wales, says about the calibre and the quality of the specialist nurses providing those services in west Wales is immensely cheering. The future of the NHS will depend upon us maximising the contribution that people can make in that way. I was very pleased in announcing the £80 million-investment we will be making in training for nurses and allied staff only a week or two ago to be able to say that we have moved significant amounts of money into training extra specialist nurses in mental health, child health and especially adult health.
Minister, you will be aware, of course, of the exchange between the Royal College of Surgeons and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales in July last year, warning that patient safety was being put at risk. The RCS was told at the time that the issues were being raised and addressed, but has not had an update since and, I understand, has written again this year. So, I welcome the fact that you are paying for some cardiac patients to be treated at a private clinic in Bristol to reduce the waiting list, but why did it take so long to authorise this action and can you explain why this was not done last year after the RCS raised concerns?
Let me just make sure that the facts are properly on the record. On the documents that the Royal College of Surgeons asked HIW for, one of them had already been published many weeks earlier and the second has since been made available to it. The report into cardiac services in Morriston, which was a shocking report in some ways, points the finger very firmly at members of the Royal College of Surgeons as being at the source of the difficulty experienced there. I am very pleased that we are able to assist in providing care for people who need it more urgently than we are able to provide it with our current capacity. We have agreed to do that. We will continue to do it in the early part of next year, and I believe that it has been done in a timely fashion.
Minister, as you may be aware, the royal college report has come under some criticism from clinicians in Ceredigion, particularly because it completely ignores two major areas of coronary care, namely heart failure and arrhythmia. Do you agree that it would be wholly inappropriate for significant service changes to be put in place based on a report that has significant omissions? Would you please further undertake to charge those undertaking your own review with addressing fully those important conditions?
I am happy to repeat what I said to Elin Jones. I sent a copy of the report to that team on the day that it was published to make sure that they are well aware of it.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on physiotherapy services in Wales? OAQ(4)0418(HSS)
Rapid reductions in waiting times for physiotherapy in Wales mean that such services are now more readily available to patients. Waiting times are shortest in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board area, where more than 80% of referrals are seen within eight weeks and no patient currently waits more than 14 weeks for treatment.
Thank you, Minister. My question is actually in relation to people with ankylosing spondylitis. You will be aware that it can take up to eight and a half years to diagnose this. What is your Government planning to do to improve access to physiotherapy for people with ankylosing spondylitis, because their society has highlighted that 70% of people with AS are not accessing physiotherapy?
I thank the Member for her question. I was very pleased to speak at the event here in the Assembly when the society launched its new presence here in Wales. She is absolutely right to say, as it said then, that the real problem for sufferers of this condition is that it is very often masked by other conditions. It takes a long time to identify. Raising awareness, which is what it puts emphasis on, is the most important thing among the clinical community. Indeed, clinicians from north Wales are at the forefront of making sure that that happens. Once people know that they have the condition, access to physiotherapy follows in a reasonably timely fashion, but I am sure that there is more that we can do to improve that too.
In view of the fact that physiotherapists are such highly trained clinicians, when will the Government bring forward regulation for independent prescribing by physiotherapists in Wales?
I entirely agree with Julie Morgan that it is very important that we move to giving physiotherapists, appropriately trained and so on, independent prescribing rights. I hope to bring forward regulations at the start of June this year. Subject to the agreement of the Assembly, they will be able to come into force before the end of that month.
Minister, I warmly welcome the fact that you say that access to physiotherapy is available at an earlier stage now than has been the case in the past. You mentioned the Betsi Cadwaladr health board; I am not sure whether the same is true of the Hywel Dda health board. In my constituency, the problem is that people receive treatment or are told that a comprehensive course of physiotherapy could stabilise or improve their condition, but although they can access physiotherapy, it is limited, and therefore the impact on them is even greater. They know, if they were able to access the comprehensive course of treatment, that would improve their condition, but that comprehensive treatment is not available to them.
Well, I am disappointed to hear that that would be the position, because I agree with what the Member has said about the importance of making sure that courses of treatment are fully available to people who know that they would benefit from them. If he would like to give me some further details of where those difficulties are occurring, I would be very happy to pursue them.
Minister, we know that access to therapy and diagnostic services is vital, generally, in ensuring equity of treatment across Wales. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to improve access to these very important services?
Seventy per cent of Welsh patients continue to receive access to therapy services within our eight-week target, but that means that 30% do not and that is not a satisfactory condition for me. I have announced in the last month significant new investment—both capital and revenue—to make sure that we are able to redesign services over the months ahead to ensure that we bear down on that remaining 30% and reduce the waiting times for them too.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 1 is from Aled Roberts, and it will be answered by the Deputy Minister.
1. What standards are applied in relation to the provision of Flying Start programmes? OAQ(4)0158(CTP)
I thank Aled Roberts for that question. There is clear programme guidance in place that sets out the standards and quality of services that we expect to see delivered in Flying Start. This is provided directly to Flying Start management settings and it is published and available on the Welsh Government webiste.
Thank you for that answer. I am sure that you are aware that the evaluation report pointed to variation as far as the achievement of those standards was concerned. Within different Flying Start areas, there was reference to childcare provision varying from county to county, as well as advanced health visitor practice. Have you taken any additional steps as a Government to increase the monitoring or reporting arrangements since the evaluation report indicated that the application of standards was variable from area to area?
This is a point that I have made myself in scrutiny, and previously, when the statistical release came out last autumn about the performance of Flying Start, I recognised that there is variance in achievement in different Flying Start settings. I want to see a greater consistency and a levelling up of quality. Account managers from Welsh Government now have quality improvement plans for each Flying Start setting to ensure that we deliver that greater consistency and achievement right across Flying Start.
In my constituency, Flying Start is working incredibly well and is incredibly popular with parents, schoolteachers and headteachers. My question is: what is being done by Welsh Government to ensure that adequate Flying Start provision is available through the medium of Welsh?
Again, this is a subject that has come up in previous scrutiny and in questions in this Chamber on the last oral statement that I made. It is a fact that, within Flying Start, there is a very high rate of achievement in meeting parental requests for Flying Start to be delivered through the medium of Welsh, although those are not always successful, and particular examples of that have been given. I am pleased to report that Flying Start settings are now in a better place to deliver Flying Start through the medium of Welsh in response to parental requests, and we have reiterated our guidance at the end of October last year that local authorities must proactively offer Flying Start through the medium of Welsh to parents.
The Welsh Conservatives have always endorsed this particular policy since its inception and we are very pleased that it seems to be working very well across Wales. However, Minister, have you addressed the anomaly whereby the Welsh Government insists on a rigid spend rather than delivering this programme to the largest number of children, which was a problem encountered by Newport City Council in the previous administration?
I am not aware of any particular issue about the rigid nature of the spend. It is a geographically targeted programme and I know that there have been concerns raised by a number of Members about that, and that is an issue that I am actively considering. We have already introduced an element of flexibility, but this goes back to the earlier point about being able to demonstrate that Flying Start money is being spent effectively to be able to demonstrate that the quality is rising and improving and being more consistent. That will be the overriding base upon which funding is allocated and the way that I expect it to be measured and tested within this Chamber.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Jocelyn Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Deputy Minister, I wonder whether you could explain why the evaluation found no evidence that the programme has had an impact on immunisation take-up rates among young children and that, despite access to various enhanced services, levels of parenting self-confidence are the same as matched comparisons outside of the Flying Start areas.
There are two points there. I will deal with the last one first, which was the point around the similarity with the comparison areas. The comparator areas are financially more advantaged. Broadly, the Flying Start communities are less advantaged areas, so having a similar level of engagement, I would say, is good evidence to show that there has been an increase through Flying Start, given all that we know about different communities. On the second aspect of your question, around immunisation rates, we have actually committed additional money from Flying Start, working in conjunction with the health service, to deliver an enhanced programme to improve the rates of immunisation in Flying Start communities, because, again, I recognise that this was an area of uneven performance, and it is one that we are already seeking to address.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. Of course, Flying Start is based on the assumption that, when parents are supported, the home environment will be better for child development and learning. So, when do you expect to be able to demonstrate that Flying Start has made a significant difference in the home setting?
The outcomes that we are looking for are set out within the programme for government and within the tackling poverty action plan. In terms of the child development goals, they are to ensure that we have a 5% increase in outcomes for children, and I have been very clear with officials that I want to see not just anecdotal evidence, but more objective evidence on the improvement in the position of the whole family, including parents and their engagement in additional forms of education, training and employment. Also, with the evaluation going forward, we will continue to measure and assess the level of parental confidence and their attitude to local services. So, I think that you will see, going forward, that we will be able to set out what sort of difference is being made and how much improvement we are making, but we already have clear targets within the tackling poverty action plan for the improvement that we expect to see from Flying Start.
Sustainable Development Agenda
2. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government legislation that will deliver its sustainable development agenda? OAQ(4)0154(CTP)
Thank you for that question. Making sure that we get the right long-term development path for Wales is central to our legislative programme. The future generations Bill, for which I am responsible, the environment Bill, the planning Bill, and all our legislation, work together towards the long-term wellbeing of Wales.
May I also thank the Minister for the briefing session that he held recently with me and other spokespeople on the forthcoming Bill? Moving forward in a consensual way is vital for the success of this important piece of legislation. The issue of compliance reporting has been raised as a significant challenge by public bodies in Wales. Current processes are deemed inflexible and they often look at single issues in isolation, and are often not focused on outcomes, all of which impacts, of course, on an organisation’s ability to deliver. So, through the Bill, how will the Government ensure that compliance and reporting mechanisms are streamlined, focused on key outcomes, and geared up to long-term planning as well?
Thank you for the question and thank you for your kind remarks about the briefing session. The issues that you raise are, of course, very important. The Bill will place local service boards and the single integrated plans on a statutory basis and these will be subject to auditing by the Auditor General for Wales. So, where there are issues in terms of reporting arrangements, these need to be identified and planned for. It is also important that, during the national conversation that is under way currently, where there are practical problems that can be identified, they are fed into the system so that they can be looked at further. The future generations commissioner will also have a role to advise and guide in terms of procedures and reporting arrangements.
Minister, the future generations Bill is potentially a very radical and progressive piece of legislation. Could you outline how you envisage the Bill supporting and promoting socio-economic sustainability and justice?
I thank the Member very much for that question. He will be aware that two of the goals are that Wales is prosperous and innovative and that Wales is a more equal nation. It is very important that the economic and community aspects of sustainable development are at the forefront of the Bill. So, we certainly believe that we will be working towards a more equal Wales by 2050, which certainly includes the economic prospects for some of our most vulnerable and poorer communities.
An independent advisory group was established to advise the Government on developing the planning Bill. A recommendation is contained therein that there should be a statutory purpose for planning in Wales. The reason why I am asking this question of you is because the statutory purpose suggested was that the planning system should contribute towards achieving sustainable development. As the Minister with overarching responsibility for sustainable development within the Government, do you agree that doing that would underline your Government’s commitment to sustainable development?
Yes. There will also be an advisory group for the future generations Bill set out in legislation, but the planning Bill, as I have said, is a key component in terms of sustainable development. The planning Bill is intended to secure the reforms needed to deliver an improved, more consistent and timely planning service. I will certainly be consulting with my colleague the Minister for Housing and Regeneration on that matter.
Does the Minister think that there will be any scope in the future generations Bill to promote the use of fair trade products by public bodies in Wales, thereby helping to ensure that products that are grown in other countries are grown sustainably and that we look at Wales in its global context?
I thank the Member for that question. I am well aware of the good work done by fair trade and would want to see it flourish. That requirement could not be put on the face of the Bill, but I see no reason why it could not be included as one of the steps that could be taken. I will certainly discuss this further with officials.
The Voluntary Sector in West Wales
3. Will the Minister make a statement on his priorities for the voluntary sector in west Wales? OAQ(4)0142(CTP)
I thank the Member for that question. I outlined priorities for the third sector in my oral statement last November. Regional collaboration linked to public service delivery is being further developed by county voluntary councils and volunteer centres in west Wales, building on existing excellent support for communities and volunteers, with an increasing focus on tackling poverty.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I recently had the privilege of re-opening a Paul Sartori charity shop in Fishguard, which is a great local charity. Given the valuable contribution that charity shops make to the organisations that they represent, and the essential services that they help to provide, will the Minister tell us what discussions he is having with his colleague the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport on ways in which the Welsh Government can actually support charity shops, particularly those run by smaller organisations?
I have not had discussions on that particular matter. I am happy to do so. However, I would certainly encourage charity shops to join in the discussions of the volunteer centres and the local councils for voluntary organisations, so that their concerns and their issues are brought to the front. I will have discussions with my colleague to see whether there is any further work that we can do to assist them.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 4 is from opposition spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
4. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government’s policy on third sector funding? OAQ(4)0148(CTP)
I thank the Member for that question. I have recently re-affirmed the importance of our relationship with the third sector and committed to re-invigorating our engagement structures and infrastructure organisations. The amount of funding that the third sector receives from the Welsh Government—£323 million in 2012-13—is testament to the value that we place on the sector.
There has been increasing concern that what is termed the third society is increasingly being seen as a vehicle for delivering programmes and strategies as an extension of Welsh Government, increasingly conditional on processes and box-ticking. When, therefore, will the Welsh Government empower communities and front-line professionals as real partners, allowing them to identify what is going to deliver the best outcomes, re-able communities, and deliver potentially more with the public sector for the resource available?
We see the third sector as a very important partner indeed in terms of the delivery of public services. As a result of the ‘Continuity and Change—Refreshing the Relationship’ review, we have improved the status of the third sector partnership council. As I have said, we are working heavily on a regional basis. It is certainly for public bodies to decide which services they wish to use third sector organisations for, so that there is a good partnership. Additionally, of course, we have improved the focus of meetings between the third sector and Ministers, so that there is a clear focus on the issues within their portfolio.
You will be aware of the growing call, in the budgetary environment and more broadly on principle, for more co-production and co-design, and the joint commissioning of services. How do you respond to the statements in this month’s briefing from Age Alliance Wales—an alliance of 18 voluntary organisations—on the role of the third sector in delivering integrated health and social services for older people? That briefing identifies a pressing need to develop new ways of working that deliver outcomes for the individual at minimum cost. It also calls on the Welsh Government to involve the third sector in the design, planning and delivery of services, in this case for older people.
Thank you very much for that. Certainly, we support the principles of co-production, and we would encourage that. There are values, in terms of experiences, that can be shared. In terms of the specific issues that you raise with Age Concern, and in the delivery, particularly, of health-related matters, I think that that is really a matter for the Minister for Health and Social Services. I would urge you to urge Age Concern to contact the Minister in that regard.
One of the persistent problems of third sector organisations is funding arriving late. They are often funded by statutory bodies, such as county councils, and because those are not receiving confirmation of their funding from the Government, it means that third sector bodies often make staff redundant, and lose momentum; often, it is halfway through the year before they are able to pick up their work again. When is the Government going to ensure that the third sector receives financial fair play in order to do its work effectively?
Thanks for that question. As I have said, in 2012-13, we paid £323 million to third sector organisations. That was in terms of grant funding and procured services. Now, there are issues in terms of when invoices are received, indeed, by the Government, so it may not be one-way traffic here. However, if you are aware of particular organisations that have problems, I would be grateful if you would pass those details on to me.
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to promote credit unions across Wales? OAQ(4)0143(CTP)
Thank you for the question. I have just committed nearly £1.9 million, over the next three years, for the credit union movement, to work with our most financially excluded members. This will build on existing support that we have given, such as the £679,000 that I approved in January for a national credit union marketing campaign.
Minister, I note that, last November, you met with the Archbishop of Wales to discuss ways to promote the use of credit unions across all sectors and communities in Wales, and you agreed that you would work together to continue to promote them. Could you therefore provide an update on the work that you have done since those discussions, as well as outlining how you have been specifically promoting credit unions since that working with the Archbishop of Wales?
There are a number of issues here. The £679,000 that I referred to is for a marketing campaign that will be led by the North Wales Credit Union. That is a Wales-wide campaign that will seek to increase awareness of the role of credit unions, as well as increasing their membership base. In terms of further work, I will be shortly making an announcement on the relationship with credit unions and how we are going to move forward. That will certainly include focused work with clear partners, such as the Church in Wales.
Minister, have you had an opportunity to look at the financial literacy Bill, promoted by my colleague Bethan Jenkins? Part of this Bill relates to local authorities, and their role in promoting and supporting credit unions as an alternative for people who are often locked in to high-interest lenders on the high street at present. Do you think that there is value in such a Bill, to help the Government in its process of promoting and supporting credit unions?
Thank you for that question. Financial literacy is, of course, very important and I know that a lot of very good work is being done by educators, and indeed credit unions and other organisations, to improve financial literacy. I am not convinced at this point that there is a need for an additional Bill. Matters that are in hand, in terms of the curriculum, would be satisfactory, but there is no doubting the importance of that matter.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Peter Black.
Out of the £4.7 million that the Government has provided to credit unions over the last few years, just under £1 million has been spent on consultancy and administration. Given that the amount of money that you have made available for credit unions next year is roughly half of what you have made available this year, can you say how you intend to support the credit union movement with financial resources so that it can become sustainable?
Our drive, of course, is for credit unions to become sustainable and no longer dependent on public money. The whole purpose of the additional investment was to achieve the goal, or to work significantly towards the goal, of accelerating the development of credit unions and accessing financial services through credit unions. I will be making announcements soon on the way in which we will support credit unions, other than the issue of money, and all of them are now aware of the funding that they are going to have over the next three years. I will be making announcements on that very shortly.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Clearly, your intention that credit unions are not going to be dependent on public money is quite evident in the way that you spent that money. Therefore, in terms of the sustainability of credit unions, the vast majority of them in Wales are not sustainable in the medium-to-long term. Will you be working with the credit union movement to try to ensure that we have a smaller number of credit unions that can be sustainable and self-financing in that capacity?
We support the process of mergers where that is justifiable. It is important that they have a satisfactory financial base so that they are able to provide support for some of the financially excluded people they traditionally deal with. We are looking at a range of measures to support that, such as payroll deduction and, indeed, encouraging people who are, shall we say, better off, to use credit unions as a means of accessing loans so that there is an income stream for those credit unions. That may well result in a mergers process through natural selection.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the number of people taking out high interest loans in Wales? OAQ(4)0150(CTP)
There has been an increase in the number of people turning to high-interest loan companies, and this is alarming. Alternative affordable credit, such as that through credit unions, is one way to combat this worrying rise, along with stronger regulation when the Financial Conduct Authority comes into being in April.
Thank you for that answer. I am aware that individuals have been contacted by lenders, with one individual receiving 400 calls, nearly 700 texts and over 1,000 e-mails in a two-week period. Do you agree with me that such contact is totally unacceptable and could see people taking out loans that they just cannot afford?
That is a truly alarming statistic. I, like probably everybody else in the Chamber, receive such texts and e-mail messages from time to time, but the number you allude to must be extremely distressing for the individual concerned. The actual issue of the regulation of these companies is a non-devolved matter, but I know that new regulations are to be introduced by the Financial Conduct Authority when it takes over responsibility on 1 April. In addition, I will write to the new Competition and Markets Authority, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Ofcom about nuisance calls to see what they are able to do about it.
Glasgow City Council has put together a comprehensive package of measures to tackle the problem of people using pay-day loan companies, pawnbrokers and other non-standard lenders, including loan sharks. Glasgow promotes financial education, including advice on how to deal with personal finances and promoting the role of credit unions. What measures does the Minister intend to take with his colleagues to widen financial education in Wales in all sectors, from children to adults?
I thank the Member for that supplementary question. I am aware of these matters. Some weeks ago, I took part in an event here at the Assembly, called ‘Don’t get bitten by loan sharks’, where the Wales illegal moneylending unit, for example, was a key speaker. In terms of the main question about financial literacy, I believe that I have already answered that in response to an earlier question. I would just re-emphasise that I think that we are doing an awful lot of work now—in terms of the current education curriculum and through voluntary organisations, credit unions and our advice services—in order to help people to cope better with their financial situations.
Minister, I heard your response to my colleague Simon Thomas in relation to the proposal for my financial education and inclusion Bill. You said that, at the moment, you believe that what the Welsh Government is doing is adequate. However, do we not want to strive for more in Wales and to be more than adequate? In relation to the number of people who are getting high-interest loans, the information that I received this week through a freedom of information request was that, in schools across Wales, there are huge disparities in terms of the amount of education that young people are receiving. Surely you should be open to new ideas from other people in Welsh society who want to contribute to this most important agenda.
I thank the Member for that, and I recognise the amount of work that she must be doing in terms of her Bill. We can argue over words. I used the word ‘adequate’—we can always do better; I appreciate that. The issue is this: do we need more legislation on the matter? I do not think that we do.
Minister, will you join with me in welcoming the news that, over the past two months, access to 642—yes, 642—pay-day loan websites has been blocked by Labour-run Swansea council on its public and communal-use computers, to stop people from falling victim to the sky-high interest rates of these companies? Do you also agree that other Welsh local councils would do well to follow Swansea’s approach to combating these high interest rate loans?
I thank the Member very much for that. I am aware of the work that Swansea council has done in this has regard, and I would very much encourage other local authorities to see whether they could follow suit. It is good to see that it is working in partnership with the LASA Credit Union Ltd and other organisations through the Movement for Change. I was very pleased to meet Serai Hann from Bonymaen at the St David Awards, where she was a runner-up in the youth section for her work for the Movement for Change.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s efforts to tackle poverty in Arfon? OAQ(4)0146(CTP)
The Welsh Government’s tackling poverty action plan sets out targets and milestones on how we will tackle poverty. I am pleased that the Welsh Government agenda is shared by partners in the voluntary, health and local government sectors. That shared commitment was reiterated in my recent discussions with Gwynedd Council on how it is taking this work forward with Flying Start, Families First and Communities First programmes in Arfon.
Thank you very much for that answer. I will be addressing the Families First network conference in Caernarfon on Friday. The partners have all come together. I would like to ask you to congratulate the team and the partnership working on the scheme, which has already had some success, and also the work that has taken place with Judy Hutchings’s team at Bangor University, whcih has done so much work with Incredible Years, which, in fact, is part of the same programme.
I am happy to recognise the work that is being done and led by Gwynedd Council and partners—not only within Gwynedd, but also the partnership that is developing across the whole of north Wales. I spoke at a conference last week on bringing partners together across the sector. The example of what is being done in Families First partnerships, working with Flying Start as well, is impressive. I want to see more of that happening and for there to be a more consistent approach that joins up the work that they do with Communities First in order to have a much greater, bigger and deeper impact for communities that are living with the reality of poverty day-to-day.
Deputy Minister, I am sure that you are aware of the report by Save the Children that identified that those parents living in severe poverty are most likely to be found in areas that are deprived, but also rural. It concluded that difficulties in accessing childcare are significantly affecting the ability of parents in severe poverty not only to work, but to train and study. What are you doing under your obligations in relation to the Childcare Act 2006 to ensure that local authorities are providing accessible and affordable childcare, particularly where a recent report found that no local authority in Wales felt that it had sufficient childcare in rural areas?
Thank you for the question. We have discussed childcare in previous debates and I am sure that it will continue to be a subject of debate. The childcare sufficiency assessments that are currently ongoing are being drawn to a close, and I will have advice on how we actually see the pattern of childcare across Wales in recent form. I am especially interested in points around the affordability of childcare, which is an issue not just in rural communities, but right across Wales. The recent survey on childcare costs did reveal that they have risen in Wales, but they are still cheaper than in England. However, we cannot get away from the reality that the tax and benefits system is often the biggest support that people have in terms of making childcare affordable. We are dealing with a UK Government that chose to reduce that support for low and middle-income parents. Here in Wales, we have a commitment to improve the amount of childcare available. We want to support new childcare businesses, and that is what we will continue to do. I look forward to reporting back to this Chamber once we see the three further pilot schemes in the future.
8. What criteria does the Minister use to allocate Flying Start funds to local authorities? OAQ(4)0157(CTP)
I thank Aled Roberts for the question. Flying Start funding was previously allocated using the children’s personal social services formula, which drew on a range of indicators for the 0-18 age group. Flying Start is now based upon the more age and need-appropriate assessment of the numbers of children under the age of four living in income-benefit households. This update on allocating Flying Start funds was set out in my written evidence to the Children, Young People and Education Committee last month.
Yes, I remember the evidence. I am just wondering what assessment the Government has undertaken of the variation in funding of childcare places within local authorities—that is, the way in which the authorities themselves spend it. I have become aware of instances in north-east Wales where there is a 40% difference in the level of funding for childcare places through Flying Start between neighbouring authorities. One authority has not reviewed its funding of childcare placements for three years.
If there are particular examples that the Member wants to raise, then I will be happy to look at those in detail and have a discussion with him at a future date. My special interest is not just how the money is allocated; it is what outcomes are coming from that money. I want to see high-quality childcare made available through Flying Start in accordance with the guidance that we set out for Flying Start settings. In particular, I want to see an improvement in the level of take-up of those childcare places to make sure that the money used is being spent most effectively for the benefit of the largest number of families.
Minister, it is evident that one of the frustrations of government is an inability for policy to be carried through. To build on Robert Aled’s point—Aled Roberts, my apologies. To build on Aled Roberts’s question to you, every local authority is supposed to do a three-year child sufficiency assessment and a yearly progress report that is sent up to some black hole here. I just wanted to know who actually assesses that, looks at that and monitors it, because if they were doing their job properly, then the kind of example that Aled Roberts so briefly brought up would not be occurring, because it would be identified, and you would be able to put forward your policies, and they would be based on outcomes that are truly monitored properly.
I think that is rather unfair. The childcare sufficiency assessments are undertaken, and we have had the recent three-year full review. I am going to receive advice on the gaps and the main areas for us to deal with that come from those. However, the honest reality is that, in terms of trying to develop and promote the availability of childcare, we recognise that there are gaps, and there are issues around the accessibility of childcare and its affordability. We have a range of policy levers available to us, but not the complete suite. Our response must be to look at the most effective use of that money, how we use the intervention programmes we have, and how we try to level up quality where we recognise that variation exists. We are undertaking a range of work on this particular issue with the childcare sector itself, with businesses and the maintained sector. We are meeting these people at the start of April again to try to work though how we deliver on the shared ambitions within the 10-year early years and childcare plan.
Deputy Minister, I was pleased to hear you say earlier that Welsh-medium provision is increasing within the Flying Start service. I would suggest that there is work yet to be done to ensure that parents who wish to receive the service for their children through the medium of Welsh have the same opportunity as the parents who wish to receive the service through the medium of English. Have you, in terms of the criteria for funding local authorities and funding this service, taken account of the fact that, if a service in both languages is offered, the costs will be higher as a result? Has consideration been given to that in the criteria that you set for funding the service?
Our view is that Flying Start is adequately funded to be provided through the medium of Welsh where it is required. For example, in Gwynedd and Anglesey, Flying Start is provided through the medium of Welsh, as you would expect. In other parts of the country, where there is a language need and a parental preference for Flying Start to be provided through the medium of Welsh, our view is that there is adequate funding to do that. I have had a number of constructive discussions with Members and outside organisations about how we achieve Flying Start provision through the medium of Welsh of the appropriate quality in both languages. I am continuing to have that discussion, which is constructive and ongoing. I recognise that we are certainly not at an end point where we can say that this is done and dusted and there is no more work to do. I expect the expansion of Flying Start to deliver more Welsh-medium settings right across the country.
Community Facilities Programme
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the Community Facilities Programme? OAQ(4)0147(CTP)
I thank the Member for that question. The community facilities programme is the Welsh Government’s capital grant scheme for the retention and improvement of community facilities that are helping to tackle poverty. My officials are currently in the process of sending out guidance and expression of interest forms to organisations already seeking to make an application.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Can you give me a timescale for when you would expect those community groups that are seeking to make an application to be able to do so? The previous community facilities and activities programme has been vital in Brecon and Radnorshire in ensuring the survival of many community facilities, especially village halls where there is no other public space for people to congregate. I know that there are other communities in danger of losing their village halls that are very anxious to make an application to the fund and have very strong cases for doing so.
I hope that this will be positive news for you. The community facilities programme has been refocused to be very clearly about tackling poverty. It is a pan-Wales programme, so your constituents will be able to make applications. I expect expression of interest forms and accompanying guidance to be made publicly available within a week.
Minister, we are clearly in a transition phase from the old scheme, which Kirsty Williams has said helped out her constituents, to the new scheme, which you have mentioned. In the previous question, Angela Burns spoke about the importance of monitoring outcomes; not something that the Welsh Government is always traditionally the best at. I am sure that you would agree with that—or probably not, actually, but that is what my group would say. In terms of monitoring outcomes, how long will it be before you expect the sort of results from this scheme that were achieved, in part, by the last scheme? If this new scheme is not delivering what is says on the tin, how will you make sure that you know that straight away and that you will not waste the sort of money on this that the Welsh Government has wasted on previous schemes?
I am not sure if the Member is attacking the previous CFAP programme. That was a rather strange end to the question. The community facilities programme is being rolled out. As I said, I expect expression of interest forms to be available, with guidance, within a week. We then need to deal with the applications that come forward. They will be robustly assessed. There will be an opportunity for people to make applications and set out the evidence that they have. We will, through this year, when those applications come forward, be able to see how that capital funding is used. Of course there will be a review of what that programme delivers, but I am not going to give an artificial timescale here and now. I trust that constituents in Monmouth will take up the opportunities that this fund presents.
Minister, what evidence will you be seeking in order to discover whether any of these community facilities programmes prove successful in reducing poverty? As you know, this scheme comes to an end at the end of this year, so what hope do you have that it will have a major impact, or will the impact just be adequate as we have heard today in this Chamber?
Again, that is a rather unfair attempt to make one word mean something rather different. The new community facilities programme is funded for the next two years; it is a capital programme. Each application will need to demonstrate how it tackles poverty, with a business case that it expects to meet. In any application process, you have to try to judge the soundness of the application that comes forward. It is no guarantee of success, but this is about retaining facilities and services within communities that might otherwise be lost. I am sure that members of every party, in every constituency and region, will want their community to take full advantage of this fund and to make applications. I will be very happy to come back to the Chamber to outline what progress has been made both on getting—[Inaudible.]
Strengthening the Voluntary Sector
10. How is the Welsh Government strengthening the voluntary sector in Wales? OAQ(4)0155(CTP)
Thank you very much for that question. The Welsh Government is committed to engaging with and promoting the third sector. The recently revised third sector scheme makes a long-term commitment to its continued development and to an integrated infrastructure. I have recently announced just under £7.2 million to support volunteering and enable community and grass-roots organisations to thrive. I am sure you will agree that that is a commitment that is far more than just adequate.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. You were clear in November that 2014 would be a year in which the Welsh Government strengthened its relationship with the Welsh voluntary sector and implemented some of the structures that emerged from its review process to make that relationship more sustainable. Long-term financial security is important to allow the sector to plan effectively. At present, a lot of grants are annual, and there is some work towards three-year plans. To have real and effective change takes at least 10 years, so it is difficult to look at long-term outcomes when funding is so short term. What are the Government’s long-term investment plans for the sector and how will you set out those plans this year?
As I said in response to earlier questions, for the last full accounting year for which we have records, we paid £323 million to the third sector. The figures for this year will be available towards the end of next month and, no doubt, people will look at the comparisons. What the size of that figure should show is that there is a clear commitment to work with the third sector. The amount of money that we have to be able to do that is shrinking as a result of the reduced settlements from the UK Government. Over the next few years, we are looking at something like a £1.8 billion reduction in our budgets. That is bound to impact on our relationship with the third sector, as with all other organisations that draw money from the public purse. However, our commitment to the third sector is absolutely clear.
11. Will the Minister outline any expected changes in his priorities for tackling poverty in Cardiff in the 2014/15 financial year? OAQ(4)0151(CTP)
Will the Minister outline any expected changes in tackling poverty in Cardiff in 2013-14?
The question that I have says 2014-15. I expect action on tackling poverty in Cardiff to be consistent with the priorities identified in the Welsh Government’s tackling poverty action plan. In the year ahead, Cardiff east cluster will begin its Lift programme work to provide opportunities for people out of work. There is widespread buy-in for these priorities from our partners, as demonstrated at the recent Cardiff anti-poverty conference in the Butetown Pavilion.
I thank the Minister for that answer. One of the issues that causes great concern, and is one of the side-effects of some aspects of poverty, is rough sleeping in the city. The Welsh Government, along with charities, has made some progress in this field. It was brought to my attention recently that the collation of the figures across Cardiff is very poor, so the action streams that you might be able to put in place are limited. Are you working with local authorities and other parties, such as charities, to get the bigger picture regarding what is going on with the rough-sleeping community in Cardiff so that the Welsh Government can work with charities to offer the support that they require?
This is more likely to be an initiative to discuss either with the Minister for Housing and Regeneration or the Minister for Local Government and Government Business. I will talk to them and I will also talk to the local authority about the work that it is doing to support homeless people in the city of Cardiff.
Inequality has grown under successive Labour and Conservative Governments, and this rise in inequality was underlined this week by the report published by Oxfam, which showed that the five richest families in the UK own more wealth than the poorest 20% of families. The Party of Wales is calling for an economic fairness Bill, which would place a duty to increase the gross value added of underperforming nations and regions within the United Kingdom. This is a policy that is successfully pursued in Germany. Do you support Plaid Cymru’s call for this proactive policy, which would tackle poverty and inequality head on?
This Government has a clear commitment to tackling poverty. That is why we have created this department and it is the reason behind our tackling poverty action plan. I will not commit to an alternative proposal that has been made to me in the Chamber today without knowing the detail of it. I am determined, though, to deliver on the priorities set out in the Welsh Government’s tackling poverty action plan. We should be proud of the commitment that we have here in Wales. Objective commentators recognise that the approach of this Government is the best of the four UK nations. In contrast, the UK Government’s approach to tackling poverty has been universally criticised, following the recent publication of the draft child poverty strategy. We are in a good place with our commitment, with our levers and with our responsibilities, and I am more than happy to be held to account for those responsibilities in the Chamber.
12. Will the Minister make a statement on the integration of programmes designed to assist families? OAQ(4)0153(CTP)
I expect those delivering programmes of support for families to collaborate and maximise resources in order to achieve the best possible outcomes. I have consistently promoted this message since my appointment and I am considering how we can identify and consistently implement best and improving practice for the co-ordinated action between Families First, Flying Start and Communities First.
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Following your very successful visit to my constituency recently, I have been making a number of inquiries about the integration of your programmes, which are working very satisfactorily in Swansea, with a number of other programmes that the Government sponsors, which are not necessarily within your portfolio. In particular, we have been looking at other EU-funded opportunities for children and young people in Wales. They are doing very well, but, unfortunately, not all of the families affected by the targeting of your programmes are accessing programmes such as Comenius, Erasmus and Youth in Action—European-funded programmes that are designed to increase their learning opportunities and their ambition. Deputy Minister, could you look at whether we can ensure that those families in the most need have better access to some of those funding opportunities?
I will happily look at that with colleagues across Government. We are currently considering how we use our main tackling poverty programmes now and in the future, and thinking about future European Union-funded programmes, particularly those funded through the European social fund. The work that we are doing is consistent with action being taken by all of the particular programmes that I have responsibility for. For example, on how we expect Welsh higher education to expand access to higher education for those in our poorest communities, that is work that I am doing in tandem with the Minister for Education and Skills. I would be very happy to meet you at a later date to discuss this in more detail.
Deputy Minister, in evidence to the Children, Young People and Education Committee, you said that it was difficult to evaluate which schemes were delivering due to the overlap between Families First, Flying Start and various other third sector schemes. What steps is your Government taking to ensure that each programme is fully evaluated so that decisions can be taken to expand the programmes that are working and remove those schemes that do not deliver recognised benefits?
There are two particular points to raise here. First, we have a programme of activity to evaluate Families First, Flying Start and Communities First. Therefore, objective evaluation does exist. As I said earlier in response to Julie James, I expect those programmes to work more consistently and coherently together at a local level. However, I also expect them to be able to improve their reach into mainstream services and mainstream activity. When I look at evaluation outcomes, I am most interested in whether we are making a difference. If we cannot decide whether it is Flying Start or Communities First working together, but we do know that there is a difference being made to that community, that is the difference that I am looking for; it is the outcome from the spend that we have. That is why I am especially interested in looking at whether we can do more to have a more consistent outcomes framework that drives together partnership working between those programmes for the same families and the same communities. That is work that I look forward to reporting back on to this Chamber or to scrutiny committees in the future.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Deputy Minister and Minister.
1. Will the Counsel General make a statement on referring Assembly Bills to the Supreme Court? OAQ(4)0058(CG)
Good afternoon, everyone. I am able to make a reference in relation to a Bill at any time during the four-week intimation period following the passing of the Bill.
Thank you, Counsel General, for that answer. Would you be able to confirm, in making such references, that you can act independently, according to Welsh Government statute? In that context, is that how you acted with regard to the reference of Mick Antoniw’s Bill on asbestos to the Supreme Court? Can you tell us who will pay for the costs of such references?
First, I can confirm that I can act independently of Government for the purposes of considering a section 112 reference. I am bound to do so, if not strictly by the statute itself, certainly by the ministerial code, which makes it very clear that that is the way in which I must approach the role. As I have said in this Chamber before by reference to the particular reference that you are asking me about, I consider that the only proper approach to it is to consider what I believe to be in the public interest so far as reference is concerned. That is the way that I have tried to approach it. As for who is going to pay the cost, as I understand it—I stand to be corrected about this if I am wrong—it must lie within the budget of the health department, I believe.
Counsel General, do you join with me in welcoming the Silk commission’s recommendation of a change in the current conferred-powers model to a reserved-powers model in order to provide greater clarity over the devolution settlement? Do you believe that this change would avoid the excessive referral of Bills to the Supreme Court?
Yes. Obviously it is a matter of record that, in submissions to the Silk commission, one of the primary submissions of Welsh Government was that that is what should happen. We are very pleased that that recommendation has been made. Yes, I believe that it will give clarity to the Welsh devolution settlement, although perhaps I should enter a note of caution. I do not think that it is a panacea. There is still scope to have an argument about which side of the line a particular provision falls. Nevertheless, as we lawyers would say, it is a burden of proof point. It is much easier to establish that you are within the default general devolved area than establishing that you are within particular defined categories.
2. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Law Commission regarding Section 21 of the Draft Wales Bill? OAQ(4)0060(CG)
I have had no recent discussions, but I hope to meet the chairman of the commission soon. Clause 21 will no doubt be mentioned in our discussion.
Counsel General, on the involvement of the Law Commission, one of the good parts of the draft Wales Bill is the significant step forward in terms of this Assembly as a legislature, because it provides for an ongoing review and recommendations in respect of the legislative programme and legislation affecting Wales. Do you agree, Counsel General, that this is an important step forward for Wales as a legislature and that, at all levels, we should be working and co-operating with the Law Commission to ensure that we have a clear and transparent relationship with it?
I absolutely do agree. I suppose that I could put it in this way: every legislature needs a Law Commission. With the Law Commission that we currently have, which is shared with England, it is absolutely vital that Ministers, in promoting, or seeking to promote, policy agendas and legislation have access to the commission in the same way that Ministers in Westminster do. That is the point of clause 21. As I have said before in the Chamber, it is not perfect, in the sense that we believe that the Law Commissions Act 1965 should be amended to make this position equal as between the two parts of the United Kingdom. However, this is definite progress.
Accessibility of Legislation
3. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the accessibility of Welsh Government legislation? OAQ(4)0059(CG)
Work is ongoing to improve the situation. Legislation.gov.uk remains on track to be up-to-date by 2015. In addition, work has commenced on a further phase, which is intended, among other things, to better demarcate on the website which laws apply to Wales. The statute book is also developing, with more Assembly Acts setting out stand-alone Welsh laws. The Government has noted with interest calls by the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee and the Silk commission for the creation of a Welsh statute book.
I want to look at an example of legislation that has gone through this place recently—the day after the Lord Mayor’s show—namely the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) passed last night. During that process, the Assembly discussed over 1,000 amendments. I have great sympathy for the Deputy Minister, who had to move the majority of those amendments. Looking back on this process, as the Government’s chief adviser but also as the person responsible for the integrity of the legal profession in Wales, what lessons are to be learned from this process so that we can improve the way that we put the statute book together?
The first point to make about that Bill is that it is by far the most complex Bill that the Assembly has had to deal with; its very complexity meant that it was a task for all concerned in achieving its passage. Frankly, my congratulations go out to everybody concerned with it, from the Deputy Minister and her teams through to Assembly Members in scrutinising it and dealing with it.
As far as lessons learned are concerned, I suppose that one could put it in this way: it is not ideal to have so many amendments but, on the other hand, if one is dealing with a great deal of complexity, it is right that the scrutinisation process throws up the need to amend. If it does, the amendments have to be made. These are really matters of the handling of business within the Assembly, I think, rather than ones on which I can speak in any great detail.
Counsel General, I welcome the progress that has been made in terms of adding references to the Record of Proceedings to legislation.gov.uk. However, I note that at this point in time, only the three 2014 Acts of the Assembly have that kind of referencing; none of the nine previous Acts yet have that. As it is only a matter of adding a link to a single website in each of those nine cases, what has been the delay in making that happen?
The Member makes it sound very straightforward. This is referencing a question you asked me the last time this matter came up. Perhaps for other Members to understand, the question was based upon the proposition that, in Westminster, there is direct linkage between provisions published and the record of Hansard. Members may remember that I did not immediately have the answer and that, in due course, I provided a written answer. The written answer was to say that we are working with the National Archives because it is a very good point, and that it has been appreciated that there is apparently no direct linkage, although the notes published on legislation.gov.uk in relation to Welsh legislation enable you to find, by a slightly tortuous route, the Record of Proceedings, but not in an easily accessible way. We took that up with the National Archives, and my understanding was that it was being dealt with. However, if you again point out a matter which needs looking into, I will have it looked into. I am sorry that I am not in a position to give you an immediate response. All I can say is that we thought that we had dealt with it, and I will ask that it be looked at again.
Counsel General, I understand that the Welsh Government-funded Information Link initiative, where Welsh Government publications, including legislation, were placed in public libraries, has recently changed so that only lists of publications from the Welsh Government are now handed to the head librarian, who then decides whether they stock individual items. Can you give us any indication as to whether legislation and draft legislation is made available under that scheme?
I am afraid that I am not in a position to help with that. Again, I can look into it and provide a written reply in due course. It sounds like the provision that you are talking about is much more general than that relating purely to the publication of legislation. As Members will know, my focus has been on ensuring that the online publication of legislation has been up-to-date and in good order, but I will look into that matter.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Counsel General.
On 24 April last year, I was successful in a legislative ballot under Standing Order 26 to allow me to seek leave to introduce a Bill to address concerns regarding the management and regulation of holiday caravan parks. Following a debate in the Senedd 19 June, I was given leave to proceed with this Bill. On Monday, I formally laid the Holiday Caravan Sites (Wales) Bill before the Assembly.
The purpose of the Bill is to modernise the licensing regime for holiday caravan sites. It seeks to give local authorities new inspection duties and enforcement powers so that they can ensure that holiday caravan sites in their areas are safe and well managed. These duties and powers will allow local authorities to identify and robustly tackle breaches of licence conditions through a combination of maximum inspection intervals, statutory enforcement action and financial penalties to provide an effective deterrent. The Bill seeks to end the residential misuse of holiday caravans by requiring caravan owners and long-term occupiers to demonstrate that their main residence is elsewhere through compliance with a residence test and by giving local authorities powers to deal with caravan occupiers who fail this test.
In addition to this, the Bill will seek to give caravan owners and long-term occupiers rights: rights to protection from harassment; rights to be included in decisions about changes to sites; and, the right to a written statement of the terms and conditions under which a pitch on a holiday caravan site can be occupied. The Bill also seeks to empower caravan site owners to be able to resolve disputes with caravan owners and to tackle residential misuse of holiday caravans through the introduction of implied terms, which will apply to all holiday caravan agreements. It seeks to safeguard the future prosperity of their holiday caravan sites by promoting good practice and protecting the industry from rogue operators who damage its reputation. The Bill is a considered response to the problems faced by the holiday caravan industry and allows for greater consistency in the way in which site licences are managed by owners and enforced by local authorities.
This Bill has been developed in co-operation with the British Holiday and Home Parks Association and the National Caravan Council, which, together, represent the majority of sites owners in Wales. I want to put on record my thanks to both organisations for their engagement and for the positive work that they have undertaken to date to promote good practice in the holiday caravan industry. I also want to pay tribute to the National Association of Caravan Owners for its input into the Bill and for the way in which it has encouraged responses from those it represents during the extensive engagement process that has been undertaken. In addition to my ongoing and extensive engagement with the industry, I also conducted two formal public consultations—the first on the principles and policies that I wanted to see addressed in legislation and the second on a draft Bill. The Bill that I have laid takes into account the feedback that was received in those consultations. It seeks to safeguard the interests of the holiday caravan industry and recognises the significant positive economic impact that it has on the Welsh economy.
The Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 is the most recent licensing legislation for holiday caravan sites, but it is no longer fit for the modern holiday caravan industry. Under the 1960 Act, licences are issued for indefinite periods and can be in place for decades without review. Local authorities have limited enforcement powers and are under no duty to inspect sites or to take action when licensing conditions are breached.
The Bill sits alongside the Mobile Homes (Wales) Act 2013, which was introduced by Peter Black to address concerns and modernise the licensing regime in the residential mobile home industry. While there are some similarities between the residential mobile home industry and the holiday caravan industry, the nature of both industries is very different and the scale of the latter is much larger, with around 70,000 holiday caravan units in Wales, compared to approximately 3,400 residential mobile homes. The Mobile Homes (Wales) Act has, therefore, provided a helpful basis for Welsh licensing law and has assisted the development of the Bill that I have laid, but industry differences have required that alternative legislative solutions be adopted to account for these.
The holiday caravan industry is a great Welsh success story. It brings thousands of tourists to Wales each year and, in doing so, makes a significant contribution to the Welsh economy, providing much needed employment and supporting businesses throughout Wales. However, the industry is not without its problems. The misuse of holiday caravans as main homes and the lack of enforcement action to address this issue represent a real and growing threat to the industry going forward, to the wider tourism economy and to providers of public services. It is for these reasons that the Holiday Caravan Sites (Wales) Bill is necessary.
In conclusion, I want to put on record my thanks to the Minister and his officials for the useful discussions that we have had during the course of the development of the Bill; to Peter Black for his work on the park homes sector, which has also helped to inform the development of my Bill; and to all those who took part in the engagement events and responded to the public consultations that were undertaken. Finally, I want to give a very special note of thanks to Stephen George, Gareth Howells, Joanest Jackson, Jonathan Baxter, Martin Jennings, Kath Thomas and all of the other Assembly support staff and teams that have helped by giving their advice and support and helped me to bring this Bill forward. I commend the Bill to the National Assembly.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Housing and Regeneration, Carl Sargeant.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I know that the Member in charge has put a lot of effort into the significant task of producing the Bill, and his efforts have been clearly appreciated. I have not had an awful lot of time to look at the consequences of this Bill, but I have a few initial observations on it.
First, I support the sentiment behind the Bill. If people are living in holiday caravans as their main residence, that is something that I would not support. This has obvious implications for local councils, as individuals are not likely to be paying council tax while continuing to access local services. My issue is the size and scale of the matter that the Member in charge brings to the Chamber. I am not yet fully aware of this issue and want to better understand the problem of the unlawful occupation of caravan sites and whether it is sufficiently widespread to necessitate the seemingly heavy-handed approach of legislation that may in future be required.
I am also yet to be convinced as to the cost of the implementation of the Bill. Much of the burden now falls to site owners, and costs will inevitably be passed on to legitimate holidaymakers at a time when the tourism industry, as acknowledged by the Member, needs every little bit of help it can get. Increased costs and bureaucracy could put Welsh sites at a disadvantage when compared to their English counterparts. In fact, I received today a letter from the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport setting out similar concerns, including those about the potential risk for unintended consequences that could seriously disadvantage holiday caravan parks in Wales.
Darren mentioned the Mobile Homes (Wales) Act 2013, which was used as the basis for the approach taken here. The Act was conceived to tackle some very specific problems encountered by people living in permanent mobile homes. The circumstances here are, I believe, very different. However, again, the work that Peter Black and the team were engaged in has given you some basis on which to move forward.
Llywydd, I want to see something done, as Darren Millar does, if there is a problem, but—and this is my whole point about the debate—I want to be clear that there is, in fact, a problem and, if so, that it is of a sufficient size and scale to warrant a regulatory approach. Therefore, I would like to see, during the scrutiny process and progression of this Bill, a study of the full economic impact of the proposals, particularly on the Wales tourism industry, and the evidence of the need for a Bill. However, I wish the Member well in his pursuit of his backbench legislation.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I have nine speakers on this item, so I just remind Members that this is time for questions to the proposer. I call Mick Antoniw—[Interruption.] Sorry, I was under the impression that you would reply to the Minister at the end, but if you would like to do that now, that is fine.
I thank the Minister for his tentative support for the sentiment behind my Bill. He is aware that this is an issue that I have raised with him on a number of occasions in the past, and I know that the scale of the problem is actually rather difficult to establish. There is some evidence of residential misuse, which I have cited in the explanatory memorandum tabled with the Bill. For example, around 400 people across six local authorities are living in holiday caravans that are registered for council tax. There are 62 housing benefit claims across six local authorities and 82 GP registrations from just a small sample of sites in the Conwy County Borough Council area. Over a 12-month period, 83 people were arrested or named as suspects by North Wales Police who gave holiday caravan sites as their addresses. There were 361 concessionary bus passes issued to people who had holiday caravan site addresses in Conwy in 2007 and 2008. I think that one of the other telling statistics was that the 2011 census suggested that around 6,000 households were in caravans or mobile structures—with around 3,400 households on park home sites, that leaves 2,600 that were on holiday caravan park sites. Therefore, there is evidence, and I agree with you that we need to establish more. I think that the committee, through the Stage 1 process, will be able to do just that.
In terms of concerns about costs, you are quite right, Minister, that we have to make sure that there is minimum impact in terms of costs on the industry. That is why, in the explanatory memorandum, we have set out some examples of the sorts of costs that we would expect to see as a result of this legislation if it were to be implemented. It is encouraging to note that the annual cost per unit would be around £3.43 per caravan unit per year here in Wales should the Bill be introduced. So, I do not think that that is an onerous price to pay for protecting and safeguarding the industry and dealing with this problem of residential misuse in the future.
You have highlighted the difference between both industries, as I did in my opening statement. That is why there are significant differences between my Bill and the Bill that Peter Black brought before the Assembly last year.
I am glad that you brought this Bill forward. In fact, I have a constituent who has come down especially to hear you, because it is a matter of concern to my constituents and quite a number of others. You have given a bit of information about the scale of the problem. What sort of work do you intend to carry out? What sort of research will be carried out now in order to identify more accurately the scale and nature of the problem? That will be one of the key issues when it comes to the scrutiny stage, in terms of the issues that the Minister has raised and I am sure that many others will be concerned about. I am glad that it has been brought forward, because I do not think that people appreciate the scale and number of people who are involved in caravans and mobile homes and so on.
Thank you for that particular question. As I indicated earlier, there is a suite of information already in the public domain that points to the fact that there is a problem. However, it is impossible for anybody to establish completely accurate figures. By the nature of the problem, because it is residential misuse, it is hidden within the holiday caravan industry. I think that the statistics that I just gave you are interesting, particularly that one in respect of the number of people who responded to the 2011 census, which suggests that there could be up to 2,600 households living on holiday caravan parks in Wales.
Of course, it will be for the committee to consider during the Stage 1 process whether that evidence is sufficient to be able to legislate. I feel that it is. In my constituency, obviously, the holiday caravan industry is extremely important. I do not want to do anything that jeopardises that industry, but it is jeopardising itself in not dealing with this particular problem of residential misuse and that is why we have to bring forward legislation to deal with it.
I should declare an interest straight away as a caravan owner. I very much welcome the statement today from Darren Millar. As you know, in Wales, we are well known for loving our caravans and it is a very brave politician indeed who places himself between caravan owners and the unfettered use of those vans, so I will follow the progress of this Bill with some interest.
I agree with the thrust of the argument that sites licensed for holiday use should not be used as permanent residences. In the last Government, I was invited on a number of occasions to caravan parks by the proposer along the north Wales coast to explore this very problem. Modern caravans probably are suitable for accommodation, even in the colder months, but no site owner should allow breaches of their site licences and planning consents, because I am sure that we would all agree that they exist for very good reasons.
So, why not just insist on the enforcement of current law? If access to public services is the issue, why place the onus on the site owner to police it and why should they be the gatekeeper of public services in Wales? Why not just prevent local authorities from allowing those bus passes, housing benefits, and registration to schools from addresses on holiday sites? They process these things, so why not just insist that they stop doing that?
In the explanatory memorandum, you mention the research that was carried out to underpin the Bill. I wonder whether you intend to publish that research, so that we may see it.
I have a question on the required documentation for the residence test, because, of course, people will be required to undergo this test every year to prove that they have a residence elsewhere. Now, would these be available for non-UK residents who own caravans in Wales? The list of documentation that you have put there appears to be available only to people who have another home within the UK. So, are you restricting the test to UK residents only, or are you now preventing people who live abroad from owning caravans in Wales?
I just have one or two more questions, Presiding Officer.
If this is an attempt to get more council tax, how do you know that those people will be council tax payers? If this is to ensure that everyone pays their fair share of council tax, why are you restricting this just to caravans, and not including other accommodation normally used by tourists, such as hotels? Why just caravans?
I thank the Member for the questions. There were a lot of questions wrapped up in that particular response.
May I just deal with the current legislation and the need for new legislation? The current arrangements simply are not working. The existing Act that guides the legislation in this area was given Royal Assent in 1960; it is almost pensionable in terms of its age and it was designed, of course, for a very different type, style, and model of caravan industry. Under that legislation, local authorities have no duty to inspect, no duty to enforce, and they are not given any resources to assist them in doing that. That is why there is such a lack of consistency in the way that that happens across Wales. In addition to that, the financial penalties under the 1960 Act are limited—they are capped—and they are at such a low level that it does not provide an effective deterrent for some of the unscrupulous park owners, who, knowingly, allow people to live on their caravan sites. So, it is not working, and that is why we need a completely different approach.
Now, you mentioned the residence test. Of course, there is a suite of information that could easily be complied with from people with a home address overseas—an occupier’s address, or for a financial institution, or some documentary evidence in respect of a utility provider. These are things that every household, whether here in the UK or overseas, ought to be able to provide. That test is not an onerous test; it is a very straightforward, simple test, which is actually already undertaken by the best operators in Wales at the moment, and is something that is promoted by the British Holiday and Home Parks Association and, indeed, the National Caravan Council, particularly through the National Caravan Council’s approved scheme and code of practice. So, these are things that the best operators are already complying with; it is simply putting that on a statutory footing going forward.
I must correct just one point that you raised. You seem to suggest that the purpose of the Bill is somehow to be able to collect council tax from caravan owners. That is absolutely not the case—there is no suggestion that that is the case at all in the Bill. In fact, people ought not to be paying council tax on a holiday caravan at all. So, the measures in my Bill will prevent such tax from being chargeable in the future.
May I start by congratulating Darren Millar on having this opportunity to bring forward a Member-proposed Bill? I have noted, however, that all the Member-proposed Bills that have been proposed by the Conservatives have either increased regulation or have imposed new taxes. So, no doubt this is no exception.
I also want to make the observation that, in terms of the description that Darren Millar gave earlier of the number of people who are using caravan sites as a permanent residence, I am sure that the Minister is making note of that in terms of increasing his affordable home target, and also putting more money into his homelessness prevention budget, because I think that he may well have to do that if this Bill is enacted in its present form. However, we will go through that as part of the scrutiny process.
I have a few questions, Presiding Officer, in terms of the proposals in front of us, in particular in relation to the proposal to end residential misuse of holiday caravans. Darren proposes doing that by, effectively, giving local authorities the power to deal with caravan owners and occupiers who fail the test. I just wonder what penalties would apply to a caravan occupier or to the site owner, if it was found that a number of caravans on a site were being occupied on a permanent basis. In terms of the written statement of the terms and conditions and the other issues in terms of long-term occupiers’ rights, what enforcement is the Member proposing to put in place to ensure that councils are able to protect occupiers from harassment and bad decisions regarding changes on sites?
In terms of the proposals on licences, I note that the Member is proposing that licences will not expire, but will need to be reviewed every five years. Could Darren outline what the terms of that review are, what exactly would happen as part of that review, what its purpose is, and whether that review attracts a fee? In other words, is it just a renewal by another name? Finally, in relation to appeals against licence conditions, the Bill proposes that any appeals would go to the magistrates’ court rather than the residential property tribunal. Could the Member give a rationale for that, as it seems out of step with previous legislation in this area?
I thank Peter Black for his comments. In terms of the impact of my Bill on the need for new homes, I would point out that the research over in Lincolnshire suggested that those people who misuse holiday caravans as their main residence tend to be people of means; they do not tend to be people who are looking for an affordable housing solution. In fact, my Bill ought to prevent homelessness in the future because, of course, there will be a written statement of agreed terms that will be understood and easy to digest at the outset by caravan owners and site owners. So, we should not get into the situation that happens in my constituency on occasion, whereby people enter into agreements under the misunderstanding that they are allowed to live there all year round and then end up presenting as homeless to the local authority further down the line.
The maximum penalty, under the fixed-penalty system that the Bill will introduce, is £500, and there will be a need for guidance to be issued by the Minister on the use of those fixed penalties under the scheme to allow for consistency and proportionality in terms of the way that they are going to be used.
In terms of the protections from harassment, the Member will be interested to know that a large proportion of the protections that are included on the face of the Bill are lifted, to a large extent, from his own Bill in respect of the Mobile Homes (Wales) Act 2013. So, there are some similarities, but there is going to be a new requirement, as I mentioned in the opening statement, for caravan site owners to consult with caravan owners about significant operational changes on their sites. The only exception to that rule will be an emergency situation such as flooding or fire, as we have seen in recent months.
The reason that we have chosen to keep the existing regime, under the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, of the use of magistrates’ courts from an appeals point of view is because that system seems to work, it is a system with which the industry is familiar, and, of course, it is not a residential sector, it is a holiday sector, so it would be inappropriate to use the residential property tribunal. Finally, in terms of the review of licences, the review, of course, will ensure that people are subject to a fit-and-proper-person test. It will be undertaken at least every five years—at maximum intervals of five years—and it will allow, for example, for changes to be made to the licence that are appropriate and sensible. So, for example, as Natural Resources Wales updates its flood-risk management maps, if a caravan site that was not in a flood-risk area, or not deemed to be at risk of flooding in the past, suddenly appears to be, then it will provide an opportunity to be able to deal with any consequences for the licence that need to be provided for.
I welcome the introduction of Darren’s Holiday Caravan Sites (Wales) Bill and congratulate him on this achievement. I particularly welcome the fact that you have been developing this in co-operation with the two main industry bodies, something that they called for at the outset.
You refer to enforcement powers for local authorities. When we debated the proposed Bill last year, I noted that the industry had said that it is essential that enforcement should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. How are you proposing to ensure that local authorities cannot take a blanket approach and must approach each case individually on that basis?
You referred to the need in future for caravan owners and occupiers to demonstrate that their main residence is elsewhere. In the past, I think that I have referred to the trade bodies themselves stating that, if people live permanently in a holiday home, they would be in breach of planning permission or the site licence, with serious legal consequences. So, how do you propose to reconcile those serious legal consequences identified by the industry with the powers that you propose to give local authorities to deal with occupiers who fail the ownership test?
Last time, I also asked, in terms of the proposed Bill, for the Bill to require local authorities to make checks to ascertain that an applicant—a site owner—was not seeking to circumvent the home park legislation introduced by Peter Black by applying to license a home park as a holiday site, and I am wondering how this might address that.
You referred to the Bill seeking to give caravan owners and long-term occupiers rights and you referred to protection from harassment, and I will conclude with two points on this. How would you address the constituent who e-mailed me to say that the owner of her holiday park had been refusing to allow her to move to another caravan site and that she felt very intimidated by this? She said that there was very little legislation governing the practices of site owners such as hers. Fortunately, that situation was subsequently reconciled because of the intervention of the new site’s owner, but, nonetheless, the legislative gap was identified. Similarly, and finally, where a caravan owner may be in dispute with a park owner over a legitimate matter, but is reluctant to take action on their own account in case of reprisals, the holiday caravan arbitration scheme run by the British Holiday and Home Parks Association does not apply when caravan owners are threatened with eviction and relates only to financial recompense. So, how do we stop unscrupulous caravan park owners threatening caravan owners with eviction when they have simply sought to settle a grievance or highlight a problem?
I thank Mark Isherwood for his questions. I think that one thing that it is very important to note is that the British Holiday and Home Parks Association and the National Caravan Council have been extremely helpful in helping me develop the ideas in the Bill, and I want to, again, thank them for the work that they have done and undertaken in engaging with their collective memberships in order to help inform my ideas.
Enforcement powers for local authorities in the Bill will allow for a case-by-case approach to breaches of the residents test. So, this will ensure that there is an opportunity for a situation to be resolved without the need for fixed penalties or for a matter to be taken to the magistrates’ court. I think that it is really important to give that discretion to allow local authorities to resolve a matter, if they can, by amicable means with a site owner and, indeed, a caravan occupier. In terms of the opportunities for people to transfer their licences, or to make an application for a licence for a residential park home site to become a holiday site, this was something that was raised as a concern during the passage of Peter Black’s Bill through the Assembly and my Bill will help to address that problem by ensuring that anybody who becomes a site operator in the future in Wales has to pass a fit-and-proper-person test in order to obtain a licence.
The protections are in place on the face of the Bill for protection from harassment, so that the sorts of situations that you have described which your constituents are experiencing should be a thing of the past if this Bill is enforced in the future. Many of the situations that have been described to me in correspondence during the course of the development of the Bill could have been easily resolved if written agreements had been in place at the outset that were clear and understandable by caravan owners when they were purchasing their caravans. That has not been the case in the past. Written agreements have to be in place in my Bill in the future.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I have five more speakers. I ask you to try to curtail your contributions to just questions, if possible. I now call on Ann Jones.
I do have a couple of questions, but I just wanted to say that I think that the way in which Darren has gone about the extensive consultation has moved from where he initially thought that his Bill was going to go. For me, that is quite interesting, given that he and I share the costa del caravan. I just want to make sure, Darren, that you are aware of some of the consequences of duplication of regulation. I have not read the entire Bill, but I am still not sure whether there is that loophole of duplication in your Bill that will allow those poor-practice site owners to be able to play the existing legislation off against your new legislation. I just wanted to make sure that you are aware of that.
We also have to applaud the principal aim of what you are attempting to do. I am sure that this will not be the first time that you will be in the Chamber talking about caravans. I will note the number of times that you mention holiday caravans, compared with my sprinklers, and I will check at the end of it to see whether it has been a good process or not. I wish you well, but I just want you to be aware of that duplication.
I thank Ann Jones. We do share an interest in holiday caravan parks because of their prevalence in our constituencies. I know that Ann is acutely aware of the problem in the local industry in her own area. There is actually no duplication in terms of my Bill. What I have done is pick up and modernise the whole of the licensing process for holiday caravan parks, and use what works from previous legislation rather than simply put new legislation alongside the existing legislation—the 1960 Act. I want to reassure the Member that there will be no duplication, and that this is a completely new licensing regime for holiday caravan sites. I am very grateful for the support that she has extended in applauding my aims. I know what a tortuous process this legislation business now is, and I pay tribute to her for the hard work that she did on sprinklers.
Obviously, this is an area that is very important on Anglesey, too. I have received a fair amount of correspondence from constituents on this matter. I must say that I share your concern about residential misuse; and I should also say that the park owners on Anglesey who have come to see me also share your concern. The industry, certainly in my neck of the woods, shares the worry about the effect of residential misuse on local service and so on. However, I should point out that whereas there are dozens of parks on Anglesey, I think that only two are open all year round and therefore would be open to residential misuse.
I just want to ask a few questions that really show the dangers of this Bill, as it stands, to those holiday park owners who run parks that are only holiday parks. For example, the definition of a caravan can include touring caravans as well as static caravans. Obviously, the spontaneity involved with touring caravans means that perhaps this Bill should treat the different kinds of caravans differently. On holiday caravan agreements and the 28-day notice, I think that it places a real limit on the freedom of holiday park owners to grow their businesses and to seek those last-minute agreements and sales. That is another issue that has been brought to my attention.
In terms of the powers of entry that a local authority would require—perhaps just 24 hours—to gain entry to a park, many of my park owners, because they are closed for several months over the winter, are away from their parks and may not be able to fulfil the requirements of a local authority wanting to get in within 24 hours. Another concern is the residence test. What exactly do you mean by the failure to meet the residence test? Do you just mean the failure to produce documentation? I do not want park owners on Anglesey to fail to secure a deal to make a sale because they cannot produce the documentation today, so there could perhaps be a way of ensuring that documentation could be brought forward within a period of time. Those are some concerns that are very real. The park owners want to maximise the potential of their business. Spontaneity, weather and all these things affect the decisions that people make in deciding on investing in a holiday. We need to be very careful that we do not put barriers between park owners and potential business success, while recognising the residential misuse dangers.
I thank the Member for Ynys Môn for raising those concerns on behalf of his constituents. As a frequent holidaymaker in a caravan on Anglesey in the past, I want to pay tribute to the industry on the island, which is indeed thriving. I think that it is a myth that is sometimes put around that this problem is confined to those holiday parks with 12-month licences. The reality is that many people purchase a holiday caravan, flog their main home elsewhere and, during the closed season on sites with licences of perhaps nine or 10 months, sometimes go overseas or rent a local property in order to comply with that closed-season period. So, that is happening. It is happening certainly in my constituency. I do not know the extent to which it is happening in the Member’s own constituency. This is a problem that is not confined to those sites that have 12-month site licences.
The reason that this Bill will apply also to touring caravans is because touring caravans are very different to what they used to be many years ago. Many of them are as big as old static caravans. Of course, in order to avoid the potential for the problem to drift from the static caravan industry to the touring caravan industry, it is necessary to safeguard both sides of the caravan industry in order to capture that.
I want to reassure you on a very important point. The spontaneity that you describe in the industry is very important. I know that that happens. It has happened in my own life as well. I have suddenly decided to tow the caravan away for the weekend. This Bill will not require residency tests to be undertaken for anyone who is staying on a holiday caravan site for less than six weeks. It is only for those who envisage staying on a site for six weeks or longer.
The power of entry is an interesting issue. That power of entry already exists under the existing licensing regime, so there is absolutely no change to the existing powers of entry that are available under the 1960 Act.
In terms of the residence test, it will be breached if the documentation is not provided. That is very simple. There will then need to be an enforcement notice of some sort issued by the local authority, and there will be time available for people to comply with the test. So, I do not think that it is too onerous. It is realistic and it is reasonable. It will safeguard the future of the industry rather than damage it.
Of course, mid and west Wales would be home to a good proportion of those 70,000 holiday caravan units that the Member has talked about. I was particularly interested in his comments that the use of holiday caravans as main homes presents a growing threat to the tourism industry. I would be grateful if he could expand on those concerns and describe in a bit more detail what the evidence says the impact of the current arrangements is on tourism.
With regard to the specifics of the Bill, sections 15 and 18 relate to flood-risk management, providing that the local authority can put conditions on a site licence for that purpose. I am keen to have a better understanding of what that might mean in practice and what kind of conditions we are talking about there. Section 48 relates to the change of occupier’s circumstances and provides that if an owner forms the opinion that there has been a change in an occupier’s circumstance, they must carry out the next residence test within six weeks of the date on which they formed that opinion. I am wondering how that can possibly be enforced in practice, given that documenting when somebody came to an opinion is quite hard to do—impossible, I would suggest. Is there a precedent for something else like this in law?
The Member referred to individuals who use their holiday caravan as their main home, but do so within the existing law—for example, by going away on holiday or sofa surfing for two months of the year. What impact will this Bill have on those individuals, and what is the extent of that problem, if it is a problem?
The Bill follows the lead set by the Caravans Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, so I was wondering what the Member has learned from the passage and implementation of that Act, particularly with regard to the number of appeals, the burden on site owners, unintended consequences such as homelessness, and a subsequent greater reliance on local authority housing services.
Finally, Schedule 1, section 7 exempts travelling showmen from the Bill. I am sure it is an oversight, but I was wondering whether the Member would consider exempting travelling show-women here, too.
Thank you very much indeed for those questions. The rationale behind the comments that I made about the potential for damage to the industry going forward is because some of the feedback that we received through the engagement and consultation process has made it quite clear that having individuals using a holiday caravan as their main home on a site is a deterrent to other people wanting to stay on that site for holiday purposes. The nature of the spend in an economy from a tourist, compared with someone who uses somewhere as their main home, is very different, and that has the potential to undermine the wider tourism economy in the future.
You made specific reference to flood-risk management. There is a new requirement on the face of the Bill to consult with the public authority that is going to be responsible for flood-risk management in the future. Of course, we have to accept that holiday caravan parks are often in coastal areas, or alongside beautiful rivers, and that means that many of them are at risk of flooding. The sorts of things that I envisage will arise from that are requirements under licence agreements for evacuation procedures to perhaps be in place, or for mitigation measures to be in place to prevent caravans from floating, crashing into each other and potentially causing damage to people’s property, and, indeed, to people’s lives. So, it is important that we have those things in the Bill, particularly given the flooding experiences that we have seen in Wales in recent years.
Just on the issue of the Caravans Act (Northern Ireland)—. Of course, there has been a caravan Act in Northern Ireland, and it is an interesting Act, but it is not quite the same as my Bill in terms of what it wanted to achieve. However, it did initiate this principle of the need for written agreements, with some implied terms, and that has been the big lesson from the Northern Ireland experience that I have introduced into my Bill. I believe that it is having a very positive impact on the ground in terms of preventing disputes between holiday caravan owners and site owners in Northern Ireland, helping to prevent homelessness there in the future.
Briefly, I would like to declare conditional support for Darren Millar’s Bill. The potential for people who misuse caravan sites to live on them all year is increasing, not only because of pressure on local services, but because of the possibility, in the face of climate change, that some of them will be made homeless, and therefore will be asking for help from local councils. The question that I want to ask Darren Millar is this: does he agree that the situation has been made more complicated recently following the completely illogical decision by the Planning Inspectorate to get rid of the condition that restricted the season for caravan sites to be open? The north Wales planning authority was certainly agreed in opposing that appeal, but the inspectorate, in the name of the Welsh Government, decided to ignore the planners and the system that had been in place, which had been effective, or quite effective, in restricting people’s ability to use caravan sites as their main home. So, does he agree with me that that decision has actually made a difficult situation worse, and therefore that there is a need for some sort of legislation to deal with the situation?
You are quite right in that if a site currently has a 12-month licence, because of the existing licensing regime, it makes it more difficult to police against residential misuse of holiday caravans. Therefore, it is a matter of great regret that, in Gwynedd, and indeed in Conwy, some local authorities have granted licences, sometimes of their own volition, sometimes because of a decision that has been made further up the chain, as it were, forcing a local authority to allow for a 12-month licence on a site. However, if a new licensing regime is in place that enables local authorities to take action more readily and places duties upon them to inspect and enforce, I see no reason why 12-month licences on holiday caravan parks should be a problem in the future. I put on record my thanks to Gwynedd Council for its engagement in the process of the development of the Bill and for the support it has given to it to date.
I will be brief, because many of the concerns that have been raised by my constituents with me have been talked about by Rhun ap Iorwerth, Ann Jones, Rebecca Evans and others here today.
I, too, have holiday caravan sites, and very well run sites indeed they are, in my constituency. Owners have raised concerns with me, as have other people. Particularly, they are concerned that people who are already in ownership will be discouraged if onerous legislation comes in. They are people who have been there for perhaps 20 years or so. Also, it will discourage future ownership. Caravan tourism plays a big part in the economy in my constituency. People do not just go around visiting shops and so on; they buy cars. They have been coming for years, for 20 years or so in some cases. They are very concerned about that. They are concerned because they feel that legislation exists at present. I know that you are saying that this will be completely new, but you will have a long and hard battle to convince some people that this new legislation will be enforced better and will work better. My question to you is: how do you intend to do that? I hope that any further consultation you take in future will be very wide indeed and that you will listen to all the views that are coming forward.
I thank Sandy Mewies. I recognise the considerable constituency interest that she has in the holiday caravan industry. This is not onerous legislation. The good operators that Sandy Mewies has in her constituency are already preventing people from using holiday caravans as their main home and using the tools recommended to them by the industry bodies of which they are a member in order to discourage that. Quite simply, those tools are the tools that I have applied to this Bill, to ensure that the good practice that the good operators in her constituency are operating under is extended throughout all parts of the industry in Wales.
There is existing legislation, but it is not working. That is why I am bringing forward this legislation. As I mentioned before, local authorities have no duties under the current licensing Act to inspect, they have no duties to enforce, and they have no resources to enable them to do that work to enforce. There is a lack of consistency as a result. The financial penalties are too low to be an effective deterrent as well.
I do not believe that this will discourage future caravan ownership; I think that it will encourage it, actually, because it will make visiting Wales a more pleasant experience. The issue of residential misuse will be addressed once and for all if this Bill becomes an Act. The biggest damage that we would see to the industry would be to not deal with the residential misuse problem, as it will continue to grow in the industry and cause further problems and discourage people from visiting Wales.
I have been listening, that is why this Bill is very different to the draft Bill I published in December. That is why my ideas, as Ann Jones has already recognised, have changed considerably over the period in which the Bill has been brewing and developing. I want to respond to the Member by saying that I will continue to listen during the legislative process as we move through Stage 1. I would be more than happy to meet with any of her constituents who have concerns.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you very much and we wish you well with the rest of the passage of your Bill.
Motion NDM5468 Paul Davies
Supported by Simon Thomas and Aled Roberts.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Expresses concern that some students taking English GCSE modules in January 2014 were awarded unexpectedly low grades;
2. Welcomes the Welsh Government’s rapid review into the situation;
3. Notes the importance of considering all the evidence which is available for the review; and
4. Calls on the Welsh Government to share the nature of the review process and the evidence received as part of the review in an open and frank manner.
I am pleased to move the motion for the Welsh Conservatives debate, tabled in the name of my colleague Paul Davies.
I would like to be sure that Members are fully of the understanding that this motion is supported by Simon Thomas and Plaid Cymru, and by Aled Roberts and the Liberal Democrats. If we could have done a joint motion we would have done, but there were tabling restrictions. Minister, we have kept our motion extremely focused on the concerns raised by students, teachers, parents, governors, unions, exam boards, opposition parties and, indeed, the Welsh Government in relation to the results awarded to some 23,000 youngsters who sat their unit 1 and 2 English language exams in January of this year.
There are four parts to this motion and I would like to deal with them in turn. First, we wish the National Assembly to express concern that some students taking English GCSE modules in January 2014 were awarded unexpectedly low grades.
Let me be very clear to the Minister and to all who listen: I am totally supportive of having robust examinations that enable students to receive an internationally recognised qualification. I have no problem with there being a step change in rigour. I know that this is an ambition of the Minister. It is an ambition of the Welsh Conservatives and it is an ambition of mine. If we had a large number of individuals with poorer than expected grades because they had not managed the more rigorous coursework, I would have been much less concerned about the January results. Even if we had small cohorts in some schools with recognised difficulties, I would have been less concerned. However, I am concerned because we appear to have a stampede of underperforming students, schools and test results. I just do not buy it. It flies in the face of the law of probability. It is probable that some students, even the brightest, will fluff their exams for any number of reasons. It is probable that some teachers will have misunderstood the drive behind the coursework or not be competent to deliver a more robust course without further support and training. However, it is not probable that so many students will fluff their exam, that so many teachers will be incapable of teaching English language to the changed coursework.
Minister, I have always been prepared to cast a cynical eye over vested interests. I always expect people to try to explain away uncomfortable scenarios. The days of holding your hand up or taking it on the chin appear to be in short supply, but I have genuinely been staggered by the sheer wealth of disbelief, of concern, of anger, of shock and of disappointment that has greeted these results. Disbelief because students who did well in the mock exams failed so totally in the January sitting. There is disbelief that a new flagship exam has received such a catastrophic maiden run; disbelief that students who did well in other exams and who shine across the board suddenly crashed so spectacularly; disbelief that, once again, the Welsh education system is under the spotlight; disbelief that we are having some sort of nightmare re-run of the Leighton Andrews exam regrading situation.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 16:07.
Headteachers and heads of English are telling me that these modular results have little or no correlation to pupil performance through teacher assessment, other GCSEs already achieved, baseline testing or key stages 2 and 3 results. As a headteacher from south west Wales said,
‘Essentially they do not match the academic profiles of students who have sat the examinations.’
Back to the laws of probability, these anomalies cannot simply be discarded by poor examination technique or inadequate preparation by teachers, or attributed to a lack of maturity on the part of students.
Minister, there is also a great deal of concern that students who sat these exams in the expectation of using them as a foundation to build upon for an overall good mark are back at square one. There is concern that confidence has been dented and, in some cases, shattered, and concern that room for improvement has been removed. Let me quote from an e-mail I received from a north Wales headteacher. He says:
‘I feel for the pupils who we entered the foundation phase for so that they could get a C grade. The plan would then have been to push them towards more difficult higher papers to try to get an A or B. This would have allowed them to move on to A-level English. This will not happen now, as they are desperate to get a C in order to stay on with us or go to college.’
Those students do not have room for manoeuvre. The threads of disbelief over the situation and concern over the disparity of results are woven across all of Wales. There are too many students who achieved well in other exams, and this plummet in their grades does not ring true.
In their letter to you, one of the comments made by the 19 headteachers and the director of education in Rhondda Cynon Taf was that the English literature outcomes for the same cohort seem unchanged. If the results carry over into summer, then students will achieve dramatically different grades in both exams. Again, this will not be a reflection of their ability, but a reflection of an unfair, ill-conceived and seemingly arbitrary process.
There are also concerns expressed over how these individuals will be able to make up their grades in the subsequent summer English language exam. This is a concern that has been raised by parents and by the Association of School and College Leaders. Because of the new marking and weighting system, students would have to have astonishing results to achieve their predicted outcomes based on their first set of scores. The notion floated by WJEC that students and teachers could cram in these last few weeks is a non-starter. What about their other examinations? What effect will there be on those results?
A headteacher representing schools across two counties told me that the marking scheme does not provide them with a clear understanding of how to rectify the situation in the few months that remain to improve the performance of these young people and their contribution to national statistics on educational performance. Minister, in their view, there has been an ill-advised weighting structure to the marking schedule for these examinations, and this has not been shared with teaching staff. There has been no evidence of the principle of comparable outcomes being administered, which has compounded the issue.
That same headteacher, who represents a large group of headteachers, went on to say that,
‘As schools, in the light of this fiasco, we need to decide not only which modules students need to re-sit, but such is our confidence we also have to reconsider what tier paper we are entering students to give them the greater chance of achieving a C grade.’
Such communications need to be with the examination board by the end of March, and a clear resolution before that time is essential. Minister, I know that you will agree that it is vital for our students to get at least a C grade in English. It is one of the markers used by colleges, employers and sixth forms. A lack of at least a C grade will adversely impact on those students’ chances, going forward.
As another headteacher—this one from south-east Wales—has said, if WJEC or the Welsh Government try to make the case that, even if things have gone wrong this January, then the students will have another chance to put this right in June, then they fail to understand the real concern. We are worried that staff, and particularly students, have had their confidence shaken and, even if they all enter the exam in June, their confidence will have been damaged, they will be under increased pressure and stress, and this in itself could result in further underperformance.
Minister, I would like to move to the second part of our motion, in which we welcome the Welsh Government’s rapid review of the situation, which we do. However, I ask for your assurance that you will look at all of the evidence and that you will talk to and listen to stakeholders with an open mind.
Your response to the letter sent to you by the headteachers of RCT was, in my view, very dismissive and combative. You say in your response that the impact is not severe across all schools, but I cannot see how you can say that. My colleagues in the Welsh Conservatives and I have been in contact with a great many schools in our respective areas, and the message is almost universal. ASCL also has some 100 schools that have raised concerns. I know that some of the schools that have contacted me directly are not part of that 100. Given that there are only some 223 maintained secondary schools in Wales, I would say that this is not a small problem.
I have also spoken to the heads of some of the independent schools in Wales, and they, too, have expressed concerns. You went on to say in your response to the headteachers of Rhondda Cynon Taf that they should be helping us to get to the bottom of this or, perhaps, considering what they could have done better to raise the grades of their students. That is fighting talk, Minister, but you need to be absolutely sure of your ground here, because that one sentence condemns a significant majority of our schools, their headteachers and their heads of English. That one sentence seems to put the blame at their door. As the heads of RCT said, to hear senior WJEC staff say that pupils had not been prepared properly is insulting and inaccurate and smacks of passing the buck. They say that their staff did the very best they could. To hear the Minister for Education and Skills reflect that kind of comment is very worrying. Your teams are essentially reviewing themselves and, if we are to accept their findings, we need to have confidence that you entered into this with no preconceived notions.
That leads me neatly to the third element of our motion, which notes the importance of considering all of the evidence that is available for the review. Minister, I urge you to do just that. I know that this is a quick review, but it does not need to be a shallow review. Schools and students should be included in this review, as well as unions, WJEC and the Government.
I have read the skimpy WJEC press release today, containing its findings after its internal review, and I find some of the conclusions surprising—for example, only one examiner needs a review. That surely could not outweigh the outcome so much.
So, Minister, will you ask WJEC how many students out of the 23,000 who sat the paper were affected by that one examiner? Given that the examination specification was changed in October 2012 with immediate effect after the course had already begun in September 2012, will you ask WJEC what impact it believes that might have had on the results? Will you look at whether there has been an adequate lead-in time for the new specification? In the past, pilot schools have been involved in developing new papers, yet we have had a major examination change without that review process. Minister, will you look at what continuing professional development was in place, how the new criteria were communicated, how many schools attended training, how many raised concerns over the ability to teach a new examination with such little time to prepare and how it was introduced to schools? Will you also look at what role was played by regional consortia and education services? Would you look at what predictive modelling WJEC would have done? I assume that it would have forecasted how the exams would fit with current teaching, other exams and the comparability factor of previous exams.
The final part of our motion is to call on the Welsh Government to share the nature of the review process and the evidence received as part of the review in an open and frank manner. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that we restore faith. I have had it made very clear to me that there is a significant feeling of insecurity within the profession in the strategic leadership of education epitomised by this particular crisis. Minister, this crisis comes at a time when there is a significant change scheduled for GCSE programmes of study that are starting in 2015 and examinable for 2017. We all appreciate that we need a quick and effective resolution to current concerns. There is also a dire need to honestly evaluate the culpability of all partners in education regarding decisions being made concerning assessment and attainment. I will finish with a quotation from a headteacher who is very well regarded in the profession. He says:
‘We all need to be far better prepared to meet the needs of our young learners and offer them an irrefutable academic base on which to build their futures.’
When the news broke on Thursday 6 March that there might be issues with the January English language GCSEs, I immediately e-mailed all five secondary schools in my Rhondda constituency to get their feedback. Their answers were informative. One school disappointed at the results had, nevertheless, done better than last year. Another said that most pupils had cashed grades in the previous year, that this year’s results were for weaker students not expected to get the top marks, and that the results were lower than expected. Another told me that it was very disappointed with the results, giving an example of a pupil who had an A in the first paper and an E in the second. Another school said that pupils on the C/D border had been particularly affected, and this school raised detailed questions. The structure of the paper was different, including two-part questions without any advance warning of this and the wording of the questions was, in its words, ‘unnecessarily waffly’. It pointed out that marks in unit 2 on the comparison of two tests were particularly low nationally. The final school told me that 42 of its 51 expected C-grade students got lower grades than expected in unit 1 and 20 got lower grades than expected in unit 2. These are headteachers I know personally who are feeding back honestly and with feeling. They raise real issues. The Welsh Government is getting first-hand experience from schools and I am glad that the Minister has said that he will do that.
However, is this 2012 all over again? No, it is not. Then, the principal issue was that the outcomes imposed by adopting the key stage 2 predictor model based on results in England had not produced year-on-year consistent comparable outcomes in Wales, resulting in unfairness to our students. This time, we are not dealing with an overall GCSE outcome, but outcomes in a limited number of units. The current issue makes me glad that we decided, when I was Minister, that we would be keeping unitised qualifications in Wales, rather than moving to a linear structure, as in England, based on end of course exams. Students have the opportunity to re-sit. Keeping unitised qualifications also means that, if problems occur, they can be spotted early on and addressed.
One proposal that I think the Minister could look at, which I adopted for the 2013 cohort in respect of English language, is to issue only the raw marks in January to schools, not the overall grades. This would mean that actual grades would be calculated after the June units had been undertaken, ensuring that those taking units in January and those in June are treated consistently and fairly.
I am glad that no-one has suggested that we should not have more rigorous standards of spelling, punctuation, accuracy and grammar. After all, employers and FE colleges were continually telling the Welsh Government when I was Minister that the literacy standards of new employees or college recruits were not as high as they should be.
I know that some are saying that this issue demonstrates that we should have an independent examinations regulator. Of course, that is already happening; I announced it in December 2012. However, an independent examinations regulator did not resolve the problems in England in 2012, so there is no guarantee that an independent exam regulator, on its own, would resolve issues in Wales in 2014.
The Conservative spokesperson raised good questions about WJEC. I think that what this issue really raises is the role of WJEC. Given the issues that it must have detected, why did WJEC not engage in early discussions with its regulator, the Welsh Government, when it realised that there was a problem? Is it true that it was only after WJEC had issued the grades to schools that the Welsh Government was made aware that there was a problem? I think that the truth is that WJEC has struggled to adapt to the tougher regulatory environment that Ofqual imposed in England after the December 2011 exam seminar debacle, in which WJEC featured rather ingloriously, and to the tougher regulatory environment that I imposed in Wales. Too often, its responses to regulators have been terse, petulant or missing the point. That is why Qualifications Wales is being built on the Scottish Qualifications Authority model, independent of Government but responsible for regulation and awarding. I am afraid that this latest episode means that the writing is on the wall for WJEC.
Angela Burns, in opening, has already set out the concerns that we on this side of the Chamber have about the unexpectedly low grades that some people have received in English GCSE modules sat this January. These results really matter and can mean the difference between success and failure, and may affect pupils’ future work prospects.
I share Angela Burns’s concerns that no-one is taking responsibility for this issue. There is a blame culture that almost seems to be not dismissed but encouraged by the Minister for education, letting parents believe that teachers are solely to blame for their children’s grades.
The Huw Evans review into qualifications was broadly accepted by the Welsh Government 14 months ago. That review recommended the retention of GCSEs as the main level of general qualifications. It encouraged the introduction of two new mathematics exams and also encouraged the Government to retain A-levels. Another aspect of the Evans review was to create a single body responsible for the regulation and quality assurance of all non-degree level qualifications. As we have said, the Welsh Conservatives favour a regulator wholly independent of Government.
We need to ensure that, at the end of this process, qualifications are not in any way devalued. During the transition period, pupils must be confident that those still studying under the existing system do not feel that they are working under a flawed system, which may not carry the respect of employers or universities. We have to make sure that the Welsh education system does not lose sight of the current crop of students.
If we are going to follow a different path to the path followed in England on GCSEs, which is perfectly plausible, we need to ensure that Welsh qualifications are globally recognised. So, I and my party seek reassurance from the Minister that this will be guaranteed and that these qualifications will be fully promoted.
We are all aware that a social media campaign and roadshow have been promoting these new qualifications. I would be interested to know what measures are in place to assess the success of this campaign.
The Minister has announced that four new GCSEs in English language, Welsh first language, numeracy and maths techniques will be introduced. However, as I understand, the Minister has not ruled out that some other GCSEs might be revised for first teaching from September 2015. I would be interested to know where we currently stand on this, so that adequate preparations can be put in place.
From my time on the Enterprise and Business Committee, I, along with other members, recognised the full value of vocational qualifications. I understand that the maximum value of a vocational qualification can be worth two GCSEs in Wales, compared with one GCSE in England. It has to be the case that employers fully understand this change, and that the value of vocational qualifications may change depending on where they were gained. The current lack of clarity also applies to how the Welsh baccalaureate will work post-16. On this, it is vital that employers and the higher education sector fully understand what the specifically Welsh qualifications mean, so as not to put applicants at a disadvantage.
As Angela Burns said at the start of this debate, improvements in outcomes must be seen. Too often we talk about outcomes, but I do not think that there is a full appreciation of what outcomes actually mean—and, indeed, the difference between outcomes and outputs.
There is some good news here. I am pleased that the figures for those not in education, employment or training have fallen, in the younger age group at least and that we are no longer seen as a hotspot within the UK for this. However, we must remember that the figures for the 18-24 age group—a problem for so long in Wales—still remain stubbornly high. We need to ensure that the changes in policy and examinations actually provide the skills needed for pupils to best fit the needs of the modern labour market—not the labour market of yesteryear, not even the labour market of today, but the labour market of tomorrow.
The Minister made a statement recently announcing the Donaldson review into assessment and the curriculum. This is yet another review—one more review after five separate reviews and reports focusing on different aspects of the curriculum. Five separate reviews. We are all in danger in this place of drowning in continual review. I hope that the Minister has not been taking lessons from other colleagues in Government who have announced a series of reviews to delay the implementation of actual policies—reviews of reviews. I would be interested in learning when the Donaldson review will be published and what time frame is in place for the implementation of the recommendations that it makes. That is, a proper time frame, not the artificial time frames that this Government so often likes talking about.
As Angela Burns said in opening this debate, the opposition parties have come together not for policy purposes, but for scrutiny purposes. I think that that is completely appropriate. Of course, this exam that we are examining today, the way that it has been marked and the way that it has impacted on some of our students is a direct result of what happened in 2012, because this is the first of five new exams that are supposed to be pioneered in Wales by WJEC to take into account the lessons of that experience. I think that the former Minister for education made a very good point regarding unitisation as opposed to linear examinations. It shows the value of retaining that aspect, to help all our students achieve their very best. However, there is a situation that has arisen over the marking of some of these units, as we have heard. There are five main questions that I would like to pose: have standards changed? What is the scale of the problem? Did the Welsh Government know? What did the Welsh Government do? What can we do now?
First is standards. We have heard a little bit about standards. The First Minister said last week, in response to the leader of the opposition, that he stands for higher standards. However, if you examine the wording of the statement by the Minister for education on this very matter, you will see that he has said that the Welsh Government has not committed to a recalibration of standards in GCSE English language. So, I am still uncertain as to whether these exams were marked to higher standards. We do not have a clear answer on that.
Secondly, we have heard about the scale of the problem. There is no doubt that this is a more widespread problem than some, certainly in Government, have allowed for. Around 40% of the centres had problems where the results were over half a grade out from what was expected. Of course, teachers can get it wrong, but the thing was that this was unusual. That is why the fuss arose. To have that disjoint shows that something went wrong between the exam board, WJEC, the teachers, the professional development and the training for those teachers. The people who are blameless in all this, of course, are the pupils, who simply did what they were taught and tried their best.
The previous Minister referred to the Rhondda situation. That was crystallised in the letter—he gave a very fair summary of that situation—to the current Minister for education. However, it had an overall assessment of a drop of around 25% in the number of students gaining a grade C or better. That is considerable. That is not just standards; there is something else going on here. The letter also posed a question to the Minister for education—we have not heard a reply yet—about who decided to dispense with norm-referencing as part of the examination process.
This has been added to since then by a letter from the the headteachers of Gwynedd schools, who have come together. Eleven of the 14 secondary schools in Gwynedd put in candidates for the units in January. Again, they saw a decline from 50% achieving grades A* to C in their previous experience of paper 1 to a 27% result this time round. Again, it was unexpected. What is interesting is that Gwynedd schools said that they felt that the papers were fair and what they expected but that the marking was unfair. Now, that is something that the WJEC website itself seems to bear out because it says that the proportion for unit 1 at the foundation tier gaining grade C has fallen from 23% to 5%. Again, that is more than you would expect simply by tightening up a little bit around grammar or language.
Today, the WJEC report, an adequate report as far as I can see because I cannot really make head or tail of what is issued in the press release without details, said that it had found one examiner to be inconsistent. Even so, the papers that are going to be re-marked are counted at 318, which is less than 1% of the total. I do not think that that accounts for what we have experienced in different parts of Wales so far. Did the Welsh Government know? Well, there was the letter to Mr Chris Tweedale from the headteacher of Ferndale Community School, to which he replied that he would monitor the situation to ensure that no students were disadvantaged by the change. Well, some students have been disadvantaged; there is no doubt about that.
What did they do? Well, that is a very fair question. Did WJEC alert the Welsh Government as the regulator to this situation? Was the Welsh Government present in the critical final boundary-setting meetings that dictated these grades? I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little more on that today. What do we do now? Well some pupils’ papers will be being re-marked. That is good for them. However, as I said earlier, the pupils are blameless in this. We want to see the full facts emerge. Before we make final decisions, we need to see what the Welsh Government’s review brings forward. On the basis of those full facts, we must ensure that this year’s pupils are no worse off than pupils in previous years or compared to what we want to see going forward. We do not want to see one year’s cohort penalised for the sake of higher standards for the future.
I am grateful to be able to participate in this debate today, led by the Welsh Conservatives but supported by the two other opposition parties. Before I go into my main contribution, I think, if I may say so, that it is unfortunate that the Government has not made an oral statement to allow questioning in the Chamber. Listening to all the contributions so far, some very pertinent questions have been put to the Minister in a very reasoned way, I would suggest. There is a trend here with the Government. We saw it with rail electrification yesterday, that there was no oral statement, and now the same is happening with this issue. In two weeks, we have had two very big issues come up and Ministers have not come to this Chamber to take questions from Members from across Wales. It is unfortunate that the opposition parties have to do this and, in this case, it is our time that we are having to use. However, we will not shirk our responsibility in using that time to get the answers to some of the big issues that people are facing in their everyday lives.
I suppose that I should declare an interest as I have a son who sat this very exam and did not perform to his predicted grades. The school he was in also had a very rude shock, shall we say, with all the candidates it entered. The teacher involved had to go home because she was so distressed by the situation she found herself in. I believe that it is the students and the teachers who are going to be the main losers in all of this because, in the summer term, many, if not all, of those students will be sitting a whole series of exams, and this is hardly confidence-building, to say the least, leading up to those very important life-changing exams, which will set the course for their future education and employment opportunities.
I think that there are lessons to be learned from the previous GCSE debacle, which happened under the previous Minister for education back in 2012, and that is clearly highlighted in the letters from the headteachers in Rhondda Cynon Taf—
Will you give way?
I would gladly let the Member speak.
Do you therefore now regret not supporting my re-grading decision in 2012?
I think that what all the headteachers who signed the letter to the Minister—
Could you answer the question?
[Continues.] —of education deeply regret is the way that you changed the parameters through your tenure. The coursework was being changed when the academic year had already started in 2012. As they say quite clearly in their letter, the change in itself was a reaction to the ongoing political agenda. It is because of the previous Minister’s ongoing political agenda that students and teachers have suffered in this module. That is quite clear. The former Minister can sit there shaking his head, but, unfortunately, it is largely down to a lot of his actions that this debacle has happened.
I have a great deal of sympathy for the current Minister—he is probably not thanking me for having sympathy for him—for having to pick up the pieces from the previous Minister. However, I say to this current Minister that the way that he responded to the letter that came out of the Rhondda Cynon Taf headteachers association is deeply unfortunate, and, in particular, some of the language that he used was deeply unfortunate. To say that this was scaremongering by a professional body of headteachers is deeply unhelpful to the situation, and a more thoughtful reaction could actually have achieved so much more, especially when we are looking to those very professionals to work with Government and with students and teachers to try to solve some of these problems.
I also think that in the letter that was put forward by the headteachers in Rhondda Cynon Taf, when they were given assurances from Mr Tweedale, he said, ‘We will monitor the situation to ensure that no students are disadvantaged by this change’. As Angela Burns touched on in her opening remarks and as the Plaid Cymru education spokesperson said in his remarks, what monitoring was actually going on by the Welsh Government when we find ourselves in the current situation? Clearly, from what most people are experiencing, very little monitoring was being undertaken by the Welsh Government and that is why we find ourselves in this situation at the moment.
I do hope that the Minister will use this debate to outline positive action that the Government, along with the examination board, will undertake to reinstall confidence and a commitment to these exams, especially with the all-important summer exams approaching. There is no-one on this side of the house, or anyone around this Chamber, who does not want to see rigour and a gold standard in the examination system that we have here in Wales.
However, I have to say that, because of the actions of the previous Minister for education and his politicisation of the process, that is why the students and teachers of Wales have been let down and that is why we are in the situation that we find ourselves in. He may well laugh, but when you go home to a son who is in tears, because of his actions, that really is unforgiveable.
It is important that, in supporting this debate this afternoon, we actually try to ensure that we find a way out of this situation. The people who are really suffering as a result of whatever has happened are actually the 23,000 or so who sat their units in January and who face a great degree of uncertainty pending the GCSE papers that they will complete in June.
It is only fair to say that the vast majority of us in this Chamber supported the move towards a more rigorous examination system in Wales. We supported the qualifications review. As part of that review, recommendation 18 moved towards a different English-language GCSE qualification. I think that what we are all struggling to come to terms with is the reason why a large number of our students have been disappointed by the results from these two units in January.
It is clear that only some 16.4% of centres had experienced a drop of one grade or more in the anticipated results. However, it is clear from discussions that I had last Friday in a number of schools in Wrexham and Clwyd South that the figures are actually quite surprising in their scale. There was one school, for example, that was expecting 78% of its students to achieve grades A* to C, and it ended up with 27%. In another school, 54% of students were expected to achieve that, and it ended up with 12%. What is worrying parents, children and teachers is what exactly has happened, because WJEC’s statement this morning would suggest that there is no real difficulty as far as its marking is concerned. It has acknowledged, as Simon Thomas said, that there might be an issue with one particular examiner, but that will only allow 318 papers to be re-graded. That is less than 1% of the total.
Therefore, we have a failing here of some kind or another and it is important that we establish the reason for that failing, because we have to ensure that these pupils do not lose out in their June examinations. More importantly, we have to retain confidence in these new made-in-Wales qualifications that we will be introducing over the next 12 months or so. Therefore, what I want to see is not an exercise in apportioning blame, but an explanation as to what exactly has gone on. Did we create a situation, following the review, where the examination was introduced more rapidly than it should have been? Was there a failing in understanding between the Welsh Government as regulator and WJEC about the consequences of the changes in the system? Was the practice of WJEC in its specimen workshops and specimen papers adversely affected by some of the pressure from Ofqual and the changes in the review as far as those particular circumstances were concerned?
I would disagree with Andrew R.T. Davies. I think that the expectation as far as the Government is concerned is that it should come back to us, either with an oral statement or a debate, once the consequences and the findings of its review are established. I think that if there are criticisms regarding the regulatory function, the Government needs to consider whether or not there should be some degree of independence as far as that function is concerned. However, we need to ensure that we restore confidence.
We also need to understand what steps the Government and WJEC expect to take with regard to these 23,000 youngsters. There was obviously an expectation, as far as Chris Tweedale’s letter was concerned, that people would not be adversely affected. There are now people who have been adversely affected by these units. We are still bound by the comparable outcomes principle as far as WJEC is concerned, but I think that there is a danger there as well, because if the two remaining units in June are leniently marked in order to restore overall grades, the veracity of the Welsh qualification in the English language could be undermined and that cannot happen.
Therefore, we need to act and we need to act quickly. Workshops have been arranged by WJEC in south Wales, starting on 23 March. In north Wales, they will not occur until April and the intervention of Easter will mean that schools will have only two or three weeks in order to react.
I am pleased to take part in this debate this afternoon and put on record my concerns surrounding the recent WJEC GCSE English language results. Like many Members across the Chamber, I have also received local representations regarding this issue. As the leader of the opposition said, the Minister for education accused some of scaremongering last week, but I have to tell the Minister that one teacher, in an e-mail to me, referred to 6 March as the most disappointing and upsetting day of his teaching career.
Needless to say, there were countless students who were devastated by the poor results that they received, often two or three grades below expectation, and this was not only in Pembrokeshire but across all of Wales. Many of these students are angry, confused and, quite simply, unable to understand how they can have got so little from so much hard work. The general percentage of students who received results far below what was expected in Pembrokeshire is around 25% to 30%. Even though WJEC has now decided to re-mark some of the English exams, this fiasco has meant that many children and, indeed, the teachers who are educating them have lost faith in the examination system.
Currently, there are many schools across Wales facing a number of challenges—one being the extremely low literacy levels of pupils entering secondary school. Indeed, one only has to look at the recent Estyn annual report for 2012-13 to see evidence that the state of affairs in secondary schools is less than satisfactory. According to that report, the proportion of secondary schools branded as ‘unsatisfactory ’ increased from 14% to 23%, and two thirds of secondary schools and half of primary schools are in need of follow-up inspections. This is simply unacceptable. As Members are already aware, there are also the latest PISA results, which make grim reading. The results of the most recent test showed that Wales was once again ranked at the bottom in relation to other UK nations. While I accept that the Minister for education has said that, from the academic year 2015-16, his education reforms will bear fruit, that does nothing to help those students reaching the end of their statutory schooling in the meantime.
Despite teachers’ hard work, dedication and commitment, not enough pupils leave at the end of secondary school with creditable results. In the academic year 2013-14, more strategies than ever have been put in place to support pupils and engage with those who have lacked motivation or confidence in their own ability. So, the recent events surrounding the WJEC GCSE English language exams are upsetting for students and teachers too.
I am given to understand, from the representations that I have received, that schools were informed only in October or November about changes to specifications to the English language GCSE. If this was indeed the case, this meant that over half a term of work was wasted familiarising students with the old specifications. I am also given to understand that the new specification has been seen as rushed and poorly developed. In particular, the unit 3 reading exemplars were considered vague, and some advice and guidance were seen as contradictory. Teachers have also told me that the assessed exemplars were poorly copied and scanned in, and not of sufficient quality to use in the classroom. When teachers raised their concerns with WJEC, they felt that the board was slow to respond and was evasive.
I therefore do not accept Minister’s view that some headteachers’ concerns have just been reckless scaremongering. I believe that it is quite clear that the roll-out of the first Wales-only GCSE examinations has been less than satisfactory, given the assurances that students were given 16 months ago by the Government that they would not be disadvantaged.
I appreciate that WJEC has now carried out an internal review into marking, that re-marking of some papers will now take place, and that schools could still challenge individual results using the traditional appeal route. However, in my view, the Minister must use this opportunity this afternoon to provide cast-iron guarantees that the students who sat those exams will now receive a fair grade. Teachers whom I have spoken to would like to see a specific marking review of all GCSE English exams and they would also like to see a review of the grade boundaries taking place as well. It is crucial, therefore, that the Minister and the Welsh Government start taking on board the views of these teachers. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to these representations, particularly in the light of today’s announcement by WJEC. I believe that the Minister must also look at this issue in the context of the general picture of our education system in Wales.
In closing, therefore, I hope that the Minister will now support all schools and education centres to help the education sector to understand why exam results have been so much lower than anticipated, and to ensure that all students receive the grades that they are entitled to.
I want to say a few things, because what is important, I think, in a debate such as this is that the facts are correct. Nick Ramsay asked earlier about vocational courses, saying that they are worth twice as much as a GCSE in Wales. They are, because they are longer courses. That is true and everyone accepts that. Paul has just mentioned the Estyn report. I was asking the Estyn chief inspector this morning, ‘Is the fact in your report that assessment in our schools is poor? In half of our schools, teachers have problems with assessments.’ The third thing that I wanted to say, just to make sure that the facts are correct, is that perhaps Andrew R.T. Davies and his son were sitting an exam this year, but my son took the English language exam in 2012, and the situation in 2012 was entirely separate from the current situation. Therefore, we should not confuse the two. The important question, as Aled Roberts said earlier, is: what has actually happened? Were the papers more difficult than they have been in the past? Also, have we seen those papers? Could we answer them ourselves?
I am grateful to the Member for taking an intervention. I know of his experience in the field of education. Would you recommend bringing out coursework and changing a course after the course had already started, and then not giving teachers the chance to go to workshops so that they could bring themselves up to speed with the new coursework that needed to be taught? Would you recommend that?
Another fact that I should have mentioned is that Paul Davies said earlier that the schools did not know until October, but, if my facts are correct, it was October 2012 that we are talking about, not October 2013. So, for the cohort that we are talking about now, we know that the teachers were aware of this for 18 months.
Having said that, my question was: what has happened? Were the papers more difficult? It is important to understand that it is panels of subject teachers that reviewed the process of drawing up the curriculum for the future, and monitored the efficiency of curricula of the past. I would also like to say, at one point, there were more children in England than children in Wales following a WJEC English language GCSE, because it was that popular. So, what has happened? Everyone speaks a language, therefore, to an extent, everyone is a language expert. However, there are a number of elements related to language. We are dependent upon the professionals who are specialists in their area to bring the elements together in order to evaluate every element of the big, comprehensive picture. In listening to street-corner philosophers, you might think that spelling and punctuation are all that counts. On the other hand, some would argue that things went too far in the other direction in the 1960s and 1970s, creating, in some schools, an environment in which communication was everything and correctness in language counted for nothing.
The new examination that we are discussing has changed this. The function of the experts is to evaluate every element. Communication is crucially important and includes all other elements. The accuracy of communication is one element, but, in addition, the ability to select the appropriate timbre for an audience or situation is a feature of significant language ability. Naturally, spelling and knowing where and when to use a full stop or comma is important, and the module in question recognises this, while acknowledging that it is far from being all that is important. However, I spoke with a head of department here yesterday afternoon, and I asked her about the exam. She said that it has changed and that they are looking more at some things, such as punctuation, when that was not done in the past. Ultimately, the value of something should be evaluated carefully and calmly. It is not a matter of emotion; this is an issue for the head and not the heart. This is an issue for specialists and not amateurs. I am pleased to see that WJEC, having reviewed this matter, has re-marked some of the papers.
The second point I want to raise is that I am concerned that a significant number of year 10 students took this new module after one term of lessons only. I ask the question of whether this is adequate. Finally, I am pleased to see that the Minister is inquiring into this situation, and I look forward to his report, because what I want to know is: what has happened? Why was this paper seen as being more difficult than past papers?
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. As I made clear in my written statement on 7 March, when concerns were raised about the English language unit outcomes for January 2014, I took swift action in ordering a rapid fact-finding exercise to get to the root of the issues that had emerged. It was designed to identify the factors that had caused the variance that we see in these unit results and to identify and rapidly put in place appropriate actions to support learners between now and the summer. Members welcomed that exercise when I answered an urgent question on these issues on 11 March. I cannot stress enough that we cannot, and must not, jump to conclusions prior to the fruition of that work. I am afraid that there has been far too much of that, within this Chamber and outside, and it does nothing but serve the learner ill.
We must ensure that the decisions and the actions that we take are based on sound evidence and are in the interests of the learners of Wales. Members will be aware that WJEC released a statement this morning on the findings of its own internal review of marking. It makes clear that the marking scheme has been applied consistently in all but one of the cases reviewed. In that one case, there are indications that the examiner’s marking was slightly inconsistent. Although there are no sizeable disparities identified, WJEC is undertaking a full re-mark of this particular examiner’s work. The centres whose candidates’ work was marked by this examiner have already been informed. I should make it clear, however, that in layman’s terms this means—some Members have mentioned this and it bears reiteration, especially given the media’s interpretation of what WJEC has said today—that WJEC has identified potential marking issues in 318 papers. That is less than 1% of the more than 35,000 papers that have been marked. I should also say at this point—
Will you give way?
I am grateful. The Minister mentioned the media view of this, and he will know already that this is being run in the London media as, once again, Welsh exams being re-marked. That is an issue for us. Can he confirm when he intends to bring forward his investigation so that we can have a proper analysis of the whole picture?
You mean when WJEC does?
No, your view.
Well, I am coming to that. I think it is unfortunate that the media is unable to distinguish between an issue concerning a single examiner and an entire re-mark, which is the impression it is giving to the public and to the learners and concerned parents out there, which is very unfair. While the evidence that has been submitted by WJEC has import, it represents only a part of the picture that we actually need to build. The revelation by WJEC today does not take us to the heart of the matter, not at all—nowhere near it, in fact. There are other issues that we need to look at, from the grade boundaries that WJEC set for these exams, to the support materials and the general support made available to support learners, to satisfy ourselves that the process of awarding worked as it should have done.
Clearly, as regulator, I have a duty to conduct our own investigation to satisfy myself on these wider issues and to consider a way forward. I am doing that as part of the rapid fact-finding exercise that I mentioned. That exercise is taking evidence from schools affected by the results, and from WJEC. Through this evidence, we will establish the facts, and working with WJEC and regional consortia, we will put in place additional support so that the learners can be supported as the summer approaches. We need to be clear: the results that were announced on 6 March were unit results. They were not GCSE results in the round.
Will the Minister give way?
I am grateful. Minister, you referred to working through the education consortia, and obviously we welcome the fact that this review is taking place. However, do you think, bearing in mind the sensitivity of the issue, that the individual schools affected should be contacted by your officials rather than just through the education consortia? Obviously, there is still an awful lot of concern as they wait for the reviews to come back.
Of course they would be. This is not just a question—. Of course, the schools are instrumental in working alongside us in making sure that we get things right here. We will see the final outcomes for the full GCSE in English language, as I say, not in March, but in August, when any re-entries for these units, and the outcomes from the controlled assessments that have been mentioned, will be taken into account.
As I have previously stated, the Welsh Government has an expectation of comparable outcomes between years in GCSEs, and that is well established. This is particularly important when new specifications are assessed for the first time, as you would expect, and as is the case with the GCSE English language this year. My officials will be discussing arrangements for the summer’s full qualifications awards with WJEC, of course. We are clear that we expect qualifications outcomes for our large-entry subjects to be stable from one year to the next, unless there are compelling reasons why that should not be the case. Put simply, a ‘compelling reason’ would be evidence that the cohort this year itself is either weaker or stronger than the 2013 cohort. At this stage, we have no reason to think that that is the case.
Despite some of the comments from Members this afternoon, the motion that is before us today is, I believe, sensible, and sets a reasonable tone. I recognise and understand the concern that Members from all parties feel about these unit results. Nevertheless, for the sake of the learner, we need to remain calm and ensure that we move forward on the back of hard evidence and hard data. That way, we can concentrate on the real purpose at the heart of the matter, and that is to do the right thing by the learner. I am pleased that the motion expresses concern in what I think are appropriate terms. It also seeks assurances that we will be open about the fact-finding exercise. I noted in my reply to Aled Roberts’s comments back on 11 March that there will be transparency throughout this process. It does not benefit anyone to obfuscate or attempt to conceal what is at the heart of the matter. So, I support that point in the motion, too. I will make sure that this happens. That will include any issues regarding the monitoring of the work of WJEC, to answer the point that some Members have raised here this afternoon.
I recognise that many learners, parents and teachers are disappointed by the results reported back on 6 March. It is clear that there have been problems in a number of centres—in some centres; in a minority of centres. That much we all know. That is why I ordered the rapid, fact-finding exercise. I can inform Members today that that will report back on Monday, 31 March. I have spoken to the Minister for government business and propose to bring forward an oral statement on Tuesday, 1 April, the following day, to respond to Members’ questions about the report.
I realise that time is of the essence, but I will not rush into decisions and actions that are not substantiated. I will not trade in anecdote, rumour or hyperbole, as some opposition Members seem happy to do. Unfortunately, some outside obverses seem happy to do so, too. That risks causing more problems for the learner. My focus will remain upon that learner and absolutely nothing else. I repeat: no learner in Wales will be disadvantaged through no fault of their own. I will ensure that. I will also not retreat one inch from the agenda around standards and rigour. I will ensure that every successful GCSE English candidate has a certificate of unarguable worth and a qualification that is universally recognised as tough to gain but very much worth having.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Angela Burns to reply to the debate.
Minister, I was pleased to hear what you had to say, particularly in the last minute and a half, when you laid out very carefully your stall. I welcome that. The reason why we brought this debate today, and why I am glad that you think that it is a fair and measured debate, is because of some the rhetoric that has been going around, even from your department, officials and press team, which has jumped to conclusions and implied actions on behalf of schools. For example, your response to the RCT letter, where you say that perhaps it should be considering what it could have done better to raise the grades of its students, implies that it has failed.
You are right that the WJEC review does not take us to the heart of the matter, which is why it is so essential that your review must do so. We are looking for a comprehensive review from you, Minister, which will stand to robust scrutiny from all of us. I want to pick up on a couple of points quickly. We do not want to have a fudging, as Aled said, by being over generous in the summer, but, as Simon Thomas said, we absolutely must not penalise this current cohort. We must get this right because, from Estyn to PISA, it is clear that we have ground to make up.
It is about how we can put the current situation right. We need you also in your review to look at what we have learnt and how this will impact, particularly on the new modules proposed for other examinations that are due to be implemented in 2015 and examined in 2017. We must make sure that those have a soft landing, that we get that rigour that we want, but that we do not have this disappointment in our young people, or confusion by the schools. There must be adequate training, CPD, knowledge and expectation of what the marking will do and how it will be measured.
There was one exam mark, shown on the WJEC website, that could have had 10 points as a maximum, but most pupils in Wales got 2.5 points for that. That has to say something about that question and how it was interpreted, marked or something else. We want you to look at all of that.
You are absolutely right, we need to keep calm, but we cannot just keep calm and carry on. We must keep calm but make the robust changes that we need to ensure that those pupils have the right chances in the summer and that they are not put under pressure when trying to sit these exams while doing all of their other exams at the same time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? There are no objections. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Lesley Griffiths, amendments 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the name of Elin Jones, and amendment 6 in the name of Aled Roberts. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be de-selected.
Motion NDM5469 Paul Davies
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the recent upturn in the UK economy as a result of UK Government actions.
2. Acknowledges that the overall UK GDP growth was 0.7 per cent in Q4 2013.
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to work collaboratively with the UK Government to ensure long-term economic growth.
I move the motion.
There is no doubt that our economy has been beset by many fundamental problems—the biggest budget deficit in post-war history. Indeed, Britain had suffered a deep recession and had to contend with the biggest budget deficit in the developed world—the debt of £157 billion—the biggest budget deficit it had ever experienced since the Second World War. The build-up of private debt, accompanied by a global banking crash in 2008 and an erosion of our competitiveness in an era when global competition and the global race for economic future has rapidly accelerated.
This deficit did not suddenly appear purely as a result of the global financial crisis. It was driven by persistent, reckless and completely unaffordable Labour Government spending and borrowing over many years.
By 2008, the UK already had a structural deficit of more than 7%—the biggest of any G8 country. We have seen the broken model of growth, propelling our economy to an increasingly unsustainable position. We will not be able to build a sustainable recovery with long-term growth unless we fix this fundamental problem of excessive Government borrowing and spending that undermines our whole economy. A Conservative-led UK Goverment policy utilises certain aspects of economic control to cut our deficit by a third. There are now 1.6 million more private sector jobs and 400,000 more businesses.
Britain’s economy will be growing faster than any of the other G8 countries by the middle of this year. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has predicted an annual growth rate of 3.3% in both the first and second quarters of 2014.
In addition, there had been a fundamental erosion of our competitiveness. David Cameron put this simply:
‘Britain is in a global race. There’s a fierce battle for our economic future with great shifts in wealth taking place from West to East. And yet while this race was speeding up, under the last government we fatally undermined our competitiveness with layers of red tape and bureaucracy: £77 million of red tape with over 36,000 new regulations, more than 12 for every working day of that last decade. Our corporate tax regime went from being the 11th most competitive in the world to the 23rd most competitive. And the UK fell out of the top ten places for the ease of starting a business, meaning it took twice as long to start a new business here in the UK as it did in America, almost twice as long as in France and the same length of time as it does in Mongolia. Innovation was stifled and the ability of British business to compete internationally was seriously damaged.’
In June of last year the First Minister stated this:
‘we have made it clear in Wales that, as a Welsh Government, we do not agree with the programme of austerity that is being propagated by the Tories and Liberal Democrats in London. We do not see that the evidence is there to show that what they are doing is working.’
Frankly, I cannot agree with this. There are further comments that the First Minister made. For example, he mentioned the ‘economic folly of the UK Government’—that is not exactly shown by the facts today. He said this:
‘Our manifesto was designed to deal with circumstances of slow economic growth, particularly given the economic policy of the UK Government.’
He talks about failure; we all see what happens when his party runs things in London. Thank goodness that they do not. Economic prospects are much greater now than they have been for many years.
This competitiveness problem in our country goes very deep. The welfare system has failed to incentivise people to work. Our schools have in the past badly let down too many of our children, who only get one chance at education. Last week we saw in the Assembly how Labour Ministers meddling in the examination system has damaged confidence in the rigour of Welsh qualifications and undoubtedly knocked the morale of teachers and students, who have important exams looming this summer.
The United Kingdom Government has got behind British business, helping to win contracts in tough overseas markets by breaking down barriers to trade, including with today’s new export action plan for the retail sector, which will assist up to 1,000 companies and over 600 SMEs to deliver £0.5 billion of new business for Britain over the next two years.
A leading business group has said that the strength of the recovery will see Britain’s economy surpass its pre-crisis peak earlier than expected. The British Chambers of Commerce upgraded growth forecasts for the next two years. This will mean that Britain’s economy wil now exceed its pre-recession peak in the second quarter of 2014—three months earlier than had previously been predicted.
We should note that these are not just statistics. These increases in British exports mean British businesses getting new orders and that means jobs right here in Wales. The number of people on out-of-work benefits has fallen and there have been 1 million extra private sector jobs over the last two-and-a-half years. There are also more people in work than ever before in our economic history.
We want to achieve good public services, but we will not be able to afford them if our economy is weak and we are spending half of the budget on debt interest; we will not be able to look after old people with dignity in their old age if we are still squandering billions of pounds on welfare for people who could work but do not. Many families in Wales will be struggling with bills at the end of this month, parents are worried about what the future holds for their children and whole towns are wondering what will happen with regard to their economic future. Fortunately, there is now real momentum in the United Kingdom’s economic recovery after GDP increased in the fourth quarter. This shows that Britain’s hard work is paying off and that the country is well on the way to increased prosperity. To quote Bill Clinton, as the tide rises, so the boats float.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the six amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be de-selected. I call on the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport to move amendment 1.
Amendment 1—Lesley Griffiths
I move amendment 1.
In point 1, delete all after ‘Recognises’ and replace with ‘improving economic conditions’.
Delete point 2 and replace with:
Regrets that latest GDP data show a decline in Wales’s GDP compared to the EU average.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Further calls on the Welsh Government to ensure the regular publication of key economic indicators such as GDP and GVA statistics in order to inform future policies.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Resolves that urgent steps are needed to improve Wales’s economic fortunes including the adoption of an export-led, skills-based strategy.
I move amendments 2, 3, 4 and 5.
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this debate and to move the amendments in the name of Elin Jones. Yes, we have turned a corner and economic conditions are better now, as amendment 2 recognises, but we must ask how much of that is being felt by the people of Wales. The most recent unemployment figures for Wales are certainly to be welcomed, but, of course, they tell only part of the story, and I will refer to that later.
Amendment 3 places the focus back on Wales. Perhaps London is starting to experience a boom once again, but looking at the glass half-full of 0.7% growth in the UK’s GDP in the last quarter of last year does not hide the challenge that faces us here. Again, we have unequal growth and, if we look at the most recent GDP figures for Wales and compare them with the European average, we see that Wales has fallen further behind.
It is a matter of some concern that the figures that we have specifically for Wales do not give a comprehensive and up-to-date picture of our economic position. That is why we have tabled amendment 4, which restates our demand for key economic indicators to be published, such as GDP and GVA statistics and so on, and for them to be published regularly. We must have every possible tool in our possession as we formulate economic policy for the future. Amendment 5 gives a suggestion as to what a Plaid Cymru government would seek to do in terms of that policy.
The Welsh economy has the potential to flourish, but we in Plaid Cymru know that urgent action and fresh, innovative thinking is needed from Government to realise that potential. Plaid Cymru welcomes the fact that the economy, when taking the UK as one economy, is growing, but as Members of the National Assembly for Wales, it is largely irrelevant for us to talk about a single UK economy.
Are you accepting, then, that the One Wales Government failed to deliver the economic growth that Wales needed?
I believe that what we are doing today, is it not, is addressing what you claim to be the success of the UK Government and its policies in driving change? I am not seeing that change, and its effects here in Wales. In fact, if we look at the latest data, we see that Wales’s GDP is in decline.
Data published this month show that the GDP per capita in Wales has fallen to 74% of the EU average. Now, with a motion congratulating the UK Government on its work in stimulating economic growth, we cannot say that a 0.7% figure of growth in the UK’s GDP reflects economic growth in Wales when the latest data for Wales show our GDP in decline. Again, I make the point that we need the right tools and up-to-date figures on GDP and GVA in Wales in order to plan for the future. We cannot base our economic planning on figures that are three years out of date.
I will turn to unemployment. Welsh unemployment has dropped significantly over the past year. It has finally returned now to the UK average—or below the UK average, actually—which we, of course, welcome, after a significant period above it. However, if you dig a little deeper, some problems come to light. While unemployment may have dropped, the number of people working part-time has increased by 11,000 since Labour formed the current Welsh Government. Over the same period, the number of temporary workers has increased by 4,000, and long-term youth unemployment has more than quadrupled. Plaid Cymru has long been arguing that the challenge facing Wales is a challenge to create not just employment, but the right kind of employment. Welsh jobs need to be high-value jobs—jobs that add value to our economy.
I am grateful to the Member for taking an intervention. Is it Plaid Cymru’s long-term or medium-term ambition to take the Welsh economy out of the UK economy and secure independence for the Welsh economy?
I am not sure how, in any constitutional pattern in the future, you could disengage the Welsh economy from the UK economy. However, I will go on. We need our businesses to add value through exports, which is why we unveiled our overseas trade initiative. We want business itself to lead business growth in Wales. That is why we want a new business-led agency to influence how economic development funding, such as structural funds, is allocated. These kinds of ideas are good for business, but, more importantly, they are good then for Welsh families and Welsh communities who do not feel the recovery that the Conservatives are trumpeting this afternoon. They certainly do not feel it. We want to drive up Welsh wages.
I will just finish. Those in positions of power at both Welsh Government level and UK Government level can either be content with the kind of lopsided growth that we have been seeing or they can ask themselves what kind of economic growth we want to see in Wales. Do we want to continue Wales’s dependence on the kind of economic growth that we have seen very recently led by the south-east of England or do we want to back our own economic growth here in Wales?
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Eluned Parrott to move amendment 6, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the positive impact that the creation of more than a million apprenticeships in England since 2010 will have had on UK economy and regrets that in Wales the number of people on apprenticeships placements fell by more than 26% between 2006 and 2012.
I move amendment 6 tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
I would like to thank the Welsh Conservatives for bringing this debate on UK budget day, of course, because I think it is only right and proper that we recognise the huge progress that has been made in turning the UK economy around from the parlous state it was left in by the previous Labour Government under Gordon Brown. I am proud of the role that my Liberal Democrat colleagues in Westminster have played in making this happen, helping to create more than a million new jobs and 1.6 million new apprenticeships, which has helped see Britain achieve record levels of employment and, of course, record levels of employment in Wales and unemployment that is lower than the UK average.
I was interested to hear the Member for Ynys Môn outline his unified vision for independence for Wales economically, which is an interesting counterpoint to the independence debate in Scotland at present. However, he is absolutely right that our focus, as Members of this place, should be on how the people of Wales are going to feel the benefits of any economic growth in the UK as a whole. That is why we have worked so hard as a party to ensure that even during some of the most difficult economic circumstances in nearly a century more than a million ordinary working people in Wales have seen their tax bills fall by £700. Thanks specifically to the Lib Dems in Government, the tax allowance will be raised yet again in April next year and, in total, will have lifted more than 150,000 of the lowest paid workers right here in Wales out of the tax system altogether. Helping those ordinary working people in this way by putting £800 a year back in their pockets has a knock-on benefit to local economies all over Wales.
However, let us think bigger about what the budget is going to offer us as well. As well as that, the help announced today for energy-intensive industries will directly protect jobs here in Wales.
Will you take an intervention?
Yes, of course.
Thank you for taking the intervention. Are you therefore disappointed like me, who has Tata Steel in his constituency, that it is going to take two years before this is implemented—two years of hard graft against competition in Europe, where energy bills are half those of Tata?
On the contrary, I am proud that this has been introduced at all, in direct contrast to the kind of policies that were pursued by the last Labour Government, which were damaging to these kinds of industries. This will directly protect jobs in companies like Tata Steel in your own constituency and, of course, like Celsa Steel (UK) Ltd in my region too. I am very proud that this is going to be introduced and will benefit Welsh workers directly, as will the extension of capital allowances in enterprise zones for a further three years, and as could, potentially, the expansion of the regional air connectivity fund to include start-up flights as well. Those kinds of things will have a direct impact on the Welsh economy as well as the UK economy. The UK economy is growing again and growing at the fastest rate of any developed nation in the world. We should be glad about that, but we should be looking for ways in which Wales can benefit.
So, my amendment today concerns apprenticeships, which I see as vital to building the economy of the future for Wales. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of young people on apprenticeships in Wales fell by 26%. While I welcome the progress that has been made more recently, there are still issues that we need to tackle. For example, only 6% of people on the Young Recruits programme are in skilled trades such as engineering. I find this disappointing and it is something that we need to discuss. I also continue to be concerned about the under-representation of women in the skilled trades, an issue that was raised with me just this morning by the director of British Telecom in Wales. If we want to see our economy fly, we cannot write off half of the workforce from the most growth-potential areas of our economy.
Progress on aspects such as the online matching services for apprenticeships for young people in Wales is very welcome, but it stops short of the full Universities and Colleges Admissions Service-style application system and clearing house system that I have called for, and which the UK Government has announced. I would urge the Welsh Government to continue to look at this and at ways in which we can improve that process, because going that step further would help to create parity of esteem by establishing parity of approach between vocational and academic progression routes, which has had cross-party support in this Chamber previously.
Unsurprisingly, I will not be supporting amendments 1 and 2. Labour Members are very happy to blame the UK Government when times are tough, and I am rather disappointed that they cannot be magnanimous enough to give credit where credit is due.
Will you take an intervention?
No, I am afraid I do not have time. I recall, a year or so ago, Labour Members standing up in this Chamber making grave predictions about a triple-dip recession; there was not even a double-dip recession. You were quick enough to point the finger of blame. If the imaginary triple-dip recession, which never happened according to the Office for National Statistics, was the responsibility of the UK Government, the upturn that we are seeing now, which exceeds that of other EU countries and is therefore not an accident of the global economic conditions, is also the responsibility of the UK Government.
Having inherited the biggest budget deficit in the developed world and Labour’s great recession, this UK Government faced hard choices, which, if not tackled, would have had lenders closing the door to the UK and therefore to Wales. Despite this, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures show that the UK has had the fifth smallest austerity programme among the top 20 developed nations, whereas countries that followed a path of borrow, bust and bail-out suffered higher cuts and a greater squeeze on living standards.
The UK Government has defied the heckling and stuck firmly to its long-term economic plan. In consequence, the International Monetary Fund has confirmed that Britain is the fastest growing major European economy. The British Chambers of Commerce has said that the UK economy will surpass its pre-recession peak in the second quarter of 2014, and the OECD has said that Britain’s economy will be growing faster than any other G7 country by mid 2014.
Only yesterday, the manufacturing industry body, the EEF, reported manufacturing confidence, strong exports and recruitment and investment intentions at the highest level ever recorded by its survey. As its chief economist said, this is the most positive set of indicators that we have seen for some time, demonstrating that we have not just turned the corner but that we are actively heading down the right road.
However, the Labour Welsh Government is responsible for economic development in Wales, and official figures published in December reveal that Wales remains the poorest part of the UK. Wales is still producing the lowest value of goods and services per head among the 12 UK nations and regions at just 72.3% of the UK average. West Wales and the Valleys, including four north Wales counties, remains one of only three regions in the UK that still qualify for full EU convergence assistance. Wales has been bottom of the 12 UK nations and regions since 1998, remaining bottom under Labour-led Welsh Governments since devolution despite receiving billions in European funding that was supposed to close the gap and drive prosperity.
Official gross domestic product figures published this month show that Wales’s GDP had fallen again to 74% of the EU average, an 11% drop since 2000. In Flintshire and Wrexham, it had fallen to 85% of the EU average, down 18% since 2000, and in west Wales and the Valleys it had fallen to just 64% of the EU average.
However, because these figures are published two years behind, this Labour Government argues that they are out-of-date. However, it has used the same argument every year as the fall against the EU average has continued, with the figures published year after year.
This Labour Government boasts of a 191% increase in inward investment, but fails to say that this increase was from a base of just 23 projects—the lowest among the four UK nations—or that this involved just five new companies coming to Wales with Welsh Government involvement. In reality, Wales’s share of UK inward investment has fallen from 15% in the 1980s and 1990s to just 4% now, from top to bottom destination among the 11 nations and regions of mainland Britain.
Although the number of working-age people not in work in Wales has fallen, this has only occurred since the last UK general election, when figures peaked at 627,000. The figures in Wales are still higher than in England, Scotland and the UK.
This Labour Government boasts of an 11% rise in exports, but fails to say that this follows a big fall in 2012 and only puts Wales back on a par with England against the 2011 figures.
Apprenticeship participation in Wales decreased 2.4% between 2007 and 2013, while increasing over 107% in England. This Labour Government conveniently uses youth unemployment figures from the regional ‘Labour Market Statistics’ release—
On the issue of apprenticeships, surely you must acknowledge that the chairman of the Sutton Trust said that it was a cruel deception to state that there has been an increase in apprenticeships in England during the period you quote, when actually it has fallen by 4% for those aged under 19.
I said ‘apprenticeships’. I did not say ‘all apprenticeships’. That includes adult apprenticeships, yes.
I think that most of the people taking up apprenticeships have actually been over 25. That is where there has been the most enormous growth. So, by quoting statistics for under-19s, it is slightly misleading.
Yes, thank you very much.
Coming to youth unemployment, the Labour Government conveniently uses youth unemployment figures from the regional ‘Labour Market Statistics’ release, despite that release stating that the figures should be used with caution and are designated as experimental statistics. Despite that, the Deputy Minister, who has just spoken, has used these figures in the local press. In fact, the main International Labour Organization measure shows that youth unemployment in Wales stands at 22.5%—the highest of the UK nations. As a potential inward investor told me, he would not countenance proceeding with the Welsh Government based on the experience to date.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
This lost nearly 140 north Wales jobs and the relationship with a Fortune 500 company. As Construction4Growth Wales states—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. I did tell you conclude with that sentence. Thank you.
I did not hear you.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Okay. I call on Mick Antoniw.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on the economy and I welcome any improvements in the economy that the Tory motion seeks to promote. However, I do this with a large degree of caution. What does improvement in the economy mean, what is the economy and where do ordinary Welsh families feature in this debate? To start with, we have to begin with a Tory Government and the Lib Dems taking power in 2010 from Labour with an economy that, after an international financial crisis, had a strategy for investment, growth and creating jobs, and where growth had returned to the economy. The coalition Government then dismantled that strategy of investment and growth with the most savage cuts to public spending, investment in schools and capital investment in infrastructure that sent the economy into recession for two years.
Will you take an intervention on that?
No, I do not have time, and this is a pejorative contribution, anyway.
The coalition began to change course and, with improvements in the international economies, particularly the USA, some growth has returned. There are, therefore, two key issues: how sustainable is the current economic strategy and whose benefit is it for? The underlying theme of the coalition is that we are all in it together. Quite clearly, that is not the case. We have a UK Government of the rich, for the rich. Coalition austerity is about the poorest in our society paying for the mistakes of the bankers. There has been little impact, of all the cuts—
Will you take an intervention?
No. I said no.
There has been little impact on the wealthiest in our society, whereby the top 10% own 40% of the wealth. Coalition cuts and income tax will disproportionately benefit the wealthiest. It is all very well increasing the lower rate of tax for all—[Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. Mick, please stop for a moment. I cannot hear the speaker. [Interruption.] Order. I am also getting Members popping up all the time to make interventions when the Member has made it clear that he is not taking an intervention. In fairness to him, he is not mentioning Members by name either. You must listen to what he has to say. The Conservatives introduced the interpretation of where the economy was in 2010. Now, this is the other version and you need to listen to it.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. It is all very well increasing the lower rate of tax for all, but, at the same time, to reduce tax for the wealthiest few at the top is to shift the burden of austerity onto the poorest. We all know in our constituencies the impact of welfare cuts on the poor, the disabled and women. Having made real progress on poverty, as is acknowledged in the Tory-commissioned report by Alan Milburn, we are now seeing the return of real poverty and the food bank economy while, in the City of London and at Chequers, the champagne flows. In today’s budget, imposing a welfare benefit cap, as is suggested, is imposing an artificial cap on need—a fixed budget for the poor and disabled but no cap on top-rate earnings and no cap on excessive profits and bankers’ bonuses.
As for the economy itself, we have a corporate tax free-for-all, with little or no tax being paid by major UK companies and some of the wealthiest individuals. Tax avoidance is rising year on year; it is currently at around £35 billion per annum—up £3 billion from last year. This should come as no surprise, because 14 of the top 20 Tory donors are heavily dependent on tax havens to avoid paying tax. [Interruption.] Under this Tory/Lib Dem Government, we have a trade deficit for 2013 of £43.5 billion and increasing. We have an economy fuelled by debt and consumer purchasing, boosted by the Help to Buy housing scheme that is creating an economic growth bubble that is predominantly in the south-east and which is unsustainable. It is a bubble shored up by the Help to Buy scheme that allows people to secure up to £600,000 of Government money to purchase second homes and to fuel a buy-to-rent frenzy. The point is that economic growth so far is predominantly dependent on a short-lived housing boom.
The impact of cuts in Westminster to the Welsh budget has resulted in cuts of £17 million to the people of Rhondda Cynon Taf, and Welsh Government statistics show welfare cuts of another £81 million. What I would say is that there has been growth and I think that the Tories deserve to be given credit for it. I will acknowledge it now. You should be given credit for the growth of food banks, the growth of poverty, the growth of inequality, the growth in bankers’ bonuses, the growth in social division between north and south and east and west, the growth in tax avoidance, the growth in wealth for the top 2%, the growth in the bank balances of the Tory donors, the growth in the number of old Etonians in the Cabinet, the growth in the level of corporate tax avoidance, the growth in zero-hours contracts, the growth in the number of donations by the rich to the Tory party and, ultimately—an important area of growth—the growth in anger: the anger of the people of a country with an unrepresentative Government that lied to them when it said that we were all in it together when, in reality, they were only doing what Tories always do, which is looking after the interests of the landowners and the wealthy at the expense of working people.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I will—[Interruption.] Order. I have not called anyone yet. I do hope that we will calm down a little. I think that, on all sides, the passions have got slightly out of control. We are debating the economy, so I think that some cold analysis may be appropriate. I call Mohammad Asghar.
Today was budget day, and most of the information that my colleagues and others are referring to is already in the public domain. However, Labour, on that side of the Chamber, must know that, only four years ago, this country was in a hell of a mess. Today, we could be like Greece or Portugal or other countries that are looking at a hell of a lot of economic disaster in every walk of life. Actually, today is a time for the big-hearted Minister to tell this Government in London that it has achieved against what she said only last June and last September. Her words were that we might be going into a triple recession. Minister, it is about time that you admit that you were wrong and accept that London was right and that it is going to turn this huge economic supertanker back in the right direction.
Difficult decisions have been made to deal with the mess we inherited and to control the spending. When Conservatives took power with the Liberal Democrats, for every £4 we were spending, £1 was borrowed. What a shame. As a result of the Government’s long-term economic plan, our economy is growing faster than any other European economy. [Interruption.] That does not come from me; that is from the OECD—[Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order, order. Please stop. I have Members now shouting at each other across the Chamber, all from a sedentary position. There is one debate going on and there is one speaker at the moment. Some experienced Members are misbehaving and that does not help the Chair.
The OECD has predicted an annual growth rate of 3.3% in both the first and second quarters of this year—great; well done to the Government in London. Unemployment is down and 63,000 people in the last quarter got jobs, and this is a record level for people getting jobs in this country. That is as a direct influence of the central Government’s actions. Sadly, our Government here has not learned the lesson yet.
None of this could have been achieved without the sacrifice of the great British public. I take my hat off to everyone, whether they are poor, rich or non-rich—actually, everybody shared it. This decision had to be taken to float our economy in the world. As the economy continues to recover, we need to recognise and lighten the burden of hardworking individuals and families. Last year, over 1 million workers in Wales received a tax cut, while 57,000 low earners were taken out of tax altogether due to the changes in personal allowances. Today, actually, the allowances have gone up to £10,500, thanks to the Chancellor.
What a contrast with the last Labour Government, which hit the low-paid by abolishing the 10p income tax band. What a shame. People can spend money better than the Government, so I welcome more money being left in the pockets of Welsh taxpayers. The low-paid will also benefit from the rise in the national minimum wage announced recently—the above-inflation rise to £6.50 an hour will benefit 73,000 workers in Wales. Only yesterday—
Thank you for taking an intervention. Is it the case that you now agree that the policy on the minimum wage was a really good policy that we brought in—one that you all argued would bankrupt the country?
Who is implementing it? Only yesterday, I asked the First Minister to welcome this increase, but even he fell speechless here in this Chamber yesterday.
Affordable childcare is vital to achieve this. For this long, it has been difficult for many families to find good, affordable childcare. The new tax-free childcare scheme will provide support of up to £2,000 per year for each child in this country, in addition to helping more families move off benefits and into employment. Your party wants to keep people doing nothing and we want people to have jobs and pay tax and run the country properly.
In certain areas that I represent, Deputy Presiding Officer, sadly, three generations of some families have not worked. What a shame. I want to tell this Minister to look into the economy in these areas. Look in the local high street shops and freeze or remove the rates. Also, look at the M4. You have powers to borrow the money to get this M4 done. Also, start thinking about the Welsh banking system; you do not have one in Wales. You have to take delegates abroad to improve your economy with overseas investment in the United Kingdom and Wales. You have definitely failed.
I am not going to start shouting, because I am fed up of people shouting. I think that when we start to discuss the economy, we want to take a hard look at the people we represent and look at what the economy means for them. I have said many times in this Chamber that the Tories—[Interruption.] Well, that is my pet name for you, so if you want to think that I love you because I call you ‘Tories’ then think that. The Tories’ first act when they got into power was to cut the future jobs fund and to cut the very legs of those people who were being offered a lifeline to put themselves back onto a firm footing, which would have allowed them to contribute to the economy in the way that they wanted by getting a job and getting some form of assistance to allow them and their families to take an active part in the economy.
That is what the economy is about. It is not about whether we have 0.8% growth or 0.7% growth, or expected to have that. It is about the actions of Governments. The actions of the Welsh Labour Government here, against the backdrop of the horrible cuts from the Conservatives in the UK, aided and abetted by their little helpers, the Lib Dems, were to introduce—[Interruption.]
Well, perhaps you should learn some lessons—[Interruption.] I am just going to tell you. Welsh Labour introduced Jobs Growth Wales. That jobs growth programme has seen us, perhaps not at as fast a rate as we have done, manage to keep youth unemployment—although it is going up, it is not going up in the record numbers that we are seeing it going up across the border. In David Cameron’s own constituency—[Interruption.]
You always want to bless everybody, so I am not listening to you, Janet.
In David Cameron’s constituency, the increase in long-term youth unemployment was 300%. The total increase across Wales was only 72%. You can argue all that you want, but I maintain that for those young people in my constituency who were so cruelly denied the opportunity of the future jobs fund, Jobs Growth Wales has delivered. I have examples of youngsters who tell me that it has delivered, which is in complete contrast to the UK Government’s programme for youth unemployment.
We talk about the export market. I do believe that this Welsh Government is doing the right things with the export market, because—[Interruption.]
Well, I am not alone in that, Janet. What I say to that is: you have not been here long enough to understand that I have always been a critical friend of the Government’s. I have been critical, and Members who have been here a long time will know that, if there is something that I think that the Labour Government is not doing correctly, I, for one, am not frightened to stand up and say so. So, I am taking no lessons or quick jibes from people saying that I am on my own. I think that people within other parties ought to stop and think about where they are going.
There was a lot more that I wanted to say, but I think that Rhun ap Iorwerth touched on all the GDP figures and the way in which we should not look at those. However, for me—in finishing, Deputy Presiding Officer—families across Wales, in my constituency and in my hometown, are now some £1,600 worse off than they were when the Conservatives came to power in the UK in 2010. It is because they are worse off by that amount that they are unable to spend in the businesses on our high streets. Therefore, the tirade that we have just heard from over there about the high streets in our communities was completely and utterly not true. It is a fact that you have reduced their ability to spend locally. As a consequence, I do not think that today’s budget—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I will. I do not think that today’s budget will offer much hope to those people who were already struggling before you came into power.
As usual, the response from Labour Assembly Members is less based on fact, and more on dreaming. The reality about Jobs Growth Wales is that it has had over 31,400 applicants, and it has only been able to offer a placement to just under 8,700 of them, Ann; so, what do you expect the other 22,000 people who needed that help to do? Those are the figures.
Will you give way?
No, I will not, I am afraid.
It is not a guarantee scheme and it is not providing that support across Wales. The figures speak for themselves. Mick Antoniw might want to remind himself that inequality grew year on year under the Labour Government. Since the coalition Government has come into power, the inequality between the richest and the poorest has actually been falling. [Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’] It has. The reality is that the rise in the level at which people have to pay income tax means that, by the bracket going up to £10,500, as it will do—and that is being delivered by the coalition Government—far fewer people—154,000 people in Wales—will not pay tax. That money goes back into their pockets and it goes back into their communities.
Do you think that hard-working families in Wales on low wages will have been choking today listening to the Chancellor claiming credit for putting up, slightly, airport duty for private jets?
What I do think that hard-working families will be looking at in Wales is the millions of pounds in European rounds of funding that have been wasted.
So, let us go to those GVA figures because the Government does not want us to look at them. It is just like PISA. When you have an international comparison, it does not want those to be used. I will just remind you of the GDP figures. The Labour Government in 2001 said,
‘Success would mean Welsh GDP per person rising from 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the UK average’.
The One Wales Government between 2007 and 2011 managed, across North Wales, which is my region, to deliver drops every year. Gwynedd’s GDP dropped from 83% to 72%; Anglesey’s GDP dropped from 58% to 57%; and Flintshire’s GDP dropped from 93% to 85%. Bearing in mind the micro-economic levers that are in the hands of this Welsh Government, that is a clear sign of failure. Those drops were across nearly every North Wales area. I agree with you, Rhun ap Iorwerth, that it is important that we get the statistics and the information more quickly. I agree that the delays in that information coming out do affect our ability to tailor economic policies. I think that we should get that quickly, but I do not think that the Welsh Government or, in fact, its backbenchers, should dismiss an international measure of success. It is like the PISA results; it provides an incredibly important benchmark about where Wales is. Speaking of PISA results, if we do want to attract those high-skilled jobs into Wales, we need to have a skilled and educated workforce that can deliver and has the skills base to take up those high-skilled jobs. When you have a manufacturer in my region, like Airbus, saying that it was not able to fill its apprenticeship quota with people qualified in Wales because there were not enough people taking the science subjects for the organisation to fill its apprenticeship places—and that is what it said to me—there is a clear link between economic failure and educational attainment. It is a link that is expressed time and time again.
Therefore, if there is an inequality in the growth, as you seem to suggest, we need to look at the causes of it. One of the main problems, as the Minister will know because I have raised it with her, that I have concerns about is that there is jobs flight out of Wales just over the border. That is why it is so important for us to deliver and to use those tools being given by the UK Government, particularly in the enterprise zones, to attract the investment into Wales of good jobs. We need to see far greater progress on those enterprise zones, and to take advantage of the investment allowance—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Finish with this, please.
[Continues.]—that has just been increased to £500,000 per year for companies like Ifor Williams in my constituency—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
[Continues.]—so that they can use that allowance and grow jobs here.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, Edwina Hart.
Thank you very much indeed, Deputy Presiding Officer. It is indeed appropriate today that we are discussing the UK economy, on a day that ‘Labour Market Statistics’ show that unemployment in Wales is lower than in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, having fallen to 6.7%, compared to the UK average of 7.2%. With employment rates in Wales increasing by three times the UK average, today’s figures also show that youth unemployment is falling faster in Wales than in the UK, economic inactivity is now close to a record low, and Wales has seen the biggest increase in private sector employment in the past 12 months. I know that all of us across the Chamber will welcome these statistics.
I take some of the points that were raised by Rhun ap Iorwerth about self-employment and part-time workers. These are issues that we will have to look at in terms of the development of the economy. However, as a Government, we are committed to ensuring long-term economic growth in Wales, because growth and sustainable jobs are at the heart of the programme for government. We have made it clear that our absolute focus remains on supporting and boosting our economy, and identifying every opportunity to help businesses in Wales.
However, we are not able to support the motion in its entirety. We propose deleting the first point, which calls on the Assembly to recognise that the recent upturn in the UK economy is a result of UK Government actions. While the recent upturn in the economy is to be welcomed, it can be argued that it has occurred despite, not because of, UK Government action. It is the view of many independent experts that the UK’s recovery, such as it is, remains very poorly balanced, with exports performing poorly, despite some recent improvements, and business investment too weak.
We support amendments 2, 3 and 4 in the name of Elin Jones. In relation to amendment 3, although the latest GDP data show a decline in Wales’s GDP compared to the EU average, the decline is driven by the fact that the whole of the UK declined relative to the EU. Since 1999, GVA in Wales has improved relative to the UK, and other measures that are more timely, such as employment, show Wales to be outperforming the UK. In relation to amendment 4, we already regularly publish key economic indicators, including GDP and GVA. However, I agree in principle that there is room for improvement and that regular publication of wider indicators is important. I have previously committed to consider this issue, and a proposal will shortly be submitted to Ministers by Jane Hutt and me, outlining the need for a basket of indicators to monitor economic performance at a Wales level.
We oppose amendment 5 in the name of Elin Jones, because we have already taken significant steps to improve the position of businesses in Wales and the environment in which they operate. The latest figures for employment, production and construction output showed that the economy in Wales is recovering relatively well, with overall employment at a record high. I fully recognise the importance of exports to economic growth, and this is a key priority for the Welsh Government. Supporting companies to trade internationally is a theme that is embedded across our strategies for entrepreneurship, start-ups, microbusinesses and key sectors.
We already have a programme of support that identifies and helps to build companies’ capacity to export, including raising awareness of the benefits of exporting and considering new markets, helping to identify and contact potential overseas customers, and providing help to visit overseas markets through various trade missions and expeditions. I meant ‘exhibitions’, not ‘expeditions’. [Laughter.] This support is delivered through a variety of services, including international trade opportunities and overseas development visit support. We also help companies to develop the knowledge and skills that they need to start to grow their exports through the international trade development service. This service addresses both awareness raising and knowledge development through workshops, events and tailored one-to-one support.
In relation to amendment 6 in the name of Aled Roberts, we reject the comparison that he makes between Wales and England. I accept some of the points that were made by Eluned Parrott about equality, and there are gender issues within this. I know that these are issues that the Deputy Minister wishes to address because they are very important.
However, in terms of apprenticeships, we have a great story to tell in Wales. We are listening to employers and are offering bespoke solutions, such as shared schemes and extra support for SMEs. We have made significant improvements to the quality of our programmes, with 85% successfully completing their qualification framework in the contract year ending July 2012. Eighty-five per cent is a remarkably high figure, 11 percentage points above England. We are doing well in many of the areas contained in the budget agreement, including higher apprenticeships, support for microbusinesses, and our extremely successful young recruits programme. There has been a substantial increase in those starting an apprenticeship, and provisional data for the contract year ending July 2013 shows 27,900 learning programme starts compared to 17,910 in the previous year. There have been some questions raised over the quality of apprenticeships in England. Here in Wales we have maintained a focus on quality, and we are not diluting the brand at all. At the same time we are making inroads into traditionally challenging areas such as equality, as I have indicated. Most importantly, we recognise the distinctive needs of young people, and the opportunities apprenticeships provide to reduce youth unemployment.
We should all do more to celebrate the success of the Welsh programme and remember that much has been delivered in 2013, partly thanks to the additional budget. Our challenge now is to encourage young people, and the essential route out of poverty for them is of course employment.
The UK Government holds the macro and fiscal levers in relation to the economy, and we still believe that the UK Government is not going far enough in its actions to stimulate growth. In these conditions, it is important that, as a Government, we ensure that a wide range of advice and initiatives are available to businesses, and that we use all the tools available to support growth and sustainable jobs.
There have been a number of contributions in this debate, Deputy Presiding Officer, and some of them not worth commenting about, in my opinion. Some of us went into politics to actually represent the poor and the dispossessed. Our duty, much as Ann Jones said, is not the statistics, but the individuals, and that is what we should be concerned about in any debate on the economy. I can trade statistics all day, and I can trade political insults all day, but it is not my intention to do so, because as Minister I wish, and I know that the Government wishes, to do our best to improve things for ordinary people on the streets. That, for me, is very important, because we want to have a society that has proper social cohesion, economic prosperity, and allows people to attain their goals.
It was mentioned earlier that sometimes we are churlish about the UK Government. I welcome the announcement today about the enterprise zones and the extension of allowances. That is a very welcome addition in terms of my portfolio, and what I would be able to undertake in that regard. It is important for us to recognise that we have responsibilities here that we have to get on with in terms of what is devolved to us. I believe in what we are doing, particularly Jobs Growth Wales, and we are doing a first-class job in the support that we are giving to business.
Some interesting comments have been made about inward investors, by Mark Isherwood and others. I speak to inward investors regularly and one of the comments that they make to me is, ‘You’ve got a good workforce in Wales. You’ve got a workforce that we want to invest in’. I was at a launch on Monday or Tuesday with jobs coming into Newport, and one of the reasons—and they said it publicly on the tv when they came—was because of the skills of the workforce. If we talk Wales down, Wales will go down. The point is that some parties in this Chamber want to do that. I have no time for that agenda and as part of the Government I am proud to stand up for Wales.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Nick Ramsay to respond to the debate.
Like the Minister, the Welsh Conservatives are proud to stand up for Wales, as is the UK coalition Government. Thank goodness that we had the UK Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government, which, when it came in, had to sort out the sheer shambles—that was the phrase used today—of the economy that was left to it. That was not due to the Labour Party here; it was your Labour cousins in Westminster. Perhaps it is a shame that they had not listened a little more to you over the years that Gordon Brown was in power. Maybe if they had, they would have realised the sort of hardship that UK Labour policies were wreaking upon Wales, and we would not be in such a situation now.
I agree with you, Minister, that we have responsibilities to get things right and support the economy, and not to talk Wales down. I think that you are a little bit unfair when you say that some speeches in here today were not worth listening to. I thought that parts of Mick Antoniw’s speech were certainly worth listening to, and parts of the speeches of other Labour backbenchers as well. I cannot believe that you were quite so unfair to them.
I will go through some of the contributions. Rhun ap Iorwerth called for more economic tools in the toolbox; that is actually a phrase that you have nicked off the First Minister. He often uses that phrase and, in my experience, it is usually a phrase that is used when you are not using the tools that you have got adequately enough. It is all well and good to call for more tools in the toolbox, but why do we not set about actually using some of those tools that we have a little bit better?
I do, however, agree with you, Rhun—you made a very valid point—that we need to keep up-to-date statistics, particularly on GDP and GVA in Wales. I think anyone sensible would agree with that. We do know, of course, that the Welsh Government does not particularly like GVA, and that is because the measures of it are usually so bad in Wales. I heard what the Minister said, that there has been some improvement in that, but it is from a low base and we are still lagging way behind the rest of the UK.
Going back to you, Rhun ap Iorwerth, you kind of contradicted yourself. On the one hand, you said that you do not see the Welsh economy as being detached from the UK economy—a very refreshing point of view from a nationalist party, and quite different from the point of view peddled by the SNP up in Scotland, although that point of view does not seem to be going down so well, so I do not blame you at all for back-peddling on that one—but you then went on to say that the Welsh economy should not be dependent on the UK economy. Well, of course it will be dependent on the UK economy. The Labour Party knows that, the Welsh Conservatives know that—
Will you take an intervention?
In one moment. The Liberal Democrats know that. Yes, we need to grow our economy, but we also need to recognise those very strong links that make the UK economy work. I will give way.
Will the Member admit that we are all interdependent in these islands, as we are interdependent within the European Union, and it is your party that will be putting forward a referendum on withdrawal from the European market?
I quite agree that we are all interdependent—
Yes. Better together.
We are indeed better together, as Janet Finch-Saunders has said. Why on earth do your colleagues, Rhun, not listen a little bit more to your sense, rather than peddling the usual sort of nonsense that would break this country up—[Interruption.] These islands up.
Eluned Parrott, with her usual breezy and optimistic panache, pointed out a far better picture than some other Members have pointed out. You are a realist, Eluned, I know that. You realise that lifting the Welsh economy out of the doldrums is linked to lifting the UK out of debt and cutting Labour’s deficit, lifting hard-working families out of poverty by, as you said, raising the personal tax allowance to £10,500—a solid Conservative-Lib Dem commitment at the formation of the coalition Government—and making a real difference to people’s lives across Wales. You also mentioned the importance of apprenticeships. We certainly need to support those. I know that the Minister recognises that as well, and all parties agree with that.
Mark Isherwood: the fact man. Your speech was full of facts, as usual. You put them forward eloquently enough; I do not need to repeat them. You quoted the IMF, which has said that the UK economy will be the fastest growing economy in Europe and that business confidence is high and growing, and you mentioned the OECD figures, but you also tempered that by pointing out that Wales remains the poorest part of the United Kingdom, despite previous assurances from Labour-led Welsh Governments, and GDP per capita in Wales is now down to 74% of the EU average.
Inward investment has increased and we welcome that increase, but we have to recognise that it is from a very low base. In fact, that is the case with many of the improvements. Where improvements are to be seen, they are from a low base. So, let us not be complacent about that.
Mick Antoniw—well. You were so—. Your contribution does not reflect your general sense in these matters, Mick. You welcomed the spirit that this debate was held in, welcoming the recent improvements in the UK economy—you were generous there. You resolutely, and probably sensibly, refused to take interventions while you bulldozed through a range of fantasies and strange statistics. How on earth you can think that raising the personal allowance to £10,500 disproportionally favours the rich, I do not understand, unless you have some strange concept of the rich as people on less than £10,500, which maybe in your world they would be.
Will the Member give way?
I will in a moment.
I can only assume that you have been reading Julie James’s copy of ‘Why Not Trust the Tories?’, which she mentioned yesterday and which is peddled by the UK Labour Party. I give way.
Thank you for taking the intervention, which is undoubtedly because you are not making a pejorative speech. Do you not agree with me that the biggest fantasy of all was when the Tories and the coalition said, ‘We are all in this together’?
No, the biggest fantasy of all was when you built up a £60 billion deficit in the UK, which was then doubled by the banking crisis. You then tried to pretend that the problems were all caused by the banks and the current UK Government. You did not fix the roof when the sun was shining. That was the problem, Mick. If you had, we would not be in the mess that we are now. I might well write my own book, ‘Never trust a story peddled by Mick Antoniw’. I will not be quite so unfair, though, because, actually, Mick, I do like quite a lot of the things that you say when you are being sensible, and not in here.
Mohammad Asghar gave an absolute barnstormer of a speech. It was well worth the round of applause that you got, Mohammad. The Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition has done its best to turn around, and I quote, ‘the debt oil tanker’—what a fantastic metaphor. Julie James intervened on you and mentioned the deficit being bigger than ever. That is the complete opposite of the truth, of course; the deficit is down by a third, not as much as we would want it to be, but there we are, another strange development from the Labour benches this afternoon.
Most people, let us face it, are being taken out of tax altogether, thanks to the UK budget that we have seen today. Let us not forget that it was the Labour Party that abolished the 10p tax band—
Will you take an intervention?
[Continues.]—in another act of gross hypocrisy. The Labour Party is also keen to mention the minimum wage, which—
Will you take an intervention?
[Continues.]—the Welsh Conservatives and the Conservative Party do now support. It seems that we support it more than the Labour Party does—another strange turnaround in the economics of Labour politics. I will give way to Joyce Watson.
Thank you. I just want to mention three things: the granny tax, the bedroom tax and VAT. These are all things that people have suffered, and that is why they do not actually feel better off. People are now £1,600 worse off than previously. I would also like you, if you would, to say why the Office for Budget Responsibility has said that people will be worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010.
Will you take an intervention?
I do not think that I can take two at once. [Laughter.] I will give way in a moment.
I will say three things to you, Joyce Watson: debt, debt and debt. That is what has caused the cuts and the savings that have had to be made. Where would we be now if it were not for the replacement of the Labour Government with the UK Lib Dem-Conservative Coalition? [Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
There is no time.
We have taken more interventions from you than you did us, so I think that is fair. Where would we be now? I will take a very brief intervention from Russell George.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
No, you do not have time. If you sit down, I will call time. You have 30 seconds if you remain on your feet. If you sit down, it is over.
Okay. I will stay standing then. Minister, we welcome your commitment to better support business. I completely disagree with your saying that the economic improvement in Wales has happened in spite of the UK Coalition Government. I believe that it has happened in spite of Gordon Brown’s best efforts to derail the UK economy over 10 years by driving up borrowing. Welsh Conservatives will support any effort to increase inward investment, hence our inward investment policy—our vision for that. We support efforts to reform Finance Wales, hence our ‘Invest Wales’ policy. In short, we support efforts to lower taxes in Wales, deal with the deficit, and get Wales moving. That is what the UK Government budget will help you to do, if you listen to it.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I can honestly say that this debate has had all the subtlety and decorum of a brass band at a funeral. [Laughter.] I do hope that behaviour will improve in the next debate.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? There is objection. I defer voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1 and 2 in the name of Aled Roberts, and amendments 3 and 4 in the name of Paul Davies. If amendment 2 is agreed, amendment 3 will be de-selected.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Jocelyn Davies to move the motion.
Motion NDM5467 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Calls on the Welsh Government to tackle barriers to employment and career progression by:
a) Extending affordable childcare across Wales;
b) Ensuring public sector bodies take positive action to increase diversity;
c) Working with large employers to increase opportunities for disabled people;
d) Supporting the living wage and eliminating poor employment practices such as zero-hours contracts.
I move the motion.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I sincerely hope that the next hour will not be as embarrassing as witnessing the last hour in this Chamber was.
There is no one easy solution that will overcome the barriers to employment that people in Wales face. Those barriers can be both external and internal, personal and structural. Each barrier rarely exists in isolation, but rather they intersect and reinforce each other, making tackling any problem even more of a challenge.
However, it is a challenge that it is vital that we rise to. There is little doubt that a society with high unemployment rates is unhealthy and unhappy. A widely cited study from the 1990s claims that long-term unemployment is the health equivalent of smoking 10 packs of cigarettes a day. I have no idea whether that is true, but it is often cited and I have cited it again today. Anyway, there is no doubt that it is incredibly unhealthy for you. The Princes Trust recently found that those young people who are long-term unemployed are more than twice as likely as their peers to believe that they have nothing to live for. That is a particularly sobering figure, given the number of long-term unemployed young people in Wales. As was mentioned in the previous debate, that has gone up by over 400% since 2011. So, is it any surprise that there is increasing talk of young people today being a lost generation?
We must do what we can to help those who are out of work to overcome the barriers they face. In Government, there are some things that we cannot do, but that does not mean that we should give up when it comes to things that we can change. We cannot easily change the minds of unethical employers who discriminate against women with young children when they are hiring, but we can ensure that affordable and accessible childcare is available to help families, and particularly mothers, to balance work with home life. Currently, families here face childcare costs that are among the highest in the world. Even part-time childcare in the UK costs more than the average mortgage. Last year, families saw a greater increase in childcare costs in Wales than anywhere else in the UK. Plaid Cymru is concerned that families here are being left behind.
Cost is not the only issue facing families trying to find childcare. There is a serious lack of availability in some parts of the country, particularly with families who have extra requirements. The Government’s Flying Start programme provides 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged children, but is available only in designated areas and children outside those areas obviously miss out. None of our councils reports having enough childcare in rural areas. Only 6% reported having adequate provision for disabled children, and for children of parents with atypical work patterns, such as shift-workers, it is even worse. Access to basic provision is seriously lagging behind other areas of the UK: just 17% of local authorities in Wales reported having sufficient childcare for three and four-year-olds, compared with a UK average of 63%. These gaps in provision mean that our children are missing out, because research shows that good-quality early years education can improve children’s life chances. In the long term, they are more likely to gain and retain jobs.
Sadly, the gender pay gap is alive and well. Office for National Statistics figures show that the gap in median hourly earnings between all male and all female workers in Wales is 16.5%, with men earning £11.70 an hour, and women £9.77. So, better access to childcare could enable more women to work and to work in the higher paid, more skilled jobs that they currently find themselves excluded from.
Exploitative working conditions are also on the rise, and I am sure that you are all aware how passionately I feel about the inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts. I could not help but mention that again today. While they offer necessary flexibility in some contexts, when they are poorly used, they promote job insecurity and low pay and they enable employers to avoid giving their workers the rights that they are entitled to, and we heard yesterday from Kirsty Williams about how this actually prevents people from taking work.
Let us not just look at the figures, but at what we can do to overcome the barriers to meaningful work. I know that childcare is not a magic fix; there are underlying systemic issues that act as barriers to employment, and we need to tackle workplace segregation, whereby 91% of skilled jobs are held by men and even self-employed women earn significantly less than self-employed men because of outdated and limited ideas about men’s work and women’s work. So, we need to work on raising confidence and improving skills, and we need to raise the aspirations of people right across the country. However, affordable and accessible childcare is a good place to start. It will not only empower women to take their proper place in the workplace, but improve the life chances of a future generation.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the four amendments to the motion. If amendment 2 is agreed, then amendment 3 will be deselected. I call on Eluned Parrott to move amendments 1 and 2, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Insert as new sub-point b) and renumber accordingly:
Reviewing the causes of increasing workloads and stress-related sick leave for public sector workers, in particular nurses and teachers.
Delete sub-point d) and replace with:
Welcoming the raise in the personal allowance to £10,000 and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills’ consultation into zero-hours contracts.
I move amendments 1 and 2 tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
I thank Plaid Cymru for bringing forward this debate today, although I think that it is unfortunate that, on a subject on which there is so much apparent agreement across the Chamber, namely a desire to tackle discrimination and inequality. However, there is still a need for the Chamber to be pressing for action.
As one of this Assembly’s working parents, I recognise many of the issues that you have raised in introducing this debate today, and we have to recognise that working fathers as well as working mothers are affected by the issues in terms of equality, such as accessibility of affordable childcare, which is a key issue.
When we talk about barriers to career progression, we need to look at the whole picture and that includes how settled people are in their workplace, their enthusiasm and their ambition. They are key factors in not only how they move their own careers forward, but also in how they drive forward the success of the organisations that they work for. In public sector professions, such as teaching and nursing, that has an impact on their ability to deliver the services that we expect from them.
Earlier this month, a National Union of Teachers report highlighted the disproportionate amount of time lost through sickness in the teaching profession in Wales, much of which is through the effects of work-related stress. Twelve Welsh councils, including Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan in my region, saw an increase in the number of teachers taking sick leave as a result of stress over the period between 1 January and 31 December 2013, in comparison with the same period the previous year. Figures obtained by NUT Cymru show that while overall stress-induced leave is down slightly, it still remains stubbornly high, with over 50,000 teaching days a year lost. This has an adverse effect on the quality of teaching and learning in schools, as well as financial consequences for the schools. Heavy workloads, changes in the curriculum and increasing criticism of professionalism were named among the reasons behind some of these factors, and we have to take that on board.
In our hospitals, too, we are seeing nurses struggling with the increased demands of the health service and being in a state of flux. In Wales, our nurses are under tremendous pressure, especially with the uncertainty around hospital reorganisations and the personal anxiety that that creates. In addition to that, there are more patients per nurse to care for than any other part of the UK. Is it any wonder that we are seeing the strain starting to show on those human beings as individuals? That is why it is vital that we lead the way in Wales, and why I was so pleased to support Kirsty Williams’s Bill to enshrine minimum nurse staffing levels in law in Wales.
That is also why we are calling for a review of increasing workloads and stress-related sick leave for public sector workers, in particular nurses and teachers, but others too, so that we can understand the reasons behind it and start to tackle the root causes that are causing so much trouble. We need to make real progress here, or, as we look to the future, we are going to struggle to encourage young people to take up these vocations and build the highly-skilled and highly-motivated teaching and nursing professions that we hope to maintain for the future.
When it comes to household incomes, one element is the level of pay that you receive, but just as important, I would argue, is the proportion of it that you get to keep. I welcome the introduction of the living wage where it is affordable, and I also recognise that many of the arguments used against the living wage were previously used against the minimum wage, which was introduced without the catastrophic impact that some had anticipated. However, we also have to recognise that, in Wales, small businesses in particular are struggling, and we must tread carefully with the introduction of these kinds of things. That is why I would prefer, on balance, to see the burden of increasing net incomes for households for the lowest paid in our society fall on the tax system, if that is at all possible. We have seen the budget announcement today that sees this policy being extended yet again, and over 1.1 million workers in Wales have seen the benefits of this income tax cut already. More than 150,000 of Wales’s lowest income workers have now been taken out of the tax system altogether. I would like to see that threshold continue to rise to the point where no-one on the minimum wage pays any income tax at all; that would be my personal ambition, because we need to protect households’ net incomes as a whole.
We also welcome the consultation on zero-hours contracts that is being undertaken by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills at the moment, which I think is a balanced approach. We have heard a lot of heat but we have not seen a lot of light on the subject of zero-hours contracts. We need to get under the skin of them to understand whether there any benefits to the workers who take them up. Some people may take them up out of choice, but where they are mandatory they are clearly an imposition. We need to understand the impact that that has on the individuals who use them. For instance, in Rhondda Cynon Taf recently there was an instance where the unions were arguing in favour of zero-hours contracts on behalf of a small group of social care workers, despite opposing them in general.
Delete all in sub-point d) and replace with:
Supporting good management practices that secure good workplace relationships and sustainable employment.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure that workplace skills are at the heart of their new Assessment and Curriculum Review, in order to reduce the barriers to employment faced by young people.
I move amendments 3 and 4.
It is clearly a priority for all parties to stimulate economic growth to protect and promote employment opportunities. The creation of thriving, sustainable businesses and services is a key element in tackling the barriers to employment and career progression. We must acknowledge the United Kingdom Government’s focus on creating. It has cut up to £2,000 from national insurance contributions for businesses from April of this year and it is scrapping national insurance contributions for those under 21 years. It has cut income tax for 25 million taxpayers, lifting 2.4 million of our lowest earners out of paying income tax, thus giving an average family £590 per year extra money, each week, each month, to provide for their families. These are all factors that apply to Wales. I am sure that we would welcome this week’s announcement on childcare—£2 million families will receive up to £2,000 per child each year towards the cost of care. That has been extended from children of five years up to children of 12, a real contribution towards tackling the barriers to employment and assisting career progression. Welsh Conservatives acknowledge that small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. Karren Brady has recently been engaged as small business ambassador, assisting these businesses to increase diversity in their product and service provision and in the workforce that they engage.
Disabilities are complex, often specific to an individual person, and their needs can be wide-ranging. The experience of growing up with a significant impairment is different from acquiring one in working or older life, and most disabled people become disabled as adults. A stable impairment is different from one that fluctuates or one that is degenerative. These differences pose different challenges to barriers and potential solutions to both individuals and employers. We must support all innovations and measures to ensure that potential solutions become an everyday reality in allowing disabled people equal access to employment opportunities.
With regard to amendment 1, I believe that there will be cross-party support to address stress-related illness in public sector workers. All business and service providers aim to grow their market share or deliver good and improving services. Good management practice is a significant factor in achieving these aims. I acknowledge that this is key to amendment 3, for which I ask for your support.
With regard to zero-hours contracts, good management practice is clearly vital. We must appreciate that for every horror story concerning zero-hours contracts, a company is providing wage-earning and employment opportunities that may not exist if zero-hours contracts were not in place. We must ensure that companies are not put off tendering for one-off contracts that give them access to wider markets to raise the profile of their company, attracting further work and securing employment for their workers. Companies seek to grow to attract investment for their company and into their communities and they are reliant upon a skilled workforce that is able to contribute to supporting the company to increase productivity or extend service provisions and securing further employment. This is how companies develop their client base and promote themselves on local and global markets. Zero-hours contracts provide flexible employment on the same basic terms as most workers and the national minimum wage. It gives employment, experience and skills and provides entitlement to annual leave and holiday pay.
Tackling the barriers to employment opportunities and career progression requires us to address the issue of ensuring that school leavers are equipped for working life. Too often, we have heard employers raise concerns about the level of numeracy and literacy of school leavers. As one Welsh employer graphically described this problem:
‘If you are going to fill jobs you need to have that pool of school leavers that are coming through that are educated to that sort of standard. It does make it a little bit harder if you don't have that background level of skills.’
Workplace skills need to be at the heart of the curriculum. I ask for your support for amendment 4.
Plaid Cymru is very proud to lead this important debate here this afternoon.
We are all aware of the challenging conditions that the Welsh economy finds itself in. Plaid Cymru has consistently argued that we must push for a balanced recovery. It must be geographically balanced between the nations and regions of Britain. There must be balance too between the genders—the removal of what we call the glass ceiling for women—balance so that people with disabilities are empowered to fulfil their ambitions, balance so that people with children are not stifled in terms of leading successful working lives, and balance so that opportunities to get the skills that are needed for high-paid jobs are spread throughout our communities.
In this debate, Plaid Cymru is not simply identifying the barriers that people face, which prevent such balance. We are also proposing practical steps to overcome those barriers. We are consulting as to how we can offer all three to four-year-olds more foundation phase education. The costs of childcare are rising fast, pricing many people out of work. Additional foundation phase hours would go a long way to addressing the barriers to employment for parents. Childcare and quality education involve costs, so these proposals will require significant investment. However, if we are serious about this and if we are prepared to make that decision to eliminate the barriers like this, then this should become a priority and we should be prepared to consider such proposals very carefully.
I do not intend to take up much more time, Deputy Presiding Officer. It has been a long day. However, in the limited time that I have left, I just want to take the opportunity to address the question of mental illness in relation to employment opportunities. Between 80% and 90% of people with a serious mental health condition are unemployed. Also, only four out of 10 employers would consider employing someone with a mental health problem. What we can see from those statistics is that stigma still dominates, that it still needs calling out and that it still needs tackling. No-one, but no-one should be allowed to be written off unnecessarily by these barriers to employment.
I strongly endorse the remarks made by Leanne about the stigma of mental health problems and it being a barrier to employment. However, I want to focus my remarks on what I regard as the biggest barrier to employment, which is the lack of affordable childcare. It is also the biggest barrier to Wales’s lower-than-average GVA rising because, if you cannot find the childcare, you are clearly not going to be able to do the working hours you would like to. The early years and childcare plan launched by the Government last year recognises the importance of pre-school education to beat the disadvantages that babies are born with. Good-quality childcare produces the biggest return on investment in human capital. There are many studies to confirm this, and the early years plan acknowledges that high-quality early education in a childcare setting has a key influence on child development, especially for a child from a disadvantaged background.
At the moment, the two hours a day for three and four-year-olds and the two and a half hours a day for two-year-olds in Flying Start areas is absolutely fantastic for the children—that is exactly what they need—but it really is not addressing the barriers to people going into work. It is good for enabling people to do training, which reduces the barriers to getting a job, but it really is not a help in obtaining and holding down a job. So, I want to see nurseries and schools with spare capacity offering wraparound care for those children so that their parents could work—
Will you take an intervention?
I agree with what you say about the value of education for three and four-year-olds. Do you therefore regret the decision taken by the Labour-controlled Rhondda Cynon Taf council to cut full-time childcare for three and four-year-olds?
I would regret that, but I am not familiar with the details of what is going on in Rhondda Cynon Taf. However, in Cardiff and other parts of Wales, expanding wraparound care in the nursery or primary school setting is not an option because the schools are absolutely bursting at the seams. That is certainly the case in Cardiff. So, there is virtually no capacity to offer that sort of wraparound care within the school nursery setting. That is partly because they are offering morning and afternoon places to different sets of children. Local authorities, and indeed the Welsh Government, have had to make big cuts in capital funding, so they are going to be challenged to provide the new nursery provision that is going to be required, never mind the wraparound care. So, my argument is that we must turn to the private and voluntary sectors to expand quality early years education now.
It was very interesting to listen to Suzy Davies’s question to the First Minister yesterday about Swansea confining its nursery entitlement to what is on offer in its own schools and nurseries, which seems to be a step backwards. The First Minister’s response was very clear: local authorities need to meet their statutory duties, but how they seek to achieve that is their business. So, there is no barrier to what I am suggesting from the Welsh Government. How much is each nursery pupil worth? StatsWales’s data for this year shows that there is a variation per nursery pupil from £4,900 in Grangetown to £5,800 in an integrated children’s centre. About £5,000 is a ticket on the child’s head in that early years education. That is a very important contribution to developing the small businesses that could be created and led by an early years teacher in terms of the nursery entitlement element of it, but with childcare as an add-on. It means that the amount that parents have to pay is the amount for the staff that provide the wraparound care. That is much easier for parents to meet.
We may then be able to add the 20% tax relief up to £2,000 offered by the Tories today, but, of course, that money is really only 20% of the amount that it will cost. I note the comments from the Citizens Advice, which says that this will not really help lower income families and, rather than giving help to higher earners, they would be better off giving 95% of childcare costs to people on low wages. I would not disagree with that at all.
However, we need to have integrated early years education that will cover all families from all parts of the community, and they could be charged on a sliding scale. The plan talks about using European social fund money to train up the childcare workforce to quality standards. That would be a very wise investment in both the workforce of the future—the children—as well as bridging the gender gap that keeps women earning 80% of what men earn, despite the equal pay Act. So, I welcome some clarification on what the Government will do on that.
I recall, in the 1980s, I was unemployed for seven months and I had the indignity of signing on—going to the dole queue every Wednesday and cashing my giro at the post office every Friday. Interviews then, as well as today, were tough. Jobs were very few and far between. I was an archaeological excavator in Brecon; I stood for seven hours a day, five days a week making crash helmets in a factory—I could bore you to death on that—and I was a white van driver. However, I had it easy and I am glad that I am the age that I am, actually, because when I went for an interview then, I was a relatively fit young man. I had no barriers.
However, what do employers see and want? I have a strong suspicion that, if you have any disability, employers are prejudiced against you. I think that some of them switch off. We have a saying in Wales, ‘chwarae teg’, meaning fair play. Well, I believe that that should mean fair play for people with any disability, not just physical, of course. We must not exclude mental disability—as the two previous speakers have mentioned—through mental health problems, or mild learning disabilities, such as Down’s syndrome. I think that this Senedd should send a clear message to employers in the public sector that they should be actively encouraging people with a disability to apply for jobs as part of its equal opportunity duties.
We should also be working with Disability Wales, which is an excellent organisation in Caerphilly, to promote the cause of disabled people. Perhaps we should sponsor an annual event to celebrate the role that disabled people are playing in key areas of employment.
I know that, two years ago, as a result of a key seminar organised by the Bevan Foundation on disability unemployment, recommendations were made that Welsh Government could do more to encourage and support employment creation. The Welsh Government needs to improve the availability of affordable childcare, which has been mentioned, and improve public transport, of course. They are two barriers that prevent disabled people from accessing employment. The Welsh Government should also encourage flexible employment for disabled people, and these actions are absolutely essential.
We have already heard that, in Wales, the level of disability is one fifth of the working-age population and employment rates for disabled people are 30% lower than for non-disabled people. Buildings should be accessible; job applications and adverts should not deter people; broadband should be more readily available all over Wales, so that people can work from home as well; and older people must be considered. I believe that we should monitor all public sector employers and any organisation that is in receipt of public money, specifically monitoring their commitment as to how many disabled people they are actually employing. If they do not reach our aspirations, then, as far as I am concerned, sanctions should apply. The message should be loud and clear from here: everyone in Wales should have the opportunity to earn a decent living wage, regardless of their ability or disability. After all, it is only fair play—chwarae teg.
I very much hope that there will be cross-party support for the motion that has been tabled by Plaid Cymru. I think that there is general support—I am not quite sure about the Conservative party, but we shall wait and see.
I want to deal, very quickly, with a point raised by Jocelyn Davies, Leanne Wood and Jenny Rathbone. Jocelyn said, in introducing the motion, that there is no simple solution to this problem, but that there is one thing that we can do, which is to ensure that childcare is generally available to all who need it in order to enter the workforce. William Graham spoke about the support that will be offered to parents in terms of childcare, but that is dependent on the fact that they are able to find childcare. The fact of the matter is that, in Wales, it is scarce, it is not available in all areas and the hours are very limited. I was talking to a Swedish fellow member of the Committee of the Regions in Europe, who told me that, in Sweden, childcare is available from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and for less than a third of the cost of childcare in Wales. If we had such a system, which did not assume that everyone works from 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. and follows conventional hours, it would be a major step towards ensuring that people can join the workforce. It would strengthen our economy and strengthen the fabric of our community.
I very much hope that everyone will support this motion and, more than that, that we see practical steps emanating from it that will enable us to have a diverse workforce in Wales and one that will boost the economy and lead us out of the recession that we are currently suffering.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Jeff Cuthbert.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I welcome this debate on tackling the barriers to employment and career progression, and I support the motion. We know that employment provides the most sustainable route out of poverty. Reducing the number of people who are workless is at the heart of our tackling poverty action plan. However, the Welsh Government does not have control over the key levers that determine how and where jobs are created. Key policy areas such as economic development and benefits are controlled by Westminster. However, there are things that we can and are doing that can make a difference. These include helping people into work, support for childcare, encouraging diversity in the workplace and promoting good working conditions and employment practices. It is important to recognise that we are making progress. As has been mentioned in an earlier debate, today’s ‘Labour Market Statistics’ shows that Wales continues to outperform the UK across a number of areas. The unemployment rate in Wales is below the UK average, youth unemployment is falling faster and employment is increasing more rapidly.
The points made by Jenny Rathbone about the importance of childcare provision were quite correct. Improving access to affordable, high-quality childcare is a key priority for the Welsh Government, and plays a fundamental role in helping families access employment and training opportunities. We recently announced the £2.3 million—
You mentioned childcare. Will you accept that the availability of childcare at the moment is not flexible enough to meet the needs of those parents who do not work the conventional hours of 9 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. and that you need something like the Swedish model, which allows people to take jobs where the hours do not conform to the norm?
I do not dispute that there is more to be done on childcare provision, not for one second, but we have to work within the resources that we actually have, and those public resources are under enormous pressure. Nevertheless, we recently announced the £2.3 million out-of-school childcare grant to local authorities, which has been there since 2012 and has been renewed, and will be reviewed later this year. That grant funds quality, affordable childcare to help families who wish to access childcare before and after the school day. We also provide free part-time childcare for two to three-year-olds, as has been mentioned, living in some of our most disadvantaged communities through our Flying Start programme. As we expand the programme, we will reach 36,000 children by 2016.
I note the announcements first made yesterday by the UK Government for its post-election plans for tackling the high cost of childcare. However, these proposals do nothing to change the current position for Welsh families. As equalities Minister, I have taken a proactive approach to increasing the number of women and other under-represented groups in public appointments. I was pleased to attend the launch of the report of the expert group on diversity in local government on 5 March. There was a full debate on this matter in this Assembly yesterday, and it is clear that there is a plan of action being mapped out to address this issue.
Welsh Ministers have also written to all chairs of public sector bodies challenging them to take action to increase the number of women and other under-represented groups on public boards. We will receive an update on their progress by the end of June this year.
Our strategic equality plan contains the actions that we are taking to help women and girls to access, to achieve, and to aspire within education, training and employment. It also sets out what we are doing to tackle gender stereotyping and enable women to access the careers of their choice.
It is essential that we continue to work with a range of different partners to increase opportunities for disabled people. This includes opportunities around accessing training, increasing skills, and supporting disabled people into work. As part of our engagement with large companies, and while providing training grants, opportunities for employing disabled people are discussed. Where necessary, training grants can be utilised to support the employment of disabled people. Our community benefits policy ensures that targeted recruitment and training for those furthest from the labour market, such as disabled people, are added into public sector contracts. I endorse the earlier words of Leanne Wood that we must not forget the extra issues created by mental health problems and improving attitudes towards it, and, as Lindsay Whittle mentioned, the importance of working with organisations like Disability Wales—an organisation that I know very well, in Caerphilly. Lindsay Whittle also mentioned the importance of broadband. I think that I should emphasise the point that Superfast Cymru, of course, which will cover 96% of Wales, is well ahead of the rest of the UK in terms of that programme.
Jobs Growth Wales opportunities are available for job-ready young people, including disabled young people. As part of the programme, the Welsh Government is working with all types of employers, from microbusinesses to large anchor and regionally important companies across Wales in creating job opportunities in every sector. Careers Wales’s employer engagement advisers are in daily contact with employers of all sizes. They provide information about the different services and funding initiatives available. This would include information on the Access to Work Government scheme, which is able to help employers with any extra costs incurred when employing a person with a disability.
The Welsh Government’s employer support grant has set an example to encourage employers to offer opportunities to disabled people. Several organisations in Wales have recruited disabled former Remploy staff who lost their jobs in the UK Government-driven closures of the majority of Remploy factories.
The Welsh Government continues to support the concept of a living wage as a route to addressing some of the issues associated with low pay and income poverty. The Minister for local government has referred the living wage in the public sector to the workforce partnership council with a view to embedding it as one of the positive measures that employers can provide to support the public sector workforce. This reflects the Welsh Government’s commitment to encourage employers in the public, third and private sectors to consider becoming living-wage employers.
Although the issue of zero-hours contracts is not within the devolved competence of the Welsh Government, clearly they pose risks to many employees in Wales. We await the outcome of the UK consultation into zero-hours contracts being taken forward by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We will give full consideration to its findings.
Let me turn to the amendments. We oppose amendment 1 in relation to reviewing the causes of stress-related sickness absences in NHS Wales and schools. This is because reducing sickness absence within NHS Wales and schools is already a key priority. All NHS organisations recently reviewed their absence data to identify trends and hotspots and—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Conclude now, Minister.
[Continues.]—and to inform action plans aimed at reducing sickness absence. In terms of amendments 2 and 3, amendment 3 speaks volumes about the Welsh Conservatives. They could have called for support for good management in a separate clause, and we would have all voted for it. However, they chose instead to use it as a cover for opposing the living wage. As for amendment 2, we are used to the Lib Dems following their Tory leaders, but on this occasion, in their enthusiasm to oppose fair pay—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Conclude with this now.
[Continues.] —they got in first. I oppose both amendments and I urge support.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Jocelyn Davies to reply to the debate.
This afternoon, we have talked about the barriers to employment that we must work to overcome. However, finding employment is not the cure-all that it is sometimes presented as. Unemployment figures were reported before, and it is important that we scrutinise the quality of the jobs that people are finding themselves in. Following the recession, there has been an increase in so-called under-employment, where workers are not working as much as they would like, struggling to make ends meet and not using their qualifications. The Local Government Association recently argued that the true scale of youth unemployment is hidden, because Government headline figures only look at the unemployed, and do not measure those who are only working part-time or who are overqualified for their current job. Of course, we know that the number of graduates in non-graduate jobs is increasing. We are then wasting the training and talent of our workforce. We know that low-wage working families are having to use food banks.
We need to find ways of using the talents of our people and not wasting their talents. I thank all of you who contributed to the debate. Look, I am not going to insult you by just repeating what you all said and giving you marks out of 10. However, I will thank you all. You behaved beautifully during this debate and you should all be congratulated. [Laughter.]
What we heard was that, even though we all agree that there is not enough action yet—and many in this Chamber understand only too well the invaluable help that affordable childcare represents—we also heard of the need to make progress to tackle stress and exhaustion among public sector workers, which burn people out and will also give public sector jobs a poor image. It is also clear that we need to encourage our businesses to think about the barriers that they may be presenting, so that they can draw from a larger, more talented pool of potential employees. An in-depth study—giving us heat as well as light—into zero-hours contracts is timely, I think, and I look forward to the UK Government’s review concluding.
The Welsh economy needs the public and private sectors working to the same aim. All of those who want to work should have opportunities to do so. One of the sadnesses of this afternoon was the bit of a squabble that went on earlier about who should get the credit for good news and who should get the blame for bad news. The truth is that the Welsh Government needs to work with the UK Government if we are to break down barriers soon and help people to take their rightful place in the workforce. I am sure that we all look forward to that day coming when people in Wales expect to work without barriers and earn the decent wage that Lindsay Whittle mentioned. Do you know what? I do not care who gets the credit, as long as those barriers are finally gone.
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 will defer voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Voting time now follows. Before I conduct the first vote, are there three Members who wish the bell to be rung? There are not.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5469.
Motion not agreed: For 12, Against 40, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5469.
Amendment agreed: For 35, Against 17, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5469.
Amendment agreed: For 35, Against 17, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 4 to motion NDM5469.
Amendment agreed: For 49, Against 3, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 5 to motion NDM5469.
Amendment not agreed: For 26, Against 26, Abstain 0.
As required by Standing Order 6.20, the Deputy Presiding Officer exercised his casting vote by voting against the amendment.
Result of the vote on amendment 6 to motion NDM5469.
Amendment not agreed: For 17, Against 35, Abstain 0.
Motion NDM5469 as amended:
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Regrets that latest GDP data show a decline in Wales’s GDP compared to the EU average.
2. Calls on the Welsh Government to work collaboratively with the UK Government to ensure long-term economic growth.
3. Further calls on the Welsh Government to ensure the regular publication of key economic indicators such as GDP and GVA statistics in order to inform future policies.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5469 as amended.
Motion agreed: For 52, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5467.
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?
Sandy Mewies took the Chair at 18:54
I am pleased to raise the issue of services at Withybush General Hospital in the Chamber. I make no apology doing so again, given the importance of these services to my constituents. I have agreed to give Simon Thomas, Rebecca Evans, William Powell and Joyce Watson a minute each of my time, if there is enough time at the end of my contribution.
This is an issue that I have chosen to highlight once again following repeated calls from me and others for a statement from the Welsh Government, which, I have to say, has clearly fallen on deaf ears. Tabling a short debate or an opposition debate on future services at Withybush hospital seems the only way that we can force the Welsh Government and the Minister to respond to the decisions now being made at the hospital.
In response to our last debate on this issue, the Minister made it absolutely clear that change is coming to Withybush, and, oh boy, he was not wrong. It is quite clear that there is now a drive to centralise services away from Pembrokeshire, given that the special care baby unit will close, paediatric services will be downgraded and, only last week, it was reported that cardiac services should be moved to Carmarthen as well.
The decision taken by the Minister to approve plans for a level 2 neonatal unit to be established at Glangwili General Hospital paves the way for the closure of the special care baby unit at Withybush hospital. Clearly, the current special care baby unit at Withybush hospital provides lifesaving services, so it is appalling that this unit has now been earmarked for closure. I believe that this decision will certainly put lives at risk. This debate has, therefore, been tabled to discuss these developments and to fully consider the views of the people of Pembrokeshire and their campaign to retain their local services.
We have heard from clinicians and staff that closing the special care baby unit will have a detrimental effect on families of unborn babies across Pembrokeshire. A paediatric consultant at Withybush, Gustav vas Falco, has said that he has grave reservations about moving the special care baby unit from Haverfordwest. It is not just clinicians that are upset and angry at this decision; the people of Pembrokeshire are, naturally, appalled by this plan. Protests have taken place locally and petitions have been circulated. Indeed, only two weeks ago, we were joined by protestors on the Senedd steps, campaigning for the Minister to repeal that very decision. Approximately 25,000 signatures have so far been received via petitions calling on the Welsh Government to reconsider this decision. There are almost 8,000 members of a Facebook group dedicated to saving essential services at Withybush hospital. That page has been flooded with local people telling their stories of how the special care baby unit has supported them. The Minister must recognise that the people’s campaign will not subside. They will continue to protest, raise awareness and do everything in their power to urge the Minister to reconsider his position on this issue. As local Assembly Members, we will do everything we can to support their campaign.
As far as I am aware, no evidence has been presented to suggest that the current neonatal services are not safe or sustainable. The all-Wales perinatal survey 2012, of which Members will be aware, shows Withybush, Bronglais and Glangwili hospitals in its table on perinatal mortality by intended hospital of birth as being first, third and fourth best in Wales respectively. The current figures are clear: all three hospitals are significantly better than the Welsh average of 6.5 per 1,000 total births. Therefore, these services are already safe and sustainable. Quite simply, I fail to see how a new service model would provide an improved service for mothers and babies in the Hywel Dda Local Health Board area when the perinatal mortality figures are already among the best in Wales.
The Minister, not so long ago, was quite keen to use the Powys model as an argument for changing current services in Pembrokeshire. It is quite clear that the Minister is intent on imposing the Powys model for maternity care on the people of Pembrokeshire, which is, of course, an isolated midwife-led unit with no consultant obstetric help in the county. If the Minister is keen to use this model as an exemplar, then we should look at the figures. It is worth noting that Powys, overall, regardless of where the birth took place, has a persistently higher stillbirth rate than the Welsh average in records dating back as far as 2003. In fact, during the period 2008-12, the perinatal mortality rate, which combines both stillbirths and deaths within seven days, for Powys overall was 7.4 per 1,000 births, compared with only 4.1 between 2009 and 2012 for Pembrokeshire. I am sure that all Members would agree that that is a statistically significant difference.
Therefore, while services at Withybush are safe and sustainable now, should the Minister choose to continue with this direction of travel, then on those figures and that model, services would become more unsafe in the future. The Minister made it clear in his statement in January that a level of consultant obstetric support would remain at Withybush for at least a year while the unit is being set up at Glangwili hospital. The Minister must now come clean and tell us exactly what level of support will be available for the next year. What exactly are we, as local politicians, expected to say to expectant mothers? Will there be reduced cover? Will 24-hour consultant availability continue on site? The Minister must now spell out exactly how consultant obstetric support will operate over the coming months. Also, since the Minister’s statement, the local health board has announced a downgrading of paediatric services at Withybush hospital from a full-time model to a 12-hour model with—that is right; you guessed it—a 24-hour service available at Glangwili hospital. Members will be aware that a paediatric service is an essential part of any district general hospital, and the move to a part-time service is simply unacceptable, and will ultimately put lives at risk. Retired paediatrician Dr Arabinda Palit has said that:
‘It’s really on a precipice of disaster; once it goes, it won’t come back.’
He also went on to say:
‘Of course money is involved, they are just hiding behind the dogma that centralising is best, and it is best, but it’s out of context here, here it’s not best.’
The view that Hywel Dda health board’s decisions are of a purely financial nature is something that is supported by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. In a letter to me, he said that he was unable to get involved in this process because the decisions were primarily ones of a financial nature. However, he did express his concerns over the impact of funding decisions on children and young people in Pembrokeshire.
Over the years, politicians like me have been accused of scaremongering because I have been highlighting the dangers of centralising and downgrading services. However, it is now clear that the concerns and worries that I have been expressing on behalf of the communities that I represent are now becoming a reality. I am afraid to say that we are already seeing the effects of the slippery slope theory in action. I am given to understand that the clinical lead in neonatology resigned from his post, and the programme group in paediatrics, over two months ago, citing a wish not to take responsibility for the effects of changes he regards as unsafe, and which have been forced upon him against his will. That is a senior medical professional warning the health board about the dangers of going ahead with their controversial plans, and yet those calls are falling on deaf ears.
This is clearly the first step down a slippery slope for health services in Pembrokeshire. Members will be fully aware that 25% of admissions to an accident and emergency department are children, and therefore if paediatric services are downgraded, there are serious concerns that the accident and emergency department at Withybush hospital will become unsustainable in the future. It has been made absolutely clear to me by clinicians that if paediatric services are downgraded, then running a full-time A&E service is impossible. In the Minister’s response to my questions in January on this issue, he admitted that he didn’t know what to say in relation to the slippery slope theory, but that the hospital would have a secure and significant place in the health services that are provided in Pembrokeshire. Minister, that is simply not good enough. There have to be cast-iron guarantees that the slippery slope theory will not be seen at Withybush hospital, but frankly that looks impossible given the knock-on effect that taking one service away will have on another service.
The Welsh Government must come clean and provide a clear and frank direction of travel for Withybush hospital. The health board’s actions and the Minister’s decision do nothing to help attract doctors and medical staff to the area, either. It will be even more difficult to recruit doctors if there is no stability over which services are staying and which are potentially being removed. The Minister must accept that the continued removal of services from Withybush hospital in recent years, now teamed with the relocation of the special care baby unit, the downgrading of paediatrics, and the possible centralisation of cardiac services, is not portraying a positive image to doctors and clinicians. Doctors and other professionals might see these decisions as a signal to downgrade other services, and therefore clinicians might feel disinclined to join a hospital that they believe does not have a future.
It is quite evident throughout the whole of this process that the geography of Pembrokeshire has not been taken into account. Travelling from St David’s to Carmarthen in an emergency situation, as a constituent once told me, would be similar to people in Cardiff being forced to travel to Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny for emergency care. That would not be right for the people of Cardiff, and therefore it is not right for the people that I represent. Pembrokeshire faces challenging transport links, and therefore travelling any distance to obtain emergency treatment will certain lessen survival chances, and that is if there are no road closures on the way to Glangwili. The A40 into Pembrokeshire has already been closed on several occasions only this year.
The Welsh Institute for Health and Social Care has made it absolutely clear that outcomes improve significantly if people receive the right care and treatment within the first golden hour of falling ill or being injured. It is highly unlikely that my constituents will receive the right care and treatment within the first golden hour of falling ill or being injured if those services are not based in Pembrokeshire. In Pembrokeshire, we accept that we already have to travel further afield for specialist treatment, but forcing us to travel further afield for life-saving treatment and emergency services is totally unacceptable.
Figures up to the end of last month show that, in the last 18 months, ambulance response time targets have only been met once, despite the fact that Wales has lower targets than England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Minister talks about accelerating the introduction of a new around-the-clock emergency retrieval service for Wales, but what does that mean? There is very little detail about how this service will look. How will the service cope at peak tourist times and when there are road closures? Therefore, today, I urge the Minister to seriously reconsider his decision to close the special care baby unit and to downgrade paediatric services, and to provide cast-iron guarantees that services at Withybush hospital will not be downgraded.
The people’s campaign to retain services is not going to go away. As local Members, it is our duty to represent their views in this Chamber. Today’s debate has been tabled to reflect on the Minister’s statement in January and to once again put it to the Minister that his decision is a catastrophic blow for the people of Pembrokeshire. I therefore say to the Minister, once again, that the downgrading of services at Withybush hospital will put people’s lives at risk in my constituency. These plans to downgrade services are not wanted by clinicians and are passionately opposed by the public.
The people of Pembrokeshire already feel like their views are being ignored. However, we will not give up without a fight and I urge the Minister, once again, to reconsider his decision and to listen to the people of Pembrokeshire before it is too late.
There are four people to get in in two minutes, so may I suggest that you cut your speeches very short? I call Simon Thomas.
Thank you, Paul, for the opportunity to contribute. I will not rehearse the comments made by Paul. That is the message that I am receiving from constituents also, and he has spoken for his constituents today.
All I want to tell the Minister today, swiftly, is that there are three things that concern me about this whole development. On the workforce first of all, Hywel Dda is not doing enough, in my opinion, to plan the workforce and to recruit and to ensure consistency of service. The second thing is the way that Hywel Dda deals with the public; I do not think that it is sufficiently open or honest enough, and it does not help people like me who may want to speak in favour of some change that can happen in some of those areas. The third point is that there is a real need, now, for the concept of rural care. The work is being done by Marcus Longley now in light of the meeting that you and Elin Jones had. We truly need developments such as those at Withybush and in west Wales to be undertaken in the context of real care that responds to the needs of people in rural communities.
When we met with the Minister ahead of the rally at the Senedd, I think that it is fair to say that everyone at that meeting was of one mind that if there were to be a change to neonatal care—and some people did not accept that there was need for change—the expert panel’s safety-net requirement should be fully in place before any change took place.
One of those safety-net requirements relates to the midwifery-led unit. I want to reflect briefly on the visit that I made to the Brecon birth unit, which was invaluable in providing me with the opportunity to calmly and forensically talk through with midwives and new mothers some of the issues that Paul Davies has mentioned in his speech. I would urge other Members to take that opportunity, because I found it extremely useful.
I want to ask the Minister to say something today about progress towards those safety-net requirements, including how we can make sure that facilities are in place at the Glangwili end, before any change takes place, because I also think that that is essential. I just regret that I do not have more time to speak.
And, you do not. I call William Powell; we have a very short amount of time left.
I would like to thank Paul Davies very much for bringing forward this important debate. In my role as Chair of the Assembly’s Petitions Committee, together with my colleagues—several of whom are in the Chamber today—I have received the petitions that you have referred to. This matter is of the utmost seriousness. I had the privilege to meet and to address the most recent rally, at the invitation of Chris Overton, to whom I also pay tribute for the leadership that he has afforded to this campaign. I urge the Minister to listen in this matter.
I will be very brief. I wish that I had more time to speak, but I thank Paul Davies for giving me the minute that I have. I want to ask the Minister a series of questions. Can you confirm that the safety net will be in place during the transition phase of the SCBU move from Withybush to Glangwili? Will you also confirm that stabilisation for mother and baby will remain in place? Will you confirm that the reason behind the reorganisation of services is to maintain safe and reliable services—both now and in the future—at Withybush hospital?
I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to reply to the debate.
I would like to thank Paul Davies for the opportunity to put on record a set of important facts—facts about service, facts about process—which explain the position at Withybush hospital.
Health services across the United Kingdom and beyond face a set of common challenges, which any responsible government has to address, however intractable they may appear. That is why my predecessor, Lesley Griffiths, at the start of this Assembly term required all local health boards to set out their plans for creating safe and sustainable services for the communities that they serve—not simply today, but into the future. In developing its own plan, ‘Your Health, Your Future’, Hywel Dda health board undertook an extensive listening and engagement exercise between December 2011 and April 2012. I have heard what Simon Thomas has said here this afternoon, and in the past, that there are things that Hywel Dda could have done better and needs to do better today. We are trying to give it assistance to help it in doing that important job of engaging with its local population.
Its engagement exercise back in 2011-12 was designed to address some of the particular challenges that that health board faces—an ageing population with increasing demands for care, difficulties in recruiting and retaining sufficient well-qualified staff for some services, and the need to sustain excellent and safe medical care across a large rural area with dispersed communities. The aim of the exercise was to inform the board better by providing opportunities for staff, stakeholders and the public to express their ideas about a wide range of health issues in both primary and secondary care.
Following this phase, the health board published its proposals for services in mid and west Wales. There was a formal 12-week public consultation and it closed at the end of October 2012. Following an analysis of the consultation exercise, the health board published its final proposals on 15 January last year. In accordance with the established procedures, the proposals were subject to a six-week period of consideration by the local community health council, which is able—as you know—to refer any proposals to Welsh Ministers if it believes that they would not be in the best interests of the health service in that area.
A significant number of the proposals and changes set out by the health board were accepted and the process of implementation has followed. Hywel Dda Community Health Council however referred two specific issues to Welsh Ministers in April 2013. Those concerned emergency services at Prince Philip Hospital in Llanelli and neonatal services at Glangwili and Withybush hospitals.
Again, there is an established process that we have to follow. When that happens, the procedure requires that I convene an expert scrutiny panel to provide me with the advice and the recommendations on which to base my determination. I make no apology for putting on record again the nature of the panel that was brought together. It comprised Professor Neena Modi, professor of neonatal medicine at Imperial College London and honorary consultant at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, and a world-leading figure in this field; alongside her was Mr Jim Wardrope, a consultant in accident and emergency medicine at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, and a former president of the National College of Emergency Medicine; and to help them, the third member, Dr David Salter, is formerly the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Wales and with a vast knowledge and experience of NHS Wales. In August 2013, the panel met with the local health board, met with the community health council and met with local clinicians with an interest in the matter under consideration, looked at all the documents available to it, and reported to me in September. I was able to endorse its advice in relation to emergency care at Prince Philip Hospital, and formally determined that matter on 24 September.
In relation to neonatal services in mid and west Wales, I reported to this Assembly that, while the panel had set out a clear direction of travel, it required further work by the LHB in relation to obstetric and midwifery services before the pattern of neonatal services for the Hywel Dda area could be fully determined. The panel required extra work to be done by the local health board, and I instructed the health board to undertake that work. That was received in December, when the scrutiny panel was further strengthened by the inclusion of Mr Simon Emery, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist and chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges in Wales.
These are senior people in the field. That panel provided me with a subsidiary report containing its final advice in January and I announced my final determination on neonatal services to the National Assembly on 21 January. That confirmed the health board’s proposals to develop a level 2 neonatal unit at Glangwili hospital and to introduce a networked maternity service with both obstetric and midwifery-led units.
During its deliberations, the scrutiny panel considered all of the available evidence. Once again, it did not simply rely on documentation provided by the LHB and others, extensive as that documentation was. It visited west Wales again, it spoke face to face with the CHC, with local clinicians and others. It was clear, in its advice to me, that the needs of pregnant women and their babies could be safely accommodated without a neonatal unit presence, provided that this was accompanied by emergency cover, staff trained in newborn resuscitation and stabilisation, and clearly defined pathways for in-utero and postnatal transfers being in place.
The advice was unambiguous and unanimous, and the advice was that this new service model would lead to better quality care and improved patient outcomes for mothers and babies in the Hywel Dda area. As Minister, it is my responsibly to make decisions on the basis of the best professional advice available. I ask the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire to reflect on that point. Could any responsible Minister simply tear up the most authoritative clinical advice that could be secured and embark on a course of action that that such advice directly and unequivocally describes as unsafe for mothers and babies?
In making my determination, I made it clear that the proposals will need to be accompanied by a robust safety-net set of arrangements, and I endorsed all the safety-net requirements that the scrutiny panel set out in its report. They include, as Joyce Watson asked, that midwives will have the skilled assistance they need in the event of an unexpected emergency, as well as the additional training that they will require, and effective emergency transfer arrangements.
I have to expect the local health board to work closely with the Welsh ambulance service, the air ambulance service and the Cymru Inter Hospital Acute Neonatal Transfer Service, to ensure that robust retrieval and transfer systems are in place. This will ensure that very sick babies can travel safely to the level 2 neonatal unit at Glangwili hospital. We will put in place as well, thanks to the cooperation of my colleague, Edwina Hart, who has provided substantial extra assistance in this area, new work to make sure that the interests of people who have to travel further to receive treatment or to visit family and friends are properly protected as well.
I understand that these are very important, and in many ways difficult, changes for the people directly affected. That is why I will require the health board to commission an independent evaluation of the impact of the revised neonatal services on newborn outcomes and patient experiences 12 months after the service comes into fruition.
Let me turn briefly to the recent report from the Royal College of Physicians on cardiology services in Hywel Dda. The report identifies a number of challenges that the health board has faced in delivering cardiac services to relatively low population numbers across large geographical areas. It too highlights patient safety issues and makes a series of recommendations to provide more effective ways of working and a better standard of care. The health board will now discuss that report with its local clinical communities and others with an interest in those changes.
We cannot go on, every time we get authoritative and independent advice that tells us important things about how services are to be delivered in a safe and sustainable way, thinking that we can simply brush that information to one side because it does not fit in with the way we wish the world could be. We have no choice but to deal with the world as it actually is. It really does not, I believe, in the end, lead to the sort of services that we would all like to see in these areas if we persist in portraying every step on the path to change as somehow a deterioration in the service that people provide. The aim is exactly the opposite. The aim is to design a future for services for the people of Pembrokeshire that gives Withybush that safe and secure and sustainable future. Describing change in the terms that we have heard in the Chamber this afternoon, where everything is a catastrophic blow, where everything is a downgrade, and where everything is portrayed in deeply emotive terms, is the way in which we stop people who would be willing to come and work in our services from coming to work here. That is where we turn the opportunity we have from being an opportunity into a threat to services.
What I believe I have done, in following the best possible advice, even in these very difficult circumstances, is to put services at Withybush hospital on a path where they will continue into the long term to provide for the needs of the patient population of that area, and to do that on a basis that we can sustain for that future and to do that on a basis that allows us to go on providing other services at that hospital to make sure that it does have the successful future that we want it to have. We need, as much as possible, and as we quite often do manage to do on the floor of this Assembly, to join together to try to make the most we possibly can of those opportunities, because, if we cast them aside, they really may not come our way again.
Thank you, Minister. That brings today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 19:23