The Assembly met at 1.30 p.m. with the Presiding Officer (Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to improve transport connectivity in west Wales? OAQ(4)1003(FM)
The national transport plan sets out a number of major road and rail schemes planned for west Wales, which will improve connectivity in and around west Wales.
Constituents have contacted me recently expressing concern about transport links between Fishguard and Ireland. These links are important for our tourism industry and, indeed, for the Welsh economy in general. It appears that the train timetables in Ireland do not marry up with the ferry times from Fishguard, which makes it difficult for people to travel. I have written to the Irish Government asking it to review the situation. However, could you, First Minister, consider raising this issue with the Irish Government in order to bring about an improvement in the situation?
I have already raised this issue, informally. The problem in Rosslare is that the train station was moved, a number of years ago, further away from where the ferry comes in. If I remember correctly, there is a train connection for the morning ferry but not for the late night ferry. That has been the situation for nigh on 20 years, but it is not good for those people travelling out of Rosslare. However, in terms of trains on that side of the sea, there are no plans—as far as we are aware—to pull that service from Rosslare harbour.
Work has just been completed on doubling the railway tracks on the Loughor bridge. I was pleased to visit the site during the construction phase, to see for myself the effect of the £400 million programme funded by the Welsh Government. Now that this additional capacity has been created, can you update us on how train companies will achieve their target of securing more frequent services, with fewer delays, between Llanelli and Swansea?
What has been agreed is that six trains will stop in Gowerton, in each direction, during the week. One service from Cardiff to Swansea is to be extended to Llanelli, and there will be improved capacity on each service to Pembroke Dock. That has been agreed by Arriva Trains Wales, at no additional cost to the taxpayer.
The improvement to which Keith Davies referred on the Loughor bridge will ensure that an improved service can be offered. Have you, as a Government, given any consideration to devolving the functions of Network Rail, as in Scotland, and do you believe that that would lead to further investment in Wales?
No. It is not clear that that would mean more money for us to invest, and that more money would be invested as a result in the Welsh railway network. We always give consideration to this issue, if something is of financial benefit to Wales, so we look to support such initiatives. However, it is not clear, in terms of the railways, whether or not that would be the case.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on grassroots sports participation across Wales? OAQ(4)1013(FM)
We fully support the development of grass-roots sport across Wales. The programme for government highlights our ambitions to increase participation rates and to ensure that young people have good-quality opportunities to participate in a range of sports.
I thank the First Minister for his answer. Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting an event in the Senedd to mark the launch of a report covering the first 10 years of the McDonald’s national grass-roots football partnership, which is spearheaded by Sir Geoff Hurst and the legendary Ian Rush, among others. That event was well attended by Assembly Members, and by your Cabinet colleagues. First Minister, I am sure that you will share my disappointment at the news, in the last 24 hours, of the sad demise of Llanelli Association Football Club. However, in the past decade, we have seen, across Wales, the number of after-school sports clubs, particularly football clubs, increase by over 12,000. Given the increasing success of Wales’s professional football teams, which is to be celebrated, and the key role that grass-roots sport plays in sustaining that for the future, what measures is your Government prepared to undertake to ensure the continuity of that success in future years?
The schools and physical activity task and finish group has been established to provide advice on how to develop the role of schools in increasing levels of physical activity among children and young people, and it will be making its recommendations this summer. This year, Sport Wales will invest £5.3 million in sport governing bodies across Wales to support grass-roots development. That, of course, covers a wide range of sport. I was pleased to be in Newport last Saturday, where I opened the national football centre at Dragon Park, which will be a fantastic facility to develop high-level football, and to provide access to that high level for youngsters across Wales.
One issue that has arisen recently with regard to schools and people engaging with playing soccer is the availability of land and suitable football pitches. With the growth of demand, local authorities are doing an excellent job. It seems to me that there is an opportunity for a review of the availability of suitable sport pitches, with a view to looking at measures such as the use of public land, the release of land and so on. Does the First Minister consider this is to be an appropriate area for the Welsh Government to look into and to report back in due course?
Yes, indeed. I notice that the Member used the word ‘soccer’, which often creates a frenzy of indignation, because people have always called it ‘football’. In the part of the world that I am from, ‘football’ inevitably meant ‘rugby’. We mean ‘association football’; let us be absolutely clear on it. I know that there are difficulties in playing regular matches, particularly when there is bad weather. I can tell the Member that Sport Wales is currently carrying out a mapping exercise on the state of our sports facilities across Wales. That will help to inform those partner organisations in the future as to what resources will need to be invested in order to bring those facilities up to scratch.
Local amateur sport clubs and leagues in Cardiff are seriously concerned by the Labour-controlled council’s decision to impose large increases in fees for sport facilities. These increases will damage grass-roots sport and send out the wrong message at a time when health is high on the agenda and we are trying to build on the Olympic legacy. Will the First Minister join me in condemning these unpopular, unwise and unfair charges on grass-roots sports in Cardiff?
That is a matter for Cardiff council.
I am, and always have been, a rugby fan first and foremost, but I do not think that you need to be a big fan of football to realise that it receives inequitable treatment. In its most recent annual report, the Welsh Rugby Union reportedly gave £27 million to grass-roots Welsh rugby clubs, with significant millions going directly to community rugby. We have heard, First Minister, what you plan to do to improve the grass-roots football game in Wales, but do you plan on meeting with the two Premier League clubs and the Football Association of Wales to see how best your Government and football can work together to improve the game for all and to ensure that the Gareth Bales of the future can stay in Wales?
I do meet with the clubs regularly, as well as with the FAW; I met with it last Saturday. We were able to contribute £400,000 to the building of Dragon Park, which demonstrates the Welsh Government’s commitment to the development of football in Wales.
Following David Cameron’s rejection of Tanni Grey-Thompson to be the chair of Sport England, despite being recommended for the appointment by the appointing panel, will there be more opportunities for us in Wales to use her in grass-roots sports participation?
I certainly hope that England’s loss is Wales’s gain. She does, at present, chair a task and finish group on physical activity in schools, which will report its recommendations to us in May. We would certainly consider the best way to use her wealth of experience in the future.
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders
Last week, your flagship housing scheme, NewBuy Cymru, was cancelled by your Government after months of stalling. The day before, your flagship employment scheme, Genesis, was scrapped as well, and you choose to blame the UK Government. Why was your housing scheme, after months of stalling, shelved last week?
Just to make the situation clear, as the Minister did in committee, events have overtaken us in terms of the UK Government’s scheme. However, as he also made clear in the committee, consideration is now being given to an interim scheme to help those who would have been helped by NewBuy Cymru. Clearly, the scheme could not continue, given that the Home Builders Federation and, indeed, the Council of Mortgage Lenders indicated that they could not now support it, given the existence of the UK scheme.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister, but that scheme would have made a difference in a stagnant housing market in which the first-time buyer today is 36 years old. It cannot be the case that the Home Builders Federation did not support the scheme. The managing director of Redrow Wales said,
‘We want it on the third of June as promised and I'm sure every developer in Wales will still want to support this scheme.’
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors said,
‘We believe this scheme would have worked well in conjunction with Help to Buy as the schemes together would have addressed both the new-build market and the second homes market.’
Is it not the case, First Minister, that you have clearly failed to offer any support to the housing market in Wales? Is it not the case that your Government has failed to deliver for the people of Wales when, in your opening remarks two years ago, you talked about the mantra of delivery for the people of Wales?
How can he talk about putting a roof over people’s heads when his party introduced the bedroom tax? How can he talk about that? The reality of the situation is quite simply this: the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Home Builders Federation both said in writing—I have seen the letters—that they could not support the scheme in its present guise, because of the introduction of the UK scheme. No Minister can ignore that, which is why the Minister made clear in committee that we are now looking at whether a different scheme, which would prove more attractive to those two bodies, could be implemented.
First Minister, I have just quoted the regional director of Redrow Homes. He has quoted colleagues of his who have also shown their disgust. They had the marketing schemes in place for the launch of this scheme. We have also shown what the surveyors have been saying about this scheme. As I have said to you time and again, there is no change in the mantra of your Government from those of previous Assembly Governments and you are failing to deliver for the people of Wales. The Scottish Government, for example, sees no compromise in its scheme and it is happy to run the two schemes in parallel. Why is it the case, First Minister, that, time and again, when you bring policies forward, they fall at the first hurdle? A sum of £36 million shelved last week because of the failure of the Genesis back-to-work programme, and now house builders have to face the same inadequacies from your Government. Is it not quite simply, as the regional director of Redrow Homes said, that it just simply is not good enough?
If the regional director of Redrow Homes is disagreeing with the Home Builders Federation, he may as well say so, because that is not what the Home Builders Federation said in writing to the Minister. The leader of the opposition is either suggesting that the Home Builders Federation is, in some way, untruthful, or that it is not representing its members. That is a matter for it to deal with, in terms of Redrow, but that is what was put down in writing. We have to have regard to that. That is something that we will consider as we put a new scheme in place.
He talks about failure; we all see what happens when his party runs things in London. We all see the mess that has been made of the economy. The real problem with the housing market is that people do not have access to credit, do not have money and cannot buy houses; that is all down to his party.
First Minister, the Secretary of State for Wales tells us that there is a recovery taking place in Wales. However, the shadow Secretary of State for Wales says that living standards in Wales have been falling faster than in almost every other part of Europe. Can you tell us who you agree with—your spokesperson in Westminster or the UK Government?
I am always asked to agree with somebody in Westminster. I do not agree with the Secretary of State, in terms of what he says about the economy. Coming back to the point that was made earlier, one of the biggest tests that the leader of the opposition will face will come when and if his party decides to support the devolution of stamp duty. We could do a tremendous amount with stamp duty to help the housing market; will his party deliver on it? We will wait to see whether he can deliver on something that he supported in Silk or whether his Secretary of State will leave him high and dry. The reality is that we know the difficulties that the economy has faced, certainly since 2008, and the leader of Plaid Cymru will be fully aware of what we have done in order to assist people in that time.
First Minister, I am not very interested in what the leader of the opposition has to say; I am more interested in your answers, as, I am sure, are the people of Wales, and I would be very grateful if you could answer in a straight manner. First Minister, underemployment is a major part of the productivity gap in Wales. Nearly 134,000 people are underemployed, which is an increase of almost 50,000 since before the recession began. These are hard-working people who want to work or who are doing jobs for which they are overqualified. First Minister, our country cannot reach its full potential at all, if our people are not reaching their full potential. A Plaid Cymru Government would work with businesses to assist with childcare. We would fight for research and development jobs, and we would work with small businesses to support them, to create work. What are you doing to tackle this problem of underemployment?
All those things. When we look at the past, I sometimes believe that Plaid Cymru is guilty of some kind of amnesia, given the fact that they were in charge of economic development for four years. That is something that they sometimes conveniently forget. However, she asked for specific examples: I talked, of course, about Jobs Growth Wales. She asked about qualifications: we have the Pathways to Apprenticeships schemes and the apprenticeship matching schemes. In terms of support for businesses, we have Finance Wales, the Wales SME growth fund, loans to SMEs, the digital development fund and a number of other projects in place that are helping people. We saw good news yesterday in the announcement made by Ford. We have helped Airbus in terms of it getting into position so that it had a substantial order from British Airways yesterday, and, of course, we will be supporting Horizon as it places Wylfa B and 600 jobs in Anglesey.
It is good to hear, First Minister, that you are supporting so many of Plaid Cymru's ideas. A survey by the Federation of Master Builders today showed that the construction industry in Wales is more positive about the future of the industry here than in any other country in the UK. It is good news, which could well be related to the Welsh Government's announcement in support of Plaid Cymru's campaign to create more jobs in Wales through better use of the public pound. However, the BBC reports that only two of the 22 local authorities in Wales are currently meeting these public procurement standards. First Minister, are you now prepared to fully back Plaid Cymru's procurement proposals and agree to legislate to improve public sector procurement, which could create up to 50,000 jobs?
Sometimes, when I listen to Plaid Cymru, it is a bit like those people who turn up at a bar who are always late and always say, ‘I’m too late to buy the round’. They are always late arriving, and we see that in what she has just said. None of these ideas are Plaid Cymru ideas. Jobs Growth Wales is not a Plaid Cymru idea. The apprenticeship matching scheme is not a Plaid Cymru idea. The Wales SME growth fund is not a Plaid Cymru idea. The money that has been given to Ford is not a Plaid Cymru idea. However, I am surprised to hear now that, apparently, support for Wylfa B is a Plaid Cymru idea. That is something that is certainly new in this Chamber. If that is the situation now, then I very much welcome it, because we know that it will provide a substantial number of jobs in the north-west, Anglesey and beyond, and we are committed to supporting it. As I have said many times, there are many schemes in place that are helping businesses in Wales, and we have seen those examples, such as Ford yesterday, where more than 500 jobs were preserved as a result of Welsh Government action, working with the company.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams.
First Minister, may I return to the issue of help for first-time buyers? I did not hear a clear answer to any of the previous questions. English first-time buyers had a scheme announced by the Westminster Government in November 2011. Discussions between Welsh Liberal Democrats and your Government on a scheme for Wales started in January 2012, and in May 2012, you announced that help would be available. Twelve months down the line, that scheme has now collapsed. Why has it taken you 12 months as a Government to provide the help that first-time buyers desperately need? Now that you have made reference to an interim scheme, will you please assure us that first-time buyers will not have to wait a further 12 months for action?
It is a fair question that the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats asks. The reality is that there was a substantial amount of discussion with lenders in Wales, and a substantial amount of work was put in to put a scheme in place. That scheme was scheduled for 3 June. We know that the UK scheme then superseded the original NewBuy scheme, but I can certainly say, as I said earlier on, that we are looking to see what scheme might be put in place that would be workable as far as the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the Home Builders Federation are concerned.
It is obviously crucial that you have a good working relationship with potential house builders. You will be well aware of the disappointment expressed by Redrow about the collapse of the scheme and that the Federation of Master Builders described it as a blow. Are you aware that Taylor Wimpey, on its website today, is still advertising a scheme that your Government scrapped last week? What discussions have you had with those people who will build these vitally needed homes to ensure that we will not see another fiasco with the interim scheme not developing into real help for first-time buyers and for our construction industry?
It comes down to questions as to whether the Home Builders Federation has represented the views of its members. I have seen what has been put down in writing; Redrow has said something different and maybe others will do so over the next few days. That is a matter for them to take up with the Home Builders Federation. We have to talk to the industry body. That said, it is useful to know that there are companies who are willing to work towards a new scheme and we will certainly be talking to them about that over the course of the next few weeks.
I am not quite clear, First Minister, why you have to speak exclusively to the industry body and that body alone, rather than to individual construction companies. So far this afternoon, we have established that it has taken your Government a year to do absolutely nothing and that the scheme has collapsed because another Government has dared to come up with something better. That aside, and given your announcement on an interim scheme today, when will Welsh first-time buyers and the construction industry see a scheme up and working in Wales? A simple date would be a very acceptable answer.
Of course, they will have access to the UK scheme. We will now work with those in the industry in order to make sure that we have a workable scheme going forward as quickly as possible. The one thing that I do have to say is: who on earth do you expect us to talk to if it is not the industry body? It is a reasonable assumption to think that the industry body will represent those who are its members. If that is not the case, that is for the members to take up with the industry body, but I do not think that there can be criticism of that, given the fact that there has to be an organisation with which engagement can take place.
Genesis Cymru Wales 2 Programme
3. Will the First Minister detail what lessons have been learnt from the failure of the Genesis Cymru Wales 2 programme? OAQ(4)1005(FM)
Those lessons are being incorporated as part of the transitional arrangements currently being taken forward with local authorities. Those arrangements will be fully evaluated during the course of this year in order to see better delivery from 2014 onwards.
First Minister, I am sure that you will agree with me that lessons need to be learned. If you look at the statistics regarding the Genesis 2 project, they are quite staggering: only 5% of the original target of helping 20,000 people back into work has been reached. It is not surprising that your Government has pulled the plug on this scheme. How can the people of Wales have confidence in you and the Welsh Government that other schemes that are being run by the Welsh Government, in terms of employment and other areas of policy, are fit for purpose and are not falling at the first hurdle, like Genesis 2?
Job Growth Wales is a roaring success as regards the opportunities offered and the positions filled. That is just one example among many of where this Government is delivering.
First Minister, is the need identified initially for Genesis 2 sill there? If it is, what plans do you have for an alternative programme and how will you ensure that that programme will deliver?
The first thing that we are doing is to ensure that those who are part of the scheme at present are not negatively affected. Discussions are taking place with local authorities to ensure that that happens and we are looking at how a new scheme should be considered in order to help the people who should be helped. I do not think that there is any debate regarding the group of people who were receiving help, but what is important is that we get the most positive and practical scheme to ensure that that help is available in the most effective way in future.
First Minister, what assessment have you made of the regional variations between the different places in which the scheme is operating? I have been approached by people who felt that, in their local area, it was making a big difference, and others who felt that it was making less of a difference in different places. What lessons can be learned about the difference between different urban and rural locations in the delivery of this scheme?
It is important that we examine why. The Member is right: there was a difference in terms of the numbers being assisted through the scheme in different parts of Wales. I have certainly seen that. As part of the discussions with the local authorities, and as part of the thinking on the way forward, that disparity will certainly be examined in order to make sure that it does not happen to the same extent again.
Job Opportunities for Young People
4. Will the First Minister update the Assembly on what work the Welsh Government is doing to create job opportunities for young people in North Wales? OAQ(4)1014(FM)
The level of youth unemployment remains a concern in Wales and across the UK. We are delivering on our programme for government, and I have talked about the Jobs Growth Wales scheme and the schemes that we have in place to assist people to have access to apprenticeships.
In light of the investment in apprenticeships that was agreed with Plaid Cymru in this year’s budget, I would be very grateful if you were to outline what kind of opportunities you believe will be available to young people in the light of that investment, and importantly too, of course, when exactly those opportunities will become available.
Any schemes will run alongside the scheme that we have at present, but just to give an example: in relation to Jobs Growth Wales, 1,460 opportunities have been created in north Wales and, of those, 852 have been filled. So, with regard to that scheme, it has been very successful, and the challenge now is to ensure that any schemes build on that success.
The last year for which we have comparable EU figures, which was 2011, shows that although youth unemployment in Wales was far lower than in the borrow, bust and bail-out nations of Greece and Spain, which are close to 50%, it was still higher than the EU average, and the UK average. The latest figures show that it is still some 2.5% higher than in England. Therefore, what consideration is the Welsh Government giving, or has the Welsh Government given, to integrating its own youth job creation and training initiatives with those being provided on a UK basis by the UK Government, in order to get synergy and the best bang for the buck?
The Member assumes that the UK Government would want to see that synergy and integration. We know that that is not the case with the Secretary of State for Education, who decided that he wanted to have a separate English qualifications system, which is his prerogative. However, that is certainly what he wanted to do.
What I can say is that, in terms of informing Members of other issues that are being taken forward, during Apprenticeship Week the Deputy Minister for Skills announced spending plans for the additional £40 million that is being invested in the apprenticeship programme in Wales, creating 5,650 additional apprenticeship places, an enhanced wage subsidy of £3,900 over 52 weeks, a one-off payment of £500 for small and microbusinesses to cover the time and cost that they said were a barrier to recruiting apprentices, and of course £3.4 million to support those who want to complete their training through the medium of Welsh. There is a comprehensive package of support in place in terms of apprenticeships and helping young people to get employment, although of course we do not underestimate the scale of the task, given the scale of unemployment among young people.
5. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding Post Offices in the last six months? OAQ(4)1006(FM)
We have had no discussions with the UK Government on this issue in the last six months.
Thank you for that, First Minister. The main post office in Rhyl is under threat at the moment of being moved from a Crown post office to being a franchise. This is part of the Crown post office’s attempt to, as it says, downsize its operations. The Crown post office in Rhyl is vital, not just to the centre of Rhyl, but to people in that area. It is situated in the poorest ward in Wales, where many people have no access to the internet, and a lot of people use the post office. On Friday, I stood with the Communication Workers Union members who walked out as part of their protest at what the Crown post office is trying to do, and I received a lot of support from people who want to see the Crown post office kept open in Rhyl. What is your Government doing, or what can your Government do, to persuade those in the UK Government to listen to the people of Rhyl?
It is a non-devolved matter, but what I can say to the Member is that we are informed that the location of any franchise office in Rhyl would depend on the retail partner. It would have to be of sufficient size. If a retail partner is not found, the Crown post office will remain as it is. However, I see no argument being put forward in favour of change—I am sure that that concerns not just those who work at the Crown post office in Rhyl, but the people of Rhyl—and, until such an argument is made with some conviction, I believe that things should remain as they are.
First Minister, what specific actions has your Government taken to ensure that as many public services as possible are delivering through our post office network?
We have the post office diversification fund awards, and they have helped greatly over the years. The awards were recently announced on 10 April for the October 2012 round. Some 31 post offices were awarded capital grants worth £383,855. Therefore, what we have done as a Government is to assist post offices with diversification. It can be difficult, because so much business is now conducted online. Rather than trying to turn the clock back, it is important that post offices are able to find new sources of business and thrive as a result.
In Neath, we have a similar problem to the issue that Ann Jones raised. Some people are saying that, if it was put out to the retail sector, that would be tantamount to marketisation of the post office network. Have you had any discussions with the UK Government with regard to looking at alternative models, such as some sort of workers buy-out? The cashiers could have some sort of invested interest, because, obviously, they are worried about their jobs. Could we look at alternatives in Wales, as opposed to it being a stark ‘privatisation or public sector’ position?
I think there is merit in that. The only caveat I would add is that this is not a matter that we have control over. However, it is important, where consideration is being given to the change of a business model, that full consideration is given to alternative models that we know are workable from examples that we have seen across Wales, and those models may well include the model that the Member has described.
First Minister, you may be aware that a number of local authorities in England are working with the Post Office to deliver a wide range of services through local branches. That is a model that is being actively marketed by the Post Office. Has your Government had any engagement with the Post Office on whether this model would be transferable to Wales? If it were, I think it would help to guarantee the future of a large number of post offices, while at the same time enabling more efficient and accessible delivery of local government services.
It is potentially transferable. It is a matter for local authorities to examine, of course, in terms of how practical such a scheme would be and how they would seek to implement it. However, if there are local authorities in Wales that would consider such a scheme, it is something that we would certainly look to encourage them to take forward.
Could the First Minister confirm the position the Welsh Government is taking regarding the post office network and a potential tie-in with credit unions, and whether those discussions are taking place not only with the UK Government, but directly with the Post Office, especially on having a common IT platform that post offices and credit unions could use?
Yes. These are matters that would help to enhance credit unions’ sustainability in the future. Some 10 or 15 years ago, we saw a substantial number of branch closures of banks across Wales, and the post offices were able to offer banking services in communities that had lost those services. So, for me, working with the credit unions is a natural next step for post offices, in terms of their own sustainability in communities and their ability to provide fair financial services to those who live in those communities.
6. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with local authorities regarding changes to social security? OAQ(4)1008(FM)
We have had considerable discussion with the Welsh Local Government Association and the local authorities involved on the UK Government’s reform of welfare benefits. We will continue to have these discussions to understand the full implications of the reforms and to mitigate, where we can, the impact of those changes on Wales.
Thank you, First Minister. No doubt you will be aware that some local authorities in other parts of the UK have already said that they intend to adopt a no-evicition policy with regard to those who suffer the consequences of the bedroom tax. Your Government has said a great deal about the bedroom tax in this Chamber and outside. Will you tell us which social landlords in Wales are also going to adopt this no-eviction policy?
That is a matter for local authorities to decide. I can well understand the thinking behind the no-eviction policy, but it is for each local authority to decide how it wishes to approach this inequitable situation.
First Minister, there are some 91,000 people on the housing list in Wales. The 2011 census shows that 40,000 households are classed as ‘overcrowded’. In my own constituency of Aberconwy, I see many families that are absolutely desperate for appropriately-sized accommodation. Your own Minister for housing in London, in the last Government, said that:
‘We have reiterated time and again in this Committee the need to ensure that houses that are too large for people’s current needs are allocated accordingly.’
However, here, we hear constant scaremongering and, only yesterday, I noted that one of your own departments is now using the Labour pejorative and negative spin in classing it as ‘the bedroom tax’. The spare room subsidy is the UK Government’s proactive initiative to help these families—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. Are you coming to a question?
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Will you please get to it?
First Minister, instead of carping, whingeing and criticising the UK Government for actually taking proactive steps, what is your Government doing to help these families in need?
I am truly astounded by that question. I can only assume that the Member has not had people coming to her surgery, sometimes in tears, who are being affected by the bedroom tax—and we use that term because that is what people call it. We are not going to hide behind bureaucratic jargon; we will call it as it is. To say, on the one hand, that this is a situation where we are whingeing, but, on the other hand, to ask what we are going to do to help these people strikes me as an incredible attitude to take. The reality is that there are many thousands of people in Wales who will find themselves in a situation where they cannot afford to stay in accommodation, cannot afford to put food on the table, and cannot afford the everyday necessities of life purely because of the vindictiveness of her party, while, at the same time, millionaires will get a 5% tax cut. ‘We are all in it together’, they say, but, to adapt what George Orwell said, we are all in it together, but some people, particularly those at the bottom, are more in it than others.
7. Will the First Minister make a statement on his role in determining the spending priorities of the Welsh Government? OAQ(4)1004(FM)
I am the head of Government and so I clearly have a key role.
As a result of the decisions of your Government, which you lead, the NHS is facing the biggest cuts in its history. Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board, which serves my constituency, is having to find savings of £1.5 million per week in this current financial year. How do you expect it to meet that savings target, given that it has already chopped back significant services to the public and its reorganisation plans are not about saving money?
I seem to be astounded a lot this afternoon, but I am astounded yet again. The reality is that we have been upfront in terms of the challenges that we have faced financially, while, for his party in London, it is hidden. It has claimed that it has increased spending on health, but instead it has cut spending on health and been found out by those bodies that monitor Government. That is the reality of the situation. We have sought to protect the health service as best we can, given the scale of the budget cuts that we have received. Yes, it is a challenge, but the reality of the situation is that his party has no alternatives. Instead, it says that you should increase council tax by 20%, cut education spending by 20%, cut services to those who are poorest, and they have constantly refused to come to the Chamber to explain how they would find the money easily to increase spending on the NHS. We would love to know how we could do that. The reality is that we have sought to protect the health service as best we can, given the resources that we have, whereas his party has done its best to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Whenever this is pointed out to them, they whinge and moan and try to shout people down. The people of Wales know who is responsible for the problems in Wales, as that party opposite will soon find out in 2015.
First Minister, last week, the 1,200-year-old Pontfadog oak, one of Europe’s oldest trees and an icon in Wrexham’s heritage, collapsed in high winds. Will you look at the priorities of Natural Resources Wales in terms of the protection of heritage trees across our country, examining whether the strengthening of tree preservation Orders and more advice for private owners could help to save some of Wales’s most important trees for future generations?
Yes. I understand that officials are currently considering what mechanisms are available for recording and protecting certain trees, and whether, of course, those mechanisms need to be strengthened. Depending on those conclusions, we will then look at what appropriate changes to legislation may be required. If they are required, they will be brought forward as soon as possible.
Your comments in response to Darren Millar were quite fair, but the leader of your party in Westminster has said that there would not be any more funding available if your party were to come into power there. As we are looking at the situation in Wales, one of your most important strategies is invest to save, a scheme that has been in existence for some years. With reference to Darren Millar’s comments about problems in the health service in north Wales, and the fact that one of the problems is recruitment, will you give serious consideration to using a budget to create training capacity for medical staff in north Wales in order to try to respond to this incredible problem with recruitment within the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board, and therefore try to respond positively to a difficult situation?
I understand the point, but it is not quite as easy as that. What is important is that there are place in north Wales that can offer training places to doctors, and that there is sufficient experience available to them, so that they do not think that they will get less experience if they go to north Wales, and therefore it will be more difficult for them to get jobs in future. We have to avoid that. That is part of the discussions that are taking place at the moment. It is important to ensure that Wales as a whole continues to be considered a place where it is possible to receive full training.
First Minister, as you consider your spending priorities, have you discussed the suggestion that expenditure in the health sector should be expanded over a period rather than there being discussion and a deadline each year, as there is at present?
Mae hynny’n rhywbeth sy’n cael ei ystyried. Os cofiaf yn iawn, mae’n rhaid newid deddfwriaeth er mwyn i hynny ddigwydd, ond rwy’n deall y pwynt. Fel y dywedais, mae’n rhywbeth sy’n cael ei ystyried ar hyn o bryd.
Oxford and Cambridge Universities
8. Will the First Minister outline Welsh Government policies to address the declining number of Welsh students accepted to Oxford and Cambridge universities? OAQ(4)1009(FM)
Yes. We recently appointed Paul Murphy as our Oxbridge ambassador. He will be working with us to review all of the available evidence and data. We have asked him to identify what already works and how can we build and improve on that for the future.
I thank the First Minister for his reply. I noted with great interest Paul Murphy’s comments that there seems to be a lack of ambition among teachers, that the Welsh baccalaureate may well be a barrier, that the provision for talented students is lacking, that some students are often only coached to C grade at AS and A level, that fewer teachers in Wales have been to Oxford and Cambridge compared with 40 years ago, that there is less knowledge about getting pupils into those colleges, and that students from poor areas in south Wales are five times less likely to apply to Oxford and Cambridge than students from more affluent English counties. It is a very relevant comment. How is the First Minister hoping to take this forward?
It shows that Paul Murphy is doing his job. It is important that we know exactly what the situation is and that we hear it is as it really is. It is of immense help to Welsh students that they would not have to pay an enormous amount of money in fees if they went to Oxford or Cambridge. That, no doubt, is very helpful in encouraging people to go to those universities. We await Paul Murphy’s conclusions in order to implement them and overcome the idea that has persisted for many years that somehow Oxford and Cambridge are not for comprehensive school students. I came from a sixth form of 120 pupils, and two people went to Cambridge, as it happens. They were very clever—that is why they went there. I am not sure whether that situation persists and whether such people even consider Oxford and Cambridge as a place that is right for them. It is important, of course, that we understand that Oxford and Cambridge are not the best at everything, and that there are other universities that are better than those in many areas. Nevertheless, where it is appropriate that we have our bright students going to Oxford and Cambridge, we want to remove any barriers to doing that and to provide them with every encouragement.
First Minister, with the recent changes to the way in which careers services will be delivered in Wales, what role can the wider careers family can play in raising aspiration and encouraging more Welsh young people to apply? In particular, with the shift towards online resources and advice, how can we ensure that the possibility of applying is raised with young people in the first place?
To give one example of where this can be taken forward by the careers family, as the terminology has it, the independent report ‘Future Ambitions: Developing Careers Service in Wales’ includes a recommendation that a strategic careers services forum should be established to help to provide strategic focus for the family of careers service providers across Wales. As part of that, they will need to ensure that aspiration is raised in terms of the ability of students to feel that they can go to Oxford or Cambridge, where they have the ability to do so.
First Minister, I want to see Welsh students go to the best university that best meets their needs in the best way that we can. However, are you sure that you have got your priorities right here? You are bigging up the Bullingdon Club and punting on a river while your Government has pulled money from the Erasmus scheme that funded students to study internationally in Europe. Are you doing the right thing to support our students to go to the very best places, which are beyond Oxbridge and include Europe, North America and the far east?
He and I will, I suspect, have a similar view on the best university to go to. [Laughter.] I do not think that he has helped his argument in terms of Oxford and Cambridge. We are trying to convince our young people that, where they have the ability, they can get to Oxford and Cambridge and it is a place in which they can aspire to do well. His comments simply reinforce prejudices of a situation that does exist in some of the colleges in Oxford and Cambridge; we know that. However, it would not be fair to say that that is typical of either of those universities. I am afraid that the Member helps to perpetuate a prejudice that is not in the best interests of our students.
9. Will the First Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government is advancing equality for women? OAQ(4)1007(FM)
Our programme for government commits us to identify steps to deliver a more representative pool of decision makers and in order to ensure that a greater number of women are appointed across public sector boards in Wales. Our wish to secure the tools for greater gender equality is reflected in our representations to the Silk commission.
The continued presence of the ‘page 3’ feature in ‘The Sun’ newspaper undermines the good work that we are doing here in Wales in terms of advancing equality for Women. It undermines our efforts to ensure that girls grow up with healthy self-esteem and that boys grow up to respect women and girls. Will you join me, First Minister, in lending your support to the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign and to call upon the editor of ‘The Sun’ to drop the feature?
Yes, I would. It is inappropriate in this day and age that a daily, family newspaper carries a photograph like that on page 3. It belongs to a different era and does not belong in this day and age.
First Minister, I am sure that you would welcome the work of the UK Government in taking steps to address a barrier to women in the workplace, by providing up to £1,200 towards the cost of childcare. The Welsh Government supports parents through the provision of childcare in Flying Start areas, but what new steps are you considering to assist women who live in other areas of Wales?
We have targeted our support towards people who are in greatest need. Bearing in mind our current financial situation, we believe that helping people with childcare in that area is the most effective way. Having said that, one of the plans that we have announced is the strategic equality plan, and the steps that we are taking to assist people with childcare in all parts of Wales are noted in that document.
An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report last year highlighted the fact that the number of female entrepreneurs has now flatlined. What action has your Government taken to promote opportunities for women who plan to be our wealth creators?
It is right to say, and it sounds patronising to put it like this—it is not meant that way—but women need to be encouraged into non-traditional roles and leadership positions. That much stands to reason. I will give one example of how that is done in terms of positions of leadership. We have funded the Women Making a Difference project and Women Connect First. The aim of the first organisation is to increase the number of women who have the skills, ability, confidence and mindset to become leaders in their communities and decision makers at all levels of public and political life in Wales. Doing that also helps to ensure that more women have the confidence to become entrepreneurs and to remain entrepreneurs. There are plenty of examples of where that has happened, but we still know, given the figures that we have in front of us, that there is still a job of work to be done to ensure greater parity between the sexes in terms of entrepreneurship and, indeed, in terms of promotion in political life.
Priorities for Healthcare Services
10. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s priorities for healthcare services in Torfaen? OAQ(4)1010(FM)
Yes. They are set out in our programme for government and in ‘Together for Health’.
First Minister, it is very sad that, in World Immunisation Week, when UNICEF highlights how far global efforts have come in eradicating preventable disease, Wales finds itself in the midst of the worst measles outbreak that we have seen for many years. I know that the NHS is working flat out to tackle the outbreak and that over 2,000 children and young people in Gwent have been vaccinated over the last two weekends. How does the Welsh Government intend to build on this work, so that if we can take anything positive from this terrible outbreak, it will be that all parts of Wales have the 95% immunisation rate necessary to eradicate measles?
This is, of course, not how we would choose it to happen, but the message has been understood by parents. Sadly, we know that there was a significant difference in the uptake in Swansea compared with other parts of Wales. I would reiterate the encouragement that I have given in the past to people to have their children immunised with both doses of MMR—my children were; I have no problem with saying that. The difficulty is that for a number of people of my generation, measles was something that you had; it was almost accepted. That is no longer the case. We know that measles can potentially be very serious, and if there is a vaccine available that is effective against a disease that could be serious, why not give it to your children? It is important that people do not just have the one jab, but both jabs to ensure the maximum level of immunisation.
A year ago, the benefit of achieving herd immunity for measles was known, but not considered urgent. Will the First Minister undertake that this is now a priority?
It was always urgent. The problem is that we still face the residual belief among some parents that the MMR vaccine was, in some way, a contributory factor towards autism. That was heavily promoted by some elements of the media—not just in Wales, but across the UK; in Fleet Street as well—whereby reporting was not based on full scientific research, shall we say? The media’s coverage of the issue led to a situation where people truly believed that there was this link, and many parents thought, ‘Why take the risk?’ because these diseases, as the parents saw them, were not particularly dangerous. We know that that is not the case; we know that they can be dangerous and that a safe vaccine exists. So, it is important that the substantial increase in immunisation that we have seen over the past few weeks, for reasons that we would not have sought, continues into the future. We are working on that.
First Minister, we know that Torfaen has one of the highest incidences of heart diseases in Wales. Indeed, in certain villages, it is extremely high, and I would be interested to know why that is the case. We know that the Aneurin Bevan Local Health Board and Public Health Wales are working to reduce the number of people in Torfaen who suffer from heart disease. How do we intend to measure the effectiveness of efforts to prevent heart disease and not just treat it?
The easiest way of doing it is to look at the figures of those people who present with symptoms of heart disease in the first place, whether that is coronary heart disease, heart failure, or whether it is cardiovascular disease. It is important to analyse those figures, as we will be doing, to see a drop in the people who present with those symptoms in order to measure the effect of preventative measures. So, it is possible to measure the prevention of something in terms of heart disease, in a way that is not often possible in other areas of public life.
I have several changes to make to this week’s business. The First Minister will make a statement shortly on a review of neonatal services in Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. Later this afternoon, the Minister for Health and Social Services will make a statement update on unscheduled care, and to accommodate this additional business, the statement on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board associated bodies has been postponed and will take place next week. Business for the next three weeks is as shown on the business statement and announcement, which can be found among the agenda papers, which are available to Members electronically.
I thank the leader of the house for her statement this afternoon and ask whether she could ask the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport to bring forward her statement on the M4 relief road. The leader of the house will know that I asked for this statement at the end of the last Assembly term. Since that time, there have been increasing difficulties on that road. Yesterday, there were 10-mile tailbacks in each direction. I believe that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a firm commitment to fund this road. Can we please have from the Minister a statement detailing the proposed route and schedule of construction as soon as possible?
The Minister is currently considering all matters in relation to this and will make a statement before the summer recess.
Minister, last week, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children published its report ‘How safe are our children?’, which shows that the number of children in need due to abuse and neglect has risen to almost 9,500 in Wales and that the number of children on the child protection register has increased by almost 50%. The report also points out that abuse and neglect are complex, hidden and multifaceted and, as such, need a holistic approach. However, I am also getting anecdotal evidence of issues such as a lack of communication between health professionals and the fact that, unfortunately, there continues to be a high turnover of social workers across many local authorities in Wales, which I am sure that you would agree does not help those vulnerable children. Could we have a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to tackle the issue of child neglect?
You have raised an important point, Christine, and, as you said, it is a complex issue. The matter that you raised about the sharing of information between professionals is important to protect the most vulnerable in our society. I will raise it with the Minister and bring a statement forward.
Minister, I am sure that you will want to join me in paying our respects to the family of Gareth Colfer-Williams, who died last Thursday after being diagnosed with measles. I want to raise two aspects of the issue today. The first is that, although his family says that he was covered from head to foot in a rash, Public Health Wales says that it received no notification that he had measles from Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board, so there is confusion about that. Secondly, I have been told that although he went to see a general practitioner, the GP refused to come out to see him in his car. I believe that the Welsh Government has a manifesto commitment to encourage GP flexibility. If that is the case, with the measles epidemic as it is, I would like to see the Welsh Government use that flexibility wisely. So, I wonder whether we could have a debate in Government time with an update as to the measles situation in my region, because I do not want people questioning us, as politicians, in five years’ time for not doing enough at this time to scrutinise the Government. There is a duty on us to have a debate in the National Assembly for Wales.
We certainly pass on our sincere condolences to the family of Gareth. I am aware of the issues that you raised about Public Health Wales and ABMU giving conflicting accounts. You are absolutely right; it is a priority for the Welsh Government to increase the access to general practitioners. I know that the Minister for Health and Social Services is taking that forward and I am that he will bear your comments in mind.
Minister, I am seeking a statement from the Minister for health in response to concerns regarding a private healthcare company that is targeting the Swansea and South Wales West region through its website so as to sell the single measles vaccine. I am particularly concerned at the appearance of the telephone number for enquiries on the site for Swansea residents and that the site promotes the now-discredited link between the MMR jab and autism. The single measles vaccine is not licensed for use in the UK; it can only be administered here on prescription. The website advertises a £50 fee for registration and prescription, followed by a £110 fee for the single measles vaccine and £110 fee for the rubella vaccine. Although a single mumps vaccine is also advertised as being available for £120, the site concedes that that is not yet the case. The Children’s Immunisation Centre Ltd says on its website that it is registered by the Care Quality Commission and that that body licenses it to provide services. The Care Quality Commission only has jurisdiction in England and on its website says that its role is
‘to check whether hospitals, care homes and care services are meeting national standards’.
It does not claim to be able to license medicines or other medical services or to approve services. I understand that there are other companies doing a similar thing. I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate in his statement who is regulating this company’s activities in Wales and how it is able to market an unlicensed vaccine in this way.
I am aware of the activities of the Children’s Immunisation Centre Ltd. Health Inspectorate Wales has investigated the company; however, as you said, it is not registrable under its regulatory framework. It is registered with England’s equivalent—the Care Quality Commission. It appears that the Welsh Government can do nothing to prevent companies offering these services in Wales, but we are looking at this closely. I should reiterate that the Welsh Government does not support the delivery of a single measles vaccine, on the grounds that it does not confer protection from mumps and rubella. Therefore, we do not support the use of that single vaccination.
We have had extensive problems in north Wales with the collection of fallen stock, as a result of the severe weather conditions. In particular, constituents are finding that the National Fallen Stock Company is unable, with its usual collector—Clutton Agricultural Limited—to collect fallen stock. Several constituents have contacted me about stock that has been on their farmyard for several weeks. In addition, they are facing increased costs of over £1 a kilo for the collection of dead stock, which is putting them under considerable financial pressure. I know that the Minister for Natural Resources and Food has had meetings with the chief veterinary officer, Dr Christianne Glossop. So, I would be grateful if you could indicate when a statement is coming forward. It would be useful to have an official statement from the Minister, which can then be passed on to the National Fallen Stock Company, with whom I am already in correspondence.
The Minister for Natural Resources and Food has made several statements over the past few weeks and will be making another statement this afternoon.
Could we have a Government statement—no, not a statement but, even better, a debate in Government time on workers’ rights? We are approaching 1 May, and spring is in the air; we could all join together and sing ‘The Internationale’, or we could if I could sing. However, there is an important issue at stake with workers’ rights. There is an attempt in Westminster at present to get workers to sell their rights for shares in companies—in fact, to sell their birthright, which has been fought for over hundreds of years in Wales, from the trade union movement onwards. We do not know how the Conservatives in the Assembly view that legislation, although some of their colleagues in the House of Lords voted against it last night. This is not the way that we want to go in Wales, surely. We will also see greater demand for our advice services if this happens, as people will be seeking independent advice as to how their rights are affected by this legislation. It would be good to mark International Workers’ Day with a debate in Government time on workers’ rights, when we could look at a range of issues, from the Agricultural Wages Board to the commodification of rights, and put them in their proper place, as central to our vision of democracy in Wales.
We have to look at this issue across departments, across the Welsh Government, because this legislation will certainly have an impact. We will bring forward our different statements and announcements in due course.
Minister, is it possible to have a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services on what obligations he places on health boards in dealing with concerns from clinicians and workers in the health boards? The Royal College of Nursing has today released the results of a survey, which indicate that nearly half of all nurses feel too intimidated to raise concerns with the health board when they see something on the ward. This builds on the issue that I raised with the First Minister last week about the duty of candour. I would very much hope that the Minister would see fit to bring forward a statement to support clinicians and health workers when they have concerns, and when they feel that they are inhibited in raising those concerns with management.
It is important that health staff do not feel inhibited. When I was the Minister for Health and Social Services, this is something that I encouraged, and I know that the current Minister for health will encourage that transparency among healthcare workers and NHS staff across the board. Therefore, I am sure that the Minister will be discussing this with the chairs and the chief executives of the health boards.
I wish to call for two statements. First, in relation to the funeral industry, the Minister will be familiar with the organisation Together Creating Communities in Wrexham, which held its spring public assembly last Friday, when some of your colleagues were also in attendance. One of its campaigns highlights concerns that the funeral industry is not regulated, as well as the need to make trade association mandatory. When it presented last year to the Assembly’s cross-party group on funerals and bereavement, which I chair, it detailed the experiences of funeral directors who had failed to deliver the level of service that was expected of them, and contrasted that with the codes of practice available from the National Association of Funeral Directors and the National Society of Allied and Independent Funeral Directors. We seek leadership from the Welsh Government, and a statement on this, in response to the call for public sector bodies to provide advice to the bereaved in Wales to ensure that they only recommend funeral directors that adhere to a code of practice, which could be actively promoted and whose literature can be provided for use in public sector premises.
Secondly and finally, I call for a statement on a matter raised earlier. I wish to raise it in a context that will become clear, which is NewBuy Cymru. We know that the new Minister for housing has stated that the carpet was pulled away by the UK Government’s announcement on the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme, and that Welsh Government partners—the Home Builders Federation and the Council of Mortgage Lenders—supported his decision on the grounds that there would be less financial risk to him. We heard reference earlier to quotes from Redrow, but the Home Builders Federation has told me that house builders are still very much behind the scheme and that they were discussing that with the Welsh Government and hoping to clarify it in the next few days, and, at that stage, they were planning to meet the Minister on Monday. The Minister has invited party spokespersons for housing to meet his officials tomorrow, but this merits a statement to the full Assembly, particularly in light of the statement by the Home Builders Federation that it did not support that decision.
In relation to the first statement you asked for on the regulation of funerals, that falls within my portfolio. I have asked my officials to look at that and I will bring something forward in due course. In relation to NewBuy, you will have heard the First Minister’s answer—I was not sure whether it was to you or to other Members—but the Welsh Government is committed to working with lenders and house builders to increase the supply of housing and the supply of homes. The Minister has made it very clear to committee that he remained in discussion on this matter with the lenders and house builders, and his written statement made it very clear that he was continuing to work with stakeholders.
There can be few more important obligations than providing high-quality care to the most poorly newborn babies. Technological advances now mean that tiny premature babies who would inevitably have died even 10 years ago, are now alive and thriving. To give every child born the best chance of life means that in Wales we must offer the highest standards of neonatal care. Health boards deliver care to professionally recommended standards. That, of course, if important. Achieving these standards for the small proportion of babies requiring the very highest and most complex levels of care, both now and in the future, is vitally important. On 28 March, I informed you of my intention to set in place arrangements to seek further independent advice on whether there is a model where we can be fully self-sufficient in the delivery of specialised neonatal services in the north of Wales in the future. I want to update Members on the arrangements I have put in place in order to gain this advice.
I am pleased to announce that the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has agreed to undertake a review over the next four months. This review will give consideration to the current and proposed arrangements for neonatal care, focusing specifically on intensive care provision, and it will consider models for providing a sustainable and compliant neonatal intensive care unit within north Wales. The royal college will provide an authoritative, independent and experienced multidisciplinary team to undertake this review. It has significant experience in neonatal services reorganisation. In particular, the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, which is the standard setting body, is associated with the royal college.
In conducting the review, the royal college will operate in an open and transparent way. The review team will meet with clinicians, health professionals, health board managers and expert groups. The terms of reference will also require the review team to meet and consider the views of patient representative groups, including BLISS and the community health council. I have also asked the royal college to meet with North Wales Assembly Members as a collective group to ensure that all views are heard.
As I said in my original statement, the review will consider broader issues than medical standards. The review will also include consideration of interdependencies, including the impact of any model on other acute services and how best to meet patient need given the geography of the north. Workforce and training will also form part of the assessment of any model as well as an assessment of compliance with national guidance and standards.
The royal college has already started the review and will report in September. The timescale allows the findings of this review to inform any consultation on acute services being undertaken by Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board over the summer. I will report on the outcomes of the review back to Members.
As I said in my previous statement, this review should not be seen as in any way a criticism of the decisions taken by the health board. This review is independent of the decisions taken by the board and will focus on future activity. We all know that service change must happen and that it involves difficult choices, but we must focus on ensuring that safe, sustainable services are in place.
Thank you for your statement, First Minister. As you are aware, many thousands of people in north Wales are very concerned about the future of baby care in the region and are utterly opposed to the proposals that the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board brought forward in its consultation process last year. I think that many people in north Wales will be disappointed by what you have said. They are clearly looking for a firm decision from you as soon as possible, an end to the uncertainty, and an assurance that services will continue to be delivered in north Wales. That said, I am pleased that we now have a timetable by which you will be working and that the royal college will be reporting within. It will at least give some assurance, particularly to those members of staff who are working in the service, that you are listening to the concerns that have been expressed by them, by the public, by the clinicians within the health board’s own clinical reference group, along with the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives.
I wish to ask three specific questions. The first is on the timescale after the report has been published by the royal college. It is important that the timescale for your final decision is announced promptly and as soon as possible after the report is published. Can you give an indication of the timescale that you will work to following the publication of the royal college report?
Secondly, you referred to many stakeholders, including Assembly Members, who will be brought to the table to contribute to this piece of work. I very much welcome that, but you did not refer to the staff that are delivering the service. Can you confirm that you would welcome their input into the work that the royal college is doing?
Thirdly, what consideration will be given to the previous work that has been done on this subject over the years, which includes the ‘Designed for North Wales’ programme, during which a report was produced and which was clear that the evidence supported the retention of a service in north Wales at a single site in terms of the continued delivery of a level 3 neonatal service?
I welcome your statement. I am pleased that it moves us forward. As I have said, I am disappointed that it does not give that firm commitment that I and other people may have been looking for, but I hope that you will be able to respond to the specific questions that I have placed. Diolch yn fawr.
In terms of the first question, it is important that the timescale is long enough to give full consideration to the issue in terms of the review, but short enough in order for there not to be uncertainty for an unacceptable length of time. The Member asked when the decision would be taken. I cannot give an absolute timescale but I understand that the decision needs to be taken promptly. However, I do need to give it full consideration. Certainly, in order for there to be as much certainty as possible, it has to be understood. Clearly, it will have to be this year, but it is important that the decision is taken as quickly as possible.
The views of staff are important. As I mentioned in my statement, clinicians and health professionals will be fully consulted, and the views of the staff delivering the service are key in terms of the formulation of the review.
In terms of any review that took place previously, I will expect this review to take into account all relevant information, with a view to examining the service in the future. I am quite happy to say to Members that the objective would be to find a way to have a self-sufficient neonatal service in the north. That is the objective. However, it is important to ensure that that objective can be met in order to understand what needs to be done so that it can be met. That can only be done through full consultation with the medical profession and members of the public, but also by having a body, such as the royal college, to conduct the review. We now await the outcome of that review.
I welcome your statement today, First Minister. I also thank you for taking this issue on, as First Minister.
As Darren said, this issue has caused great concern across north Wales, and my postbag has been quite heavy as a result. This is at a time when people have been wondering what is going to happen to them—often expectant mums, wondering where they are going to end up having their babies. I am sure that you will put a lot of minds at rest. Unlike Darren Millar, I am prepared to wait four months for the reference group to look at this. I wish to seek assurances from the Government that it will listen to the staff—Darren made a point about the staff, and he was right—and that we will start with a clean sheet of paper and, as you mentioned to Darren in your last response, we will be looking to maintain, or at least to have, level 3 neonatal services in north Wales. If that is the premise from which we are starting, how do we intend to ensure that this is communicated to everyone across north Wales, so that we do not have people thinking that these services are under threat and that we are going to have to keep looking over the border? We are a grown-up nation and we can deliver our own health services.
It will be important, as part of the review process, to gain the views of as many people as is possible, including all of those who are directly involved in the delivery of the service and those who are involved by being service consumers, if I can put it that way. I have mentioned what the intention is. I cannot pretend that this will be easy. However, understanding what the challenges would be is the first part of the process. There would clearly need to be planning to put in place more consultants, and one centre that would deal with the most serious cases, as well as other neonatal cases. That is important. I also thought that it was important today, on the heels of the original announcement, to put in place a timescale as quickly as possible, in order to provide those living in the area with the assurance that this is being taken forward properly. That is hopefully something that is being done today.
First Minister, I welcome the statement that you have made today. What I heard there was the sound of the oars hitting the water. I do not think that this is anything short of an admission that moving these services is the wrong solution. However, the question that I am asking today, along with many other people, is: where have you been until now? It has been two years since this consultation started. If the direction in which the health board was moving was a concern to you, why did you not make your views clear before now, saving a great deal of work and the duplication of work and so on? Betsi Cadwaladr health board has admitted that it acted contrary to much of the clinical advice that it received—it acknowledged that in the consultation document that it issued—with the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association warning that moving this service to Arrowe Park Hospital would cause problems. Did you consider stopping this decision to move services until the independent group had reported back on this issue? We will now have signed contracts, training taking place in Liverpool, and doctors, perhaps, refusing to come to north Wales to complete their training. It will be very difficult to restore that service once it has been lost.
I understand that a formal complaint has been made against the Betsi Cadwaladr health board for contravening section 183 of the National Health Service (Wales) Act 2006. I will read the nature of that complaint:
‘As part of the consultation into Healthcare is Changing, it was proposed that only part of level 3 neonatal intensive care would be transferred from the Maelor and Ysbyty Glan Clwyd. That part was to be the 36 or so babies that were born before 27 weeks. I now understand that the health board have quietly extended the original proposal to now transfer ALL intensive care babies from Wrexham to either Glan Clwyd or Arrowe Park; this would mean an additional 100 babies would have to be transferred from north Wales if they were to go to Arrowe Park. There has been no consultation over such proposals with service users or the community health council, and neither has anyone seen the revised business case.’
Essentially, this raises a fundamental question about the role of the community health council. Are you confident that that role provides adequate consideration as significant decisions like this are made without being referred to the council? Under the new proposals brought forward over the last few days, the number of intensive care cots will fall to five across north Wales, and staff have been contacting me with concerns that intensive care will all move to Arrowe Park because of a shortage of cots and expertise. What will be the implications of that to the intention to move 500 babies currently born in Chester back to Wales? That was a policy from last year that was supposed to save £2 million per annum. Of course, without the expertise or the cots, they cannot now be attracted back.
Finally, First Minister, perhaps you could tell me whether the Welsh ambulance service will be able to deal with this additional burden of moving intensive care babies from Wrexham to Glan Clwyd Hospital, when clearly it cannot deal with the current workload.
There are two things that are different. I understand what the Member says in relation to any new scheme that comes from the health board. Links with the community health council and with the public are issues for the board. On this issue, however, he asked exactly what we have been doing during the process. There must be a process; there is no point having a process and then for the Minister to make an early intervention. There is no point to the process in a situation like that. There comes a time when Ministers can consider schemes and make decisions, and the time has come for me to make that decision. If Ministers were to play a part in the process, it would not be an independent and appropriate process. Of course, there is a right time for Ministers to participate. It is the same as with the planning system—Ministers play no part in that system at the beginning; they play a part if people want them to look at proposals in order to make a decision. Therefore, there is a legal process to follow here.
Turning to the community health council, I have no evidence of weakness within the health council itself. I understand, of course, that the proposals are controversial—I could see that—but I believed that it was important to consider the situation for babies in order to give consideration to whether we could, in future, build the expertise to have a service in north Wales. One thing that I am not prepared to say is that things should remain as they are if the quality of the service is worse than what people should be able to expect. Therefore, if there are babies who would receive a better service at Arrowe Park, I am not going to prevent that—I do not think that that would be sensible. However, in the long term, we want to ensure that the evidence and the means are available to do this, in order to ensure that the service is wholly sustainable in Wales.
First Minister, I, too, thank you for the statement; at least we have some clarity now regarding who will undertake the review and the timescales for it. I think, however, that there is a need for any independent assessment to include a review of the data upon which Betsi Cadwaladr's initial proposals were made. In evidence to the Children and Young People Committee, it was quite clear that projections for level 2 and level 3 provision were based on figures for south Wales only, on the basis that Betsi Cadwaladr had not been collating information with regard to its own figures, although I understand that it is now doing so. At the time, the all-Wales network questioned how robust some of the projections were, going forward, on the basis that there was a pattern of increasing births in north Wales against reductions elsewhere; yet, the level 2 and level 3 projections did not seem to reflect that particular issue.
I think that the most important aspect of your statement today is the need for this further review to be open and transparent. Clearly, the view in north Wales is that Betsi Cadwaladr and the CHC’s own deliberations have not been open and transparent. I would support what Llyr Huws Gruffydd has said, in that Betsi Cadwaladr's proposals made it clear that it was talking only about level 3 provisions, and its consultation document stated
‘that all three hospitals will continue to provide initial stabilisation and short-term intensive care, special care baby units and high dependency units’.
It is intriguing, therefore, that at a meeting of Wrexham council last week, one of the senior executives from Betsi Cadwaladr indicated that it was considering the removal of level 2 provision from Wrexham, as outlined by Llyr. Also, it would appear from ‘Daily Post’ reports that, later that day, there were staff meetings at which that particular proposal was conveyed to staff. There are clearly questions being asked about whether changes are still being allowed to progress by stealth. It would be helpful, if we have this four-month window, for you to make it clear that you would expect no decisions to be taken with regard to the removal of level 2 facilities from Wrexham pending the outcome of this review, although I accept, as you say, that the purpose of the review is limited to the provision of level 3 facilities. Proposals put forward by Betsi Cadwaladr include the repatriation of services from Chester, which would be dependent on the retention of high-dependency units at Wrexham.
Finally, can I ask that you make it clear whether the deliberations that the review board will have with the community health council will be with the community health council executive or the full membership? The response from the community health council, which I have seen today, states that there have been ongoing discussions between the health board and community health council executives in north Wales regarding the reconfiguration of operational services. It has announced that there will be a further meeting this week to discuss the situation with regard to Wrexham. Therefore, I think that there are community health council representatives who are very despondent with regard to the lack of openness and transparency as far as their own executives are concerned. It would be helpful if you made it clear that the review will include all community health council members.
I would expect the review to be as wide as possible. The case that the Member makes for it to be wide in terms of the community health council is strong. In terms of keeping services exactly as they are, I am aware of the proposals to which both Members have referred. Even though they are to do with neonatal care they are not related to the issue that is before us today, so I have to be careful to separate one from the other, if the Member will forgive me. In terms of keeping services exactly as they are, there are external factors that affect that, namely the Wales Deanery and its training requirements. If the deanery decides that training places are no longer going to be available in a particular service, that affects the service. That is not within the control of the board.
In terms of the process going forward, there are three questions, if I were to crystallise the situation for the review. First, in terms of setting up a sustainable unit in north Wales—a level 3 unit, at least—can it be done? Secondly, if so, how can it be done? The final question is: what effect would there be on other neonatal units in north Wales? In order to create a specialised unit, cases may need to be taken from other neonatal units elsewhere in Wales. We do not know that, but it is, nevertheless, a factor of which Members should be aware. It may be something that the review would take into account. As I have said, the intention is to try to find a way, if possible, of ensuring that we can have—it is not called level 3 anymore—a neonatal intensive care unit service in Wales that is sustainable in the future. That is the intention. The question is: can there be a way of doing it and, if so, how can it be done?
First Minister, I too welcome your statement. With regard to the comments that you have made regarding the deanery, what the deanery indicated—this was made clear during the Betsi Cadwaladr consultation process—was that, if the level 3 neonatal care went out of north Wales, it would affect the way that the deanery viewed Glan Clwyd Hospital in particular, which has a very good neonatal record. Its statistics show that it is performing better in the neonatal area than many other places in north Wales, despite the fact that it is not compliant with the requirements of the British Association of Perinatal Medicine at the moment. Of course, Arrowe Park Hospital is not BAPM-compliant either.
One of the huge complaints from north Wales about the consultation process was that people simply did not know that it was going on. They were not told about it and were not given information by the health board. I wrote to the health board to complain that people were not told that the consultation was going on and so were not able to feed into the process. I very much welcome the comments that you have made about Bliss and the community health council, and I echo the concerns of Aled Roberts about the way that the community health council approached it, with an executive decision and not a decision of all its members. Will there be any opportunities for people to feed in who have had experience of having very young babies who have been very ill, and the problems associated with that? Those include mothers being split from their babies, difficulties over bonding, and all sorts of things. Will there be an opportunity for them to feed into the process, given that they feel that they were not given a chance during the Betsi process?
Secondly, I echo what Llyr and Aled Roberts said about there being at no stage any mention of level 2 neonatal care being moved from either of the two units. I attended at least seven of the health board’s public meetings, and at every point assurances were given about the special care baby units and the level 2 units to people who were present. I would therefore be very concerned that their responses would have been based on those assurances. If there is this move over to Arrowe Park Hospital, how will that affect the deanery now? Will you ask Betsi to put its level 3 plans on hold until the report and the decision have been made? Clearly, the implications of that in terms of the deanery and the status of the hospital will impact now, if that care moves.
I will give thought to that final point. I can see the point that is being made there on the basis that any change in neonatal provision may have an effect on the review, even though it is not part of the review, if I can put it that way. I hope that the review itself will become well-known. I will ensure that terms of reference are publicly available so that people understand what those terms of reference actually are.
In terms of what such a centre might look like in the future, we know that there would be a need to recruit more consultants. We know that there would be a need to ensure that there were sufficient numbers of training places and a sufficient throughput of cases. One of the issues that sometimes affects medics is that some hospitals are seen as offering better training opportunities than others, and they all want to go there because they think it means a better chance of a job further down the line. What we need to ensure is that that is not seen as the situation in the north of Wales, either now or indeed in the future.
In terms of the next steps, the other point that is being made here is that it is important that the decision is taken promptly, because otherwise there is a danger of seeing a loss of staff if there is too much of a delay. I appreciate that, and that will not help. If it is found that there is a way of creating a sustainable service in the future, we want those staff to stay rather than feel that they have to look elsewhere. I appreciate that, and I hope that Members will bear with me when I say that there needs to be time to consider fully the recommendations of the review. On the fullest understanding, the decision has to be taken as promptly as possible once those considerations are taken into account.
Thank you for the statement. When the new Minister for Health and Social Services was appointed, I wrote to you and to the new Minister asking you to review the situation and giving reasons why you should do so. Therefore, I should be grateful for this statement today. What surprises very many people is that the Government’s Minister for health asked the health boards to carry out a review of their services and provided them with guidelines, then, those boards took a decision and that was supported by the health council in north Wales, and yet you, as First Minister, have stepped in and said that you are unhappy with the decision and that you are to review it.
I have two questions. The first is: what are your reasons for you contravening, as far as I can see, the decision taken by the board and the health council? What specifically concerned you about this decision that led to you taking this highly unusual step of intervening so publicly?
The second issue is a point that I have raised on a number of occasions in the Assembly, that is, the number of children that Betsi Cadwaladr health board said would need to go to Arrowe Park. I think that the board estimated around 38, but that does not correspond to any figure in the rest of Wales in terms of the children who need level 3 care. The argument made by Betsi Cadwaladr health board was that it could not attract qualified staff to care for those kinds of babies who needed that specific care. Again, if only a very small number were to go to Arrowe Park, then surely there must be some specialist care available in north Wales somewhere, but who will be providing that if the board cannot attract the staff? Therefore, there is something fundamentally wrong with the analysis. I think that Llyr Huws Gruffydd referred to this in the figures that he quoted. So, in looking at this decision, have you looked in detail at those figures and come to the conclusion that they were not reliable?
In terms of the figure, that is something for the review itself to consider, as part of the evidence that it will be gathering. On the first point, and why this decision was made, bearing in mind the process that was created in the past, the answer is easy to give: I had a concern in relation to the fact that we would be dependent on Arrowe Park, which, of course, is outside Wales, for care that was previously available in Wales. Sometimes, that will happen, but the concern is that we do not have any control at all over Arrowe Park. There is no certainty in relation to the future of Arrowe Park. As a result, I thought that there was a duty on me to consider whether there is a way of creating a centre in Wales that could offer this service, which would give greater certainty to the people of north Wales and to us as a Government.
I speak as a father who, 15 and 18 years ago, saw my two youngest children live because of the excellent service at Wrexham Maelor Hospital—both were born by emergency caesarean. However, I will endorse two points made, and I will put questions to you accordingly.
You state that the review by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health will consider the views of patient representative groups. Endorsing the comments of my colleague, Antoinette Sandbach, can we ensure that those include parents whose children have been born in the unit and units potentially affected over recent times, and who have direct personal experience and observations? I will quote one constituent—and one only—who wrote in February to say:
‘I had a baby in SCBU at Glan Clwyd, born at 25 weeks, weighing just 1 lb 10 oz. I myself was in hospital for five weeks after a mass was found in my womb, and I had two operations and a hysterectomy. If my baby had died during those first five weeks in Arrowe Park, she would have died alone.’
My second point very much endorses the point made by Alun Ffred Jones. Previously, regarding the figure of around 36 or 38 babies requiring referral to intensive care units in the original health board document, figures obtained by the charity Cuddles, which also needs to be consulted with Bliss, revealed that 138 babies were admitted to Glan Clwyd Hospital’s neonatal special care baby unit in the first 10 months of last year alone. Many of those will require intensive care at some point, but in future the expertise could be lost.
The constituent that I referred to earlier said that while she was in the hospital, she had seen eight babies on ventilators for more than 48 hours. Therefore, the figure of 36 looked more like 136, and these older babies will not be able to stay at Glan Clwyd because the doctors and resources will not be there to look after them. Those facts are essential, and we need to drill down and challenge the figures originally provided.
It is difficult to give an exhaustive list of who might be asked for views over the course of the next four months. However, the intention is that the consultation will be as wide as possible. It is for the review to examine the numbers of babies who would be treated in Arrowe Park and to test the robustness of those figures. It will examine whether those figures are correct. Those are the figures that have been made publicly available by the health board. The review will examine that.
When I made my oral statement on enterprise zones in January, I said that I would provide a further update in April. In each enterprise zone we are focusing on capacity-building activities.
In Anglesey, a number of energy and maritime proposals are being developed. These support the Energy Island programme. Work has also been commissioned to develop master plans across the strategic sites. We are working with Bangor and Aberystwyth universities to develop a business case for the Menai science park. This will help to maximise the benefit to Wales of the major energy projects planned for the zone.
In Cardiff central, we have completed the acquisition, as you know, of site E04, Callaghan Square. We are now looking at the delivery of new office development on a site that is capable of accommodating 7,000 employees. A full assessment of development viability, costs and alternative delivery solutions is required and I am seeking specialist advice in these areas. This will ensure the aspirations of the board and the needs of the private sector are matched in terms of the quality of property infrastructure. The financial and professional services sector team is working with businesses interested in investing in the zone. We are currently assessing further sites to ensure that we maximise the potential of quality investment. We are also seeing evidence of growing interest in and around the zone, with recent job announcements and a pipeline of potential investment inquiries from the sector.
In Deeside, I have approved funding of £25,000 for a feasibility study for a north Wales advanced manufacturing and skills park. We are also working with the site owners of the Northern Gateway site in terms of identifying and delivering key infrastructure to ensure that this site is investment-ready.
In Ebbw Vale, the board has set up a working group to assess skills needs and to advise how best to use the existing skills base in the area. In addition, I have approved a programme of works to make the Rhyd y Blew site investment-ready. This includes mains services and electrical infrastructure work and represents an investment of over £2 million. I am encouraged that we already have some inquiries. I expect this early level of interest to build as we undertake specific marketing of the site. We are working with the board and the local authority to develop a programme of works for other sites in the zone. This will be prioritised in the coming months and will establish the capital works required to ensure that these sites are investment-ready.
In the Haven Waterway, I have approved the commissioning of a report to maximise new employment opportunities on the Waterston site. The report will identify recommendations to deliver the site to the market and attract inward investment and growth. This will be completed by the end of this month. I will discuss its findings with the enterprise zone board and it will enable us to undertake targeted marketing of the site. We have also been working closely with local businesses to keep them engaged with the opportunities. Last month, I met local businesses and the board has also been very active in promoting the opportunities and potential of the zone. Some of the benefits of this have been realised in the strong interest from a number of businesses, particularly in the energy, environment and tourism sectors.
In Snowdonia, I have approved the commissioning of a strategic options assessment for the Trawsfynydd site. This work will establish independent recommendations to move the site forward. I expect this to be completed during the summer recess. I have also approved work to create a master plan for the Llanbedr airfield site. I visited Llanbedr airfield last month and saw for myself the potential of the site. The master plan will enable us to give even greater confidence to businesses wishing to invest there. The Snowdonia board, under the chairmanship of John Idris Jones, demonstrates how the boards are collaborating and maximising opportunities. John, in his dual role as chair of the Snowdonia board and member of the Anglesey board, recently presented on behalf of both zones to the Nuclear Industry Association. John made the positive case for the Anglesey and Snowdonia enterprise zones. I am hopeful this work will lead to further inquiries.
The St Athan-Cardiff Airport zone continues to experience considerable commercial interest. We have received around 25 investment inquiries, mostly from aerospace small and medium-sized enterprises. We are also helping to facilitate the growth of existing businesses. Earlier this month, we had the good news that British Airways Maintenance Cardiff, with the support of the Welsh Government and Skills Growth Wales, exceeded its job-creation expectations. This year, it expects to create a minimum of 61 jobs, 15 of which will be apprenticeships. I have also approved the creation of a master plan for the aerospace business park. I expect this to be completed by the end of 2013. It will include the military enclave and the site for 14 Signal Regiment to move into by the end of the decade.
Cardiff Aviation has successfully settled into St Athan. We are discussing a number of associated and exciting projects around pilot training and aircraft conversion. Discussions are also progressing with the Ministry of Defence to agree a joint plan to move the airfield to seven-day operations and full instrument landing system operation, utilising a private sector airfield operator. The acquisition of Cardiff Airport also provides us with a tremendous opportunity to strengthen the zone further. In my visit to the airport last week, I took the opportunity to discuss the enterprise zone with the new management team. We will work closely with the management team to ensure that the airport delivers its potential as a key international gateway, particularly on inward investment and on positioning Wales as a country that is internationally accessible to business.
We continue to actively market our enterprise zones as places in which to do business. We recently launched a comprehensive new Enterprise Zones Wales website. To complement that work, a sustained campaign is being implemented to drive traffic to the new site and to generate inquiries.
In addition, we have also launched business rates support in our enterprise zones. Sixty one applications for business rates support were received. Of these, 39 applications were approved, offering support of more than £750,000 to businesses currently employing over 1,200 people. This will be a significant boost for SMEs wishing to grow in the enterprise zones. I will be opening the scheme for this financial year on 5 May, with a longer application window, as Members have previously indicated that they wish to see, and a bigger budget of over £4 million.
Over the past 12 months, we have focused on getting the enterprise zones established, with a competitive offering of financial and other incentives. In that time, I have met regularly with the chairs of each of the zones, and each zone has had the opportunity to consider its individual priorities. It is also clear they have opportunities and challenges in common. We are now working to bring these individual and shared priorities together. Requirements identified by the boards on property, transport and energy-related activities are being assessed, and my officials in transport have already begun work with the boards on these activities.
To continue to drive change and to maintain momentum, I have asked the enterprise zone chairs to meet regularly to discuss common approaches, to share best practice and to advise me on the next stages of implementation. I have also asked them to consider the Welsh brand for our enterprise zones and to build on our wider marketing efforts.
I will continue to keep Assembly Members informed of progress.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you. I remind Members that this is an opportunity to ask the Minister questions. I have a long list of speakers and I hope to get through them all.
I will be brief, Deputy Presiding Officer; sorry, Presiding Officer, I should say.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
You were very nearly very brief then. [Laughter.]
I apologise, Presiding Officer. Thank you, Minister, for your statement on enterprise zones, because you did promise an update. Actually, it was more of a statement on master plans; the number of master plans that you seem to have up and running at any moment is really quite impressive. Hopefully, the master plans will deliver.
Turning to your comments, there is clearly no one-size-fits-all policy in terms of enterprise zones, and you are juggling lots of different balls at the same time, if I can put it that way. How are you ensuring that, while the enterprise zone policy is varied, you are keeping an eye on enterprise zones in the north, south and west at the same time, so that none of these will fall behind in terms of the progress that you hope to make?
You mentioned the growing interest in the Cardiff financial zone. Can you clarify what interest has been received? Do you believe that the interest is sustainable, and is not just a flash in the pan in terms of businesses showing an interest at this stage that will not be there in the long-term?
Cardiff Airport figured in your opening comments, and the acquisition of Cardiff Airport is not an entirely uncontroversial decision, at least in some quarters of the Chamber, as I am sure that you will be aware. I think that we both agree that the airport has had an abysmal record over recent years in terms of attracting inward investment to Wales. In addition, the freight figures for the airport have been down by 90% over recent years, so something is going wrong there. The decision to purchase the airport has been taken and announced, but I am sure that you would agree that that in itself is not enough. There has to be a plan and a very focused strategy behind that to make sure that the airport does indeed deliver. You made a connection between the airport purchase and management and the enterprise zones. How are you ensuring that the new airport management team is fully aware of the type of support that enterprise zones require? Unlike other areas, enterprise zones require a very specific type of support, and we do not want support provided that is not completely tailor-made to those zones.
Business rate support was mentioned. I welcome that; it is clearly a vital piece of the jigsaw. You said that the scheme would open on 15 May. How long an application window are you proposing for that scheme? You said that it will be a longer application window this time, but there was not any clarity on exactly how long companies will have to get involved in that.
On the issue of the website, I am pleased that it seems to be up and running. How are you going to monitor the number of applications through the website? I think that we would all agree that, in this day and age, websites are a crucial part of marketing policies and, in terms of marketing the enterprise zones on the world stage, that is more important than ever.
Finally, you have asked that the chairs of the enterprise zones meet regularly. I would have hoped that that would happen in any case, but you are probably right to make sure that there is some mechanism for that. What specific advice and guidance are you giving them to make sure that best practice is shared? If something is going wrong in one zone, it is very important not just that that is conveyed, but that it is conveyed as quickly as possible.
I thank the Member for his comments on this, because the party opposite has been particularly supportive of the concept of enterprise zones and their importance in delivering for the economy. You are absolutely right when you say that one size does not fit all. They are varied and they are at various stages of development. If you look at Snowdonia and compare it to where we are in terms of St Athan, you will see that, in St Athan, we had a good start in terms of what we had on the site already and the facilities, whereas, in Snowdonia, we have to deal with issues of a closing industry, very much as in Ynys Môn.
In terms of the Cardiff financial zone, we do think that it is sustainable and we have had interest. Obviously, I cannot go into the commercial details, but only yesterday morning I met an inward investor who is interesting in locating in the Cardiff zone. We had discussions about what we might be able to offer, what we can do in terms of training personnel and staff and what we could offer in terms of the property. It is key that we are having a lot of interest in that particular zone.
In terms of the airport, I appreciate that we are not all singing from the same hymn sheet. I have every confidence in Lord Rowe-Beddoe in chairing the board and that, when he announces the board, he will ensure that there is a business plan that reflects its role and function and its alignment to the enterprise zone. I was discussing with Professor Garel Rhys, the chair of the enterprise zone board, only this morning how it is important for those links to occur between him and the airport board. It is very important that it recognises that it has a job in the enterprise zone. The points about freight are well made.
In terms of the business rates scheme, Members have said to me before that they thought that it was too short a timescale. So, I am looking for a longer timescale. I will probably look at about eight weeks, which I think would be a fair reflection of having to deal with it. I think the marketing will help, but I take note of what you said. The chairs have met, but it is important now that they get into a structure of meetings and learning lessons from each other, and of me being able to take advice from them about what they think have been their successes and failures, focusing on best practice.
Minister, thank you for your statement today and the work that you have done in taking forward the future of enterprise zones in Wales. You have been heavily involved in the options for taking forward the north-east Wales economy around Wrexham and there is a great deal of overlapping interest between that agenda and the work that you are doing in terms of financial incentives for both enterprise zones and city regions. In north-east Wales, a city region model was not taken forward, but we have the very welcome commitment that you made to enhance the current Mersey Dee Alliance and use that as a locally tailored forum with which to develop and drive the economy. Given the uniqueness of the approach taken forward in north-east Wales, whichever final governance and operating structure for the MDA is taken forward, it is important that it has not only the freedoms and flexibilities required to fulfil the region’s economic ambitions, but can compete with other regions in Wales in terms of what it can offer local companies in terms of local business rates, broadband and other such advantages. Minister, will you ensure that the work that you are doing on enterprise zones, and the work that you are doing with Professor Brian Morgan in implementing the work of his business rates review, overlaps with the work being done in north-east Wales and that any arrangement or competitive advantages being considered for enterprise zones in Wales are also considered for the work that you are doing with the wider Mersey Dee Alliance region?
The points that the Member have raised are very important. There is a co-ordination of the enterprise zones and what we are doing with the city region concept in a slightly different way in north Wales. It is also important to realise that, in Wales, we did not make any distinction on such things as business rates support, as done in England. The Welsh business rate offer was available across all enterprise zones. Enterprise zones in England that have enhanced capital allowances do not also have discounted business rates. We have tried to ensure equity of purpose across the piece. In Wales, we have a set of eligibility criteria on this. I think this is clearer and more transparent, which indicates the approach that we want to take across the whole policy agenda.
Thank you for the statement, which is a report of progress in this area, although that progress has not been particularly swift, as far as I can see. I would like to make one general point. As was the case with the statement earlier by the First Minister, this statement is available in English only, and that is not good enough for those of us who choose to use the Welsh language in this Chamber. However, to turn to the content of your statement, in terms of the science park—the Menai science park, as it is called—I have had an opportunity to discuss this with the vice-chancellor, John Hughes, and he is extremely enthusiastic, but the question I have is: do you have some sort of timetable agreed for the development of the science park?
I note that you have commissioned a feasibility report for the Deeside enterprise zone development. I see it as being rather odd that you should commission that so late in the day, bearing in mind that there has been quite a bit of discussion about that issue for quite some time. Perhaps you could enlighten me as to the status of that feasibility study.
In terms of the Llanbedr airfield, which is included as an addendum to the Trawsfynydd site, have you had any enquiries stating an interest in that area from any solar energy development companies? I met, as did many others, companies that are interested in this area, and I did refer them to you. I know of another company, from Germany, that is seeking sites both in south-west and north-west Wales. It comes as no surprise, perhaps, that the area that is seeing the most obvious progress is the St Athan-Cardiff Airport zone, because it is far easier to attract interest along the M4 corridor. However, those developments are certainly very promising. I also look forward to seeing the action plan that will be delivered in due course regarding the development of Cardiff Airport. That is a very exciting development, and one that is certainly much needed, as has already been noted.
Finally, you state that you had 61 bids for support with business rates from companies working within these zones, and that you have rejected a number of them. I would be interested to know what sort of companies have been given this kind of support, and what sort of companies have been rejected, so that we can see exactly how this policy is being implemented on the ground. I do not want to know the names of the companies, but the kind of companies that you believe deserve support and the kind that do not.
In terms of the 61 bids and the bids that were rejected, it was probably because they did not fulfil the criteria. What I will do, if the Member is happy and the Chamber is happy to receive it, is issue a document indicating the general areas where bids have been received. That might be helpful for the future.
In terms of what is happening with Cardiff Airport, I have already agreed that I will provide an update, but I thank the Member very much for his comments on that. In terms of the specific issue of solar energy, I will ensure that I get the information for Members so that they know what type of enquiries we have had in that particular area. With regard to the Menai science park, everything has been signed off, in that there is a worker to work with them, they can look at sites and they are actually getting on with the development. I understand that there has been good progress in that area. In terms of Llanbedr airfield, we have had interest across the piece and I have been very pleased by how Llanbedr has taken off as a centre of interest.
In terms of Deeside enterprise zone and the announcement about what I am undertaking, I can only sign off paperwork when that paperwork comes to me and boards write to me and request that I do so. I have now made it quite clear to chairs of boards that, if they do feel that there is any lagging behind and that they are not making sufficient progress, they should e mail me directly on some of these issues. So, I am content that we are proceeding at the speed at which we have been asked to proceed, but, in some areas, I would like things to go a tad more quickly.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement.
I wish to echo Alun Ffred’s comments, in that we thank you for the regularity of these updates, but it sometimes seems difficult to see the gradual incremental progress. It is tempting to think that there is another reason for that. Some 20 months since their launch, it is not clear to me whether a single brick has been laid in any of our enterprise zones. Furthermore, in terms of job creation, while we welcome the announcements of private sector jobs, it is not clear how many jobs have been created to date, and how that is being monitored by the Welsh Government. We need to see what interventions in terms of enterprise zones are creating jobs, and what other interventions there are as well, so that we can focus our attention on the things that are having the most impact.
On more specific questions, with regard to the Menai science park, I wish both the universities that are involved in that well. However, can you explain why a business case is being developed to justify a science park, after a decision has already been announced to create one? It seems to be a slightly illogical process.
Moving on to some of the issues in Ebbw Vale, you talk about undertaking specific marketing for the site, now that it is ready to move forward. I am rather disappointed that that marketing process is beginning now. Can you explain when that site was identified, how long there was between the identification of that site initially and the marketing, and what issues there were in the interim that prevented the marketing from going forward a little earlier?
Moving on to the St Athan-Cardiff Airport enterprise zone, one of the critical issues that might be important is the potential use of the Red Dragon hangar on that site. That has the potential to be a major base for a significant investor. Can you confirm from what date you believe that it will be available for that use? I understand that there are negotiations ongoing in terms of when the release of that might be from other users. Similarly, in terms of those negotiations, what progress have you made with issues regarding access to the aerodrome and the runways at St Athan, so that there is 24-hour access so that investors can get planes to the facilities?
We welcome the jobs and the apprenticeships in my community in Rhoose. The developments at the British Airways Maintenance Centre are also very welcome, and I hope to see those grow further. However, one key issue for young people accessing apprenticeships is transport, and transport to Cardiff Airport is still not what it might be. Could you make a statement on bringing forward the direct link bus route that was in the national transport plan?
You talk about some of the specific marketing activities that have been undertaken. We want to see that the enterprise zones are marketed and are successful. The website is a reactive form of marketing. What proactive, outgoing sources of marketing have you undertaken? Finally, in terms of zone boards, I believe that there is a concern over the democratic deficit here, and that quangos, having been thrown on the bonfire once, have been reborn. What control do you have as a Minister over those boards? Do they produce annual reports for you? What targets have you set them to inform the direction of their work? Finally, how are they held to account, if they are not providing you with what you expect to see?
During the establishment of the enterprise zone boards, I worked on the basis that I would ask for help and assistance from the private sector. I would also ask key people to chair the boards, who would then look at the membership that they required. I can report that it is a case of so far, so good, in terms of what they have been able to do. This is a partnership with the private sector in terms of how we deliver on the boards, and the boards mainly consist of private members. I know what I want from them, and what I have seen so far is a lot of hard work, at no cost to us, and they have really started to develop and to take a lot of time out. I do not intend to interfere in what I believe is an excellent arrangement with them, in terms of what they are doing.
You allude to some of the problems on the enterprise zone sites. Some of the sites that we have looked at are not easy—they are not something nice, where you can just put something on, they actually need some infrastructure put in. Some of the hard work that the chairs and the boards have been doing, particularly in Ebbw Vale, includes looking at what is required to make them fit for purpose in terms of marketing.
On the wider aspects of marketing, I believe that it is important to have a website. However, we have been marketing these enterprise zones every time that we have a query about investment, when people ask, ‘We would like to go somewhere. This is what we want—what is the distance to travel?’ We do that as a part of the norm of any offer. We look at what we have available in terms of our estate and the local government estate, and in terms of what is on the enterprise zones. That is a common part of what we are undertaking.
On St Athan, we are negotiating through issues with the Ministry of Defence. I do not intend to go into our negotiation position, or that of the Ministry of Defence, but I assure you that the negotiations are very constructive. However, I acknowledge as a Minister that I have to be respectful of the MOD’s needs in these difficult times, as well as the requirements and needs of the Welsh Government.
In terms of swift progress, I can understand what you say about reports and that you may prefer to have something more detailed in terms of comparisons with other sites. What we have done in terms of policy interventions include business rate support, enhanced capital allowances, the simplification of planning, skills support, superfast broadband and transport infrastructures; it is all out there. In terms of what we have undertaken, we have ensured that everything is fit for purpose in everything that we do, and that is recognised by the people discussing the issues with us. If Members require a slightly different reporting mechanism, I am more than happy to discuss it with any of the opposition spokespeople.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you. We have had a speaker from each of the parties, so I now ask the remaining speakers to stick to questions.
You are aware of the case of an advanced manufacturer on the Deeside industrial park that is seeking to secure newer investment from its parent company to build a new production facility next to the current site. I believe that there are issues around boundaries in the enterprise zone. I wonder whether you could deal with that. The second issue I wish to ask you about is what lessons in relation to the science park will you learn from the technium that was built in Anglesey and the sale of that technium? Perhaps you can give us more details about the sale of the technium, the lessons learnt by the Welsh Government in relation to that and the links with the Menai science enterprise zone.
I do not like passing the buck and I am not going to pass it. We have obviously learnt significant lessons from the technium experience. In terms of the Menai science park, we regard that as an exceptionally exciting project that is fitting in to the needs and requirements of industry. I realise now that I should have addressed the issue that was raised by Eluned Parrott on the Menai science park. We knew that we wanted to do it, but we are now talking about the detail in terms of how it will be structured with the university.
In terms of the issues around Deeside, I am always absolutely fascinated by them. Deeside was asked if it wanted to look at its boundaries and we agreed that we would look at them. All this information is a two-way process and it is also incumbent upon the board to put the information forward to us. As far as I am aware, all issues in Deeside around where enhanced capital allowances et cetera are available have been sorted.
Minister, I welcome today’s update and I thank you particularly for agreeing to meet the businesses on the Honeyborough industrial park in the Haven enterprise zone last month. As you say, there was significant interest by a cross-sector of businesses. I welcome the business rate support, and I welcome your intention to maximise new employment opportunities. I know that those businesses welcomed them as well. To truly realise the full potential of the zone, it is critical that future viability is realised. I know that that is your intention, Minister, and that is what makes this approach hugely significantly different. Will you continue to work with Jeff Cuthbert, the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, and increase the training opportunities that will help ensure the continuation of current and future workforces and leave a lasting legacy?
Thank you for that. I certainly enjoyed my visit with you and my discussions with the businesses concerned. In terms of the enterprise zones, the skills training offer is absolutely essential in assisting companies, and Jeff and I will certainly continue our close working relationship, especially as he is now my Deputy Minister as well.
Minister, thank you for your statement this afternoon. I am grateful for the regular updates, but I do not feel any further forward in understanding exactly what the outcomes are for the two enterprise zones that have been identified in the South Wales Central area. I would be grateful if you could give consideration to greater detail, such as jobs created specifically. Equally, how much capital has the Welsh Government put into those areas, specifically because they are enterprise zones? Can we see exactly what difference the enterprise zone concept is making, both to St Athan and to Cardiff, particularly in terms of the financial services? Bristol is on our doorstep; it has an enterprise zone itself, and has identified financial services as one of the key investors into the city. It is therefore vital that we understand whether the concept is delivering for Cardiff and that we do not look back in five or six years’ time—as we have with the technium programme—and say that there were grand titles, but that little was achieved in the delivery of the programme.
I am very happy to look at an alternative mechanism of reporting to Members, as outlined by the leader of the opposition. I will advise Members in due course about what further information I can make available.
Minister, thank you for your statement updating us today. My question is in relation to the supporting infrastructure of your enterprise zones in Wales, and accessibility to transport networks for businesses. I have raised this in previous statements to you, as former Minister responsible for business and enterprise, and the former Minister responsible for transport. On a broad note, I welcome the fact that you now cover these two areas, as Minister for Economy, Science and Transport.
You say that requirements identified by the boards and property transport are being assessed by officials, who have already begun work with boards. Can you provide the Chamber with specific details about what transport infrastructure you have planned to support enterprise zones across Wales? I know that Eluned Parrott asked you this earlier, but I am not sure whether you addressed it—do you intend to update the national transport plan to recognise the importance of enterprise zones and improving strategic transport access to and from them? At the moment, it seems rather piecemeal.
I am currently reviewing all the issues around the national transport plan, including budget issues and others. I intend to make enterprise zones and economic development quite important in the delivery of transport, which is the point that the Member made. I will be making a statement on this to the Chamber in future.
When I made the statement to the Chamber on 5 March, I promised to provide a further update on the recommendations of the Morgan report to Members after the Easter recess.
Today marks six months since I published the business rates review. A number of recommendations have already been achieved and good progress made on others. In questions to me, Members have consistently raised the review on business rates relief for charities and supporting town centres. I will focus on these this afternoon and cover a number of other developments that have taken place, or are under way.
Professor Morgan has now reported back to me on business rates relief for charities. I was pleased that opposition spokespeople had the opportunity, if they so wished, this morning to have a briefing from Professor Morgan. He has recommended that relief is reduced in certain circumstances and that we introduce a scheme to bring empty property back into use. He has made a number of other recommendations on this issue too.
I am making his independent report publicly available in its entirety today and I will immediately launch a short and focused consultation. I will ask charities, businesses and other stakeholders to tell me what they think about the recommendations. I will write to other Governments around the UK to share these recommendations. I will also come back to Members before the summer recess, and set out our intentions as we go forward.
I do not want to pre-empt the findings of that consultation, so I will not make any comments on the specifics of the report at this stage. However, I am encouraging businesses, charities and others with an interest to take the opportunity to make known their views.
In terms of town centres, we have now finalised the detail of our approach to fund the start-up costs for business improvement districts. We are producing literature to advertise this work and will hold seminars across Wales. A lot of interest has been generated already.
In a previous statement to Members, I said that officials would look into the costs of a scheme to support businesses negatively affected by the postponement of revaluation from 2015 to 2017. I made it clear that this would need to be carefully targeted to have impact. Therefore, I sought further advice from the task and finish group, which has offered some initial advice that I should consider principally supporting small retailers in town centres. I would be interested to hear Members’ views on this. I have also said that officials are costing up the potential for a scheme to encourage long-term empty properties to be brought back into use. I will be considering a scheme that is right for Wales.
Officials have recently provided me with costs for a scheme that is equivalent to the Fresh Start scheme recently launched in Scotland. However, the task and finish group has submitted additional advice that it has included in its report on business rates relief for charities, which suggests that this scheme should go further and target town centres and not-for-profit organisations that provide solid benefits to the local community. I want to make sure that we target our resources at the right areas, and we need to give further thought to how the recommendations can be practically implemented and how any potential abuse of the scheme can be prevented. I want to make the right decision, and when I have had an opportunity to fully consider the costs, I will take action swiftly to implement the scheme.
The task and finish group also recommended that the Valuation Office Agency produces revised guidance on material changes in circumstances, meaning physical changes to a property that may have an impact on the rateable value of that property. This guidance has been drafted, and I expect it to be published imminently. This will provide more clarity for businesses.
To turn to some other key recommendations, the Silk commission supported the recommendation on the devolution of business rates, and we now await the decision of the UK Government in this regard. If the UK Government moves towards the full devolution of business rates, we will agree to explore models of local retention and whether these could work in Wales. Due to the current nature of the pooling of business rates at Westminster, there is little incentive to explore such a model under the current system. I announced an extension to the small business rate relief scheme in Wales until March 2014. Given the economic climate, I will once again press the UK Government to continue the existing arrangements beyond that date.
I am aware that the empty property rates are a source of frustration for business. The Minister for Finance and I have raised this with the UK Government to seek a number of changes to improve the current regime. There has been some movement. The autumn statement announced that a longer period of exemption would be available for new development, which was a recommendation of the Welsh business rates review. I reiterate my intention to replicate that. The task and finish group has suggested that we can go further and extend this. My officials have already developed the main details of the scheme and calculated the costs of implementing relief along similar lines to England. I have now asked my officials to examine the operational and technical issues, prior to the implementation of the scheme. I will update Members in due course.
The task and finish group expressed some concern about the distribution of hardship relief by local authorities. For our part, we have ensured that information about this relief and guidance are available on the website. As for local authorities, they must bear a quarter of the cost of this and ensure that the relief is in the interests of local council tax payers. Members will need to consider whether increased expenditure on this relief deserves sufficient priority. In any case, legislation passed in Westminster allows local authorities to offer relief in a wider and more flexible way at their own cost. Whatever the approach, local authorities are best placed to decide on whether a business is eligible for this relief based on their local knowledge. Based on that, I have asked officials to arrange a focused discussion at the Welsh local taxation practitioners group, which brings together the 22 local authorities. By encouraging those who work locally in the system, I hope that we will ensure a more consistent approach across Wales.
Consistency in business rates is an issue that has been raised with me on many occasions. I informed Members that I would take the opportunity of the postponement of revaluation to explore the anomalies that businesses perceive. When undertaking its original review, the task and finish group received a number of representations regarding the ratings system, and this work will give it the opportunity to re-examine these. This may include how increases in business rates and rateable values are decided upon. For example, Alun Ffred Jones AM has raised issues around some tourism and holiday properties experiencing large increases in their rateable values. A number of Members have made comments about the revaluation process, and I have asked the group to look into those issues as well. The task and finish group is exploring these issues and I expect it to report back following the summer recess. That will enable me to feed these concerns and issues into the UK Government.
I want to end by affirming my position clearly. The task and finish group has provided excellent advice and guidance on business rates. We have been able to act on much of this immediately, and other issues will continue to seek our attention in the longer term. It has also reminded us that business rates are not the panacea that some portray and that our work on this needs to be integrated with other initiatives and cross-Government objectives. We will continue to move forward on this policy agenda. At the same time, we need to recognise the benefits and drawbacks of changing business rates policy. We need to fully consider issues of cost and effectiveness. Thanks to the work of the business rates task and finish group and our subsequent action, this policy area has a higher profile and more consideration than before, which I welcome and hope that Members do as well.
I welcome the Minister’s statement today and the work and report that have been provided to the Minister by Professor Brian Morgan and his almost infinite task and finish group. As he said recently, there has been a lot more task than finish with the group, and we look forward to the ultimate recommendations beyond the draft recommendations. However, I thank him for all the hard work that he has been putting into this area of business support.
This is generally a positive report, and the opposition welcomes that. I am pleased that we have some concrete recommendations that we can work with to try to improve Welsh high streets. We know the concerns that have existed about those over recent years. Like me, probably all Assembly Members here have been lobbied by representatives of the charity sector. High-street outlets are an important way for a whole range of charities—from local to national ones—to raise money and their profile. This is a difficult area. I can see both sides of it. I understand the issues that the Minister is trying to deal with but, nonetheless, we need fairness for the charity sector. If it has had a certain regime in place over a number of years, changes to that will inevitably be controversial. Therefore, I urge the Minister to work as closely as she can with the charity sector to try to resolve these issues, while also making the situation fairer for other businesses that are struggling.
Turning to some of the other recommendations, I welcome the plans to encourage occupation of empty properties in town centres by allowing the 50% rate relief for two years. I am also glad that social enterprises will have longer if the local authority thinks appropriate. Following on from the meeting that Eluned Parrott and I had this morning with Professor Morgan—and thank you for making that meeting possible—I think that I am right in saying that that is currently the situation anyway; local authorities do have discretion if they want to give that longer period of rate relief, but they have not done so in the past. I suppose that the obvious question there is: what actually will change? How will the Minister make sure that they are aware that they can offer that extra discretionary rate relief, and that they actually do it if they think that it is appropriate? Do you plan to place any limit on the amount of time, over the first two years, that councils will be able to extend this for? As I said, local authorities already have discretion. So, I would be interested to know whether you see it as being completely up to the local authorities, because perhaps, as you said, they do know best.
I am encouraged to see that Professor Morgan wants to encourage the charity sector to fully participate in local organisations that aim to rejuvenate and develop our high streets. Their voices are valuable as other businesses operating in our town centres.
Finally, Minister, could you provide clarification on the recommendations regarding zoning? I have read the report a couple of times now and I am still not entirely clear about the issue with zoning. It states that further consideration will be given to enabling the aims of zoning to be realised. How do you plan to take this forward, and what sort of time frame are you putting on it? There are complexities with zoning, so I would like to hear some more about that.
Finally, charity shops come in a variety of sizes. When we talk about the size of a charity shop, can we have an answer as to exactly what we are talking about? I know that I have raised this issue with you privately before the meeting, Minister, but it has been an ongoing issue. Is a ‘large charity shop’ actually large in terms of premises, or is it a large charity shop that operates nationally and might actually have a small premises in a town centre? I think that Professor Morgan has tried to elaborate on what he actually meant in his initial comments, but it would be helpful to the charity sector to understand exactly what is meant by ‘a large charity’.
Thank you for those comments. This has been a difficult area. When I embarked on a review of business rates, I did not quite realise how many areas Professor Morgan would actually go into. It has been a useful dialogue. I think that it has increased everyone in the Chamber’s individual understanding of business rates, the implications of business rates and some of the issues that we need to look at. I want a genuine dialogue on some of the recommendations about charity, and it is important that we clarify at the end of the consultation the sizes and the points that you raise. It is alluded to in the report, but you are saying that, in the end, we must have something substantial in terms of how we deal with those issues.
In terms of charity, I was very much taken by your point about fairness and how we deal with it. The outcome, I think, once we have had the consultation, is to have a fair and equitable response to these issues.
Empty property rates are unpopular and are regarded as a burden. We are continuing our dialogue with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on some of the issues around empty property rates, which are important, and we are examining new developments in empty properties and the type of scheme that we will have in place. Therefore, this is ongoing work as far as we are concerned. I have been looking at costings in some areas, but I am not satisfied as to where the endgame is for some of this, so I will be giving some further consideration to those issues.
You make very valid points regarding the high street. I know that Members are concerned about what helps on the high street. This is not just about charity shops; it is about businesses, and this will therefore be key to the ongoing discussions that we are having. In many ways, a 30-minute statement does not do justice to all of the work that Professor Morgan has done on this, in terms of the report that he has undertaken. However, I believe that we are slowly feeling our way forward in looking at all of the issues about bringing long-term empty properties back into use, dealing with charity shops and the role of business rates.
I welcome the statement by the Minister. I have two questions and one thought. How do you distinguish between a traditional charity shop, based on donated used goods and staffed by volunteers—the kind of charity shop that most of us have known and supported—and the kind of charity shop that has full-time staff and sells new goods, and which is indistinguishable from any other retailer? Also, a problem in my constituency relates to shops paying combined rent and rates, rather than paying these separately. Any rate support or relief that is given makes the landlord better off but does not help the retailer one iota. Is there anything that can be done that will ensure either that the rate relief is passed on, or that the situation at least becomes transparent, so that the retailer can see that it is the rent that is costing them money, not the rates? I have had constituents on zero rates who have been told by their landlords that the reason for an increase is that the rates have gone up, and their rent and rates have gone up accordingly, when there have not been any rates to pay. My final point relates to a potential problem, namely that any cuts that are made in rates may well be seen by landlords as a sign that retailers can afford to pay more, and that they will increase rents accordingly.
Thank you for those comments. The point that you made is one that has been made to me, in relation to new goods and the size of shops. This is something that is going to have to be tackled, and I hope that this will come out in the consultation process. It is a point that is very well made, and I am not sure about the answer to the question either. This is an issue that covers the length and breadth of the country, in terms of other retailers indicating to me that this is the case. It is very important to note that the issue that you raised regarding rent and rates has not previously been raised with me, and is not an issue that Professor Morgan has considered. I do not know whether other Members have experience of the points that you raised. If they do, I would be grateful if I could hear about it, so that I could refer the matter to Professor Morgan.
I should begin with an apology for missing the briefing this morning. That was an oversight on my part, or on the part of someone else in the office. [Laughter.] He will not be there tomorrow. [Laughter.] In any case, thank you for the update, Minister. There are several unresolved issues, but I would agree with your concluding remarks that business rates are not the answer to all ills, though they are an important part of the equation for several smaller businesses.
We have all been lobbied hard on the issue of charity shops, and I will have to study the recommendations before I can ask any meaningful questions. The issue is a thorny one, to say the least. In terms of town centres, you state that you should consider principally supporting small retailers in town centres. What, exactly, would that entail? More detail would be greatly appreciated. One problem, of course, is that not all small businesses in a town centre would necessarily be ones that we would want to support. For example, a pay-day lender would not be something that we would want to encourage in a town centre. However, can you distinguish between businesses? I do not know. I very much welcome the proposal to bring empty properties back into use, and the recommendation that the Valuation Office Agency provides revised guidance on material change in circumstances. This sounds promising, and we look forward to receiving the details.
You referred to the Silk commission and the devolution of business rates. You stated that you await the decision of the UK Government. What have you and your officials been doing proactively to ensure that action is taken on this issue? I understand that it is out of your hands, but can you tell us exactly what you have been doing in order to make this a reality?
You then referred to an issue that I have raised with you, about how business rateable values are decided, and this is a very complex issue. Can you give us an indication of how you are thinking in terms of moving to a system that is based on profit rather than a notional value of the premises? This is a very important issue, as I said, especially in the tourism industry, and no doubt in some other industries as well. Certainly, I look forward to the task and finish group’s recommendations on this issue.
Thank you very much indeed. We have taken a number of steps to support town centres. We have the business improvement district—there is the new guidance that is coming from the Valuation Office Agency. I am also looking at the issue of bringing long-term vacant properties back into use by offering business rates relief, as I think that this will help, but I take your point about the types of businesses; I think that that is going to be quite an interesting issue to deal with. I am also considering supporting businesses that will be negatively affected by the decision to postpone revaluation, which I think could impact on some in town centres. Also, I am looking to match and improve on the announcement made by the UK and Scottish Governments on the terms for the period of grace of 18 months, to see what further work I can do on that. As well as town centres, I am looking to support city centres. I have the Newport project, which I think will give us some useful lessons. So, there are quite a lot of things going on in that particular area.
I am pleased by your comments on the VOA guidance on material changes to circumstances, because I think that we have to be a lot more proactive in giving out information to individuals on the issues of business rates.
In terms of the devolution of business rates, when I published the Welsh Government's response to the business rates review, we set out the position very clearly, namely that the Silk commission should examine this issue. I wrote to Paul Silk at that time, providing a copy of the report, and I was pleased to see the Silk commission draw heavily on the work of my task and finish group. I would also say that the Welsh Government’s position on Silk is quite clear, and I think that the speech of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in Cardiff in April was quite clear on some of these issues as well.
The point that you have raised with me before about the impact on tourism is well made. I will have more detail when Brian has deliberated further on the matter, and I will be happy to share that with Members, either here or in briefings to party spokespeople. I am afraid that the party spokespeople will have a lot more work to do on how we would like to take forward the challenge on business rates.
I, too, thank the Minister, and I thank Professor Brian Morgan for the report—and for the lively dialogue that we enjoyed at the briefing meeting this morning, Minister.
There is one point of principle to make, perhaps, before I talk about some of the recommendations. It is to do with the focus of the report on working with the charity sector in supporting town centres. The issue of market distortion is a very important one in our town centres. So, can you explain to us why you chose to look at the issue of charity retail before you chose to look more deeply at the issue of the role of supermarkets as competitors to local high streets? In terms of market distortion, the power of the supermarkets is also a very important issue.
Looking at the report provided by Professor Morgan, I noticed that some issues about zoning and placing limits on the number of charity shops in particular areas are, to a certain extent, deferred, because the complexity makes them very difficult to deliver. I think that that is understandable. I very much welcome the idea of asking the Charity Retail Association’s members to become more involved in their local high streets through active engagement with business improvement districts, through active engagement with, perhaps, local traders’ associations, and by asking the retail association itself to monitor the sale of new goods in charity shops, and the impact that that has on local high streets. Using the sector, rather than imposing that from a governmental or local authority perspective, is an efficient way of doing it, but it also means that the sector itself feels engaged in the process, which has great value.
In terms of recommendations 4 and 5 of the new report, looking at bringing empty properties back into use, I very much welcome this. The Minister will know that I have written to her on a number of occasions about empty properties. I also want to see business rate relief being extended to a wider range of social enterprises that are of great value to our communities. I thank Professor Morgan for taking that on board. One thing that it does not address is the issue of businesses that have fallen into hardship because they are failing businesses but still have to meet the obligations of paying their rent and rates. What progress can be made there?
On the new regime and the staggering of rate relief for charity shops—from full rate relief of 80% on the first £12,000 of rateable value, 50% for the next £24,000 of rateable value and no rate relief above that—it has the potential to generate a surplus in the system, though probably not a very big one. One of the other proposals was the idea of rate relief for bringing new properties into use. Have you made any assessment of whether that is likely to be cost neutral?
Thank you for your comments. I will not comment on everything that has gone out for consultation on the charitable stuff, because I think that that would be unfair. I must have a clear mind about what I will be recommending to the Assembly when the consultation comes back, which I will be taking forward.
Turning to some of your particular points, one thing that I will comment on is people’s involvement in some of the processes that have been alluded to in Brian’s report—the monitoring of new goods and so on. That is all quite important. I very much welcomed the engagement that Professor Morgan had in bringing businesses and charities together. That was key in some areas.
I am also looking forward to see what is going to come in on zoning. It is quite a complex issue but it is worthy of discussion in the wider consultation.Obviously, in terms of how we are going to deal with some of the issues that arise, you are quite right to allude to supermarkets, and whether there is a distortion on trade. I think that Professor Brian Morgan’s original report looked specifically at town centres and the issues around out-of-town developments. I do not want to stray into another Minister’s portfolio, but planning policy has an important role to play here. Over recent years, the Welsh Government has tightened national planning policy, and local authorities need to look at some of these issues. However, I do not think that planning policy is the only issue. Our recently published document, ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’, is also applicable when we look at these areas, as is what we do with regard to local growth zones. There are also some other issues, such as the specific issue of car parking—there are a lot of issues around this. This is something that we might well return to when we see the outcome of some of these further discussions.
In terms of the financial issues, I will look at the outcome in relation to the points that you made on that, and do an appropriate analysis. I will come back to the Chamber with more information on this once I have done the consultation exercise on charities and when I have some more worked-up proposals in some other areas.
Minister, I welcome your statement today and your focus on trying to do something with town centres, in a way that is different and that will, hopefully, be sustainable into the future. I welcome the work that you intend to do around rate relief for charities, but I would like some clarity: are we talking about rate relief for charity shops particularly on high streets, or are we including rate relief for charities that exist beyond the high street? A bit of clarity around that would be quite useful for some people in my area.
I also welcome that you are looking at any possible negative impact that might have been created by the postponement of the revaluation from 2015 to 2017. I have received an awful lot of enquiries about that. I am glad, Minister, that you are looking at how you can re-use the empty shops that are blighting, quite frankly, our high streets and, often, having a negative impact. Haverfordwest has this week announced the closure of one of the largest independent retail shops on its high street, and that is very disconcerting. I am sure that the people of Pembrokeshire and those local businesses will welcome an opportunity to discuss what that shop can now be used for, should it be the case that somebody does not immediately take it over.
These empty shops are a big issue in terms of being a blight on some of our smaller towns and retail outlets. It is something that absolutely has to be tackled. People running businesses in those areas must be despondent to see neighbouring shops empty, with nothing going on, and gradually getting more untidy. This is one of the key areas that has come out where we have to do more. As part of doing more, we have to look at their use, as well. That is very important. When the taskforce started its work, it was looking at the importance, probably, of encouraging social enterprises, credit unions and others to use these facilities, and that is why it is so important that we look at whether we can extend relief beyond one or two years to help those particular organisations. They might start to invigorate some of the areas that you have alluded to.
Sometimes, everything is focused too much on the charities review issues around this. There are wider issues here. I do not want to influence the consultation or pre-empt the responses, but I would say to the Member that it would be helpful for Members to undertake the wider distribution of this report, to generate a lot of consultation responses.
I just have two short questions, both related to charity shops. Will you ensure that consideration is given not only to the impact on the high street generally, but the impact on the charity retail sector itself? It is saying that its shops raise some £12 million a year in Wales for good causes, and a range of services and community projects. For example, British Heart Foundation is currently investing over £1 million a year in research grants for Cardiff University, and training over 14,000 people a year in life-saving skills. Marie Curie Cancer Care funds over 130 nurses in Wales, caring for more than 2,250 people with terminal illness. There are many other examples. There is also an impact where, sometimes, the charities will be investing up to £30,000 in their high street units, improving the presentation of otherwise empty units, and perhaps that could be used to enhance rather than be a drag on the community.
Finally, to ensure that proper evidence is provided in relation to new goods, the charity sector says that over 90% of goods are donated; income from new goods is only 8% on average, and the sale of new goods is in decline. As you indicated, the majority are either branded goods, like Christmas cards, or items directly related to the services that they provide, like hearing aids and walking sticks.
I thank the Member very much for his comments, which I will take as part of his views in terms of the consultation, because we will take everything into account in this consultation process. I might have opened a hornet’s nest and given it a poke, but I want to see a resolution on this that tries to satisfy all parties and everyone concerned. We will take this work forward in a positive manner and take all contributions on board.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 3.19 p.m.
I have listened carefully to the discussion around this statement and I think that many town centres are struggling—particularly those where an out-of-town retail park offers free parking, whereas town centres often cannot do so. You have yourself mentioned the planning system, which can be an issue around developing town centres. I wonder whether you might take this into consideration in terms of how you deal with your business rates and business rate relief, but you have also alluded to other factors, and I think that that is quite right. Therefore, what are you doing as the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport to work with your other colleagues, such as the Minister for Housing and Regeneration and the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, so that we can get all the strategies together that will assist us to revitalise those town centres?
I assure you that town centres are a priority for the Welsh Government across the piece, in terms of Government intervention. I am involved for my economic development portfolio, but the Ministers present have heard what you have said on these issues, and the issues that you raise are quite key. We have to look at what help and assistance we can give to these town centres so that they can be re-invigorated.
On this note, we understand the needs of local government in terms of what money they want to get in from car parking and so on, but some days it is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
I make this statement in response to the sustained pressures felt in unscheduled care services in Wales over recent months, services that offer advice, diagnosis and treatment to many thousands of people each and every week. Staff who provide these services respond to individual circumstances, ranging from minor injuries to life-threatening trauma or illness. There are very few people in Wales who have not, at some time, benefited from the care and commitment they provide.
Over the past six months, the demand for these services has risen sharply in a pattern shaped by an increase in the number of acutely ill older patients attending accident and emergency departments. Such patients often have very complex needs. All parts of the United Kingdom are experiencing these pressures, but Wales has the highest proportion of people aged over 85, and that number is increasing at the fastest rate.
Today I set out a series of immediate actions to alleviate pressures and to improve the position for the future. Since becoming the Minister for Health and Social Services, I have required every health board chief executive to produce a statement, signed jointly with the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust, to set out and implement actions to reduce ambulance handover times at A&E departments. These plans have already been received and will be enacted immediately.
Their actions must be consistent with the all- Wales action plan for unscheduled care that is being developed between the NHS chief executives and the Welsh Government. To turn plans into action, however, requires the commitment of a far wider group. I am pleased to report that the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Association of Directors of Social Services and the College of Emergency Medicine have all now agreed to become actively engaged in supporting rapid implementation. Each local health board must come forward, within the next six weeks, with a statement of that wider plan’s local implementation, going beyond hospital and ambulance services to encompass provision in the community, including out-of-hours GP services.
There are immediate steps that also have to be taken to tackle enduring difficulties at the health and social care interface. A common theme in all my recent visits to A&E departments has been that pressures at the front door of the hospital are made much more difficult when beds are occupied, in significant numbers, by patients who remain there after they are ready for discharge. This is bad for patients and for the NHS. It is critical that timely discharge arrangements are in place to ensure that more beds are freed up to manage planned admissions and emergency pressures.
There are three immediate steps that I will take in this area. Together with the Minister for local government and the Deputy Minister for Social Services, I will meet relevant local health boards and councils to discuss with them directly what they are doing here and now to accelerate social care assessments and discharges in their areas.
Secondly, I will act to reduce the number of delayed discharges caused by the operation of patient choice. We already have extant statutory guidance in place that requires that the patient be transferred to appropriate interim accommodation, if necessary, pending the availability of a placement in the home of their choice. I want to see that guidance implemented fully and consistently. Otherwise, the exercise of one person’s choice can too often be a denial of another’s choice to necessary treatment. Of course, anyone must have the right to pursue the long-term care arrangements that are best for them. However, that does not, and cannot, amount to a right to occupy an acute hospital bed while those arrangements are being realised.
Finally, I will take action to change the policy that applies when the NHS and social services cannot agree financial responsibilities between them. In such circumstances, the patient should be transferred to a suitable out-of-hospital setting. They should not, and in future will not, remain in hospital until the financial issue is resolved.
I want to bring a new sense of national purpose and urgency to the whole unscheduled care agenda. I can announce today that we will appoint a new national clinical lead for unscheduled care. It is crucial that our work has strong, authoritative and national clinical leadership, and that will now happen. It is vital as well that action on the ground is pursued with the full authority of the Minister. I therefore also intend to invest a small number of local health board chairs with national leadership roles. Dr Chris Jones, the chair of Cwm Taf Local Health Board, has already led important strands in work to improve unscheduled care. I have now asked him to take on a national role in bringing together the actions required to ensure uniform implementation across Wales. As a ministerial appointment, he will act with my authority to make this a fully national approach.
Members will be aware from today’s business statement that the Government intends to bring forward a debate on the McClelland review of the ambulance service on 7 May. Responding rapidly to that review is part of a further set of actions that will go alongside the immediate measures set out today. Further elements will include the results of work already commissioned on future bed numbers needed in the Welsh NHS and work carried out by the chief nursing officer on staffing levels in acute medical and surgical wards.
Further medium-term steps will also be taken to address the consistent finding that too many people are attending our accident and emergency departments unnecessarily. The way in which we introduce an NHS 111 system in Wales will be vital to achieving this. I want to see our plans accelerated, so that people can be confident that the different parts of the unscheduled care system work together to provide the response they need, in the most clinically suitable way.
Finally, and in the longer term, I believe that we need a new national conversation about the way in which our care services best meet the needs of an ageing population. When an older person is drawn into the NHS, they are treated according to an enduringly medical model of care, when their needs are likely to go far wider. We need a broader discussion, involving patients, families, the groups that represent them and staff who provide care for them about the best way to design and deliver such services in the future. A recent House of Lords select committee report, ‘Ready for Ageing?’, provides an important start to such a debate. In order to help shape such a discussion here in Wales, I have asked Baroness Ilora Finlay, a member of that committee of the House of Lords and a distinguished Welsh clinician in her own right, to bring together a small group of people to advise me of the best way to take such a conversation forward.
This statement sets out my determination to improve our unscheduled care service for those who use it and for those who work in it. It represents the start, not the finish, of a programme that I hope to report upon regularly to the Assembly.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I do, indeed, welcome it and I welcome particularly the new sense of urgency around the need for action to address the crisis in our unscheduled care in Wales. It is a shame that it took a letter from the College of Emergency Medicine, declaring our emergency care to be at the point of meltdown, for this statement to be brought forward. Having said that, I recognise that some of the actions in your statement today ought to have a positive impact on outcomes for patients and, indeed, help to reduce the pressures, both financial and staffing pressures, within NHS emergency care.
You made lots of references in your statement to older people. It is important that we get the message across that older people should not be considered to be a burden on our NHS, or on society as a whole. It is sometimes all too easy for all of us in this Chamber to say that the problems in our NHS are as a result of older people. Clearly, that is not the case. I know that that is not what you were saying, Minister, but it is important that we all get that message across.
It is also interesting that Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board is one of those health boards where the demographics are actually getting younger, but it still faces some of the greatest problems of all the health boards in Wales in terms of its emergency care. So, this is not just a phenomenon of an ageing society—there are other reasons behind it. Through the work that you have commissioned Baroness Ilora Finlay to do and the other actions that you have alluded to, I hope that we will be able to identify some of those problems and deal with them.
I very much welcome the appointment of a new national clinical lead on unscheduled care. I look forward to that appointment being made. I also welcome your announcement that Dr Chris Jones will take the lead on this as far as LHB chief executives are concerned.
I have a number of questions, Minister, as you would expect. You suggested that LHBs will publish their own plans within the next six weeks on how to respond to this problem of unscheduled care. Will those plans be available for scrutiny within the Assembly? Perhaps you could tell us whether that will be the case. I appreciate that some of these decisions are immediate. What action do you intend to take if these immediate steps do not work?
You also mentioned effectively curtailing choice, potentially, about where people might be placed, in a residential or care home setting, if they leave a hospital bed. While I appreciate that there is a need to vacate beds that are unnecessarily occupied, how does that chime with previous statements that you have made as Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, when you suggested that people should not go into care homes directly from hospital? Can you tell us a little more about your thinking on that?
Perhaps you could also give us a timeline by which you expect an NHS 111 system to be implemented in Wales. I also ask that you publish the terms of reference for Baroness Finlay’s work and the group that you have asked her to establish, including some timescales for its work to be completed.
Thank you to Darren Millar for his general support for the actions to be taken, and for his specific endorsement of a number of them.
I will begin by reinforcing a point that he made earlier in his contribution: nothing in what I have said today should be taken in any way as implying a view that older people are somehow a burden on the national health service, or that they are somehow to blame for pressures in the service itself; absolutely not. What I am keen to do is to make sure that older people get the best care that is right for them. The question that I am asking Baroness Finlay to help us to explore is whether the current way in which older people arrive through unscheduled care services and the way that they are responded to in the NHS is right for them. That is the key to it, and that is the type of conservation that I want to try to open up.
Turning to some of the more specific questions that you raised, in terms of choice, we are very often talking about people who are not making a first decision about whether to go into residential care. I fully sign up to the recommendation that the health committee made that no-one should go directly from a hospital bed to residential care, and that there should always be an opportunity for reablement in such cases. However, there are undoubtedly a significant number of people occupying hospital beds who are fit to be discharged, but who wait in hospital while the particular destination that they would choose to go to becomes available. I am simply saying that, of course, they must pursue their right to go where they would like to be, but, in the interim, the place to wait for that to become available cannot be routinely in an acute hospital bed, because that bed is needed for somebody else who may be urgently needing treatment. The knock-on effect of choice, in the way that it can operate, can be that choice for one person is a denial of someone else’s choice.
In relation to the 111 service, there is a target time within which it will become available in Wales, which is towards 2015. I think that there are some important lessons for us to learn from the experiments that have been carried out in England on this. Some of them have some substantial successes, but some of them turn out to be operating 111 in a way that has some unintended and unanticipated consequences, and are not doing what needs to be done. So, I am keen to build in some time to make sure that we fully learn from the process there.
As regards the terms of reference for the work that Baroness Finlay will carry out, I will willingly share the remit that we will ask her to discharge on our behalf.
I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon and the acknowledgement that things cannot continue as they are. I do not disagree with the Minister’s analysis of the problems facing unscheduled care, although the statement today raises more questions than it provides answers. First, you say that plans have already been submitted to you that have been agreed between the health boards and the Welsh ambulance trust. Will you make that statement available for scrutiny? You say that those plans are to focus on ensuring that there is a reduction in ambulance handover times. We saw last week the shockingly bad figures with regard to the amount of time ambulances are waiting outside our A&E departments. Could you tell the Chamber what success will look like and what figures you are working to in terms of a reduction in handover times? You listed a number of bodies that are now actively engaged in the process; the Implication is that they have not been actively engaged previously. What analysis have you carried out of the barriers that have prevented a consensus among all these bodies on tackling these particular difficulties?
Like Darren Millar, I welcome the opportunity to have a look at the local implementation plans when they are submitted within the next six weeks by the health boards. The Minister says that these situations have arisen because of the number of elderly people in our society, but that is not a new demographic. That situation, with regard to an older-than-average population and the fact that the number of older people is increasingly more rapidly in Wales than anywhere else, is not new, yet the pressures that we have seen in unscheduled care have been unprecedented over the last year, I would say. What analysis has the Welsh Government carried out as to why, all of a sudden, there is a particular spike in demand for services? An older population did not just happen overnight. This is something that has existed within the Welsh NHS for a number of years. I would like to understand the Government’s own understanding of why those pressures are suddenly so great now.
There is a great deal of emphasis in your statement, Minister, on delayed transfers of care. You say that you and your ministerial colleagues will meet with local government. Could you tell us when that meeting will be and what you expect the outcomes from that meeting to be? I assume that you will want to hear from local government about the barriers that are preventing it from placing people out of hospital. I can make a pretty good stab at what they are going to tell you. Firstly, resources. Authorities are operating a one-in, one-out policy for people whom they are having to fund themselves. Secondly, there are issues around the capacity within social care to provide those services. If I am right and those are the issues that they raise with you, what plans does the Government have to address those concerns?
You then talk about guidance that will ensure that people cannot delay their transfer by reason of choice. How many people are currently occupying Welsh NHS beds as a result of exercising personal choice? What proportion of delayed transfers of care are we looking at with regard to that particular category of patient? Given that statutory guidance is already in existence, why, in your analysis, is that guidance not being followed? You do not say that you are going to change the guidance—it is already there—but you are going to make people follow it. Why have local authorities not previously followed the statutory guidance published by the Welsh Government, and what makes you think that they will do so now?
The other question, with regard to issues of choice, is: what analysis have you done of the capacity in individual parts of Wales? Sometimes the choice is not between particular homes in a locality; it is about being able to secure a place in a home in your locality. In rural areas, this might result in elderly patients being transferred to residential care very many miles from their families and communities, which can only be bad in terms of their ability to recuperate and to get back on their feet. What safeguards will you put in place for constituents such as mine, for instance, who could find themselves placed 30 or 40 miles away from their home communities if that is the only place where there is a residential care bed available for them?
Your third element in attacking delayed transfers of care is a change of policy regarding arguments over funding responsibility. Again, I would ask you how many patients are currently in a Welsh NHS bed and have not been moved because of delays due to arguments over who funds care. How will your change of policy be achieved? When those patients are taken out of NHS beds and put into residential care, while the arguments as to who pays continue, who will pay the fees?
I welcome the news on the clinical lead. Could you tell the Assembly whether that is a full-time role within the Welsh Government? One of the least edifying sights that I have ever seen in the Health and Social Services Committee is the clinical lead for a particular specialty being hung out to dry by officials for not driving through change in that particular specialty, even though that person was a consultant with a full list of patients and a full list of clinics to look after. So, will this be a full-time role within Government?
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. You have had six minutes now; you are not going to help me if you run to his length of questioning. [Laughter.]
Finally, could the Minister say how closures of minor injury departments, closures of community hospitals and dropping the number of acute beds in district general hospitals will help the situation, because that is exactly what health boards are planning to do?
Thank you for those many questions. I will do my best to address as many of them as I can as quickly as I can.
I will see what I can do to make sure that the contents of the immediate plans that have already been received by the Welsh Government are shared with Assembly Members. They outline a whole series of actions in all health boards to be taken immediately and I understand the need for people to be able to see what those are.
In relation to ambulance times and what I would think of as success, as you know, there is a debate to be held on 7 May in relation to the McClelland review, which says some interesting things in relation to how we measure success. I will want to give a longer consideration of them rather than simply responding off the cuff to you today. On that, we will have a new engagement from a range of organisations—the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and so on. There has been nothing to prevent their engagement to date, but I have asked them to reinvigorate it and to put greater energy and urgency into their participation in it. They have agreed to do that and I am grateful to them for that indication.
What do we know about delayed transfers of care figures? One thing that we know is that four local authorities out of 22 account for 44% of all delayed transfers of care, and more than 50% of all days that people are kept in hospital when they do not need to be. This suggests to me that there is some room for improving the performance of some local authorities in comparison with others.
When local authorities come in to talk to me, the Deputy Minister and the Minister for local government, I will not be asking them to tell me about their problems; I will be asking them to tell me the solutions that they intend to contribute to make a difference in this area. That is what I mean this afternoon by a new sense of urgency in putting this problem right. I do not want them to come and tell me how difficult life is. I want to hear from them what incremental steps they are able to contribute to make sure that existing hospital beds, which ought to be used for people waiting for treatment, are made available for them. None of the three issues that I mentioned in relation to social services matters will, by themselves, solve the problem, but, incrementally, one on top of the other, they will.
On the number of acute hospital beds occupied today by patients waiting for discharge, there are 275 altogether in the acute hospital sector. Fifty-seven are occupied by people who are exercising choice, and just under 20 are occupied by people waiting for financial disputes to be resolved. There is extant guidance. I do not want the guidance be changed, I am simply asking for the guidance to be implemented uniformly, consistently, and with a sense of purpose, across Wales. That will not result in all those people quickly moving from where they are now to where they might otherwise be, but it will begin to reduce that number and, cumulatively, those things will make a difference.
Finally, as to the clinical lead, for me, the really important thing is to get the right person, rather than being too worried about exactly how much of their time they will spend on this. Part of their credibility in the service in driving this agenda is likely to come from their continuing clinical work. They will be the person doing the job as well as taking a national lead on it, and I will discuss with whoever is appointed the exact division of their time between those two responsibilities.
Thank you for the statement, Minister, although I believe, as do my colleagues, that this is something that you as a Government should already be doing in the health service. It is timely, however, because I was at a public meeting last night about plans to close a hospital in my region, in Gellinudd. One thing that struck me was that people are taking it as a given now that there will be long waiting times and lines of ambulances at Morriston A&E. It is reported in the local paper and people send me pictures of those ambulances. The chief executive of ABMU even said last night, ‘Please do not underestimate the size of this crisis across Wales. It is a major, major issue.’
Do you agree that the message about using A&E as a last resort is failing to reach people, as we see these problems escalating? Who in their right mind would want to choose to go to an A&E if they knew that there are viable alternatives that they can turn to? Minister, do you agree that we need better education still in order for people to understand where they should go? Perhaps we could look at ideas of extending the role of GPs so that they could go to visit elderly people to show them that they would not need to ring for an ambulance, because, at the moment, according to the people to whom I have spoken, that is a way of them making a cry for help.
I am glad that you do not think that blaming older people is the answer, because, again from the meeting that I went to last night, we see the huge differences in the cost of helping those under the age of 65 compared to the cost of helping the most frail in our society, with older people living longer and longer. It is important that we reiterate that point.
Your statement talks of appropriate interim accommodation. I would like more details as to what that means, because if convalescent hospitals, such as Gellinudd, and Hill House Hospital previously, close, we must know where these people will go. At the moment, those beds are covering the fact that they cannot be anywhere else. They cannot be at home, because they are too frail or do not have hoists in their houses, but they cannot be in hospital either, because there simply is not the space. Therefore, I take the spirit of your statement on board, but we must have practical answers for the communities in which we live and work.
Your proposal to take a strategic lead in resolving issues between LHBs and social services is to be welcomed, but again we return to the issue of available accommodation and what processes will be put in place between local authorities and the health service. I heard a Labour councillor last night undermine the ABMU at the public meeting, saying that it had not made any efforts to connect with the council with regard to social services in the area. If we are hearing Labour councillors saying that now, what does that say about what the future holds? You must be telling local councils to work together, and you must be telling the local health services, therefore, that they must have co-ordinated plans to deal with this particular issue.
Finally, I want to ask about the details on where the patients come from. Can you tell us whether they come from their own homes or from residential settings? It is important for us to understand the data mix and whether there are any trends as to whether some care homes are ringing accident and emergency departments as a matter of policy whereas others would not. Therefore, that might then be making the spike in the data that you are seeing. Clearly, I thank you for the statement because we need more progress. Much like everyone in the Chamber, I think, I do not want to see another group of people advising the Minister and nothing coming of that. We must have answers to these more serious questions because this is something that people are very animated about in our communities.
I thank Bethan Jenkins for those three important questions. First, I agree that we have not yet succeeded in communicating simple, clear messages to people so that they know the best place for them to get the help that they need outside normal planned working hours. Too often the default position is that people go to an accident and emergency department because they think that at least someone will be there. We have to do better. We need to have a set of simple and clear messages that allow people to make better decisions for them so that they get the help that they need more quickly, more easily and do not put pressures into parts of the system when they turn up to the wrong place and therefore create difficulties for others.
You raised a series of important issues in the middle of what you said about simple steps that could be taken to help older people to remain in their own homes or to go elsewhere. We must try to get the message across that there is no one thing that we are able to do in this area that will make the major difference. The trouble is that, sometimes, because people think that they cannot solve everything, they end up doing nothing. That is not an acceptable way for things to continue. Everyone can do a little bit—in parts of social services and in parts of the health service—which will incrementally make a big difference overall. A simple thing, as you mentioned, like making sure that a hoist or some other minor adaptations are carried out in someone’s home could mean that they are able to return there quickly when they are fit enough to do so. When every part of the system is making its own small albeit significant contribution, and when you add up all of those things together, the system begins to flow again and unscheduled care is able to do the job that it is there to do.
Finally, you raised an interesting point about where people who are old and frail come from when they turn up at accident and emergency departments. I do not pretend that we know all of the answers to that question yet. In response to the point that Kirsty Williams raised about people having been there all along, they have actually been there all along, but there are far greater numbers than there used to be living at home and in the community. We know that the number of people in residential care homes has decreased in Wales each year for the last 10 years, which means that some very frail people are living at home on their own with major packages of care around them, and when things start to go wrong there is no-one immediately around them to respond. They end up being taken to accident and emergency departments. Half of those people who come to an accident and emergency department in an ambulance are returned home within 24 hours. So, you wonder how many of them actually needed to be there. We also know—although not in sufficient detail yet—that there is a large variation between nursing homes, for example, with the same sort of population and the same sort of fee levels. Some of them send people into A&E departments in very large numbers and others continue to look after people for longer in the place where they live and where they are known, and so on. Part of what we need to do is to make sure that we have a more consistent pattern there so that, again, it is a matter of older people getting the care that is right for them.
Many of my constituents would consider the A&E department at Morriston to be their first port of call if they have an accident or they are unwell. What can be done to ensure that they best make the best choice, which may not necessarily be the Morriston A&E department? Historically, excepting an accident, GPs were the first point of contact for most people when they had a medical problem. How can we return to that? Also, I warmly welcome the speeding up of the discharge process. However, how do you achieve this if someone does not want to be discharged, without having to go to court in order to get them to leave?
Morriston A&E department is indeed a long-standing default position for many people, including relatives of mine, in the Swansea area. There are a number of things already in place, where we have better information for people, explaining to them what their choices are, how long they will have to wait if they go to particular places and what services are available elsewhere. This clearly is not working to the extent that we need it to work. The 111 service, when we are able to bring it online, has the potential to play a major role in making sure that people receive the advice that they need about the best place for them to receive the care that they need when they need care in these circumstances. Some of the experiments across our border look like they are successful in doing that; other models are less successful. We want to learn from that and do it the right way. Can we reinstate the former role of GPs? Probably not. The world has moved on from those sorts of days. We have to find new ways in which we can help people to make the right decisions in these circumstances.
Minister, building on your answers to Mike Hedges and Bethan Jenkins, it has been reported that one in 10 households attend A&E departments once a month in some parts of Wales. Analysis suggests that this is because it is more convenient for them than visiting their GPs. Therefore, in some cases, people are obviously presenting at A&E departments inappropriately. Have you considered undertaking a review of the Choose Well campaign, and will you explore what more can be done to engage people with it, so that people do make the right choice for their particular health needs? Minister, you will recall the Health and Social Care Committee’s inquiry into the role of community pharmacies in Wales. I still believe that community pharmacies are an under-used resource that could play a greater role in the delivery of unscheduled care. Will you outline your vision of how community pharmacies can help to meet unscheduled health needs? Finally, it is a key principle that unscheduled care services should be supported by integrated IT systems that facilitate information sharing and act as an aid to diagnosis. To what extent are you satisfied that this is currently being delivered?
Thank you, Rebecca, for those questions. Over three-quarters of a million people go to A&E departments in Wales during a year, or at least there are three-quarters of a million visits to A&E departments. Some of those will involve people who will go more than once, I guess. Therefore, you are right: we have to persuade those people who do not need to make those journeys not to make them. The Choose Well campaign is part of that. I want to ensure that it is understood in the wider context of those other things that I have mentioned already this afternoon. IT systems are fundamental to getting all of this right. We know that, in Gwent, where out-of-hours GPs have access to proper records, they are able to make decisions about the right way of dealing with people, and in a way that a GP who is not able to access such records cannot do.
The contribution of community pharmacies could be crucial. We are about to have two experiments on a common ailments scheme in Wales, where GPs will be able to divert people who come for very common conditions, for which you do not need to see a GP at all, to their local pharmacy to have that service instead. I am very keen on these experiments. However, I will just issue a small warning: there is a long tradition in public services of providing things that are meant to be ‘instead of’ something else, and if you do not do it properly, they simply become ‘as well as’ that other thing. We have seen that in the health service too. I want the new community pharmacy experiments to clearly be ‘instead of’ visits to a GP, in order to free up GPs to do the things that only GPs can do. That will include looking after some frail individuals in the community, so that they do not need to go to hospital in the way that happens now.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
We identified increasing youth engagement and employment as a priority in our programme for government. Our aim is to help all young people to overcome the challenges they face, so that they all have the opportunity to achieve their full potential and make progress. We are making a difference to young people’s lives in a range of areas that will impact on this issue. In primary schools, our reforms have seen an attainment increase of 8.4 percentage points at key stage 2 since the academic year 2006-07, and these gains carry on into secondary schools with a 6.7 percentage point increase at GCSE since 2006-07. The literacy and numeracy framework, introduced this year, will drive further improvements by raising expectations of the standards of literacy and numeracy that young people should achieve by specific ages. Across the country, behaviour and attendance are also improving, driven by Welsh Government action and the introduction of school banding.
There are still too many young people who disengage from mainstream education and training at the age of 16, 17 or 18, however. Pre-school, primary and secondary experiences, and the family and home environment, of course, have a significant impact on the behaviour and attainment of young people. Increased investment in early years, and support through Flying Start and Families First, is targeted to address these key issues through early intervention. In terms of re-engaging young people in mainstream education and training, however, I believe that we must also identify the needs of young people at a personal level. We need to broker and tailor support to meet their individual needs, and to ensure that the vast array of provision that exists for that very purpose is co-ordinated, and that it leads ultimately to developing the employability skills that will help them to secure a successful future.
The organisations with responsibility for the engagement and progression of young people in Wales must be accountable for delivering education and training provision and any additional support that meets the individual needs of the young person. We have set out clearly what our requirements are for schools in an implementation plan published last year. Building on this approach, I will publish in September this year an implementation plan for youth engagement and progression, setting out clearly our requirements of the delivery chain in Wales at a local, regional and national level. This will require all stakeholders, including local authorities, to develop an effective plan for delivery, co-ordinated at a local level. These plans will be based around the six elements of a new national framework for engagement and progression: identifying young people most at risk of disengagement; better brokerage and co-ordination of the support they need; stronger tracking and effective transition of young people through the stages of education, training and employment; ensuring that provision meets the needs of young people; strengthening employability skills and opportunities for employment; and greater accountability for local authorities and other stakeholders.
My ambition is for there to be a lead worker in every local authority with responsibility for providing a personal and immediate response to those young people identified as being at risk of disengagement, acting as a broker for them to ensure the delivery of the right level of support to help them make progress. I am not talking about creating a new organisation, or recruiting a new, large army of people to take on this role. It is about a better, more co-ordinated way of organisations working together to improve the support that already exists through local careers advisers, youth workers, learning coaches and third sector organisations. We will define the role, standards and outcomes required, and support local authorities to co-ordinate the delivery of this provision within their own areas.
It is likely that many of the young people identified by local authorities as being at risk of disengagement will also be the ones to have attracted funding through the pupil deprivation grant. This grant is a key opportunity for schools to secure direct funding for key initiatives to address socioeconomic disadvantage. I am determined that poverty and inequality can, and will, be confronted head-on by our schools, working within a system-wide infrastructure of local authorities and other partners. The allocation of a broker role by local authorities will be an important part of the package of support put in place to help these young people.
I also want to deliver across Wales the guarantee of an education or training opportunity to all young people aged 16 to 18. I will look to local authorities to ensure that this opportunity is available to all young people when they complete year 11, and Careers Wales, through the common application process that it is currently piloting, will support the process. A number of local authorities are already delivering one or more elements of the engagement and progression framework, but very few have all six elements in place, and it is clear that adopting just one or two alone, or operating such a system in a small number of areas, will not work. It is through the implementation of the whole framework across all 22 local authorities that we will start to make a difference to young people’s lives, opening up the opportunities that they deserve.
Minister, thank you for your statement today. I welcome the update. I agree with you wholeheartedly that we need to fight for some of these young people who are disengaging from mainstream education. I have a couple of points on your statement. You rightly talk about the fact that the family and home environment is one of the causes of people disengaging. You talked about Flying Start and Families First. These are some of the issues, but I want to make the point that these are issues that affect not just the usual suspects. The fracturing of our social fabric is having a strong effect on a great many young people these days, and I think that we need to ensure that we reach out to a wide variety of pupils who, in the olden days, would have been said to be middle of the road and probably quite safe, because they seem to be less and less safe according to research.
I am pleased to see the elements of the framework that you talk about here. The better brokerage and co-ordination of the support that they need is vital. My research shows that, for example, in Wrexham, Careers Wales acts as the co-ordinator; in Bridgend, the role is played by a 14-19 learning coach; and, in Cardiff, there is no individual agency for this role. Minister, I would like your view on how we can pull this all together so that there is consistent and coherent delivery.
Ensuring that the provision meets the needs of young people is another element of the framework. I wanted to touch on that because I know that, in previous committees that have been held, one of the things that has come to the fore is that there are a great many plans and initiatives from Government, local authorities, the third sector and non-governmental organisations. Are you going to be reviewing the number and range so that there is a lot less clutter, so that delivery is far more effective and so that we can see exactly what is targeted at whom and, more importantly, what works so that we can put more effort into that? I am assuming that you will be covering this through that particular element.
You talk further on in your statement about having a more co-ordinated way of organisations working together, and I would have no quarrel with that. I would like to point out that I think that it would be useful to add special educational needs co-ordinators in schools and people like that to that list of agencies. Especially with younger children, reasons for disengagement are to do with mental health issues and behavioural problems. Sometimes, they are not identified until quite late on in the primary school cycle or early in the secondary school cycle. I believe that special educational needs co-ordinators have a vital part to play in pointing out children who may, in the future, have problems with being able to make that transition through school and, therefore, stay in education.
I have a couple of other points. In point 6 of your youth engagement and employment action plan update, it states that the Real Conversation encouraged business leaders in the private sector to discuss barriers to employment. What have you learnt from this and how will the information be used by the Welsh Government for the benefits of NEETs? I apologise for using that term, as I absolutely hate it—I should have said ‘not in education, employment or training’. The Children and Young People’s Committee attributed the reduction in the number of people classified as not being in education, employment or training as a result of the Learning and Skills (Wales) Measure 2009. Given the amount of money that is being spent through the Government, and the European social fund funding, to what do you attribute this change? Can you point to it within the FYEP? I have two more points. Point 12 of the youth engagement and employment action plan talks about a one-stop-shop website that has been provided with a range of teaching strategies. Are you able to evidence this given that the levels of people not in education, employment or training are stubbornly high? How can you prove that teachers are using the website, let alone using it successfully in their lessons?
My final point is a little bit more on the strategic level. In a document supporting the January 2013 Cabinet paper, it was stated that the category of not in education, employment or training has been a stubborn problem for well over 10 years, despite the increase in those completing year 11. Obviously, those people do not remain in the 16-23 category forever. I know this statement is about youth employment, but I wondered whether you might be able to give us a view as to whether we ought to increase that age category, because those people are obviously moving on and continue to not be in education, employment or training. We need to tackle that at some point.
I thank the opposition spokesperson for her welcome for what has been outlined. I certainly agree with her on a number of the issues that she has raised. In respect of the need for targeted support, she talked about these issues applying to people whom she said were not the usual suspects. From our point of view, one of the issues that is important is early identification of those likely to find themselves in the category of not being in education, employment or training. We know that some local authorities do this well, but broadly, across the piece, this is not done by all. That is why we are saying that there are half a dozen key elements that need to be followed through by all authorities. In respect of the brokerage element, we have to move to a situation where we are building services around the young person rather than expecting young people to bend their lives around the different services that are available. Unless we manage to do that, we will continue to have this as a significant challenge in the future.
She was right to say that there has been significant money set aside for addressing these issues over time, and, indeed, the evidence that was given to the Enterprise and Business Committee in the past, in the previous Assembly—the evidence from third sector organisations—suggested that there was not a shortage of money. They were often all competing for the same young people, which suggested that those services were not effectively co-ordinated at a local level. We have seen good progress in certain authorities, such as Swansea, in the co-ordination of local services, and we need to build on that.
In respect of the points she made about additional learning needs and the role of special educational needs co-ordinators, I certainly accept what she has to say. We would obviously expect them to be included within the work that is being undertaken. There is also a role for the counselling staff who are in place in that regard. In respect of business organisations, we were discussing some of these issues with the Federation of Small Businesses just yesterday, and we expect to be discussing them with the CBI. There is an important role for employers in this.
In respect of the overall levels of young people not in education, employment or training, those figures, as I have said in the past in this Chamber, and in committee, have remained stubbornly high. It seems to me that, very often, if you look at what has really made a difference, it has been the state of the overall economy and the size of the cohort, and what we have to do is ensure that the money that we are putting into the system is better co-ordinated, that services are better delivered on the ground, and that there is effective support for individuals. That, I am afraid, has not been the case across the piece across the whole of Wales.
I would like to welcome the Minister’s statement today. I and Plaid Cymru agree with virtually everything contained therein. I would like to ask a few questions as to where we can go from here.
I agree with the approach set out in the statement in terms of creating the framework. However, there are no details as to what the framework will contain. So, we will wait to see, when the announcement comes—I believe that the Government is talking about September—how that will work.
I agree entirely with the Minister’s reference to the need to resolve the link between poverty, deprivation and educational achievement. This is a cause for real concern at a national level, and it is a cause for real concern for Plaid Cymru. While I agree with the Government at present, I also have to say that there is no sign as of yet of any success for the Government in this area—not just in the area that the Minister highlights, but in the broader field that the Government has been involved in. However, I am pleased to see that this is in place and that it is a priority.
I particularly want to welcome the statement made today that the Government wishes to provide a guarantee of training or education opportunity for each and every young person between the ages of 16 and 18. This is an idea that Plaid Cymru has been espousing and discussing for a number of years now. It was an idea set out in Leanne Wood’s paper ’A Greenprint for the Valleys’. It was also referred to by me in an article in the ’Daily Post’ about a month ago. Indeed, I proposed a backbench Bill last week to try to deal with this particular issue. So, Deputy Presiding Officer, if I am successful in the ballot, I will have a Bill on which the Government will be more than happy to collaborate with me as it progresses.
Plaid Cymru feels that it is important that we not only provide guarantees of such opportunities, but that it is set down in statute. There should be a statutory guarantee for young people in that age group. We do not now see in the modern economy and in a modern Wales that any young person should be left to dawdle without an opportunity to enter training or education, or to take any kind of third route, as it were—and I have a question for the Minister on that—because it is true that many people are so disengaged by the time that they get to this age that they are perhaps not ready to enter education or training. Indeed, perhaps their attendance in that education and training would be a challenge for others undertaking that training. So, does the Minister have any plans to work in the third sector on an alternative approach to ensure that opportunities are available to people in this age group to develop skills in a context that is, perhaps, not traditional in terms of education?
My final point is on apprentices. Plaid Cymru, of course, is pleased to have reached an agreement with the Government on expanding the number of apprentices. While there is no specific reference in today’s statement to apprenticeships, there was quite a lot of reference to the way that the careers service and the youth service generally have to work with these young people to make it clear to them that they do have options. The work involved in creating that apprenticeship option has to be introduced earlier than at the age of 16, and even earlier than at the ages of 15 and 14. You are talking about dealing with these people in the first year or two of secondary school when they are already starting to realise that they do not want to go down the academic route. You should be discussing with them the opportunities that are available more and more in Wales, thankfully, in terms of apprenticeships. There is a need for Government departments and for us all to be far more positive about the opportunities that are not of an academic nature for people in this age group. I welcome the statement and look forward to hearing more from the Government on how it will be implementing the laudable objectives set out in the statement. I thank the Government for taking such thorough action on Plaid Cymru ideas.
I thank the Member for his support for Labour’s programme for government. [Laughter.] We are taking forward an agenda that he clearly agrees with. I am pleased to have his support.
He referred to the detail of the framework. We gave the detail of the framework in this statement. There are six elements to the framework. We will be publishing the implementation plan in September, which will outline in more detail what will be delivered at a local level.
He asked about the third sector. I referred to the work of third sector organisations in my statement, and I referred in answer to the opposition spokesperson to evidence that we have previously had in the Assembly from third sector organisations about the schemes that are available. There are a wide variety of schemes that are supported, and from which third sector organisations derive funding. There are many opportunities for young people in respect of education other than at school that have been developed in partnership with third sector bodies. Obviously, we want to continue to develop those initiatives.
In respect of apprenticeships, my colleague, the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, has made a full statement on where we are going with apprenticeships in recent weeks, and I do not really want to add to that. He set out considerable detail regarding precisely where we are going with that.
The Member also referred to the important role of the careers service. Again, the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology made a full statement on that in the last week. I am sure that he will agree, now that the careers service has been returned to public ownership by this Government, it offers us the opportunity better to deliver services directly to individuals across Wales. He is right to say that, throughout the lifetime of this Assembly and that of different Ministers for education and skills, we have ensured that we have mutual respect, if you like, for both vocational and academic study throughout school and in further education institutions. We did that in the Learning and Skills (Wales) Measure 2009 in particular. Therefore, the frameworks are there, but there is a need, as I said in the statement, for the better co-ordination of resources.
I welcome the very interesting statement today, Minister. You will be aware that, in my constituency, ACT Training is a training provider and engages with young people who have not been engaged and who are not making progress in traditional forms of education. It currently has over 50 people who have been excluded from normal schools and it has over 300 young people on its engagement programme. I am interested especially in how you expect and will measure how local authorities and other partners work together. There is a provider here in the private sector—or third sector, depending on your definition—that is already providing a successful programme. How will this success be measured, together with that of other partners, in terms of value for money and the learning or work outcomes for the individual? How would you expect to replicate and make good use of that best practice or successful practice?
Part of the issue is that some providers and some organisations may not want to share what works and may see competitive advantage in keeping it for themselves. Equally, people in the statutory sector, in my view, should be encouraged to share practice, where it works, as there are many similar communities facing similar challenges. Therefore, I would be interested in hearing how the programme that you have announced today will help to achieve that in practice.
I thank my colleague the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth for reminding the Assembly of the work that is being done in his constituency by ACT Training, which provides a useful model for others to look at. In terms of what he asked about the issues of measuring value for money, clearly, as we develop the implementation plan and publish that, there will be very clear targets. I hope that there is an expectation, particularly when it comes to statutory services, that we expect organisations to adopt best practice or justify why not. Adopt or justify has been our approach to that for some time. There is still, unfortunately, quite a way to go in some areas.
However, there is good practice. I mentioned the effective co-ordination schemes within the Swansea area and the early identification that we know is being undertaken in Wrexham. Those are good schemes from which we can learn. The issue of ensuring that there is a specific individual—I use the word ‘broker’, but it does not necessarily need to be called that; it can be someone in an existing role, which is obviously what we would expect—who has the responsibility of ensuring that services are delivered to a specific young person who has those needs will be the test of the success of this service in future. It needs to be a personalised service.
I, too, would like to thank the Minister, particularly for his recognition of the value of the pupil deprivation grant in his statement today. I also welcome very much what I hope will be a much more strategic and focused approach to youth engagement. Over a period of time, Welsh youth disengagement has been consistently around two percentage points, or 20%, higher than the average in England. That is a tragedy not only for those individuals involved, but for our society because of the problems that it causes for our economy as a result of the lack of opportunities that those young people have.
One thing that leapt out at me from your statement, Minister, was what you said about the need to identify the needs of young people at a personal level. It is that individualised and tailored approach to support that is very beneficial to those young people, particularly if they have had a long period of disengagement from the educational system.
I very much agree with the sentiment there, Minister, and I wonder whether you could explain how you think you will best be able to support that when we are moving, with things like Careers Wales’s website, to a more reactive system of careers support, with young people encouraged to draw down the information that they want rather than having information handed to them on a plate. I would be interested to know what steps you hope to take to encourage proactive engagement to work alongside those support services for young people.
In a previous statement, the Deputy Minister said that he would be protecting one-to-one guidance for young people at risk of disengagement. Can you give us an idea of how you will identify those young people at an early stage? Will those identification methods allow you the flexibility to step in if young people whom you had not anticipated would become disengaged find themselves in that position?
I look forward with great interest to seeing the implementation plan. However, as an annex to his statement in January, I note that the Deputy Minister for Skills supplied a youth engagement and employment action plan. I am a little confused about the difference between an action plan and an implementation plan. Can you explain how the two will differ? Is this designed to replace your existing plans, or is it something that will complement them?
In terms of working with local authorities, the allocation of a lead worker system is important in helping to ensure that there is a champion within the local authority and within the team of support services, to ensure that this issue is firmly on the agenda. What issues have you identified in terms of that person’s capacity? Will one person be able to be that champion and also provide a brokering service for many young people who may come to them with complex needs?
Finally, with regard to the resources allocated to this, it is immensely important that this succeeds. However, my experience of trying to deliver culture change in education is that, even when you bring together those services that already exist, the co-ordination across agencies has a resource implication. What resources have you been able to allocate to ensure that this has the support that it needs?
I am not allocating any further resources to this. As Members will be aware, our budgets have been significantly cut by the UK Government. We have to ensure that our budgets are appropriately applied, and, indeed, third sector organisations giving evidence to the Enterprise and Business Committee in the last Assembly made it clear that there was no need for additional resources. They specifically said that the resources were there and that they were all chasing the same young people in terms of the services that they sought to provide. So, I do not think that this is a question of resources—this is a question on the whole of the organisation and on the appropriate tailoring of services to individuals in need.
The reorganisation of the careers service that we have undertaken will mean a greater focus on those in danger of finding themselves not in education, employment or training. That is very much the personalised service that we seek to obtain from Careers Wales in respect of those individuals. On the whole, the bulk of young people will want to pursue their careers options directly themselves. They will want to seek information themselves. I do not see that as a problem within the new service that is being developed. However, individuals with multiple needs or particular additional needs will require direct support from an individual. It is the identification of the appropriate individual that really matters to those young people if we are going to break through this issue of disengagement. Therefore, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson is right to say that there is an issue here about early identification, but there is also a potential issue of identification of people, subsequently, who were not earlier identified, as she put it. That relies on the effective work of professionals in the field, sharing that information with each other. However, achieving that is not necessarily rocket science; it is a question of learning from best practice.
The action plan that we published in respect of youth engagement set out the broad approach that we expect to be taken to these issues. Today, we are publishing a framework in respect of the progression of the six key elements that we think have to be adopted, particularly by the statutory bodies and local authorities. The implementation plan will put in place what needs to be done on the ground by those authorities to implement that progression framework. At the end of the day, this is very much an emphasis on personalised and tailored support to those who need it.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister. The statement on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board associated bodies has been postponed until 30 April.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the name of William Graham, and amendment 4 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Motion NDM5209 Lesley Griffiths
To propose the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the progress made to-date to improve end of life care service; and
2. Notes Together For Health: Delivering End of Life Care.
I move the motion.
Thank you for the opportunity to introduce this debate. Professor Baroness Ilora Finlay wrote in the ’Western Mail’ last week that
’there is so much living that can be done in a few meaningful moments.’
I will bear this in mind during today’s debate.
That sentiment reminds us that how well we care for our dying reflects how well we care as a society. We must remember that at the heart of our services is a person; not a patient, not a service user, but a person. A person with a family and friends, all of whom may have views that need to be heard and all of whom can contribute to supporting that person at the end of life. By planning, talking and listening to a person and their family, we can, in that last period, help to support a great amount of living.
Last Thursday, I launched ‘Together for Health—Delivering End of Life Care’. The plan builds on a record of considerable improvement in end-of-life care over the last five years. In June 2008, Viv Sugar presented the finding of the Welsh palliative care planning group to the then Minister for Health and Social Services, Edwina Hart. Indeed, much of the credit for progress in this area lies with her and the team of people that she drew together around this agenda during the last Assembly term. Viv Sugar’s report sets out an ambitious programme of work in end-of-life care. The recommendations of the report were accepted and the palliative care implementation board was established to deliver the short and medium-term actions set out in the plan.
Since that time, a great deal has been achieved. Access to specialist palliative care is now available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Wales. With a greater quantity of care, we have new arrangements that focus on quality and help organisations to learn from best practice and share experience to deliver continuous improvement. Those improvements in quality are not limited to the NHS. We all know the crucial role that hospices provide in delivering effective care. In that context, I am happy to support amendment 2 in the name of William Graham. Hospices have embraced the higher standards of quality and we have many excellent examples of partnership working between local health boards and hospices. Funding provided as a result of the Sugar report ensures that hospices too have access to specialist palliative care at all times, as well as supporting specialist nurses and the development of hospice-at-home services.
In the last financial year, and even in increasingly hard times, the Welsh Government provided £6.5 million to support end-of-life services, with £2.5 million of that going directly to hospices. In addition, we have seen the creation of an effective database to ensure useable information about those services. Training is now being provided to GPs and nurses to support awareness of palliative care services. Work in this area, perhaps more than others, really does demonstrate the value of co-production, the way in which what happens depends on a genuine partnership between people who provide services and the views of patients and families, which also make a vital contribution to the way that services can be improved. iWantGreatCare is a simple survey mechanism to capture the experience of the family, and Dying Well Matters is a programme developed to support families in telling the story of their experience of the death of a loved one.
Building on the firm foundations that are now in place, the new plan allows us to renew our focus in three key areas: planning, communication and integration. Where planning is concerned, death should not be a taboo subject. We all need to be prepared to have open and honest conversations with our families and with those who provide care for us. Every one of us must be prepared to plan for the end of life. We should have a realistic approach to death, where it can be predicted, and be prepared to put in place arrangements for the end of our lives. Making plans that establish our wishes and deal with practical matters is very important for families and those who live on into the future. Knowing where someone wants to die, for example, can make an enormous difference at the end of life—a sentiment echoed in amendment 3 tabled in the name of William Graham, which I am pleased to support.
We will monitor the progress of the plan by looking at the number of people dying where they are cared for, and at those who are on registers and have advance plans in place. In order to plan effectively, we must improve communication, assisting our professionals to have open and honest conversations about death. The plan focuses on giving professionals the skills they need to discuss death with patients in a way that is realistic and puts the emphasis on getting the right arrangements in place; not avoiding difficult subjects.
We all have a role to play in discussing how we wish to die with our families and close relatives. Ensuring that we have made our own wishes known by putting a will in place, for example, can reduce the stress on those left behind. Alongside planning and communication, better integration of services is also essential. We must work towards services being available wherever an individual wishes to die: in social care, in their home, or in a hospice. We must avoid unnecessary admissions to hospital for those in their last days of life, where they do not wish that to happen. To achieve this, the plan recognises the need to improve the skills of those working in the community, in care and social care homes, as well as those delivering services to individuals at home.
We will look at the number of emergency admissions for those receiving end-of-life care, and monitor the numbers of people who die in their place of care, to measure our success. Getting this balance right will take time, but it is important that we work towards it.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I would like to end as I began, by saying that the individual and his or her family are at the heart of our services. This plan puts an emphasis on listening to the views of individuals and their relatives, making joint decisions, and using their experiences to improve things. As life draws to an end, precious seconds are to be treasured. I look forward to hearing the contributions to this afternoon’s debate.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the five amendments to the motion and I call on Darren Millar to move amendments 1, 2, 3 and 5, tabled in the name of William Graham.
Amendment 1—William Graham
Delete point 1 and replace with:
Notes the importance of the provision of high quality end of life care services in Wales.
Amendment 2—William Graham
Add as new point 2 and renumber accordingly:
Recognises the contribution of the hospice movement, and other providers of care, towards high quality end of life care.
Amendment 3—William Graham
Add as new point 2 and renumber accordingly:
Recognises the importance of respecting the wishes of patients in the provision of end of life care.
Amendment 5—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Regrets that real term cuts to the health budget will hinder progress in improving end-of-life care in Wales and calls on the Welsh Government to reprioritise its budgets to ensure that appropriate resources are available.
I move amendments 1, 2, 3 and 5 in the name of William Graham.
I am pleased to hear that the Minister is accepting amendments 2 and 3 that we have tabled. It comes as no surprise to us that he will be rejecting amendments 1 and 5, but we tabled those for the record and I will speak to all of them in a few moments. I also want to indicate that we will be supporting amendment 4, which has been tabled by Aled Roberts on behalf of the Welsh Liberal Democrats. We do recognise the role that direct payments have to play in supporting people at the end of their lives.
I was pleased to hear the Minister make reference in his opening remarks to the need to have person-centred care and not to forget that we are talking about people here, when we are talking about end-of-life care. I think that everybody in the Chamber would agree that we have to ensure that, at all stages in somebody’s life, people deserve to have access to the highest quality care, and that includes at the end of their lives. I was pleased to see this plan being tied to some clear delivery outcomes and clear measures in terms of the ability of Assembly Members to hold the Government to account for its delivery. I am pleased, Minister, and I know that you will not step aside from your responsibility to ensure that this is delivered in the future.
When we talk about end-of-life care, particularly palliative care, we often link it inextricably to cancer care. This is not just about cancer care; there are people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, pulmonary diseases, cardiac diseases and many other conditions who are in a position where we ought to be able to plan their end-of-life care more effectively. It is really important that, while we have made significant leaps in improving end-of-life care for those people who have had a cancer diagnosis, that is not always the case for people with non-malignant conditions. If you think about people who have Alzheimer’s disease—a very specific condition—or other people with dementia, it is important to plan these things well in advance, in the early stages of dementia, before it becomes more difficult for a patient—an individual person—to be involved in the planning of the care that they will have.
It was also pleasing to hear the Minister take on board our reference to hospices and the hospice movement. My colleague Mark Isherwood, who chairs the cross-party group on palliative care, will speak a little more about the hospice movement in his contribution. However, it is disappointing that the hospice movement in Wales does not receive the same sort of financial support that is available to the hospice movement elsewhere in the UK. The Welsh Government ought to reflect on that and on the ability of the hospice movement to meet the demands that are being placed upon it.
On the choice of location as to where people want to end their lives, it is important that we make more support available for people to be able to exercise their choice to die in a place of their choosing. We know that the statistics bear out that around 67% of people would like to die at home, but only 26% of people are currently doing so. Macmillan, in particular, has been a huge champion of patient choice at the end of life. In addition to the monitoring, what specific actions might the Government be able to take in order to improve the ability of people to make that choice and have that choice enacted in the future?
I was pleased to see a couple of references in the delivery plan to the role of carers. I do not think that their role has been emphasised enough in the delivery plan; that is one area where it is deficient. I know that the Government values the role of carers, and their contribution is vital in terms of support for their loved ones, particularly in exercising that choice in terms of where people might want to die. Will you reflect on that, Minister, and on whether there is an opportunity to see more reference in the individual local health board delivery plans to the role of carers and the support that they can bring?
I have one final note and that is that there are specialist areas of palliative care that also need to be further referenced, in particular children’s palliative care. Will you make some reference to that, Minister, in your summing up of today’s debate?
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to review the benefits that direct payments can offer to improve the patient experience for people in receipt of end-of-life care.
I move amendment 4 in the name of Aled Roberts.
The Welsh Liberal Democrat group sincerely believes that, in the right cases, direct payments have a role to play in assisting people to have the end-of-life care that suits them best. Deputy Presiding Officer, like tax, death is one of life’s few certainties, yet, despite that, as a society, we find it very difficult indeed to talk about these issues ahead of time and to be open and frank within families and within society about these realities. The Welsh Liberal Democrats welcome the publication of this document. Like Darren Millar said, it is a document that, for once from the Welsh Government, is full of measurable outcomes. It clearly states what success looks like and indicates what it hopes to achieve by the end of the life of this particular document. I welcome that very much.
However, end-of-life care should not just be about a policy document. It should not be policy based or a systematic approach. It has to capture the individual wishes of that person and of their family. Professionals have a responsibility to ensure that patients and their families understand their rights and the choices available to them for their end-of-life care, because, as Darren Millar said, there is a huge discrepancy at present between the wishes of people—the vast majority of whom want to die at home surrounded by their family—and the ability of people to do that.
There are some significant barriers to making that happen. First are the skills of professionals working within the community to manage that process, and the support for carers and individuals to manage that process at home. I find this particularly difficult to talk about, given my own family’s experience last year. I literally still have nightmares about the last night of my father’s life. The voluntary organisation that is well-known in Wales for providing overnight support to families was not able to provide support for a further four days. That was the earliest that my family could have an overnight sitter. My father had long passed away before that resource became available. I watched as well-meaning and qualified professionals struggled during daytime hours to manage his symptoms. Believe me, at 3 a.m. as you watch your family member suffer, you really do begin to question why people sometimes take drastic action. It was the loneliest three hours of my life as I waited for the rapid response team to come to try to control my father’s symptoms. However, we managed to achieve the death that he wanted—at home, surrounded by his family. Despite the awfulness of it I, for one, am really glad that we managed to achieve that for him. The issue is that other families may have resorted to ringing 999 and their loved one may have ended up in a hospital. So, we need to ensure that practitioners have skills and that there is 24-hour support available to families. Support during the daytime hours was very good and it was there. However, after 5 p.m. that support became very difficult to get hold of.
In conclusion, Minister, what engagement is the Welsh Government having with the Westminster Government’s review into the Liverpool care pathway? This has filled our media airways recently and there have been lots of high-profile cases about the views that the Liverpool care pathway is, in some way, deficient. The review has been started, under the chairmanship of the cross bencher Baroness Neuberger. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what engagement the Welsh Government is having with that review of the Liverpool care pathway. At present, there is a great deal of public disquiet about that. We need to have some clarity for the public and for the medics who are working in this particular field, and I would be grateful to hear from the Minister how he is engaging with that process.
Plaid Cymru will be supporting amendments 1, 2 and 3. We are not against reviewing the benefits, as in amendment 4, but we would be against direct payments, and we will be voting against amendment 5.
A lot of the tone of ‘Together For Health: Delivering End of Life Care’ is very much what we are hearing from the Welsh NHS at the moment. Indeed, it is not dissimilar to what I heard at the public meeting, which I mentioned earlier. We are being told that the care model is outdated and needs to take into account an ageing population and that care should be moved back into the home. There are all sorts of ideas that may support that. However, the proof, of course, is still to lie in the pudding. Plaid Cymru supports the intention of the Government to provide more choice for people about where they die, but it is the outcome and how this care is delivered that remains the issue.
Our manifesto commitment states that we will work with the voluntary sector towards a consistent approach to funding for hospices and palliative care in the community, and we will ensure that the necessary medical skills exist in every community so that people can die in their own homes if that is what they wish. It is crucial for us as scrutineers to pay close attention to the performance indicators set out and to ask the Welsh Government to outline in more detail how it will achieve its aims. My main concern is that if we implement a system that is not fully robust, we may end up with people dropping off the radar. It makes all the difference between going home to die and being sent home to die. There are many incidences in my area where processes are failing people, so that those who are waiting to go into hospital or a nursing home sadly end up dying in their home because they did not get the treatment that they needed. So, while it is important that we support people’s right to die at home, many people whom I have spoken to locally feel that it is not the appropriate location for them or their loved ones.
I am more than happy to back greater integration between health and social care. Again, as we mentioned in the previous statement from the Minister, in fact, as we should acknowledge, it is essential. It should therefore reduce costs but provide a comprehensive and seamless service for users. However, again, I worry that we have yet to see the full details as to how this will be done.
Funding for hospices needs to be reformed, so that hospices can plan care on a long-term basis. The specific needs of services in rural areas need to be addressed through any funding changes. The lack of funding for community-based healthcare services is indicative of how health boards have struggled to provide these services properly. I have real concerns here, because the promises that we hear are frequently not borne out in evidence on the ground.
Finally, as others have mentioned, the role of Marie Curie nurses in our communities is important. You will all know that I am doing a swimathon on Friday for Marie Curie. In all seriousness, I met the Marie Curie nurses who work in Neath Port Talbot. The sterling work that they do in going into people’s homes to ensure that they can die with dignity is vital. If we can secure more provision or support for those services, that may take up the slack for the health boards, which, as we know, are struggling at the moment in that particular area. End of life is something that we find difficult to discuss as human beings. However, at the end of the day, we have to discuss these issues instead of perhaps sometimes trying to talk around them. Perhaps the Minister could be open to new ideas with regard to how charities and third sector organisations could become more involved—I am not saying the private sector, before anybody raises that, but it is important that we acknowledge the hard work that is done by organisations other than the health service as you would naturally see it.
The subject of this debate has been recognised—as has already been mentioned—as one that could be uncomfortable for many people to discuss, especially when talking about loved ones. However, I would like to commend the Welsh Government on the publication of ‘Together for Health—Delivering End of Life Care, A Delivery Plan up to 2016 for NHS Wales and its Partners’, so that we can open up the debate in the public arena. End-of-life care is a vital area, particularly given our rapidly ageing population. It is becoming ever more important to raise awareness of what constitutes one of the most difficult periods faced by individuals and their families. In particular, I wish to congratulate the Government on its holistic approach to this issue—an approach that aims to provide a package of care that is both fitting and dignified, and that embraces a more rounded vision of end-of-life care. There are several key aspects of end-of-life care highlighted in the publication that represent fundamental principles that must be followed if we are to achieve the kind of service provision that patients want delivered.
As the Minister has said, these individuals must be viewed as people, not just as patients or service users. A focus on developing a person-centred, tailored-to-fit care provision is critical to respecting each person’s wishes and hopes. People have a right to be treated with dignity and respect, and to expect a high-quality level of care wherever they choose to receive it, be that in a specialist facility or in their own home. This emphasis on the individual is crucial, so that they maintain control over their own circumstances and have a say in their care arrangements.
To achieve this, it is important to identify patients who will have changing care needs towards the end of their life at an early stage through the use of palliative care registers and regular multi-disciplinary team meetings, involving primary and social care. Such an approach will help patients and their families to make realistic choices for care while having confidence that those choices will be fulfilled. Such services may include medication, 24/7 care, care teams providing support with personal hygiene, respite care, and many other issues. This emphasises that end-of-life care is not simply a health issue. It involves other sector partners and third sector groups, as well as patients and their families. There is a need for effective and productive collaboration between the NHS, local government, the third sector and the Welsh Government in order to provide well-coordinated and integrated whole-service provision. Social care provides people with the support needed to remain in their own homes, and support for those caring for their loved ones as well. We cannot forget that.
At this point, I want to highlight the publication’s recognition of the excellent work of third sector organisations such as Marie Curie. I know that there are many others: Macmillan Cancer Support and the Alzheimer’s Society have already been mentioned. I want to focus on Marie Curie. Bethan has already highlighted the fact that, in my constituency, there is a team that works alongside Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board staff. This has a tremendous impact on delivering high-quality end-of-life care for people in the local area. I have also met this team and its partners, and it is a scheme that I would encourage others to follow.
I know from personal experience of the impact that this has on patients in their last days and on their families. Similar to the experiences related by Kirsty Williams, in the final days of my father’s life, in December, the close working relationship between Marie Curie staff and the district nursing staff provided him, and us, with the nursing and care support he needed at that time, day and night, ensuring that he died in his own home, in the company of his family, as he would have wanted. It allowed me to sit with him and ensure that he did not die alone—which is something that can haunt family members if it happens.
I also know that we should encourage and provide the support at an early stage, as appropriate to the patient’s needs. However, this requires good communication from and between clinicians, together with the family being involved in and accepting the difficult decisions and discussions that have to follow. Again, my personal experience reflects a mixed bag of practices. On the clinician side, I had some discussions with them that did not always work wonderfully, but I also have to admit putting off until as late as possible discussing the need for end-of-life care. It is important for families not only to be more aware of the diagnosis, but also of the support is out there, and for them to feel encouraged and confident to embrace the support and make good use of it.
The months, weeks and days remaining in a person’s life are very valuable. Society should be responsible for providing a means of helping people during their last days in a dignified way, and of helping the family to deal with their bereavement.
As chair of the cross-party group on hospices and palliative care, I have consulted Hospices Cymru to inform my contribution to this debate. Last week, it responded to the Welsh Government’s ‘Together for Health—Delivering End of Life Care, A Delivery Plan up to 2016 for NHS Wales and its Partners’. Hospices are key to the delivery of that plan. They are confident that, by working together to achieve its aims, NHS Wales and local hospices can make a lasting difference to patients and their families.
The majority of end-of-life care in Wales is provided by hospices in a range of settings, including in-patient units and hospice-at-home services. It is vital that, at a local level, health boards make full use of hospices’ expertise to ensure that they best meet the needs of their communities. Across Wales, each year local charitable hospices care for more than 5,500 people who are affected by terminal illness, and hospices are, of course, owned by their communities, commanding widespread public support. Our ageing population means that hospices are increasingly seeing people with complex health needs, often involving care for more than one condition. Access to cost-effective, high-quality palliative and end-of-life care will become ever more important. The number of new patients seeking support from local independent hospices has increased by more than 15% during the past four years alone. There are lessons that the NHS can learn from our hospices, especially with regard to the integration of care services in the home, community, hospital and hospice.
Despite pressures on public spending, NHS investment in palliative care must be sustained. However, average statutory funding varies greatly across the UK. According to the latest available hospice accounts in Wales, average Welsh Government funding for hospices in Wales was 23% of expenditure, down from 24% in the previous year and varying between 17% and 44%. Overall, hospices in Wales receive less Government funding as a proportion of expenditure than those in England, at 34%, and Scotland, at 46%. While welcoming the delivery plan, Hospices Cymru emphasised the importance of hospices being at the forefront of this. Hospices provide the majority of end-of-life care in the community and have a vast amount of experience in delivering these expert services. They therefore need to be fully engaged, not only in assisting the Welsh NHS in delivering the plan, but in training staff at care homes and in the NHS.
The delivery plan itself is a very general one, detailing how end-of-life care should be delivered, whatever the setting. There is, therefore, a huge workforce to be trained and educated. It is vital that hospices are given as a minimum a three-year service level agreement at current funding levels to enable them to continue to deliver their invaluable services.
However, I was told only this morning by the chair of Hospices Cymru that hospices in Wales are still struggling to get more than a single year’s service level agreement from any health board, and in some areas they still have no service level agreements. Some health boards are potentially cutting service level agreements and funding for the voluntary sector, which would increase their costs and devastate end of life patient care. On average, hospices in Wales are already topping up the NHS by 70%. To even consider cutting these vital services is unbelievable. Charitable hospices need to be recognised as absolutely key to delivery. There is growing acknowledgement across the health and social care sectors of the benefits of hospice and palliative care for people with both cancer and non-cancer diagnoses. MS Cymru states
‘that the way in which we approach palliative care must respond to the fact that people with MS have a highly unpredictable condition…and that for some people, the kind of care that would be classed as end of life may be necessary over many years’.
The charity Together for Short Lives notes that children with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions have very different palliative care needs to those of older people and calls for children’s palliative care to be fully represented on the Wales palliative care implementation board. Both the Alzheimer’s Society and Macmillan Cancer Support have called for a person-centred and equitable approach to care across Wales, which would improve the dignity of care that people with dementia and others receive at the end of their lives. We must increase care that supports people to die where they choose, recognising—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. Thank you, Mark.
I also welcome ‘Together for Health: Delivering End of Life Care’ and the Minister’s introductory remarks. It is very important that we try to give people a good end of life in the same way that we want to give life a good beginning. Birth and death should have equal attention in terms of the way that they happen. The one thing that we can be sure of is that it will happen to us all, so what we are talking about today is very personal. We all know—and will have come across this—that, when someone dies suddenly, out of the blue at a good age, people tend to say, ‘That’s just the way I’d like to go: no pain, no suffering, no time to be afraid, no time to think’. It may be a good way to go for them, but it makes it more difficult for those who are left behind and there is no time to plan. For the people that we are talking about here—those who have a terminal diagnosis and know that they have a certain amount of time in which to live—there is the opportunity to plan to minimise distress, and to look at the needs of the carers and the families. As has been mentioned a lot this afternoon, there is an opportunity to choose where you want to die, which, in the majority of cases, as has been said, is at home. We need health services, social services and all the different agencies and local authorities to work together in whichever setting somebody chooses to die or ends up dying.
I also want to make a few points in this debate about the role of the voluntary sector and the hospice movement. I am the vice-president of George Thomas Hospice Care, which is based in the grounds of Whitchurch Hospital. I am also a member of the cross-party group that Mark Isherwood chairs. George Thomas Hospice Care delivers care at home for people with terminal illnesses. It is a consultant-led service, with specialist nurses assigned to each patient working in a multidisciplinary way with social workers and, very importantly, welfare rights workers. One point that is often ignored is that, if you have a terminal illness and are reaching the last stages of your life, it is quite an expensive, difficult time. Macmillan held a meeting in the Assembly last year about the cost of living with a terminal illness. What was highlighted there was the amount of benefits that people who are terminally ill had not claimed—in many cases not having disability living allowance and many other benefits that they could have had. It is an important part of end-of-life care to ensure that people have all the financial resources that it is possible for them to claim.
Mark Isherwood talked about the difficulties of funding for hospices. Traditionally, hospices have been run and have been set up by the voluntary sector, and there is a well-versed tradition in that. I think that is very acceptable. It is good that it is the voluntary sector that is delivering a lot of the hospice care. George Thomas Hospice Care, in fact, has the same sort of figures that Mark referred to: 72% of its funding comes from voluntary income, and 28% from the statutory sector.
You see across the whole of the country, for all these marvellous voluntary organisations, endless rounds of fundraising events, including summer fairs, the famous Macmillan coffee mornings, and the development of charity shops. Indeed, we debated earlier the issue about rates for charity shops, which is so important for them. When you think about it, a lot of the care that people receive at the end of life is based on the generosity of the public and of volunteers in ensuring that this high-quality, person-centred, specialist care is delivered. It is a good thing that a lot of that care is in the hands of the voluntary sector, but it is important that we have good standards and access to all services in whichever sector somebody dies.
I just want to end by quoting what Macmillan said in its briefing. It said that
‘83% of people say that they are scared of dying in pain, while 67% say they are scared of dying alone, and 52% are scared of being told they are dying.’
Those are issues that we can tackle. The plan, and the Minister’s commitment, will enable us to help with some of those frightening statistics.
One of the ways in which we can dispel this anxiety and fear of death is to talk about it, so I am delighted that we are having this discussion today. We spend an awful lot of our time in this Chamber discussing the effectiveness and quality of healthcare in hospitals, but obviously the quality of the services that the NHS can provide to enable people to have a good death has little to do with new medicines and surgical skills.
There are many things that the NHS can share with the voluntary sector in ensuring that people get the death that they want. I do not think that hospices should be set up on a pedestal that they do not always deserve. Certainly a constituent of mine recently had a very difficult death that has left the family wondering why this person was allowed to suffer. However, in looking at the way in which the health service can offer pathways, and the way in which we, the public, can feel more comfortable in discussing death, we could look at one of the other aspects of the health service, which is the way in which prospective parents are encouraged to have a birth plan—this is now commonplace—to get them to go through their wishes about this extraordinary event, including planning for unforeseen complications. These skills that health workers have can be transferrable, and applicable to the way that we encourage people to plan for having a good death. Most people want to die at home surrounded by family, friends and familiar possessions, so why is it that they end up in hospital, even against their express wishes? Most commonly it is because families or carers do not feel able or confident to care for them in their final hours. Services that are easily available in hospital, like pain management, are not readily available in the community. In some cases, families or carers are not willing to take on the responsibility. For example, if the dying person’s place of residence is a residential or nursing home, as Mark Drakeford has already referred to, there may well be financial drivers that come into play in some cases in pushing that person into hospital. So, if people are to get their wish to die at their normal place of residence, the services need to follow them to support the individual and their families to ensure that they have the backup they require if things get difficult.
The most difficult aspect of the Minister’s delivery plan is the one relating to the early detection and identification of patients in the last year of life. As Julie Morgan said, people are afraid of being told that they are likely to die in the forthcoming year, so very sensitive communications will be required with that person, as well as, where appropriate, with their relatives. The Commissioner for Older People in Wales says that there should be a zero tolerance policy of people being put onto palliative care pathways without their knowledge or their family’s knowledge. I absolutely agree with that. However, in some cases, the individual does not want to share the information that they are about to die with their family, because they do not feel able to cope with the emotions that go with that. So, the NHS is often left with the consequences of that in the form of complaints from the grieving relatives of the person who has died who did not understand what was about to happen. The solution for the NHS has to be very clear recording of the patient’s wishes. I entirely agree with Macmillan that everyone approaching end of life should be encouraged to have a written care plan.
The rising instance of dementia also means that it is vital that we have end of life plans in place early on so that the patient is still able to make their views known while they can. I am delighted that as a way of fostering this rational discussion, Cardiff University is having a festival next month called Before I Die, which is described as a festival for the living about dying, with lectures on re-thinking the organisation of death and the death industry, which is one of the most venal, dissecting how death is portrayed in film and discussing ‘Paula’, a book by Isabel Allende about her experience of dealing with her daughter’s coma and eventual death. Therefore, I am delighted that we are having this debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I hope to make this a brief contribution in the debate this afternoon. I thank the Minister for bringing forward the debate. When I was health spokesman, I visited many hospices around Wales, and two of the points that came out quite clearly to me, from the hospice movement in particular, was the ability to get service level agreements from health boards so that their work could be recognised, and, above all, that there was no desire to use the voluntary donations that they achieved within their local communities to make up some of the statutory provisions in many health boards at the time. The second was the important transition in the hospice movement between children’s hospices, such as Tŷ Hafan, and adult hospices, such as Holme Tower Nursing Home in Penarth, and the difficult position that people find themselves in when they turn 18, and a place such as Tŷ Hafan is unable to continue the care, for however long that might be. This is a perennial issue that has been wrestled with by various Ministers. I can remember raising it with your predecessor but one, Edwina Hart, given that she was looking at it at the time. The Government needs to spend some time working with the hospice organisations to overcome this situation.
However, it is incumbent on us all to face the reality that we will all die some time. I heard the Minister touch on the point about wills and facing the real prospect of putting our affairs in order. Sadly, not enough of us take personal responsibility for sorting out our affairs and for making sure that our loved ones are protected. The state has a role in assisting, via the provisions that the state provides, such as the health service, social care et cetera. However, ultimately, we all as individuals have a huge responsibility in facing the ultimate prognosis that we will pass away at some time, hopefully far later in life than some people have to face.
We also have to face the reality that when you are providing provision, death is not just old people passing away; it occurs across the age spectrum. The service needs a vision, and the experts that you need in the community, helping and assisting families, need to have a different type of training if they are dealing with a young person’s terminal diagnosis rather than an elderly person’s diagnosis. Equally, there are complexities in the conditions that we deal with today. Motor neurone disease is discussed time and again. I well remember Dr Dai Lloyd raising the position of the Motor Neurone Disease Association in Wales, tackling the condition with very little support in the community, because its numbers were so few. However, for the families and the individual, in particular, the diagnosis and the long-term implications are devastating. The level of support needed, especially the further into the condition you go, is complicated and a huge package of care is required.
However, I welcome the document that has been brought forward by the Government. As I said in my opening remarks, we, as individuals, have a huge responsibility to face up to. Hospitals are not a place where we should go to die; they are a place where we should go to get better and return to our normal lives. The impact on health professionals on the wards, whether nurses or other clinicians, of losing a patient can be equally devastating. It is a fact that a certain percentage of people will pass away in hospital, but ultimately we should not be referring people to hospitals to die. Our hospitals are there to make people better. Any provision in the community to make sure that the community support is there in order to assist people in an end of life situation has to be endorsed and embraced. However, I am sure that this will be a long journey that we will have to undertake because of the complexity of the situations that people find themselves in. The message that I would like to convey is that, above all, it is the individual who has to take responsibility about putting their affairs in order when they face an end of life situation.
There are around 370,000 unpaid carers in Wales, many of whom are looking after loved ones who are nearing the end of their lives. In the ‘Committed to carers: Supporting carers of people at the end of life’ report from Marie Curie Cancer Care and Carers Wales, we are reminded that, with appropriate support, caring can be life-affirming, deeply satisfying and can provide a real opportunity for carers and loved ones to say goodbye to each other. However, without proper support, caring can negatively impact on the carer’s health, employment and relationships.
Central to the Welsh Government’s approach to end-of-life care is the aim of helping people to die in the place of their own choosing, and success will be measured against this. As we have heard several times, most people would prefer to die at home if they were terminally ill, although, at the moment, only about a quarter of people are able to do so. The majority die in hospital—the place where people say they would least like to be. If the Government is to achieve its aim of helping more people to die at home, carers will be key partners in delivering care.
The Welsh Government has already acknowledged that carers are essential partners in the care of the people they look after. The Carers Strategies (Wales) Measure 2010 reinforces this, as does the duty on the NHS to consult and engage with carers when deciding on care plans. Helping carers to support their loved ones to die at home takes that partnership to the next level, and I am pleased to see a specific section in the Government’s plan that is dedicated to the family.
The Marie Curie Cancer Care and Carers Wales research paints a very varied picture of the care and support that carers currently receive. Some people receive exceptionally good support that enables them to go on caring, but that is not always the case. The report shows how relatively small things make a big difference to carers, such as feeling that GPs are being honest and straightforward with them, nurses and social care staff arriving for appointments on time, and recognition that carers have distinct information needs that are very separate from the information needed, perhaps, by the person they are looking after. Therefore, caring for someone—particularly at home—can be intense and physically and emotionally demanding. Carers may need support for the good of their own health, and local authorities must have robust emergency plans in place in order to prevent carer breakdown when things become too much.
Turning to bereavement, I am pleased to see a renewed focus in the Welsh Government’s plan on services and support for people who have suffered bereavement. Carers will not always experience grief in the same way. Some will grieve even before their loved one has passed away and others will grieve some time after the person has died—perhaps many months after. As the Government takes forward its work on bereavement, I echo Marie Curie’s call that it does so on the basis that services should be flexible and that carers looking after people who are at the end of their lives should be able to access these services when they need them, whether it is before their loved one has passed away or many months later.
I was also pleased to see in the Welsh Government’s plan a commitment to developing a rapid response to all causes of distress in the patient and support for their family and close carers, including spiritual support. The work of chaplaincies is invaluable in supporting people at the end of their lives and in giving strength and support to carers and family members while they care for their loved one and comfort when they grieve. We often forget that doctors, nurses and other NHS staff are people, too, and that working to provide care at the end of somebody’s life can be difficult and draining. Therefore, chaplaincies are also there to support NHS staff and to bring something very valuable to the workplace. I would like to close by inviting the Minister to take this opportunity to reaffirm the Welsh Government’s commitment to supporting chaplaincies and to recognise the important role that they play in the NHS family, particularly in the context of end-of-life care.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister to reply to the debate.
Thank you to all Members who have taken part in what I think has been a constructive and insightful debate and, at times—and quite properly, given the nature of the discussion—a deeply personal one as well.
To dispose of the amendments first, I have already indicated the two amendments that the Government will support. As Darren Millar anticipated, amendments 1 and 5 will be opposed by us. Slightly more reluctantly, we will also not be able to support amendment 4 in the name of Aled Roberts, not so much because of the sentiments that it contains, but because of an anxiety that it might imply that we would introduce direct payments to NHS care, for which we have no plans. However, if the amendment is more in relation to the social care elements of continuing healthcare packages, for example, I will undertake to discuss those with the Deputy Minister for Social Services in the context of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill.
Turning to a number of the specific contributions, thank you to all those Members who commented favourably on the outcome-focused nature of the plan. We are trying to focus more not on what we put into services, but on where services lead us to. Those types of measures are highlighted in the plan.
As Darren Millar rightly pointed out at the beginning, the plan goes far beyond cancer, as other Members also said. He mentioned the needs of carers, as did Rebecca Evans in her contribution. I will reflect on whether the plan adequately reflects carers’ needs, and whether there are things in it that we could strengthen.
Darren also mentioned children’s issues. I know that there has been some discussion as to whether the plan adequately represents the needs of children. I will briefly mention three things that the plan does. First, we are to reconstitute the palliative care implementation board. Children’s needs will be directly represented on that board. Secondly, we will extend the 24-hour seven-day a week telephone advice rota currently in place for adult services, so that there will also be specialist advice on palliative care services. Thirdly, to take the point that Andrew R.T. Davies mentioned about transition services, these services are really important in relation to the care of children who are dying. We have a new national clinical adviser on transition. Some services are already being developed between the Marie Curie service in Penarth and children’s services locally. We want to see those being developed, and the plan makes provision for that.
Rebecca referred directly to bereavement services. In Wales, 21,000 children live on having lost a sibling or a parent. Well over 30,000 children live on having lost a close friend or family member. Providing bereavement services for children and others is also at the heart of our plan.
Kirsty asked what we were doing about learning from the review of the Liverpool care pathway. We do not have the Liverpool care pathway in Wales; we operate the integrated care priority approach. Very crudely, the distinction is this: the Liverpool care pathway begins with a conversation between clinicians, and the clinicians make a set of decisions that they go on to relay the family. The Welsh approach begins with a conversation with the family.
You will be aware, though, Minister, that many Welsh people living on the border may receive their hospital care in an English district general hospital. Therefore, the Liverpool care pathway has significance for Welsh people.
I am not denying its significance at all; I am just describing the difference in approach between the two. We have been asked by the people running the review in England for the details of what we do in Wales, and we will look to learn from their experience too.
I thank Bethan Jenkins for what she had to say about her experience of Marie Curie. We are open to new ideas, as we want to learn from people’s experiences. I also thank David Rees for what he said about his experience of Marie Curie.
Mark Isherwood rightly drew out the contribution that the hospice movement makes. He knows from his work in chairing the cross-party group, which has been fully represented in the debate, that we aim to work very closely with hospices. The plan is closely supported by them.
Finally, to pick up on some points made by a number of Members about the importance of the plan not simply for people who are in the process of dying, but for people who are left behind afterwards. Julie Morgan pointed to the intensely practical matters that are important in that context. The fact that you are bereaved does not stop the bills from coming through the letterbox. If you have no way of being able to pay those bills, because your name does not appear on them or because you have no access to a bank account, then the distress that you face in those difficult days is amplified for reasons that can be overcome. As Jenny Rathbone said, difficult deaths live on in difficult lives. The plan has three things at the heart of it. It has a message for workers about making sure that it is the needs and wishes of families and individuals that drive this process; it has a message for services about working more closely together; and it has a set of messages for each one of us, as citizens in our own right, about the responsibility that we have to plan ahead, to talk to those people to whom this will be an important part of their lives in the future, so that dying is made better and bereavement can be coped with better. I hope that this afternoon’s debate will go some important way to helping us all to do better in this area in Wales in the future.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree amendment 1. Does any Member object? I see that there is objection. I therefore defer voting until voting time, which now follows.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Before I proceed to the first vote, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? [Interruption.] That sound was not the bell. [Laughter.] The bell tolled for us all. I see that there are no Members who wish for the bell to be rung.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to NDM5209.
Amendment not agreed: For 25, Against 26, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to NDM5209.
Amendment agreed: For 51, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to NDM5209.
Amendment agreed: For 51, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 4 to NDM5209.
Amendment not agreed: For 25, Against 26, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 5 to NDM5209.
Amendment not agreed: For 13, Against 33, Abstain 5.
Motion NDM5209 as amended:
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the progress made to-date to improve end of life care service;
2. Recognises the importance of respecting the wishes of patients in the provision of end of life care;
3. Recognises the contribution of the hospice movement, and other providers of care, towards high quality end of life care;and
4. Notes Together For Health: Delivering End of Life Care.
Result of the vote on NDM5209 as amended:
Motion NDM5209 as amended agreed: For 51, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I ask those Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
This short debate was postponed from 20 March, and I call on Ken Skates to talk to the subject that he has chosen.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, for allowing this important debate today. I have agreed to allow Mike Hedges, Suzy Davies and Peter Black a minute each to speak on my chosen topic today. The fortunes of our various media are vastly different, and while opportunities are opening up in terms of local television, community radio, the internet, TV and other forms of broadcasting, the print media is an industry struggling to undergo transition in the twenty-first century.
Today, I would like to focus on the print media, specifically our newspapers, particularly those which serve people outside of our capital. I choose to draw attention to newspapers beyond Cardiff for one simple reason: most of the journalism that focuses on this institution and the actions of the Welsh Government is based in Cardiff. So, politicians, including myself, are all too often tempted to talk primarily in terms of the Cardiff media, at the expense of the media beyond this city.
Minister, to say that there is a problem in the long-term financial sustainability of local and regional newspapers is something of an understatement. Two hundred newspapers have shut down in the UK in the past decade. In 2013, a further 10% fall in regional advertising is predicted. It means that this year, spend on advertising in the UK’s local and regional newspapers will dip below £1 billion for the first time. That is down by 60% on the £2.5 billion spent in 2005. All but two UK regional dailies saw a year-on-year drop in circulation in the second half of 2012, according to the latest ABC figures.
In Wales, the figures showed circulation at the ‘South Wales Evening Post’ down 9.8%; the ‘South Wales Argus’ was down 7.7%; the ‘South Wales Echo’ was down 6.8%; ‘The Leader’ was down 6.1%; and the ‘Daily Post’ was down 3.4%.
The stable door has been left unlocked, the horse has long bolted and we have been left scratching our heads, staring at the empty space in front of us. In short, the two ways in which local newspapers have traditionally been funded—through the cover price and through advertising revenue—are now bust, and alternatives, especially online advertising revenue, need to supplement them.
The recent plans announced by Media Wales to cut 16 editorial jobs at its in-house titles is an example of the twenty-first century problem that we face. Local papers in its stable include the ‘South Wales Echo’, the ‘Merthyr Express’, the ‘Gwent Gazette’ and the ‘Cynon Valley Leader’, which for the last century have been a key part of the DNA of the communities that they have served. They simply cannot survive by dint of the advertising and sales that they generate.
They have reported on, commented and debated all the big events that impacted on south Wales and the valleys over the last five or six generations, yet, like every other local paper in Wales, they are now locked in a fight for their very survival and are left having to continually cut resources and their workforce in order to survive. Surely, no matter what the parent company says, these cuts will have a hugely damaging impact on both the quality and output of local and regional journalism in the areas that they serve, represent and reflect.
One of the Media Wales proposals is to close down its features department and create a unit based in Liverpool to produce generic content for an audience spanning multiple counties and countries. As many in this Chamber have said previously, this will only serve to damage the unique community and regional identities of the local papers it will serve with content. The slow drip of editorial cuts is not confined to Media Wales titles and has continued to have a degenerative impact on established local newspapers in every part of Wales and the world over the last 10 years. That is why we should worry about the future of good journalism and newspapers in the cities, towns and villages of Wales.
The local press plays an important role. The social values of local papers have helped bind communities together, especially in outlying areas in north and mid Wales, where they are of immense value in creating both a shared identity and a shared purpose. One needs only to look at the important role local newspapers have had in influencing both the success and failure of public health campaigns in Swansea to see the power of local papers. For good and ill, the impact and influence that local newspapers have had on the uptake of the MMR vaccine in communities in south Wales shows the immense reach of local titles rooted in their community and the trust that people still hold in them, despite their relative decline in circulation.
Minister, despite much gloom, there is innovation going on. This lunchtime, I hosted a presentation by Paul Taylor, the digital director of NWN Media, which over the next few months is launching a new online platform for its stable of newspapers and has promised to invest in the coming years in a pan-north Wales online portal.
Good local online platforms, such as Magnet in Port Talbot, North Wales Extra and Wrexham.com, as well as a host of other community journalism initiatives across Wales, are to be warmly applauded. Indeed, some local papers are looking at an even more radical model of news. Kevin Ward, editor of the ‘South Wales Argus’, recently urged readers to voice their views on setting up an online paywall for its publication, after he said that the current online news free-for-all was ‘unsustainable’. In his view, there was ‘no doubt’ that the existing model of charging for print editions, but not for those online, was financially unsustainable in the longer term for both the ‘South Wales Argus’ and other papers across Wales. The ‘South Wales Argus’ is owned by Newsquest, and its US parent firm, Gannett, has increased the number of newspaper sites with paywalls from six to 78 in the last year. This may well be the future for news in the Newport area.
Across Wales, we have a particular problem. As a unified political system up until 1999, we never developed the infrastructure of a vibrant Welsh media, because our politics was, for so long, intertwined with England through direct rule at Westminster. We are now presented with a distinct democratic deficit. No doubt some may see the problems in Welsh newspapers as no great shame or as a chance to dance on the grave of an industry that has been too slow to innovate. However,I do not share that view.
During evidence to the National Assembly’s culture committee in 2006, it emerged that 90% of people in Wales read a paper that does not contain any Welsh news. This is a particular problem because we need not only a strong scrutinising capacity inside the Senedd, but also a robust local, regional and distinctly Welsh journalism that can challenge our radically changing political system from the outside, too. I have said before that, in Wales, we have spent much too long worrying about the legal, political and administrative infrastructure of newly devolved Wales without spending nearly enough time examining the cultural and civic tools that are needed to keep a vibrant democracy on its toes. A dynamic fourth estate is not an added extra; it is absolutely vital to creating the civic thickness that we need to make it work both efficiently and effectively.
While many of the factors impacting on print journalism are global in nature, there is something constructive that we could be doing. From road traffic orders to job adverts, through to public notices and recycling information, millions of pounds every year are spent by the Welsh Government, the NHS, local councils and other public sector bodies in advertising and communicating with the public. The public sector is not there to subsidise local newspapers, but having a coherent fund that structured advertising spend could help both parties to get a coherent message across and help to stabilise print revenues in the most important transition period—from print to online. If local papers, both online and in print, could once again became the place where important local information about healthcare reforms, traffic information, job adverts or changes to important services, such as refuse collection, was housed, then the public would be much better informed. We have had a lot of focus recently on the way in which public procurement can be used to support local businesses. I do not see why we cannot do the same with local newspapers.
In addition, local newspaper groups need to adapt to the reality of the new Welsh democracy evolving around them, by focusing more on what happens in the Assembly. If they did, I am sure that more politicians would come to talk about media issues on a Wales-wide basis rather than in a Cardiff-centric manner. To that end, I urge newsgroups that currently lack an Assembly-based correspondent to form consortia and employ Senedd correspondents.
I understand the point that is often made about the importance of saving good journalism on the one hand, which is an important public service, and saving local newspapers, which is simply a way of carrying good copy, on the other. However, my big worry with this is that we might dilute the quality of the former if the platform for good, strong local journalism disappears without anything to take its place. Imagine a community where the only news and pictures are carried online and provided for free by users—a ‘Facebook-max’ future, if you will. In such a world, news stories would lack impartiality, comment would be value loaded, editorial control would be constrained by the lack of primary-sourced information and high-quality pictures would be lost amid a plethora of poor amateur shots. Political activists would be free to push their agendas under the sneaky guise of campaign groups and our news agenda would, doubtless, be dominated by those who shouted the loudest. Such a community would be divided, poorly informed and badly served.
There are no easy answers. Some suggest that the inevitable future for daily papers is that they will become weekly journals, as a way of cutting costs, but there are dangers there too. Figures show that, in many cases, when papers go from being daily to weekly, after initial uplift they then lose sales figures.
We have spent a lot of time of late discussing the future infrastructure of Wales, with great thought going into ultra-fast broadband, high-speed rail or the Severn barrage. We now need to give the same investment of time, creativity and thought to an equally important part of our national infrastructure—national, regional and local journalism.
Local newspapers are in decline but, just like good books, great writing and good journalism will not die, even if the delivery method changes. We cannot wait for innovative solutions to the woes of the local and regional press to be engineered far away and imported back into Wales. We have the ability—and we certainly have the need to do it ourselves—to develop a unique model that others could copy. If we stand by and let the regional and local press wither on the civic vine, we will all pay a heavy price.
I thank Ken Skates for giving me the opportunity to speak for a minute. I live in the ‘South Wales Evening Post’ area; that name will, possibly, change soon. It is a local institution. It has the highest readership of any local paper in Wales, helped—I would say—by a Premiership soccer club. Swansea and south-west Wales would be a different place without it. It would be a worse place without the paper. Community discussion would be different and less informed than it is now. Quite simply, we need our local papers. To quote rugby referees, use it or lose it.
In the late 1980s, as a councillor elected to the West Glamorgan County Council, I could speak at 11.45 a.m. and read what I had said in the late Post at 5 p.m. Now, in this high-speed, digital age, it takes until at least the next day—and possibly a couple of days—for that same information to make its way from the council debate to be reported in the local papers. There are many blogs on the internet, but it is not the same as news. It is important to have unbiased news coming out from a newspaper to inform the public. That is what democracy needs. One of our great weaknesses in Wales, as Ken Skates said, is that we have very little reporting of Wales. If we lose our local papers, it will be even less.
I also thank Ken for bringing this debate to the Chamber and for giving me some time to comment on it. The emphasis on community leadership in his speech is absolutely right and, of course, the regional and national press has an important role in that regard. One of the disadvantages of a free press is that the state cannot interfere in its economics. Its future is very much at the mercy of the market. That is why we need to find those new models that are more sustainable.
I also agree on the power of scrutiny offered by a strong Welsh media. However, we have never had that in the Senedd, even back in 1999. Finding those models is important, but we must also think outside of the traditional models that we now have and find a way of doing that by using the new means of communication, particularly the internet. I think that those models will very much be focused on that part in the future. I do not have any solutions either, but I certainly know that, unless we find those solutions quickly, we will all be very much the poorer for it.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Culture and Sport, John Griffiths, to reply to the debate.
I begin by thanking Ken Skates for tabling this debate. I also thank other Members for their contributions. Obviously, there is—rightly—cross-party concern about developments in relation to the media industry in Wales. As Ken has made clear, there is something of a crisis at a local and national level. It is, for the reasons that Ken has outlined, something that all of us here need to be concerned about.
We know, of course, that Wales is in a challenging situation. A low percentage of the population here read newspapers specifically about Wales, which is in contrast to the situation in Scotland, for example. Unfortunately, the UK print media does not give a good service to Welsh citizens. You would, in fact, have to look very carefully in the UK’s leading papers to find any news about Welsh politics. When articles do appear, they are often negative and misleading. Ken Skates rightly talks about a democratic deficit and the negative impact on civic society in Wales and devolution. Unfortunately, the media is not stepping up to the mark, in terms of being up to pace with the modern Wales that we have and ensuring that it plays a full and positive role. The statistic that Ken cites—90% of newspapers that are read in Wales do not have any news at all about Wales in them—starkly illustrates that lack of engagement and the knock-on effects in terms of scrutiny, as he rightly said. Therefore, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of improvements to be made.
Ken has outlined some possible ways forward around advertising, notices and procurement policy. He mentioned an interesting idea in terms of those papers that do not have a correspondent based here coming together in a consortium to make sure that they have, collectively, a Senedd-based correspondent. There are ideas around, and it is very good to see them being put on the table in today’s debate. We know, clearly, that local newspapers have an essential contribution to make in order to provide news that specifically reflects what happens in local communities, in a way that national British newspapers do not provide. Mike Hedges stated his appreciation of the role that the ‘South Wales Evening Post’ fulfils. That is one example, among a number in Wales, of the importance of local and regional newspapers. It is clear that that role is strong and could be strengthened. We need to make sure that we are recognising these issues.
It has been disappointing to hear, in recent years, of the many job losses in local newspapers and the closure of offices. The Welsh Government was very concerned to hear earlier this year of further job losses at Media Wales. As a Government, we wrote to Trinity Mirror and Media Wales to express our concern and disappointment. I will be meeting with Media Wales in a few weeks’ time, and that will be a further opportunity to underline the importance of maintaining the distinct content that its Welsh readership currently enjoys.
We know, of course, that there is a background to these matters. The Welsh Government does not have any direct responsibility in relation to the newspaper industry in Wales. However, we have grave concerns, particularly at the local level. Many local newspapers remain under threat, mainly because of reductions in sales and advertising revenue, and the increasing emphasis on the internet and mobile devices. Of course, Wales is no different to the majority of the world in that respect—these trends are worldwide. The newspaper industry has to adapt, particularly in respect of technological changes. Although a number of developments have had a negative impact, technology provides important opportunities as well for community journalism to make its mark online, thereby ensuring that communities are engaged. The beauty of interactive technology is that it is easier today for more people to report their own local news, which is very empowering, than it was in the days of the printing press. That also offers important advantages, in terms of rolling coverage, not just once a day or once a week.
Therefore, this is about balance. Traditional print newspapers continue to have a role, but they and others need to adapt to the online world that we live in today, and there needs to be mutual complementarity.
We have not really discussed issues related to broadcasting—radio and television—and that is, obviously, a very important part of the overall picture. The Welsh Government remains very much engaged in developments around S4C, channel 3 and ITV Wales. We work with our broadcasting advisory panel, and there is much work taking place in terms of television and radio. However, Ken Skates has concentrated on print and some of the new online developments, and I will do likewise.
The Welsh Government supports a number of initiatives that aim to increase opportunities for citizens in Wales to receive information about their local communities. These include Golwg360, the online Welsh-language news service. It is continuing to develop and an increasing number of Welsh speakers are visiting the site to obtain breaking news stories. It also plays a vital part in the Welsh Government’s aspiration of seeing plurality of news services in Wales. It is interesting to note that one of Golwg’s main priorities for the future is to provide hyper-local content.
I was very interested to hear Ken Skates mention the ‘South Wales Argus’ and the editor Kevin Ward, whom I know very well, and the initiative around pay walls for online news. It is really important, is it not, that if people are to access and value access to news in that way, that we address issues around sustainability in terms of charging? That is a really interesting initiative that the editor of the ‘South Wales Argus’ has taken.
As I said, I will concentrate on print, news service around print media and some of the related online developments, but, in passing, I will just say that, with our £100,000 grants for community radio, we have addressed an important part of the overall picture in terms of that locality.
I will go on to mention ‘papurau bro’ in terms of Welsh-language provision, because that provision is envied internationally. It is a printed Welsh-language community newspaper delivery. There are 50 or so titles across Wales and these receive funding from the Welsh Government. The first of these, ‘Y Dinesydd’, which covers the Cardiff area, was first published in 1973 and is still going strong today. There is not a patch of Wales that is not served by these initiatives. It is all-encompassing, grass-roots, journalistic activity and something that we can be proud of. We know that sustainability is an issue there as well, because the volunteer editors and writers are growing old and we could be in danger of losing a few titles each year unless a way can be found to enthuse young people in local journalism and modernise production and distribution. With more people turning to new technology for their news, it is vital that we help and make sure that new methods of communication such as these are sustained. Technology has a vital part to play in the future of the Welsh language and that is why it is such a central element of the Government’s five-year Welsh language strategy.
In conclusion, the Welsh Government is therefore very concerned at the current state of the media industry in Wales and very much shares the concerns of Ken Skates and other Members. A vibrant media sector is an essential component of a modern democratic society. As a nation with its own language, culture and political institutions, a strong media industry is essential to provide a comprehensive service that engages, informs, educates, and indeed inspires, the people of Wales. The Welsh Government will continue to stand up for maintaining full services in the Welsh and English languages at a national and local level.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
That brings today’s business to a close.
The meeting ended at 6.49 p.m.