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. What arrangements will the Welsh Government make for the four per cent of people who will not receive fast fibre broadband? OAQ(4)0418(EST)
A review identifying locations not covered by either commercial or Superfast Cymru roll-out processes has been completed. We will soon be running a public consultation on these findings. We are considering how superfast broadband can be provided to premises that are not covered by either the commercial or Superfast Cymru roll-outs.
I had an e-mail overnight from a business in my constituency with a photo attached of its latest broadband speed checker test and it showed a reading of 0.11 MB. That means that that business cannot run the internet part of its business on such a slow speed. This business is worried that it will be in the 4% of people outside the Superfast Cymru project. Can you give a timescale for any announcement that the Government will make of programmes that it will put in place to ensure that that 4% will be able to receive intervention that will mean that, in a short time, 100% of Wales will be Superfast Cymru enabled?
May I thank the Member, not only for the question but also for consistently pressing for fast and reliable broadband in all parts of Wales? I am able to share with Members that we will progress the infill programme concurrent with Superfast Cymru. We have finished the open-market review and we now propose to go to public consultation, after which the tendering process will begin. So, we will be up operating the infill programme alongside Superfast Cymru.
Deputy Minister, given that parts of Pembrokeshire are likely to include the 4% of people who will not receive a fast fibre broadband service, can you tell us what specific work the Welsh Government is doing to identify those particular communities in Pembrokeshire and what digital support will be available for those areas?
As I say, the open-market review has been completed and we will now progress to a consultation. The open-market review will identify the areas that are not covered either by commercial roll-out or by Superfast Cymru, namely the 4%. We will now go to public consultation on how we respond to the 4% and what technologies we use after that tendering process will begin following that intervention.
Superfast Cymru broadband is limited to rural intervention, as I understand it, but the Deputy Minister will know that there remains a significant notspot in the Penylan area in the centre of Cardiff. BT has confirmed to me that a number of cabinets in this area will not be included in the commercial roll-out. That means that households in that area will continue to suffer from very low broadband speeds. Can you assure me that urban interventions will also be included in your review and that those households in Cardiff can expect to have some assistance as well?
Indeed. Contrary to popular belief, the 4% also covers areas that are intensely urban and not just rural. So, they are part and parcel of the open-market review and, subsequent to that, of the intervention.
2. What estimated economic benefits do major events bring to Wales? OAQ(4)0416(EST)
It is estimated that the Welsh Government-supported programme of major sporting and cultural events in 2013/14 generated a direct economic impact of £61 million and supported 1,403 full-time jobs in Wales.
I thank the Minister for that response. How do you think that we can capitalise on the fact that the opening Ashes test of next year’s series will be in Cardiff in the SWALEC stadium? It will obviously reach a huge audience, not only in Australia, but also in the whole of the sub-continent.
We have to remember, of course, that it is the England and Wales Cricket Board, so we expect an England and Wales team to do rather better in the world rankings than they are currently, but I have not checked the score today. However, if you look at the 2009 series alone, you will see that it is estimated that it brought around £2.4 million into Wales. Our sector teams look at all of the opportunities that arise and that are presented by the Ashes, in terms of looking at new businesses and commercial prospects, and we have a very good relationship with the organisers of this event.
Minister, the chief executive officer of the Celtic Manor Resort said that we need to do more to take advantage of the NATO summit. In July, of course—and you will know about this—Swansea will be staging the International Paralympic Committee Athletics European Championships. In addition to the Ashes tour, next year we will have eight Rugby World Cup matches. It costs money to stage these events in Wales, so what kind of economic benefits are you seeking when you make your cost-benefit analysis of supporting these events?
I was having a conversation the other day with someone in America, whose best memories were of when they came to the Celtic Manor and saw the golf. They said, ‘If there is anything that I can do to help Wales’—and they are in business—’we would be delighted to do so, because of the way that the event was held’.
Can I say that, in terms of the general things, we do see the economic benefits coming in, and they are not just Cardiff and south Wales based—there are benefits across Wales? We obviously take that into account when we are giving out further money. With regard to the Celtic Manor comments, I believe that the First Minister dealt with those yesterday.
Minister, could you give us an update on how you provide support for people who come up with new concepts in terms of major events—not the people who have the funding behind them, perhaps, but the people who have the creative ideas? For example, we know that the first Swansea half marathon will be staged this year, and it is two men who have brought the idea forward, and who want to develop this into an annual event. How are we encouraging people who have that spark as individuals to take these projects further for the benefit of the whole of Wales?
I think that it is important to recognise that we support events across the piece, and we do look at innovation. Some of the best events that we have in Wales are as a result of innovation, whether it be the Green Man Festival, or things like the Machynlleth Comedy Festival; they show that people have great ideas to be taken on board. We have a very open-door policy in the major events unit for any organisations that come to us. Obviously, in terms of the marathon, I thought that the Greeks started that thousands of years ago. [Laughter.]
3. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government strategy for maximising the economic opportunities arising from the NATO Summit, for the promotion of Wales? OAQ(4)0419(EST)
Obviously, in terms of the NATO summit, it is being organised by the UK Government. We are working closely with it, and its agencies, to maximise the economic benefits for Wales, and are in detailed discussion on logistics, suppliers and opportunities to showcase Wales, particularly in terms of business and tourism. I also think that the Secretary of State for Wales made that quite clear last week when he was interviewed.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. I am most encouraged by it. Clearly, you and the rest of the house will want to take every opportunity possible from what is an extraordinary event, with so many heads of state being present in Wales, seeing what we can offer. The tourism and visitor opportunities will not come again.
No. You are quite right to say that, in terms of the business benefits, the manufacturing team sector has already engaged with the NATO procurement arm in Luxembourg, to look at an UK industry day. We have had excellent involvement with the Ministry of Defence on some of these issues as well, and, based on this very good practice, I hope that we can showcase Wales. I think that we have to be acutely aware, of course, that there are major issues in terms of a NATO summit, and some of the discussions will remain confidential.
Obviously, the cost of security is pretty hefty in these matters. Do we know what the cost of security will be, and do you know whether any of that cost will fall on Wales or on Welsh police forces?
As I think that I indicated to you, this is an UK Government event, and I would not like to comment on any matters to do with security. It is very important that we recognise what a significant event this is, and there will be security implications. However, I can assure you that, through all the working groups that we are involved in, we are closely involved with the discussions on these particular issues.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Welsh Liberal Democrats spokesperson, Eluned Parrott.
We have discussed the lessons that have been learned, perhaps, from the Ryder Cup with regard to the NATO summit. However, perhaps a more comparable event, in terms of audience and impact, is the European Council meeting that took place in Cardiff in 1998, when the UK hosted the European Union presidency. Albeit it was before devolution, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the economic impact, and the economic opportunities, that that particular event presented?
I have to give you an honest answer—I do not remember seeing any paperwork on that particular issue since I have been the Minister for the economy. I do not know whether anything was done historically, when we came into being in 1999. However, I am aware that they did an excellent refurbishment, I think, with Cardiff City Hall and the Mansion House, as a result of it, so there was a direct benefit to Cardiff Council. However, I will certainly make enquiries, and see whether work has been done on that basis.
Thank you, Minister. One thing that was done in advance of that European summit was the creation of the Cardiff forum, a group of various different bodies, such as the Welsh Development Agency, the Wales Tourist Board, Cardiff Chamber of Commerce, the Welsh Rugby Union, and so on, to help co-ordinate efforts to maximise the economic benefits of that event. Will you consider establishing such a body again?
Well, of course, I have the city region board currently, and I am looking at all my other arrangements with other organisations across the city region to maximise anything in terms of economic development.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the opposition spokesperson, Byron Davies.
Following on with the NATO theme, Minister, will you outline what action you have taken to ensure that Cardiff Airport plays a key role in delivering the NATO conference and to maximise the potential to sell the airport around the world?
The transportation team for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is working to ensure that Cardiff Airport is used as the principal airport for the NATO Wales summit, and maximum use will also be made of the facilities at St Athan, if, of course, we can help the UK Government with any of the arrangements of this. Obviously, it will be good news for the airport in terms of publicity if it is used.
Yes, I fully follow that, and I totally agree with you, but what do you make of the comments by the chief executive officer of the Celtic Manor Resort, who said:
‘At the moment it’s more viable for us to have an alliance with Bristol Airport to put on an international campaign because they have more routes coming into Bristol than into Cardiff.’
Can you outline what you are doing specifically to ensure that that is not the case?
Obviously, there is hard work going on in terms of the airport board, which is an arm’s-length company from the Government. It is working very hard and has recently secured routes, and we very much hope that the NATO conference will put Cardiff and Wales once again on the map in terms of any future discussions that we might have.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government efforts to support manufacturing in Torfaen? OAQ(4)0422(EST)
Manufacturing is a key sector of the Welsh economy and Torfaen is a prime manufacturing location. Our priority remains to develop and strengthen the manufacturing base in Wales. Wales now has the highest contribution by manufacturing to the economy of any of the UK regions.
As you are aware, the lack of available industrial land in Torfaen has been an ongoing concern, with a number of local manufacturers finding it difficult to expand, and some considering moving outside the borough in order to grow their business. I was very grateful that you took the time to meet with me and representatives of the local authority last week to discuss this really important issue. I know that everyone else involved felt that it was a really positive meeting, so will you continue to work both with the council and with local manufacturers to help ensure that there is land available to meet the needs of long-standing employers who wish to grow their business but remain in Torfaen?
I did say, of course, that Torfaen is a prime manufacturing location and is home to key companies such as Arvin Meritor, Zodiac Seats UK Ltd and everyone, so it is important that we work with industry to keep the jobs there. I am delighted to work with the local authority, because, sometimes, in some areas, it is very difficult to find the appropriate land for industrial use, and we must be mindful that we always need to have appropriate land for industrial use to ensure that we can sell the benefits of coming to Wales and increase work in Wales.
Minister, a recent report by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors revealed that firms looking to set up operations in Wales were being held back by the lack of sustainable sites. As you know, Minister, Torfaen is one of the best-linked areas by train and road, and it can massively attract overseas and national investors. So, what plan does the Minister have to support the development of new industrial business parks in areas such as Torfaen to promote manufacturing in Wales?
I can only support future development if the land is available for development and if the local development plan allows industrial use. So, I can only help and assist when requested. Obviously, we look at all our assets across Wales, where we hold land and where local authorities hold land, to maximise what we have available. If there are shortfalls, as was drawn to my attention by Lynne Neagle, in a particular area, then we will work hard with a local authority to try to open up opportunities for land development.
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to support and promote integrated transport in the Vale of Clwyd? OAQ(4)0415(EST)
I am committed to improving integrated transport in Wales, as set out in the Wales transport strategy. I will set out more detail on my priorities in the new national transport plan, which is being developed this year.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Last week, you announced for Rhyl £244,000 to improve integrated transport, for which I have to thank you. That comes on the back of £350,000 for the Vale of Clwyd active travel route, focusing on improving cycling and walking paths into Denbigh town centre, and also the proposed new investment in Rhyl railway station. So, it is clear to see that the Welsh Government understands the need for that infrastructure. Minister, what can we do now to make sure that the bus companies and the train companies, and those who are making their way by means of other forms of public transport, can co-ordinate and integrate their whole journey from their home to their destination?
As you know, I recently established the bus advisory group, whose main objective is to advise on how we might renew the Welsh Government’s policy on bus services and develop a new approach to funding. They need to find improved ways of ensuring this transport and, as you are probably also aware, I have been doing some work with Mark Drakeford around community transport links into the health service. I am also discussing actively with some local authorities in north Wales some of the difficulties they have had with their individual bus companies and whether there should be greater involvement of the local authorities and us in the future running of key core services.
Many of my constituents, too, will be benefiting from the Vale of Clwyd active travel route. I know that Denbighshire county council is progressing with a planning application on this issue at this very moment in time. Minister, what will you do to ensure that other local authorities follow that example, which is being set by Denbighshire, to ensure that their local residents can also benefit from this sort of approach in terms of integrated transport in the future? It appears to me that some are quite slugging in making progress in this area.
Yes, there are differences across local authorities even in such simple matters as safe routes to schools, whereas I see the opportunity of ensuring safe routes to schools, mapping them against what Sustrans wants on cycle tracks and everything. It is win, win, win and not just in terms of schoolchildren, but in terms of people accessing employment. We are trying to do more work in that area and I have been discussing with local authority leaders how we need to overlay each other’s plans to get maximum use for the public purse in relation to these particular issues.
I am pleased, Minister, that you have referred to negotiations that you are having with the Minister for health in terms of ensuring access to health services, because it appears that people are now having to travel further in certain areas to access those services. A recent report by Age Cymru highlighted the importance of bus services to older people in particular, and even more so to older people living in rural areas. I assume, therefore, Minister, that you would agree with me that it is a false economy to cut transport services in order to save money, because it does impact upon the quality of life and the independence of individuals, and this, ultimately, will cost more to the public purse.
I do not think that some things save money. I do not think that people look at all the implications of stopping a bus service and how that puts costs on others and ups the ante in many terms. That is what we have to start to understand: what real value for money is and what real accessibility is. I take your point about older people, but I am also very concerned about young people. Their ability to travel, engage, socialise and work is also particularly important to us as a Government.
Rail Service between North Wales and Liverpool
6. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government efforts to re-establish a direct rail service between North Wales and Liverpool? OAQ(4)0413(EST)
I have jointly commissioned two demand studies with Merseytravel to examine the potential reinstatement of the Halton curve, allowing direct services between north Wales and Liverpool, and improvements to services on the Borderlands line between Wrexham and Merseyside. I am expecting these reports in the summer and I will make them available to Members when I have received them.
I am very pleased to hear that progress is being made on this important issue. As you know, the benefits to the north Wales economy of re-establishing a direct rail link between the north Wales mainline and the metropolis of Liverpool could be very great indeed. Minister, I assume that your officials are aware that there is an opportunity in Network Rail’s maintenance and works programme for some work to be undertaken on the line in 2016. Can you assure us that the work that you have in progress will be able to inform a decision early enough to be able to fit a piece of work to re-establish the Halton curve, which is of course the necessary part of the route that needs to be established within the appropriate time frame to get that piece of work done in 2016?
I listened to the points that you made in your supplementary question. It is certainly something that I will take up with the director of transport to ensure that we are streamlined on all these issues. I am concerned about some of the issues that are arising in north Wales in terms of rail. I have had other queries from other Members in the Chamber regarding what Network Rail is doing et cetera, and I have to have certainty in terms of what is available for us to be able to improve transport infrastructure.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
The Minister will be aware that the current journey from Liverpool Lime Street to Llandudno Junction, for example, takes some two hours, with one change in Chester, and that the journey from Wrexham to Liverpool central, through Bidston, takes an hour and a half or so. Is the Minister not of the opinion that it would be good, in preparing for the next franchise for Wales and the Marches—if I may use the old name for the borders—that we look at all the routes that cut across the borders, or Marches, because that journey from Manchester Piccadilly to Cardiff and the west is the backbone of the north-south service, and it gives those of us using Shrewsbury the option of 25 trains a day between Cardiff and that station. Therefore, there are a number of things that we can do to plan more effectively across the Marches, I believe, Minister, should you agree.
If we are fortunate enough to have devolution of rail and we are able to control our own destiny, I think the points that you make are absolutely valid in terms of looking at an integrated service across Wales that is also a service that includes the Marches, because we travel through them. So, I concur with the broad points that you make.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the development of the Sirolli project in Powys? OAQ(4)0423(EST)
I am today announcing my intention to provide funding towards the Sirolli project in Powys, which will take forward the model of community-based economic development in and around Newtown and the Severn Valley for the period up to March 2016. I thank the Member particularly for his interest in and support for this.
Thank you, Minister, for your response, which is welcome. One of the issues that I wanted to see underpin the delivery of Sirolli was a more targeted business rate scheme, like the one you have in place in enterprise zones. I think that that would obviously be beneficial to the Newtown area. In your response to the Powys growth zones report, you said that you would review the effectiveness of the new enterprise zones scheme after 12 months and then take a decision on a targeted scheme in the Powys local growth zone area. Reduced business rates would obviously be welcomed by shops in Newtown. Do you intend to implement such a scheme in Powys?
Yes, I intend to do some further work on this particular area in the Powys context, and I will report back when all the developments that have arisen from the Powys local growth zone initiative. Of course, we can use the Sirolli project in its rural context to see what further work we can do.
I would like to hear from the Minister what Sirolli has that is different from the various other economic plans that we have seen elsewhere in Wales. Is this a pattern that the Minister wants to see rolled out more broadly, particularly in the context of developing growth areas where the Welsh language is an important factor?
The Sirolli Institute seems to work well with individual businesses and people, and it seems to build up an element of trust and understanding that you are taking control of your own destiny. We found that to be particularly positive. If Members are interested, Presiding Officer, I would be delighted to organise an event for Members to take them through the success of the Sirolli projects in some areas and how they have developed. I think that that would be helpful, to show that it is money well spent and to show how the local communities have engaged, and perhaps we could have some of the individuals involved at ground level to be part of that presentation for Members.
I would like to welcome your announcement, Minister, on the Sirolli project here today. In doing so, I would also like to thank you very much for your direct interest and input in several regeneration projects in Newtown and the wider Montgomeryshire area. I particularly have in mind the facilitation and seedcorn funding that you have recently provided for the Treowen community hub project led by Councillor Joy Jones and her team, whom you met in Newtown back in January. Do you agree with me that, on some occasions, it is more effective to have small-scale targeted funding coming in, working with the grain of local communities, rather than large-scale external agencies?
I will begin by thanking the Member for the help and assistance that I have had in various meetings that he has helped to facilitate for discussion on this. I totally concur with what he has said. I sometimes think that small amounts of money, in hand with the local community, can actually get us the results we want because I think it makes various projects secure for the long term.
8. What discussions has the Minister had with local councils regarding the operation of the blue badge scheme? OAQ(4)0411(EST)
We are in regular contact with local councils to monitor the operation of the scheme. As the Member will be aware, there are problems with it across Wales.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I have had a number of people contacting me about problems they are experiencing, including elderly people without a consultant having no way to provide medical evidence, as you have excluded GPs from doing so; having unqualified council officers making assessments; and councils refusing to carry out occupational therapist assessments on appeal even though the guidance says they should do so. Also, I have had one constituent complaining that a council in my region wanted to charge them for an occupational therapist assessment, and that councils insist that the condition affecting the applicant must be permanent, even though the badge only lasts three years. What action are you taking on these particular issues, and, in particular, when will the toolkit be available for local councils to address these issues?
I have just today been signing off some paperwork on some of these issues around the blue badge, because, as you know, I established a small expert review group to make recommendations and improvements on the scheme. In addition, we have been gathering information about users’ experience of the scheme, which beggars belief in some areas, and the complaints I have had from Members indicate that there is no understanding of how the scheme operates. There is no compassion or understanding for the individuals who are involved, either, in the way that it is dealt with. Therefore, we are currently reviewing the current application assessment processes to develop consistent guidance. If it would be helpful for Members, I should be able to issue a written statement updating them fully on matters within the next week.
After I wrote to you last December on behalf of a constituent who was advocating a temporary blue badge, after she had injured herself and was in a wheelchair for a number of weeks and was suffering access problems accordingly, you replied helpfully by referring to the blue badge review group and stated that it had identified obstacles to temporary badges, such as recovering the badge when it was no longer required and the consequent potential for abuse. What consideration has been given, or will or could be given, to temporary badges being provided with dates of duration or expiry or renewal dates on them so that they could not be recycled in that way?
Thank you for that helpful contribution today. I will forward it to my officials for further discussion, because we have to get this scheme right and it has to be implemented fairly across Wales.
In recent years, driven by the Department for Work and Pensions in Westminster, tens of thousands of people have experienced poor treatment as a result of assessments relating to their disabilities. I, as have many others in this Chamber, have had numerous constituents coming to me with cases of delays in assessments, disabilities not being recognised and wrong conclusions being reached, which causes real hardship. Have you considered how this may have impacted on the numbers receiving a blue badge, and have you had any discussions with the DWP regarding the matter?
I, personally, have not had any discussions with the DWP on that issue. I have not been advised of any difficulties arising from the points that you have made to me today, but I will make enquiries with my officials to find out whether there is any further information that I can share with you on that particular issue.
Before you issue your written statement, could you look at the operation of domestic disability parking bays in conjunction with blue badges? Powys County Council only permits disabled parking bays in conjunction with a blue badge if the driver of a car is disabled. My constituent has a disabled child, hence the need for her blue badge. The child is in receipt of what was the disability living allowance, but Powys County council refuses to let her have a disability parking bay outside her property because her child is not the driver of the car. Would you agree that this is nonsensical and that councils should be much more pragmatic when looking at the issuing of the blue badge and at requests for disabled parking bays?
I would be very pleased to look at the issue that the Member has raised with me today, but I might still go ahead with my statement and give you the guarantee that we will look at these wider issues, because I think that there are wider issues to do with the blue badge than what is said in rules and regulations.
Economic Investment Opportunities
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the economic investment opportunities available through European funding? OAQ(4)0420(EST)
Since 2000, our economy and people across Wales have benefited from some £4 billion of EU structural funds. From 2014, Wales will receive another £2 billion of structural funds to help support growth and increase jobs.
The latest figures show the west Wales and the Valleys GDP slipping from 65% to 64% of the EU average. Does the Minister agree that more focused use of EU structural funding might have helped to halt that decline?
It is important now that we have the opportunity with a new round of structural funds—and I have been discussing this with my colleague, Jane Hutt, with responsibility in this area—that we have focused funds, that we have greater private sector involvement and that we need to use the structural funds to really get a change across the whole region in how we develop projects.
Plaid Cymru’s consultation, Open for Business, published last week, outlines our call for a stronger voice for business in deciding how best to use EU funds to strengthen the Welsh economy. Does the Minister agree that that would help to develop a more proactive approach to seeking investment opportunities?
I hope that we will not descend into discussion of your report and the report that the Welsh Conservatives might have done, which normally seems to occur in my questions. I look at anything that has been published by any political party in this Chamber, and if I think that it could be of any help or assistance in delivering Government policy, I will take it on board.
Minister, will you outline what opportunties are available for infrastructure spending? We have seen, across the EU, other countries building motorways, railways and ports, but I feel that we have been less than constructive in Wales with these funds. I know that your Government has learned lessons following the Wales Adudit Office’s major projects report, and I hope that the next tranche of funding will see significant funding being spent on major infrastructure. You have outlined in the past that infrastructure will support your enterprise zones; do you envisage opportunities here, and when will we see a detailed plan of projects?
It is important for us to recognise that the lead is taken by the Welsh European Funding Office in negotiations with the Commission. We are still, obviously, looking at the issues that will arise from the use of structural funds. It is important to realise that the main push-back from the Commission is on ICT and transport infrastructure. We need to ensure a very strong economic case based on any specific transport proposals and where structural funds add genuine value, hence the discussion that we have on the metro—and I am looking at the Minister for Finance as I say this.
The Commission has already indicated that it would like to see EU funds supporting intermodal connectivity options, which is important. We also need to look at issues in relation to the trans-European transport network as well. So, I am confident that we are going in the right direction, and I am confident that the city regions now understand fully their role in developing projects that go across local authority boundaries and make a significant difference in terms of the expenditure of these future funds.
10. How is the Welsh Government responding to the needs of businesses in Montgomeryshire for more flexible business units? OAQ(4)0424(EST)
There is a range of property and development sites available to businesses in Montgomeryshire. However, we are aware of growing demand for property in the area and I am exploring this issue further with my officials.
Thank you, Minister; I am glad that you are aware of those demands. Businesses have been telling me that they are looking for more flexible units to develop in mid Wales that are suitable not just for business start-ups, but also businesses looking to expand, as well as properties that are large enough to attract major employers to the region. There are a number of factory sites that are empty and have been left to become derelict—and I would suggest that this is because they are certainly not fit for modern business needs. So, how is the Welsh Government reacting to current business demand in mid Wales, and how is it facilitating the development of the region to include large business units that are efficient and able to meet the demands of the twenty-first century?
You also have to recognise that there is a role and responsibility for local government in terms of the sites it manages or the influence it might have on the market in the area. We are obviously supporting some major employers to look at additional premises there, and we are also looking at the availability of development plots in places such as Llanidloes and Welshpool. There is a good supply, apparently, of private sector premises throughout the area. We are taking all of this into account and one of my senior officials is exploring what recommendations can be made to me regarding whether I can make any further improvements in the area.
Minister, Chemostrat Ltd is just one Montgomeryshire-based business that the Government has supported. Thanks to the £100,000 funding from the Wales economic growth fund, the geological mapping company has expanded to new premises at Buttington Cross Enterprise Park in Welshpool and has taken on new staff. Now that the second phase of the fund has come to an end, will there be an evaluation of its success, and are there any plans to extend the fund to a third phase?
Obviously, we will look at what the fund did and consider what good it did, and we will do the appropriate evaluation. We will be looking to see what we can do in terms of further funding, because it has proven to be very popular and very successful.
Swansea Bay City Region Scheme
11. Will the Minister make a statement on the Swansea Bay City Region scheme? OAQ(4)0414(EST)
The Swansea bay city region board meets on a regular basis. Its focus is on identifying transformational projects that would deliver economic change for the whole region.
When we talk about creating a situation where the region’s economy is transformed, tourism is particularly important. Would you agree that the gardens scheme in Carmarthenshire is a very important tourist attraction and that there is an opportunity there, by supporting that plan, to ensure that the south-west Wales economy is transformed?
I totally concur with you. There have been some excellent schemes on the tourism side, particularly in west Wales, and I have been particularly excited when they have looked at the role of the National Botanic Garden of Wales and Aberglasney House and Gardens and the linkages that can be made in that area. We are very supportive, as a department, because of the economic development opportunities, the benefits to business locally and to the tourism agenda. It is very important that we recognise the contribution that tourism makes to the economy in the Swansea bay region.
Minister, one of the major advantages of city regions is the potential that they have to create and support businesses. I know that you are aware of the disappointing redundancy announcements made earlier this week by Morganite Electrical Carbon Ltd, formerly known as Morganite, and Save Britain Money, which collectively left over 200 people without a job in Swansea. Minister, will you meet with me as the constituency AM for where these businesses are based so that we can discuss what support the Welsh Government can give to Morganite and Save Britain Money to protect and support the workers there?
The Minister for Local Government and Government Business has already agreed, in response to questions yesterday, that I would be providing an update on Morganite when I had anything further to add. I am happy to meet with any Members who have concerns—like you and I do—about it. With regard to Save Britain Money, this is to do with something that the UK Government is funding for energy improvements, and it has indicated that it will take the staff back on when all these matters are settled, if they want to come back into employment.
Minister, one way of ensuring the success of the city region would be for businesses within the city region to work with local schools and colleges to design courses that meet the local skills need, and skills which may be needed to develop the economy in any particular city region environment. How can you assist the boards in securing the support of some of your ministerial colleagues in achieving that?
The boards have not complained to me about a lack of support from any of my ministerial colleagues in any area. I have regular dialogue with Huw Lewis’s Deputy Minister, who also happens to be my Deputy Minister, in terms of how we can assist the city regions. I know that the city region boards, particularly because there has been a discussion about it in the Cardiff city region, have had helpful discussions about the wider planning agenda, which I know Members are concerned about in the context of a city region.
Minister, thank you for agreeing to provide a statement in response to my question to the Minister for Local Government and Government Business yesterday in relation to Morganite Electrical Carbon Ltd. Is there a role for the city region in helping to address this issue, and how will you be engaged with the various partners in the Swansea area in trying to preserve as many jobs as we can in this very important business?
I do think that there is a role for the city region to look at preserving jobs in the area and for expanding the opportunities for new work to come into the area. Once we have got over some of the teething problems of city regions, I think that they will go that further stage and will be fully integrated into discussions around these issues.
12. Will the Minister provide an update on the task force on modernising the north Wales rail network? OAQ(4)0425(EST)
Good progress has been made, and I am expecting that the strategic outline case will be completed later this year.
Thank you for the answer. You have mentioned two reports to be received during the summer. I also think that there was work to be completed by last month by Network Rail. The work on dualling the line between Wrexham and Chester, however, is to be completed by March of next year. If there are problems regarding capacity on the network in order to improve links with Liverpool and Manchester, is there enough time for the Welsh Government to change the scheme?
I am not sure about sufficient time, in answer to that particular question. I have been concerned, as a result of matters that you have raised with me, about a whole range of issues within north Wales with regard to Network Rail. I will get its formal response on 23 May, and I will immediately enlighten Members when we return from recess about anything that impacts on anything that I may or may not have said in this Chamber on this matter.
In reply to me last week, you quite rightly said that it is critical that there is a joined-up Government approach to the north Wales ambition board in respect of the north Wales transport taskforce. The north Wales ambition board connectivity manager issued a recent factual newsletter confirming that it is imperative to present a compelling business case justifying investment in north Wales, as there are competing calls for funding allocations from other parts of the UK. It also confirmed that phase 1 had identified the strategic case for investment and confirmed that improved rail connectivity would support regeneration, jobs and economic growth plans. In light of your positive response last week, what engagement is there between the two bodies and the UK Government as the other partner in this, or what proposals are there to drive that forward, on the back of the stage 1 completion by the ambition board?
I am meeting the chair of the economic ambition board tomorrow morning. He has a range of issues that he wishes to raise with me and I am sure that transport will be among them.
Investment by Visit Wales
13. What was the total investment by Visit Wales in the Cardiff City Stadium for the 2013-14 season? OAQ(4)0412(EST)
We entered into a sponsorship agreement with Cardiff City Football Club to maximise the opportunities for marketing and promoting Wales to a worldwide audience via the Premier League. The total cost was £149,500, exclusive of VAT.
I am grateful to the Minister. Outside the Cardiff City Stadium, the Malaysian tourist board has a very interesting advertisement, funnily enough, in a fetching shade of blue. I am not going to suggest that Visit Wales changes its colours to blue, because obviously that is not a colour normally associated with Wales. However, can I ask the Minister if she will carry out a full evaluation of the investment at the Cardiff City Stadium by Visit Wales, in particular as to its impact in far eastern markets?
I am more than happy to do so, because one of the areas that we have to look at is attracting tourists from far eastern markets and other markets. I will certainly ask Visit Wales to undertake some work for you.
In August, Minister, the Super Cup is to be played at the Cardiff City Stadium. Obviously, this is a big showcase event that will bring teams from around Europe to it, hopefully building on and supporting the platform for the UEFA bid. What work are your officials undertaking to see how both these events—and the latter in particular, if it is successful—could boost tourism here in Wales and raise Wales’s profile on the international stage?
There is a lot of work going on with my officials to look at the economic benefits and the image of Wales in terms of tourists and everything. Of course, in due course, if we are successful, or if Members want anything further, I would be delighted to report on that. There are ongoing committee discussions about various things around tourism and I am more than happy to pick those points up in committee if necessary.
Electrification of the Railway Lines
14. Will the Minister make a statement on the electrification of the railway lines in Wales? OAQ(4)0417(EST)
We are involved in ongoing discussion with the UK Government regarding the funding of rail electrification in Wales.
Minister, the continuing political row around one of Wales’s biggest ever investment projects, initiated by the First Minister, is putting the south Wales metro and the electrification of the Valleys lines and the line to Swansea in jeopardy. Do you share my regret at the political hijacking of this issue, and will you commit to work constructively with the UK Government and deliver electrification of the south Wales lines as previously set out in ministerial correspondence, which outlined the offer and acceptance in clear terms?
I feel as though this is almost a question to you, not a question to me, as I have made it clear here all along that rail is not devolved. At the end of the day, I do not have the devolution powers. The UK Government has made its position perfectly clear about wanting electrification to Swansea and we made our position perfectly clear. All the letters are out in the public domain. As far as I am concerned, I am working with the Department for Transport to make sure that we get the best deal for Wales in terms of what we are undertaking. I will, hopefully, be dealing with correspondence from the Department for Transport this week on this very matter and I will update Members appropriately and accordingly.
15. Will the Minister make a statement on her priorities for boosting economic growth? OAQ(4)0421(EST)
My priorities are supporting business, sustainable jobs and strengthening our infrastructure. We have supported over 37,000 jobs in the last financial year and will continue with wide-ranging actions to improve our economic prospects.
You will be aware that Sir Howard Stringer recently said that Welsh manufacturing firms could beat off Asian competition because of Wales’s preferential location. I know that you visited Tri-Wall just outside Monmouth in my constituency, which is already one example of a south-east Asian company that has located in Monmouth, using local expertise and exporting as far as India. Tri-Wall has said that its future success in Wales is based upon clear and effective lines of distribution and supply across the UK. Other companies need the assurance that those lines are in place and are clear for them to come here as well. What are you doing to identify, map, locate and package those distribution lines so that companies looking to Wales will see that this is the best place to come?
I think that we have seen that. Tri-Wall is an excellent example of a company that has fitted so well into Monmouthshire in terms of the employment opportunities given. Of course, its zest for doing more business across the globe will benefit its employees in Monmouthshire. In terms of lines, we obviously look at supply chain lines straight away. One of the biggest and most successful companies in recent years has been Jaguar Land Rover in the west midlands, and what we have done is enhance our supply chains and lines of communication in to it and done the work around that. In terms of the wider issue about supply, we have this opportunity now with Hitachi on Ynys Môn, and it is about how we link everybody into that chain as well for Welsh businesses to be involved. That work is already moving ahead quite successfully.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s guidance to local authorities on changes to school catchment areas? OAQ(4)0425(ESK)
I thank the Member for Pontypridd. The statutory school admissions code that was issued in July 2013 provides that catchment areas must not be set or changed after applications for places have been made. Information on any catchment areas set must be included in the admission arrangements that are subject to annual consultation and determination.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. You may be aware of a recent charity’s report that says that more than 40% of parents say that their children, while walking to school, have had a near-miss accident, which is a significant figure. So, safety in travelling to school is obviously an important factor and, when the school catchment areas change, there are often non-established routes to the alternative schools. Will the Minister consider revisiting the current guidance on school consultations to ensure that parents are given all the relevant information at the outset in order to give them the opportunity to consider that as an issue and also to make that an issue for the consultation process when catchment area changes are being considered?
I have to tell the Member that I have no current plans to review the school admissions code. The current code was issued just back in July 2013. However, I will undertake that, when a review next takes place, I will consider whether guidance on changes to catchment areas should be expanded in the way you suggest. While policy on safe routes to school is the responsibility of the Minister for the Economy, Science and Transport, I understand that the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 places a duty on local authorities to assess the travel needs of learners in their area, and this includes the nature of the routes that learners are expected to take. Local authorities must publish the information relating to the assessments carried out with regard to learner travel.
On the issue of catchment areas for schools, two of the three local authorities that make up South Wales Central—Rhondda Cynon Taf and the Vale of Glamorgan—have just gone through some reorganisation, and both have referred to what they believe is the straitjacket of Welsh Government guidance or regulation. How much flexibility do local authorities actually have when interpreting this guidance for their own education areas? For parents in particular, it is very confusing when they are trying to seek answers and they are constantly being pushed back against, ‘Well, we can’t do anything because it’s dictated to us by the Welsh Government’. Do local authorities have the ability to be flexible within the guidance?
Well, this is a matter for local government. Ministers do not generally become involved in local admissions matters unless there are issues over compliance with legislation. It is a matter for local authorities, which must comply with the code.
Minister, the consultation document on the creation of the new super school in Port Talbot said that there will be a necessary requirement to change the current catchment areas for Cwrt Sart, Glanafan, Sandfields, Cefn Saeson and Dyffryn secondary schools. I wonder what guidance you can put in in future because, obviously, many of these schools, and especially Cwrt Sart, have been defined as successful community schools. If we are going to be amalgamating schools, we need to understand which policy takes precedence over another. On the ground, people have not been clear as to what that is when a new school has been put in place. I think that local people would welcome such guidance.
Well, such guidance already exists. It is there in the public domain and these are matters substantially, as I say, for local authorities.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the role of the arts in schools? OAQ(4)0424(ESK)
I thank the Member for Arfon. I am totally committed to the arts and cultural activities playing a central role in our schools and also to closer partnership between our schools and arts and cultural organisations. The Welsh Government has responded positively to all 12 recommendations of Professor Dai Smith’s recent report.
Thank you very much. We look forward to seeing that report implemented. There is an exciting scheme called ‘Raising the Roof!’ that has started in two schools in my consituency—Ysgol Maesincla in Caernarfon and Ysgol Bryncegin in Maesgyrchan in Bangor. It is an ambitious musical training course for children from these deprived areas, and I would like to invite you to see the fruits of this very exciting venture sometime during this year.
I thank the Member for Arfon. I am always very keen to get myself up to date in terms of exciting new initiatives. I am also very keen that we do get our response to the letter and the spirit of Professor Dai Smith’s report absolutely right in terms of joint working with schools and I would very gladly accept the Member’s invitation to take a look at ‘Raising the Roof!’—yes, of course.
Minister, the Dai Smith report calls for a clearer role for the arts in continuing professional development for teachers, as well as mentoring for teachers with arts organisations. How influential is the recommendation on teacher CPD and have you discussed the recommendation on mentoring with the Minister for culture?
I have, of course, discussed the implications of Professor Dai Smith’s review with the Minister for culture, and we work jointly on these issues. As you know, in March this year, I published our joint response to Professor Dai Smith’s review of the arts in education in the schools of Wales. That was a joint response from the Minister for Culture and Sport and me. That review is accepted, including the issues surrounding teacher CPD.
There is a job of work to be done here and one of the things that the review makes very clear is that although there are responsibilities now upon the Welsh Government to take forward elements within that plan—CPD clearly being an issue primarily for myself—there is also a new expectation within Wales of closer working between arts organisations, artists themselves, musicians and schools. It is that kind of new atmosphere, if you like, that will be necessary in order to get the real value out of the changes in CPD, which I will be considering as part of our response to the report.
3. What is the Welsh Government doing to tackle bullying in Welsh schools? OAQ(4)0418(ESK)
I thank the Member for the Vale of Clwyd. Our aim is to provide schools with the tools they need to combat bullying. In addition to the existing Welsh Government guidance, known as ‘Respecting Others’, we have been working with schools to develop two short films with an anti-bullying message. These will be available on Learning Wales later this term.
Thank you for that, Minister. May I refer you to the successful I Spy initiative that is run in Prestatyn? It centres on the high school in Prestatyn, but includes safe havens for children to go to on their way home from and to school. A number of businesses in the high street and community organisations are, in fact, buddies and friends of this initiative. That will now, hopefully, be rolled out into Rhyl. It might be a bit of a different organisation in Rhyl, because of the additional problems that we have with schools and the wider walk to school area, or even the drive to school. So, will you take a look at the initiative? I think that the papers are in your department. Your predecessor visited Prestatyn High School and was impressed with the scheme. Will you take a look at the way in which the scheme operates and will you look to roll it out as good practice across the rest of Wales?
Yes, of course I will. I am well aware of the I Spy initiative in Prestatyn and also of my predecessor’s respect for the initiative and the scheme. I have read about it, but have not had the opportunity to take a look myself as yet. I hope that that is something that I will be able to rectify soon, because although the duty is on schools, centrally, to have a behaviour policy in place that includes strategies on tackling bullying, this is not a matter for schools alone. It is a matter for the wider community and for Government too. This does sound like an interesting community-based grass-roots initiative that I would like to learn more about in order to inform our wider policy on bullying across Wales.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the opposition spokesperson, Suzy Davies.
Diolch, Lywydd. Yesterday, Minister, we debated the Welsh Government’s new framework to deliver policy to tackle hate crime, and your department is taking the lead on eight delivery areas, reflecting the framework’s inclusion of hate crime in incidents aimed at and perpetrated by school children and young people in education. Estyn will be researching how schools tackle bullying around protected characteristics, but how are you ensuring that existing guidance on preventing bullying more generally is actually being followed and implemented?
Suzy Davies is quite right to point out that Estyn has an important role to play here. Part of its 2013-14 remit is to carry out a thematic survey on this subject area, looking at the effectiveness of action taken by schools to address bullying on the grounds of protected characteristics. We will be expecting that report and that review to be available next month, and I am looking forward very much to learning more about Estyn’s insights here. However, this is also a question of good implementation of current guidance, for instance, the Welsh Government’s guidance around the good recording procedures that all schools should undertake. It is also about continuing professional development, as has been touched upon, and our new Master’s in educational practice for newly qualified teachers will include a behaviour management module, which, of course, will include training on issues of bullying. All schools must, by law, have a school behaviour policy in place and an effective anti-bullying strategy should be central to that behaviour policy. Having said that, it is an issue, as I have said, that is not for schools alone.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I was pleased that you referred to the planned improvements to the Master’s programme, because leadership in schools is critical to the success of an anti-bullying strategy, let alone anything else. Will you be planning any complementary upskilling of local education authority and consortia officers?
I am sure that that will feature in the thinking of Estyn. When we receive that report, as I say, in June, just next month, I am sure that the implications for local authorities and consortia will be issues that we will all need to discuss within this Chamber and elsewhere.
Minister, I recently sent you the research findings from Professor Reynolds at Cardiff University that found that harassment and sexism are everyday experiences for Welsh primary school pupils. Obviously, teaching healthy relationships is by far the best way to tackle this. Would you consider ensuring that even very young children are able to learn about healthy relationships as part of the curriculum?
I thank the Member for that question. It is an important question, actually. Yes, this is already part of my considerations, in terms, particularly, of the work that Professor Graham Donaldson is undertaking at the moment in moulding the first ever curriculum for Wales. There are implications here, of course, for how we might develop our personal and social education work within schools. I think that there are implications for the workforce in terms of skills, and there are implications for the way that agencies might work together better in the future. We are certainly, I would accept, not where we need to be in terms of the support, information and guidance that we offer to young people, even the youngest of our school pupils, in this regard.
Minister, one group of young people who are particularly vulnerable to bullying are those with additional learning needs, especially those on the autistic spectrum. In February, at the cross-party group on autism, chaired by our colleague Mark Isherwood, Professor Judy Hutchings of Bangor University revealed the initial findings of her recent project on the bullying of those on the autistic spectrum. Minister, in this context, what steps are you prepared to take to ensure that, in terms of any future policy development in this area, the specific needs of those with such conditions are fully taken on board?
I will, of course, ensure that issues around the autistic spectrum are taken into account in terms of the wider picture. It is a group of young people who face particular challenges, the greatest of which, really, is the lack of wider understanding of the challenges of autism and I will take this opportunity to guarantee that young people with autism will have their needs and concerns addressed during this work.
Secondary Education Services
4. Will the Minister make a statement on secondary education services provided by Denbighshire County Council? OAQ(4)0419(ESK)
I have approved the national model for regional working that will clarify and strengthen regional education consortia working. While there is no change to local authority statutory responsibilities, the model will ensure a more consistent approach in the way that authorities commission the services of consortia to achieve whole-school improvement.
Thank you very much for that, Minister. Can I say that I welcome Schools Challenge Cymru? I think that that has been a fantastic way of looking at those schools that need the most support. Can I also say that I am very pleased that none of the schools in my constituency are looking for some additional money from that fund? That is not something that you will hear me say very often in the Chamber. I am pleased that the schools in Denbighshire appear to be operating reasonably well. That is not to say that Denbighshire local education authority can rest on its laurels. You will know that I have had major concerns about how it has operated previously. It now appears to have accepted that it has to change and we know that good leadership is critical to raising standards. The headteacher at Rhyl High School, Claire Armistead, is an exemplar in how she has done this and the way in which she engages all of the pupils and not just those about to get A* grades. How can the Government look to ensure that not only do those good teachers survive in an LEA but are nurtured and are supported, helped and valued?
I thank the Member for that. I acknowledge the great improvement that we have seen in Rhyl High School in particular and across Denbighshire as a whole. A journey has been undertaken. It is certainly not a journey that is complete, but key people in leadership positions, such as Claire Armistead, lead me to readily acknowledge the need for strong leadership in these improvement processes. I am absolutely committed, through the national leadership development board, to introduce a progressive, career-long professional development for the whole-school workforce. This is embodied in the leadership development pathway, which will create a conveyer belt of leadership talent from which the leaders of the future will come.
Clearly, the Welsh Government’s announcement of its approval of the business plan for Rhyl High School has been well received, as has careful planning by Denbighshire to find the match funding to allow this to be hopefully built over this forthcoming summer. However, in terms of secondary schools generally across Wales, you will be aware of concerns about the high levels, or growing numbers of exclusions of non-statemented young people in special educational needs schools over recent years. In fact, they have doubled in over a decade. What consideration, across the counties of Wales, are you giving to addressing this in our secondary schools to ensure that the needs of those young people and children are identified and met rather than them simply being kicked out of the classroom?
Mark Isherwood puts his finger on a very important issue. Although the picture around the numbers when it comes to exclusions is rather mixed across Wales—we always seem to have to acknowledge that the picture across Wales is very mixed—greater coherence in these matters will always be welcome. I have recently written to local authorities, encouraging them all to study and work towards the pattern around the management of such issues exemplified by Ceredigion. In Ceredigion, we have our first local authority rated ‘excellent’ in terms of education, of course. An important aspect of Ceredigion’s good work across its schools system is the way in which it deals with issues around exclusion, pupil referral units and issues around behaviour management. It really does seem to be able to keep these numbers to a minimum and it does so through good working in schools and between schools and also through good professional development for staff. There is an example there that, if rolled out across the country, would have a major positive impact on the figures about which Mark Isherwood is concerned.
5. What action is the Welsh Government taking to promote apprenticeship opportunities for young people in Wales? OAQ(4)0422(ESK)
Apprenticeships are promoted through focused communications and marketing plans, and by designing an apprenticeship programme that is attractive to young people and employers.
I am concerned, though, that young women are still less likely to take up apprenticeships opportunities in areas such as engineering or construction. We touched on this in the last women in the economy cross-party meeting, where we also heard about some of the barriers that women face while on these apprenticeships. Deputy Minister, how are we encouraging young women to apply for these opportunities, and what work is being done to understand why they are less likely to apply in the first place?
Can I thank the Member for her very important question? I share her concerns about equality issues within education, the workplace and, of course, the apprenticeships systems. There is no doubt that we need to work very closely with female ambassadors, with schools, with employers, and with colleges to challenge the long-standing, deep-rooted gender stereotyping in our culture. As a Government, in terms of apprenticeships, we are promoting gender equality through a range of measures, for example by placing expectations on apprenticeship providers to promote equality, and through our marketing activity, we are targeting gender disparity. We have also commissioned Estyn to examine the barriers facing women who wish to participate in apprenticeship frameworks.
Deputy Minister, can I ask you about data collection, in terms of where people doing apprenticeships are ending up? You will recall that the Enterprise and Business Committee’s inquiry report into apprenticeships—which is hopefully not acquiring dust on a ministerial shelf somewhere—back in 2012 included recommendation 2, which is to publish the number of apprentices that progress into employment at the end of their apprenticeship, according to destination sector. The Welsh Government accepted this in principle, and agreed at that point to undertake work to match the lifelong learning Wales record data to Department for Work and Pensions records, to try to determine where apprentices are ending up. Can you tell us what progress has been made on acquiring these data? If we do not have the data, then it is very difficult to make an assessment about the success.
Can I thank Nick Ramsay for his question, and for the inquiry that took place into apprenticeships? It provided us with some very valuable information and suggestions, which we are acting on—
You were on it.
Yes, you are right—I was on it, but not for the whole time, I believe.
We have been collecting data, and I can inform Members that 90% of apprentices now continue, within the first three months of their frameworks being completed, in sustained employment. Only 1% of apprentices go on to unemployment within the first three months. I will write to the Member, if I may, with a full and comprehensive update on the point within the recommendations that he raises.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
May I start by endorsing the comments made by Christine Chapman on the need to expand opportunities for girls, in particular, in terms of apprenticeships?
May I turn specifically to the Estyn report of this week on support services for 14 to 16-year-old students? There is a sentence in that report that notes that year 9 is a crucial year in the life of students, and that they are not given advice at an early enough stage. The point that Estyn makes, of course, is that if you want some sort of parity between the academic option and the apprenticeship option, you need the information in good time for students, and the most up-to-date information is needed. Another finding in the report is that the information held in schools and by Careers Wales is old. Therefore, what is the Deputy Minister doing now to implement this report, to make sure that that option is a real option for our students?
I think that the Member raises some critically important points there. We are dealing with the concerns that he raises through a number of measures. First of all, there is the youth guarantee and the youth guarantee prospectus, which will be available to young people; they will have to go through a process online of applying for a suitable place in training, or further learning, post-16. That will ensure that they are familiarised with all opportunities post-16, including vocational pathways. In addition to this, with the support of European Union money, we are rolling out an enhanced employer engagement programme, which, again, will bring together employers and learners, so that they can understand and appreciate the value of apprenticeships. Finally, through the youth engagement and progression framework, we will also be ensuring that young people recognise the value of education, and all opportunities, post-16.
I thank the Deputy Minister for that response. I very much hope that we see an improvement in that context.
Turning to another issue in the area of apprenticeships, there is a development, particularly in rural areas, for companies to share apprentices. An event took place in Powys last week with People’s 1st Cumru in terms of hospitality, where a number of apprentices had successfully shared apprenticeships between different companies. What steps is the Government taking to expand these possibilities, and to make sure that more smaller and medium-sized companies can take advantage of the opportunity?
Again, the Member raises a very important point—one on which we are taking proactive action. This evening another event will be hosted by Joyce Watson to bring together employers on a shared apprenticeship programme in the construction sector. This is precisely the sort of shared apprenticeship model that we are looking to roll out across rural areas, and indeed across urban areas. It is absolutely vital that the Government goes on working with training bodies and with the sector skills councils to recognise that, in some cases, individual employers are not able to provide the apprenticeships. Therefore, there is a need to bring them together under an umbrella organisation, whether that is a training body or through the sector skills councils.
As you have acknowledged, Deputy Minister, it can be difficult in rural areas to access an apprenticeship, given the nature of the private sector, which is dominated by micro and very small companies. However, we do have a very vibrant third sector in rural areas, which potentially, with the right levels of support, could provide opportunities. I am thinking, for instance, of the Wildlife Trusts, which is very keen to look at offering apprenticeships in traditional countryside skills and countryside management. What work are you doing with the third sector, as well as the private sector in rural areas, to expand the opportunities for rural young people to access apprenticeships?
The Member raises some valid points about the value of the third sector in ensuring that, where there is a lack of presence of appropriate private sector, there are opportunities for young people nonetheless. In addition to the third sector, there is the public sector. Both are relevant in terms of positive progressions, via Jobs Growth Wales, whereby participants within the third sector scheme—and the progression rate is 66% at present—are able then to move on to a programme, such as the Young Recruits programme, which is specifically aimed at ensuring that small businesses and third sector organisations can get the necessary support, given that it is often the case of not having the financial support upfront. So, they can get the necessary support to take on a Jobs Growth Wales participant as an apprentice.
Cadet Vocational Qualifications
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the use of the Cadet Vocational Qualifications in Welsh schools? OAQ(4)0417(ESK)
The Welsh Government issues a small grant to CVQO to deliver post-16 provision. The grant allows it to deliver vocational qualifications at levels 1 and 2 to cadets in areas such as engineering, public services and music. CVQO targets disadvantaged youngsters and delivers in both colleges and schools.
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. I know of your personal commitment to cadet vocational qualifications. You will be aware that a number of schools across Wales operate cadet schemes. I just wondered what other additional support you might be able to make available as a Welsh Government to expand the number of schools involved in operating cadet schemes so that other individuals and pupils, particularly those who are disengaged from learning, can have an opportunity to achieve qualifications through the benefits that cadet vocational qualifications can bring.
I thank Darren Millar for his question, and also for his strong support of the role of the uniformed services in preventing young people from disengaging from education. That is a crucial role that they have. Cadet schemes are very close to my heart because one scheme in the Member’s constituency ensured that one of my nephews remained in formal education until the age of 16.
I am delighted to inform Members that I have recently established a strategic forum on careers development, and I have invited the cadet services to become members. I expect the role of cadet services and cadet vocational qualifications to be pivotal in delivering the desired outcomes of the youth engagement and progression framework, and also in our ambition to raise the skills levels of the entire nation. At the core of the youth engagement and progression framework is the role of lead workers in helping young people to stay in education, along with the youth guarantee prospectus, which will map all local provision. I also see the cadet services and cadet vocational qualifications as essential to the new youth work strategy, and I would welcome more schools to work with CVQO in offering its brand of learning to pre-16 learners as well.
Deputy Minister, I, too, welcome the cadet vocational qualifications programme, and I thank you for continuing it. I am interested in what criteria will be used to find out whether these CVQs are providing good value for money.
An assessment of this will form part and parcel of the new funding framework that is being introduced to ensure that the qualifications that are offered meet local needs. Therefore, there will be ân onus on providers to ensure that they are matched up to the local labour market, so that they are delivering positive pathways for young people.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of the Technocamps in Wales? OAQ(4)0421(ESK)
I thank the Member for South Wales West. I understand that the Welsh European Funding Office is having ongoing discussions in relation to a possible extension and continuation of funding. Given the stage of negotiation, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further.
In that case, that kind of stifles my next question. Having spoken at length to people who deliver Technocamps and the people who use them, there is no doubt that this experience is an extremely positive one. I know that local employers, students and academia see them as a positive step forward. The current regime of Technocamps is in danger, as you are aware, of funding withdrawal in September. This, to me, seems counterintuitive, as the camps deliver the kind of skills and workforce that Wales will need. I was going to ask you whether you would outline what exactly is happening with the funding element of this innovative programme, but I appreciate your position.
Yes, but I think that I can help the Member. First of all, I should say that I am more than aware of—and do not deny for a moment—the very positive reception that Technocamps and Technoteach have received during the time that they have been working. I can say that I understand that officials have been in contact with the project, and that they are currently awaiting the detailed financial and project information that they require to assess the proposal.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on the school banding system? OAQ(4)0420(ESK)
I thank the Member for Ynys Môn. The planned review of the measures included in the secondary school banding model and the development of a primary school grading model are now under way.
Thank you very much. A letter sent to me by a constituent who is a teacher raises serious concerns about the banding system. She goes into some detail about the negative impact of banding on the morale of teachers and on the relationship with parents—there is a long list of issues. The letter also states that the system is damaging to collaboration between schools with the aim of raising standards. As the Minister knows, that point is raised as a concern in the recent OECD report, which says that banding is insensitive to the natural year-on-year variation in schools and the time it takes to introduce changes, and so on. Does the Minister agree with the OECD that the long-term solution, regardless of the changes that could be introduced in the short term, is to abolish the banding system in Wales?
No, I would not. Banding is here to stay, certainly for the foreseeable future. Banding works. If you take a look at the difference that banding has made just in its very short lifetime thus far to the performance of band 4 and band 5 schools, you can see that it is making a positive difference. Sixty-five out of the 83 band 4 and 5 schools last year saw improvements in the percentage of pupils achieving the level 2 threshold, including English and Welsh first language and mathematics—level 2 inclusive, in other words—between 2012 and 2013. Band 5 schools have seen the overall percentage of pupils achieving level 2 inclusive increase from 35% in 2012 to 45% in 2013. Behind those figures lie near to 500 young people in just this short stretch of time who have been handed a passport to a different future through gaining five good GCSEs, which I believe they might not have been in receipt of prior to banding.
Minister, following on from that point, I very much welcome what you have just said about banding because I very much support it. My only concern, however, is that there are misconceptions and misperceptions about what it is and how it works. Would you give consideration to renewing publicity and information that explains that to parents, because it is an issue that arises regularly in constituencies?
It is indeed; the Member for Pontypridd is quite right. Those misconceptions and misunderstandings are not helped by the ill-thought-out comments of opposition parties, the semi-informed opinions of some journalists and commentators, and, I have to say, unfortunately, the naysayers in some of our teaching unions, who seem to think that the spreading of misinformation and alarm about what school banding is all about somehow pushes the prospects of Welsh education forward. I am bewildered by it myself. However, I must say this to the Member for Pontypridd: we publish a guide to school banding on the Welsh Government website. This guide is circulated to schools and local authorities every year, and they are encouraged to share the guide with parents and carers. It is to that that I would primarily point concerned parents and carers. It includes a link to the guide on school websites. There is also a comprehensive question-and-answer document published on the Welsh Government website, and this is updated annually in advance of the banding publication.
Banding is very simply about driving up performance in all schools and identifying schools that are in most need of support. That is it, simply put.
Thank you, Minister, for your previous answers. What I would like to know is how the school banding system will serve to drive standards up and not reward failure, and, in particular, how it will deliver your commitment to break the link between poverty and attainment.
I have already outlined the very real difference, at least in terms of one particular measure, namely the level 2 inclusive at GCSE, that banding has made in 12 months of its existence, and I am confident that we will see, as banding continues year-on-year, a continued improvement, particularly within those band 4 and band 5 schools. That alone, I think, is worth the effort of gathering the information and publishing the banding scores.
The primary purpose, as I say, is to identify those schools that are in most need of support, to ensure that, in partnership with local authorities and consortia, we direct our support and resources most effectively to secure the improvements necessary in our school system. It also, of course, helps us to identify those schools and school leaders that are the very best in terms of people from whom the sector as a whole can learn, and we are using those people more and more. The headteacher of Rhyl High School was mentioned; that headteacher is now not just working in Rhyl High School, but assisting in terms of improvement in Blaenau Gwent for instance.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Aled Roberts.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, I have to say that, having been a school governor for some 20 years in primary schools, I do not agree with you about grading. However, if you are to develop your policy on the grading of primary schools in a similar way to that of banding, are you considering the provision of financial assistance, as you are doing in the case of secondary schools that, in your view, need additional support?
Aled Roberts does not agree with primary school grading, although I do not believe that he has really seen anything that really describes what primary school grading is going to look and feel like, since it has not been published. Nevertheless, he already disagrees with it. That is an interesting stance for the Welsh Liberal Democrats to take. This model is being developed, again to help us to better identify schools that are in most need of support, and I will have to consider the second part of his question on how we need to address that issue of need when it comes to support. It will also give parents across Wales a clear picture of how their local school is performing. It will be simple in essence and straightforward, relying on data that tell us some important truths about how a school is performing.
I disagree with grading because, at the end of the day, you have so many different categorisations as a Government, and the time that you take to develop your degree categorisations means that a lot of the effort of schools is put into actually responding to Government and consortia requests, rather than getting on with the job. Be that as it may, we currently have a review of your secondary banding system. That sits alongside a regional consortia categorisation scheme that was developed entirely differently in different consortia. From April of this year, you have agreed on a national categorisation scheme for those consortia. How does the national categorisation scheme sit alongside the school banding system?
First of all, I hope very much that the efforts of schools are connected with working alongside consortia since the reason for the existence of consortia is that we travel on a journey of school improvement. If schools were not putting effort into that, I would be worried. If the Welsh Liberal Democrats think that schools ought to put less effort into improvement, they should say so plainly. There is no confusion here, apart from the confusion that opposition parties are trying to stir up. The categorisation of schools has been a feature of the educational landscape for a very long time. It is something that local authorities have done for as long as I can recall, and this now, with the coming of consortia, is something that is important in terms of that detailed examination of how schools are performing that the consortia and schools need in order to plan and map out their school improvement journey. So, nothing has changed there. That categorisation is largely a matter for people internal to the system. That does not affect banding, which faces outwards, in any way, and which is about informing the community and parents about where the school stands in terms of its improvement journey at the moment and providing grading for primary schools, because primary schools are a very different type of institution. For instance, they do not have GCSEs and A-levels to worry about, so we have to look at primary schools in a very different way. I do not think that the Welsh public is as easily confused as the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We will now move on to question 9, and slightly more succinct answers would be very much appreciated, Minister.
9. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve educational opportunities for young people from the Cynon Valley? OAQ(4)0423(ESK)
I thank the Member for the Cynon Valley. We are implementing a range of actions to improve educational standards and improve the learning experience across Wales. It is important that we have appropriate environments for our learners, and, this month, the First Minister and I launched our twenty-first century schools programme at the fantastic new Aberdare Community School site.
I was very pleased that you did that. This is one of the early start projects to benefit from funding. As a result of the work that you have done with the Minister for Finance, Jane Hutt, £200 million of the twenty-first century schools funding has been brought forward through the local government borrowing initiative to help to complete the programme by 2018-19, which is two years ahead of schedule. Minister, would you agree with me that this is an example of the sort of innovative financing that Wales needs to make more use of in accelerating capital investment projects in education, which will help to transform learning environments in Aberdare and right across Wales?
I would agree, as it is important that we consider a range of funding options to enable investment to take place. That might involve using innovative finance in conjunction with capital funding, and this will undoubtedly help us to deliver that accelerated programme, as the Member described, for schools and colleges in Wales both now and in the future. Here in Wales, we remain committed to that transformative capital investment in our educational estate—something that has been abandoned across the border in England.
Minister, one of the first ports of call for many young people if they want to advance their educational experience and get better qualifications is the further education sector. We can argue about the fact that the Welsh Government’s budget has been cut this year and, therefore, your delivery to FE has been cut as well, but it is a fact that £7.5 million less is going into further education this year. What are your officials doing to monitor that courses are sustainable in the FE sector and, indeed, that as many students as possible who wish to access the FE sector to increase their learning experience and their earning potential in the employment market can achieve success on those courses?
The Welsh Government is working very hard to protect our learners in FE. I am very proud of the efforts that the Welsh Government has made and that further education institutions have made to make best use of the resources available, and, thus far, I think that it is true to say that most learners under 19, at least, have noticed very little difference, even in these times of austerity, to what is on offer in their local further education institution. I hope that we can sustain that. The Member would do best, perhaps, directing this question to his colleagues in Whitehall who continue to pressurise the Welsh block grant. That will feed through, and it will do harm to educational prospects and the spend within FE and elsewhere, right across the public sector here in Wales.
Improving educational opportunities for young people is particularly important in a Valleys constituency like the Cynon Valley, where chronic youth unemployment has meant that one in two 18 to 24-year-olds has been out of work, or not in education, according to data published over the last 18 months. Are you concerned, like me and plenty of other residents in Rhondda Cynon Taf, about the proposed council cuts to nursery education, and the impact that this will have on children later in their academic life? Or, perhaps, are we just semi-informed? Are you also, as Minister for education, being kept informed of the civil action that the parents of pupils in RCT are taking against the actions of the Labour-run council, which was heard in Cardiff this week and is due for judgment soon?
Of course I am concerned. Of course I am concerned about the damage that austerity does to valued public services—nursery education in RCT being just one of those. However, I do not confuse myself or my constituents about where the blame lies for the very difficult decisions that local authorities are having to face. The blame lies not with Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council; it lies with Westminster.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Christine Chapman to move the motion.
Motion NDM5509 Christine Chapman
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee into Participation Levels in Sport, which was laid in the Table Office on 13 March 2014.
I move the motion.
It is widely accepted that keeping active is important in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. As far as participating in sport is concerned, this is something that can have a substantial knock-on benefit for our communities and the way we live our lives. As this is such an important issue, the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee decided to undertake an inquiry to look at how the Welsh Government was performing in this regard. Members were particularly concerned about the extent to which the Welsh Government and Sport Wales were achieving the goals set out in the programme for government, the ‘Creating an Active Wales’ action plan and the vision for Sport Wales.
We received 17 responses to our call for evidence, and heard oral evidence from 10 witnesses. I would like to thank all those who gave evidence and took the time to respond in writing. The committee made 12 recommendations and we are delighted that the Minister has accepted 10 of our recommendations and agreed in principle to the remaining two.
During our inquiry the Welsh Government published its annual review of its programme for government, which stated that
‘participation in sports has shown a worrying decline for all age groups.’
This made our inquiry timely and pertinent. The Welsh Government sets out the general policy direction for sports and physical activity programmes in Wales. Most of the funding is then provided to Sport Wales to deliver those objectives on its behalf. We heard from Sports Wales that men are more likely to participate in sports than women, and that adults in higher social grade households are more likely to participate in sports and leisure activities. The National Union of Teachers also pointed out that the situation in schools is bleak, reporting a decline in the percentage of primary and secondary school children participating in sport or recreation.
During our session with the Minister, he accepted that further work was needed and we were pleased with his commitment to join up Welsh Government policies for physical activity. We are pleased that the Minister has agreed our first recommendation to publish a joint delivery plan produced by Sport Wales and Public Health Wales, along with a timetable for its implementation.
We understand that there are a number of sources of data available for the purpose of measuring participation, and evidence suggests that there are concerns about the reliability of these data. We therefore welcome the Minister’s commitment to undertake a review of all existing sources of data, and are pleased that he has agreed to work with Sport Wales and other organisations to identify alternative and more effective means of collecting data within black and minority ethnic communities.
The need for a cultural shift in attitudes towards sport was identified by a number of respondents during our consultation, and Sport Wales emphasised the importance of schools shaping attitudes towards sport. We made a number of recommendations in this area that we feel will help to address these issues.
First of all, we recommended that the Minister give further consideration to addressing the lack of BME physical education teachers in Wales. The Minister has agreed in principle, and said that this is a matter for the Minister for education. We urge him to raise this matter with the Minister for education. However, we welcome the Minister’s commitment to work with Sport Wales to put in place a programme to identify, and subsequently address, the barriers that are specific to people from BME backgrounds.
According to Sport Wales, the trends in participation have remained steady over the past 25 years, with men more likely to participate than women. We have, therefore, asked the Minister to ensure that further work is undertaken to identify ways to encourage girls, in particular, into sport, and to look at the types of sport or activities that appeal specifically to girls. On this point, I would like to draw Members’ attention to some new research by Dr Nicola Williams-Burnett on the reasons women are not always attracted to sport. We also look forward to hearing from the Minister in the future.
On the role of local authorities, we heard evidence about the financial pressures faced by local authorities and that there is a need for greater collaboration between local authorities at a regional and national level in the delivery of sport and leisure services. We are pleased that the Minister has agreed to assess the impact of the reductions in local authority budgets on sport and leisure services.
Many witnesses spoke about the valuable contribution of the free swimming scheme, and we are glad that the Minister will carry out a review to identify areas where take up is low and the reasons for that. In our final recommendation, we asked the Minister to publish an action plan setting out how he intends to increase the number of children under the age of 11 who can swim. While the Minister agreed in principle, we understand that this variance will form part of the review of free swimming, and we welcome that. I am therefore pleased to commend this report to the Assembly and I look forward to the debate.
I thank the committee for its work on this particular area. I am pleased to have had a chance to read the report, because, obviously, I am not a member of the committee. I have to say that I thought it was pretty blunt about the committee’s unhappiness that, after a decade of stasis, there was even some decline in participation, despite the existence of Sport Wales. While that may invite the question about how far into national sloth we might have descended without Sport Wales, it invites some questions about whether, for £25 million of taxpayers’ money, we have had value for money on that score. That, of course, is the purpose of scrutiny, and while, as I say, I was not a member of this committee, I was curious about this very upfront focus on monitoring and evaluation as well as any new evidence about what you may have found about barriers to participation.
The report, as you say, questions data captured by Sport Wales in its annual school sport survey. When I see figures like 78% of pupils taking part in sport at a club outside school in the last year, I am not entirely sure whether I should be thrilled or cynical. Given that these data form a central role in measuring the outcomes in the programme for government, as well as influencing other sports bodies in their own work, I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to review the data, not least because I think that it will help Sport Wales.
The report may well say that Sport Wales needed to up its game, but I think, Minister, it may hint that you need to do likewise, in terms of monitoring and evaluating work carried out in your name.
However, while I still have questions about the reach of Sport Wales consistently into rural Wales, for example, I am encouraged by how it, and other bodies, are capitalising on the Olympic bounce and on the Swans prestige in the west of my region. Locally, they seem to have grasped the agenda set out in your remit letter, Minister, in a sincere relationship with Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council, for example, and, more importantly, perhaps, in proactive attempts to penetrate particular communities, which are involved directly in deciding how money is spent on sports locally. Perhaps Communities First needs to give some serious thought as to how it can help Sport Wales—arts organisations, for that matter—become part of a community’s identity, rather than looking at them as outsiders.
Witnesses called for a greater emphasis on sport in schools and for a wider range of sports and physical activity to be on offer. I agree with that, because, like speaking Welsh, if it is something that you do just in school, you will not necessarily be that enthusiastic about it outside. While we do not fully understand the barriers, the fact that young people do not all rush to take part in traditional school sports surely must tell us something. Becoming a nation hooked on sport, and not just sports television channels, is clearly complicated.
However often you put a picture of a healthy, young Jessica Ennis-Hill on a magazine cover, the inside pages of that magazine are still yelling at young women that they need to be skinny—or, skinny and orange, as seems increasingly to be the case. If you are not skinny, sport goes into the box marked ‘difficult and humiliating’, rather than ‘let’s do this with my mates’, or ‘let’s see if I can get the hang of this’. However positively you promote sport in school and however sensitively you timetable extra-curricular activities, in some ethnic minority households, the father will say ‘No’, and that is the end of the discussion. Therefore, I am especially pleased to see the recommendation about having more PE teachers from BME backgrounds.
Last weekend, I had an unexpectedly lively morning watching wheelchair rugby—a festival of legalised, ritualised violence and skill. It was brilliant, but will it lead to a surge of participation in sport by people with disabilities? I think that ‘a surge’ is asking a lot, but things like the International Paralympic Committee games in Swansea later this year are likely to prompt an increase in both interest and participation and it will then be down to Sport Wales and associated bodies to make the most of that in terms of sustainability.
Some barriers are just hurdles and can be jumped—and I was very keen to squeeze a sporting metaphor into this debate today, although I should perhaps have kept away from hurdling this week. Therefore, let us look at cricket instead. Cricket Wales and Chance to Shine recently welcomed the captain of the England women’s team to Wales to promote the women’s game. Unlike their male counterparts, the women’s team won the Ashes and are hoping to capitalise on their success. The captain is taking part in coaching sessions at Welsh schools to try to encourage more girls to take up a sport that, I believe, is accessible to both genders equally. This is certainly a sport that we could look to offer more forcefully in schools, especially as there is a good network of local clubs to develop interest outside schools. Of course, the Ashes, which Julie Morgan mentioned earlier today, is a big opportunity for Cricket Wales to convert enthusiasm into the kind of participation levels that you would like to see, Minister.
I attended an all-boy secondary school in what is now a Communities First area, where winter meant football and rugby, and the summer meant cricket and athletics. It appears that, as the breadth of opportunity to engage in different sports has increased, participation levels have gone in the opposite direction. I was there at a time when teenage obesity was caused by health problems, as opposed to the situation today, where teenage obesity is causing health problems.
I want to discuss five of the recommendations. The first is recommendation 5 on community sport and child poverty. First, I commend the City and County of Swansea for the number of multi-use games areas—known locally as MUGAs—football goal posts, basketball hoops, keep-fit equipment and skateboard areas, which are made available through the parks. This provides an opportunity for people to go out, keep fit and engage in activity. The football goalposts are incredibly popular and anybody who is used to visiting parks will know that children quite often use the football goalposts when they are not supposed to on pitches that do not necessarily benefit from being used outside organised games.
The council’s commitment to providing sports facilities for young people is an example to other local authorities across Wales. I was fortunate enough to attend the launch of Street Sport Wales in Blaenymaes last week. For children living in Communities First areas, there is a need to have sporting activities that are cost-free. It is pointless having activities that will cost £3 or £5 per day or per session for people to take part. It is important that these activities are available at a cost of zero so that children can just turn up and do it—a bit like we used to, when we used to play football on bits of grass.
I now want to discuss recommendation 8 on identifying ways to encourage girls to take part in sport. It has been shown that the drop-out rate in sport for teenage girls is much greater than it is for boys. Research is essential in order to find out why many teenage girls want to stop being involved in sporting activity, and what can be done to encourage them to become more involved in exercise as opposed to sporting activity. My own expectation is that dance, Zumba and keep-fit, carried out in a school gym, would interest more girls than outdoor activities. That is not to take away from the number of girls who are very successful at a whole range of sports, including one of my constituents who was one of the best footballers in Wales and represented Wales at every age level. However, we do need to ask teenage girls questions that get to the real reasons for lack of activity, and what they would like to take part in, rather than what we are going to provide for them. That is another one of the problems we have: someone else knows best.
Recommendation 9 asks for an assessment of the reduction in local government budgets on access to sport and leisure facilities. As local government budgets are reduced and the increase in the cost of elderly care and of children’s social services continues, the pressure on non-statutory services such as sport and leisure has increased. Increasing the cost of sport facilities acts as a huge barrier to children and younger people, especially those from less well-off areas, and, once activity stops, it is very difficult to get people to start up again. I reiterate my view that cutting back on leisure facilities and increasing their costs will lead to a much higher cost for the health service in the future. If we end up with a group of people coming through who are unfit, that is going to cost a lot of money in the future.
Recommendation 10 looks at opportunities to increase access to leisure facilities across Wales. This could be an opportunity to link two areas that I regularly talk about here—3G and 4G pitches and invest-to-save funding. I would urge the Government to engage in discussion with local authorities regarding accessing invest-to-save funding to increase the number of 3G and 4G pitches. This will reduce maintenance costs, and the pitches are also available for continual use.
The final recommendation that I want to discuss is a review of free swimming. I believe that a review of where take-up is low is needed, and whether this is caused by the opportunity to swim in the sea, as a number of my constituents are closer to the sea than they are to any swimming pool, so obviously the sea takes priority. Is it the cost of getting to the venue? It is nice to have free swimming, but how do you get there? If free swimming is a bus ride or a four or five mile walk away, its being free does not necessarily solve all the problems.
I welcome the Government’s positive response to the recommendations, and I hope that we can increase activity and participation, because, if we do not, it will have an effect on the Welsh economy and increase pressure on the Welsh health budget. So, it is important that we get people active and taking part in sport, but, more importantly, taking part in the sports that they want to take part in rather than the ones we think they ought to.
May I very much welcome this report? I was very pleased to be able to be part of collecting the evidence for the report and drawing up the recommendations. We are most indebted, as always, to the secretariat for its work and to the witnesses for taking time to present the evidence to us. Unfortunately, the feeling that we had at the end of the whole process was that the evidence confirmed what we already knew, that is, that there is an inequality that exists within sport in Wales, and that there are groups that feel that there are obstacles to their involvement in sport in Wales. Chris Chapman, the committee Chair, has outlined those statistics already—I will not repeat them; we are aware of the problems that exist.
We are very pleased, Minister, that you have accepted 10 of the recommendations, that you accept the other two in principle, and that you intend to carry out an assessment into sport and participation in sport in Wales. May I ask you some questions about that assessment? Sport Wales has published a report this month, ‘The State of the Nation’, in which it talks about the situation of sport in Wales. It talks specifically about inequality within sport, and it has earmarked an amount of money—£3 million—to address this. Have you had discussions with Sport Wales in order to see how exactly that funding can be invested in the most practical way in order to make a difference? As I was saying, we have been aware of this inequality for some time, and yet no fundamental change has occurred. I am aware that Sport Wales has launched a new scheme, ‘What moves you?’, which looks specifically at ensuring that women and girls feel that they have more opportunities to participate in sport. How will your assessment tie into Sport Wales’s report regarding the state of the nation at present and the activities that it is undertaking?
One of the statistics that was news to me was this figure of 10% of adults who volunteer in sport. I think it would be interesting, in terms of your assessment, Minister, to know whether that percentage has increased or decreased over recent years. Do people feel that there are obstacles to volunteering by now, because the rules are so strict? We all know why they are in place and that they are needed to ensure that we protect our children and young people, but has that created problems as regards these volunteers, who are so vital in ensuring that opportunities are available for people to participate in sport?
The final thing that I would say, Minister, is that we can take great pride in the way in which people with disabilities have succeeded in the field of sports at the highest level. Our athletes in particular, and our cyclists, have achieved great things, and I am sure that you would join me in wishing them well in the Commonwealth Games. I hope, once again, that we will see that level of success increase, and the medals increase. However, there are lessons to be learned from what has happened with Disability Wales ensuring that this success has happened. We must ensure that that is available at all levels, not only for people with disabilities, but for girls, for those from poor backgrounds and also for people from minority ethnic backgrounds who feel that they face problems too, and that those obstacles are removed. I very much look forward to seeing your assessment of the way in which you can collaborate with these agencies being published, in order to ensure that we can change these statistics, which we have had for so long.
Apparently, it is my turn to mention that Swansea remains the only premiership football team in Wales. I do so to make a serious point, which is that success encourages people to take part in sport. Certainly, since both Swansea and Cardiff have been in the premiership, I am sure that the level of interest in football—certainly in Swansea, and I am sure in Cardiff too—has increased and more people are interested in at least playing football at an informal level, if not a formal level. I am sure that, when Cardiff gets back into the premiership, that will continue.
I was involved recently in a turf-cutting exercise for a new school in my ward as a councillor, Burlais school in Cwmbwrla park, which is where some very famous footballers started off playing in an informal context. Mel Nurse is one of the people who was involved in the cutting of the turf and, of course, John Charles started off in that park as well. Part of the construction process of that school is new changing rooms so that the football pitches in that park can now be much more properly utilised in terms of more formal access to sport. I think the important point here is that access to facilities locally—whether on an informal or formal basis—is absolutely key if young people in particular are going to take part in sport, of whatever type and at whatever level. Mike Hedges’s point earlier about the availability of sports that people wish to do—Zumba classes et cetera in the local community centre, for example—is certainly important here in ensuring that people take part in exercise and sporting opportunities. Clearly, there are opportunities available that they want to take part in and that they are interested in. That is absolutely crucial in terms of promoting access in sport.
I think the point was made earlier in terms of the volunteers; I think Rhodri Glyn Thomas was talking about volunteers helping to run sporting occasions. That is also an absolutely important point, particularly in terms of more formal opportunities. It is always difficult, as I know from many, many years of trying to get youth clubs going in my area and helping with trying to get other activities going in my region. The availability of volunteers and people who are prepared to give up their time on a daily or weekly basis and put themselves out to help organise those events is absolutely crucial in terms of making sure that those opportunities are available. I take my hat off to those who give their time and efforts to do that, because, clearly, they play a very important part in providing these opportunities for a whole range of people of whatever age in communities all across Wales.
In terms of the report that the committee has produced, one of the issues that was raised was the availability of data on participation. This may seem to be a particularly dry topic but, actually, it is very important because, if you do not actually know who is taking part in sport and who is not—if you do not actually know where opportunities are not in place—you cannot direct resources, direct volunteers or put in place the facilities to make sure that those opportunities are available. I was concerned, as I think was the whole committee, about the evidence from Show Racism the Red Card Wales, which queried the relevance of questions in Sports Wales surveys, particularly with regard to black and minority ethnic communities, who felt strongly that they were not being encouraged to take part in sporting activities. It may well be that part of the problem there is that the opportunities that they want to take part in are not available in the communities in which they live. However, that is why the data are important—because we have to identify what exactly they want and match that up with the facilities. So, I am pleased that the Minister has accepted the recommendations in relation to those particular points and I hope that, as a result of that, we are able to improve on that data collection and start to direct resources more appropriately.
In conclusion, Presiding Officer, it seems to me that this report is a very important one, simply because it has identified a number of issues that may be contributing to falling participation levels in sport. However, it has also highlighted for many of us the issues around why people take part in sporting activities and what opportunities need to be made available to them so that facilities such as those that are being put in place in my local park as a result of the new school being built, which are being replicated elsewhere in Wales, become more and more important in attracting people to take part in physical activity in the first place.
I am very pleased to speak in this debate. I am not a member of the committee, but I think that it is such an important subject and I congratulate the committee on its report because I think that this is one of the ways in which the Assembly and the Welsh Government can really make a big impact on people’s health and wellbeing and their general enjoyment of life. In view of the current financial climate, I think that recommendation 9 is very important. It recommends that the Minister for sport work with the Minister for local government to assess the impact of the reduction in local authority budgets on sport and leisure services, particularly for access and affordability. I think that some very good points have already been made here today about access for BME communities, women and disabled people.
I want to speak a bit about the importance of bowling to many of my constituents. The proposals of Cardiff Council to cut the number of bowling greens it maintains brought home to me so strongly how important access to a sport like bowls is for many, many people. Although bowls, of course, is a sport for all ages, certainly the bowlers who came to me and those I see bowling in Cardiff North tend to be older, and we all know that the health advice is that you need to keep active as you get older. Budget cuts are threatening the sport of bowls because more than 75% of clubs affiliated to the national governing bodies for the outdoor game play their bowls at facilities that have traditionally been maintained by local authorities, and many of the current clubs have very small memberships of 20 or so and a lack of access to funding. So, first of all, I think that it is very important that, if a club is threatened with closure or has to end up maintaining the green itself, the local authority gives ample time for alternative solutions to be found. I think that that is what we are talking about in many fields in this time of local authority cuts. I am very pleased that a solution seems to have been found in my own constituency, where constituents lobbied me about a site in Llwyn Fedw Gardens in Birchgrove. There, it was possible to come up with a solution. St Joseph’s bowls club was forced to relocate from the Maindy site and has moved to Llwyn Fedw Gardens, joining forces with Birchgrove Ladies and with local residents to make a constitution of all of these groups together. I was really pleased to attend an open day recently, where more than 100 new people turned out to try the sport. At the open day, John Price, the Welsh international player, who is the national development officer for the Welsh Bowls Federation, was very supportive of this new community initiative and I am very hopeful that it will be successful.
However, I know that these issues are arising all over Wales and I think that we must find some strategic way of helping to keep these bodies alive. I think that we must find some way of helping with small grants to keep clubs going because, at the moment, there is no assistance available through Sport Wales towards general or day-to-day maintenance or purchase of equipment, which is likely to end up, as the situation is now, being the responsibility of struggling clubs.
The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair at 15:30.
I think that the sport of bowls is very important in providing regular exercise, in particular for older people, and the opportunity to have a social life. To many of the people who came to see me, it was absolutely catastrophic that their bowls team should cease to be because their lives were based around it—certainly their social lives and the fact that they had somewhere to go and people to relate to. It seems to me that saving these small initiatives is the way that we can make a real difference to people in the community. In addition to its importance to older people, bowls is a core sport in the Commonwealth Games and some of the very small clubs provide a pathway to the elite area. So, I am making a plea today for the Minister to strategically plan for a way forward for the sport of bowls, which is very much concerned with health, wellbeing and the good of communities in our constituencies.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Culture and Sport to speak—John Griffiths.
I very much welcome the committee’s report and this debate. I would like to thank the committee for its useful report and thank all representatives who gave evidence. The report raises important issues that help to reinforce the important links and synergies between sport and physical activity. So, its recommendations can contribute to increasing rates of participation, which, of course, will result in us becoming healthier and more physically active. So, I was very pleased to accept the recommendations and work has already begun to address priority areas.
Together with the Minister for Health and Social Services, our physical activity executive group is working across departments and with outside organisations, developing an action plan, which includes participation in sport. The plan that we will shortly consider, then publish, will set out a timetable for delivery as well as specific outcomes against which progress can be measured.
Collecting data, as Members have mentioned, is, of course, absolutely vital. We accept that this is an area that can be improved on. We need to better understand some of the cultural barriers that exist in sport. We need to better recognise what is needed to help more black and ethnic minority communities, women and girls into sport and to enjoy it. These are priority areas that we will focus on. A number of Members mentioned that we need to provide the opportunities that people want. I think that our young ambassadors are very important here as part of the Olympics legacy, because they are working with our young people to understand what is required and to help to make sure that it is provided.
In many ways, we are on the front foot. Sport Wales, under its Calls for Action programme, is investing in participation. A sum of £1.5 million has been set aside to support local projects, targeted towards BME communities. A further £1.5 million is being used to encourage more women and girls to play sport. Of course, I work very closely with Sport Wales in terms of strategy and monitoring the implementation of that strategy. That investment, which I mentioned, is supported by Sport Wales through its What Moves You? programme, changing the approach to promoting sport to women and girls, involving and challenging our sport governing bodies.
I will be discussing with the Minister for Education and Skills the committee’s concern at the lack of physical education teachers from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
We are very committed in Welsh Government to making our communities more active. We do not accept that any hurdles are too high. We want to provide sustainable solutions and opportunities, with long-term benefits. It is important that all age, gender and social groups have equal opportunities, irrespective of circumstance. So, to help support those aims, Sport Wales has in place community and child poverty strategies. It has adopted a results-based accounting approach to these strategies, in order that it can analyse their delivery, and measure their impact.
Local government has rightly been mentioned by a number of Members. I think that all of us are acutely aware of the pressures that local government faces. It is important that we understand its budgetary pressures, and that we work very closely with it. Local authorities are a key partner. Budgets can impact on non-statutory services, such as leisure provision. So, I will work very closely with the Minister for Local Government and Government Business, as well as with other Ministers, the Welsh Local Government Association and local authorities, to look at alternative models of leisure service delivery. I am sure that that will incorporate bowls and, indeed, volunteering issues, and I am pleased to be able to tell Rhodri Glyn Thomas that we have seen substantial progress in volunteering in sport, which is evidenced by Sport Wales statistics and research.
I was very pleased, in fact, today to be in Caerphilly, where there was a really good example of these new, innovative delivery models and progress being made, pulling key partners together. We had the launch in Ystrad Mynach of state-of-the-art 3G pitches—and, as Mike Hedges mentioned, 3G is very important—for rugby and football. This was a case of the local authority being quite visionary, and then realising that vision, working with the local college of further education, the Welsh Rugby Union, the Welsh Football Trust, Sport Wales and Welsh Government—a range of partners—to produce first-class facilities for the future.
To provide support for that sort of development by local authorities, I will be introducing a new capital loan scheme, which all local authorities in Wales can consider, and pilot projects will commence next year.
Swimming was mentioned. Swimming is very important. It is a life skill that really matters, and can, indeed, save lives. I am keen to ensure that we get as much as possible from our investment in free swimming, and I have asked Sport Wales to review the programme. We need greater focus on narrowing participation gaps, particularly with regard to those in socially deprived areas, and we want to see more opportunities for our BME communities, and for people with a disability. However, again, we should recognise success. We have a system in place that enables every child to have that opportunity to learn to swim by age 11. That is done through co-ordination—school swimming, with local authority learn-to-swim programmes, and our free swimming initiative. We should celebrate the fact that 54% of our children aged under 11 can swim at least 25m, which compares favourably with England, where the figure is 49%.
Engaging young people at an early age is absolutely vital to this agenda. That is why I am so pleased that, working with the Minister for Education and Skills, we have announced funding of £1.75 million to support a physical literacy programme for schools, responding to the physical activity task and finish group. A delivery plan is being developed by Sport Wales, and this will focus on sustained increase in physical literacy among school-aged children in Wales, particularly those in deprived areas, again, to make sure that they are hooked on sport and healthy lifestyles.
I congratulate Sport Wales for carrying out extensive work on its school sport and active adults surveys. These have produced encouraging results, which we can all take pride in. The active adults survey shows that the percentage of adults taking part in sport, on three or more occasions a week, has increased by 10%. That equates to 262,000 extra people across Wales. This is supported by the fact that 27% of Welsh adults are members of a sports club, up 16% from 2008.
So, this is the transition progress that we want to see, and we are making good progress, but we know, as Members have mentioned, that there are gaps and those gaps need to be addressed. We need a cultural and attitudinal shift. I pay tribute to Disability Sport Wales, as other Members have, for the good example that it shows and from which we can learn.
In conclusion, we do have challenges, of course, but we are up for the challenge. We will work in Welsh Government with Sport Wales, key partners and stakeholders to continue on this path to making Wales more and more a sporting nation.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the committee Chair, Christine Chapman, to reply to the debate.
First, may I thank the Members for their contributions today and may I also thank the clerking team for putting the report together? I think that today’s debate is a very important one. If Wales is to be a healthy nation, we have to take the messages about increased participation very seriously.
I have some highlights from the Members’ contributions. Suzy Davies and others highlighted the need for accurate data and that that data must be meaningful, which will help us to decide what needs to be done. Suzy also reminded us about how communities at a local level can be involved—it is important that activities are local and that people can identify with them—and how different groups can and must be involved in making these activities meaningful.
Mike Hedges drew attention to the very good examples of areas such as Swansea that are delivering vital activities in poorer areas. I am pleased that he highlighted, in particular, the barriers that women are facing and that it is important that we understand the reasons why certain groups do not identify with sporting activities.
I thought that Rhodri Glyn Thomas put some very pertinent questions to the Minister regarding the funding that Sport Wales distributes. He asked questions about how the funding actually gets to where it is needed, particularly around disability groups, BME groups and women.
I thought that Peter Black made a very good point about building on success; he mentioned Cardiff and Swansea. I think that if you build on success, it helps to motivate others. I think that that is a very good lesson to learn. Also, Peter made a point about the challenge of getting volunteers. We know that volunteers have a huge role in helping to motivate people to take part.
Julie Morgan talked about bowls and its popularity, and how certain sports are absolutely vital to people’s lives, because, without them, people’s lives are lessened, I think. So, it is important that we try to understand this. Obviously, there are problems and challenges for us to face, for example when there are cuts within local authorities, but I am pleased that solutions can be found if there is a will to address this.
I thank the Minister for the very positive responses that he made to the recommendations of our report and I know that the Minister is a great example to us all here in keeping active. I am glad that you have committed to working with the Minister for local government to look at some alternative innovative models of delivery.
In conclusion, I will quote what Mike Hedges said. As Mike said, if we do not get this agenda right, there is going to be a huge cost to the health and economy of Wales. So, I think that today’s report is a call for real action and I look forward to the debate continuing.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to note the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee’s report. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Elin Jones.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Nick Ramsay to move the motion.
Motion NDM5512 Paul Davies
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes Welsh Labour’s policy failures during 15 years in government in Wales;
2. Regrets the lack of performance in:
a) The economy, with gross value added (GVA) now at 72.3% of the UK average;
b) Education, where Wales’ standing in the PISA rankings has declined in each assessment period;
c) The NHS, with one person in seven in Wales on a waiting list.
I move the motion.
Deputy Presiding Officer, fifteen years ago, Tony Blair said, ‘Things can only get better’. [Interruption.] D:Ream, indeed. Devolution burst into life with the creation of the National Assembly for Wales and we were promised a bright new dawn of improved public services; a new era of localism and more efficient spending. The buzzword of ‘outcomes’ was put centre stage and the fruits of devolution would be seen to be apparent very quickly, and—you will like this next line—never again would those Tories be allowed to spoil things. Unfortunately, it did not quite work out that way, did it? One party, the Labour Party—I am sorry, Welsh Labour; I did not mean to insult you—has been in the driving seat through all that time, with the odd other party’s hand on the steering wheel at various points. Therefore, has there been a wonderful turnaround in standards of living here in Wales—in the health service, education or the economy?
Let us pick one of those—education. There is great news in education. We have free school breakfasts. That is great; they are free. I love free things, do you not? No-one ever has to pay for them. The latest Program for International Student Assessment results, however, were less than favourable, were they not? Education standards have slipped again, and what does that mean? A whole generation of young people is unequipped for the global race, with a significant number lacking basic numeracy and literacy skills, and some universities having to educate students in basic skills before anything else. There are good programmes such as twenty-first century schools—credit where credit is due—but, aside from that—it is on the next page. [Laughter.] However, there are major challenges. Teachers are doing their best within the buildings, but skills are simply not being taught as well as they should be.
Let us try the health service—
Will the Member give way?
In one moment. Let us try the health service—I will give way now because of your education interests.
I think that we are all interested to see that they have allowed the Member to propose this motion on their behalf. I do not know if that means that he is halfway back to the frontbench, but may I ask him this—
You are not. [Laughter.]
I walked into that one. However, may I ask him this: does he think that unqualified teachers should teach in Welsh schools?
I think that I am probably nearer than you are, as to the comment that has been made there, Leighton.
Answer the question.
What was your answer when you were Minister for education? There were not many answers forthcoming that improved the standards in Welsh schools, were there?
Let us try the health service. The NHS is overstretched, underfunded –[Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. I genuinely cannot hear the proposer of the motion, and this is not tolerable. I realised when I saw the subject of this debate that a certain pantomime element might creep into it, but I will make sure that it is expelled and that any Member who is misbehaving will be held accountable. Now, quiet, please. I call on Nick Ramsay.
Let us look at the health service. The NHS is overstretched and underfunded, with the worst financial settlement in the UK. Staff are doing their best, but waiting times are persistently high and, in some cases, double the waiting times across the border in England. However, yes, we do have free prescriptions, do we not? There is that word again, ‘free’. The First Minister will tell us, ‘At least we don’t live in England’. We hear that all the time. It is where things are allegedly so bad, because Labour does not like the NHS reforms there. However, what about outcomes? In England, there are shorter waiting times in key areas, and there is a cancer drugs fund. Okay, do not copy England if you do not want to but, for goodness’s sake, at least do something. At least in England they are trying to get to grips with the issues that face the NHS.
Let us look at the economy for a glimmer of light, and, to be fair, the unemployment rate is looking good—better than it did under the last UK Labour Government. Clearly, there is a better relationship between the First Minister and David Cameron than there was with Gordon Brown, perhaps understandably. Yes, we have Jobs Growth Wales. You would expect to have a scheme that supports jobs, but look at the unemployment rate for the 16-24 age group, which is currently 22.5% and the worst of all UK nations. It has been like that for five years. Therefore, this is not a new phenomenon. I appreciate that this is a long-running problem, dating back pre-devolution, but why has devolution not done something to get to grips with it? Why has the Labour Party not done something with the tools that it has to get to grips with it?
I turn to overall economic indicators, such as gross value added. This internationally recognised measure of wealth is often ignored by the Welsh Government, probably because it annoys it, because it is bad. In 1997, it was 78% of the UK average. The Welsh Labour Government aspired to get to at least 90% of the UK average. It was a great plan, as so many plans often are, but it is currently 72% and even lower, as we know, in west Wales and the Valleys, which is set to qualify for yet another round of EU funding, despite assurances in 1999 that the first round would be a silver bullet that would set Wales on a sustainable road to prosperity. No; it got worse.
Of course, we did have the abolition of the Welsh Development Agency, which successfully removed the internationally known brand of Wales in one stroke. That was really successful, was it not? When we question why the brand of Wales is not right, I think that we can see some key decisions that were made that stopped that from happening.
Aside from all of this, of course, there have been the media-grabbing sideshows. Who can forget AWEMA? There was also Plas Madoc, Communities First, and the purchase of River Lodge Hotel in Llangollen. In all of these cases the Welsh Government’s monitoring has been found to be ineffective in identifying financial management and governance issues. Nineteen reports have identified poor management in these areas. If the Welsh Conservatives had been in power over that time—[Assembly Members: ‘Oh’.]—can you imagine what they would be like? I dread to think what Lynne Neagle would be like. She would be shouting at us and saying how terrible everything was, but, because the Labour Party is running things, we are all supposed to turn a blind eye and not scrutinise where scrutiny is due. No, First Minister, it is not David Cameron, and it is not David Jones. As President Harry S. Truman’s plaque on his desk said, ‘The buck stops here’. The buck stops with you, First Minister, and for the Assembly to hold you effectively to account. Different views and different ideologies aside, we are all here because we are entrusted with the cause of our constituents, their families, their futures and their hopes. When historians look back at this span of political time, it may be a brief span of political time, relatively speaking, but it is 15 years in which devolution has been given a chance to improve the lot of the people in this corner of the British isles. What will those historians think? Will they think that it has been woefully bad, that it was good enough or that it was adequate? Well, adequate is not good enough. Let us learn the lessons of the past and make sure that the next 15 years are better than the past 15 years.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the amendment to the motion. I call on Simon Thomas to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Elin Jones.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to learn from the success of the Scottish Government in improving economic growth and public service delivery in a devolved context.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move amendment 1. I am concerned that we are not perhaps having quite the level of scrutiny of the actions of Welsh Labour over the past 15 years that we might have hoped to have the night before an election, but there we are. If it is going to be a pantomime, let us hope that we can keep away from the dames and the ‘Who’s behind yous?’, at least. [Laughter.] Keep up.
The reason we brought forward this amendment to this debate is quite simple—it is in order to differentiate, if that was not very clear—and it still is not very clear, I think, from the opening remarks—between devolution, as such, and government, and who is responsible for policy and who is responsible for the levels of governance. I think that it is important that we bear that in mind. No matter what the failures of Welsh Labour have been over the past 15 years—and the successes, because there have been successes—we have to bear in mind that Wales today is an infinitely more confident, successful and progressive nation than it was 15 years ago. Of that I have no doubt, and I have no doubt that devolution has played its part in that. I have no doubt either that it is far better to have an elected Welsh Government, albeit that it has been Labour for 15 years, or even if the people of Wales ever decided that it would be Conservative for 15 years, than governance straight from London by colonial rule—by Governments that are not ever elected by the people of Wales. That is just so obvious as a choice that the people of Wales have made. We see that between the gap in the referendum in 1997 and the referendum in 2011. The growth in support for devolution was clear. It was not a growth, necessarily, in support of one party, but it was a growth in support for a method of governance.
However, because we have devolution throughout the British isles, we see something different happening in Scotland. I think that that is where we can underline that policy changes can make a difference to public services.
If we look at the health service in Scotland, we see that there is some difficulty in comparisons because it has different timings, response times and targets, for example, but, broadly speaking, ambulances in Scotland always meet their response times within 1%. As we know, in Wales, they have met a lesser response time of 65%, I think, only once in the past three years. If we look at waiting times in Scotland, on a like-for-like basis, we see that 90% of patients are treated within 18 weeks; in Wales, it is only 63% of patients.
I will give way in a second. I know that the target in Wales is different to that in Scotland, but I am comparing like for like there. I will now give way to the Member.
I thank the Member for giving way. What are his views about the independent Nuffield report, which came out a few weeks ago and said that, in fact, there is virtually no difference in health performance between the individual countries in the UK?
As the health spokesperson for Plaid Cymru muttered under her breath, it did not say that. One of the disappointing things about the Nuffield report was—. I agree that it did not feed the beast over on the other side of the Chamber. I agree with that. However, neither did it say that there was a single example of excellence in the NHS in Wales. We have to own the NHS in Wales and think that if we are proper about governance, we want to see the NHS in Wales being superb—not in every area; perhaps we cannot achieve that. However, in some areas, we would want that to be an ambition. Nuffield says that, in most areas, there was nothing measurably different between England and Wales. However, if you compare us with Scotland, we are behind. Accident and emergency is identified as being poor in Wales, and ambulance response times. As I said, there were no examples of excellence.
I could say the same for the education system as well. We have muddled along. In Scotland, they have succeeded in breaking the link between deprivation and poverty. It is the only part of the United Kingdom that has achieved that in measurable statistical terms, as identified in the ‘State of the Nation 2013’ report under Alan Milburn. The Member is right to point out that, sometimes, things are exaggerated. On the other hand, we cannot really blow our own trumpet too much either. There have been policy failures. There has been a failure to deliver sufficient public services to the level of excellence that we really would want devolution to achieve. To the level that that is the responsibility of Welsh Labour, we will be supporting today’s motion, although point 2. c), relating to the NHS and noting that one person in seven is on a waiting list, does not make much sense at all. What does it mean? Although we will be supporting it, we want to have a wider and more proper debate, going forward, in Wales about what are public services now delivered by national Government, allied with regional government in Wales, which takes us, of course, to the future of the Williams commission.
This First Minister appears not to be able to grasp that Wales and Labour are different things, and that we are holding his Labour Government to account because Wales deserves so much better. The Government denies Wales the independent inquiry into standards of care within the Welsh NHS, which the UK Government has delivered for the English NHS. The Welsh Labour Government target for ambulance handover time of less than 15 minutes was missed more than 17,000 times at just two north Wales hospitals last year. The British Medical Association—BMA Cymru—states that general practice in north Wales is in crisis. Several practices have been unable to fill vacancies, and many GPs are seriously considering retirement because of the current expanding workload. This is a huge issue for the NHS in general and your constituents in particular. E-mails sent to me by north Wales nurses include claims that patients are at risk and that nursing staff are stressed and exhausted. They say that not only are staffing levels dropping, but the skill mix is constantly being reduced, and that concerns are constantly raised with managers, but to no avail—nobody is listening. Only this week, the Royal College of Nursing in Wales warned that hospitals in Wales face a shortage of qualified nurses, which could compromise patient care. A Rhyl resident e-mailed the following message:
‘As an ex-Stafford Hospital patient, I can say without a shadow of doubt that NHS Wales is not another Stafford about to happen; it is another Stafford happening right now.’ [Interruption.]
I am only quoting a constituent. A Flintshire resident e-mailed the following message:
‘The ongoing changes to healthcare in Wales prevent patients living in Wales being transferred to specialist care in England. I underwent two lots of surgery and was extremely surprised when my GP told me that he was unable to refer me to the same specialist because he works out of the Countess of Chester due to these changes.’
A close family member was diagnosed with cancer and was told that he was being referred to the Christie in Manchester, one of the leading cancer care units in the UK. However, he was then told that he could not be referred there as it was not within Wales. He said that he had spoken to several professionals in the health service in Wales, and had yet to find anyone who thinks that what is happening will lead to improved care for patients.
Another Flintshire resident wrote:
‘I was told that, had I been a patient from England, the operation would have been carried out within 18 weeks from the consultation date in January. However, as I am a patient from Wales, I will be required to wait at least 36 weeks. These discriminatory arrangements highlight what the Prime Minister has been saying about the two-tier NHS in England and Wales, and a north Wales nurse told me last week that after she had made a complaint,
‘They tried to break the person making the complaint, to make it go away as if it never happened. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it’.
Again, she said, ‘It’s like Stafford’.
The term ‘housing supply crisis’ was first coined by the Welsh housing sector—[Interruption.] Sorry, are you intervening? Oh, I did not hear you.
Thank you for taking the intervention. Did you also take note—given that you keep referring to Stafford—that, this week in the press, there is reference to the damage that you are doing to the staff who currently work in the NHS? Did you take note of the bodies that represent the people who work in the NHS who have said that they wished it would stop here, because this is actually doing huge damage to those people—nurses particularly—who work in the health service?
Had you been listening, you would have noticed that I quoted the RCN, the BMA and others.
During the first 12 devolution years, the Labour Welsh Government cut the supply of new homes for social rent in Wales by almost three quarters, and the number of homes for social rent in Wales by 29,000 as waiting lists and overcrowding increased. Although new home registrations in the UK rose 28% last year, Wales was the only part of the UK to see a fall, and the numbers fell again in Wales during the first quarter of this year, but not around the rest of the UK. Construction for Growth Wales said recently that the cost of regulation to the sector means that companies, particularly SMEs, are increasingly unable to compete and that regulations must be assessed as a whole, so that industry investment continues to flow into Wales.
As CLA Cymru states in its ‘Tackling the Housing Crisis in Wales’ report:
‘At a time of housing supply crisis, we must not compromise condition and standards, but neither must they become a barrier to housing more people.’
It said that the
‘Welsh Government’s Housing Bill focuses more on measures dealing with the symptoms of the crisis than its causes’.
Amen to that. The housing supply crisis in Wales has developed over 15 years of Labour-led Welsh Government, while Carwyn Jones and his music hall cast of musical-chair Ministers owe the people of Wales a big, big apology—[Interruption.] However, we get the typical, sneering, smug, swaggering grin—[Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. You are not to shout at other Members, and other Members ought not to shout back. Let us have a calm debate, please. I am the only person who is allowed to shout here—or the PO, obviously, if she is present. [Laughter.] Mr Isherwood.
As always, I defer to your wisdom in this area.
I will simply conclude by stating that if you wish to challenge what I have said, please refer to the facts and provide alternative evidence if you are going to say that they are incorrect.
We have become accustomed in Welsh Labour in the last few months to talking about the Conservative war on Wales, but today, they seem to be fighting that war with plastic tanks, which suggests that they are not going to go very far. I was actually very relieved by the contribution of the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, who introduced an element of seriousness into the debate, which I think is necessary. It is quite possible to have a coherent debate on some of these issues, but not in the selective way that the Conservatives present their arguments today—it is a selective motion, and the Plaid Cymru Member has already, rightly, challenged the nature of the bullet point on the health service. I would do the same on education, which I think is a gross simplification in terms of what they are saying. It is worth bearing in mind, of course, that the Secretary of State for Education in Westminster has already been taken to the Office for National Statistics for the way in which he has misinterpreted standings in England in relation to PISA.
What I want to say today is that there is a complete mismatch between the perceptions of the Welsh Conservatives and what is happening in Wales. One of the reasons for that, of course, is that, in order to have this debate, they have to isolate Wales from the policies of their own Government, and the reality of life, as we all know in our communities, is that the policies of their Government in Westminster—the Conservative-led Government in Westminster—are having a serious, fundamental and damaging impact on our communities in Wales, and will—
In a moment. Those policies will continue to do so, because we know that the austerity policies of the Conservative Government will last well beyond the time they were originally planned to last and that, so far, we have only seen 40% of the expenditure cuts that we can expect to see overall.
I thank the Member for the Rhondda for giving way. Does he not think that one of the biggest losses of service to the community that he represents is the downgrading of A&E provision at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, which is something that his party and the Government in which he served inflicted on the people of his constituency?
A consultation has been going on that has not yet concluded on that issue, and there are meetings still going on in relation to that issue. I think that the Member could do with being a bit better informed about the region that he is supposed to represent.
The thing that has had the biggest impact on my constituency, I think, is the welfare reform cuts that are being inflicted by his Government, which will amount across Wales to cuts of some £900 million on a per annum basis into the next year. That is a serious impact that is being felt in all of our communities and is damaging the life chances of our constituents.
However, I think that there is a positive story that we should be telling as well about the many things that have been going right in Wales: the fact that the unemployment figures in Wales have been better than in other parts of the UK, because of the impact of Welsh Government policies such as Jobs Growth Wales. One of the scandalous things about the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition right at the outset was its scrapping of the Future Jobs Fund so that we had to step in and put something in its place in Wales.
Also, what has been said recently about the indebtedness of students across the United Kingdom? Students from Wales will be the least indebted of students anywhere in the United Kingdom—including, can I say to Plaid Cymru, in Scotland. That is the reality, because of the policies that we put in place. Of course, on top of that, we know that the system in England is now approaching the point at which it will be more expensive than the system it was designed to replace. So there is a complete collapse of that system.
I return to the subject that I raised with the backbench Member for Monmouthshire earlier. In England, we are starting to see an atomised and highly competitive school system that is essentially on the road to privatisation and in which unqualified teachers are allowed to teach, unlike the situation here in Wales where we have kept our support for a proper system based on qualified teachers and where we are investing in our teachers through the Master’s programme and through other initiatives. We are on the right course with the policies that we have put in place in this Government over the last three years. The Conservatives—I am afraid to say the Deputy Presiding Officer was right to use the phrase—have introduced a pantomime today simply because tomorrow is an election day, but what they have failed to do, of course, is to put any real context behind what they are saying. They have failed even, in my view, to land a punch.
The Welsh Government’s major events strategy states clearly that
‘building a positive external reputation and brand image for Wales is an important challenge recognised by the Welsh Assembly Government.’
These are fine words indeed, but the sad fact is that, after 15 years of Labour’s complete failure in Government, fine words are, in many cases, all it has to deliver. Welsh Labour has a track record of failing to take full advantage of the opportunities that are presented by major events to promote Wales, both home and abroad. It has failed on numerous occasions—for example, advertising during the Six Nations tournament in the capitals of Ireland, Italy and France. The tournament provided many opportunities to advertise Wales to Europe, yet the Welsh Government continued to ignore any potential benefits for the Welsh economy. The Olympic Games in 2012 delivered £10 billion in a year for the UK economy, yet the Welsh Labour Government completely failed to showcase Welsh businesses during the games. Freedom of information requests reveal that the Welsh Government made no commercial contracts at this time, completely failing to ensure that the people of Wales would benefit from this unique opportunity.
Now we face another great opportunity presented by holding the Nato summit at Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, south Wales. The Nato summit is the second-largest gathering of world leaders after the United Nations general assembly. The previous summit was held in Chicago, which made a huge amount of money—£113 million—on that summit. We should seize this opportunity to make our economy grow.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I represent South Wales East, and some of the poorest regions in the United Kingdom are in my area: Blaenau Gwent, Islwyn, Torfaen and Merthyr. Those areas. This Government must be ashamed of giving people such bad unemployment. There is no better education, no better housing, and the people in those areas are screaming for help. If we were in power, the Conservatives, we would take jobs to them. We will take jobs to them. You have not given them anything. In the flower show in Ebbw Vale not long ago, one overseas businessman offered Blaenau Gwent council the setting up of a theme park in Ebbw Vale. The application was rejected, mainly because the council wanted to build houses there. Look at the thinking: there is no sense of business there. In this part of the world, if you look at Newport, Merthyr, Caerphilly, Pontypool, Hengoed, Bargoed, you will see the empty shops. You are proudly saying—[Interruption.] Do not tell me. I go there every week. I go there every week, Deputy Presiding Officer. The record that they have is virtually the worst in the world. We are getting this European funding. You have failed to deliver. You make this part of the world like the third world—like eastern European countries. [Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. I had thought things had calmed down. I say to Members on the Conservative benches, you should not shout when you make your arguments. Arguments are not strengthened by screaming them out, and it is a discourtesy to others in this Chamber.
We are still a part of the United Kingdom, two hours away from London. We are not 1 million miles away. The best things in those parts—. Why cannot we improve and have exactly the same level of prosperity? We are very close by. Only one and a half hours away. The difference between the other side of the channel and this side of the channel is 1 million miles. Whether you look at health, education, transport—as my honourable colleague has already mentioned, there is a long list of failures. Five minutes is not enough time. I let Welsh people know this: if they vote for us, we will bring prosperity to Wales.
I had hoped that this afternoon would be an opportunity to reflect on how far devolution has progressed in Wales over the last 15 years. I have to say that I regret that, in opening this afternoon’s debate, Nick Ramsay constantly conflated devolution with outcomes from a particular Government. Whatever the rights and wrongs and ups and downs, I remain absolutely convinced that, whatever the mistakes, the things that have gone well and the things that have gone badly, it is the right of the Government elected by the people of Wales to make those decisions. I think that we have come an awfully long way since the Assembly first gathered together 15 years ago, and I consider it a privilege to have been able to be part of those changes.
We have come a long way. Ministers used to sit on committees on a weekly basis, and the body corporate structure prevented proper scrutiny and accountability and often inhibited the policy processes. However, let us not forget that, even in those times when we had very little power, we still tried our best to do the right thing by the people of Wales. We created the first ever Children’s Commissioner for Wales, even within the constraints of our powers. When the Labour Government in London was passing draconian mental health legislation, we found a different way to treat people with mental illness in Wales, and, actually, Simon, what that report into comparisons of the health services across the UK did not point out was that Wales does have something that is Europe beating, if not world beating, and that is an eye health initiative that was launched way back in the 2000s, which was ahead of its time. It is important to recognise the things that we got right.
Since the 2011 referendum, we have enhanced our legislative powers in Wales, and the Assembly, I think, is really starting to find its feet in creating a distinctive path for public services and public policy in Wales, and I hope that the recent publication of the Silk commission will take us further along that journey, in terms of greater powers and greater accountability.
There is much to be welcomed as a young and evolving institution, but we still have a long way to go. I am concerned that we have seen, over the last year, three successive pieces of legislation fast tracked as emergency Bills, which I think threatens the capacity for effective scrutiny of legislation.
Civic society in Wales has been strengthened, and now plays a key part in helping to shape policy and legislation, but there is still more to be done to increase opportunities for that kind of engagement. More and more frequently we are seeing framework Bills introduced that rely heavily on the negative procedure, which, again, limits our ability as an institution to scrutinise Government.
What is most frustrating of all is the outcomes that some of the policy initiatives that have been pursued have delivered. I do not think for a minute that anybody in this Chamber, let alone the First Minister, is happy that less than 50% of our children leave school without decent grades in maths, English and Welsh first language. I do not think for a minute that the First Minister thinks that that is good enough and do not doubt that he wants to change it. However, whatever the rhetoric from Leighton Andrews, the reality is that we are not doing as well as we should. Our rankings in the Programme for International Student Assessment are getting worse and not better, and we are not going to meet the Government’s own targets for success in that particular arena. According to Estyn’s latest reports, the proportion of secondary schools branded as unsatisfactory is increasing, not getting less. We can have all the qualified teachers in the world, Leighton Andrews, and I agree that they should be qualified, but the reality is that our students are not doing as well as you, or I, would want them to do.
You were doing so well. I do not disagree with you on some of the points that you have made, although I think that people have to be careful about how they analyse the PISA figures, and I think the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recent report demonstrates that. What I would say to you is that it is very clear that we are starting to close the gap with England now at GCSE level. That was what our reforms were designed to do, and I think that we should praise our teachers for that.
What I know is that so many of our children are failing to leave school with a C or above in maths or English. We cannot be satisfied after 15 years of devolution that that is the case. One wonders how much longer we will continue to have that situation here in Wales.
Undoubtedly, there are aspects of our NHS that are comparable to other parts of the UK, but the reality is that patients, if they are treated within Government waiting times, still wait 26 weeks from referral to treatment, and that is often too long for people who find themselves in pain and distress. We know that issues around diagnostics continue to trouble this Government, and that we do not make progress. That is before we even start on the ambulance service.
There is much to celebrate in the last 15 years, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that we do not have a million miles more to travel.
I agree with the opening remarks from Kirsty Williams, and, indeed, Simon Thomas earlier, that we must draw a distinction between devolution and the Government that we have here in Wales, which has been successfully led by the Labour Party. Well, I say ‘successfully’—[Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’] They have with success managed to form a Government, I should say. The important thing is that we focus on the delivery of the successive Governments that we have had in Wales. That is the purpose of the Welsh Conservative motion that we have before us. No-one can argue with the fact that it is a motion that is precisely in order in terms of the way in which it has been phrased.
I, of course, want to focus my attention on the Welsh national health service. For 15 years, Welsh Labour Ministers have been in charge of our national health service, running our national health service—or should I say running it into the ground? Under Welsh Labour, the NHS has persistently had long waiting times and constantly missed targets. The referral-to-treatment time targets for patients with urgent cases of suspected cancer have not been met since 2008, despite promise after promise from the First Minister himself. Waiting time targets in relation to patients not waiting more than four hours in accident and emergency departments have not been met since 2009. England is performing much better, First Minister. Ambulance response time targets have been met only once in the past 22 months. In fact, just this week, we learned that there were 28,000 999 calls—28,000—to which an ambulance did not respond for over an hour, including 321 blue-light, category A calls, eight stab and gunshot calls, and 736 incidents involving overdoses or poisoning. If you think that that is good enough, that this is an acceptable way to run the health service, and that this performance is acceptable, then we have a serious problem.
You made reference to how well things are going in England; I would like to ask you, then, what your view is of the data that show that, currently, there are 32 NHS hospitals in England, or NHS trusts, that are at risk of going into administration because of the dire state of their financial system.
What I can tell you about finances in England is this: the UK Conservative-led Government is increasing investment in the NHS, unlike your Government, which is decreasing it and imposing the biggest ever cuts—record-breaking cuts—that the national health service has ever seen, which are far bigger and deeper than those in any other part of the United Kingdom, as has been confirmed by independent research that has been undertaken by the King’s Fund and our own Wales Audit Office, and, indeed, the National Audit Office over the border in England.
The NHS is not just an organisation, it is a lifeline. Welsh people depend on it day in, day out, and it simply is not performing as well as it should. Patients deserve better, as do the hard-working staff who work in our hospitals and our clinics, who are trying to deliver services under huge pressure. What is causing the pressure? It is the cuts; it is the deep cuts that your party is imposing upon our national health service. Record numbers of staff are off due to stress and poor health. Something has to be done. The backbench Member for the Rhondda suggested that this party is waging a war on Wales. We are not waging a war on Wales; we are waging a war on a failing Welsh Labour Government that is not delivering for the people of Wales. [Interruption.] Yes, a Government that you were a part of and which, no doubt, you are keen to get back into.
It is not just our party that is saying that there are problems in the Welsh NHS; just about every commentator on the Welsh NHS is also highlighting failures. There are things, of course, that the Welsh NHS are doing well—of course there are—and Kirsty Williams referred to some of those earlier in her contribution. However, when we read the sort of reports that we have read from the Commissioner for Older People in Wales, the Wales Audit Office, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and, indeed, read the report that was published this week into older people’s care in Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board, I do not think that we can bury our heads in the sand, agree that that is acceptable and not take urgent and immediate action to bring some remedy to these situations. All we have seen, frankly, over the past 15 years—and particularly over the past seven years that I have been a Member of the Assembly—are cancellations, cuts, beds being axed and a failure to meet performance targets. What are you doing to hold local health boards’ feet to the fire? Nothing. When will we see improvements? It will be promised but they will then not be delivered. I believe, First Minister, that it is about time that you pulled your finger out and delivered some real improvements for the people of Wales, particularly in terms of their national health service.
Darren Millar needs to get out more, because the greatest argument for devolution on the street is that we do not have our NHS controlled from London. That is the biggest argument for devolution that we have, and that is the one that people are absolutely signed up to. If we did not have devolved responsibility, our NHS would be being fragmented, privatised, and having to compete, which is what is happening in England. If we did not have devolution, we would have Michael Gove’s free school obsession, which has overrun by £800 million, has been set up in areas where there is no shortage of school places, and, most disgracefully, includes raiding £400 million from the emergency contingency fund, which was designed to create extra school places where they are needed. As a result, many children in England will not have a school to go to in September. How shameful is that?
David Cameron came to power—
Will you take an intervention?
No. David Cameron came to power promising not to reorganise the NHS. As soon as he got in, there he was—a major reorganisation that utterly undermined people’s—
Will you take an intervention?
Not at the moment. It really undermined people’s faith in the organisation that they were working for. Without effective leadership, the ‘choose and book’ service has been quietly buried. It could have saved over £50 million a year, but only half of the GPs in England used it. Without effective leadership, only two in five of NHS staff in England take pride in their organisation. Forced to compete rather than collaborate, they see excellence sold off to the highest bidder, or rather the lowest tender.
Will the Member give way?
Not at the moment. The chairman of the Care Quality Commission for England says that A&E demand is unsustainable, with 1 million more people turning up in A&E last year in England. Darren Millar, you try to present the problems that we have in A&E in Wales as somehow being completely isolated from some of the challenges being faced in England. We are not immune from the A&E pressures that are being experienced in England. No wonder, because the average age of in-patients in the Heath hospital, my acute hospital, is 85. We have to do a lot more to keep people from being despatched to hospital when they would be more comfortable and better looked after at home.
That is why it is really important to acknowledge the £50 million for the intermediate care fund that the Deputy Minister for Social Services has put in place, which enables the Wyn initiative in places such as Cardiff and Vale, which tackles delayed discharge so that people and the team around them can have a clear understanding of how they are going to get home as quickly as possible. We have the ‘smart house’ initiative, which helps older people at the points of admission and of discharge to understand what support can be provided in the home.
To pick up on point (c) in the Tory motion, about one person in seven being on a waiting list in Wales, I fear that that reflects the impact of the 40% reduction in the Welsh Government capital budget. There is no doubt that the shortage of investment in up-to-date diagnostic equipment inevitably leads to queues in terms of people getting the interventions that are most appropriate to their condition. It is hard to know what we can do about that one in the short-term, because there is no sign that that capital budget is suddenly going to get better.
However, there are other things that we can do that are not directly related to money. We can have better engaged staff who produce a better patient experience, fewer errors and higher staff morale, including reduced absenteeism. Engaging patients in their care produces appropriate interventions and better patient outcomes, and integrated care that requires integrated leadership within and outside the NHS. These are the key to transforming the NHS and the quality of its leadership and the engagement of its staff is absolutely the key to that. Nobody is arguing that the NHS is perfect, but, like democracy, it is better than every other system, and it is certainly a hell of a lot cheaper than the free market system they have in the United States.
I ask Members to cast their minds back to the 1980s and 1990s in Wales. These are years, we are told by the Conservative benches, that were glory years, when the economy thrived; halcyon days, indeed, where we did not lose Duport steel, we did not lose most of Shotton, we did not lose our collieries and we did not see both collieries in the Bridgend county borough close on the exactly the same day in December 1985. We did not see mass unemployment, we did not see the YTS, we did not see a generation abandoned, and we did not see communities such as those in Blaenau Gwent abused, both economically and verbally, by a Conservative Government. In the 1990s, we did not see successive Secretaries of State who had no connection with Wales. We did not see one Secretary of State mocking our national anthem in his own party conference. All these things we did not see and apparently this is why, we are given to believe, in the parallel universe that is inhabited by the benches opposite, the Conservatives are of course so wildly popular in those former mining valleys and districts, which is why we in the Labour Party struggle so hard to get the votes of all those people who are so grateful for the Conservative rule that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s.
We have seen Wales improve over the past 15 years. We have seen our economy go through difficult times, and yet improve. We know that our unemployment rate is the lowest in the UK. We have possibly the most successful job creation scheme for young people in Europe in Jobs Growth Wales. Youth unemployment is dropping; we have a significantly lower rate of unemployment, particularly for those between 16 and 17. In terms of those who are not in education, employment or training, that number has dropped. We know that, when it comes to education, more and more young people are getting good GCSE and A-level grades. Of course, there is always room for improvement, but there is no doubting that the percentage has gone up. We know in education that we see twenty-first century schools, with brand-new schools being built across Wales, at a time where none are being built across England. This is investment in the education of our young people. We know as well that, where they have free schools in England, where money has been siphoned away from the state sector to pay for those free schools, we do not have that in Wales. We know that, in England, those who are finding it the most difficult to go into FE colleges do not have the education maintenance allowance, but we do in Wales. We know that the Liberal Democrats, together with the Conservatives, have made it three times more expensive to study in England if you are an English student, than if you are a Welsh student. One of the most fundamental principles of Liberal Democrat policy thrown out of the window by Nick Clegg. The party of students they were; the party of students they no longer are. There is ân £18,000 difference in the cost of going to university between Wales and England.
Let us talk about the health service. Cancer waiting times in Wales are better than in England. In Wales, there are more staff per patient, more spending per head and more beds per head than in England. There is easier access to general practitioners; it is now far easier for our people to access GPs than it was in years gone by. However, let us not pretend that these things are easy, because we know that the health budget is 45% of our budget, and we have to manage this at a time when we see significant cuts in funding from the parties across the Chamber. You cannot on the one hand demand that more money is spent in every single area of public policy, while on the other demand austerity and cutting the budget to the Welsh Government and to the people of Wales. Let us remind ourselves of what the Conservatives were suggesting some two years ago: 12% cuts in local government. What does that mean for council tax? They suggested a cut of between 20% and 24%, depending who said it, in education, a 30% cut in spending on the economy and a 12% cut in spending on housing. Explain it.
I am grateful to the First Minister for giving way. Of course, you are also making cuts in these areas, which you are not talking about, and you are also cutting the NHS as well. That is some trick, is it not, to have cuts across the board, without the sort of outcomes that we would like to see on this side?
We have to deal with the situation as we find it. What we do not do is pretend, as your party does, that somehow there is a magic money tree somewhere that can be used to spend money in every single department of the Welsh Government, while at the same time failing to recognise that it is your party that has cut revenue spending and capital spending for the Welsh Government. You cannot have it both ways. There is always a palpable embarrassment on the Tory benches when they are reminded of that shadow budget that existed on half a page of A4, which was sent to the media, and what was contained in it. What it would mean, of course, is that we would see school places decimated, council tax through the roof—
Will you take an intervention?
In a second, of course.
We would see spending on attracting jobs to Wales cut by nearly a third. These are all significant and detrimental commitments that the Conservative party has made.
The Party of Wales clearly shares your concerns about the impact of the politics of austerity and the deep difficulties that will be faced by the people of Wales. Can we therefore take it from you that, if a Labour Government is elected to Westminster next year, those austerity cuts will be reversed?
In time, yes. I certainly hope that that is the case. If I may, I will deal with the Plaid Cymru amendment. We cannot support it. I just do not see Scotland as the promised land, I am afraid. Scotland’s economy does not significantly outperform that of Wales. We know that wealth per household in Scotland is significantly below that of Wales and we know, of course, that we in Wales have particular issues that we must resolve, as the people of Scotland do. I cannot see Scotland as a template that we must follow slavishly. And, of course, it is right to say, and I can say this quite openly, that Scotland is more generously funded via the Barnett formula, something that is not unconnected to the fact that Scotland is able to fund certain programmes, although, in terms of legislation, I am not sure what has gone through the Scottish Parliament in the course of the last three or four years.
If I may, I will now turn to some of the comments that have been made. Nick Ramsay’s performance—I think that is the best way of describing it—was well rehearsed to a point. No-one would believe that there is an election tomorrow. He has done well, I believe, in looking to rehabilitate himself with his leader, unlike Byron Davies, who is not here, and Antoinette Sandbach, who is probably actively tweeting against her leader as we sit in the Chamber, such is the unity that we find on the Conservative benches. I also want to mention what Mark Isherwood said. Well, again, I point to the fact that we have more staff per head of population in the NHS in Wales. I do not believe that there has been a full public inquiry into the entire English NHS and I have to say to him that coming here and producing lots of anonymous and possibly imaginary people who have said things to him is not good enough. Evidence requires producing evidence that can be examined and scrutinised, not something that is brought out of a hat without any reference to who that person is or indeed any opportunity to scrutinise whether what they say is actually true. All I can say to him is that, whatever you do, never sit on a jury if that is the way you accept evidence. Of course I will give way.
I did quote directly from the BMA and the RCN. We are here to represent people and those people often do not want their names used publicly. That does not mean that we should not raise their concerns. I hope you would agree.
However, do you not see that it is impossible to judge whether their claims are sound or how old their claims are and impossible, indeed, to scrutinise their claims? That is the difficulty. Anybody can produce an example out of a hat without offering the opportunity to scrutinise whether the example that has been given is sound. It is not evidence. It is hearsay at best.
Let me deal with Mohammad Asghar’s contribution. I will say two things to him. First of all, let us examine the Ryder Cup, the Ashes, the Rugby League World Cup, the Rugby World Cup, Euro 2020, the UEFA Super Cup and the NATO summit. All of these things occurred with a devolved Labour Government. None of these things came to Wales when his party was in charge. I accept, of course, that the NATO summit is the UK Government’s summit, and I am grateful that the NATO summit is coming to Wales, but let us not pretend that, somehow, all these big events came to Wales with all the money they attract when the Conservatives ran Wales because they did not. The reason for that is that they did not bother to sell Wales and get these events into Wales with the money that has been attracted as a result.
I see that time is moving on so I will just finally make one comment if I may, Dirprwy Lywydd. He said that, in Ebbw Vale, there should not have been housing but a theme park. Disneyland, not dwellings, I would call that. On the one hand we have his spokesperson saying that there should be more houses. He is saying that there should be a theme park. I say one thing to him, and I make this point seriously: he said that Blaenau Gwent was part of the third world. That is what he said. Let me tell him that in third-world countries, as he calls them, people die of malaria and they die of polio. I went to Uganda in January. There was one hospital there that covered 4.5 million people with six consultants. If you had cancer, you died. If you had heart disease, you died. If you had any disease that required drugs that cost a lot of money, you died. That is what you describe as a third-world country or a developing country looks like. To describe Blaenau Gwent in those terms is a profound insult to the people who live there and a profound insult to people who live in developing countries who face very difficult lives, and I ask him to reconsider that point—
I am being told that I am out of time.
We are proud of what we have done in Government, Dirprwy Lywydd. We will stand before the people of Wales both tomorrow and in elections to come because they will know that it is a Labour Government that delivers fairness, justice, equality and, of course, prosperity and, once again, they will reject the party opposite.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Andrew R.T. Davies to reply to the debate.
I welcome the opportunity to reply and to wrap up this debate today. Some people have said that it is a bit of a pantomime. Some people have said that it is an inappropriate debate. Given that, last week, after 15 years, many people in this institution and the institution itself were celebrating the creation of devolution, I do not think that, a week later, it is inappropriate to reflect on what the largest party here today, and in fairness the party that has been in Government for those 15 years, has achieved over those 15 years. I actually think that it is quite an appropriate time to debate and talk about those issues. I also find it a bit bemusing that Simon Thomas should be talking up the Scottish Government, in particular the Scottish Minister for health when, as we speak, he is facing a motion of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament. [Interruption.] So, I do not think that he should be offering too many examples of what is going on in Scotland.
However, I do take the point that Kirsty Williams and others raised that there does need to be a distinction between the institution and the Government that comes—. I think that we are all in agreement on that front. Given the way that the institution was set up in its first guise, or certainly the first two Assemblies, there was just the one brand—the Assembly—and many people, to this day, do not divorce the institution from the Government. It falls to us all to educate people about that divorce and, above all, where the responsibility lies.
Nick opened up quite clearly by outlining the three pillars that most people in the electorate out there understand: education, the economy and the health service. It is fair to say, on any estimation, that the delivery from successive Welsh Governments—not just this one, because we are looking at the whole 15 years—has been disappointing in some areas and appalling in other areas, frankly.
Mohammad Asghar touched on the point about the Valleys, and in particular the lack of investment, and some of the misguided investment that has gone on in the Valleys. Even Labour politicians themselves have pointed to the missed opportunities. I was listening to Derek Vaughan, the lead candidate from the Labour Party for tomorrow’s election, saying that the first two tranches of Objective 1 and convergence funding have missed great opportunities. He is looking forward to the third tranche actually doing what the first tranche should have done, which is lift economic activities in the areas where that money is to be spent.
So, when you do get Labour politicians on their own, or in more candid moments, they will admit that it is a failure of successive Labour Governments to utilise that money to drive up prosperity in some of our poorest communities. You only need to look at the GVA figures that we have at the moment—they do not lie; they are independently put together—to see that they are appalling. You, as a party, back in 2001 set the goal to be at 90% of GVA. What are we on? It is 72% or 74%, something like that. If you take west Wales and the Valleys, it is 64%. That is an appalling indictment of economic failure from successive Labour Governments.
When you look at the health service, and it was interesting to listen to Jenny—[Interruption.] If I could just make this point—. Go on, I will take the intervention.
Would you accept that the GVA of Great Britain has fallen by 11.5% over the last five years but has actually gone up by 4% in Wales?
What I accept is that we have the fastest growing economy in western Europe, we have 30 million people in employment, and we have a record number of people taken out of tax in the country, because of what the UK Government has done to stabilise the finances of this country of ours, keep the confidence of the money markets and, above all, make sure that we have record low interest rates to support hard-pressed families. That is real economic achievement. What have these Labour benches achieved here? They have achieved economic failure over 15 years.
If I have time Mick, I will take your intervention, but I want to deal with Jenny’s point about the NHS. I found it really interesting how she spent so much time focusing on what London was doing, rather than focusing on the record of your party here in Government. If you actually take three key performance indicators, for example ambulance response times, you will see that it was 55% of category A ambulance response times in March 2004. In England, it was 76.2% for category A. If you take diagnostic referrals that you talked about at length, you will see that 22,897 patients waited eight weeks or more for such a referral. That is 28.6% of the total. In England, 1.6% of patients waited more than six weeks for 15 key tests. If you look at referral times, you will see that 88% of patients in Wales are waiting 26 weeks to start treatment. In England, that figure is 89% for 18 weeks. You wait longer in Wales. You have a poorer outcome here in Wales. I did not hear you mention any of those facts and that, really, builds on the picture that we saw last week—
I am running against the clock here; sorry, Jenny.
That builds on the picture that we saw last week in Professor Andrews’s report, which was a damning indictment of one hospital—that was one hospital—what is going on in the other hospitals across Wales? I pay huge tribute to each and every medic, clinician and member of domestic staff who works within our NHS and they are as frustrated as the parties in opposition at the catalogue of failures to lead our NHS in Wales. We heard the First Minister and his Labour colleagues trying to deflect the failures of the health service in Wales on to opposition parties; it just will not wash when you have patients telling inspectors that they are in hell. They are in hell. Is that a description that you want to hear from patients in our district general hospitals and, in particular, in the First Minister’s own district general hospital, the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend? That cannot be acceptable to anyone in this Chamber.
When you look at education and the international PISA ranking results that we have had, which benchmark us internationally, time and again, you see that we are going backwards, not forwards. In fairness, the First Minister has said that his Government and successive Labour Governments have taken their eye off the ball. The Member for the Rhondda asked about having qualified teachers in classrooms. It was Jane Davidson in the second Assembly who allowed unqualified teachers into classrooms to teach. The Member for the Rhondda—the backbench Member for the Rhondda, I might add—was telling his constituents that he was going to save their A&E department in the Royal Glamorgan Hospital and that he was going to save their school from closure. It is much like the rhetoric when he was a Minister; he did not deliver for the education fraternity in this country, because so much of our education standards have not been met—
Will you give way?
[Continues.]—under this Labour Government—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. The Member is not giving way, you must sit down.
That is the label that will be tied around this Labour Party and, in particular, this First Minister, who stood on a so-called record of delivery for this fourth Assembly. What he has not done is to deliver one iota of improvement here in Wales. The truth is, while he can have his bitter backbenchers bemoaning the fact—
[Continues.]—that they are not delivering for their constituents—[Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. I have already dealt with this. The Member clearly is winding up and he is not giving way. You cannot just stand up and scream, ‘Give way.’ It is up to the Member, and he has declined. You must finish now.
I will gladly wind up, Deputy Presiding Officer. [Laughter.] I do not wish to wind up anyone else. However, it is a fact that unless the First Minister’s Ministers act more proactively in the last two years of this Assembly, they will be damned like the other administrations that have not delivered for the people of Wales. I urge support for the motion before this house today to improve outcomes in Wales and make a real difference for the people of Wales.
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 on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
On a point of order, I call Alun Davies.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. We are all used to robust debate, and we all welcome robust debate in this place. However, there are lines that cannot and should not be crossed. In his contribution to this debate this afternoon, the Conservative Member for South Wales East launched a vicious attack on the people of Blaenau Gwent. He did not criticise the record of Government, which is his right, but he criticised the people whom I represent. He also criticised the people whom he himself purports to represent. This is a matter of regret, and I believe that this was out of order under the rules of debate in this Chamber. Deputy Presiding Officer, I ask for your ruling on this matter, and I ask that the Conservative Member for South Wales East in question reflects on what he said, withdraws his remarks and apologises to the people of Blaenau Gwent.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. I heard nothing that was out of order, and I was listening very carefully indeed. I intervened and advised the Member not to shout. Nothing that was said was out of order. You may not have liked it, but, as you said yourself, you expect robust debate in this Chamber and, often, you deliver it. Therefore, I am afraid that you have got to listen to it and repudiate it as best you can, and let the public decide. What was said was not out of order.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1, 3 and 5 in the name of Paul Davies, and amendments 2 and 4 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Lindsay Whittle to move the motion.
Motion NDM5511 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Regrets that parts of the south Wales valleys continue to experience high levels of deprivation.
2. Recognises that tackling poverty in the Valleys requires sustained investment and Welsh Government intervention.
3. Notes the significant potential for the south Wales valleys to promote their social and cultural heritage.
4. Calls on the Welsh Government to:
a) directly support grass roots initiatives to tackle poverty and improve regeneration of the deprived Valleys areas;
b) ensure there is enough affordable child care to meet parents’ needs;
c) ensure every person out of work in the Valleys has access to an apprenticeship or skills training;
d) develop, through public consultation, a comprehensive strategy to tackle the problems and build sustainable communities in the Valleys.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. I am very proud to move the motion submitted here today in the name of Elin Jones.
I am quite ambitious for the future of the south Wales Valleys, because they are my home and where I belong. I think that politicians have to have ambition to create a new society where our people can expect economic and social prosperity, as well as world-class health, education and social services. It is what we all aspire to. The future of the Valleys and the wellbeing of people who I call friends, neighbours, my family—who are in fact probably the best people in the world, although I am a bit biased—is something that actually motivates me and inspires passion in me absolutely every single day. If I win the lottery, I would live nowhere else in the world. Trust me, I do the lottery, and, trust me, I want to win. It is where I belong, as I have said. We know that the Valleys are beautiful, and their communities strong and resilient. While we have our challenges, we have a bright future ahead, but only if the right policies and actions are put in place.
The truth is that the Valleys have not always received the best policies from Government. If we look back at the past 100 years of Government policy from Westminster, of any party, we see that there is a catalogue of errors. Above all, the Valleys have been the victim of right-wing economics—damaging and divisive trickle-down economics designed to benefit the south-east of England, but not here. The economics of Margaret Thatcher, embraced by New Labour, are now been extended with callous vigour by the coalition, once again forcing us to think about the long-term challenges that face the Valleys.
It is clear that it will be up to the progressives in Welsh politics to come up with solutions that will secure the sustainable future and economic security that our people have already waited far too long for. Intervention from Government, with the express aim of improving the outlook for the Valleys has not really been successful, although, to be fair, the intentions were pretty good. We have watched too many schemes fall by the wayside because their scope was not wide enough and because of weakness in implementation. The Heads of the Valleys programme—
Will you give way?
Yes, as long as it is constructive, because it is my diet day and I am hungry, and I am angry when I am hungry. [Laughter.]
I will try to be constructive. You just mentioned sustainability. Would you agree with me, therefore, constructively, that it is very important that the next round of European structural funds and EU funding is spent constructively and on sustainable economic objectives and is not wasted like the last lot was?
Yes, indeed, and I am coming on to that. So, please be patient.
The Heads of the Valleys Programme, which was scrapped just over a year ago, comes to mind, as does the Valleys Initiative. Billions in European funding, which should have transformed the viability of high-quality jobs and the successful growing SME sector in the Valleys, were targeted all too often in the wrong direction. So, there it is, Nick. There have been anti-poverty programmes that have failed to live up to expectations, and there are examples of promising ideas, too. We welcomed the city region approach, and we want to work with the wider regional area, as well as the core cities, to ensure that they benefit. We will work with the Government to obtain borrowing powers for infrastructure projects, and we will work to improve poverty programmes, where there is merit, and expand access to childcare.
Of course, the Valleys have a rich and varied cultural heritage and a scenic beauty that we can all agree, but we need to do more to invest in this and promote it. Other speakers will refer to those aspects later. What is needed more than anything is major intervention from this Government. With respect, we will not get it from the coalition in London, and I do not really expect it, if I am a realist. The economic and social problems that we face are unique in their entrenchment. Solving them would require a concerted action in various different areas. The Valleys are home to around 30% of the population. So far, we have not managed to implement a long-term intervention programme that halts relative economic decline and, most importantly, starts to move us up into other directions. My idea of socialism is not to bring the rich people down, but to bring the poor people up to their level. That is what I want. We understand that we are limited by our lack of economic levers, but there are promising ideas going forward and policies that can be successfully implemented. My colleagues from Plaid Cymru will explore those in more detail throughout this debate. We strongly believe that there is no challenge that we cannot overcome, so long as we accept that where failings have been made in the past, we need to work to ensure that good ideas are successfully put into place. It is for the future of the Valleys. Diolch yn fawr.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the five amendments to the motion. I call on William Graham to move amendments 1, 3 and 5, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Insert as new point 1 and re-number accordingly:
1. Acknowledges the impact that UK Government economic policy has had on the south Wales valleys in:
a) stabilising the economy and promoting economic growth;
b) giving employers the confidence to increase employment opportunities;
c) supporting the creation of wealth that will fund and sustain public service provision.
Insert as new sub-point 4a) and renumber accordingly:
co-ordinate the public and private sectors and civil society in the south Wales valleys to ensure that those areas realise the maximum potential of the Wales’ economic growth.
Add as new point at end of Motion:
Regrets that West Wales and the Valleys have qualified for three rounds of EU structural funding based on having less than 75% of EU GDP.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move amendments 1, 3 and 5, in the name of Paul Davies.
The International Monetary Fund acknowledges that the United Kingdom economy will be the fastest growing in the G7 this year. Howard Archer, the chief economist of IHS Global Insight explains that, encouragingly, UK growth is broad based and advanced by all sectors contributing to this growth. The first quarter of 2014 marked the fifth consecutive period of GDP growth.
The Welsh Conservatives acknowledge that, despite faster headline growth and falling unemployment, the full benefits of our recovery are currently not reaching everyone. However, they are beginning to be experienced. The latest earnings figures from the ONS indicate that weekly earnings have now caught up with inflation and thus will drive the recovery of living standards. Progressively, the benefits arising from our sustainable recovery will reach out across the south Wales Valleys to all areas of Wales and to all parts of the United Kingdom. The International Monetary Fund emphasised that the UK Government’s efforts to raise capital spending, while staying within the medium-term fiscal envelope, should help bolster the recovery and long-term growth. Last month, Kevin Green, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, outlined how employer confidence is returning and how employers are keen to make offers of permanent work to more and more people.
Small businesses, as the backbone of the UK economy, are starting to surge with confidence, which can only be good news for job-seekers and the recovery. I thank Chwarae Teg for its thoughtful briefing for this debate. A thriving economy not only provides increased employment and training opportunities, but it allows people to create the businesses required within our communities, such as childcare that meets parents’ needs. I outlined earlier how IHS Global Insight is encouraged that UK growth is broad based and advanced by all sectors contributing to this growth. We require, throughout the whole of Wales, for the public and private sectors and civil society to work in unison and to realise the massive potential of Wales’s economic growth. It is a matter of fact and regret that west Wales and the Valleys qualified for a third round of EU structural funding, based on having less than 75% of EU GDP. It is a further challenge for our public and private sectors and civil society to come together and ensure that EU funding generates a rise in living standards throughout the whole of Wales. We can take a blinkered look at today, with the total picture shaded from view, unable to understand or build upon past experiences, and clinging like the shadow Chancellor to the fortunes of luck. Or, we can acknowledge the appraisal and the global economic analysis that the UK economy is recovering, that further economic growth is forecast and that living standards are increasing throughout Wales and throughout the United Kingdom.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Eluned Parrott to move amendments 2 and 4, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
In point 3 after ‘cultural heritage’ insert:
‘and condemns mismanagement which has led to the closure of important centres of significant social and cultural value in those areas’.
Insert as new sub-point 4d) and renumber accordingly:
‘encourage local authorities in the Valleys to use powers under the Localism Act 2011 to designate Assets of Community Value and protect important buildings from the threat of closure.’
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. I move amendments 2 and 4 in the name of Aled Roberts.
I would like to thank Plaid Cymru for bringing today’s debate. I speak today not only as the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for the economy, but also—like the Member who introduced the debate—as a regional Member who represents some of the most deprived communities in Wales. Sadly, there is little in the motion today that I can disagree with. While the problems that the Valleys face have been recognised for many years—and I would suggest that they go back many generations in some communities—none of the interventions that have been tried has succeeded in lifting the economic fortunes of those communities up to anywhere near the UK or EU average. I really hope that the next round of EU funding will succeed where other rounds have failed. Frankly, however, I am cynical. I want to hope, but I am cynical. If that is going to happen, we need to have a clear and unified vision to take us into that future that we want to see. It is that vision and clear leadership that I think has been missing in the past. At a national level, we seem to have a plethora of advisory boards, panels and working groups delivering enterprise zones and city regions and the metro concept and the economic renewal programme. All of these policies have an impact on the economy of the Valleys, but the governance of these groups and how their work interrelates with that of our local authorities is ill-defined and needs some work.
As our amendment 2 states as well, the result of this lack of co-ordination strategy is that important assets—assets that could help us boost that regional economy—are under threat and could be lost to our communities forever. On Wednesday last week, for example, the Rhondda Cynon Taf cabinet met to decide a programme of cuts to leisure and cultural facilities across the county, including the Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd, which has attracted high-profile support for a campaign to save it. It is a facility that is hugely valued by local people, and a big crowd turned out to demonstrate and lobby cabinet members to save it. Sadly, those pleas fell on deaf ears. Again, the cynic in me might suggest that they never really stood a chance in this instance, and the cynic in me might wonder how the MP for Pontypridd, Owen Smith, came to be discussing the decision in his column in the ‘Pontypridd Observer’ on the Thursday, when the copy deadline for that column is on the Monday. I know that because I have a column in that publication, too. If a democratic and open decision was made on a Wednesday afternoon, how could the MP be writing about it on Monday? What is the point of holding public council meetings and having accessible, democratic processes if all the decisions have apparently already been taken behind closed doors? No wonder people feel disenfranchised. I believe that powers in the Localism Act to allow communities to protect assets of committee value would not only give people a sense of power and ownership in their communities, but could also make a significant contribution to the kind of empowered regeneration that I believe Plaid Cymru is proposing in its motion today.
It is not just the manner of it that angers people; it is the fact that, year after year, valuable, cultural and social facilities have been allowed to die on the vine, because nobody is taking responsibility for keeping them alive. Libraries, day centres, arts centres, and museums—all valued by local people—all capable of playing a role in the regeneration of our Valleys, particularly if we want to see that regeneration grow from the grass roots, but sadly, also all closing.
We talk about how education has the power to lift people out of poverty. We talk about how digital exclusion blights people’s ability to engage with the modern world. Then, they shut the libraries where our children learn to love books, and where many people in our more deprived communities access the internet. We talk about how we can regenerate our town centres, by encouraging a day-to-night economy, and by bringing people into towns for leisure and not just for shopping. Then they close the Muni Arts Centre, in the heart of our county town. We talk about how arts and culture are critical to drawing tourists to Wales and how they are the heart, the keystone, of what is important and unique about the Welsh offer in terms of tourism. Then they close museums like the Cynon valley museum, too. Where is the long-term strategy? Where is the strategy in that? We have an extraordinary heritage in the south Wales Valleys, and a naturally beautiful landscape that also happens to be the cradle of a revolution that changed the world. It changed the face of the world. Where else in the world has so much untapped potential?
We really must support the cultural infrastructure of the Valleys, because it is not just about preserving the past. This is about building the future that our communities want and allowing our communities to lead that regeneration.
I am pleased to contribute to a debate about an area that is important to me in terms of my upbringing in the Cynon Valley, in Aberdare, and as I still represent a part of the area in the western Valleys—indeed, I would include Llanelli as part of the Valleys, in terms of the nature and history of the place.
I want to speak specifically about the part of the debate relating to childcare, but before I do that, I would like to respond to one thing that Eluned Parrott said about something in our motion, namely the need to use every opportunity to promote the heritage of the Valleys. I completely agree that to close a place with which I am very familiar, namely the Cynon Valley museum, is one of the emptiest steps that any local government could take. There was a very long battle to establish the museum, and to see it closed, despite attracting a large number of visitors, is a disappointment. I know that it is a disappointment to some of my family who still live in the Cynon Valley, and for many other people in the area as well. It also underlines the fact that the heritage and history of the Valleys are important, not only in terms of the industrial revolution, but also in terms of the political revolution, because it is in the south Wales Valleys that socialism was established and the first proletarian revolution was seen, in the Merthyr riots, back in 1832. It is extremely important that we remember these things—this is part of the Valleys’ heritage. That is why local heritage is important to me.
I turn now to another part of the motion, in relation to childcare and the importance of promoting childcare as part of a pattern of economic regeneration in the Valleys. We already know that, in general, childcare in Britain is among the most expensive in OECD countries, and that, on average, childcare costs more than a mortgage. I think that that is partly, perhaps, because of mortgage interest rates, but it also underlines how expensive childcare is now.
There is no doubt that childcare and its expansion, particularly for women who remain main carers for children in our economy, will be a boost and bring significant benefits to the economy. There is no evidence—this should be underlined—that childcare is harmful at all compared to the situation at home. One can be as supportive and beneficial as the other to educational and social development et cetera. If we look at expanding childcare, in particular, we can see very significant improvement. The IPPR found that an increase of only 5% in the percentage of working mothers adds £0.75 billion in economic benefit, by way of more tax yields and also by saving on state benefits et cetera. If we look in general at childcare as part of expanding and increasing childhood attainment and breaking the link between educational attainment and poverty, a child poverty commission report acknowledges that this is worth 4% of the GDP of any country within a generation. That is a great prize to be won, if we can expand childcare.
Looking at an example of good practice, Quebec worked to introduce low-cost childcare—not free of charge, but cheaper—from 1997 onwards. In Quebec, 8% more women are now in work than in the rest of Canada. As Quebec is different to the rest of Canada, it is a pattern that we can consider and learn from. We already know that only a quarter of Welsh local authorities have sufficient childcare for children under the age of two and there is insufficient provision in all parts of Wales for night-shift workers and, of course, people on zero-hour contracts. It is very difficult to get childcare if you are on those contracts.
We see child care as part of a real economic revival that could happen in the Valleys, underpinned by the skills and education agenda—some good work is already going on there. It is about childcare that is linked to social support in its wider context and an infrastructure that really addresses the Valleys as they are today. We have an infrastructure that dealt with the Valleys 100 and 150 years ago. A proper approach to a city region, linking in with a Valleys metro and proper infrastructure across the Valleys as well as down the Valleys will help to rejuvinate them and make them, once again, as they have always been to me, a wonderful place to live and work.
For the second time this afternoon, I will change the speech that I was going to deliver. I tore up my speech for the previous debate completely because it was quite clear from the opening speech that it was no longer a serious debate. However, this debate has been approached in a very constructive tone and I want to contribute in a similar spirit.
I think that it is fair to say that the challenges facing the Valleys have scarcely been assisted by the austerity policies of the UK Government and the £1.7 billion of cuts being imposed on the Welsh Government and, specifically, the cuts to welfare benefits. I am going to talk about some of the positive things that have been done over time in Government, including by the One Wales Government—
Will you give way?
In a moment.
I am going to talk about some of the positive things that we have been able to implement, including within the regeneration portfolio, which I was pleased to hold between 2007 and 2009.
I am very grateful to Leighton Andrews for giving way. You always make some very interesting points, but you have mentioned repeatedly, in the last debate and in this one, the cuts being imposed on this place. You must accept that your party—the UK Labour Party—takes a fair share of the blame for building up the level of debt that has made these cuts, sadly, inevitable.
No, I do not, in fact, because we faced a global recession in 2008. During the period of the Labour Government from 1997 to 2010, GDP per head was growing faster in the UK than in France, Germany or Italy and we had the second largest growth in productivity in terms of GDP per head, after the United States. So, I think that we saw the successful management of the economy until we had a global economic crisis, in which we had to intervene to address it.
Going back to the Valleys, since I have been diverted for a moment, I think that the programmes that we put in place that recognise the need for a concentrated focus on place, such as the Heads of the Valleys programme—which Lindsay Whittle rightly referred to at the beginning—were important programmes. The importance of a co-ordinated approach to place-based action has been recognised recently by Professor Dave Adamson and Dr Mark Lang in their report on Tredegar, specifically. They used that report on Tredegar to look at how to develop a new settlement for the Valleys through implementing policies of ‘deep place’, as they call it. They draw on the work of economists like Professor Karel Williams on the foundational economy: that is, the part of the economy that supports about 40% of jobs, social care, utilities, telecommunications and food, for example. That work has come out of the Centre for Regeneration Excellence Wales, and is one of the things I was pleased to establish when I held the portfolio of Deputy Minister for Regeneration. It has given us some pointers for the future.
One of the clear lessons, though, is that we have to have co-ordination across local authority boundaries; we found that in the Heads of the Valleys programme in the past. I think that the leadership that can be supplied by the Welsh Government in that is critical. For example, we were able to establish the rebranding and marketing of the Valleys in a creative way through ‘The Valleys: Heart and Soul of Wales’ campaign, which Lindsay will remember because he was involved in discussions with me at the time. However, it is not just about tourism. It is also about the perception of the Valleys more broadly, and I think that that was an important campaign. As the Assembly Member who represents several of the places in which the comedy drama ‘Stella’ is filmed, you would expect me to care about tourism, but I have to say that in 11 years of representing the Rhondda, I have never yet been called ‘presh’.
The second example I want to give of leadership is the Gwent Heritage Office. That is now located in the general office in Ebbw Vale, in the constituency of my colleague the Member for Blaenau Gwent. However, it is there because the Welsh Government found out that the local authorities in Gwent were planning to place the Gwent Heritage Office in Cardiff. It seemed to us not a wise decision that it should move out of the historic county of Gwent; therefore, with some incentives at the time, we were able to develop what is now a fantastic facility, I think people recognise, in the general office in Ebbw Vale. It includes many historic records, such as those of Aneurin Bevan, the Tredegar working men’s medical society and, indeed, the records of Jasper Tudor. There is quite a wide range represented there.
However, the reality is that deep public spending cuts now mean that we need to find new ways of supporting community facilities. I want to congratulate the group in Maerdy in my constituency co-ordinated by Councillor Kieron Montague and Rhondda Fach Communities First, which has drawn up a plan for a Maerdy community learning centre, including a library facility.The reality is that we will see more social enterprises like that needed, such as the social enterprise being constructed in Pontypridd to try to support continuation of the Muni.
I also want to mention in the context of community engagement the extraordinary and powerful ‘Give and Gain Day’ held in Penygraig on Friday, where there were 200 volunteers, including 80 from GE Aviation in Nantgarw, painting, planting and repairing. That was co-ordinated by RCT Homes, Valleys Kids, Mid Rhondda Communities First and Business in the Community. Of course, RCT Homes exists because of a vote by the tenants, and it has created a regeneration agency in our Valleys.
Today’s debate has provided this Assembly with an opportunity to consider the social, economic and political characteristics of one of our nation’s regions. For too long, an air of hopelessness has surrounded discussions on the future of our Valleys communities. Since the decline of heavy industry and the social and political turmoil that accompanied that decline, those communities have sought a new, post-industrial purpose. It is in that spirit, looking forward, that the Valleys will continue their reinvention, their renewal.
I wanted to take this opportunity today to talk about an issue that is relevant and important to all parts of our country—north and south, east and west, urban and rural. It is an issue that politicians rarely address in a substantive way since the globalisation, digitalisation and prevalence of free market economies. That issue is community.
What defines a community today is not entirely clear. What defines and impacts community spirit is also more elusive than perhaps it was in times when the vast majority of the population in a town or village shared the same employer, before commuting long distances became a daily occurrence. However, when significant events threaten people, like the floods like year, or when the global free market collapses and leads people to unemployment and an increased need for support, or when state policies are adopted that single out and hurt the most vulnerable people in our society, it is community resilience and neighbourly solidarity that restores hope and provides the basis for support.
The issue of maintaining and strengthening strong and sustainable communities is not a matter for nostalgic indulgence; it is about putting the building blocks in place now, at a local level, that can aid in building a just and prosperous nation.
I would like to briefly explore three elements that are central to community resilience in this respect. First is the economic element, second is the social, and, finally, the cultural.
For too long, headline macro-economic indicators have detracted from what is actually a reality in our communities across the country. By starting with the community and evaluating its full potential, we can create highly skilled and highly paid opportunities working alongside small and medium sized enterprises. For those jobs that are not more universally available, a national integrated infrastructure must link communities and population centres so that further opportunities can be made available.
The Presiding Officer took the Chair at 17:16.
Socially, a centralised and distant approach to social protection has created a disconnect and missed opportunities for communities to have a say and a role in the composition and delivery of social protection. We need to focus more on welfare and less on state, when it comes to debate of the welfare state. It is worth remembering that when social protection was decentralised prior to 1929, many of our Valleys communities stood in defiance of a regressive Westminster coalition in defence of the most vulnerable people.
Culturally, many of us will have visited miners’ institutes and libraries built by workers that fostered a cultural and educational dimension and enriched the lives of so many people. Sadly, in the context of narrow austerity, so many of our cultural assets are now being lost at great cost to many of our local communities. However, our communities can play a leading role in a cultural and linguistic renaissance that could see the Welsh language regaining ground and the return of a cultural vibrancy to our communities that has not been seen for a generation. If we want that to happen, we will need political will.
I hope that this debate today will mark the beginning of a new conversation on how we can reframe our thinking on the role of communities. Do we have the political will to rebuild and renew our communities for the common good and for the long term?
While we welcome the opportunity provided for west Wales and the Valleys by a third round of EU structural funding, we regret that this results from Welsh Government failure to close the prosperity gap. West Wales and the Valleys qualifies because the qualifying rate is GDP per capita below 75% of the EU average; the latest official figures in March showed that Wales’s GDP per capita had fallen again to 74% of the EU average, which is an 11% drop since 2000. In west Wales and the Valleys, including four north Wales counties, it had fallen by 8% to just 64% of the EU average during the first three terms of Labour-led Welsh Government from 1999. It is, therefore, concerning that the Plaid Cymru motion refers to only the south Wales Valleys, rather than to the wider of area of Wales requiring sustained investment and effective intervention.
The latest tranche of European structural funding from 2014 to 2020 comprises £1.7 billion for west Wales and the Valleys and £350 million for east Wales, where Flintshire and Wrexham, although outside west Wales and the Valleys, have seen GDP fall to 85% of the EU average, down 18% since 2000.
When Wales first qualified for this type of funding in 2000 and received £1.6 billion, First Secretary Rhodri Morgan called it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform our economy and make a major difference to the lives of people in west Wales and the Valleys. However, we were given another opportunity when, for a second time, we were one of the poorer parts of the EU and in 2007 were awarded £1.8 billion—in fact, just as Plaid Cymru took ministerial responsibility for the Welsh economy. With the Welsh Government responsible for economic development, Wales has now qualified for the third time in a row because it remains one of the poorer parts of the EU.
Although the number of working-age people not in employment in Wales has fallen by 60,000 since the UK general election, the latest figure of 567,000 bucked the UK trend and rose by 15,000 over the first quarter of 2014. Although unemployment for January to March in Wales fell by 0.3 percentage points on the previous quarter, there were also 18,000 fewer people in employment in Wales. In fact, Wales and the west midlands of England are the only areas in the UK where the number of people in work or looking for work has fallen, compared with the same period last year.
As the Federation of Small Businesses said in response to the Welsh Government’s consultation on the last round of EU structural funding,
‘qualifying for the highest level of support available is not something to be proud of and the “lessons learnt” should note that there has been some concern within the private sector with the types of projects previous Objective 1 money has been spent on. The feeling among many is that instead of creating a strong and sustainable economy, money has been ploughed into short-term community projects, whereas private enterprises create wealth.’
As the director of the Confederation of British Industry Wales said last month, to set the right conditions to attract more private sector investment and reduce regulation, the Welsh Government, first and foremost, needs a whole-Government commitment to economic growth, measuring the performance of all departments by how they relieve the burden on businesses and support growth.
Construction4Growth Wales has stated that the cost of Wales-specific regulation to the sector means that companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, are increasingly unable to compete. In addition, the Council of Mortgage Lenders has warned that the Welsh Government’s Housing (Wales) Bill could deter investment in the housing market.
As new Office for National Statistics figures show, UK wealth and inequality today is broadly the same as before the recession. In fact, it is as it was in 2006. In Wales, under Labour, the poverty gap has widened and social mobility has stalled since 1999, with child poverty and youth unemployment rising since 2004, because micromanagement from the centre of Government as a way of improving society is just not working. The Government cannot combat loneliness and isolation, and promote independence and wellbeing on its own. The Government can drive through improvement by liberating the third, voluntary and independent sectors as real partners in strategy and delivery. As the Wales Council for Voluntary Action has said:
‘To move beyond rhetoric to action does mean a greater sharing of responsibilities between government, communities and citizens’.
By getting out of the way and letting citizens and communities run their own affairs, we can restore civic pride, democratic accountability, and economic growth and build a stronger, fairer Wales in a stronger, fairer Britain.
Many of the speakers in this debate today have outed themselves as Valleys AMs, or something along those lines, so I will, too. I was born in Aberdare, grew up in Merthyr, and I live in the Neath valley now. Growing up in Merthyr, I think you share in a collective sense of stigma. When I moved to Aberystwyth to go to university, people were scared of me without knowing why, by virtue of the thought that we all came from the Gurnos estate. So, I sort of let people believe that so that they would continue to be scared of me.
To be serious, however, what we need to try to do is instil a sense of confidence in people that they do not have these hang-ups. I do it by looking back at our history. I have said it here before, and I will say it again: if we look back at what Merthyr did in terms of the uprising in 1831, when the flag of socialism was raised for the first time, it instilled in people a sense of empowerment to be able to stand up to the likes of Crawshay and Guest and to say, ‘No. We believe that we should have rights as workers and we need to be respected’. I think that is what we need to try to take away from this debate today. It is not about trying to say that it is all doom and gloom, but to show that there is that fervour, there was that fervour, and that they used that. That is conjunction also with the heritage and educational communities that existed in the town at the time.
Notwithstanding that, Merthyr was a town where the Chartists were very successful as well, after the uprising. Where I grew up, in the village of Heolgerrig, many meetings of the Chartists took place. It was a hive of activity by people who were totally disenfranchised. Now we have young people in Valleys communities who question why they should vote. That is the tragedy of the situation. Somehow, we need to turn it around so that they see that it is worth their voting. It is really hard to convince them, I have to say. We will all know this, because we are standing on the doorsteps campaigning at the moment. We are telling them that the tax office is going to be cutting jobs in towns such as Merthyr, that the Land Registry is going to be privatised, that probation services are going to be privatised, and they are suffering from the bedroom tax, as we have already noted. So, how do we make people in these communities feel that they have a role to play and that they have a valid place in our society? That is why we have to take our political structures out to people further to encourage them to take action for themselves. That is why I and others here have said time and again why joining a trade union is so important, as is getting involved in any type of political activity that can inspire them to change the way they live.
To link it to the heritage aspect, I think that is important, because it is not just about how people live in an economic situation; it is also about how people see the context of their community. I was speaking to my colleague, Lindsay, before I stood up to speak. I know that the Triangle business park in Merthyr has gone, that the ironworks have mostly gone, that Bethesda chapel was demolished, that the Joseph Parry cottages have been saved, but not all of them, and that the Hoover building is in a state of disrepair. We need to nurture these areas so that our young people can understand their history and take pride in it. That is why I have asked John Griffiths to consider creating more apprenticeships in the cultural sector, because, if a 16-year-old in a town like Merthyr is not feeling inspired, perhaps if they could do a project on industrialism and have some sort of support through an apprenticeship to help them look at what they could build the town into, that might make them feel that they have more ownership of their community.
I agree with Eluned Parrott with regards to the Muni Arts Centre. People from the area have asked me to raise this in my capacity as my party’s culture spokesperson. As a young teenager, I went to the Muni on the bus most weekends to see plays; perhaps I was tragic, I do not know—I had a different type of social life to other people, as I liked to go to dramas and productions. If that is taken away, more young people are not going to be able to grow up with art and culture as an integral part of their lives. It is not something that they are born into, because they do not have the money perhaps to go to the millennium centre down the bay; they have to have that cheaper alternative. So, I would urge the Government to look at that, and I would urge people to consider this debate in a non-stigmatised way, and in such a way that we can try to present the Valleys in a positive light.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty to reply on behalf of the Government—Vaughan Gething.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I welcome today’s debate on the challenges of deprivation in the south Wales Valleys, and confirm that the Government will support the motion. I would like to thank Members for the broadly constructive way in which they have engaged in the debate.
We know that parts of the south Wales Valleys continue to experience higher levels of deprivation than the Welsh average. The recent recession, the global economic downturn, and welfare reform, continue to have a profound impact on our communities. Regenerating the south Wales Valleys requires sustained investment and collaboration with partners. This, of course, includes the opportunities provided by European funds.
The Welsh Government used the current round of European structural funds to invest nearly £1.4 billion in helping people into work and training. The tackling poverty action plan commits us to using 20% of European social funds going forward to tackle poverty, and the Welsh Government has also proposed tackling poverty as a cross-cutting theme for all European structural and investment funds.
We recognise that housing can be a key driver for the redevelopment and regeneration of communities, a point mentioned in Leighton Andrews’s contribution. Long-term investment in the Welsh housing quality standard is not just about improving the quality of properties. On a recent visit to Caerphilly, I saw not just the improvements in bricks and mortar but also the real way that they had managed to have more effective and wide-ranging tenant participation as a result of the work that they are undertaking.
Housing associations and community mutuals are key players in their wider role as investors in the regeneration of the local communities that they serve. Last year, they spent just over £1 billion in Wales, half of which was spent directly on housing-led regeneration, and we are looking to encourage more of them to gain, in a proactive and consistent way, the jobs and training dividend that can, and should, be gained from housing regeneration. This was a point that I saw on my recent visit to RCT Homes. Other housing interventions that have been taken forward include the £100 million Vibrant and Viable Places programme. Of the 11 targeted regeneration investments, five of these are taking place in the Valleys.
I recognise the points made about links to culture and heritage. When identifying opportunities for regeneration, we recognise—
Thank you, Deputy Minister, for taking the intervention. Just on that point, I completely agree with you that it is important that the housing stock is maintained, but we need to make sure that the work is entirely necessary. I have heard of one case recently where there was an attempt to replace a roof for the second time within two years when it was still under a 10-year guarantee. So, we need monitoring to make sure that all the money is going to what is absolutely necessary.
I would not take that as a representative example of the investment programme that is going into Welsh housing. If there are particular examples, by all means take them up either with me or with the Minister for housing directly, and we will happily look into those particular issues.
When identifying opportunities for regeneration, we recognise the potential to promote the social and cultural heritage of the south Wales Valleys. The recent reports from Professor Dai Smith and Baroness Kay Andrews are informing the approach that we are taking in Wales on the link between culture and heritage and tackling poverty. The Minister for Culture and Sport outlined yesterday that a delivery report, taking forward the culture and poverty report, will be published in the autumn, providing a framework to help organisations come together and deliver the vision that I hope we would all share. This builds on excellent examples that already exist of work that has already been taken forward within the Valleys. One example, already mentioned earlier today, is Valleys Kids, a pioneering charity that uses the arts to engage with young people.
I want to turn to Communities First, which has a significant role to play, with 28 out of the 52 Communities First clusters across Wales located in the south Wales Valleys. Communities First already provides tailored help to get people back into employment, by working with partners like Jobcentre Plus and Jobs Growth Wales. These targeted programmes have been added to recently by the Lift programme. This will provide work and training opportunities to people living in households where no-one currently works. Four of the eight Lift areas are in the south Wales Valleys.
I note that the motion talks about skills and apprenticeships; I think that this Government has a record to be proud of. We know that, through the Young Recruits programme, we have successfully encouraged more employers to take on more apprentices and, importantly, we have record completion rates for apprentices in Wales, outstripping the example in England.
I note that Simon Thomas made comments on affordable childcare. I want to reiterate that the Welsh Government is committed to improving access to affordable childcare in all parts of Wales. Flying Start obviously has significant coverage in Wales; it provides an element of free childcare in every Welsh county. Our evaluation shows that Flying Start engagement has resulted in a heightened awareness of referral to, and take-up of, parenting programmes to support parents, whether at home or at work. However, we recognise that access to affordable childcare is a significant issue for many families, and we will continue to take action. I am currently considering options to improve childcare provision, with further work being done over the summer, and I look forward to making announcements in due course. It is important to remember the context in which we are operating. Help for families in the Valleys and across Wales has been reduced, and not by accident. The working families tax credit has been cut, maternity and paternity pay has been cut, and childcare support for working parents has been cut. It is within this challenging context that we are looking to improve childcare provision and support for families.
I will now turn to the amendments in the last minute that I have. We will oppose amendment 1. We do not share the Conservative enthusiasm for the record of the UK Government. We think that it could, and should, already have done more to stimulate growth. We want to see a recovery that delivers for the many. We believe that the current recovery could well end up leaving poorer-paid workers behind. Our emphasis is on not just more jobs, but better-paid jobs.
We will oppose amendment 2. I was particularly disappointed by the contribution on this particular point. I find it utterly obnoxious to hear coalition parties coming here and blaming anybody and everybody else for failing to undo the deliberate damage that they have chosen to inflict. We will support amendment 3. We will oppose amendment 4 because the assets of community value measures are not currently in force in Wales so we will not encourage local authorities to undertake something that is not actually in place, and we will of course oppose amendment 5.
The simple fact is that we cannot compensate for the £1.7 billion that has been deliberately taken out of communities in Wales through decisions by the UK Government—and that is just from our budget. That does not take account of the deliberate tax and benefit decisions that will hit and hurt the most vulnerable hardest. Nonetheless, this Government remains committed to tackling poverty and raising aspiration. We do not underestimate the challenges of today. We will continue to invest in the Valleys. We will continue to work with and for communities that have given so much to our past and have so much more to give to our collective shared future.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Lindsay Whittle to reply to the debate.
Well, from Ammanford to Blaenavon, I hope that people have been listening. I think that it has been quite an important debate, actually, and I have really been encouraged by some of the very good points that were discussed. I am sorry that not all Valleys AMs stayed to listen, but there you have it.
I would like to deal with some of the amendments. The amendments tabled in the name of Aled Roberts but spoken to so eloquently by Eluned Parrott are important because we have lost important cultural treasures from the Valleys. My colleague Bethan touched on some of those. Throughout the Valleys, we have lost chapels, cottages, workmen’s institutes and farms in the base of the Valleys—the list goes on. We must make better use of existing laws and work to improve planning rules relating to buildings and landscapes of historic natural and cultural heritage. Of course, we must take advantage of this heritage. It is a bit patchy in the Valleys. In some areas, like my home town of Caerphilly, we have managed it quite successfully. However, we are quite lucky because we have a very large castle, so that helps a lot. However, other areas require more support and I would urge you to utilise iconic buildings, even if they are derelict. Utilise them because it will help.
In relation to the amendments tabled by the Conservatives in the name of Paul Davies, I agree with the sentiments expressed in many of them. With regard to amendment 5, it is very much a regret that Wales, despite already receiving billions of pounds in EU structural and convergence funds, still qualifies for more. We qualify for more aid because every previous round has largely failed to achieve what it was meant to do. Just imagine the position Wales would be in if we did not have that money. That is what you have to appreciate. However, of course, Conservative economic theory embraced by the whole UK political establishment is the reason why we qualified in the first place. I agree entirely with Vaughan Gething, the Deputy Minister, that we should reject amendment 1. To claim that the UK Government has helped to stimulate economic growth and the creation of wealth in the Valleys is, of course, quite ludicrous, and no-one in the Valleys could accept that—[Interruption.] Go to the Valleys. I have been canvassing in the Valleys. You clearly have not because you would not be welcome. [Laughter.]
May I quickly talk about some of the contributions? William Graham does accept that recovery has not reached everyone, and he mentioned that jobs are coming. Well, I am afraid, William Graham, that they are not well paid. That is what we want. We want well-paid jobs. Eluned Parrott, as I said, made a very good contribution. She made valid points about the Muni. We even talk about this building in one word—the ‘Muni’. We all know what we are talking about. You have got to try to save that. Nick Ramsay’s contribution and intervention was about the EU and what would happen if we did not have this money. Simon Thomas talked about childcare costs. Is it not good to hear a father talking about childcare? Too many grandparents in the Valleys are just simply there now to look after their grandchildren. They love them, of course, but without those grandparents, there are many people who could not afford to go to work, and that is what you have to look at.
Leighton Andrews, I agree with everything you said. I will not call you ‘presh’ but instead say ‘well done, butty’. How is that—that’s a good Valleys term, is it not? However, I will not call you ‘presh’—nothing personal. [Laughter.] Leanne Wood talked about community resilience and brought us back from this romantic view of the Valleys. She was more realistic and she told us how it is. I think that that is great.
Bethan Jenkins was clearly standing up for her hometown and all of the valleys that she has lived in as well. She was talking about where she belongs and speaking with passion. She had no written speech as I have, but, in fact, spoke from the heart and that is what people do best, I suppose. I also thank Vaughan Gething, the Deputy Minister, for your support.
The key point for me in this debate is about proper intervention across all areas, because, at the moment, and for a long time now, what we have been offered is not large enough in scope or ambition, despite claims of the Valleys receiving all of this enormous help, which largely has not been the case. However, we can see, as Leighton wanted me to point out, I think, the result of sustained intervention in the performance at Merthyr Tydfil since 2011. Chwarae teg, Merthyr has had decades worth of good, co-ordinated investment in education, public services, transport and economic development, which have all come to fruition. The Merthyr Tydfil that I know now is different to what it was 15 years ago. You have to say it and give praise where praise is due. As a result, we have seen Merthyr Tydfil buck the trend of other areas in the Valleys, despite setbacks to its private sector. It has a lower unemployment rate now than many of its neighbours; I think it is 9.8%, which is not far above Cardiff, which is 9%. So, it is getting there, but I am not denying that there is still a lot to do in Merthyr Tydfil. There are still serious problems, but the point is that sustained Government intervention can actually achieve results.
We must not bank on the latest shaky and unsustainable economic recovery cycle. The next round of EU structural funds must be better spent in these areas, and involving the people themselves is the most important aspect. The best examples of action that have succeeded in helping to tackle poverty and inequality are the ones that are grass-roots orientated and run by the people with buy-in from the entire community. We must accept now that top-down schemes simply do not work. Let us re-examine our whole attitude to community engagement. Improving the funding and bidding process for the third sector would also help to foster long-term community efforts and provide stability to those that are already successful. Poverty elimination will take action on the economy and in our communities, but the key point is that the approach is still not on the scale or does not have the co-ordinated effort that we need in the Valleys and certain approaches are just not going to work. A public consultation with the people and businesses of the Valleys from all walks of life, in my opinion, will be a good start to this fight back. Of course we are confident that the Valleys will turn a corner; that is what we want, but in many ways, we already have. However, we have a lot of work to do and the point of this debate is that the wait cannot continue. The pace needs to be increased, the approach needs to be rethought—think outside the box.
We have known some very tough times in our history in the Valleys, we have paid the price of coal, and I am sure that there are tough times ahead as well, but we can overcome them and what we need now is a Government that will work with us, so that we can do that. The Valleys is famous for choirs and famous for singing. Well, it is up to us to sing our success and to sing our determination, our confidence and our pride. I am proud to stand here and sing for the pride of the Valleys where I belong.
Go on, sing.
I will spare you all that. [Laughter.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
No, no singing. You are out of time, so there is no singing. [Laughter.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? There are objections, therefore I defer all voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The Business Committee agreed that voting would take place after the business and before the short debate, so unless three Members object, I intend to move straight to the vote.
Could we ring the bell?
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you asking for the bell to be rung?
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I want three people to ask for that, please. I see that there are three, so please ring the bell.
The bell was rung to call Members to the Chamber.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are there any Members due to come? I see that they are all here. If no Member objects, now that Darren Millar has arrived, we can move on before the five minutes are up. [Laughter.] Are you comfortable with that? I see that you are. Thank you very much.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5512
Motion not agreed: For 15, Against 28, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5512
Amendment not agreed: For 6, Against 22, Abstain 15.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5511
Motion agreed: For 28, Against 15, Abstain 0.
I suppose that this is not the best session to have been selected for a short debate, being at the end of the half term and the day before the European elections.
However, I think that it is important that I endeavour to raise awareness of the situation in relation to dyslexia in Wales. I do so because of cases that have been brought to my attention in north Wales and discussions that I have had with a number of charities that are involved with dyslexia in Wales. Those charities tell us that some 12% of the population is dyslexic, which equates to approximately 360,000 people in Wales. I am sure that those of us who are members of the Children, Young People and Education Committee have learned a number of lessons this morning, as part of our inquiry into children’s health and care services in Wales, having seen that there is a theme common to all of the problems and difficulties that parents and children face in terms of the problems they experience at present, namely that intervention by public services does not happen at an early enough stage and that, as a result, both the children and their parents face difficulties.
At present, almost 25% of school pupils in Wales are given assistance because of special educational needs. Therefore, it is important that we intervene as soon as possible, and that that intervention should be delivered through screening rather than simply through testing.
As someone from north Wales, I must ask the Minister to tell us, as he responds to this debate, exactly what plans his Government has in terms of Welsh-language testing and screening, bearing in mind that 27% of our children are in Welsh-medium education in the primary sector.
Today, I am trying to raise awareness of this issue, to actually cite success and progress that is being made, and to ask the Government whether it sees developments in relation to the debate that we will be entering into as far as additional learning needs are concerned. I am told by Dyslexia Wales alone that, currently, it receives approximately 140 telephone calls and e-mail enquiries from parents per month.
There is, of course, a standard test that has been used for many years, namely the dyslexia screening test, which is used for children from the age of seven upwards. To give credit where credit is due, a Welsh-medium version of the screening has recently been introduced by the charity, which is now being used in Welsh-medium settings. In the past, of course, it was necessary for Welsh-medium children to be assessed through the medium of English. That, in itself, created problems as far as confidence in the test results themselves were concerned.
Last week, I met a mother who had been pressing for the school to screen her nine-year-old for dyslexia for some considerable time. She was a nursery nurse and she felt that there were issues with regard to her child’s development, and, approximately two years ago, she had to reluctantly accept the advice that perhaps it was too early for the child to be screened. It has taken her approximately 18 months to achieve an assessment of her child, and she tells me that the response from the school was that her child had scored one point below the threshold where support services were actually provided by the local authority.
Those assessments in schools are currently undertaken by educational psychologists. That can mean that there can be a wait of several years for a full assessment. Some schools will carry out screening interventions, but others do not. The same applies as far as inconsistency is concerned from one local authority to the next. If you are lucky enough to live in a school catchment area where a teacher has undertaken dyslexia training, or if you are lucky enough to live within a local authority where the support staff provide that early intervention, the likelihood is that your child’s developmental needs will be addressed. In the meantime, children elsewhere can fall behind and enter into a downward spiral, in some instances, of bad behaviour or withdrawal.
Although a diagnosis is important, it is just as important to carry out early interventions. Although specialist teachers are able to undertake full assessments, local authorities often apply variable criteria that can impact adversely on the support that a child can expect to receive. There is, within Wales, a huge shortage of specialist teachers with skills in dyslexia. Currently, initial teacher training—which I know that the Minister has reviewed—includes modules for identifying dyslexia, but the charities concerned still believe that not enough is being done in the classroom to identify dyslexia for pupils exhibiting the signs. I accept that the dyslexia test itself can be quite time-consuming. A test for the severity of dyslexia can take up to three hours. However, the screening tool itself can be relatively short in practice and can spare a young child and the family many years of anguish. That is why the charity has currently been developing an earlier tool from the DST-J manual, which would provide screening at the higher end of the infant stage. However, there is currently no funding available for the development of a Welsh version of that tool, even though the tool itself has already been tested in pilot schools across Wales, and 600 children have been used to develop a baseline score within Wales. Extending this screening and making the screening available through the medium of Welsh could make an enormous difference to a huge number of children in Wales’s schools. We in the Assembly—and, more importantly, the Welsh Government—have the ability to bring about that change.
There is a difference, as I have already mentioned, between screening and testing. Currently in Wales, there is no national screening system. Schools and local authorities operate inconsistently and with varying degrees of success. I have been quite surprised, in looking into this subject, that authorities themselves adopt different threshold scores. I have not been able to understand how those threshold scores have been adopted within local authorities. The information that I have received from those involved with dyslexia tells me that they themselves fail to accept—other than gatekeeping as far as funding arrangements are concerned—the basis of those thresholds.
I have to acknowledge that there have been positive developments. The Minister may refer to the development of so-called dyslexia-friendly schools. However, there are questions regarding how effective those are in some instances. Accreditation of a dyslexia-friendly school is left to the local authority. Again, there is some concern that there is a lack of consistency with regard to the adoption of criteria. Ultimately, early intervention and support can be the difference between a life fulfilled and a life of failure. Last year’s data from the pupil level annual school census revealed that almost one in four pupils in Welsh schools—about 104,000, currently—have identified special educational needs. However, those figures themselves are based on needs that have already been identified.
Many more pupils are subject to that identification process before they receive the additional learning support that they need. Given those figures, will the Government and the Minister consider that the high numbers in need of additional support might indicate that regardless of how many new initiatives we come up with, until dyslexia screening and other forms of screening are a normal part of early years assessment, we cannot be sufficiently confident that the chances of improvement for pupils and, ultimately, education standards in Wales can be achieved?
The effect of failing to intervene can be catastrophic. A pupil with unidentified, and therefore unsupported, dyslexia will not be given extra time to sit tests or examinations such as GCSEs in the school system, thereby having an impact on the individual with regard to attainment and on the school’s performance with regard to banding. I would therefore ask the Minister whether he has given any consideration to a straightforward screening test for children at the end of the early years. As I have said, although a test for the severity of dyslexia can take up to three hours, screening is relatively short in practice, and dyslexia organisations tell me that teachers are literally queuing up to gain the level 4 qualification, which can help to identify the signs of dyslexia. Once screening has been completed, a whole range of options becomes available, and rather than shutting down a pupil’s potential for learning, we might open up a whole new world of opportunity.
I think it unlikely that any of us here today, certainly not the Minister, would disagree with any of the aims of the dyslexia charities. They state that dyslexia is a difference and not a disability, and I genuinely believe that adding an already devised screening test to the existing early years development and assessment framework would make a huge difference to the future life of many thousands of our young people.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister to reply to the debate.
I begin by thanking Aled Roberts for bringing forward this debate this afternoon. As a Welsh Government, we are committed to improving standards in literacy and to supporting all of our learners, including, of course, those with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties. Our new literacy and numeracy framework and the national reading tests already provide mainstream teachers with initial screening tools that help to identify learners who are falling behind their peers and require that kind of targeted and focused intervention. The literacy and numeracy framework sets out the skills that we expect learners from the age of five to 14 to develop throughout their time in school.
I accept absolutely that the LNF is not designed specifically to identify learners with dyslexia, but it does help teachers to identify learners who are struggling with specific aspects of literacy acquisition, such as letter knowledge and phonological awareness. These are known difficulties for learners with dyslexia, so this early indication can alert the teacher to the fact that the learner requires additional support. Similarly, the national reading tests provide a useful means to identify learners who are struggling with their literacy skills. These tests were designed to allow as many learners as possible to have access to them, and have been standardised against the population in Wales. This provides a useful baseline to identify learners who are falling behind. Again, these tests were not designed to identify learners with dyslexia, but because they contain aspects of literacy that are known to challenge dyslexic learners, they can be used as initial indicators that learners may require additional support.
In order to help teachers to use the reading tests as an initial screening tool, we are in the process of publishing reading test guidance. This guidance will explain how the reading test can be used as an early indicator of dyslexia and specific learning difficulties, and it will also suggest appropriate support strategies that can be used in mainstream settings.
Of course, we all want schools to adopt an inclusive approach to all learners, and those who show early indications of falling behind their peers should expect to be supported by timely, targeted intervention programmes. These interventions provide a useful early indication that a learner may have a specific difficulty, such as dyslexia. Evidence suggests that learners who do not respond well to quality interventions are likely to have an additional learning need and will probably require additional assessment and support. Teachers are considered to be good judges of learner progress and can often pick up when a learner is struggling with a particular aspect of literacy development. To support teachers, we want them to be better trained to identify children who are failing to acquire letter knowledge and appropriate levels of phonological awareness.
The national support programme is training all teachers to become proficient in teaching literacy and there have already been sessions relating to dyslexia. What is critical is that, through workforce development, we raise the capacity of teachers and schools to better meet the learning needs of pupils with SEN, including those with dyslexia. A review has commenced to assess the skills base of the general education workforce across Wales in relation to those who provide universal provision to children and young people with SEN. This review will be completed by July.
When we developed the national literacy programme back in 2012, we wanted to make sure that there was a consistent approach to supporting and developing literacy in Wales. I have mentioned some of the innovations that have already taken place, but there is, as Aled indicated, more to be done. I am committed to ensuring that learners with dyslexia have the appropriate screening, assessment and targeted intervention, but I also want to ensure that the approaches that we recommend are of a high quality and that we offer comparable support for Welsh and English learners. We need to adopt approaches for dyslexia and specific learning difficulties that build on our current education policies, so that we have a consistent and robust approach across Wales, which Aled has indicated, quite rightly, is ân issue-consistency, I mean.
To support this work, we are developing a framework for pupils with specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia. This framework will aim to provide a consistent approach to dyslexia and specific learning difficulties across Wales, ensuring that screening, assessment and intervention processes are in place. It will also identify new or existing high-quality Welsh and English resources for dyslexia. To inform this work, we have already established a task and finish group, members of which have appropriate expertise and experience in relation to SpLD. Part of its remit is to build on current policies and recommend a rigorous and consistent approach to early identification through screening and assessment. The group will no doubt be aware of the recently developed Welsh-medium screening techniques that have been referred to. Part of its brief will be to consider whether such screening tools can be used to complement existing policy developments in literacy.
I want to be assured that the support that we recommend for learners is of the highest quality, so I have asked the task and finish group to consider whether the screening and assessment tools and intervention strategies used currently are effective and whether this can be backed up by robust, independent evidence. Its findings will form part of the final dyslexia/SpLD framework. As Members will know, our overarching plan is to replace the current statutory framework for the assessment and planning of provision for children and young people with special education needs, including those with dyslexia, with a simpler, more person-centred system. A second phase of formal consultation, setting out the detailed proposals for reform, will commence very shortly. These proposals seek to create an integrated, collaborative process of assessment, planning and monitoring, which facilitates early, timely and effective interventions for children and young people with additional learning needs. The reforms will provide a more equitable, person-centred system that increases the rights of children and their families and ensures that they are involved throughout the process. The overall impact will be to support children and young people in Wales with additional learning needs, including those with dyslexia, to reach their full potential.
Young learners with dyslexia deserve the same opportunity and support to succeed as their peers. As Minister, I am determined to ensure that they get that chance.
Once again, I thank Aled for bringing this very important issue to the Chamber this afternoon. I hope that my contribution underlines what I believe is unanimity of purpose across parties within the Chamber.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister. That brings today’s business to a close.
The meeting ended at 18:10.