The Assembly met at 13:29 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) in the Chair.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order, order. The National Assembly is now in session.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 1, questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services. Question 1, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision on mental health care? OAQ(4)0652(HSS)[W]
Thank you for the question. Of course, we continue to implement the progressive agenda for mental health services in Wales, as set out in the Mental Health (Wales) Measure 2010. Significant new investment has been made this year in dementia services, and in child and adolescent mental health services.
Thank you. There is great concern in north Wales, particularly as a result of cases such as Tawel Fan, about mental health care under the Betsi Cadwaladr health board. My attention was recently drawn to an exceptionally sad case in my constituency, where a gentleman was in Hergest in Ysbyty Gwynedd for some weeks after he attempted suicide. He had to wait for a brain scan. He should have been given a scan within a week because he was an in-patient, but the board considered him to be an out-patient and so he had to wait a long time. He was sent home, despite the appeals of the family. Having got home, he did actually commit suicide.
This is another example of a family believing that they have been let down by the Betsi Cadwaladr health board, and feeling that the board has failed in its duty to provide adequate care in mental health. If I get in touch with the Minister with further details, can I have an assurance that the Minister will look at this issue? Also, what assurances can the Minister give to my constituents, as well as to patients and staff across north Wales, that the Government will tackle this failure in order to restore confidence in the service?
Well, of course, this is the first time that I’ve heard about this case, and I am most happy to receive the details in order to look into the case that Rhun ap Iorwerth refers to. Generally, of course, we are aware of the challenges that exist in north Wales in the field of mental health, and that is why Peter Meredith-Smith has been up there as part of the actions we are taking to assist the health board. The Deputy Minister for Health has today issued a written statement referring to the further assistance that will be given to the board, particularly in the field of mental health. I look forward to the residents of north Wales—the patients and their families—having confidence in what we are doing to improve things in the field of mental health in north Wales.
Minister, the Mental Health (Wales) Measure 2010 has been an excellent piece of legislation since it was first introduced by Jonathan Morgan Assembly Member, and then taken on by the Welsh Government, but it can only do so much with the resource that it has. It’s important, I’m sure you would agree, to make sure that people are kept mentally health aware throughout their lives. You’ll be aware of mindfulness and similar low-level psychological programmes that could increase and improve access to mental health services; the Assembly has an excellent record internally of promoting it. How is the Welsh Government promoting mindfulness and similar programmes in schools and, indeed, other workplaces?
Can I agree very much with what Nick Ramsay has said, that the work that we do through the Measure, and in secondary mental health services, has to be based on a broad-based sense of how we help people to sustain mental wellbeing throughout their lives? Mindfulness is an important part of the armoury that we can put to work in that regard. We’re very fortunate in having such an excellent centre in Bangor, which has been world leading in the development of mindfulness approaches. Through counselling services in schools themselves, through the third sector partners we have in this field, and through some direct work that we are doing in the Welsh Government to increase the number of people who work within the health service who are able to use mindfulness techniques, we are attempting to take forward the agenda that Nick Ramsay outlined.
Minister, we recently saw some worrying statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics, which showed suicide rates increasing, particularly amongst the male population and, more particularly, for some middle-aged men, and there are also clear correlations with areas of greater deprivation. I’m sure you’ll be looking at these statistics, Minister, and I wonder whether you’ll be making any changes to mental health policy in Wales as a result.
I thank John Griffiths for drawing attention to those very serious sets of statistics. We know that suicide does not fall at random in the population. It is concentrated by gender. Men are much more likely to commit suicide, while women are much more likely to self-harm. We know that it doesn’t fall at random over the life cycle, and men in middle age are particularly vulnerable to suicide, as are men aged over 75. And it doesn’t fall at random by geography either, because suicide is more likely to happen in deprived parts of Wales, as in other communities too. I believe that we are beginning to see the impact of sustained austerity in those people’s lives. There is a long, long, historical association between periods of austerity and rising suicide rates.
What we’re doing in Wales through our ‘Talk to Me 2’ suicide and self-harm strategy, which was completed earlier this year, is focusing on what are called ‘priority people’—that’s priority groups of people who need help; priority places—places where suicide is more likely to take place; and priority services as well—those care providers that are particularly likely to have an impact on it. I was in Merthyr only last week, where the Samaritans were launching their new service for suicide prevention in the south Wales Valleys, and I think it’s a good example of how we are trying to tackle the issue that John Griffiths has identified.
Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board
2. Will the Minister provide an update on special measures in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board? OAQ(4)0644(HSS)
I refer the member to the written statement that was published earlier today.
I’m very grateful to you referring to the written statement, Minister. You will know that, for many people in north Wales, there’s a long way to go to restore the public confidence in the ability of the leadership of that health board to tackle the problems and challenges that it faces. Do you accept that it was a mistake to not put this particular board into special measures some two years ago, when the first identification of problems was made by the Wales Audit Office and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, and that had we done that, this problem would have been stabilised by now, and the board would not need to be in special measures for a further two years from today’s date, as a result of your announcement recently?
I think that’s a very unfortunate and unfair way to categorise matters, and, in particular, it avoids and ignores the fact that we have an independent process to advise Ministers on the appropriate time to place a health board into special measures or not, and, indeed, an independent advice process to advise Ministers on whether an organisation should come out of special measures. I have been very clear from the outset of special measures that the decision to place this health board into special measures should not, must not, and has not, been taken at the convenience of a politician. The health board will not come out of special measures at the convenience of a politician. We will continue to listen to the independent advice from Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, from the Wales Audit Office and the chief executive of NHS Wales. We are, however, determined to support and challenge the health board to improve, as it must to restore public confidence for the people of north Wales, so that they do receive the quality of healthcare that they are entitled to expect and deserve.
It’s now five months since the board found itself in special measures, and it’ll be another two years, clearly, until it comes out of special measures, or so it would seem. Therefore, it is still in a state of crisis. Do you feel that this is the time to make far-reaching decisions, such as the decision in the context of maternity services?
Thank you for the question. In terms of the position of Betsi Cadwaladr and maternity services, they’ve been very clear from the legal process and the engagement with the public that they need to engage with them about decisions over the service. There is a consultation that has just ended, and I don’t think that they can contract out of making a choice. All of us, I think, would want to see a high-quality service that continues there and that mothers and babies are safe. I’m not party to or making a decision about that particular service, but I don’t think special measures should allow you to contract out of your ongoing responsibility. In terms of the special measures process, it’s important to remember that two and a bit years is pretty normal. There are 13 trusts in England in special measures; there were nine trusts previously in special measures in England as well, so the length of time is about right. It’s exactly what you’d expect from looking at England, and the health board must continue to provide high-quality services to the people of north Wales and deal with the specific areas that were set out in the five particular areas for special measures and will continue to receive advice from the independent process to understand what is an appropriate choice to be made for the future progress of the board and when it should come out of special measures.
Deputy Minister, the processes in England and Wales are quite different, and we acknowledge that this is the first time a health board in Wales has been placed in special measures. Obviously, you have by now received independent evidence that states that those measures must remain in force for about two years. May I therefore ask you as a Government to consider that, if you want to build the public’s confidence in the board anew, that there is a need for some kind of process between community leaders, be that on a local government level or with north Wales Assembly Members, to receive more information about what exactly is being done to improve performance, because at present, as regards waiting lists, things are not improving?
I thank the Member for the question. You’ll note from the written statement that I’ve issued that there is going to be a formal, six-month review at each point, where that tripartite independent process will take place and will provide advice. That will be provided to stakeholders and the wider public as well. So, there is a review process to understand what progress has been made. It’s also important to remind ourselves that the health board has made progress from the start of going into special measures. That’s been recognised by those independent regulators. They also recognised that there’s much more to do.
I continue to talk to every single health board in Wales about standard performance issues around waiting times, accident and emergency performance, broader unscheduled care and a range of other measures, and I will continue to do that. Betsi Cadwaladr will not be left out of that particular process. They recognise, as we recognised when they went into special measures, 0that they need to improve their relationship with the local population and local stakeholders. So, in my regular visits to north Wales, I do talk to other stakeholders as well about the relationship, and I do think that there is a growing sense of confidence in the new leadership. The important point is that the interim chief executive is there to do a job and is doing a very good job. The permanent chief executive, when that person is appointed, needs to carry that forward with a team at a senior level, including, of course, the staff of the organisation—16,000 staff who work for Betsi Cadwaladr are key stakeholders and it’s really important that they are properly included and engaged in the progress of their organisation and the care that they provide for the people of north Wales.
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I now call the party spokespeople to question the Minister, starting this week with Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Elin Jones.
Minister, there are two consistent criticisms in terms of patients accessing new drugs. One is inconsistency in terms of decisions between health boards and the other is the fact that the exceptionality criteria can be impossible for an individual to prove. The system is changing in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, and the health committee in this Assembly has recommended that changes should also be made in Wales. When are you going to introduce the significant changes that are required as the current system clearly isn’t working?
The Member will be well aware that we commissioned an independent review of the process and that we are implementing the recommendations of that review and those are also informed by the work of the Health and Social Care Committee. That is why I have provided £0.5 million in this financial year to the All Wales Therapeutics and Toxicology Centre, because at the core of the recommendations is the need to make sure that we have consistent decision making across the whole of Wales. The centre has been hard at work; it has produced new ways of decision making that it has now put out for discussion with the health boards. Those discussions will come to a conclusion on 19 November at a meeting of chief executives of health boards in Wales and then we will have in place, as a result of the independent review and the health committee’s recommendations, a new system in which cohort decisions will be made, where they can be made across Wales and where greater consistency can be guaranteed in those cases where health boards will continue to deal with individual matters.
Minister, in the past two years, the number of patients who contribute a top-up for their new drugs has more than doubled. Patients contributed £260,000 in the last financial year through the top-up costs for their NHS drugs. How can you assure the Assembly that not one budgetary decision for a drug has been taken by a health board on the basis of a patient having the ability to make a top-up payment?
Well, I agree that the whole issue of top-ups is one that is ethically fraught. I well remember the discussions that went on over the introduction of possible top-up contributions in the Welsh NHS, and it’s not an easy decision to make, but in the end, the Minister at the time decided that to deny people the ability to make a top-up would not be the right decision to make. It’s absolutely clear in the rules, however, that the ability of someone to make a top-up is not part of the decision-making process. I will make a further inquiry to make myself completely confident that the suggestion that the Member makes, that financial considerations might be playing a part in the way that these decisions are arrived at, is not the case. I certainly would expect that not to be the case.
Therefore, the regime that you describe as ‘ethically fraught’ has doubled in the past two years in terms of the number of people who use and access drugs through this ethically-fraught system, as you describe it. I appreciate your honesty in describing it in those terms, but the reality of the situation at present is that, if a patient is turned down time and again, possibly, under the individual patient request regime, then it is possible, at the end of that process, for the patient and the doctor to consider a top-up approach. For me, that equates to a system where, if an individual has the ability to contribute a top-up, then they have an additional chance of accessing that drug. I would ask you, therefore, Minister, to give us an assurance as an Assembly that there are no situations arising where the ability to pay for a drug can ultimately decide whether an individual can access drugs here in Wales.
Well, I’m certainly willing, as I said, to take one further look at that matter and to provide the assurances that I can. The fact that something is ethically fraught does not necessarily mean that the result is the wrong one, and I know just how carefully this decision was made and weighed up. I would not wish to see the number of top-up cases continue to rise in Wales, but to deny someone the ability to make a top-up when that is the thing that they feel is in their best interests would be a very serious decision as well, and equally ethically fraught in its implications.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I now call the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, according to the Welsh Government’s own statistics, the number of NHS beds in Wales that have been lost in the past two years stood at 434. That’s more than the total number of beds at Withybush hospital in Haverfordwest, Prince Philip Hospital in Llanelli, Price Charles Hospital in Merthyr and Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny. Do you think that’s a good or a bad thing?
I don’t think that beds are the currency that we should use in trying to assess the success or otherwise of the Welsh NHS. Numbers of beds in Wales have gone down—of course, they’ve gone down a lot more slowly than they have in England, where his party is in charge, where the percentage of beds—[Interruption.] No, no, if he wants to make a point about whether beds themselves are our currency, then he has to face up to the fact that, where his party’s in charge, the percentage of beds has gone down much faster than in Wales. Now, this is because a number of important things that lie behind it. Let me just give you one example. For the first time, last year, in Wales, the percentage of elective surgery that was carried out on a day case basis went past 50 per cent in Wales, and that is a good thing. That’s what patients would prefer. If you’ve got more than half of your elective surgery being carried out on a day case basis, you will need fewer beds in hospital to accommodate that.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. You’ll know also, of course, that in England they actually develop community services before they axe hospital beds, unlike the situation here in Wales. You can shake your head all you like, the fact remains that one in five hospital beds have been lost in Wales over the past decade. More beds have been lost in the past two years than is the total capacity at a number of hospitals here in Wales, and the bottleneck in our emergency departments, as a result, is getting worse and worse and worse. If bed numbers is not the answer as far as you’re concerned, Minister, what is the answer to sorting out the bottleneck in our emergency departments, which have not met their targets—the targets that you set them—for many years?
There are a number of solutions that need to be applied in the emergency departments. To begin with, we have to do more to persuade people only to come to an emergency department when they are genuinely in an emergency. Where bed capacity is needed—and there is a sensible point somewhere in what the Member said—which is when emergency departments are under pressure, you sometimes need to be able to flex the number of beds you have in order to accommodate that. The Welsh NHS, in common with other NHSs in the United Kingdom, has a series of measures that are taken during winter months to increase the number of beds available. That’s the right way to do it: you use beds when they are needed and not portray the idea that a bed is always the answer. There are sometimes many things that can be done in the community to continue to look after people successfully. Beds as a currency is not a sensible way to think about the NHS.
Do you accept, Minister, that bed occupancy rates are a critical component of determining whether hospital services are safe and whether there is sufficient flexibility in the system to ensure that, where peak demand is there, that those beds are available for use? If you do, what action are you taking to ensure that bed occupancy rates across Wales, in our hospitals, our acute hospital settings, are not in excess, as they currently are, of royal college recommendations?
Bed occupancy rates are one of a series of ways in which you can assess the resilience of the system. There are parts of the Welsh NHS where bed occupancy rates are not a difficulty as far as royal college guidelines are concerned. We have an 88 per cent bed occupancy rate in mental health services, for example, which means that there is tolerance within the system. We have other parts of the system—critical care would be an example—where bed occupancy rates are above what we would like them to be. We use the figures in a sensible way to manage the system.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Now, the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Kirsty Williams.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, despite last-minute press releases coming out of Whitehall this morning, there is still a great deal of anger and resentment amongst junior doctors in England over Department of Health proposals to change their contract. Do you, health Minister, see this as an opportunity to recruit and retain much-needed additional medical staff in Wales, where no such changes are on the cards?
I understand the point that the Member is making. Junior doctors will, undoubtedly, draw their own conclusions in contrasting the way we go about these things here in Wales and the way that they are being so badly mishandled in England. I must say that the announcement yesterday from Jeremy Hunt is absolutely an example of how not to go about these things. Here in Wales we believe in sustained dialogue and discussion with our staff, sometimes around some very difficult issues, but getting round the table together to try and find a way through is the way that we would want to do it. Yesterday’s last-minute dash to try and dangle some actually non-existent cash in front of junior doctors to influence them in their ballot for industrial action shows just how badly wrong things have gone at the Department of Health.
Minister, whilst you are absolutely right that junior doctors will draw their own conclusions about where they want to practice their medicine, could I urge you to be a little bit more proactive and tempt them our way? F1 applications are open now for this month. Why can’t the Welsh Government take proactive steps to let medical students across the border, and those who have trained in Wales, be aware of the fact that these changes are not taking place in Wales and that they should apply for F1 positions in our hospitals? They should start their medical careers here and they can go on to have a very productive career in medicine looking after Welsh patients. Will you be a little bit more proactive, Minister, and use your department to proactively market the opportunity to come and work in Wales?
Well, let me thank Kirsty Williams for anticipating something which we are definitely going to do. The main application round actually opens next week and to coincide with that we will launch a new campaign, ‘Make your future a part of our future’. That’s what we will be calling it. It is an appeal to junior doctors to come here and work in Wales. It will explain to them the benefits of working in Wales, both in a professional sense and in a lifestyle way. It will highlight all the very, very many reasons why committing your future to the future of the NHS in Wales will be good for you as an individual, and will explain to junior doctors that if you come and work in the Welsh NHS, you’ll be working somewhere where you are valued, where the views of staff are valued and where your contribution will be at the heart of the way that we will continue to develop the health service here in Wales.
I’m grateful for that answer, and I look forward to seeing what I hope will be a very proactive campaign indeed to attract people to apply for F1 positions here in Wales. Minister, you’ll also be aware that the Secretary of State for Health in England was criticised recently for misquoting research into the so-called ‘weekend effect’. There is undoubtedly a weekend effect, but the cause of that is less than clear. There is evidence to suggest that the weekend effect is actually caused by sicker patients going to hospital at the weekend, and that may be as a result of inability to access primary care in a timely manner. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to ensure we have adequate access to GPs and primary care services, so that we can be sure that, when patients do get sick at the weekend or out of hours, they are not left at home longer than they need to be, thus then becoming sicker when they are eventually admitted?
I too read Dr Fiona Godlee’s demolition of the statistics that were misquoted by the Secretary of State when making his case about excess deaths in hospitals at weekends, and a very effective demolition it was too. I agree with Kirsty Williams that strengthening primary care services, so that people don’t end up unnecessarily going to hospital, is an important strand in addressing that issue. We won’t be doing it in the way that the Secretary of State in England has gone about it, where you will also have seen the collapse in many parts of England of the experiments which the Department of Health has been running over access to primary care at weekends—commissioning group after commissioning group withdrawing from the pilot because patients won’t use appointments on a Saturday afternoon or on a Sunday. What we are going to do in Wales is to work through our new 64 clusters to make sure that there are services available for patients at weekends closer to their home, and amongst a group of GPs who share a common interest in providing services for that group of people. That, I think, will be a way which is both sustainable in terms of staff, convenient in terms of patients and will do the job of strengthening timely care in primary settings without the very difficult and wasteful way in which these services have been attempted to be developed across our border.
Alcohol-related Brain Disease
3. Will the Minister make a statement on treatment and rehabilitation services for alcohol-related brain disease? OAQ(4)0641(HSS)
Thank you for the question. The Welsh Government has a strong record of supporting substance misuse treatment and rehabilitation. We have recognised the importance of effectively treating alcohol-related brain damage, and our new substance misuse delivery plan for 2016-18 will set out the specific actions we will be taking to improve diagnosis and treatment in this area.
Deputy Minister, thank you very much for that answer. Of course, you had the opportunity recently to visit an excellent facility in Brynawel just on the edge of my constituency—a specialist unit which provides these services to a very valued degree. What work is the Welsh Government doing to actually promote the use of these services, and to make these available as widely as possible to those who need and can benefit from these services?
Thank you for the follow-up question. I did have the opportunity to visit the Brynawel rehab centre that you referred to, which is in the Ogmore constituency; I wouldn’t want to not say that—even though the Member is not here, she is always watching. It was a particularly interesting visit, to meet people who had already gone through the rehab process on a variety of the programmes they run. In particular, Brynawel have been at the forefront of helping us to develop an alcohol-related brain damage service. The research they’re undertaking is actually helping us to understand the current unmet need. So, we are working with them and with commissioners to understand that unmet need, and also in the guidance that we’ve provided to commissioners, to make sure they’re doing something about meeting that need that does exist. We’ve written to commissioners over the summer, we’ll continue to work with Brynawel and we look forward to seeing the proposals that they will bring forward to us about continuing to develop this service in Wales.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. From personal experience, I’m aware of a similarity between the symptoms of a patient who may be mildly intoxicated but has sustained a traumatic head injury and someone who has had a mild fall but is suffering from alcohol-related brain damage. Does the Minister agree that establishing a robust and clear pathway for care, led at a national level by neurosurgical teams working in co-ordination with mental health teams, would ensure appropriate services are provided for patients quickly and efficiently in our district hospitals?
Thank you for the question. The Member makes a fair point about understanding what we could and should do to treat this particular problem. Now, that’s partly about understanding what the need is. In the response to Mick Antoniw, I indicated we do need to properly understand the current level of need. There’s work that’s already been ongoing with Public Health Wales and others to understand the scale of the challenge that we face, and then what is the appropriate way to deal with that and treat that? So, for example, I know that Brynawel and NHS partners have been looking at work that is already ongoing in the Liverpool area, where I think they’re at a more advanced stage in this particular area. We want to learn from that already established best practice to then understand how we properly provide a service here that meets the need that we do recognise exists within communities across Wales.
Minister, obviously alcohol-related brain injury is one of the consequences of alcohol consumption, and we’ve got to look at the causes as much as anything else. What are you or the Welsh Government doing to encourage front-line staff to undertake training and awareness campaigns to ensure that we avoid the situation where too much alcohol is consumed at all ages—not at any particular age, but across all age ranges?
Thank you for the question. This is an area that, of course, came up in the committee’s inquiry. In particular, we’re looking to roll out the brief intervention programme; it’s delivered by Public Health Wales, and we’ve already got some encouraging evidence about its impact on reducing alcohol misuse, both for front-facing services, but also for it being rolled out in a range of workplaces as well. For example, I presented awards to employers in Wales that are making a difference in creating a healthier workforce, and Wrexham council were a good example of where brief interventions are already being trialled in that particular workplace. We’ve already got 8,000 people trained to try and undertake the brief intervention programme, and so I’m looking forward to more evidence about that particular impact and how we have a useful, relatively easy to deliver service that can actually help to make a real difference for people in and outside of the workplace.
Well, Minister, I’ve recently read an article on pregnant women drinking who are inflicting potential mental damage on their unborn babies by drinking during their pregnancy. What measures will you be taking to try to encourage women who are pregnant not to drink at all, please?
Well, we’ll continue to take proper account of the advice that we’re provided with about drinking levels during pregnancy or otherwise. I do know that, for example, a number of midwifery teams have decided they ought to encourage women not to drink at all during pregnancy as that is the safest way through. But I think the point is: we need to understand how people properly understand and manage risks. There is a point in time when a woman is pregnant where there’s an opportunity to have a wider conversation about health behaviours for her and her unborn child.
At the more extreme end of drinking, we know that there are significant injuries that have been caused to unborn children by very heavy drinking during pregnancy. We need to have a measured and properly responsible conversation—not one where we’re preaching to people—where people trust a health professional to give them the right advice about making the very best choices for them and their child, both before they’re born and afterwards. You’ll have heard recently the chief medical officer talk about the first 1,000 days in a child’s life and the opportunity to get something right there that can last throughout their whole life. Well, those first 1,000 days also have to take care of what happens before that child is born and I do recognise there is a need to continue to have a conversation about alcohol during pregnancy.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on Designed to Smile? OAQ(4)0640(HSS)
Good progress is being made with the Designed to Smile child oral health programme aimed at tackling oral health inequalities in our most disadvantaged communities. Uptake rates are increasing year on year, and there are currently 92,948 children in 1,452 schools and nurseries across Wales participating in the programme.
Can I thank the Minister for that response? Does the Minister agree with me that this is an excellent example of preventative spend where the benefits may take several years to come through, but they will be very distinct benefits? Will the Minister also agree with me that there is nothing nicer than to visit a class of 11-year-olds in a deprived community and, when you talk about a filling, they ask what it is?
Well, that would be a fantastic position to be in, certainly, and I entirely agree with Mike Hedges that this is a programme where the benefits will be seen for many years to come. There’s been a 40 per cent reduction in tooth decay in children in Wales over the last 25 years. It shows just how long these programmes take to work. We estimate that the cost of the Designed to Smile programme is £3.7 million a year, but it pays back at least two and a half times the investment in costs avoided from having to repair the damage that would otherwise have been done. Although the information is preliminary, Designed to Smile really does look like it’s turning out to be one of those programmes that reverses health inequality, and those are pretty rare.
Although the Welsh Government accepted the recommendation of the inquiry into children’s oral health in Wales by the relevant committee in 2012 that it should publish the annual monitoring reports, those monitoring reports record activity rather than outcomes. How are you evaluating, if at all, the outcomes in terms of the dental health of children in Wales of the £3.7 million annual spend identified in the December 2014 report? Presumably, you’re having to look at similar demographics and placebo groups to establish whether this is actually justifying spend.
Thanks for that question. The Member is exactly right that we evaluate the success of this scheme by comparing groups of children in the schools that participate in the programme and schools that do not and also by comparing the outcomes for children in Wales against the outcomes of programmes elsewhere. In March of this year, the Welsh oral health information unit published its first survey of the dental health of three-year-olds in Wales. It showed that the average number of teeth affected by decay in Wales is now lower than the average in England and significantly lower than more directly compatible regions such as the north-west of England. So, we go about it in exactly the way that the Member has described.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the rise in the number of NHS prescriptions? OAQ(4)0645(HSS)
Thank you for that question. The rise in prescriptions issued by the Welsh NHS is explained by a number of factors, including the growth in population numbers, the increasing proportion of the population aged over 60 and the development of new therapies to address chronic conditions in particular.
It remains the case, I think, that Wales still dispenses about a prescription a fortnight per person, and that is, from the last figures available in 2013, still substantially more than in the other nations of the UK. What can the Minister do, in line with prudent healthcare, to tackle the problem of prescriptions that are never used and prescriptions that should never have been issued in the first place? I’m thinking perhaps of very low level things like aspirin or cotton wool that people could be buying across the counter.
Can I just confirm what Jenny Rathbone has said about the scale of the issuing of prescriptions in Wales? There are 1.5 million prescriptions dispensed in Wales every week. Comparisons with other places are sometimes misleading and reflect not the number of prescriptions that a person actually gets but the length of time over which a prescription takes place. So, two prescriptions issued for 28 days are the same as one prescription issued for 56 days and so on. It can be confusing for people. Of course, we want a prudent approach to prescribing here in Wales. We know that there is medicines waste, that there is ineffective prescribing, that there is overprescribing, and that there can be work done to promote de-prescribing, where people no longer need medicines that continue to be prescribed to them because there’s been insufficient attention to reviewing the medicines that they receive. We have a prudent prescribing implementation group here in Wales. I want their work to be more prominent than it has been in the past. We want to make sure that patients in Wales get the prescriptions they need. That’s really important, but we also know that, if you get a prescription you don’t need, it will do you no good in the short run and it can do you harm in the long run, for example by building up antimicrobial resistance.
Minister, let me be clear: your free prescription policy is one of the key reasons why we have a burgeoning prescription take. Jenny Rathbone mentioned aspirin. Aspirin and paracetamol alone cost £6.5 million to the Welsh NHS. In 2007, some £32 million used to be made from free prescriptions. Minister, you can still protect the poor and you can still protect the vulnerable, those with chronic conditions and the elderly, but make people like us, on £54,000 a year, pay for our prescriptions. This is all valuable money that could go to the front line. When will you look to review this Labour vanity project?
I think it’s unfortunate that the Member should’ve read out that question, which, from start to finish, was riddled with things that are both inaccurate and misleading. Let me begin with her original inaccurate—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Misleading implications could have been drawn from what the Member said, Dirprwy Lywydd—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
No, no. Let me begin with her very first point. She claimed that the introduction of free prescriptions in Wales was part of the reason why the number of prescriptions issued in Wales has gone up. It is true to say that, in the 10 years since prescriptions became free in Wales, the number of items prescribed has increased by 46 per cent. In England, over an identical period, where you now have to pay £8.25 for every item that is prescribed, the increase in the volume of prescriptions has been 55 per cent. It has been nearly 10—[Interruption.] It is not a population issue; it’s a volume issue, for goodness’ sake. Dirprwy Lywydd, let’s have some sort of sensible discussion here. This is the percentage over the base, and in England, it has gone up by 55 per cent over the same period, and in Wales, where prescriptions have been free, it has gone up by 46 per cent. There’s not a scintilla of evidence for what the Member said.
As for the position here in Wales, we will not be returning to a position where people who had organ transplants were forced to pay for their own prescriptions, and where people with heart conditions were obliged to pay for their own prescriptions. Prescriptions in Wales are free; we have no tax on illness. If the Conservatives get their way, a tax on illness will be reintroduced in Wales. Under Labour, it certainly will not.
The Voluntary Sector and Cancer Services
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the role of the voluntary sector in the provision of cancer services? OAQ(4)0647(HSS)
Thank you for the question. The charitable and voluntary sector provides an important role in supporting people with cancer and their families. It is also a key partner in achieving the ambitions of the cancer delivery plan.
I thank the Deputy Minister for that response. In my own work in Cardiff North, I’m the vice-president of George Thomas Hospice Care and work very closely with Macmillan and other cancer charities. What encouragement can the Deputy Minister give to new charities that are emerging to provide complementary services alongside existing charities, such as the proposed new Maggie’s centre that is planned to be built in the grounds of Velindre Hospital?
Thank you for the question. Of course, I recognise the long and sustained interest and activity the Member has in this particular part of activity, as cross-party chair of the cancer group. I’m interested, especially, in the Maggie’s proposal; I had the opportunity, a very welcome opportunity, to visit the Maggie’s centre in Singleton Hospital with the Member for Swansea West, and it was a particularly interesting example of a voluntary sector service provided together with the NHS on the same site, and a very welcome service it was indeed. So, we are broadly supportive of a proposal for a Maggie’s centre in Cardiff in the grounds of Velindre—it’s tied into the business case that is being developed for a new Velindre. So, we’re positive about that adding real value to the service that can be provided. So, I think that we have a good record of involving and engaging with the charitable and voluntary sector here in Wales. The all-Wales cancer group is a particularly important and effective stakeholder and I look forward to a continuing conversation with them and members new, small or medium-sized, as we continue to deliver on our shared ambition to improve cancer care here in Wales.
Deputy Minister, you may be aware of the important services offered by the Paul Sartori Foundation in my constituency, which provides invaluable home nursing care to patients in Pembrokeshire. Now, the latest activity report confirms a rise in the number of new referrals to the home nursing service of 5 per cent, with an 8 per cent rise in the general number of patients receiving the service. In light of the increased demand, what additional support can the Welsh Government offer charities like the Paul Sartori Foundation that do such a great job of delivering care to people in their own homes? How is the Government helping to promote the important services that charities like Paul Sartori offer?
I thank the Member for the question. This is an active conversation that each health board should continue to have about meeting the appropriate need of its population. We’ve seen a significant expansion in the numbers of people that are being referred into the NHS for suspected cancer, and a significant and welcome achievement in continuing to treat very high, growing numbers of people with increasing measures of success. This is a positive, good-news story for the NHS. That does then mean there are extra amounts of need that also exist in different areas, and it’s part of our ambition to ensure that people receive care at home or as close to home as possible, and a home nursing service provision is part of that. There are a range of voluntary and charitable sector actors in this field that help to provide this sort of service. I expect that each health board, in understanding and meeting the needs of its population will properly understand what exists and what should exist to better improve patient experience and patient outcomes. Of course, that care closer to home is very much part of that picture.
Deputy Minister, there are many voluntary organisations in Wales that provide welfare and benefits advice. This service can be particularly important for cancer sufferers who are often faced with a simultaneous loss of income and an increase in living costs. Macmillan estimate that, on average, a cancer diagnosis makes the individual £575 a month worse off. Changes included in the controversial Welfare Reform and Work Bill could result in thousands of cancer patients losing a further £30 a week. It is vital then that cancer sufferers have access to comprehensive welfare advice to ensure that they are receiving all the benefits to which they are entitled. Minister, what more can the Welsh Government do to promote collaboration between our health and social services and the voluntary organisations that are able to provide this specialist advice?
Thank you for the question. It is a pretty sobering question about the reality of the financial impact of a cancer diagnosis upon individuals and their families. I’ve met a number of people who have faced exactly the position that you describe. It’s a sobering thought that the welfare reform Bill could result in more cancer patients suffering a further financial loss—another example of the consequences for devolved services of actions that are taken in another place.
I can say, though, that here in Wales we’ve got a good track record of working with the voluntary and charitable sector and, again, I have three good examples: Citizens Advice—the advice they provide, in particular—and both Macmillan and Tenovus provide a really valuable service. The Macmillan advice centres in hospitals, in 2014, helped to identify over £13 million in benefits for Welsh patients, and in the cancer patient survey, over half of the participants recognised they’d had access to advice in a hospital setting. That’s a good start; we want to see more progress made. The Tenovus advice line, supported by a Welsh Government grant, has already handled more than 9,000 calls, providing support to more than 4,000 people. That has helped to secure more than £2 million in income gains to cancer patients. So, we recognise the need that exists; we’ll continue to work with partners to deliver this valuable service.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister. It’s six months until the election, and things are going to get sparky occasionally, but I’ve repeatedly warned Members against using words like ‘misleading’, and I do expect Members, no matter how high and mighty they are, to listen to me and not answer back in the Chamber.
R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 2 is questions to the Minister for Education and Skills. Members will be aware that the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology will be answering today’s questions. Question 1, Darren Millar.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of religious education in Wales? OAQ(4)0633(ESK)
Religious education has a vital role to play in preparing learners for life. That is why, in line with Professor Donaldson’s recommendations, it will remain statutory. Pioneer schools will consider how the teaching and learning of RE, philosophy and ethics can be strengthened within the new curriculum.
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. You will know that many in our faith communities were concerned at the initial announcement from the Minister for Education and Skills when he referred to what many people regarded as a dilution of religious education here in Wales. Can I ask what discussions, prior to that announcement, had the Minister had with members of faith communities in order to help develop his ideas?
I think the Minister has made it very clear that this report strengthens the teaching of RE in schools. It very much forms part of the humanities area of learning and experience and remains, as I’ve said, a statutory curriculum requirement from reception onwards. I hope the Member will be reassured by that. As the Member will know, Professor Donaldson’s report identifies four purposes for the curriculum, and one of those is that children should be ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world in its context. A number of pieces of work have been done by the Minister with the faith communities, including meeting with the Member himself, and there are a range of other measures in place. More importantly, the Minister will shortly be announcing the names of the pioneer schools that will take forward the work on these aspects of the curriculum. The network will consist of some of our very best schools and practitioners, and this will include faith schools. We absolutely accept that RE, alongside ethics and philosophy, is an absolute essential to teaching our young people to be experienced people who work very effectively within the free society and the free faith that we all expect our citizens to have.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on initial teacher training in Wales? OAQ(4)0639(ESK)
On 15 October, the Minister announced plans to call time on the current system of initial teacher education and training in Wales. Some improvements have been made by certain providers, but more rapid intervention is required within the sector if we are to produce newly qualified practitioners able to deliver a revised curriculum in Wales.
Thank you very much. I do appreciate that answer because I agree with you that without having effective and well-trained teachers, we have no hope of improving our standards in Wales. But, I would like to have a better understanding—and I appreciate that you may not be able to answer this, Minister—of what the plan is for initial teacher education in Wales. Are you closer to making a decision based on Professor Furlong’s recommendations, or is there actually a bit of a reluctance to act on this and more a case of kicking it into the long grass until after the Assembly election?
No, not at all. The Minister is meeting the vice-chancellors involved in ITET on 12 November, which is very shortly, to make it clear that he expects future ITET delivery to be very different indeed in Wales. I think he’s made it more than plain that the institutions need to step up to the plate in delivering the new range of teacher training that we all expect to underpin our radical new curriculum. He will be seeking agreement and commitment to a new ITET system that supports the changes planned for education in Wales. There are also listening and learning summits planned for the sector in both December and January. Those summits are to share and learn from the very best practice being delivered in ITET from elsewhere within the UK, and to build consensus and a commitment to improving the provision. But he has been, I think, more than plain in saying that he expects HEIs to step up to the plate in delivering absolutely excellent ITET provision in the future. It’s a pivotal part of our radical plans for education in Wales, and it most certainly is not being kicked into any kind of long grass.
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the party spokespeople to question the Deputy Minister, starting this week with the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Angela Burns.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, I’m concerned that the results for the school leaders survey on the national literacy and numeracy programmes have yet to be published, even though Welsh Government has had these results since July. You must have a stake in these results, Minister, given how important it is that a learner has a high level of literacy and numeracy to help them progress through their educational careers, such as by choosing an apprenticeship, for example. Minister, how much input did you have into this survey?
Well, I think it’s fair to say that we’re completely committed to raising attainment in Wales. In fact, we’ve just experienced some of the very best results in Wales that we’ve ever seen. I think the Schools Challenge Cymru has been exceptional in increasing this, and our commitment to areas of pivotal skills across the curriculum, really, I think, does not need any further demonstration. Of course, we’re completely committed to getting the statistics right. It’s important that we learn from them and that we understand exactly what the challenges are in the future. I draw the Member’s attention to the very successful results of Schools Challenge Cymru, for example, which we are told is more successful even than the London or Manchester challenges have been. I think that we should all be very proud of that.
Nice digression, Minister, but let’s get back to the actual question that I asked you. It’s very, very simple: do you know why these results have not yet been published, and can you tell me when we will receive these results?
I don’t know when the results will be received by the Assembly, and I’d have to ask the Minister to write to you on that.
May I inform you, Minister, and perhaps remind the Chamber about the response that the Welsh Government gave to a freedom of information request from the ‘Western Mail’? It said:
‘The Welsh Government holds information of this description.’
So, you know what the results of the survey are. And the Welsh Government, or the Minister, is:
‘currently considering whether I can send this information to you and I expect to write to you again’.
I have to say, what does this all say about the Welsh Government’s already fairly unimpressive track record about sustainability and transparency? It is our role here to scrutinise you, Minister, and I would like to ask you again to press the Minister to release these very important results, because these are a core element of how we can improve education in Wales, and yet we are completely unable to scrutinise or put any of that into the public domain.
I completely refute the idea that we’re neither clear nor transparent in the publication of all of our evaluation and statistical information. As I’ve said, I’ll get the Minister to write to you with the exact timescale for when you’ll get the results of the specific statistics you’re looking for, and it sounded to me from your question that he’d already made that commitment to you. So, I will take it back to him and ask him once again to write to you as soon as I know, but I’m afraid I just don’t have the information about the timescale.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
And now the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesman, Aled Roberts.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Deputy Minister, you’ve referred to the meeting that will take place on 12 November on teacher training. That follows an unsatisfactory inspection in terms of Bangor and Aberystwyth centres in terms of training. What steps will you be taking in the meantime to ensure that standards are improved because, of course, if we are to move to a new regime then, in the meantime, there will be teachers being trained where standards in Estyn’s view are not satisfactory?
Yes, I think the Member makes a good point there, and I think the Minister has signalled very clearly that the sector has to change very rapidly indeed. We’re very pleased with the results of the post-Estyn inspection in south-east Wales, and we expect the same sorts of results post Estyn inspection in north Wales as well. The Minister has made it more than plain to the vice-chancellors and all the ITET providers that they need to think again and step up to the plate. The meeting is to discuss those matters and take the work forward of the completely new way that we’re going to take initial teacher training forward in the future. The Member is quite right, though, that we need to ensure that, in the meantime, institutions deliver the very best in teacher training, and, as a result of that, we’re also, as I said, going to be announcing pioneer schools shortly that will have a great deal to say about how that should be taken forward. I can assure you that we’re not resting on our laurels in any way, but there is a limited amount that we want to do to tweak the old system while we introduce the new.
Could you describe to us, therefore, what exactly the process will be, if this meeting takes place in November, if the universities’ proposals here in Wales are not acceptable from the point of view of the Minister, although he has accepted that they don’t go as far as he would wish? He has already, in the past, alluded to accepting proposals from institutions outside England. Will that process happen before the Assembly elections? Will any decision be taken by this Government rather than the Government that will be in place from May onwards?
Well, I think the meeting with the vice-chancellors in November is a genuine attempt by the Minister to understand the vice-chancellors’ position and to make them fully aware of his, if they aren’t already—it’s very difficult to see why they wouldn’t be—and to make it extremely clear to them that a genuine collaboration for improvement will be a requirement for any institution that wants to play a part in the initial teaching of trainers—the initial training of teachers; sorry, I got my words the wrong way round there—here in Wales in the future. I don’t want to pre-empt the outcome of that discussion. It’s a very important discussion, and we don’t want to pre-empt what the vice-chancellors have to say. Of course we all hope and believe that they will step up to that challenge, and they will collaborate, and they will deliver the best that we can possibly expect for our initial teacher training. But they need to understand that the landscape of ITET in Wales will be very different in the future. It’s essential that we learn about the best in practice from elsewhere, right across Europe and indeed in the UK, if it’s found in the UK, and that we can ensure that Wales compares with the very best globally. So, that message will be delivered loud and clear, and I’m afraid it depends on the response from the vice-chancellors and what they have to say as to what the timetable for the future is, and I don’t want to pre-empt that.
A few weeks ago, a report was published by the Save the Children Fund, ‘Read On. Get on.’ It mentioned that the linguistic skills of children from deprived backgrounds in Wales was worse than expected. The Welsh Government response at the time was that they were eager to look at the early years workforce’s skills, and they were talking about using the ESF fund in order to fund the improvement of the training for that workforce. But, I am given to understand that that fund is only available in west Wales and the Valleys, so, what would the Government do from the point of view of that workforce that is located in east Wales, where the European fund is not available?
I’m afraid I just don’t have that information. I’ll have to ask the Minister to write to you on it.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Now Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. It’s always a pleasure to see you, Deputy Minister, but I had hoped to tackle the Minister himself. I hope that he recovers soon and joins us again in this Chamber.
As do I.
Indeed, I would think so. [Laughter.]
If I could point you to the innovative work of Professor James Heckman on early years education, following on from Aled Roberts’s question in a way, this is the conclusion of Professor Heckman:
‘If society intervenes early enough, it can improve cognitive and socioemotional abilities, and the health of disadvantaged children.’
Now, Plaid Cymru is clearly of the view that investing in early years education is something that is one of the most effective methods of closing the attainment gap that we have in Wales at present. Do you, and the Welsh Government, agree with that?
Yes, I think very broadly we can say that we agree with that. A lot of the provisions we’ve put in place in this Government that have been very successful stem from a belief in just that philosophy. So, if you look at a lot of the Flying Start initiatives, for example—there are several splendid ones in my own constituency—they’ve done a sterling job in getting people off to a flying start in life. And the foundation phase, of course, has been very successful.
I think the real issue here, though, is about cutting your cloth according to the bolt that you have. I would very much like to see both Flying Start and the foundation phase extended to the rest of Wales—or, indeed, the hours extended—but I’m afraid that, like with all things, since we are forced to live in an austerity world imposed on us by the Tories in Westminster, we are not able to always do all the things we’d like to. But I have no problem at all with what the Member said in terms of the philosophy of early years.
Well, thank you for that, Deputy Minister, and although I can sympathise to a certain extent with your argument against cuts in Westminster, the fact is that we in Wales are responsible for the education budget here and we do have to prioritise as best we can, and, in prioritising and protecting statutory education from five to 16, you will be more than aware of the effect of that on the post-16 sector, given your role as a Deputy Minister, but I want to draw your attention to the fact that that is also detrimental to those aged below five, with significant cuts being made in nursery education in many authorities. Rhondda Cynon Taf is a classic example of that, because there has been a court case against the council. The council was successful, of course, because nursery education isn’t statutory in that context.
But, as we see these cuts starting to bite, isn’t it the appropriate time to start to review the Government’s own budget for the next financial year to ensure that there is at least consistency for provision across Wales, because you have just acknowledged in your response that there is inconsistency at present between geographical areas in Wales?
Well, I don’t think I said quite that. I think what we’ve done is concentrate our resources on those most vulnerable in society—in Communities First areas, for example, and in areas of high deprivation, or, indeed, rural scarcity. And I think there are issues around helping the most vulnerable in society. I would not be averse at all to seeing a fully rolled out early years offer—whether it’s childcare or actual education I think is a point we could argue about for some hours, but certainly a childcare provision. And I think, of course, the Government would like to look at that.
But there is an issue, I’m afraid, about cutting your cloth. We have protected—and we’re very proud of protecting—the schools budget here in Wales, at 1 per cent over base. We’re delivering a very high amount of money to each pupil in Wales as a result. We have had some consequences, as I’ve been very clear, for post-16 education, and—the leader of the opposition was kind enough to quote me—we’ve had to make some awful decisions. I’d like to make my own opportunity to say that what I mean by that is decisions that are awful to have to make in the light of Tory austerity, and not bad decisions made for a bad reason; I’ve been looking forward to having the chance to make that clear. Those decisions are difficult to make, they are hard choices to make, but I’m very proud of the choices we’ve made.
Deputy Minister, though I can see the hard decisions you have, I think you have a false dichotomy in some of your response to me there. When you’re dealing with the early years in particular, you can’t care for them without giving them some form of educational foundation, otherwise they’re not school ready, and you can’t educate them without caring for them. So, I think we need a more consistent approach to early years care and education in all settings, not just our statutory school settings. But we are in danger—you talk about cutting cloth—of falling behind what’s been achieved in England with, proportionately, what is part of the same budget. England will have 15 hours of early years education from next year for all children. We only deliver that in particular areas—Flying Start being the obvious example—and we really need to close that gap, let alone catch up with other, more progressive nations that, in fact, offer full-time early years education from three, not as a statutory obligation but as an entitlement and a right.
We’ve estimated that catching up with what will be available in England will cost something like £20 million in the next budget. Plaid Cymru has committed to do that because we don’t want children in Wales to fall behind, and, what’s more, we are committed to roll out to a full early years education programme, which we estimate could cost as much as £100 million. It’s a significant investment, but something that can be achieved over five to 10 years and two Assembly terms. We think that’s an investment worth making. It is now the time for Welsh Government to agree with Plaid Cymru?
I admire the Member’s commitment to that. I’d very much like to discuss with him what he’s going to cut instead, because, I’m afraid, these are the difficult decisions that I always talk about. It’s very easy to announce a commitment to something with which I think we probably all agree; it’s much more difficult to say what you’re going to not do in order to deliver it. I think that we have made a series of good choices; they are not choices we would have wanted to make. We do not think our budget is adequate. If we had a more adequate budget, we would be rolling out, for example, our very successful Flying Start and foundation phase across Wales.
But, nevertheless, I am extremely proud of the decisions we’ve made. I think we have protected the most vulnerable in society, we’ve improved our educational outcomes and attainments, our school sector is going from strength to strength, and we have the most radical education proposals on the table that Wales has seen in a generation. So, I’m very proud of those things, and I’d be more than happy to discuss with the Member, at any time of his choosing, which cuts he’d like to make in order to roll out his priorities.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on financial support for new school buildings in Wales? OAQ(4)0641(ESK)
The twenty-first century schools and education programme represents a £1.4 billion investment over the five-year period ending 2019 that will benefit all local authority areas. The Welsh Government will provide 50 per cent of this funding, which will see the rebuild and refurbishment of over 150 schools and colleges across Wales.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. I’m sure you’ll join with me in welcoming the official opening of Raglan Church in Wales Primary School in my constituency, the latest of several stunning new school buildings built by Monmouthshire Country Council, in conjunction, as you’ve said, with the Welsh Government’s twenty-first century school programme. I was going to invite the Minister to come and see the school for himself, but I’ll extend my invitation to you, if you’d like to take it up, Deputy Minister. It differs from previous schools in having a significant community use section—particularly important in schools in rural areas. I wonder if you can tell us how you’re promoting the use of twenty-first century school funding not just for the school building for education, but also for a wider community use in areas that are often quite isolated.
I’m sure the Minister would be more than happy to accept your invitation, as would I, in fact; I’d very much like to see it. I think there’s something really lovely about seeing a new school come out of the ground and the real effect it has on the communities that it serves in terms of, if you deliver something that makes people feel proud of themselves, then they can aspire to something really special in that area. As part of the twenty-first century schools programme, community use of the schools is considered as part of the structure—I’m sure the Member knows that—and the county council will have put forward plans around how that’s to be done, and it will be part of the affordability, if you like, of the project. The projects are immensely complicated; they’re each of them different. I’m afraid I don’t know the specifics of Raglan school—I’m sure the Member knows more about it than I do—but, yes, it’s very important to us that schools are the centre of their community and we hope to see that develop. As these lovely new buildings go up and enhance the environment for everybody in that community, they, of course, should be a pivotal part of it.
This is an example of the Welsh Government making a difference. Three new schools have been completed in my constituency of Swansea East, at Morriston, Cefn Hengoed and Burlais, Burlais replacing two schools which were in a terrible condition, not suitable for teaching children. Is this one of the schemes that’s threatened by the proposed Conservative cuts to education?
Can I say to the Member that I agree with him that the three schools in his constituency are particularly lovely? I’ve had the opportunity to visit them, and, as I say, they very much enhance the local community, and it’s a real testament to this Government’s commitment to education that we’ve done it. I’d just like to remind the Chamber that the first thing the Tories did when they got into office was stop the successful schools building that the Labour Government put in place and I think that that’s a tragedy, both for the people in those communities and for education in general in England, which we all know is in a particularly parlous state at the moment.
However, this programme is now committed so that the schools that are committed, as long as they are contractually committed, will go forward, and the current envelope goes up to 21. So, that will continue, no matter what happens.
My question appertains to Wales. Receiving funding from Welsh Government to build new schools usually, or very often, is conditional on closing other schools in the catchment area. Are there any statistics to demonstrate an improvement in pupils’ attainment in the new schools, as compared to the previous structure?
It’s not always the case, actually. Of course, it is about improving the school buildings. So, actually, we have examples of schools that are replacement schools and we have examples of schools that are combined schools; both exist. So, the statistics aren’t readily available in the way that the Member imagines, but I’m more than happy to go back to the department and see what statistics there are available and write to the Member with what we do have. But I will say that the programmes aren’t quite as straightforward as the Member would suggest, so I’m not entirely certain that you can make the direct comparison that he suggests.
Deputy Minister, I was very grateful, following a recent visit by the Minister to Hay on Wye County Primary School, when he saw for himself the terrible conditions that staff and pupils were working in, that the Welsh Government has now signed off on the business case for the five primary school catchment area of Gwenddwr, where we will see at least two new primary schools as well as refurbishment of other existing facilities. However, Brecon High School remains in a terrible, terrible condition, but we’re no further forward in securing a new school because the issue of the building has been caught up with controversial merger plans—merger plans that nobody in the community wants other than the board of Powys County Council. Surely, it is not the fault of the teachers and the pupils of Brecon High School that they’re caught up in this and that they can’t get a new school building. Would you or the Minister come to Brecon to see for yourself the terrible conditions pupils and teachers are working in?
I know that the Member knows this already, but obviously the right people to make that representation to are Powys County Council. I’m sure that she makes those representations, and I would encourage her to do so again. I will, of course, take her invitation to the Minister back to the Minister and I’m sure he’ll consider it.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on educational provision for children with care and support plans? OAQ(4)0643(ESK)
Delivering better outcomes for vulnerable learners, such as those who are looked after, is a central element of our additional learning needs and wider educational reform programme. We are aligning these reforms with the implementation of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, which the Member took forward herself.
You anticipate my supplementary to an extent, and I know that you’ll agree with me that children in Wales should have the same opportunities to receive high-quality education, with appropriate support provided where needed, so that there is no limit set on their aspirations because of their background or circumstances. As you mentioned, the social services and wellbeing Act provides for holistic, unified planning across departments, including education. What interaction, therefore, does your department have with the Department of Health and Social Services to ensure that effective, unified plans are agreed and implemented for children who need them?
I do completely agree with the Member: every child in Wales, including those who are looked after, has the right to expect the highest standard of education regardless of their circumstances. I think that’s something we can all sign up to. I’m sure the Member is aware that the Children’s Commissioner for Wales has drawn attention to the support that young people in care need in her annual report today.
We are producing a joint strategy with the Department for Health and Social Services that will help provide greater support to looked-after children in education. There are excellent working relationships between the department and the Minister for Health and Social Services’ department. The recently established strategic steering group on looked-after children reflects the shared understanding that we can only support these learners through a holistic multi-agency response—no one department can possibly have the answer.
Deputy Minister, I think the Member for Neath has raised an important point here. We do hope that children in this situation do get the highest—we would like them to get the highest—standard, but they don’t always get that standard at the moment. I’ve had a number of queries from parents over the last year or so, concerned that the educational provision for children with care and support plans has not always been as appropriate as it might be. This is a very difficult area to get right. Can you ask the Minister to look again at the guidelines to ensure that packages are tailored to the individual and aren’t simply off-the-shelf packages that aren’t going to suit everyone all the time?
Yes, of course, I will certainly take that back to him, but I would like to say as well that, before the end of the year, the Minister will be publishing a looked-after children strategy and supporting action plan, raising the ambitions and educational attainment for children who are looked after in Wales. That will seek to set a clear and holistic direction for delivering improved outcomes for this group of learners, who I think we all agree really need to be looked after when it comes to educational attainment and helped to become the best people that they can possibly be.
5. What influence does the Minister have on how much supply teachers get paid to cover absent colleagues? OAQ(4)0646(ESK)
Supply teachers are a valued part of the teacher workforce in Wales. However, teachers’ pay and conditions have not been devolved and remain the responsibility of the Department for Education. Supply teachers’ employment is governed by a combination of UK employment law and the school teachers’ pay and conditions document.
[Inaudible.] governed by European law around the agency working time directive. I’ve been made aware by several constituents that supply agencies are not paying supply teachers the rate for the job. In fact, I know of at least five agencies in Cardiff that use something called ‘the Swedish derogation’ to force people to sign away their rights under the European directive. I wondered if there’s anything that the education Minister can do to ensure that headteachers are insisting on paying supply teachers the rate for the job.
That is a matter for the governing body, but I would just like to draw the Member’s attention to the publication from my colleague, the Minister for Public Services, ‘Is the Feeling Mutual? New Ways of Designing and Delivering Public Services in Wales’, which is out for consultation until 13 January 2016. One of the proposals is that there’s a possibility of jointly commissioning further work with local education departments on the potential of establishing secondary co-operatives for supply teachers. We are actively pursuing that kind of commitment in order to see if we can get a better system in place for supply teachers. But I would like to say to the Member that we are very disappointed indeed that, yet again, Wales has been failed in the devolution settlement proposed in the Wales Bill. If you really were going to go to a reserved model, of course, you would have devolved the whole of education to Wales, including education workforce matters and pay and conditions for teachers. But, once again, the Tories have failed us on that score.
Deputy Minister, the use of supply teachers can be very helpful for a school in planning its workforce model, especially to release teachers to go on training courses, but an overreliance on supply teachers in the school environment can also be quite disruptive if it’s not managed correctly. I appreciate that the employment of teachers is a local education authority and school matter, but does the Welsh Government work with LEAs across Wales to see how the supply teacher model is working in each local authority, and to make them aware of excessive use and the disruptive nature that could have in the classroom in breaking up the continuity of education?
Yes indeed, and the Minister has recently, I’m sure you know, introduced regulations for school development plans, which require schools to set out details of the school’s provision for addressing the professional learning needs of all staff, including short and long-term supply teachers. We work with supply teachers, supply agencies, the teaching unions and the Education Workforce Council in order to improve supply teachers’ working lives, and part of that is ensuring that the school does not overly rely on them and that they are able to access the correct amount of professional development, and that is very much part of the pioneer schools programme that will be announced shortly, which will be looking at, for example, the new deal for teachers, and that will be on their agenda.
There is, of course, an inquiry by the Children, Young People and Education Committee into supply teaching. I have to say that many of these issues may have been dealt with, or should have been dealt with, in the framework agreement that the Welsh Government is now committed to until August 2018. In the meantime, 40 per cent of our newly qualified teachers are actually on supply contracts rather than on permanent contracts, with little or no continuing professional development. Will the Minister actually take to task the agencies concerned at the moment with regard to their failure to deal with continuing professional development, given that we’ve now tied ourselves in—or you’ve tied us in—to something until August 2018?
We are currently considering options for alternative delivery models for the provision of supply teachers, including engaging with directors of education and human resource education leads, to investigate the practicalities and the financial and legal implications of establishing the co-operatives I mentioned, or finding some other way forward. The framework doesn’t prevent supply teachers from accessing the correct continuing professional development at all, but it’s in the hands of the governing bodies as to how they get their supply teachers, and that’s one of the issues. The Minister, I know, is working very hard on coming up with a strategy for dealing with this, and we are actually looking forward to the report of the committee to inform our deliberations in this matter.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Question 6, William Powell.
The Twenty-first Century Schools Programme
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. Before proceeding to my question, consistent with the register of interests for Members of this Assembly, I’d like to state that I am a local education authority governor of one of the five schools referred to earlier by Kirsty Williams that will receive part of the £24 million investment in the Gwernyfed High School catchment area. I just wanted that to be clear for the record.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s 21st Century Schools programme in Mid and West Wales? OAQ(4)0635(ESK)
Band A of the twenty-first century schools and education programme will see investment of over £350 million in mid and west Wales. The programme is delivered collaboratively between the Welsh Government, local authorities and others and will create a network of schools and colleges fit to deliver a twenty-first century curriculum.
I am very grateful to the Deputy Minister for that response. Recently, members of my local allotments association have raised with me the potential benefits of a scheme to enable pupils to grow fruit and vegetables in a designated area within the school grounds. Not only would this serve to build children’s confidence and team building, but it would also foster a better understanding of the connection that exists with food production. Deputy Minister, given the multiple benefits that would be afforded by such a scheme, will you consider specifically providing space under the framework of the twenty-first century schools programme for such local-grown initiatives to be built in, given that the next generation of Welsh pupils would then have a greater understanding of the importance and, indeed, the value of food production?
Yes, I think it’s a matter for the local authority, of course, to negotiate the exact design of the school with the twenty-first century programme, and that’s very much an iterative process between the local authority and the twenty-first century schools officials here in the Assembly. The Member makes a very valid point. He will know that I am personally very much in favour of such an activity for schoolchildren. It’s a very important part of the foundation phase, for example— continuing access to outside work—and we’ve all read reports on the benefits of food production and working in the garden for everybody’s health and welfare as well as for educational purposes. If he wants to write to the Minister with specifics about how it could be improved, I’m sure that the Minister would be grateful but, actually in the end, it is a matter between the local authority that designs the schools and what approvals they get from the system.
Minister, isn’t it true that the twenty-first century schools programme is the biggest capital investment that our communities have seen for a significant time and that nearly £2 billion will have been spent by 2023? But, looking ahead and anticipating inadequate future financial settlements from the UK Government, are you confident that the innovative investment models that the Welsh Government is making use of, namely the local government borrowing initiative and the not-for-profit model that’s been earmarked for phase 2, will keep the programme on track?
Yes, I think we’re confident that the £1.4 billion invested over band A of the programme up to 2019 will go ahead. Eighty-one projects have been approved across Wales—20 are complete and the rest are in a phase of construction or design. So, we’re very confident on that. The finance Minister has worked extremely hard with innovative proposals to drive more capital into the system, including, as the Member pointed out, various innovative ways of using borrowing, but also with approaches to the European Investment Bank and a number of other innovative financial models that allow leverage for low borrowing rates for further education colleges, for example. So, this Government has worked extremely hard on infrastructure of this sort because we know that it drives both educational standards and it drives the economy in a major way. Unlike the Tories’ austerity programme, we can see the real benefits that investing in infrastructure brings to the economy of Wales and the people of Wales and its children.
Deputy Minister, there are concerns in Pembrokeshire regarding the local authority’s school reorganisation proposals and it’s been suggested by the council that, if the proposals do not go ahead, funding from the twenty-first century school programme could be lost, and this is putting pressure on parents and the wider community to accept the proposals in their entirety. Deputy Minister, do you agree with me that this could be seen as bullying people into accepting proposals come what may, and could you confirm that money will not be lost under the twenty-first century schools programme should the current proposals be rejected?
My understanding is that the local authority has submitted a case for approval and that approval is under consideration at the moment. Obviously, the Minister isn’t able to comment on specifics, because it may be referred to him if there’s a dispute. But, on the detail of the proposal, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment because it is actually in the process at the moment, and the Member will understand that Ministers are sometimes part of that process.
Post-16 Education in Swansea
7. Will the Minister make a statement on post-16 education in Swansea? OAQ(4)0634(ESK)
Post-16 education continues to be important in Swansea and the rest of Wales. Funding and demographic changes are challenging, but it is now more vital than ever to focus on the resources that are available to learners and ensure that they are used as efficiently as possible.
I thank the Minister for that response. My daughter is currently studying A-levels in Swansea. Is the education maintenance allowance, which she is not getting and which the Conservatives stopped in England, helping to increase the number of students from less affluent backgrounds staying on in post-16 education and thus reduce the number of those not in education, employment or training?
It most certainly is. We continue to support young people from lower income households entering into and returning to further education via the EMA allowance scheme. About £25 million is paid out to EMA students annually. The EMA evaluation that’s recently been published found that the allowance supports and contributes towards a range of Welsh Government policies geared towards widening access to education, reducing the rate of young people who are not in education, employment or training, and addressing the current link between poverty and educational attainment. Around a third of EMA recipients also progress to higher education, and this remains a key programme for government indicator.
I think it’s fair to say that the EMA and the Welsh Government learning grant for further education have very similar aims and objectives in terms of incentivising those post-compulsory education age to continue in or return to further education, much to the enhancement of their life prospects.
Deputy Minister, I’m sure you’ll join me in congratulating students from Swansea University, where 91 per cent of new graduates have found appropriate employment within the first six months. Can you tell us what measures you have put in place to ensure that apprentices and students completing vocational courses in Swansea enjoy equally bright prospects when they first enter the job market?
Yes, absolutely, I will join you in congratulating Swansea University on their excellent employability programme. They’ve recently taken part in a Higher Education Funding Council for Wales conference spreading good employability practice throughout the higher education sector in Wales, and I was privileged enough to attend and speak at that conference—I was very glad to do so. Employability is a major indicator for us in terms of our investment into both higher education and further education. I would remind the Member that we have one of the most successful apprenticeship schemes IN Europe at the moment, with about an 84 to 86 per cent completion rate, severely jeopardised by the very ill-thought-out apprenticeship levy that the Government has just announced, without any forethought whatsoever, to the absolute horror of absolutely everybody affected by it. [Interruption.] Why are our outcomes better? Because it’s a better programme.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Sorry, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I control the questions.
I beg your pardon, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, obviously we’re very pleased with the new campus that Swansea University has built in Swansea bay, but you’ll also know that at least two of the FE colleges in the Swansea bay region—Gower College Swansea and Neath Port Talbot College—are looking to consolidate and expand their own campuses. Can you tell us what work is being undertaken by the Welsh Government to work with those two colleges in terms of those expansion plans?
Certainly I can, and I briefly outlined it in response to Joyce Watson just now—we are looking at some innovative funding mechanisms so that we can get a funding stream together for the entire FE sector, with which we can lever in preferential borrowing rates through the European Investment Bank and another banking partner to allow the colleges to borrow at very significantly lowered rates over a longer period of time in order for them to bring innovative new projects to the table. We’re in active conversation with the whole of the FE sector in Wales about how we can best put that pipeline together.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on provisions for the teaching of STEM subjects within the document, ‘A Curriculum for Wales, a Curriculum for Life’? OAQ(4)0638(ESK)
Certainly. ‘A curriculum for Wales—a curriculum for life’ is the Minister’s plan for taking forward the recommendations in ‘Successful Futures’, published on 22 October. Pioneer schools will have a key role in building our new curriculum, including how the teaching and learning of STEM subjects can be supported and strengthened.
Thank you very much for that response, Minister. I wondered if I could just ask you some particular questions. Will you be putting plans in place to attract science teachers into schools who have relevant industrial experience as well as their standard teaching qualifications? Secondly, Minister, how do we ensure that there is better take-up and engagement with the STEM subjects in areas of social deprivation and/or geographical isolation? And finally, how will you be encouraging parents and guardians to engage in the learning of science-based subjects with their children?
The Minister’s emphasised on many occasions the importance of STEM-related subjects as part of a balanced curriculum. The wide range of activity already being progressed by the Welsh Government in this area is set out in the STEM in education delivery plan, a draft of which was considered by the Enterprise and Business Committee earlier this summer. The updated plan, due for publication later this month, will set out a coordinated and holistic approach to monitoring and reporting on the wide range of actions promoting the teaching of STEM subjects. In addition, our detailed plans on how we will continue to increase the flow of STEM skills are set out in our STEM in education and training plan.
The teaching of science is directly supported through a comprehensive package of support with funding of over £2.6 million for 2015-16. It includes support for teacher development, learning materials, the science advisory function based in the regional education consortia and the Focus on Science marketing campaign. This is in addition to STEM enrichment funding through the National Science Academy, which falls within the responsibility of the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport.
We also support the Techniquest and Techniquest Glyndŵr education programmes to enhance science and mathematics teaching with primary and secondary-aged pupils. Both organisations have specific objectives to support professional learning and development for teachers as well.
We also assist schools with the new science GCSEs. The funding support to the four regional education consortia for the science advisory function has been increased by nearly £200,000 and the regional education consortia have engaged with all secondary schools in their respective areas to offer support in relation to the new GCSEs and the PISA tests.
We’re also driving support for STEM practitioner skills and knowledge through professional learning opportunities, and we also have the enhanced employer engagement scheme. I recently launched the business skills scheme, which is a scheme supported by SMEs throughout Wales to take businesses straight into the classroom and educate both pupils and parents about the availability of really good careers in STEM-related subjects, in their local area, their region, Wales, UK and the world. So, I think we are doing quite a bit and I look forward to reaping the rewards of it very soon.
‘Mapping the Future of Education Technology’ highlighted that 65 per cent of today’s students will work in jobs that have not yet been created, and that STEM subjects will be crucial to these future employment opportunities. How much do you think it is possible to change that likely reality so that the curriculum for Wales and the cwricwlwm Cymreig respond to that eventuality?
I think this is the fundamental point of the Donaldson review, actually. I think it’s important, always, to emphasise quite how revolutionary that plan is. What we’re looking at here is producing a whole new different set of people through our schools: our teachers, our learning experiences, our learners, our pupils. These will be people who are fit to think, and will have higher skills fit for the twenty-first century. I know that the Member has seen a number of graphs that show the decline in the need for essential skills in the workforce, and the very dramatic rise in the need for additional level 4 and above skills by 2021-22. With this in mind, as I’ve just outlined to Jeff Cuthbert, we have a whole range of interventions in place to enhance the ability of students to survive in this new digital age, and I feel absolutely convinced that, together, we can take Wales into the global economy of the future.
Deputy Minister, the curriculum actually has digital literacy running through it as a very seamless concept, but you and I both know that digital literacy and computer science are different things. The former Minister for education actually commissioned the review into digital and computer science—the ICT review—led by Dr Tom Crick. When are we going to get somewhere where we’re actually producing a computer science GCSE so that we can actually now compete? England are now two years ahead of us on this. We need to get that GCSE up and running so that we can actually deliver computer science our young people.
The short answer is we’re just working on it now and it will be ready shortly. We’re about to announce the pioneer schools to take forward the whole of the digital literacy curriculum, and the Minister will be announcing that very shortly.
It is crucial, of course, that there is an adequate number of STEM subject teachers and teachers of the highest quality in place to deliver the new curriculum. Jeff Cuthbert mentioned the possibility of attracting people who used to work in industry into teaching. But more generally, what steps is the Government intending to take to ensure that the shortage of STEM subject teachers is responded to before the new curriculum is introduced?
The Minister announced fairly recently a system of incentives to incentivise graduates in various science subjects and Welsh to enter the teaching profession. Those incentives are in place and I’m sure that they’re being very effective as we speak.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 3 is the Welsh Conservatives debate on apprenticeships I call on William Graham to move the motion.
Motion NDM5862 Paul Davies
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the value of diverse apprenticeship opportunities to Wales;
2. Believes that the Welsh Government should ensure that work placement scheme opportunities are available to people across society in Wales to aid retraining and to allow for sustainable, progressive employment; and
3. Acknowledges the importance of collaboration between all sectors of the education system and businesses in Wales to help prepare young people for the world of work.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and may I move the motion in the name of Paul Davies?
The essence of this debate is that Wales has a skills gap and this gap hinders economic growth and social integration. In their all-Wales quarterly economic survey for the second quarter of this year, the South Wales Chamber of Commerce highlighted that 72.5 per cent of Welsh businesses have experienced difficulties in recruiting the right staff. The Confederation of British Industry’s ‘Inspiring Growth’ education and skills survey of this year identified that 61 per cent of their business members have expressed concerns that they will not be able to recruit enough high-skilled workers to meet demand and fund growth.
Too often, we limit our comparisons of Wales to the other nations within the UK, forgetting to focus our attention upon the global horizon. Wales competes in a worldwide market, which is why indicators such as the programme for international student assessment are vital to our international reputation. Our policy document ‘Stronger Futures Cymru’ exemplifies the Welsh Conservatives’ ambitious vision for Wales, its people, businesses and economic future—a vision that will prepare future generations with the skills, qualifications and the confidence in their ability to establish themselves, and Wales, across the global market. This is an evidence-based policy, developed in consultation with industry stakeholders. That’s why I support initiatives such as the Circuit of Wales, a project that not only increases much needed employment opportunities to the Heads of the Valleys area, but incorporates at the heart of their proposals an academy for motorsport engineers and technicians.
The number of older people accessing training is decreasing generally. Only 17 per cent of all learners in further education, work-based learning or community learning were aged over 50 in 2013-14, compared to almost 25 per cent 10 years before. In the past year, only 7 per cent of those on work-based learning programmes were aged 50 or over.
The Welsh Government have tried to paper over the cracks with their flagship policy of Jobs Growth Wales. The stark reality is that one in five of those who completed a Jobs Growth Wales placement found themselves unemployed by the end of their placement. Another one in five fail to complete their work placements altogether.
Jobs Growth Wales is seen as a panacea by the Welsh Government, yet it is costly and unsustainable in its current state. On average, a Jobs Growth Wales placement costs £6,000 per head. Of the 9,704 created job opportunities claimed by the Welsh Government, 21 per cent left the scheme early and fewer than half had completed their six-month placement. We need figures that reflect the reality, rather than apparently and potentially double-counting. This flagship scheme is failing to stem the increasing number of young people not in employment or training.
Wales is not alone in the challenge of reducing the specialist skills gap. Roles that require science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills are becoming increasingly more prevalent, but, at present, there are serious concerns surrounding Wales’s ability to develop this knowledge base. As highlighted in a recent Enterprise and Business Committee report, there is
‘a fundamental imbalance towards academic study that is out of step with the employment opportunities available to young people and does little to prepare them for working life’.
Stronger Futures Cymru will aim to address this balance. We are scrapping Labour’s age restriction and extending job opportunities to all. Labour’s age cap on job creation offers nothing to the many thousands of older people who want to get on and build a successful career for themselves. Our policy will provide much needed encouragement to older people in particular who have found themselves out of work after perhaps being in a job for 20 or 30 years with little or no knowledge of current CV writing or interview technique. Our policy will provide them with 12 months of real work experience and build confidence and experience. Similarly, the paradox that exists for young people with qualifications but no relevant experience is addressed. With 12 months of work available, it encourages a greater chance of an employer-employee future and gives the flexibility for the employee to move on should he or she wish to further his or her career.
Stronger Futures Cymru would ensure that employers were well integrated with schools and a curriculum to ensure students leave education with the best skills and best chances. Stronger Futures Cymru will work to strengthen the teaching of work-ready skills in Welsh schools and ensure that students have an understanding of the labour market before they are left to their own devices to attempt to navigate it.
The Welsh Government is failing to promote the benefits apprenticeships can bring to the Welsh economy. By contrast, the United Kingdom Government has announced that it intends to create 3 million new apprenticeships. Research evidence shows that, if you do a higher level apprenticeship, it raises earning potential by at least £150,000. So, it’s a win for the people who undertake the apprenticeships and it’s a win for the people who are part of those companies that expand, because the Government is putting money into apprenticeships. In our policy, we will allow companies to access greater training and skills, which will clearly lead to a greater future for all.
Again, the Enterprise and Business Committee inquiry highlighted how the potential and capacity of apprenticeships for supporting the Welsh economy is not being fully utilised. Given the extent of Welsh Government failure there is a clear mandate to convince and enable more employers to take on apprenticeships, especially in SMEs, to develop closer links with employers and schools to support the development of skills and aid progression into work-based training, and to provide clearer guidance for employers.
Stronger Futures Cymru will work with labour market intelligence to ensure that skills are being developed to propel forward a modern Welsh economy. The present Government have failed to tackle the issue of gender inequality in work-based learning and apprenticeship schemes. Apprenticeships remain notably gendered in Wales, with women accounting for 3.2 per cent of engineering apprentices and 96.2 per cent of childcare apprentices. This gendering of apprenticeships also needs to be considered against a backdrop of a skills mismatch that sees approximately two jobs for each qualified construction worker and five qualified practitioners for each job in hair and beauty.
Through better promoting apprenticeships, we aim to tackle the gender stereotyping of industries and help more women into male-dominated industries. We will aim to create closer links between educators, career professionals and employers, which should continue to be cultivated and used to tackle gender stereotyping and encourage girls to pursue apprenticeships in non-traditional sectors. Data are crucial to understanding who is accessing apprenticeship opportunities. Indeed, the National Training Federation Wales recommends setting national targets for the number of apprenticeship places created for school leavers and incorporating apprenticeship targets in public procurement. Also, where these opportunities are, and the success of interventions to encourage diversity in the apprenticeships on offer, are among those who participate. Gender-disaggregated data is not readily available across apprenticeship schemes, preventing effective monitoring and evaluation.
Welsh Conservatives wish to strengthen the ties between education, employment and the local business community to ensure students are well prepared for the steps after education. We will deliver improved continuing careers advice to students and work with local employers to ensure students’ education is not just academic, but also vocational. We will end the age limit on learning delivery apprenticeships on a needs, rather than an age basis, using greater targeting to ensure sustainability of skills
Bridges to Work 2 is the latest Welsh Government scheme to tackle unemployment in the south Wales Valleys for older people who are long-term unemployed. The scheme aims to put 400 people into employment. The cost of this equates to about £17,000 per head. As part of our new package, we would also use this money to further enable those over 25 years old to access a Journeys to Work placement. Welsh Conservatives have long called for the Welsh Government to provide greater support to older people. Our leader recently asked the First Minister, ‘Your policy seems to be ageist, First Minister, in that the older you get in Wales, the less chance you have to educate yourself and retrain yourself’.
In place of the Welsh Government’s Jobs Growth Wales, we will deliver our own work experience scheme, Journeys to Work, which will help those without relevant work experience to gain the skills and confidence they need. This scheme does not require additional funding commitment, but works within the existing budget. It is purely about prioritising the money in a different way. I echo the contemporary author Dean Koontz who said, ‘I really believe that everyone has a talent, ability, or skill that he or she can mine to support themselves and to succeed in life.’
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the amendment to the motion. I call on Aled Roberts to move amendment 1, tabled in his name.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to examine a qualifications framework for 14-18 year olds which would provide greater choice for academic and vocational pathways and movement between them, to support individuals in realising their full potential.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. I’m very pleased to take part in this afternoon’s debate and formally move amendment 1 in my name.
It’s worth reminding ourselves at the outset of the value of apprenticeships outlined in the recent report published by the National Training Federation Wales, entitled, ‘The Value of Apprenticeships to Wales’, which indicated that there’s a £74 return for each pound invested in apprenticeships compared to a £57 return for each pound invested in the average undergraduate degree.
But I do think, at this stage, that we need to move away from the Welsh Government’s self-congratulatory rhetoric to actually undertaking an objective assessment of where our current policies on apprenticeships are leading us. Our amendment today calls on the Welsh Government to examine a qualifications framework for 14 to 18-year-olds, which provides greater choice for academic and vocational pathways and movement between them, to support individuals in realising their full potential.
The evidence for change is already there. ‘The Times Educational Supplement’ last month reported that:
‘Three-quarters of parents believe children should have the option of a combined academic and technical education at the age of 14’
‘two-thirds of respondents said they were concerned their children would not find work after they left education.’
So, parents overwhelmingly want a more balanced approach to education, yet nearly all the messages that they get from schools and, at times, from ourselves suggest, still, that the parity of esteem that we’ve been talking about since the 2012 review of qualifications has failed to materialise.
In the spring of 2014, as the number of apprentices rose by 10,000 to 28,000, the then Deputy Minister said:
‘Apprenticeships offer a unique package of support, qualifications and experience and make no mistake—they are playing their part in bringing down long term youth unemployment. That’s why the Welsh Government’—
at that stage
‘invested additional funding in its Apprenticeship Programme and, as these figures suggest, we’re seeing a fantastic return on this investment’.
So, the Welsh Government stance at that time was that apprenticeships were playing their part in bringing down long-term youth unemployment. Yet, by September 2014, it was reported that the Welsh Government was considering cutting the number of apprenticeship opportunities in half. As the National Training Federation Wales put it:
‘The stark figures fly in the face of repeated statements by the Welsh Government about its “gold standard” apprenticeship programme’.
Their words, not mine.
Subsequent intervention in budget negotiations meant that we were able to secure £10 million to deliver around 5,000 extra new apprenticeships over the coming two years, but all we were doing was replacing, in part, what was being projected as a reduction in numbers.
It’s our view that, at this stage, we have to accept the current Welsh Government continues to blow hot and cold on the subject of apprenticeships. In fact, in July 2015, it was reported that the Welsh Government’s key target of getting 75 per cent of learners into apprenticeships had not been achieved. They reported that just 35 per cent of learners progressed on to their flagship Pathways to Apprenticeships scheme in 2012-13.
So, our amendment today outlines our plans for a flexible model, representing a climbing frame for learning where individuals should be able to move sideways and across between more vocational and academic courses, as well as climbing upwards. The distinction between academic and vocational qualifications should be removed, giving a much more rounded mix-and-match perspective to learning. Courses need to be designed to enable transfer between modules at a similar educational standard, from academic to vocational, and vice versa. We should encourage pupils to elect vocational courses alongside academic subjects, ensuring a well-balanced model.
This new model would also go a long way to addressing the differences between boys and girls in the subjects that they take post 14, an issue that was already referred to by William Graham with regard to figures outlined in the Chwarae Teg report. The national training federation confirm this stark reality: that, of 51,550 individuals taking apprenticeships in 2013-14, the majority were female and that the top apprenticeship programme was in health and social care.
The federation have also said that the biggest issue affecting parity of opportunity for young people is the lack of impartial information, advice and guidance for all young people, regardless of ability. It’s certainly the case that my own personal experience means that the recent changes in Careers Wales have not helped that situation.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the Minister for Education and Skills recently asked Estyn to undertake a review into the barriers to apprenticeships faced by learners from black minority ethnic backgrounds and those with disabilities. The review found that there was a lack of awareness of apprenticeships among parents, employers and learners themselves, and that there was insufficient co-ordination, a situation that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
I’m really proud to contribute to our debate today and highlight, once again, our new Stronger Futures Cymru policy. This will certainly boost relevant apprenticeships, and I will support training for people without any age barrier across Wales. Here we have some of the biggest barriers to work for young and older people, and these are, fundamentally, lack of opportunity, lack of confidence, lack of qualifications and lack of experience. It is really concerning, though, to note that 72 per cent of our Welsh businesses themselves have experienced difficulty in recruiting the right staff for them, and that 61 per cent fear that they will be unable to recruit enough high or skilled workers to meet their own demands, which would enable them to grow further.
Over recess, last week, I met with three local, very strong businesses, having grown from very small microbusiness, all of whom told me that they are now struggling to find staff. Stronger Futures Cymru aims to address the growing skills gap, which we have seen opening up further under the Welsh Labour Government and which the Bevan Foundation has predicted to increase. Our micro, small and medium enterprises are vital to the Welsh economy, yet without the skilled workers they need, we run the risk of undermining our growth and their future potential. Our policy will use labour market intelligence to ensure that apprenticeship training is working towards fulfilling our future and current skill needs.
Jobs Growth Wales: we do regret that it has failed to address the skills gap here in Wales as it is, with one in five of those who complete a placement finding themselves unemployed and a further one in five failing to complete their placement at all. That cannot be regarded as successful. Furthermore, the scheme itself admits that a staggering 73 per cent of those who completed a placement would have found employment even without the scheme. Stronger Futures Cymru will address this by ensuring resources—[Interruption.] Okay.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I thank you for taking an intervention. Would you just accept that the whole idea of Jobs Growth Wales was getting people into work then, not some time in the distant future?
What I would agree on is that it discriminates against people who are actually of an age bracket that still have the skills, still have experience, and still have the ability and the desire to work, and that is failing them.
Furthermore, we would make it easier for smaller businesses to offer relevant and meaningful work experience and apprenticeship opportunities, with apprenticeship grants for employers. Stronger Futures Cymru will also address the fundamental imbalance towards academic study and the lack of work-ready skills held by school leavers, as identified by the Enterprise and Business Committee. By strengthening links between educators and employers earlier, and by developing flexible apprenticeships, we can and will encourage more school leavers to enter employed training and work to end the notable gender imbalance in Welsh industries.
Finally, Stronger Futures Cymru will end the strategic isolation of older people from accessing education as a result of exclusionary Welsh Labour Government policy. The proportion of those aged 50 to 64 unemployed and looking for work in my constituency of Aberconwy stands at 5.3 per cent, higher than the 3.9 per cent average across Wales. So, the inclusivity of our policy is something that I am particularly passionate about, and this is an issue I have raised previously. I’ve asked the First Minister, I’ve asked the Minister and the Deputy Minister to identify me one scheme where your Government supports over-50s, and you couldn’t even name one. And that’s on record.
The Commissioner for Older People in Wales has stated that Wales could pay a high price for cuts to lifelong learning—cuts implemented by this Welsh Labour Government. It’s no good blaming the UK Government. She has further stated that we need to see a much wider recognition across all Government portfolios of the necessity to keep our older people in the workforce and bring them back into work as well. We have long called for greater support for older people looking to enter or re-enter the workforce and there are numerous reasons why they may wish to do so. It’s essential we recognise the wealth of talent held by our more mature people here in Wales, and that is talent that is going to waste. We must support older people in gaining meaningful employment, and dispel any misconceptions that age has any effect on employability. Rather than the ageist approach of Jobs Growth Wales, the Welsh Conservative Journeys to Work will support people, young and old, to enter the workplace. Thank you.
I welcome this afternoon’s debate on apprenticeships and support it, and also the Liberal Democrat amendment. But as William Graham and Aled Roberts said earlier this afternoon, it’s about time that we in Wales cut down on the difference in status between academic and vocational education—that is, desk-bound education and practical education. I think that we need to work on the parents too when children come to choose their options, because, in my own personal experience, parents are more than happy to look at academic courses but perhaps not at courses that will take pupils into apprenticeships.
As one who has spent most of his life in the field of education, I have seen the importance of apprenticeships as a key extension of education. Apprenticeships are crucially important, not only as a part of people’s education, but for the provision of key skills across the economy, as we’ve already heard this afternoon. I am pleased that the Welsh Government has shown a strong commitment to apprenticeships. Wales is delivering one of the most successful apprenticeship programmes in Europe. Over the past five years, the Labour Government here has created 110,000 high-quality apprenticeships, with a success rate of over 84 per cent, as compared with 69 per cent in England. I am pleased to see that the investment continues, with £144 million of European Union/Welsh Government funds being invested over the next four years so that we can fund more than 50,000 apprenticeships across west Wales and the Valleys.
In June, a report was published by the Enterprise and Business Committee on people over the age of 50 in Wales. The committee’s concern was the higher level of people over 50 who are unemployed. One of the recommendations made by the committee was to create more opportunities for those over 50 to learn new skills so that they could gain new employment. On Monday, I noted the Welsh Conservatives’ statement that they want to abolish the age cap on Jobs Growth Wales. I welcome their conversion, particularly having heard from their leader earlier this week. After all, who was calling for the plan to be scrapped recently? It was you, the Welsh Conservatives.
The aim of Jobs Growth Wales was to provide assistance to young people, and already the Government is providing to people of all ages through higher level apprenticeships, which are very beneficial for older people who have workplace experience. The Labour Government in Wales is also encouraging older people through a number of different programmes. However, we need to advertise these programmes to those older people and the employers.
I would like to see more emphasis on business skills as part of apprenticeship programmes. A number of apprenticeships, such as in construction and hairdressing, teach expertise in those particular areas only. So, people can build a wall or style hair in the Victoria Beckham style, but there is more to establishing a business than such expertise. By the time they’ve completed their training, perhaps they would want to establish their own business. We should be teaching them basic business skills to give them a practical opportunity to move ahead in establishing their own business.
One thing that I took pride in recently was the apprenticeship-sharing programme in Carmarthenshire, ‘Constructing Carmarthenshire Together’, which has been in place since 2008, and included Coleg Sir Gâr, the council and local small businesses. Small and regional companies that cannot offer full apprenticeships come together and work with local authorities and other partners to provide these apprenticeships for young people. I’ve spoken on this issue before, and I learnt that they were the first, and the only programme in Wales at the time, with apprentices having worked on projects such as the East Gate development in Llanelli, twenty-first century schools, and affordable homes in the area, including bricklayers, chippies, electricians, plumbers, and so on—a number of people gaining employment through people working together.
One other concern that I have, and William Graham and Aled have already mentioned this earlier, is the gap between men and women in terms of apprenticeships. In 2011-12, women accounted for just 3.2 per cent of engineering apprenticeships, and 96.2 per cent of childcare apprenticeships. There should be stronger links between educators, careers advisers and employers to tackle these gender stereotypes and to encourage more women to choose STEM apprenticeships as a result of open competition. I’m pleased to say that many of the aspects I’ve referred to already have started to change, according to the Estyn report published this week. This is mainly because of the attitude and work of the Welsh Labour Government. Of course, we need to do more, but we are on the right track.
Fellow Members, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. You and I are just beginning to get to know each other, and you probably don’t know that I designed and delivered a return-to-work programme back in the 1980s. It was only the second of its kind in the UK, and it was designed to support women seeking to return to the workplace. It ran, very successfully, for five years, and was funded by the Manpower Services Commission, under one of Mrs Thatcher’s Governments. [Interruption.] And I was very grateful for her support.
Something else you may not know—[Interruption.] Are you all listening carefully? Something else you may not know is that I have been made redundant twice in my working life. I know how that feels. People facing that situation feel rejected and discarded, their self-belief is rocked, and, from this position, they will then be trying to regain a place in the workplace. The second time I signed on at a job centre, I was in my early 50s, and was told by the advisor that it was unlikely I would find a job, and that I should sign on by post and not bother coming in to the job centre. Well, what did they know? Age need not be a barrier to returning to work.
Lord Digby Jones, the former director general of the Confederation of British Industry, currently said people need to plan for five jobs in their lifetime, and that underpins why we need return-to-work programmes that do offer opportunities through a person’s working lifetime. They will need to anticipate working in different geographical locations. Employing organisations need their employees to be flexible, and employees need to keep their skills up to date, and understand that, to secure their long-term employability, employees need to maintain their learning. By removing the age barriers to work-related training programmes, Stronger Futures Cymru will seek to meet these needs of people seeking to negotiate their working lives, in a rapidly changing society. An added bonus is that valuable life skills and work experience will not be lost to the job market.
To return to the work programme I was responsible for, my local Manpower Services Commission manager told me not to recruit a woman over 50, because they would not get a job. Well, I think you can guess what I did next. One of those women ended up as an equal partner in an antique business, and another set up her own business. Of course, they didn’t immediately achieve those outcomes. On leaving my course, they first negotiated their own work experience, and gained a job. As I used to say to the participants on the programme, one job leads to another.
To set up an age barrier to work-related programmes is unfair. It is especially unfair to women, who experience age-related discrimination—ask any woman who works in the media. Age discrimination is also wasteful of talent and experience from the workplace. Wales needs a balanced workforce. I know of companies that, having early retired or let go their employees in their 50s, found themselves contracting the same individuals back, when they realised the loss of experience and the vital mentoring for younger entrants.
I applaud this Conservative initiative. It recognises the realities and challenges that people face throughout their working lives, and, most importantly, it is fair.
Plaid Cymru will support the motion and the amendment to it this afternoon, because there is nothing to oppose in the wording, I don’t think, but much that has been said by the Conservative Party is utter madness, in my view, in the context of developing skills and developing the economy in Wales.
Now, I am certainly in favour of supporting people in their 50s—I think people in their 50s have a great deal to contribute to the economy and to public life in Wales. But I’m pleased to see that the interest is coming to the fore on the Conservative benches as they are reselected to stand as Assembly Members, seeking new opportunities post 50. The plan that the Conservatives have outlined is entirely without direction and has not been thought through at all. We are looking at a scheme that doubles the length of time and extends the boundaries without putting in an additional penny of funding in place. You are not supporting skills, but watering them down among people of all ages, young and old. That is what is so deficient in the plan that you have put forward—not in the wording of the motion, because I can’t oppose the wording. You haven’t learnt from the evidence of Jobs Growth Wales; quite to the contrary—you have learnt from your own ideology, without bringing that perspective into the plan.
This is the truth of unemployment in Wales: unemployment among those people between 50 and 64 is 39 per cent and unemployment among those people between 16 and 24 is 18.9 per cent. Therefore, any Government needs to respond to youth unemployment with a specific programme for our young people. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for a programme for older people, and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t invest in adult education, part-time education and college education. There is a problem in Wales of lack of expenditure on those above the age of 40 or 45—that is true—but diluting a programme targeted at young people is not the way to do that. This sets generation against generation. We have heard a great deal from the Conservatives this afternoon on the kind of debate that is seeking to differentiate between the generations rather than bringing people together with a single aim, that we should all seek skills throughout our working lives and that we should all be prepared for the challenge of new employment. In that context, apprenticeships for all ages can be extremely beneficial.
But I want to concentrate on four or five things that we can now do in terms of apprenticeships in Wales that will truly take us to the next stage. I agree with much of what has been said in terms of the fact that we need to raise the status of apprenticeships.
I don’t quite understand the point you made there, that you think that we’ve got a problem with differentiating between generations. Surely we want to raise the aspirations for older people, as many Members have said. What’s wrong with that?
I think that I made it clear that there was nothing wrong with that, but that should not be done by diluting and weakening a programme that is specifically targeted at young people. As has been recommended by the committee itself, you have to have a specific programme for those in their 50s rather than using a scheme that was for another purpose altogether.
But, to return to my point on apprenticeships: yes, we need to raise the status of apprenticeships; it’s disappointing that we don’t have targets in place now for the number of young people who leave school at 16 or 18 years of age to go into an apprenticeship. It is too few. It is under 2 per cent. And, although we are succeeding in attracting more people into apprenticeships, there should be a far clearer pathway for people to go immediately from school into an apprenticeship. I do think that that is something that Estyn needs to work on, that Careers Wales needs to work on, and that the Government needs to work on.
We must also look at the whole framework for funding post-16 education because it is clear that the emphasis on funding student tuition fees without exception has diluted and drawn resources away from the vocational aspect. Most people need to go to a local college, need local training, need to live locally and remain in Wales, and that is one area where we do have to concentrate some of our resources.
The final thing that we need to discuss is the importance of public procurement and ensuring that that actually places some targets for apprenticeships and workplace training. One thing that hasn’t been discussed so far—and I know that it’s included in the Assembly’s forward work programme for the next few weeks—is that a levy is to be introduced for apprenticeships from the Westminster Government, and that’s without any negotiations with the Government here or this Assembly as to how that will lead to joint funding for apprenticeships in Wales. These are the questions that need to be answered in Wales; this is what drives our skills, particularly in higher level apprenticeships, and not the attempt by the Conservatives here to set one generation against another.
In the words of our Prime Minister,
‘There’s no better way to back people’s aspirations than to invest in apprenticeships, to invest in the skills that can make a difference to your careers.’
At least we can all agree on his statement here. Wales is in a global race and if Wales is to succeed in this race, we have to make sure that our people have the skills, training and the apprenticeships to make the most of their talent. That means all of our people, irrespective of their age or gender. From my viewpoint as an equalities spokesperson, I would like to highlight the failing of the current system, as it affects older people and women.
The Welsh Government is failing to support older people to increase their skills and to access training. There are now 90,000 fewer adults in part-time learning than there were 10 years ago. People aged over 25 are unable to access a work placement under Jobs Growth Wales. Indeed, the Welsh Government has rejected calls to improve access to training for older people. The Commissioner for Older People in Wales has warned, as Janet Finch-Saunders has already said, that Wales could pay a high price for cuts to lifelong learning.
‘I think we need to see a much wider recognition across all government portfolios of the necessity to keep older people in the workforce and bring them back into work as well.’
Under the proposals contained in ‘Stronger Futures Cymru’, we will end the age limit on learning. Apprenticeships should be delivered on a need, rather than an age basis. Although, those aged between 16 and 24 would remain our key focus, we would continue to offer apprenticeship opportunities to people of all ages in Wales. We must not and cannot afford to leave older people behind.
The same is true for women. As Chwarae Teg has pointed out, apprenticeships in Wales remain notably gendered. In Wales, between 2011 and 2012, women accounted for just over 3 per cent of engineering apprenticeships, but nearly 92 per cent of hairdressing apprenticeships. Women made up over 96 per cent of children’s care, learning and development apprenticeships. If the Welsh Government, again, fails to tackle this issue of gender inequality, which needs to be considered against a backdrop of the current mismatch in the skills sector—. This mismatch means that there are approximately two jobs for each qualified construction worker, and five qualified practitioners for each job in hair and beauty. Strengthening links between educators and employers can work to end gender imbalance in Welsh industries.
I quote again from Chwarae Teg: closer links between educators, carers, professionals and employers should continue to be cultivated and used to tackle gender stereotyping. These closer links could also help by bringing young girls into contact with positive role models from sectors that have not traditionally been seen as a career path for women. By better promoting apprenticeships, we could help more women into male-dominated industries.
Deputy Presiding Officer, there are three goods in it: one good is that it is good for the people who get the chance to acquire a skill, who will have a real, worthwhile career. The second good is for businesses, which will have workforces that will allow the companies to meet their full potential and the third good is for the country, as it feels the benefit of a growing economy.
Deputy Presiding Officer, this is a great, traditional country, where we should leave our older generation to pass on their experience and skills to our younger generation. There is a good old saying that old is gold. I think we are missing or we are actually—. That is why we are losing our traditions, customs, culture and ingenuity. All the world knows that the British inventors are the best in the world, and our tradition of education must come from the elders and pass on to the generation that is coming in the near future and to our future generations, and our development—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Finish now, please.
[Continues.]—is based on the older generation. Thank you.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate today. Now, as you will all know by now, the issues of apprenticeships and work placement training are very close to my heart and have consumed a good deal of my professional and political life, both before and during my time as an Assembly Member. In my former capacity as Deputy Minister for Skills, I was able to see at first hand the work that we are doing in Wales to ensure that our apprenticeship programme is solid, sustainable and of clear benefit to learners, employers and the wider economy.
Reading the Welsh Conservatives’ motion before us today, in terms of the wording and content, there was little that I could disagree with on the face of the motion, and I’m happy to support it and, indeed, the amendment as well. It’s important that apprenticeship programmes are diverse and widely available to a cross-section of learners from different backgrounds. It is also important that a partnership approach is adopted in terms of assessment, delivery and regulation of the qualifications to which an apprenticeship will eventually lead. However, I suspect that the implication of this motion has more to do with the Conservatives’ ongoing criticism of Jobs Growth Wales, even though they were calling for its expansion just the other day to older candidates. Furthermore, I am very wary about using England as a model of comparison. The system in place across the border is different and, in many ways, flawed.
Last week, Deputy Llywydd, I attended National Training Federation Wales’s annual conference, entitled ‘Vision 2020—Towards a World Class Skills System’. I must declare an interest here, as I am a member of the national federation’s executive board. A number of related topics were discussed at the conference, but the overarching message was the need for apprenticeships and training policy in Wales to be geared towards creating a world-class skills system. This meant delivering a skills system that responded to the needs of individuals and employers by ensuring that the correct funding and support models were in place, and an emphasis on the quality of apprenticeships and work placement programmes, rather than simply looking at the quantity. I believe that we are leading in Wales on a number of these fronts.
While the quantity of apprenticeships in Wales has been streamlined in recent years, the quality, I believe, has improved. We are targeting resources towards priority sectors and where there is demand for on-the-job learning. Our completion rates in Wales are higher than in England—84 per cent, compared with 69 per cent—and, in Wales, 10 per cent of apprenticeships are at the higher level, as opposed to 2 per cent in England. Now, there’s been a proliferation in the growth of apprenticeships in England, and, while a number of these are to be welcomed, I am aware of concerns that some of these are the result of major employers using support from the UK Government, through the Skills Funding Agency, to finance training that they could and should be undertaking for their staff themselves.
Will the Member give way?
Go on, yes.
Thank you for giving way, Jeff. Whilst I don’t disagree with you on the quantity of apprenticeships in Wales, there are figures that are good, which relate to start-ups, but would you agree with me that those opportunities have to be sustainable as well? It’s no good having a good start-up number at the start and then they peter off and are without jobs at the end.
Well, of course, but look, what’s crucial is the number of completions, not the number of starts, and, when you have 84 per cent of young people completing an apprenticeship, that is a statement of quality.
HM Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, reflected recently on the use of funds for internal training in a highly critical Ofsted report, and it should be a cause for concern. I read the Conservatives’ recent proposals for a replacement scheme for Jobs Growth Wales with interest. Clearly, we need to ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds who want to undertake an apprenticeship or a work placement are able to do so, where appropriate. However, as has been mentioned by others, the whole point of Jobs Growth Wales—how it was designed—was to help job-ready young people aged between 16 and 24 to get a foot on the ladder.
Young people face a particular set of challenges in entering the labour market that older workers do not: their lack of experience and contacts, for example, and the fact that young people have been hardest hit by the effects of the global financial crisis. I therefore make no apologies for introducing Jobs Growth Wales when I was in post, and the vast majority of employers and learners who I meet regularly still sing its praises. So, in conclusion, Deputy Lywydd, I welcome this debate today and the chance it affords us to discuss this very important subject. If we are to meet the significant challenges of skills shortages and the future demands of a global labour market, it is imperative that we have a joined up approach—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Quickly now, please.
[Continues.]—to work-based learning that is geared towards delivering world-class skills for Wales.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, Julie James.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. This is a very interesting time in Welsh education and skills. From curriculum to capital investment, standards to skills, the entire landscape of Welsh education and skills policy is being remade. Whether it’s the changes that we are making to our foundation phase, the radical new curriculum for Wales for our schools, or the reshaping of apprenticeships for our economy, every part of our system is being improved. Everything is being designed with the purpose of ensuring our people are fit and ready to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century and its changing economy.
We support the motion in the name of Paul Davies AM, but I am obliged to say at this point that I really fail to understand quite what William Graham’s opening contribution had to do with apprenticeships, since a very large part of it seemed to focus on Jobs Growth Wales, and, although I sometimes feel as if I am in an episode of ‘Groundhog Day’, I will once again outline that Jobs Growth Wales is not an apprenticeship programme. It is a work experience programme for work-ready young people who have no work experience at all to give them a first step on the ladder. That is what it is: it is not an apprenticeship programme, which is what this motion is about, which we support—there’s nothing in its wording to give us any cause for concern. Extending Jobs Growth Wales to older people would simply not work. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of why the programme is both popular and successful. The idea also from the Conservative side that Jobs Growth Wales is the only programme in town and therefore the only thing you can do is make it all ages, shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire skills system in Wales.
At my recent appearance at the Enterprise and Business Committee, I shared with the committee a pathways for skills model, which showed the diversity of offer that the Welsh Government has in place and, in brisk exchanges with several of the Members, I pointed out that one size simply does not fit all for anybody other than work-ready young people who have everything they need except for a foot on the ladder. I’m also constantly told that a measure of its failure is that those youngsters would have got work eventually anyway. I’m told that the ‘dead weight’, as they are pleased to call these very engaging and very enterprising young people, is about 70 per cent. But I will say to you, Dirprwy Lywydd, that I am surprised that it’s not 100 per cent, because the whole point of the programme is that it’s for job-ready young people who don’t have work experience. That’s the point. I don’t know how many times I’ve got to tell people on the opposite benches this, but I’ll give it one more shot. It is not an apprenticeship programme: it is a work experience programme for job-ready young people. It is not ageist, it is not capped, it is not gender biased, it is simply a targeted programme for a cohort of young people who are suffering from extreme problems in the employment market brought on by the global financial crisis, and, I will say, not improved at all by the Conservative Government’s constant heartless attack on young people and women. I’m not taking any lessons from anybody on those benches about age or gender discrimination, given the tax credit cuts that you have forced on most of the population of Wales and, indeed, nor am I taking any lessons from you about assisting young people to study or train, given that your bedroom tax has forced very many young people across Wales to share a bedroom with a three-year-old sibling. So, I am not taking those lessons.
Will you give way?
I’m grateful to the Deputy Minister for taking the intervention. Do you recognise the huge pressure you put on apprenticeships when you cut 5,000 apprenticeships in the last budget round, and do you now not regret that cut to the availability of new starts—new starts—which was the cut of the 5,000 apprenticeships in the last budget round?
Again, Deputy Presiding Officer, I sometimes feel as if I’m living in a George Orwell novel in this Chamber, because I hear language that really does not have the meaning ordinarily associated with it in England. Of course, I regret any of the cuts to our successful programmes, but if the opposition would like to tell me exactly what it is that they would cut from the education programme to sustain, for example, their proposed health spending, the additional 12 per cent cut that you would have made, and how you would have maintained apprenticeships given that cut, I’d be very grateful to have that conversation with you elsewhere.
Anyway, turning to the motion, which I actually intend to address, unlike most of the contributions from the opposite benches, I would like to point out that we do have diversity in terms of apprenticeship opportunities. There are over 190 Welsh apprenticeship frameworks. They cover a broad range of sectors, from accounting to veterinary nursing, delivering support that meets a range of different abilities from level 2 right up to level 7. We grow apprenticeships and priority sectors on a daily basis. We stretch them to meet emerging skills shortages and technical and higher skills occupations, driving productivity across our economy. We’ve also agreed to fund higher education-prescribed qualifications when undertaken as part of a published higher apprenticeship framework, and this helped us to provide more STEM-based apprenticeships across Wales.
Our overall success rate for apprenticeships in Wales is a staggering 84 per cent, which is far, far better than anything across the border, and on a par with the most successful in the global system of skills. Indeed, only the other day, I addressed a group of individuals from right across the globe about our successful apprenticeship programme when they were here to learn from how we’ve been quite so successful in delivering it.
We should be proud of our success in Wales, and not dithering about with tinkering around the edges of a system that’s clearly not understood by the Conservatives.
In 2014, 15 per cent of employers in Wales offered formal apprenticeships, and a further 21 per cent said they planned to offer them in the future. The new all-age higher apprenticeship programme makes up 10 per cent of the apprenticeship award programme overall, and I was privileged to present the awards only last Thursday at the apprenticeship of the year awards. The higher apprenticeship winner there was an absolutely fantastic woman of 53, who was rightly proud of her achievements. So, for the Conservatives to say that we operate any kind of an ageist policy is obvious nonsense.
We also have a range of shared apprenticeship programmes that help young people engage with various different employers. We actively promote our apprenticeships via Apprenticeship Week, apprenticeship awards, Skills Cymru events and apprenticeship champions in schools. As the Chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee will know, I’ve also agreed to discuss with the older person’s commissioner a range of measures designed to draw these opportunities to the attention of all age ranges right across Wales, and I await her proposals with interest. In 2014, we also joined the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, and we have pledged to share experiences and learn from others—something that England, by the way, has not yet signed up to.
But we will not be stopping there. Only last week, I outlined our future priorities for apprenticeships in Wales at the National Training Federation Wales conference that Jeff Cuthbert just mentioned. These include refocusing our Young Recruits programme to support 16 to 17-year-old recruitment straight out of school, better links between further education programmes and apprenticeship frameworks through clearer, more defined high-quality skills tracks, as shared with the committee, and continuing to place jobs back at the heart of our system, making earning and learning the cultural norm. And can I tell you, Dirprwy Lywydd, that this is a very different approach to the disorder unfolding in England, between the confusion they are creating with their hundreds of ‘trailblazers’ and the additional tax burden they are placing on employers through the apprenticeship levy, which, by the way, is a clear encroach upon Wales’s devolved responsibilities and clearly has not been thought through in any regard.
On the second point of the motion, the Welsh Government has already advanced its plans to produce an employability route-map that outlines all of the provision and support, including work placement schemes, available to individuals, and, as I’ve said—I’ll say it again for the third time—a draft of which I shared at my recent appearance at the committee. It clearly defines pathways linked to employment and highlights the major contribution that is made by the Welsh Government and the European social fund to developments here in Wales.
Let’s also not forget one of the key themes of ‘A curriculum for Wales—a curriculum for life’ is to prepare young people to participate effectively in life and work. A number of Members have highlighted that stronger links between education providers and employers provide more opportunities for young people to meet and talk with employers and remain engaged with the world of work. I recently launched our employer engagement project, called ‘Business Class’, which is delivered by Careers Wales and Business in the Community, down in Carmarthenshire, and a very enthusiastic group of young people greeted me there to learn more about some of the firms who are participating in it in their area. This scheme will play a key role in establishing a consistent framework for schools and employers in partnership work and work experience.
In terms of the last point in the motion, collaboration between sectors is already at the heart of everything we do. The skills policy statement highlights our approach in this respect. It sets the foundation for developing a sustainable system in Wales capable of responding to an increasingly global market for skills. It highlights our plans to make our system more sustainable in the long term, to work with our regional skills partnerships—which are already an indication of the success of our partnership agenda—they show us effective regional skills delivery will allow us to develop collaborative solutions that respond to regional demands. I’m sorry that Members on the opposite benches didn’t have the chance to attend the National Training Federation Wales where it was outlined that amongst the many things that were said at that conference, the best thing of all that was said was that we were lucky indeed to participate in one of the best programmes in Europe here in Wales.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Nick Ramsay to reply to the debate.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I thank the Deputy Minister for her comments? You’ve clearly been enjoying your stint of work experience today, standing in for the education Minister earlier. I think, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt today, it’s that you’re not going to take any lessons from the Welsh Conservative benches, a point which you reiterated over and over, although it did sound—if I teased out some of your comments—like you had listened to a couple of the points we’d made, even if you didn’t really want to admit that, Deputy Minister.
Can I thank everyone who’s participated in today’s debate? We’ve brought this debate forward today because we recognise the importance of providing apprenticeship opportunities, but also diverse apprenticeship opportunities; that’s the simplicity at the heart of this motion.
As William Graham said in opening, apprenticeships are one thing but there has to be a sustainable job afterwards. He also mentioned, as well, Jobs Growth Wales—we do get that there is a difference between those two, Deputy Minister—but, he also reinforced the point that Jobs Growth Wales has missed the target. Well, I know you don’t like hearing that but the facts speak for themselves. It is a programme that has many good aspects to it, but unfortunately, it hasn’t hit the key outcome that was initially set for it, and it’s our job in the Welsh Conservatives, on these benches, and the other opposition benches, to scrutinise policies like Jobs Growth Wales to make sure that there is value for money at the end of it and, indeed, sustainable jobs.
Now, the Stronger Futures Cymru policy has been mentioned by many Members on this side of the Chamber, and we’re confident that that would provide the higher-level apprenticeships which are necessary and which provide such economic benefit, and, indeed, which Members such as Jeff Cuthbert have mentioned. Higher-level apprenticeships have a vital role to play in lifting our whole economic gain and the wider competitiveness of Wales on the world stage.
In his contribution, Aled Roberts called for a move away from—I like this phrase—‘the Welsh Government’s self-congratulatory rhetoric’, and to get on with the job of providing a more balanced education system. You highlighted the proposals of Welsh Government to reduce the number of apprenticeships, which, as you said, was in complete contradiction to some of their more public sentiments. Fancy that, eh?
Janet Finch-Saunders gave an impassioned speech which called for Jobs Growth Wales to be improved, and not to discriminate against older people. And you told the Welsh Government not to blame the UK Government for the failings of schemes such as Jobs Growth Wales. Well, it’s a bit like asking a vicar not to drink tea, isn’t it—asking the Welsh Government not to blame everything, or most things, on the UK Government? I don’t think there’s much chance of that Janet, but you did at least make the bid. There were a couple of grumbles and mumblings over there on the back benches, but we heard what you were saying.
Keith Davies was quite right in many respects—a very good contribution, Keith. [Interruption.] Well, that’s got them going. On some indicators—[Interruption.] You see, it’s easy to be positive—you could try it a bit more as well. You might enjoy it. No, you probably wouldn’t. In your contribution, Keith, you said that on some indicators, Wales has done better than England. There is no doubt about that. On some indicators, that is quite true. We’re willing to accept that, certainly in the case of start-up apprenticeship numbers. But, as I made the point to Jeff Cuthbert earlier, it’s not just about start-up numbers; it’s about sustainability of those numbers. I’m sure that 85 per cent do complete. We need to make sure that that number is as high as possible, and that it’s as high as possible in those apprenticeships that are not so popular. It’s one thing to have apprenticeships in some of the more traditional areas, but we’ve also got to make sure that we provide apprenticeships across the piece. I can see Keith Davies nodding in agreement to that.
Janet Haworth, yes we are still getting to know you, it’s quite true, and yes, we do need a balanced workforce. I quite agree with your comments there.
Simon Thomas, you were a little mischievous—you were, you didn’t disappoint—about the Welsh Conservative group and our intent. I won’t go into all of your mischief—you know full well you were mischievous. You said that you want to improve the opportunities for older people. In many ways, you agreed with us completely. On the face of it, that didn’t come across, but I'm sure there's a lot more cross-over in our views—you and the Welsh Conservatives; well, not on everything, I know, but more cross-over than you would let on. Look, I think there is overwhelming agreement in this Chamber about the value of apprenticeships—even with you, Joyce Watson. They are an extremely important alternative to academic routes. As Mohammad Asghar said, this is about Wales’s competitiveness on the global stage, in the global race. There is no doubt about that at all. This should be a key aspect of Welsh Government economic policy. In some ways, it’s gone right, but in too many areas other areas, it has not gone right, and that is why Welsh Conservatives have put forward our proposals and have put forward this debate today. It is a debate that we believe is well worth supporting. I ask other Members in the Chamber to do likewise.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I defer voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Peter Black took the Chair.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Paul Davies, and amendment 2 in the name of Aled Roberts.
The next debate is the Plaid Cymru debate on fuel poverty. I call on Llyr Gruffydd to move the motion.
Motion NDM5864 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Calls on the Welsh Government to improve performance in relation to tackling fuel poverty.
Thank you very much, temporary Deputy Presiding Officer. I move the motion in the name of Plaid Cymru, calling on the Welsh Government to improve performance in terms of tackling fuel poverty. As we know, fuel poverty refers to homes that have to spend more than 10 per cent of their income to ensure that their homes are heated adequately. The reality for homes that find themselves in this position, of course, is a combination of cold homes, which leads to health complications, and financial problems often created by high bills. The most correct and comprehensive statistical analysis comes from the Living in Wales survey, as back as far as 2008, and that estimated that 26 per cent of homes in Wales were in fuel poverty. The increase in prices over the past few years, which have added some 20 per cent to the cost of energy, are likely to make this 26 per cent a significant under-assessment.
More recently, a study by the Association for the Conservation of Energy last year said that as many as 450,000 homes in Wales were in fuel poverty. Certainly, the numbers in fuel poverty have increased over the past 15 years. Various sources can give different statistics, perhaps, but there appears to be a consensus that at least 25 per cent, and as much perhaps as 34 per cent, of homes are now living in fuel poverty here in Wales.
In Wales, we pay an average of 5 per cent to 10 per cent more for our energy than elsewhere, and this is due to poorer energy infrastructure, particularly for rural and post-industrial areas of course. There is also the failure of competition to work in the market. Poor digital infrastructure as well means that those who are digitally excluded can’t access the best deals. A general sense still persists that switching isn’t the answer, leading to monopoly-type practices of some energy companies.
Historically, energy companies have made excessive profits, of course, through several poor practices, including consumers being missold tariffs and a general failure to be transparent over prices; failing to pass on falls in the wholesale cost of energy but, of course, being quick to pass on price rises; misleading and complex tariffs causing confusion amongst people as to what the best deal is; and hidden charges and exit fees hindering the operation of the market. We’re all aware of numerous examples of misselling, as well as deliberately selling initial direct debit deals low to attract customers, thus trapping them into debt and then switching them to higher prices knowing that they can’t then switch.
Reports in the press over the weekend highlighted how energy chiefs are warning that a big freeze this winter could send prices rocketing, with electricity prices possibly doubling according to some if there is a prolonged cold snap. That, clearly, would be the worst-case scenario, but they cite a very tight spare capacity margin driving exceptionally high spot prices with a clear consequence in terms of costs being passed on then to customers.
Whilst households across Wales look to turn their heating up over the next few weeks, we know that people in fuel poverty can very often face a choice between heating or eating, with secondary effects related to poor diet, debt and poor housing—the visible consequences of fuel poverty.
Save the Children’s survey on how people on low incomes cope with fuel poverty revealed the extent to which high energy costs are hitting the poorest families the hardest. Almost half of parents have said they are considering cutting back on food in order to pay their energy bills this winter. Almost a third of all parents on the lowest incomes said they won’t be able to afford their winter energy bills even if they do cut back on other essentials. Fifty-four per cent of all parents are worried that their children’s health will suffer because their house is too cold this winter, 55 per cent of all parents are worried about being pushed into debt and half of all families plan to turn the heating off for longer to keep their bills down.
Now, the impact of poor quality, cold housing on health is well established, of course, and we know that. We know that children living in damp, mouldy homes are between one and a half and three times more prone to coughing and wheezing—symptoms of asthma and other respiratory conditions—compared to children in dry homes. Children persistently living in accommodation with inadequate heating and poor conditions were more than twice as likely to suffer from chest and breathing problems, such as asthma and bronchitis. A child who develops asthma, of course, in this way, is likely to have it for many, many years and possibly for life.
Brambleby and associates estimated the cost of asthma to the English NHS is at least £847 million per annum, or just under 1 per cent of the national NHS budget. This was back in 2008. The Welsh equivalent for that year would’ve been at least £50 million. Excess winter debts are almost three times higher in the coldest quarter of housing than in the warmest quarter. Mental health, of course, as well, is negatively affected by fuel poverty and cold housing for any age group.
So, what is the Welsh Government doing to mitigate fuel poverty? Well, the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000 required the Welsh Government to draw up a plan for the elimination of fuel poverty by 2018. In 2003, the first strategy for eliminating poverty was published and the central approach of it remains in place; the central approach being funding the installation of insulation technologies in homes deemed to qualify and ensuring that people take up all the benefits that they’re entitled to. The Welsh Government, as we know, has two main schemes for upgrading households in Wales: Arbed to co-ordinate and invest in social housing and Nest to support investment and advice for households in the private sector.
Of course, it’s now widely recognised that the targets for eliminating fuel poverty will not be met. Energy prices have persistently risen over the past few years and the Welsh Government has simply not had the powers available to tackle rising fuel bills. In this context, of course, retrofitting is only ever going to be a mitigating act. However, the fuel poverty coalition have been critical of what the Welsh Government actually are doing to mitigate fuel poverty. They say that it’s extremely concerning that the number of households receiving energy efficiency measures through the Welsh Government’s main fuel poverty scheme has dropped from an average of 15,000 households a year under the home energy efficiency scheme to fewer than 5,000 households in the second year under Nest. At a time when around 386,000 households were estimated to be in fuel poverty in Wales in 2012, this drop in the number of households receiving help makes, of course, the 2018 target seem less achievable than ever.
More recently, the Bevan Foundation, in its report on tackling poverty, noted that, perhaps surprisingly, the ‘Tacking Poverty Action Plan 2013’ does not include any specific commitments in respect of fuel poverty, despite eradicating fuel poverty as we know, by 2018, being a long-standing Welsh Government objective. It also mentions Nest and Arbed, of course, and adds that welcome though the progress is, the achievements of those programmes are modest against the scale of the problem. About 30 per cent of all households were in fuel poverty in 2012-13—a figure that has almost certainly risen since then—and at the current rate of progress, according to the Bevan Foundation, it’ll take the Nest scheme, for example, 78 years to reach all fuel-poor homes in Wales.
The Bevan Foundation asserts that fuel poverty needs to be integrated into a future tackling poverty action plan, accepting that eradication by 2018 is not realistic, but that eradication by 2020 might still be feasible, supported by an energy efficiency programme of sufficient scale and sufficient reach to achieve its commitment and target.
There are three specific aspects to fuel poverty I think that we should focus on and my colleagues, during the debate, will elaborate further on those. They are, of course, tackling abuses in the energy market, part of which would require further powers. Secondly, we need to do more to tackle off-grid problems looking particularly at the issues of rurality, which are a particular feature, of course, for us here in Wales. And thirdly, as I’ve already alluded to, upgrading the Welsh housing stock.
We know we need to improve a third of the current housing stock over the next 10 years to a level that cuts carbon emissions by more than 60 per cent if we’re to meet some of the targets set by the Welsh Government. Improving 4,800 houses a year for 10 years won’t come close to achieving what is actually required. We also know that there’s a price tag of around £2.5 billion to take 95 per cent of people out of fuel poverty. Now, that would be £240 million to £250 million a year for 10 years, or £120 million to £130 million a year for 20 years. Now, these are significant sums, but not impossible sums to find, particularly as spending of around £70 million a year is already allocated to Arbed and Nest. Furthermore, of course, the health benefits of tackling fuel poverty demonstrate the business case for spending money on this. Only this morning in the environment committee, we were told about how, in Germany, the KfW bank is derisking a lot of this process through loans. We know also that the Scottish Government is funding zero-cost loans for the very vulnerable in Scotland and also providing very low interest loans for others. So, there’s much more that we can do and much more that we should be doing.
We know, of course, that retrofitting can bring social gains through tackling fuel poverty, environmental gains through reducing carbon emissions, and economic gains through creating jobs. So, we can make tackling fuel poverty work for Wales in very many ways, and I trust that today’s debate can underline that, whilst the scale of the challenge is as big as ever, the potential for positive outcomes, beyond tackling fuel poverty alone, should galvanise the Welsh Government into doing much more to tackle it.
I’ve selected the two amendments to the motion, and I call on Mark Isherwood to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Believes that fuel poverty should be central to the Welsh Government’s tackling poverty action plan.
Diolch. A decade ago, the then Welsh Government described its home energy efficiency scheme—HEES—as its fuel poverty strategy when it was just one programme. Working with fuel poverty campaigners, I therefore called for a revised fuel poverty strategy, recognising that fuel poverty is a social justice issue, requiring a whole-person approach. This led to the establishment of the fuel poverty coalition and the launch of the fuel poverty charter, with signatories including the then Minister and myself.
A decade on, this Welsh Government has reverted to describing its current energy efficiency programme, Nest, as its fuel poverty scheme. Instead, fuel poverty should be central to the Welsh Government’s tackling poverty action plan, and I move amendment 1 accordingly.
As the Bevan Foundation told the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee:
‘fuel poverty should have a higher profile in the tackling poverty action plan, because it is a fundamental human need to have a warm home…One of the things that we have flagged up…is the relatively small impact of the Nest programme against the scale of the problem…Our suggestion is that fuel poverty should be brought more centre stage.’
As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation also told committee:
‘there are different kinds of initiatives and…activities in various parts of Wales and through different channels. What there is not is something that takes all of that and looks at the whole picture and starts to identify where the weaknesses are and where the good practices…are.’
Although the sector welcomes the Nest and Arbed schemes, they point out that 98 per cent of people living in fuel poverty fall outside these schemes and note that although fuel poverty is a social justice issue, it lies within the remit of the Minister for Natural Resources, rather than the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty. Nearly one in three households in Wales are experiencing fuel poverty, choosing between living in cold homes or food bills they can’t afford. Nearly 85 per cent of these are vulnerable households, containing a child, older person or someone with disability or chronic illness. As chair of the cross-party group on fuel poverty, I’m only too well aware that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
The impact of fuel poverty goes beyond financial consequences. Living in fuel poverty can affect people’s health, increasing the risk of common ailments, such as colds and flu, and respiratory infections, including bronchitis, and resulting in a worryingly high level of excess winter deaths, with older people particularly susceptible. The National Energy Action ‘UK Fuel Poverty Monitor 2014-2015’ states that:
‘The Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty within the Welsh Government should therefore work with other relevant departments…to establish the extent to which local authorities in Wales are fulfilling their current duties in relation to housing standards and take appropriate action’.
It said that,
‘The Welsh Government is responsible for transposing the new NICE guideline on “Excess winter deaths and morbidity and the health risks associated with cold homes” to Wales. The Welsh Government should signal its support for the guidelines’.
It also praised the Welsh Government for maintaining the Arbed and Nest schemes, but added,
‘the offer of a "whole house approach"...has sadly not fully materialised in the majority of households and the future of these current schemes is uncertain.’
It concluded that,
‘The Welsh government is unlikely to meet its remaining statutory duty to eradicate fuel poverty by 2018 without immediate clarification on these points.’
We need a new target to improve homes to a minimum energy efficiency standard, backed up with the data needed. However, this will only drive further investment in retrofitting schemes if we address the present lack of appropriately skilled construction workers identified by the Construction Industry Training Board Wales. We need a joined-up, household-centred and cross-sector programme embracing programmes delivered by Governments, energy companies and the third sector. We must implement the NICE guidelines on tackling excess winter deaths. We must work with energy retailers, local authorities, third sector organisations and existing energy efficiency schemes to develop a crisis fund for emergency heating when health is at risk, wherever people live. And we must fund independent advice services to help and support people in fuel poverty. The causes of fuel poverty are complex, requiring a person-centred approach alongside energy efficiency measures. True partnership working is key to finding those who are hardest to reach and ensuring that they receive all the help available to them to meet their needs. No one agency can do this alone. Thank you.
I call on William Powell to move amendment 2, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to extend Resource Efficient Wales to offer a comprehensive scheme, similar to that of Resource Efficient Scotland, to improve resource efficiency, address fuel poverty and tackle climate change.
Thank you, acting Deputy Presiding Officer.
I rise to move amendment 2 in the name of Aled Roberts and the Welsh Liberal Democrat group.
Helping individuals and businesses to be energy and resource efficient is absolutely crucial to tackling both poverty and climate change here in Wales. As has already been said, under the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, the UK and Welsh Governments have a legal obligation to do everything reasonably practicable to eliminate fuel poverty. Unfortunately, the Welsh Government’s previous target to eradicate fuel poverty by 2018 is now, again, as we’ve heard in earlier contributions, very unlikely indeed to be achieved. This is a clear indication that more action needs to be taken and done urgently. We must tackle fuel poverty, funding more improvements to people’s homes, ensuring that homes are warm and improving household disposable incomes. Going green must be an option for everyone, not just those who can afford it.
Clearly, fuel poverty is a wide-ranging issue, but today I’d like to focus my contribution on Resource Efficient Wales. When the Minister announced the launch of Resource Efficient Wales just last autumn, it appeared that he and his team had perhaps been looking at our own Liberal Democrat policy paper, ‘Powering Wales’ Future’, which was passed at our Welsh conference in spring of last year. It contained a proposal to develop a Resource Efficient Wales to provide, amongst other things, advice on low-carbon homes, to promote energy-saving behaviour, to develop installer and professional networks, to research and address barriers to community-scale energy, and to develop tools to help people better understand their carbon footprint.
Whilst we welcome the fact that the Resource Efficient Wales service has now been established, we do feel that this scheme can and should do more to improve energy and resource efficiency, to address fuel poverty and, at the same time, to tackle climate change. The existing scheme runs primarily as an advice service and telephone helpline whilst providing an umbrella term for a number of existing suppliers and schemes. Whilst this may be a valuable information resource, it is not quite the comprehensive scheme that my party had in mind.
As detailed in our policy paper, we envisaged a scheme not dissimilar to that of Resource Efficient Scotland, which would provide advice on all aspects of low-carbon homes online, both over the phone and, indeed, face to face; to promote energy-saving behaviours through social networks, local communities, online communities and communities of interest; to develop innovative tools and initiatives that facilitate greater levels of carbon literacy and a greater understanding and control of personal carbon footprints; to develop local waste messaging and advice on areas that have the greatest potential for emission reductions, such as waste prevention, reuse and recycling, and home composting; to run field trials of new technologies to show consumers what works and where it works best; to encourage manufacturers, installers and retailers to market and recommend best-in-class products and to advise on their most efficient deployment; and to offer specialist training for planners in low and zero-carbon building solutions, and we heard this morning in committee how important this is in making the contribution that it best can.
To be able to achieve all of that, Resource Efficient Wales obviously would need to be sufficiently comprehensive in its brief. However, since the introduction of Resource Efficient Wales last year, services such as the advice service provided by the Energy Saving Trust have been vastly scaled down. The intention with the Welsh Government’s Resource Efficient Wales programme may have been to improve provision whilst having reducing budgets, but this has not been the case, and services that were available in 2013 are simply not available any longer. It’s also important to note the effectiveness of face-to-face communication, particularly when we’re talking about an issue such as energy saving and fuel efficiency, because, ultimately, this is down to changing behaviours, and we know that phone calls and phone helplines are unlikely alone to instil the kind of behavioural change that we so desperately need to make a difference.
As of September this year, over £48,000 had been spent on marketing the Resource Efficient Wales scheme, and I think we need to have greater assurance from Welsh Government that this has been as effective and far-reaching as it needs to be.
Thank you, acting returning officer. I’m sorry there are only 18 of us here, because this is a very important debate. Fuel poverty affects so many people. On the face of it, the Welsh Government’s programme to spend £100 million over the next five years, which started in 2011, looked impressive, but compared with the actual impact it’s had, and compared with the amount dedicated to the same programme in Scotland, the amount was clearly nowhere near enough. The number of households, we heard, suffering from fuel poverty has increased by nearly £100,000 since 2011, and we pay on average anything between 5 and 10 per cent more for our energy than elsewhere in the UK. Now, what is all that about? Why should we pay more in Wales?
Another factor is the rising cost of energy and the difficulties that people face in trying to switch from one energy source to another. I’ve been invited to so many events here where people say, ‘Oh, advise them to switch’, and when people do switch they end up, sometimes, with a much bigger bill. So, it’s probably wise to stay where you are, I would have thought.
So, who suffers most from fuel poverty? Well, a high percentage, of course, are older people, and those who live in rural areas, who are less likely to have access, for example, to mains gas heating fuels. But parents of young children are also victims of fuel poverty. My colleague Llyr Huws Gruffydd outlined that quite perfectly in his contribution. In a recent survey, half of parents said they were considering cutting back on food in order to pay their energy bills this winter. That’s never right in a civilised society, and the same percentage have said they’re worried about their child’s health, and whether it will suffer because their house is too cold this winter. We’ll be back to the days of putting coats, army coats, on beds, which some of us who are old enough will recall. So, having to choose between heating or eating is a desperately cruel situation and it should never be allowed to happen, but it is happening here in Wales, with too many children living in damp and mouldy houses. I live in a very old house in my village, in Abertridwr, and older houses are colder, trust me. There are health problems such as asthma and bronchitis that poor housing conditions can cause.
So, Llywydd, what do we mean in this motion by calling on the Welsh Government to improve its performance? First of all, I think we do need a more ambitious programme to reach a far greater number of households that are in fuel poverty. At present, we’ve heard that the Welsh Government is reaching only—I think it’s about 5,000 houses a year. There are 320,000 households in Wales that urgently need help. That means increased spending on fitting homes with energy-saving devices—you know, the retrofitting schemes that we have. The Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty has recently issued a statement about financial inclusion, and how this Government can help people in debt. There’s nothing wrong with that statement, but we do know that, in Wales, there are over 50,000 households in debt to the electricity suppliers and over 45,000 in debt to the gas suppliers. If the Welsh Government is aiming to eradicate fuel poverty by 2018, we have to step up the financial investment in both of your anti-fuel-poverty programmes, Arbed and Nest. They do a good job, but I’m afraid we have to really hit the vehicle up into third gear to move forward.
Fat cats, gangsters in suits, shareholders and companies are making profits from people’s abject misery, and it’s a great pity we don’t have the power to force them to reduce their profits in this National Assembly for Wales. What a shame that that profit is seemingly sacrosanct. We used to have a communist councillor in Abertridwr, in my home village, who went to fight in the Spanish civil war. His name was Jack Roberts—they used to call him ‘Jack Russia’. He could never understand, in the 1920s and 1930s, why Welsh people were freezing in their homes whilst beneath their feet lay thousands of tonnes of coal. Today, nothing has changed. Perhaps some poor people will walk to the top of the mountain in Abertridwr, and you can look down and see an area that could be used for tidal power; we can see wind power, and we can even see our landscapes destroyed by opencast, and still those Welsh people are freezing in their homes. That is never right. There has never been a better time, in my opinion, for change.
Thank you very much. I’m pleased to be able to contribute to this debate. The causes of fuel poverty are manifold, of course, and it’s reasonable to note that there aren’t any easy answers. But, given that the Welsh Government has a target to eradicate fuel poverty by 2018—and if my sums are right, that means in two years—we need to look in detail at the practical steps that are being taken to reach the target. Of course, the truth is that no-one believes in that target anymore. I don’t think the Government itself even believes that it will reach that target.
I just want to concentrate on three aspects that contribute to fuel poverty, and one of them, of course, is low pay—and this is one of the most important factors. It was interesting to see in a recent report that Gwynedd has the highest percentage of people who earn less than the living wage. We’ve taken for granted, I think, in Wales, that low pay is an urban, post-industrial problem, but the figures that were released this week—or perhaps it was last week—clearly show that rural areas are under the same disadvantage, and sometimes even more disadvantage, than counties like Neath Port Talbot and Caerphilly, for example—areas that we usually consider as areas with high levels of deprivation. But, low pay is a problem throughout the whole of Wales, in the rural areas and in the post-industrial areas, and that is a factor that contributes greatly to fuel poverty.
What about the Government’s schemes to improve energy efficiency in our housing stock? Well, there’s been great praise for the Arbed and Nest schemes, but the Bevan Foundation’s estimate, of course, is that it will take 70 years to meet the demand, if we continue with the current schemes in their current form and at their current levels, proving that the Government’s target has no meaning at present, and without significant changes, the current disadvantages will remain for decades. I think that we have to—and we have to ask the Government as well—be honest and open about this. If that is the Bevan Foundation’s prediction, and although we heard another figure this morning that that could perhaps come down to 30 or 40 years, basically, we’re still talking about a target that’s unreachable within our lifetimes, or certainly within my lifetime.
It’s known that families in rural areas are frequently under two disadvantages. It’s more likely that their houses are old and have solid walls that are difficult to heat. Secondly, they’re more likely to be without a connection to the gas grid. When the initial work was done to define deprivation in Wales, the result in terms of the condition of housing was that north-west Wales and south-west Wales were the two worst areas in terms of energy efficiency in housing. But, for some reason, the condition of housing was downgraded within the deprivation index, and I would like to hear from the Minister why that was done. After all, the condition of homes affects not only fuel poverty, but also health, and we heard this morning in the committee, again, that health is tied to the condition of our homes. Given that the vast majority of us live in older homes of different types, it’s evident that we need to have a comprehensive, effective programme to make these houses energy efficient for the environment and for our people here in Wales.
It’s interesting to consider the experience of Germany in this regard. Their Energiewende programme—the transformational programme to move the country from its dependence on coal and nuclear to create electricity from renewable sources—has a target of about 60 per cent by 2050. Now, 800,000 people work in the green energy and clean energy field and the vast majority of those are employed to improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock. That is, not only do you improve people’s living conditions, but by focusing and investing in these types of programmes, you can also create employment and, at present, the Government’s activity level, despite general praise, hasn’t responded to the demand, and I think I would like to hear from the Minister what exactly are the plans for the future.
I call on the Minister for Natural Resources, Carl Sargeant.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Again, I welcome this debate today. It gives me the opportunity to reiterate to you that this Government is committed to doing everything it can to tackle fuel poverty in Wales. I was listening carefully to comments made by Members and we are in broad agreement that this is a hugely challenging activity to tackle the issues. When recognising that dealing with poverty—. The Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty has the overall remit and fuel poverty is within my department. We work operationally together to try and get the best opportunities we can, but many of the challenges we face are levers from other parts of the country and the UK Government, in terms of changing the ways they operate, and it has a massive impact on the actions we take forward. We recognise that if we are to succeed in tackling fuel poverty in the long term, then we have to address every aspect of fuel poverty within the powers available to us. That’s why our action plan is featured and is a fundamental part of the tackling poverty action plan under the CTP Minister.
The UK Government’s welfare reforms are making our actions to tackle fuel poverty even more difficult. The reforms have reduced the incomes of some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. The proposals to cut support for working families from next year will reduce incomes further, pushing even more Welsh households into fuel poverty and increasing the degree of hardship of those already suffering from fuel poverty. The UK Government’s actions, combined with the rural nature of Wales and the high proportion of old and traditionally built homes, as many Members have alluded to—many off-gas and reliant on expensive fuels—makes tackling poverty in Wales a real challenge. But, the Welsh Government is, I believe, facing up to that challenge.
Within the powers available to us, we know that the most effective way in which we can tackle fuel poverty in the long term is by improving the energy efficiency of homes, and we are doing this successfully through the Welsh Government’s Warm Homes scheme. Since 2012, we’ve invested over £150 million in improving the energy efficiency of over 27,000 homes and households on low incomes or living in the most deprived areas of Wales. These improvements are reducing fuel bills and helping low-income households to stay warm and at an affordable cost. In addition to improving those homes, the Welsh Government’s Warm Homes Nest scheme has provided free impartial advice to 68,000 households since 2012, on saving energy, increasing their income and managing debt. Under Nest, over 740 low-income households have seen their income increase by an average of £2,000 per year through the benefit check, and over 580 households have received Warm Homes discounts and rebates totalling over £78,000.
But, I do recognise the comments made, particularly those made by Alun Ffred in his contribution, that the scale of this is extremely challenging, in that the timelines that we are striving for in our target will be very difficult to achieve. But, you know, what we have to do is to have ambition and I will continue to strive to make investments and to make sure that tackling fuel poverty is at the heart of our proposals. That is why we introduced the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 in order for us to consider as a Government collectively how we can better the environment for people to make society a more equal society. I believe in fuel poverty being one of those key levers that we should be addressing.
As to the work done by Resource Efficient Wales, I cannot lay claim to reading the manifesto by the Liberal Democrats on this particular issue, but I welcome their contribution and the fact that they recognise how positive our Resource Efficient Wales programme is. And I did recognise many of the features that William came up with in terms of the programme that REW can deliver and continues to deliver. And I think many Members made reference to a partnership approach, not just Government, but actually a more holistic deal on dealing with issues around fuel poverty and tackling poverty. Third sector involvement is a critical process—public, private and households playing their part too.
I am proud to be able to say that while the UK Government has ended its Warm Front fuel poverty scheme for low-income households in England, we have not just maintained our funding to tackle fuel poverty but significantly increased it, despite wider cuts to the Government funding. This year alone, we will be investing over £50 million of Welsh Government funding in the Warm Homes programme.
I listened to Mark Isherwood’s contribution. Again, he is a regular contributor in the fuel poverty field, and I would just like to say that the issues in England and Wales are significantly different; we are taking this very seriously in Wales in terms of how we measure and how we deal with households. Of course, if we were to measure the same principal way using the low-income high-costs measure, as they do in England on household poverty, we would reduce our fuel poverty target by around 144,000 homes. I would say it’s a manipulation of the figures in England, and we’re not prepared to do that. We want to treat this in a real context, and we will continue to do so. I will give way.
Speaking as the chair of the cross-party group on fuel poverty, I made no reference to England and no critical comments—I simply quoted from documents provided by the sector itself, and hope that you’ll acknowledge that.
Indeed, I do recognise the points that the Member raises; I’m just pointing out the fact that in Wales we are very keen to ensure that we are truthful, honest and open about the process that we do in measuring fuel poverty. I do believe that, in England, there are some perhaps useful techniques in manipulating the figures, and actually who are the people who do encounter fuel poverty at all levels, not just based on their household income.
Llywydd, I’m very pleased that we are having this debate today. It is important that we collectively recognise the challenges that we are faced with, but we will continue to work with colleagues across all sectors to improve. That’s why we will be supporting the motion today, on the basis that we do believe that we can always improve and that we can make further investments, but with the caveat that the challenges we face from the UK Government, in the challenging budget financial settlements we have, mean that we have to be measured in our approach. But, it is a priority for this Welsh Government.
I call on Llyr Gruffydd to reply to the debate.
Thank you very much. Can I thank everyone who contributed? It was remiss of me not to say, as I was opening the debate, that we would be supporting both amendments. Clearly, regarding the first amendment, the tackling poverty strategy would need to focus on more than just fuel poverty—of course, it would—but fuel poverty should indeed be a key part of it.
Mark Isherwood mentioned that it was not the responsibility of the communities Minister, but the responsibility of the natural resources Minister—that is, tackling fuel poverty—but of course it should be a whole-Government responsibility, because there are health implications, there are implications in terms of housing, in terms of environment, economy and, indeed I’m sure, in terms of educational attainment as well. So, we need that whole-Government approach and we also need, as he suggested, that person-centred approach and better partnership and multi-agency working to go with it.
On the second amendment, we would be more than willing to support a broader remit for Resource Efficient Wales. It should do more in terms of advice, promotion and developing various innovative tools that will support our people. But, do you know what? I’ve got the feeling that it’s slightly hidden under a bushel, because, admittedly, it’s a pretty new agency or organisation, but it doesn’t seem to be very prominent in my mind, certainly in terms of the services that it does offer. And maybe, given the reference to its marketing budget, more should be done to ensure that we as Members at least are aware so that we can make sure that our constituents also become aware of its services.
The rural problem that Alun Ffred Jones alluded to, of course—the situation where the gas grid doesn’t get to many rural areas—is a problem, and getting better regulation within the oil and LPG sector, for example, is something that I have been eager to promote for many years, because one does see a great divergence in terms of prices, when it comes to oil and LPG, and often in houses that may be next door to each other. I don’t think that enough is being done on that front.
The Minister listed at length what is being done and that’s all very positive, but I think we agree that the fact of the matter is, frankly, it isn’t enough. There’s a huge mismatch between the scale of the challenge that we face and the scale of the response that is being presented in the face of that challenge. Having a warm home is, as was said during the debate, a fundamental human need, and I think that Jack Russia and Lindsay Whittle would agree that that is, indeed, the case. Of course, we have to remember that the houses that Jack Russia was looking at when he was saying what he was saying are probably still—many of them, if not most of them—in use, which again underlines, I think, the scale of the challenge in terms of the poor quality of the housing.
Don’t forget that the baby boomers are coming through and getting to an age where, of course, we are probably going to see greater pressures on our health services, many of which will be as a direct result of poor housing and fuel poverty. So, even bigger problems, potentially, are looming in relation to the impacts on health and the burden that’ll put on our national health service. So, investing now would generate even greater savings, of course, in the longer term.
We’ve talked before about the social benefits, about the environmental benefits and about the economic benefits of retrofitting as being one aspect of this debate. That's a win-win-win for Wales, and, if it means tackling fuel poverty at the same time, then it’s something that we should be redoubling our efforts to achieve.
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I will defer voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Paul Davies.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 5 is the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ debate on town centres, and I call Eluned Parrott to move the motion.
Motion NDM5865 Aled Roberts
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Believes that a vibrant and diverse Welsh high street has a key role to play in building sustainable communities for the future; supporting jobs and local enterprise, and improving social inclusion and cohesion;
2. Recognises the need to tackle barriers to the growth of town centres, which includes:
a) the increase in online and out of town retail;
b) the loss of local services or community assets and the recent round of bank closures;
c) the high street vacancy rate which is consistently above the UK average;
d) the lack of early consideration of sustainable transport in regeneration projects; and
e) the failure of the planning system to facilitate development and encourage investment in response to changing consumer demand.
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to consider innovative proposals for the regeneration of high streets in Wales, including the development of a national learning network to offer training and resources, facilitate networking for inspiration on best practice and collect and share access to research from around the world on revitalising town centres.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. We’ve tabled this debate today to coincide with the launch of our policy paper on regenerating high streets in Wales, adding some of our ideas to the ongoing debate here and in other places. As our society’s buying behaviour changes over time, we need to equip our high streets to evolve and adapt to meet the needs of future generations.
Deputy Presiding Officer, healthy and vibrant high streets offer something that shopping centres and internet sites simply cannot. They strengthen the social fabric of our communities; they are fundamentally different. A high street is so much more than a place to shop, and I believe that, by encouraging and nurturing diversity, by bringing together shops, services, leisure activities and workplaces, we can best protect our high streets for the future—and we must protect them. They offer a lifeline for many elderly and disabled people, enabling them to access local services and facilities that wouldn’t be available to them otherwise without relying on the kindness of neighbours. It improves their quality of life; it prevents isolation. How many of us know an older person for whom that daily trip to the shop has become their lifeline? Certainly, for my grandmother, it helped keep her fit and active long into advanced old age. They encourage people to get out and about on the doorstep and they encourage people to communicate and to build together as a community in a way that large-scale out-of-town shopping centres simply don’t, and internet shopping cannot even hope to. It increases active living and encourages that more healthy lifestyle I’ve just been talking about.
Of course, they offer much-needed jobs, with around 131,000 employees—more than 11 per cent of our workforce here in Wales. The retail sector is the largest private sector employer in Wales. It’s got a particularly important role in employing young people, giving them training and giving them the opportunity to first get their feet on the rungs of the career ladder.
But, as I say, a high street is unique. It’s unique in terms of the services it offers, the character of the environment it is able to offer to people, and the role it plays, actually, in its local community too. But they’re also unique in terms of the challenges they face, and, for that reason, I think that too much of a dictatorial and one-size-fits-all approach, which we have taken in the past, has been damaging to the success that we would all like to see.
We’ve discussed the overall picture when it comes to the decline in our high streets many times before, and there is no doubt that the high street in Wales is struggling, with a decline in shoppers last year, in contrast to increases, actually, in other parts of the UK. But what I’d like to do today is reflect on a couple of things that haven’t been widely discussed before but apply quite specifically to Wales so that we can move that debate forward.
Firstly, a review of the available data by Welsh Liberal Democrats has shown that out-of-town planning has actually been embraced more enthusiastically in Wales than in any other region of the UK. We have a greater proportion of retail out of town than the whole of the UK since 2008. This intensifies the challenges that high streets are facing in any case by accelerating declining footfalls: fewer feet quite simply mean fewer customers, fewer sales and fewer opportunities for our shops to thrive.
Secondly, we’re not holding our resolve in terms of land planning matters, so, not only are we allowing more shops to locate out of town, we’re actually putting more offices and homes on the outskirts of our towns and cities too. People living and working in a town centre are a really important source of footfall and customers for those businesses located in a town centre. As my bank balance will testify, for the 10 years I worked in Cardiff city centre I was skint on a permanent basis because people working in those locations are good customers. Those places rely on those people to be there. If you don’t have life, if you don’t have work, if you don’t have a reason to be in a town centre, it’s all too easy to go somewhere else. If there isn’t a wide and diverse range of services, shops and facilities for people to engage with when they go to a town centre, why on earth would they choose it? We need to think about the reasons why people will be there and make sure that we are holding our nerve with those planning issues.
Thirdly—and this one I think as well is very under-reported—retailers in the research that I’ve done have suggested to us that there’s been a major change in the ownership of retail space in Wales over the last decade or so. It’s become much more centralised and dominated by a few large landlords, and this trend hasn’t only happened in our larger city centres and larger high streets but in smaller high streets like Llantwit Major, for example. There has been a change in ownership over that period as well. This creates a problem, potentially, because larger landlords can often tolerate a much higher vacancy rate before they start to think about reducing rents on their properties, and individual retailers in my region—as I say, in high streets of all shapes and sizes—have reported to me difficulty negotiating with these faceless investors, and their agencies are not empowered to make changes, which is, in some cases, putting their very business at risk.
The impact of these factors on top of the UK-wide challenges that we’ve discussed on many occasions before has created a pincer movement where our shops are faced with fewer customers but higher costs, so it’s no wonder that research on future store closures suggests that 4,000 shops in Wales may close before 2018, and that would decimate our retail sector, figuratively and, sadly, literally as well.
We’ve looked for ideas that will democratise our approach to community regeneration, and one of the key policies in our paper is for a High Street Wales body to empower the people who live and work in our high streets to drive the regeneration of those local communities and tackle that dereliction and decay. Who better to lead that than those people with the most knowledge and with the most love and the most money and the most care invested in those places? I have never met a retailer who didn’t have an opinion on what we should do to revitalise their high street—not yet; that day has not yet come.
Things like business improvement districts give communities and businesses in places like Cardiff, in Conwy, in Ceredigion—they give those communities the impetus to work together in a formal structure, but it doesn’t suit every place, and we need to recognise that. Now, High Street Wales will support those communities in developing the partnerships, the projects, the funding bids they need to evolve into a sustainable high street for the future, and perhaps that will mean developing a BID at some point in the future, but the first steps are sometimes the most difficult and we want to give them the flexibility to choose their own destiny.
In England, the Town Team partners and Portas pilots have been successful in helping small shops to reinvent themselves with more personality and local commitment. They’ve seen the creation of a Future High Street Forum, which advises Government on the challenges facing high streets. I think a similar forum could be helpful in Wales to give businesses greater support and advice and make the most effective use of the Vibrant and Viable Places funding that is available. But, in Wales, I’d welcome a much more community-led, grass-roots approach. I really believe this body should be more similar to the Main Street movement in America, which has transformed the way communities think about revitalisation of their historic downtowns and neighbourhood commercial districts, and, obviously, in America, they’re a lot further down this journey towards out of town than we have gone, even here in Wales.
The National Main Street Center in America is a national organisation that offers education, outreach, hands-on training and online resources. It facilitates some of those connections and links and it offers conferences to inspire and to build strong communities. It doesn’t sound like much; it only costs them £2.4 million a year for the whole of America, and yet, over the past 35 years, it’s equipped more than 2,000 communities with the organising framework it needs, it’s reoccupied more than 250,000 buildings, it has drawn in $62 billion-worth of investment, and it has created more than 0.5 million jobs. It is something, I think, that’s worth investigating. A similar body for Wales sitting alongside some of those interventions that we already have and already work well, where they’re useful, I think could have a transformative effect on our high streets.
There are a whole host of challenges facing our high streets in Wales—the loss of local services, failure to plan for sustainable transport, and, as I say, a planning system that doesn’t facilitate the kind of development we always want it to. But, ultimately, we need to be thinking about the individualised, the personalised and the specific interventions that can help each individual place nurture its own individual character. That’s why we’re bringing this forward today.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the amendment to the motion. I call on William Graham to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Insert as point 1 and renumber accordingly:
Acknowledges the Welsh Conservatives’ policies contained in ‘A Vision for the Welsh High Street’.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. May I move that amendment tabled in the name of Paul Davies?
The Welsh Conservatives have always supported the Welsh high street and we believe that our policy document, ‘A Vision for the Welsh High Street’, would help SMEs regenerate our high streets throughout Wales. After all, Wales has a long and proud cohesive community tradition, and vibrant high streets are the key to lasting and sustainable communities in the twenty-first century.
We acknowledge that the nature of the way we shop is changing, with the rise of internet and out-of-town shopping. Yet this is no excuse to let high-street regeneration slip to the bottom of the agenda. These are vital community spaces that need creative and bespoke support to restore functionality and prosperity to our towns.
In 2014, 159 Welsh high street shops closed—equivalent to one almost every other day. It’s equally concerning that fewer and fewer shops will be appearing on our high streets. Only 120 new high street stores opened in Wales in 2014, creating a deficit of 39 businesses. Despite an extensive monitoring of our high streets’ alarming rate of decline, the Welsh Government, unlike other Governments across the UK, have failed to reduce our high-street vacancy rates.
The Welsh Government must play a role in revitalising our town centres. Such revitalisation is a unique opportunity to regenerate whole regions, providing economic stimulus and true growth. Welsh high streets must offer communities the opportunity not only to shop locally, but they must go further and act as a catalyst for community engagement. The Welsh Conservatives want to see bustling high streets, thriving local businesses and positive community engagement. To achieve this, we need effective management, strategy and direction for all our high streets. Effective management is essential for regeneration. It is the role of the Welsh Government to provide the overarching strategic framework that will guide local authorities in their efforts to stimulate high-street regeneration.
Of the 116 town centres in Wales, each has a different layout, unique selling point and business structure. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to high-street regeneration, and it is therefore for local authorities to develop the best initiative for their own area. The current system lacks clarity regarding high-street management and there is an absence of engagement with local communities in many instances. Such engagement in the delivery of high-street regeneration has been notably inconsistent over the last 20 years and communication has been described as rare and/or fragmented by the Design Commission for Wales.
Business rate relief is another lever at the Welsh Government’s disposal. It provides an opportunity to support enterprise and stimulate economic growth, yet the Welsh Government have failed to act effectively. The current system disincentivises investment in property and this has had a seriously detrimental effect on our town centres and restricts consumer choice. We believe the time is right to develop a new tax that encourages businesses in Wales to invest and create jobs, supports the regeneration of communities, serves consumers well and ensures a stable and equitable tax contribution from business to Government.
Simple access to the high street is another key consideration. Many high streets are not really catering for twenty-first century shoppers. Poor parking facilities, high charges, congestion and inadequate public transport all serve to deter consumers from the traditional high street.
The Welsh Conservatives have spent the last three years calling for the Labour Government to work with councils and introduce free parking schemes. It’s one of the most significant answers to the question of high street decline and we would ensure that it happens. As part of parking reform, we’ve also called for a Wales-wide 10-minute leeway on parking fines in areas where free parking is not available.
Shoppers should not be penalised for using the high street. Welsh councils have been said to make £9 million profit last year from car parking charges, an increase of £630,000 on the year before. In the last three years, £15 million had been raised by councils and more than 500,000 parking fines had been collected across the country.
The planning system must take into account the pressures from out-of-town developers. These out-of-town developments offer a spacious and convenient shopping experience, often with free car parking and disabled facilities. Out-of-town developments place a huge amount of pressure on the traditional high streets, which are often unable to compete with the convenience the new developments offer. The planning system can do much to protect the high street from out-of-town developments by stipulating a ‘high streets first’ approach to ensure that any new developments look at sites within existing town centres, instead of immediately looking at out-of-town sites.
The FSB believes it is essential that planning authorities are
‘to be given stronger policy guidelines from Welsh Government to be able to withstand pressure for large developments, and preserve small indigenous businesses’
that enable our town centres to be vibrant and active.
As a result of marginalisation by the Welsh Government, Wales’s town vacancy rates are the highest in the United Kingdom. The decline is not a new challenge; it is deeply concerning that the Welsh Government have failed to address the rising loss of businesses and the detrimental effect this has on our communities. Our vacancy rate is now 15.6 per cent, the worst in the United Kingdom, with almost one in six of our retail spaces being vacant. ‘A Vision for the Welsh High Street’ provides the guidance to regenerate whole regions.
Offering access to a range of local services and opportunities to take part in diverse community activities is a unique attraction of high streets, particularly for people without the means or ability to travel further afield. Furthermore, it is clear from research that people want to see a more diverse high street. Research by Deloitte revealed that choice of stores, independent stores and specialist stores are among the top five things most people want to see more of in their high streets. The reinvestment by the big multiples in high streets, now that out-of-town shopping is in decline, will also bring its own challenges by raising rents and driving out those competitors that do not have a distinctive local offer.
For this reason, we have expressed on numerous occasions our disappointment in the failure of the Welsh Government to commence provisions of the Localism Act 2011, which have played a key role in helping communities in England to protect buildings and amenities of local value that are an integral part of community life. Since the Act passed in England, over 1,800 assets have been listed and there have been many instances where these provisions could have been used by communities in Wales facing the loss of a vital local amenity. We recognise that there are improvements to be made, such as the need for greater awareness and simplification of the community right-to-buy process so that a greater percentage of assets listed are successfully saved. But this does not justify the failure of the Welsh Government to commence these provisions of the Localism Act in Wales, which would have offered crucial tools to communities to preserve diversity within town centres.
One example of a community service that could benefit from these provisions is the local library, often the lifeblood of local communities, where people go to study, relax, socialise, seek training or advice and access essential services. Libraries are offering an increasing role, for example, in providing access to the internet and support for job and benefit applications. They play a key role in helping people to combat illiteracy, unemployment and the digital divide and can be a key point of contact between an individual and local services.
Liberal Democrats have fought against library closures and cuts across the country. We want to make sure that every step possible is taken to protect library services and that libraries cannot be closed unless a local authority has explored all options. Where a library ultimately cannot be retained by a local authority, Welsh Liberal Democrats would ensure that communities have the opportunity to take control of the asset using provisions within the Localism Act 2011. Where closing a library appears to be the only option, we believe that local authorities should have had to demonstrate that they have considered all available evidence to them to support their decision and that they have consulted with local people about what they want, what they need and how this can be provided in the best interests of the authority and community.
Peter, will you take an intervention?
Would you also agree that if we had implemented the Localism Act here in Wales, with more and more community facilities such as libraries under threat from local authorities, due to the financial position that they’re in, in fact libraries, which are often of great importance to older people in particular, could actually be used as age well centres, such as the example in Brynsiencin in Anglesey, where a report this week has indicated that 1,500 people have made use of the local facility there in the centre of town? In fact, we seem to be missing an opportunity because of that.
Yes, absolutely. You can’t just think of a library as just a building with books in. They are a very important community asset. In fact, there are other examples as well where there have been plans to actually expand the community asset of the library, such as in Pennard in Gower, for example, where the local authority actually frustrated that at the end.
Another key asset in many communities is the local pub, which is an important social centre and meeting point for residents. Community-owned pubs have the potential to become even more than this, developing into central hubs offering a range of activities and services, including post office facilities, or shops selling local produce. Sadly, figures reveal that four pubs in Wales close every week, and existing planning law offers little protection to communities that wish to keep their pub open. Presently, it is the decision of the landlord, usually based on purely financial grounds, whether and when to close the doors on the business. Where that is the only pub left in an area, then we believe the community is entitled to a say on its future.
In England, over 400 pubs have been listed as assets of community value under the Localism Act 2011. With this Act in force in Wales, we would amend the town and country planning Act 1987 to remove permitted development for all assets of community value. This would ensure that where pubs are listed as an asset of community value, they could not undergo any change of use without having to apply for full planning permission. We would strengthen planning guidance to ensure a more thorough assessment of community need in any planning decision and we would close the planning law loophole that allows pubs and other local services to be demolished without planning permission or any community consultation. I know that that would have benefited a pub in Waunarlwydd in my region as well, which might still be open if that had been in force.
These are just some of the services that could benefit from provisions under the Localism Act to help protect key local services on our high streets. It is disappointing that the Welsh Government has chosen not to commence these provisions in Wales, and even more so that it has failed to implement any model for Wales. This must be a key priority for the next Welsh Government if we are to halt the decline of high streets in Wales and protect their diversity in the future.
Dirprwy Lywydd, I want to highlight city centre redevelopment in Newport because now is a time of great excitement and anticipation in Newport and around because next week—on Thursday of next week—the new Friars Walk city centre retail development will open. The First Minister will be there, and many others, to witness what is a major step forward for regeneration in Newport. This has been possible because of a very strong partnership between Newport City Council, the Welsh Government and the private and third sectors. It builds on previous work as a result of that sort of partnership, which has seen a new train station, a new bus station, the Admiral office block, Riverside homes, the new university campus and the Riverfront theatre. It’s a very long and impressive list. But this latest development, which will take place next week, fills the gap as far as retail is concerned. It will have a Debenhams anchor store, a number of other major stores, a cinema and leisure development, as well as restaurants and cafes.
It’s been long-awaited in Newport. It’s a result of that partnership that I mentioned, which has seen some £15 million of Welsh Government money committed through the Vibrant and Viable Places initiative, which has attracted other money, which is expected to be around £60 million in total and provide some 600 jobs and, indeed, 400 homes. There’s a new hotel being developed at the moment, apartments, and, indeed, accommodation above shops in the city centre. So, it is quite an impressive list, I believe. It’s also balanced because, as well as the major retail development, we’ve seen £1 million investment in recent years in Newport market to provide a new central entrance. That has very much revitalised Newport market, which provides a great deal of the individual character that I think people find very appealing when thinking of visiting city and town centres. We also see at the current time many new small businesses opening up in previously empty shops—attracted, no doubt, by the Friars Walk development. So, it is establishing that balance, I think, that’s very necessary—the big chains, the big retailers, but also lots of small, individual shops providing the character that not just local people but visitors find very appealing.
So, in short, Dirprwy Lywydd, next Thursday, 12 November, is a very big day for Newport. I very much look forward to it along with my constituents. The First Minister will be there, the leader of the local authority, and the major players in the private sector who played such a strong part in achieving the development. The occupancy rate is already impressively high, and I think that in Newport we have a great deal to look forward to as a result of that very strong partnership: Newport City Council, Welsh Government, private and third sectors.
Alongside a diverse high street, sustainable public transport is absolutely vital in promoting footfall, helping people to maintain independence by ensuring that they can access vital services, and making high streets an attractive and enjoyable place to spend time and money rather than simply being a means of throughput for traffic and goods. Evidence finds that pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users spend as much in urban centres, if not more, than motorists. Planning for high streets and town centres should therefore focus on encouraging people to visit on foot and by bike, with safe cycling routes, bicycle parking and pedestrianised areas, as well as improving disabled access to make high streets a more pleasant and safe place to be. As has already been said, current planning policy in Wales states that development plans should encourage the provision of good access to town and other centres for walkers and cyclists, and for public transport, allowing for bus priority measures and public transport facilities. However, often this is not the case in practice, as Sustrans Cymru has highlighted in evidence to committee, and I quote:
‘In strategic terms, the impact of town centre regeneration projects on sustainable transport is rarely considered at an early stage.’
For this reason, it is our belief that there must be a statutory requirement upon authorities to consider cyclists’ and pedestrians’ needs at an early stage in all new development proposals. This would help to ensure that walking and cycling is given greater priority within town centre planning to create a more pleasant environment to attract visitors and, indeed, to attract investment.
We need to gain a better understanding of the relationship between car parking and consumer shopping habits, and the impact of local authorities having to ramp up car parking charges for revenue in hard times, a point recently emphasised by Professor Calvin Jones of Cardiff Business School. However, we do need a balance between parking policy that encourages shoppers to use sustainable transport and acts as a constraint on demand for car parking, while providing also some capacity to attract motorists to the high street without the stress of searching for a car parking space that is polluting and, of course, fuel-consuming.
However, as changes in shopping habits have seen a greater tendency towards convenience as a key driver in consumer behaviour, planning and transport strategies must also consider a sensible parking policy so that shoppers are not discouraged from visiting their local high street. Indeed, this is a topical issue in Brecon and Radnorshire, and Kirsty Williams and I have had a recent series of meetings with local residents concerned with proposals that are coming forward from the local authority.
The availability of short-stay car parking is seen as essential to both retailers and their customers. The Federation of Small Businesses highlights that parking provision can determine where people choose to shop, with 60 per cent of people driving further to an out-of-town shopping centre because parking is easier and free. We would encourage local authorities to offer limited free parking schemes near the town centre, such as in Newport, where a two-hour free parking scheme makes it possible to pop in by car if necessary, but without turning high streets back into the polluted old urban highways that were just as damaging for their future prosperity. We would also use the High Streets Wales body to collect and share best practice of regeneration and traffic management schemes that allow for adequate and convenient car parking. We must also strengthen guidance to encourage greater use of 20 mph speed limits on our high streets and major streets where there are significant numbers of journeys on foot or by bike, and areas where there is community support. Twenty mph speed limits encourage more considerate driving, which, with appropriate enforcement, also lead to safer streets for all road users, including motorists, cyclists and pedestrians—a win-win situation. They make walking and cycling more appealing, as people feel more confident about being on their local high street, in turn decreasing traffic congestion, reducing noise and environmental pollution, improving health and increasing opportunities for social interaction. These measures combined would all play an important part in reviving the Welsh local high street, as shops benefit from more passing trade and a more pleasant visitor experience.
Thanks to the Liberal Democrats for moving this motion today. Certainly, the viability of the high street is a subject that we’ve returned to several times here in the Chamber, and for good reason. It’s a subject, I think, also, on which there is a lot of agreement—agreement that we ned solutions and political imagination in order to give new life to our town centres across Wales.
I could talk about the town centre in Llangefni, where I live. There are excellent businesses there, it’s a very attractive town centre, but it’s doubtful that anyone would deny that there has been anything but a decline in the variety in terms of what is available there, and in the numbers of people who use the town centre. There is excellent work being done to give new life to the market, and plans to try and attract people to spend their money in shops and to use services, but we all know locally that Llangefni, like so many other places, is very far away from reaching its potential. I could take you to Holyhead or to Amlwch in my constituency, but, of course, as I said, we’re talking about something that’s true across the country. I could take you to the opposite corner of Wales on the map, to Newport. I’ve seen the figures suggesting that a quarter of the shops in the centre of Newport are vacant, or have recently been vacant. On one street, 42 per cent of the shops are vacant. Why is that happening? Well, it’s because there is less business in the town centre.
I suspect that Newport is a very good example of the kind of place where more and more people have gone to work and shop and to spend their leisure time on the outskirts or outside the city entirely. It’s a vicious cycle: wherever you have examples of decline, the greater the decline, the less there is desire to spend time in the town centre, with that then driving further decline. So, yes, it’s a serious problem, and certainly we will support the motion today. I agree with the points raised in it. A vibrant and diverse high street—the word ‘diverse’ is important—has a key role to play socially and economically. Yes, there are very obvious barriers that we face—internet shopping, out-of-town shopping centre—and, yes, mistakes were made in the past in terms of urban planning and transport planning, and so on, and it was interesting to hear some of the figures from Eluned Parrott suggesting that those errors are still being made. Yes, we need innovative ideas and for the Welsh Government to make it a priority to look for practical solutions to the practical problems. The Liberal Democrats, in their motion, outline some of their ideas, including learning from best practices across the world, and certainly I wouldn’t disagree with that.
I could talk then about a series of ideas that I, and Plaid Cymru Members, have already mentioned here: the need to ensure diversity of use in our town centres through our planning system; ensure that there is a diverse range of retail, services, homes and leisure side by side; create life in our town centres, and a change of atmosphere from one part of the day to another; work on parking policies, which are still considered to be a barrier to the flow of people throughout our town centres; better transport planning in terms of roads and, of course, public transport, in order to draw people into our town centres rather than setting up barriers to that; and, use business rates powers to support our small and medium-sized enterprises, which we see in our town centres, and we as a party return to this issue time and again. By lightening the burden of business rates on small businesses—and we in Plaid Cymru want to take 70,000 small businesses out of business rates entirely—we could give more confidence to SMEs to invest, particularly new start-ups. Measures to help businesses to obtain finance would be part of this as well, and to increase the proportion of public contracts through the procurement system. This would all be part of the mix that could give a boost to town centres. I could go on, but what is vital, to sum up, is this, I think: if we are serious about regenerating the high street, if we are serious about wanting to see new life coming in to our town centres, we can’t think about these ideas from Plaid Cymru or the ideas from other parties independently of each other. We are talking about nothing less than a cultural shift here and we need to think holistically. We need to put together a series of ideas that are interwoven, or this vicious cycle that affects so many of our town centres will continue.
The Welsh Conservatives have never been shy to debate our high streets in Wales and, of course, as recently as September, when this was halfway through—the Welsh Government’s Vibrant and Viable Places programme—we did look at what we felt had been achieved or otherwise. Now, at the time, the Minister denied that vacancy rates were rising here in Wales. But, there is no denying that they are. We’ve seen an increase in vacancy rates as detailed in the Local Data Company’s recent report, with nearly one in six of our shops standing empty and it is the highest rate in the UK. But, there are some positives to come out of a debate like this and I was only pleased recently to know, in my own constituency, that Conwy has been named as a very successful town in terms of high streets. And, I will actually go on to elaborate a little bit further as to some of the reasons why.
There has been a lack of support from the Welsh Government for our small and medium-sized enterprises. I believe that this isn’t a one-Minister issue: it is a corporate Government approach from here that is required. We look at abolishing business rates, especially for businesses valued at under £12,000. That would certainly help. It would enable businesses to further invest in property and develop their high street presence, and at the same time create jobs. I speak to numerous business owners and they simply have cause for concern, and I raised it in the earlier debate, about being able to get quality staff with skills that they can then work with to help them in their businesses. I have to say that some of our businesses—. Ieuan Edwards has a very successful business in my constituency; as well as running a very successful business, he’s a major employer with 70 members of staff, but he’s very keen on the living wage and very keen to provide quality jobs. So, it’s not just about the service that they give, it’s more about them also wanting to be responsible employers, providing quality jobs. The Welsh Labour Government’s Support Your High Street campaign hasn’t seen many tangible results and we would certainly like to see the outcomes of the High Street Week and support campaign. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the reasons behind the persistent degradation of some of our high streets? And, I do say ‘some’.
The Welsh Conservatives policy, ‘A Vision for the Welsh High Street’, outlines strong, sustainable proposals to help SMEs and regenerate our high streets. But, it is a four-pronged approach. I would say that there’s probably more than that that’s needed: high street management, accessibility management and business rates. Finance for small and medium-sized businesses has also been highlighted here. Ours includes a charter for the high street, versatile transport links, free and flexible parking schemes—and no more of this with local authorities using parking fines and parking schemes as a means of revenue—considerations of the high street integrated within the planning system, utilising local community and business knowledge in policy development and the revitalisation process, and community-run local services under the Right to Bid scheme. There is a need for a mix of economic stimulus and growth and local community engagement for revitalised and sustainable Welsh high streets. Welsh Conservatives have also called for increased support from councils to allow easy pop-up shops, particularly around this time of year, and to enable them to be free of business rates whilst open. This would enable smaller businesses to gain valuable exposure and experience of being on the high street, bringing confidence back to our high streets and adding life and vibrancy to empty shop fronts.
Llandudno’s Christmas fair, for the first time ever, will, this year, double in size and will feature stalls from many of our local farmers selling Welsh produce and food. Enterprise, innovation and inspiration is at the heart of our proud Welsh businesses, but it must be at the heart of successful Welsh Government policy. ‘A Vision for the Welsh High Street’ will support such high streets. But, I would say and reiterate, it is a cocktail of measures that is required to build and sustain our high streets. We need the Minister for planning, the Minister for environment and the Minister for health—bringing in medical services, you know, new doctors, shops; they can come on the high street. The Minister for skills has a part to play in this as does, obviously, the Minister for business. This is an all-round approach that’s needed. You need to all be working together on a strategy: one that feeds in on all those issues that I’ve raised. Let’s really all work together and revitalise our high streets in Wales. Thank you.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Natural Resources, Carl Sargeant.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, for a great opportunity to respond to this debate today. These continue to be challenging times for our town centres and city centres, and we’ve heard of the challenges today. It’s important for us to collectively consider how we tackle those issues—the very issues Janet Finch-Saunders raised about a collective responsibility about managing these processes.
Listening to the contributions today has reinforced my belief, and that of the Minister for CTP with responsibility around this, that the solution lies in supporting efforts to diversify and evolve. I listened to John Griffiths’s contribution carefully. I visited the Friars Walk development, and, again, he, Bob Bright and Jane Bryant have all had a very active role in delivering that with the local authority, in partnership. I think it’s absolutely right—the mix of organisations coming together for a better outcome for your constituency and your constituents—and that’s what we should try to replicate across many parts of Wales.
The future of our towns cannot depend on retail alone. The retail sector is evolving and adapting—it’s a very dynamic environment—so we need to develop resilient communities and help our towns to become places to live, places to work, places where people want to spend their leisure time and access important services—exactly what I think Eluned Parrott was referring to: a mixture of opportunities in our communities. The Welsh Government is committed to supporting our town and city centres, with the need to evolve and diversify firmly at the heart of our efforts.
Vibrant and Viable Places is a flagship regeneration programme. We’re investing up to £109 million in 18 towns and cities across Wales. The scheme aims to create jobs to support economic growth to increase the supply and improve the quality of housing and to support our tackling poverty agenda. For the current programme, delivery partners are forecasting the programme will create more than 2,000 jobs, bringing more than 3,000 people into work, and lever in around £300 million of additional investment—of which £240 million is from the private sector—and deliver 1,000 additional affordable housing units and more than 2,300 market housing units alongside. VVP is, I believe, further supported by £10 million in town centre loans to assist 11 towns to bring empty sites and buildings back into viable use.
We’re working with around 20 town-centre partnerships, with funding to help increase capacity and implement action plans, and the business improvement districts enable local businesses to work together and bring additional private sector investment into our towns. I listened carefully to the contribution made by the Member—I know that the Minister is very interested in how we develop this further. Whilst we have a range of initiatives supporting town centres, we also must recognise that the future of town centres is not just a matter for Government alone—others with a shared interest in the future of our high streets, such as local authorities and business communities, must too play their part.
Turning to the motion, as I highlighted earlier, we recognise the challenges facing our town centres, and the creation of a vibrant and diverse high street is at the heart of our regeneration efforts. We are always prepared to consider innovative proposals to support our work, as highlighted in the motion. We do not accept every assertion in the motion, but the broad thrust is welcome, and we are happy to support it in the general reaffirmation of the Assembly’s support for our town centres.
We also want to increase footfall and bring vacancy rates down, but there are different data sources and different methodologies—how this takes place. I think Janet Finch-Saunders related her data to the Local Data Company, who put the vacancy rate at 15 per cent, while only last month the ‘Western Mail’ was reporting that shop retail vacancies in Wales were at the lowest rate on record. This was 9.8 per cent for September 2015 and based on the data from the British Retail Consortium, with footfall at its best since this time last year. So, there is positive news, and these are from reputable sources too. Interestingly, I was pleased to hear from the Member for Conwy that her shopping centre is vibrant. I’m sure she does also accept that the support from Welsh Government is welcome in that constituency too. The Member unfortunately did make reference on several occasions to business rates as one of your fixes for town centres and communities, but the Member didn’t mention the fact of the Welsh Government-funded rates relief scheme, which is already in place in Wales and across Wales. I’d just remind the Member of the contributions we make. Business premises with a rateable value of up to £6,000 will receive 100 per cent relief. The Member seemed to omit that from her contribution today.
We’re always looking again at the issues holistically and to review our planning policies to support positive developments. Earlier this year, I established a technical advisory group to take forward a report. The report looked at town centres and examined our retail planning policy in ‘Planning Policy Wales’ and technical advice note 4. This has resulted in new draft policies and guidance, which are currently out for consultation. The draft policies maintain the long-established ‘town centre first’ principle in planning and encourage local planning authorities to proactively plan for their town centres by producing strategies to guide development as part of their local development plans. They are also encouraging councils to be more flexible in their approach to diversifying retail and other uses in town centres. Again, I would hope that Members would welcome that report as it will be published early in the new year.
In conclusion, Presiding Officer, we appreciate the main thrust of the motion and we will support that. However, we cannot accept the amendment proposed by the Welsh Conservatives today. Their vision document published in 2012 has been overtaken by Welsh Government’s action, such as funding to support town-centre management activities, and contains spending commitments of poor value. In our vision, we cannot endorse their ideas, as the word ‘acknowledges’ suggests, and we will not be supporting their amendment. Nevertheless, from this debate today, I think there has been broad agreement across the Assembly that we need to support high streets in the challenges that they face. My ministerial colleagues and I are taking a range of actions to provide that support. We will be supporting the motion.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Kirsty Williams to reply to the debate.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I thank Members from across the Chamber for their interest in participating in this afternoon’s debate? Eluned Parrott set the scene by restating why the high street is important—why it matters—and offered a very positive example of how high streets can be revitalised, such as by the Main Street movement in the United States. It has been transformational in fighting back against the preponderance of the shopping mall. And, just at a time when we seem to embrace that monster of the shopping mall, the United States is fighting back against that and looking to invest back in its traditional high streets, and I think there’s a lot to be learned from that. Of course, if the Minister would like to undertake further research, I’d be more than willing to undertake a field trip for him and to bring back my findings.
Eluned also said that everybody in the high street, in the community, has an idea about how things can be made better, but, sometimes, those very people who are trying to run a business, trying to keep their heads above water—it’s then reliant on them to try and move the entire town forward. Only this week, I met with the chamber of trade chairman from Presteigne. This is a fantastic woman already running her own tourism business locally, employing local people. She also runs the local voluntary playgroup as well as being in the chamber of trade. She’s trying to juggle all of these balls to drive things forward. What she and her fellow traders on the high street need is actually some support to help them galvanise the ideas and the plans and make them happen. That’s exactly what has been happening with the town champion, Jude, in Llandrindod Wells—a post that has actually been funded by the Welsh Government. Jude is making a big difference to initiatives in Llandrindod—a local loyalty scheme on the high street; the first ever youth market in Wales. It was fantastic to see our youngest citizens from 11 years old selling their baked goods, their handmade skincare products and clothing that they had designed, as well as a young man who’d set up his own gardening business and was making an absolute fortune doing gardening on behalf of the many older residents living in Llandrindod who couldn’t maintain their gardens any more. He proudly showed off his portfolio of work as he signed up new customers. Unfortunately, that post is due to come to an end and I would like to use this opportunity to urge the Government to support it for another year, so that we can really make the most of the value of the work that’s been done to date.
Peter Black talked about localism. As the daughter of librarians, I share his enthusiasm for what a library can be. He also talked about pubs. Now, the Shoemaker’s Arms in Pentre-bach is a perfect example. When that pub was due to close, the local people stood up and said, ‘No, it couldn’t’ and they bought it between them. It has been a successful local hub ever since, providing a fantastic community resource, and, if you look at the reviews on TripAdvisor, a brilliant offer for local tourists too. However, the residents of Llowes were not so fortunate. Objections from local people and the community council were ignored and, because of a lack of localism safeguards, the pub was turned into a house—1,000 years of community use ended. It didn’t even get to the planning committee, but was dealt with by delegated functions—no opportunity, none at all, for that community to keep the only facility in the village.
John Griffiths talked about the experience in Newport. John, I wish the project well; I hope it delivers everything that it has promised to the people of Newport, because, if there is a town centre that has been hit really hard by the god that is the shopping mall, both in Cardiff and in Bristol, then perhaps Newport is one of those. I really hope that the new landmark stores will bring people back into Newport centre and deliver a step change.
Bill talked about parking. This is a vexed issue. We have to find a balance, but there are ways, I believe, of allowing periods of free parking that allow people to go in, do some of their shopping, often at localised, specialised shops, as well as perhaps then enjoying a cup of coffee or a meal in town. If you have a two-hour period of free parking, it allows people to do just that. But we also need sustainable forms of travel. Back to the issue of Presteigne: now, the people of Norton could cycle from their village into the high street in Presteigne and they would’ve like to have used the terms of the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 to achieve just that, but, apparently, they’ve been told nobody thought that active travel would be relevant to rural mid Wales and there is no funding for a cycle path from Norton to the town centre. We need to look at that again.
Rhun, thank you for your support and for Plaid Cymru’s. Rhun recognised the need for mixed use in our high-street communities, so it’s not just about retail, it’s about a complete offer. Both Rhun and Janet talked about the scourge of empty shops and business rates. Well, I think we can combine the two to come up with a solution. For instance, what we would like to offer, in our paper put forward today, is a reoccupation relief scheme on shops that have been empty for a year to find an incentive to actually help people start up businesses in those empty premises and fill them once again.
The Minister outlined some of the steps that the Welsh Government has been taking and I’m grateful to the Minister for indication of his support for the motion today. I would commend the Liberal Democrat policy paper to him and I hope it’ll give him further inspiration for actions the Welsh Government could take. I think there’s a consensus around the Chamber that we really do value what high streets have to offer our community. It’s an important part of Welsh cultural life and I’m sure that we can make progress if we look to examples across Wales, and, indeed, across the world, so that our high streets can be as vibrant as they once were. Thank you.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I’ll defer voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Voting time now follows. Before I conduct the first vote, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? There are not, so we’ll vote first on the Welsh Conservatives’ debate. I call for a vote on the motion tabled in the name of Paul Davies. If the proposal is not agreed, we will vote on the amendment tabled to the motion. Open the vote. Close the vote. There voted in favour 38. There voted against 5. Therefore, the motion without amendment is agreed.
Motion agreed: For 38, Against 5, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5862
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We’ll now vote on the Plaid Cymru debate and I call for a vote on the motion tabled in the name of Elin Jones. If the proposal is not agreed, we will vote on the amendments tabled to the motion. Open the vote. Close the vote. There voted in favour 37. There voted against 5. Therefore, the motion without amendment is agreed.
Motion agreed: For 37, Against 5, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5864
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We now vote on the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ debate. I call for a vote on the motion tabled in the name of Aled Roberts. If the proposal is not agreed, we will vote on the amendment tabled to the motion. Open the vote. Close the vote. There voted in favour 33, there voted against 10. Therefore, the motion without amendment is agreed.
Motion agreed: For 33, Against 10, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5865
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Can I ask all Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly?
Peter Black took the Chair.
The next item is the short debate, and I call on Jenny Rathbone to speak on a topic she has chosen.
Thank you very much, Cadeirydd. This debate is about the housing that we need to build in Wales for the future. I’m very happy to give a minute to Bill Powell.
I want to tell those of you who’ve not have the opportunity to visit the SOLCER house, which was visited by members of the environment committee, what a wonderful Welsh invention it is. I’m fully aware that the Minister for Natural Resources was there for the official opening in July, along with the Minister for the economy and science, but, for those who’ve yet to have that privilege, it’s a three-bedroomed home that many of my constituents would give their eye teeth to live in: light, airy, warm and with guaranteed low or no energy bills, depending on how carefully its occupants use its energy saving features.
Funded with a research grant from the European Union, the collaboration between architects and engineers, between academics and industry, including household names like Tata Steel, BISF and Pilkington glass, has created a house as a power station. It sits in the middle of a renewable energy industrial park, run by Cenin, a private enterprise with the foresight to get ahead of the market in creating low-carbon manufacturing processes. Indeed, the low-carbon cement in the SOLCER house was manufactured in the factory on the same site, using the energy generated by an array of solar panels in the back garden of the SOLCER house.
Perhaps the most important feature of the Welsh designed nearly carbon-neutral house is that it costs no more than £1,000 a square metre to build, and it was built within 16 weeks. That is well within the envelope of affordability for council or housing association homes, so it’s an incredibly important development. In line with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, most of its timber-framed, low-carbon cement construction is sourced locally. The achievements of the team led by the school of architecture’s low carbon research institute at Cardiff University has, quite rightly, attracted a lot of press coverage, both across Wales and in the specialist press.
The success of this made-in-Wales venture, using the best of Welsh industry, provides us with an obvious solution to some of our climate change obligations, our commitment to the future generations Act, and the Welsh Labour Government’s desire to combat fuel poverty. We know that the task facing us in Wales is massive, with over 0.33 million households living in fuel poverty. We have the oldest housing stock compared with other parts of the UK, as well as huge demand for more housing.
We cannot avoid our obligations to either retrofit or replace cold draughty homes so people are not spending more than 10 per cent of their income on energy bills. The impact on individual households of the Arbed, Nest and other schemes has been considerable, with residents experiencing up to 50 per cent reduction in their heating bills, but, overall, our progress on this matter is far too slow. According to the Bevan Foundation, at the current rate of retrofitting, it will be 74 years before we have dealt with all the houses in Wales that are leaking energy. Others aren’t quite so pessimistic, but we cannot afford to go on the way we are at the moment. We have to upscale the progress that we need to make, and we need to seize the opportunities that present themselves.
Consider what happened with all the other climate change levies. According to the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, known as Ofgem, the green levies from the average annual energy bill that we all paid added up to £95 per household per year. That adds up to a £130 million contribution into the green levies from Welsh households in 2014. It is most unfortunate that those levies have not translated into a blossoming of renewable energy generation in Wales. Only 7 per cent of Welsh energy is from renewables at the moment, far less than in Scotland, Cornwall or England as a whole. Compare that with Norway, where 65 per cent of energy is from renewables—not a country known for its large amount of sunshine. So, if they can do it, we should be able to do it.
We know some of the reasons why we haven’t managed to make the progress that we would have liked. Local authorities, housing associations and community business have been slow to take up the opportunities of the feed-in tariffs and the eco grants, and now the UK Government has called time on all of them. Most of the eco and feed-in tariff money has fallen into the hands of businesses from outside Wales, and the benefits are being exported elsewhere. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has even decreed that UK renewable energy is now going to be subject to the same climate change levy as their dirty cousins in oil, gas, coal and nuclear. So much for the environmental commitments of the Conservative Government.
The reasons we in Wales have not been able to seize these now disappearing green levies to develop renewable energy are many and various. We have the planning system, which is very slow, we have loud minorities who oppose any change, as well as an innate wariness about new technologies, which have sometimes not delivered all that they have promised. On top of that, we did not have the devolved powers to overcome some of the regulatory hurdles, and, in the draft Wales Bill, we still don’t. But do we now give up and do nothing? No, we cannot, and our national and international obligations to future generations rule that out.
The SOLCER house, which is a house as a power station model, is only one way of tackling this challenge, but crucially it allows its occupants to become not just consumers of electricity but also producers. As one of the witnesses to the Environment and Sustainability Committee’s smarter energy inquiry said,
‘Behaviour change is much more likely when citizens can become involved in or benefit from system change.’
So, the SOLCER house offers people not just no or low energy bills, but also a source of income. The lithium batteries in the SOLCER roof offers the possibility of selling any surplus that they do not need back to the grid, crucially at times of maximum demand and maximum financial reward. Ordinary people can now play the energy game with this development. What greater incentive to encourage people to use energy wisely?
If this becomes the default design for new housing, it also gives a boost to the Welsh economy, as the money that people are not having to spend on energy bills injects more money back into the Welsh economy for other things. Yes, the UK Government has torn up the obligation to make all new homes carbon neutral by next year, 2016, but it is one of the devolved powers that we do have to set the standards of building regulations. If we lead the way on restoring the nearly zero carbon obligations set by Gordon Brown in 2006, it enables Welsh businesses to get tooled up and ahead of the game as European directives require all new buildings across Europe to be carbon neutral by the end of 2020.
I hope that the Welsh Government will take no notice of national house builders who like to argue that it’s not productive to deliver the nearly zero carbon standards that they will have to deliver for all new public buildings in 2018 anyway, including, of course, all social housing, when, until July, they thought that they were going to have to deliver that next year across the UK. They have the technology; they’re just not at the moment prepared to use it.
Now that the Welsh Government has a made-in-Wales affordable solution for nearly zero energy new homes, why allow any more new buildings to go up in the next few years that we will then have to add to the retrofitting programme along with all the other third of a million houses that we already have to retrofit?
The Environment and Sustainability Committee heard this morning that four Welsh registered social landlords are actively pursuing the SOLCER model, and if we can achieve critical mass, we can change the behaviour of the private house builders, too. As the representative of the Home Builders Federation said this morning, ‘If customers start coming into our showrooms demanding nearly neutral homes, we’ll build them.’ If people see their neighbours across the road living in attractive, warm homes, with money in their pockets, why wouldn’t they want a slice of the action?
So, Minister, don’t be taken in by house builders pleading poverty. If the national house builders refuse to do the right thing, we need the building regulations to be revised to help them to do now what they are going to have to do anyway in three years’ time for all public buildings, and in five years’ time for all new buildings anyway. We led the way on the future generations Act, and now we need to lead the way in Wales on energy-efficient, energy-generating homes.
I’d like to thank Jenny Rathbone very much for bringing forward this important short debate today, which is also very timely given the Environment and Sustainability Committee’s evidence sessions, to which Jenny’s already referred. Gill Kelleher of SPECIFIC, the innovation knowledge centre, stated quite clearly this morning that the SOLCER house is a demonstration of what can be achieved on a major scale within five years, and she urged us, as did her colleagues in that session, to show a greater level of urgency and ambition in taking this forward. I would also urge the Minister in the context of zero carbon housing, to revisit the One Planet development that was a legacy of the third Assembly, because there is a possibility of combining this, having revisited that guidance, to have an even greater benefit for our planet and for communities the length and breadth of Wales.
I call on the Minister for Natural Resources to reply to the debate—Carl Sargeant.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Thank you, Jenny, for your contribution today. I think it is important to put zero carbon housing in the context of tackling climate change. Our climate change strategy has set targets to reduce emissions by 3 per cent annually to achieve at least a 40 per cent reduction by 2020 against the 1990 baseline. Building on this, the Environment (Wales) Bill will put in place the legal framework for statutory emission reduction targets and carbon budgeting, and, in the short to medium term, the existing stock is the key area for action that the Member alluded to, contributing 30 per cent of current emissions from buildings. That is why we are encouraging installation of energy efficiency measures through Warm Homes, and that was the debate we had earlier. This also helps with fuel affordability, particularly an issue for low-income households.
The Member was most bold in her contribution in terms of the action that I should take regarding house builders. I will listen to her carefully and perhaps reconsider my position when I next speak to them. So, the current problem that we are aware of, to make progress long term, is that the housing built between now and 2050 should not add to the task, as the Member is right to allude to. Zero carbon new homes have long been an aspiration of the Welsh Government. Before we had building regulation powers, we started to push standards through our sustainable building planning policy and, more recently, the task has been to comply with the EU directive requiring us to achieve nearly zero energy buildings by 2020 and 2018 for public sector buildings. But raising standards comes with consequences, and we have to be mindful of impacts on new house building activity. When we consulted on the 40 per cent improvement in energy performance for the new housing in 2013, the industry was in a very difficult position, and I had to balance the need of supporting recovery of the industry with the desire to push standards further. This is something that the EU directive also addresses when it talks of setting standards in terms of what is cost-optimal, and the duty to report every five years should mean that the standards will continue to improve as technologies and markets develop, too. In 2014, I said we would undertake a further review of Part L in 2016, and I will expect that review to start towards the end of this year. With the election in May, this will be something for the next Government to confirm.
So, what do we know about zero carbon? We have some examples of what it might mean in practice: small-scale passive house developments and demonstration projects, such as those the Member and I have visited, such as the SOLCER house—it was a very enjoyable visit—which have high-end technology that can deliver new opportunities for Wales. I absolutely agree—it’s a Welsh solution to a global problem, and I think we could build on that. We need to build at scale to truly understand what this means in terms of construction, costs and, crucially, householder experience and expectation. It’s early days, but I think that we can move forward with that proposition the Member refers to—integrating that into our house building programme. I will speak with the housing Minister, on her return, to see what we can do in that process.
Last year we produced ‘Practice Guidance: Planning for Sustainable Buildings’ with the Design Commission for Wales to encourage developers to start thinking about how they can consider these issues early on in the development process. So, I’m heartened by Cardiff’s housing partnership programme to build houses to code level 4 and passive house standards. It would be good to see the house building industry showing similar initiatives.
In pursuing low-carbon, low-energy housing, we must be mindful of unintended consequences, as I said earlier. Questions are already being asked about summer overheating in new flats and houses—an interesting concept that we never thought we’d have to deal with, but it’s a fact that, never mind the climate change, apartments in Cardiff bay are overheating now, and we have to think about what that impact is. [Interruption.] I’m happy to take an intervention.
That’s not a problem with the SOLCER house, because you’ve got the heat cooling system that will sort that out in the summer.
Indeed, and I absolutely agree with the Member. Part of what we’ve inherited here is about trying to design the optimal position for a home, but, actually, we’ve over-engineered and now we haven’t got the ventilation or the appropriateness for dealing with the climate within these new properties. That’s something that the SOLCER house may offer a solution on, or offer us some more information in dealing with that. So, as housing becomes increasingly airtight, concern is being expressed about air quality and ventilation, of course, and these are all points that need to be considered in a progressive approach to zero carbon.
Deputy Llywydd, to conclude, I support the sentiment behind the debate today, but I believe that we need a series of steps to ensure that we properly understand how we can deliver programmes, such as the one the Member refers to for housing fit for the twenty-first century and beyond. I’m very grateful for the contribution from Jenny and from Bill, and we’ll keep Members updated as we pursue with vigour opportunities that the Member presents today.
Thank you, Minister. That brings today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 17:57.