Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

28/02/2023

In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.

The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the First Minister

Good afternoon. As we begin this afternoon's session, and, on behalf of you all, I'm sure, I would like to welcome the First Minister back to Plenary. And the first item will be questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Ken Skates. 

Employment for Young People

1. What is the Welsh Government doing to help young people into employment in Clwyd South? OQ59159

Llywydd, the continued buoyancy of the economy in north-east Wales is the single greatest help to young people entering employment in the Member’s constituency. For those further from the labour market, the young person’s guarantee provides a range of assistance to prepare young people for, and place them in, the world of work.

Thank you, First Minister. The young people's guarantee really has been a tremendous success in the year that it's been operating, having found work for 11,000 people across Wales. And the unemployment rate in Wales continues to track below the UK unemployment rate average as well. What can employers do to attract the workforce of the future, alongside, obviously, the range of excellent Welsh Labour Government schemes such as the young people's guarantee?

Well, Llywydd, Welsh Government officials have been engaged recently in a series of meetings with employers in different parts of Wales, including in north Wales. And the story out there, as you know, is no longer a shortage of work, but a shortage of workers. There are 330,000 fewer people in the workforce across the United Kingdom than there were in 2016. And that means that young people in particular are sought after by employers, and the nature of the discussion has been about the sorts of things that young people say to employers that they are looking for. And they're looking for a career path and progression, they're looking for flexibility in the workplace, they're looking for the values that they see an employer bringing—a commitment to fair work, a commitment to climate responsibilities. So, I think there are lessons, very clearly, from young people themselves, about the sorts of things that they will find attractive in a workplace where they are a scarce resource.

The responsibility of Government, Llywydd, comes in making sure that those young people who are not yet ready to enter the workplace get every help that they can through the young person's guarantee, whether that is a place in training, whether it's skill development, whether it's supported placements in the workplace, so that we can make sure that all those young people in Wales, looking to make their contribution to our economy, are fully equipped to do so. 

I'm grateful to Ken Skates for submitting today's important question. I would like to echo the comments made by him, and by you as well, First Minister, in relation to the young person's guarantee, something which, on these sides of the benches, we have been supporting. Of course, as you outlined, it's that offer there for everyone under the age of 25—the offer of work, education, training or self-employment. And, last week, First Minister, I had the privilege of joining the vice-chancellor and her team at Wrexham Glyndŵr University to hear about all the good work taking place in the business school in particular at the university, and to hear about their relationship with industry, and with businesses in Wrexham and Clwyd South, and in north Wales as a region. So, First Minister, will you join me in recognising the importance of that relationship between higher education and business and industries in north Wales, and in Wales as a whole, and how do you think that that important relationship can be built on to ensure that young people have the opportunity for employment in my region of north Wales? 

Well, Llywydd, I thank Sam Rowlands for that and absolutely agree with the point he's making, and not just higher education, but further education as well, and north Wales is particularly blessed, I think, in the quality of further education that is provided to young people in those regions. 

We know that the experience of the pandemic means that even young people who have attended higher education have a sense of needing to build confidence back in order to be in the workplace. And it is interesting that a number of the schemes that run under the remit of the youth guarantee are actually taking young people who have graduated already under their wing in order to give them that start. And the relationship between the providers of further and higher education and the world of work, I think, is fundamentally important in making sure that those young people who need just that extra step on their journey early on, to make up for some of the experiences that they will have had to navigate over recent times, that that extra help is available to them, and supported from both sides.

13:35
Replacing the Llannerch Bridge

2. What discussions has the First Minister had with Denbighshire County Council regarding plans to replace the Llannerch bridge between Trefnant and Tremeirchion? OQ59153

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. Following discussions with Welsh Government officials, I can confirm that the council has bid for funding via our resilient roads fund to assist with the replacement of the bridge.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. A public meeting was recently held at the White House in Rhuallt, regarding progress with the much-needed reconstruction of Llannerch bridge, following its erosion through natural causes with storm Christoph, back in 2021. Local Denbighshire residents, councillors, council leaders, and departmental heads from the authority engaged productively on officers' strategy to complete a replacement by 2026, pending Welsh Government's approval of Denbighshire County Council's recently submitted, as you've mentioned, business case for funding. As you know, residents of rural communities such as Trefnant and Tremeirchion have been isolated for two years since the bridge's collapse, and the lack of a replacement continues to prove a barrier to the Welsh Government's own climate change policy on banning road building in Wales, also necessitating lengthy road diversions and adding to burdensome costs to family budgets and various council departmental budgets. The overwhelming character of the public meeting was of a united endeavour and wish to work across the political divide to ensure that this key piece of local and historic infrastructure is restored at the earliest juncture. So, First Minister, can you today provide details of your observations of the business case from Denbighshire County Council, and detail your strategy for making sure that the good people of rural Denbighshire can stay connected, with the replacement of Llannerch bridge, to ensure the safe movement of rural residents in Denbighshire? Thank you.

Llywydd, I thank Gareth Davies for those further questions. I agree with him—it's certainly not a matter of political contention that the needs of those local residents need to be attended to. The resilient roads fund, Llywydd, normally only takes applications from pre-existing schemes, but in this case, with the bridge having been destroyed by natural causes, an exception has been made so that a bid can be made to that fund. And the bid, as the Member said, has now been received. It looks for some hundreds of thousands of pounds in the next financial year in order to do the necessary preparation work, because while the proposal, as I understand it, is essentially for a like-for-like replacement, with some additional active travel components, even a like-for-like bridge will require design work, and there will need to be modelling, given that it was flooding that caused the destruction of the bridge, and it's possible that some modest land acquisition will be needed to take it forward. Those are the components of work that Denbighshire County Council look to complete in the next financial year. Now, I have to just say to the Member that there are a large number of bids, as you would expect, for that fund, and officials are having to assess all the bids that come in, in the fairest possible way, and then will look to see whether it is possible to provide the funding that is being looked for next year, so that that necessary preparatory work can be completed and residents in the Member's constituency can look forward to a positive plan for the bridge to be replaced.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. First Minister, the news that the Welsh Government was putting Betsi Cadwaladr into special measures yesterday took some people by surprise, but wasn't unexpected, given the auditor general's report from the week before. The actions of the health Minister in requesting the resignations of the independent board members, given the content of that report, were surprising, because in the report it talks of the cohesiveness of the independent board members in their ability to hold the executive members to account and their frustration at the executive members not being able to engage fully. The chief executive or chief operating officer of the community health council up there has said he was shocked to see that the independent board members had to resign. Why did the independent board members, bearing in mind the words in the report about the cohesiveness and the work that they were doing as independent board members, have to resign? 

13:40

Well, I don't think, myself, Llywydd, that it could have come as a shock to anybody who was reasonably well-informed about the operation of the board. I'm looking now at the letter sent by Janet Finch-Saunders, a member of the leader of the opposition's own group, to the Minister in which she called for the entire removal of the board, including independent members who are found to be unable to deliver what is required by internal interventions. If it was apparent to a local Conservative Member that independent members needed to be removed, I find it difficult to imagine that it was shocking news to anybody else in the north of Wales. What the Minister did was to make an assessment of what the auditor general had said, plus other sources of information that concluded that the fractured relationships within the board were clear, ongoing, deep-seated and intractable and that working relations could not be repaired. That is the basis on which the Minister made her decision. 

The point I was making about the special measures, First Minister, was that residents in north Wales, given that the health board was only recently taken out of special measures, would understandably be shocked that it's going back into special measures after being in special measures for six years. The independent members of the board, by the words of the report of the auditor general, were working in a cohesive manner to hold the executive to account. Now, I hear what you say about my colleague Janet Finch-Saunders, the Member for Aberconwy, and I'm sure, through her interactions, she has formed an opinion, but the comments from the health Minister, stating that these independent members had to resign, do not bear fruit with the evidence that the auditor general had in his report. The point I am making to you is that, throughout that report, the executive members were held to be deficient in their work and their responsibilities, and, actually, the arguments and discussions that were held within the board, very often, were at the feet of those executive members being poorly informed, not across the issues that they had executive responsibility for, and yet each and every one of those individuals is still in place. So, can you not see where the ability to understand the logic of demanding the independent members resign—? But executive members, who are criticised right the way through this report—right the way through this report—are still in post.

I understand a number of the points that the Member makes, and what I think he needs to do is to allow the story to continue to unfold. What you saw yesterday was the first set of measures that the Minister has taken. There are very real criticisms of executive members and those, too, will need to be attended to. The fact that those actions were not taken yesterday should not be taken as meaning that no action will be taken at all. It's just that things have to be done in a way that respects people's legal rights and in a way that would stand up to external scrutiny. The board, however, has to operate as a coherent whole, and you cannot, I think, sensibly separate the responsibilities of the executive and the independent members. When you have reports of a breakdown in those relationships, when you read of the way in which the conduct and behaviour of the board has itself become part of the problem of providing health services in north Wales, then actions to deal with the whole of the board, including its independent members, who are not exonerated in any way by the auditor general's report, nor by other information from north Wales—. What you saw yesterday was a starting point. There is a good deal more to do.

13:45

With the point about 'a good deal more to do', First Minister, what is the vision for the Welsh Government's thinking when it comes to health provision in north Wales? It isn't right. It isn't fair for the staff within that health board, and importantly the patients and people of north Wales who depend on their primary and acute care for delivery by Betsi Cadwaladr health board. Can the existing model be resurrected, reinvigorated and re-energised to deliver that healthcare, or is the thinking of the Welsh Government that a clean break is required, and, ultimately, over the medium to long term, given the evidence that has accumulated to date, something completely different needs to emerge about providing health in north Wales?

Well, Llywydd, the immediate action is to appoint a small number of individuals to discharge the legal functions and to stabilise the organisation. You know that a chair has been appointed and there will be three other members alongside the chair, and their job in the short term is to stabilise the organisation, to concentrate on the appointment of a new chief executive.

What I would say to the leader of the opposition is this: I think one of the things that we have learned from the difficult experience from time to time at Betsi Cadwaladr, a board, by the way, which does go on, through its staff, providing successful treatment to thousands of patients every single day, is that reliance on heroic individuals, the idea that a new chair, by him or herself, will solve the problems of the organisation, or a new chief executive by her or himself is the answer—I think we've learnt that that is not a sufficient response to the way in which services over such a diverse population, with cultural differences between the north-west and the north-east, that our reliance on the idea that if you could only get the right person that that would solve the issues that have been there now over a persistent period of time, that, by itself, is not the answer. It will need something that is more fundamental than that, and the actions the Minister took yesterday and the statement she'll make later this afternoon will explain how that more fundamental reform of the organisation will be taken forward in the future.

Diolch, Llywydd. Betsi Cadwaladr is a failing health board. It's failing patients and it's failing staff. The Tawel Fan inquiry found a catalogue of shocking and unacceptable failures in the care of some of the most vulnerable patients, some with dementia, left to lie naked on the floor. Patient safety risks have been identified, with several critical reports into vascular services. An amputee's wife had to carry him to the toilet after he was sent home from hospital without a care plan. There are fractured working relationships, as you've just referred to, First Minister, fundamentally compromising the health board's ability to deal with the significant challenges it faces—not my words, but those of the auditor general. I've highlighted just three reports, but that's just the tip of the iceberg, as you yourself have just intimated. How many more damning reports are you willing to accept on your watch before a Labour health Minister takes responsibility?

Well, Llywydd, the Labour health Minister took responsibility yesterday, and there are 60 minutes for Members to ask questions of the Minister later this afternoon.

Your Government's decision to take Betsi out of special measures was a blatant attempt to pull the wool over people's eyes. Two years ago, and with an election looming, you wanted to give the impression that you had guided the health board through significant reform, that you had done your job. It was premature. It's proved to be reckless, and it demonstrated a lack of judgment and leadership. In a BBC interview last night, the health Minister said, 'I can't be there doing the operations myself.' It was, to say the least, a glib response. There's no expectation that the Minister wears scrubs, but at the very least we should expect Ministers to show the necessary leadership to turn the health board around. This morning, the Minister said:

'It wasn't my job to have a grasp on things, they were in charge.'

Will there ever be a point where the buck stops with the Minister? Or is it just the board that can be hired and fired?

13:50

Well, given his contribution so far this afternoon, I think the Member will wish to reflect on his use of the word 'glib' in relation to anybody else's contributions. Let me tell him now that that I utterly reject what I regard as a disgraceful charge that the decisions made in November 2020 were motivated by anything other than the advice that the Welsh Government received from the tripartite system on which we rely. The decision, and it is a decision of Ministers, to take the board out of special measures was because we were advised that that is what we should do by the auditor general, by Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and by Welsh Government officials whose job it is to provide Ministers with the advice.FootnoteLink That was the basis of the decision, and I think the Member should withdraw what he has said by casting, I think, a slur on the reputation of those bodies. He's happy enough for us to follow their advice when it suits him, and when it doesn't suit him he wants to cast aspersions on the motives of Welsh Government Ministers. He should know better.

The King's Fund that was working with the health board on governance, this is how they described things in the winter of 2020, when you decided it was fit to take the health board out of special measures: the fund observed deteriorating executive behaviour, with individual executive team members criticising each other to the chair and independent members, deepening independent member concern about executive team cohesion. How, on the basis of that informed judgment on behalf of the King's Fund, who were working with the board at the time, could you decide that it was right to take them out of special measures?

I have to say to the First Minister, this is part of a wider pattern, isn't it, of a catastrophic mismanagement on the part of this Government of healthcare. And after 25 years of responsibility for delivering healthcare in Wales, isn't it true that you've simply run out of ideas? You're throwing money at short-term, sticking-plaster solutions, with ever diminishing returns. Are you prepared, in looking at a root-and-branch review and reform of Betsi Cadwaladr, are you prepared to consider the option to break up the board completely and have a different structure, as Plaid Cymru has consistently advocated, rather than simply, once again, rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship?

Well, Llywydd, the King's Fund report was published in November 2022, not in November 2020, when the decision was made. I advise the Member to read what was said by the British Medical Association on 6 December, when they said that the problem of the Welsh NHS was that 'wolf' had been cried too often, including by them, and I think he's just at it again today. The Welsh NHS, every single day, provides successful treatment. I know he wants to shake his head, but this is simply the truth of the matter, isn't it? To his constituents, to my constituents, and to constituents of every other Member here, the health service in Wales provides, every single day, effective treatment provided by dedicated people who go far beyond what could be expected of them to do. We don't get more out of the health service or tend to the very real challenges that it faces in north Wales and elsewhere by not recognising that it is a system that continues to succeed far more than it fails. Where there is a need for action, as there was yesterday, the Minister took that action, and she's here in the Senedd this afternoon to explain to Members and to answer further questions on why her action was necessary and what will now take place.

Harmful Pesticides

3. What action is the Welsh Government taking to reduce the use of harmful pesticides? OQ59154

Llywydd, our policy is to reduce, to the lowest possible level, the effect of pesticide on people, wildlife, plants and the wider environment. There has been a steady reduction in agricultural pesticide use in Wales over the devolution period, but there is more that we can and will do in the future.

13:55

Can I thank the First Minister for that response? All chemical pesticides are potentially harmful to people and the environment. Of course, some are worse than others, but none are completely safe. Whilst all pesticides are designated to kill targeted pests and problems, unfortunately it's much, much more than those specific targets that are affected; many are washed into rivers, creating problems. The worst pesticides include atrazine, hexachlorobenzene, glyphosate, methomyl and rotenone. Based on World Health Organization data, they're particularly hazardous because of bioaccumulation, persistence in water, soil and sediment, toxicity to aquatic organisms, and toxicity to bees and the ecosystem. Glyphosate is regularly used. Will the First Minister look either to ban the aforementioned pesticides or suggest that they are not used by public bodies in Wales?

Well, I thank Mike Hedges for that further question. I think these are really important issues that deserve to be more thoroughly and regularly publicly aired. There's good news, I think, in responding to him: the note that I have tells me that atrazine, hexachlorobenzene and methomyl are already banned for use in the United Kingdom and here in Wales. Rotenone has its use limited now to dealing only with invasive fish species, and I think that probably points to the dilemma at the heart of the debate that Mike Hedges has opened for us this afternoon, which is, while pesticides can cause harm, sometimes there are genuine uses for them that prevent even larger harm, and dealing with invasive species is one of the ways in which those powerful chemical pesticides can still have a beneficial use.

Glyphosate is the most commonly used of the pesticides that Mike Hedges referred to. We have up until now followed the rules used in the European Union. The European Union extended its existing permissions for the use of glyphosate for a further 12 months in November of last year, and it's expected that they will issue fresh advice on that before the end of this calendar year. That will feed into a new United Kingdom national action plan for sustainable use of pesticides. We're expecting that by the middle of 2023.

Wales can go further than that plan if we are not satisfied with its scope, and I very much agree with the point that Mike Hedges made towards the end of his supplementary question: in the policy world that surrounds pesticides, they talk of three different use classes. There is agriculture, there is amateur use—you can buy glyphosate in any garden centre—and then there is amenity use, the use of such pesticides by local authorities and others. That's the area that I am keen that we focus on. I don't believe there is a case for using that sort of chemical, for example, on a school playing field, but we don't yet have a rulebook in Wales that prevents that from happening. There's a great deal of good work that goes on to reduce the use of pesticides in that way; there are opportunities in this calendar year to make that more formally part of the system that we have in Wales.

I'm pleased to hear that the Welsh Government is committed to reducing the use of harmful pesticides, particularly when a threat is posed to human health, but science, technology and innovation can be the answer here, and that's why I was left frustrated that consent was not given to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill. This legislation can aid our resilience against some of the most significant challenges ahead of us, including the protection of plants and crops against pests, diseases and climate change. By taking what occurs naturally over hundreds of years, precision breeding can expedite the process in a controlled, ethical and safe way, building that resilience in plants and crops and reducing our reliance upon harmful pesticides. Given this, can I ask if the Welsh Government is to bring forward Welsh legislation in this field to ensure that we can build that resilience into our crops, utilising Welsh academia such as the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University? Diolch.

I thank Sam Kurtz for the question.

Llywydd, the National Assembly, as it was then, and the Senedd, has always taken always taken a precautionary approach to the issue of genetic modification of plants; I think we are right to do so. I think if we could be guaranteed that it would be done in the way that Sam Kurtz outlined, that would be a different matter, but we can't be guaranteed, because these are inherently and intrinsically experimental ways of interfering with the genetic make-up of plants and other substances. Our view has been that we shouldn't do that until the science is fundamentally proven to be safe. I think the Senedd made the right decision in relation to withholding legislative consent.

14:00
A Health and Well-being Centre in Bangor

4. Will the First Minister provide an update on the plan to create a health and well-being centre in the centre of Bangor? OQ59158

Thank you very much, Llywydd, to Siân Gwenllian for that question. The proposed centre formed part of the bid made by Gwynedd Council to the UK Government's levelling-up fund; the bid was unsuccessful. Welsh Government officials are helping local partners to pursue alternative funding. The Minister for Economy will discuss this during his meeting with the leader of Gwynedd Council on 6 March.

I was extremely disappointed to hear that the UK Government had rejected the bid for £15 million towards this important project. Once again, we see the Tories ignoring Bangor and showing just how little they care about the people of Arfon and the north-west of Wales. But I am determined to continue campaigning for this plan and to support the efforts of Gwynedd Council, and all the other partners, to bring a new health centre to the centre of this city, which would give a huge boost to high-street shops as well as improving health facilities in the area. As you said, your Government too is supportive of this proposal and is committed to contributing funding for it. Can you confirm that that funding is still on the table, despite the fact that the Tories didn't see fit to complete this financial package? And will you commit to doing everything possible in order to deliver this important project?

Llywydd, I thank Siân Gwenllian for that supplementary question. I agree, of course, that it was very disappointing that the UK Government wasn't prepared to support the bid that Gwynedd Council had submitted. Llywydd, I had the opportunity back in January to meet with the council leader and others in the centre of Bangor and to hear from the council leader about the projects that are there to regenerate the town centre and to hear more generally about the masterplan that was created for that purpose.

Now, Welsh Government officials will collaborate with local people to look for other possibilities in terms of continuing with the process of choosing a site for a new health and well-being centre and more funding to complete that work. It's likely that one of the routes for further funding will be through the regional partnership board, and we are looking forward to the future and to seeing a bid coming in to the integration capital fund of the Welsh Government, if the regional partnership board does include the plan for the new centre in Bangor as one of their priorities.

Dentistry for Children

5. What is the Welsh Government doing to make sure children have access to good-quality dentistry? OQ59157

Llywydd, prevention not intervention has to be the aim of good-quality dental care for children. The Designed to Smile scheme is now operating fully again, and nearly 240,000 children have been treated in general dental services since April 2022. Of that number, over 55,000 are new patients.

14:05

Thank you, First Minister, for your answer. In my constituency, accessing a dentist is extremely difficult, and even if you get a dentist, the travelling times to those dentists can be very lengthy. So, will the First Minister look at actually bringing mobile dentists into schools, so that we can actually have them in the school, so that they can get the check-ups they need to ensure that their oral health is in good condition, because we all know that good oral health leads to the overall good health and well-being of our children? Diolch.

I thank James Evans for that, Llywydd. Members will know that originally on the order paper today was a statement from the Minister on advances in dental services in Wales, and one of the things that she would have reported to the Senedd was ideas for dealing with dental services in rural areas, and the possibility of mobile dentistry in secondary schools. So, the Member has slightly anticipated what the Minister would have said, amongst other things that she will have to say when the statement comes forward. It's to be rescheduled for two weeks' time, and I know that the Member will be listening carefully to what the Minister has to say.

In the meantime, in his part of Wales, the local health board is taking steps now to increase capacity for dental services for children. A new dental therapist has been appointed and that post is already making inroads into children who have been waiting for appointments. And a new paediatric specialist dentist has been appointed so that more children are able to receive treatment inside the county of Powys, rather than, as has been the case in the past, needing to be referred to specialist treatments further afield.

Good afternoon, First Minister. Just following up on the question from James Evans, it is the case that when children require intervention in dentistry, there are long waiting lists for that NHS treatment, particularly in the areas that we cover. During the pandemic, we know that the number of children receiving treatment fell by more than 80 per cent, so there is catch-up to be done. And here's a statistic that I find really shocking: tooth extraction remains the biggest cause of surgery under general anaesthetic in children. More than 7,000 operations were carried out in 2018. Now, I don't know about you, but I remember when I was waiting for an operation and at the thought of going under a general anaesthetic, I was quite anxious, but imagine being a child waiting for that treatment—mostly orthodontic treatment. In Powys alone, nearly 800 children are on waiting lists for NHS treatment. 

You will, of course, be aware that the Westminster Government has capped funding for remuneration in dentistry for staff at 3.5 per cent—a figure that is far below inflation. And so, we struggle not just here in Wales, but in England as well, to recruit our dentists, and that's a decision by the Conservative Government. So, would you join me in calling for more resources from Westminster to ensure that we have a robust NHS dental system not just here in Wales, but across the country, for everybody, including our children? Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

I thank Jane Dodds for that, and of course I agree with the basic proposition that she has set out that further investment across the United Kingdom in dental services would be very welcome. The Welsh Government did not set an affordability limit in our evidence to the pay review body, so the 3.5 per cent affordability level that she mentioned is advice provided by the UK Government for England only, and not advice that we have provided here in Wales.

If there were to be further investment, then as I've debated with the Member previously, my priority is for the diversification of the dental profession. And the good news is that in September of this year, we will have double the number of dental therapists emerging from Cardiff University, and that in Bangor we will have a wholly new course, again providing dental therapists for the future. What we don't need to see is the most highly trained and the most expensive part of the workforce carrying out activity that does not require that level of skill or experience to carry it out clinically appropriately and satisfactorily. We need dentistry to follow what has already happened in primary care, and to have a more diverse profession, so that the dentists we have can be concentrated on providing treatment to those patients who really need that level of care and complexity. And the future for dental services in Wales, I think, very much rests on our ability to move the profession in that direction, in the way that other parts of primary care have already managed to do successfully.

14:10
Sustainable Travel

6. What is the Government doing to promote sustainable travel in South Wales East? OQ59163

Llywydd, implementation of the Burns commission proposals provides the most effective way of promoting sustainable travel. Publication this month of the Burns delivery unit annual report sets out the real progress already made, and future plans for walking, cycling and using public transport in south-east Wales.

Diolch yn fawr, Prif Weinidog. The recent news that road projects in Wales would not be funded was a bitter pill to swallow for some. It would have been a bit easier to understand if it had not been accompanied by the announcement a day later that the bus emergency scheme is going to be phased out in June. For many of the communities I represent, the bus service is a lifeline. For older people, it represents independence; for young people, it represents education; and for people who do not have a car, it represents employment. I fear your Government's decision is going to have a huge detrimental impact on people's lives. It would also run counter to efforts to promote sustainable transport at a time when we should be doing all we can in this field. First Minister, what impact studies have been conducted into this decision, and will you reconsider the decision on behalf of the many communities that will be worse off as a result, until the full consequences of the decision are known?

Llywydd, I think it's important just to set the record straight here: it was emergency funding, as the Member said. And emergency funding cannot be indefinitely extended beyond the point where the emergency led to the millions and millions of pounds that have been found by the Welsh taxpayer to support the bus industry while the emergency was in operation. Over £150 million, over and above the millions of pounds that are already invested in bus services, have been provided to the industry since the COVID pandemic began. It was always going to be gap funding to help the industry while the pandemic was having its impact.

We have already announced an extension of that scheme for a further three months—an initial three months, as the announcement said—while we are able to discuss with the industry, with local authorities, how we can focus the bus services support grant for the future, moving the industry away, as it has to move, from reliance on emergency funding and towards the future that the bus Bill that we will bring forward to the floor of the Senedd will fashion for bus services, a future in a way that matches the money that the public provides with the public's interest in an effective bus service in all parts of Wales.

First Minister, after your Government's economically damaging new policy on roads, it's becoming clearer than ever before that we need to promote and have functioning sustainable travel in place, yet we are seeing bus services cut in reality, as my fellow Member for South Wales East has just outlined, and rail services that have become a laughing stock, as I'm sure north Wales Members will also agree. This is without even mentioning the fact that you're refusing to build new roads and are way behind on electric vehicle charging points. Promoting the use of a few bus lanes here and there really isn't going to cut the mustard, as much as the Member for Llanelli would like to think it does. My question is simple, First Minister: how are you promoting sustainable travel without roads being built, without bus services increasing now, and without a functioning rail service?

Llywydd, the Member's party went to the people of Wales in the last Senedd election promising the largest road-building programme ever in the history of Wales, and that proposition was roundly rejected by the people of Wales. Of course, the Member can continue to put in front of people the thing that people have rejected many times already. There is a fundamental difference of view between the sort of future that she sees, in which Wales will be concreted over and the climate emergency ignored in the process, and the proposals of the Welsh Government, which, by the way, Llywydd, are never that no new roads would be built—it is just that the roads we will build will be roads where there is a safety case for doing so, and where roads contribute positively to the reduction of emissions and make the contribution that Wales has to make to tackling the greatest emergency that our children and grandchildren will see.

As part of that, I reject entirely her idea that we don't have a functioning rail service here in Wales. It is a great shame that her party in Wales has not succeeded in persuading their Members at Westminster that the £5 billion we miss out on because of the misclassification of the high speed 2 line should come to Wales; that would help us to provide a better rail service in Wales, wouldn't it? In the meantime, just this week—just yesterday—in the Member's own region, new Stadler trains began work on the Rhymney line. There will be eight such trains in May. It is a small demonstration of the major investment that is being made in Wales in the rail service, despite the deliberate denial of the investment that people in Wales ought to have and that is being provided to people elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

14:15
2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item will be the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement—Lesley Griffiths.

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:16:59
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. There are four changes to this week's business. Later today, the Minister for Health and Social Services will make a statement on Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. To accommodate this, the oral statement on dental reform has been postponed. Additionally, the Business Committee has agreed to reduce the time allocated to Senedd Commission questions tomorrow in line with the number of questions tabled. Finally, the Business Committee has also agreed to change the order of debates tomorrow so that the Plaid Cymru motion is debated before the Conservative motion. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out in the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.  

Can I ask for a statement, please, Trefnydd, from the Deputy Minister for arts and sport, who has just taken over responsibility for the tourism sector here in Wales? We know that when tourism sat under the economy Minister, the economy Minister proposed a tourism tax on the sector. The Government's own report said that it would cost the sector £100 million and 2,500 jobs. VisitBritain called it inadvisable, saying that it discouraged the highest spending overnight visitors from coming to Wales. So, can I ask for a statement where the Deputy Minister will outline her priorities for the tourism sector, in the hope that with a new Minister we'll see a new set of priorities?

No, that will not be happening. The policy is as set out by the previous Minister with responsibility for tourism.

Families across Wales are facing an extremely uncertain near-term future as a result of the deadlock over whether Westminster will continue to help households with their energy bills, and the situation is going from bad to worse. Yesterday, I had a conversation with someone who runs a foodbank in my region, and he said that the number of people attending that foodbank had increased by 20 per cent over the past winter. The people who go there talk about the fear that they have about that April deadline. While the demand for food has increased, the donations sometimes decline because of the pressures faced by people in the area. Will the Government make a statement, please, setting out what emergency discussions it will have with Westminster to demand that the support with energy bills continues after April? If Westminster does not accede to this demand, will the statement confirm what the Welsh Government will do to fill that gap? Thank you. 

Thank you. The Minister for Social Justice does continue to have discussions with her counterpart in the UK Government. As you know, the price cap announcement will have no impact at all on energy prices for the period from April to June, because the actual prices are currently being set by the UK Government's energy price guarantee. What we would like to see is the UK Government reverse the decision to increase the EPG price from £2,500 to £3,000 from 1 April, and, of course, they'll have the opportunity to do that in the budget next month.

14:20

We've all either observed or seen the steep spike in the price of vegetables and the empty shelves in our shops. The horticulture start-up and horticulture development grant schemes led last year to 19 new entrants into commercial horticulture and the expansion of 12 existing schemes. I wondered if we could have a debate in Government time on whether this is merely a short-term problem provoked by bad weather and the spike in energy costs, as described in the press, or symptomatic of an ongoing food security issue caused by our changing climate, Brexit barriers disrupting the importing of perishable goods and the domination of our food supplies by multinational companies who are mainly interested in profitability rather than ensuring supplies of nourishing food. We really do need to assess whether this demands beefing up our legislative programme or investing in more vegetables grown in Wales.

Thank you. As you know, growing the horticultural part of the agricultural sector in Wales is something I'm particularly interested in. It's a very small part of our agricultural sector, only 1 per cent. The reason I had the two schemes that you referred to was because of the demand. People were telling me they wanted to see more windows within those schemes, and it was very good to have those new 19 new entrants and to have that take-up.

There is, clearly, some widespread shortage of some fresh products: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers. Yesterday, I was told there is a shortage of leeks, which is pretty unfortunate, I think, this week with St David's Day. I think it is the supermarkets where we are seeing shortages particularly. I think in local grocer shops, for instance, we're not seeing that shortage.

Next Monday, the Welsh Government is chairing the next inter-ministerial group with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I've asked for food supply and food security to be put on the agenda. I know that the Minister for food and farming in the UK Government, Mark Spencer, is meeting the supermarkets this week. We haven't been invited to participate, but I've certainly asked to have a note on that to see how widespread this is.

I would like to request a statement from the Deputy Minister for Climate Change. Over two weeks ago, the T19 between Llandudno and Blaenau Ffestiniog was terminated. Employees have been left unable to access work, students are relying on private transport to get to school and residents are struggling to reach medical appointments. This morning, along with my colleague Mabon ap Gwynfor, we were in a very good meeting with bus operators, Welsh Government officials, the cabinet member from Conwy County Borough Council and Transport for Wales. But what came across loud and clear was that there seems to be an overwhelmed workforce within Transport for Wales. Criticisms were aimed at them, with bus operators trying to get this route back working again, but Transport for Wales not very good at responding. Their standard of communication with private bus operators was described as appalling, with e-mails not responded to, and that TfW actually lack experience in the bus marketplace. We now have a situation where the T19 is desperately needed to be reinstated. The response from TfW this morning was that they're going to go out to the public to see how in demand this service is. Well, I'm sure my colleague Mabon and I can actually say from our mailboxes that we know, we have data, but also the bus company who's had to suspend their bus operation has all the data. We made the point that it's not more talking we need; we need that bus reinstated. So, will the Deputy Minister now come forward with a statement and a plan for how we can actually get this bus route back firmly on its wheels? Thanks.

I don't think there's a need for an oral statement. I think you've done absolutely the right thing. I was aware of the meeting this morning. Clearly the data will help, because we certainly haven't seen patronage return to bus services post the COVID pandemic as was there pre the COVID pandemic. So, surely, if they get the data, they will be able to see, and if you say the data is there, then I think that will enable them to look at whether this service should be reinstated as quickly as possible.

14:25

May I ask for a statement from the health Minister on the issue of charging for delivering prescriptions from pharmacies? It's entirely reasonable to charge in a scenario where an individual can't be bothered to collect a prescription, but I've been contacted by some people in my region who, because of their medical condition, can't go and fetch their prescriptions, and have now found that they are required to pay for that. In the first instance, many of them can't afford to do so, and the inevitable upshot of that is that they will not, therefore, be receiving the medicines that they need. And that, of course, undermines the policy that we're all proud of, that prescriptions are free of charge in Wales. So, I think we need some clarity from the Minister on what the Government expects from pharmacies: do the pharmacists or the individuals trying to access prescriptions need support? And I think we need more consistency across Wales, because in some areas they charge, and in others they don't.

Thank you. I will certainly ask the Minister to provide some clarity via a written statement. You're absolutely right that the whole point of having that policy of free prescriptions is to keep people well and to make sure that those who are employed are able to stay in employment. If we do have this disparity, I think you're quite right; you don't want to see that inconsistency or a postcode lottery, where you have some areas charging. So, I will certainly ask the health Minister to bring forward a written statement with that clarity.

May I ask for a statement from the health Minister on an update to the computer system within the national health service? I have a cancer patient in Dinas Mawddwy who's had to go to have initial treatment and gone to see a doctor locally in Dolgellau, and then had to go to hospital in Bronglais in Aberystwyth, and then in turn down to Glangwili in Carmarthen, and then back up to Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor, and then over to Llanidloes, which is part of the Powys health board, and now has to go to Clatterbridge near Liverpool, I believe. And what he's found is that every one of these providers, the different hospitals, aren't communicating with each other, and they don't share notes; they're not ready for the patient's arrival, they don't know that patient's history, because the ICT systems don't communicate, and there's no easy way to share that information. So, can we have a statement to see what the system is, and what plans are in place to ensure that that system is properly integrated in Wales to avoid this happening in the future? Thank you.

It's an ongoing piece of work to make sure that computers talk to computers and health boards talk to health boards here in Wales. It is absolutely vital that patients don't have to repeat their story every time they go to a different hospital, for instance. I know there were some difficulties between Wales and England, but as far as I was aware those systems should be able to talk to each other within Wales.

3. Statement by the Minister for Economy: The Innovation Strategy

The next item is the statement by the Minister for Economy on the innovation strategy. I call on the Minister to make his statement—Vaughan Gething.

Diolch, Llywydd. I welcome this opportunity to update Members on 'Wales innovates', our new innovation strategy, which has been co-developed with the Ministers for health and social services, education and Welsh Language and, of course, climate change. It was officially launched yesterday. Firstly, I'd like to acknowledge and thank the Plaid Cymru designated Members and their leader in the development of the strategy, which is all the stronger for their work and input and fulfils a commitment in the co-operation agreement.

We've developed this strategy following more than a year of independent research and extensive engagement across Wales, including a statutory public consultation where over 160 submissions were received from industry, academia, the public sector and individual citizens. We have put developing a culture of innovation at the heart of this strategy and across every Government department. That means we're committed to working together to achieve a vision that will create a stronger and more resilient economy, better educational outcomes—particularly in tertiary education and research—effective, sustainable health and social care, with better services for vulnerable people, and an ability to respond to the separate emergencies of climate and nature in everything that we do. We intend for innovation to be a major enabler for Wales that will deliver outcomes like better health, better jobs and prosperity for all. We want citizens and communities to feel the benefits, regardless of where they are in Wales, but we have to do this in the face of a new and evolving funding landscape. 

14:30

The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) took the Chair.

We know that the traditional source of much of Wales’s investment in research and development—the former EU structural funds—is no more. We know that we will have less money to invest, and less control over how it is invested. Engagement with the EU over the Horizon Europe programme remains unresolved. But we do have positive relationships with EU regions through our ongoing involvement with networks like the Vanguard Initiative with European regional governments. A strategy that is genuinely collaborative and points the way to a different approach is needed now more than ever. So, we are adopting a mission-based approach, which will require recognition and discipline from our stakeholders that we have to prioritise some areas of research and innovation more than others. If we recognise that we can’t support all research, we can prioritise work that is translational. But we can only succeed if all the innovation stakeholders in Wales work together in the collaborative way that we set out in the strategy.

Our four main themes of education, economy, health and well-being, climate and nature will allow us to explore cutting-edge opportunities; to enable us to compete more effectively for UK and international funding and investment; to focus on our evidence-based areas of strength, and to make a contribution for Wales that also adds to the stated UK vision for innovation. Our strategy makes a firm commitment to driving up investment from the UK Government and beyond, which is even more crucial in the world of post-EU funding. I look forward to working with UK innovation agencies, where we have shared ambitions, and to seeing their stated intention made real to significantly increase research, development and innovation investment outside the south-east of England.

We will also have a new approach to funding. Our innovation support will no longer be restricted to businesses and research organisations. It will be open to any established organisation wishing to engage and invest in research, development and innovation. That includes the third sector, local authorities and health boards. By supporting an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset across all sectors, we can approach problems in new ways through the eyes of different and diverse people. We call for equality, both in terms of demographic and regional investment and impact. I want all of our universities, our businesses, our public bodies, and our citizens to collaborate even more closely to create an environment that turns research questions into real-world answers, and inspires our next generation of students, scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs.

As a Government, we understand that our future is inextricably linked to the education of our young people and our ability to embrace a tech-driven entrepreneurial economy. Our new curriculum will help to nurture entrepreneurial skills within our children and young people throughout their educational journey. We can harness the talent, enthusiasm and incredible potential of our young people who, in the future, will not only contribute to the Welsh economy, but will make a real impact with and for people’s lives. We’ll also invest in skills within our workforce, in digital, to service the latest industrial revolution, and in net zero skills. Our plans for these are set out in the net zero skills plan. Embedding net zero skills, in partnership with our industry bodies and delivery organisations, is key to delivering against our climate and nature mission.

Tackling climate change and protecting nature should be at the forefront of our choices in all areas. We need innovation to transform the food, energy and transportation systems in Wales. We also need innovation in other areas to be carried out in a carbon-neutral and resource-efficient way. We’ll require organisations receiving support to measure and understand their impact, and we’ll look to help them on that journey. We will use innovation as a tool to improve our health and care services, prioritising action to help further tackle delayed transfers of care, improve provision across primary, community, emergency and planned care, as well as in cancer and mental health services.

I’m pleased that our vision for innovation will now turn to further action. These will shortly be pulled together in a practical delivery plan. This will be a living document, setting out specific goals, actions, milestones, and it will be monitored and refined to measure impact. In an ever-changing funding landscape, we’ll need to revisit our progress and keep an open mind for what we hope will be different and better opportunities. This strategy is an exemplar of how the Welsh Government’s approach to innovation can benefit the people, environment and businesses of Wales. I look forward to reporting to Members on progress.

14:35

Can I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon? I'm very pleased to hear that this strategy has now been published—this document—and that there will be a delivery plan that is going to sit alongside it. You said, Minister, in your remarks there, that the delivery plan will be published shortly, and it would be useful, I think, for us all to have a timescale by which you expect to be able to publish that.

You didn't refer in your statement to the central innovation team that the strategy document refers to, which appears to me to be quite central to wanting to drive the delivery of this agenda forward across the Welsh Government's different departments and policy areas. That team is going to be critical, I think, to the success of the implementation, and it's going to need to have some teeth and resources. So, can you tell us who and how that team will be made up of, and what resources you're going to put in place behind that team, in order to make sure that it does the job of delivery? It would also be useful, Minister, I think, if you could tell us whether there's going to be any external presence on that team, or whether it's going to be a wholly in-house sort of operation. I do think that having an arm's-length organisation in order to hold the Government to account can sometimes be useful. And it would be helpful to know whether there's any external expertise that you might be able to bring in.

You've referred to the four different specific mission areas, if you like: education, economy, health and well-being, and climate and nature. And obviously, we do have a changing new curriculum. I know that the Welsh Government has done some work trying to promote the digital skills agenda and engagement with STEM subjects, but I cannot see in the new curriculum specifically how innovation is necessarily promoted. I think it would be useful to have some more information on how you see that being embedded in the new curriculum, because I personally don't see that sufficiently emphasised enough at the moment.

In addition to the strategy document, I know that the Welsh Government's going to be expanding its offer to micro, small and medium-sized businesses with some funding and advice. You made reference to the fact, in the launch yesterday, that there will be a new service launched later in the year for those small, micro and medium-sized businesses. Can you tell us whether a launch date has actually been set, and what you're going to do in order to make sure that people are aware of the support that they can get in those smaller businesses, in order that they can access it, and we can all see this innovation flow through into our economy?

Now, I'm very pleased to see the references in the document to a more equal Wales, and that the strategy recognises that there needs to be a fairer geographical distribution of investment in innovation activities. That's music to my years, particularly in north Wales, where we often feel overlooked by Welsh Government investment. But obviously, there are partners in different parts of Wales who the Welsh Government will need to engage with to deliver on this important agenda—you've got regional partnerships, you've got local authorities, you've got business groups, sometimes the chambers of commerce in particular areas. Can you tell us what role they will have in ensuring the roll-out of this vision nationwide, to make sure that there is that local delivery element in addition to the national framework that you've set out?

I'm very pleased to see the emphasis as well on health and well-being. We all know that the NHS in Wales is lagging behind some of its counterparts elsewhere in the UK, in terms of the use of some of the digital technology that's available. We heard reference earlier on today in terms of simple things, like electronic prescriptions, which we don't have in Wales but people have the benefit of elsewhere. We saw during the pandemic there were huge leaps forward in terms of engagement with technology in order to address some of the problems that could arise with the distance that people might have to travel in order to access appointments. But one of the things that the Welsh NHS Confederation raised in response to the draft strategy was that they said that there needed to be more visible links between patient safety, quality and outcomes in the strategy going forward. Have you now addressed those concerns? And if so, can you tell us how you have addressed them?

And then, finally, just in relation to this issue of EU funding, as you will know, my colleague, Paul Davies, has often referred to the fact that we need to get on and implement the recommendations of Professor Graeme Reid's review of government funded research and innovation, and he's not the only one. Many other stakeholders have also said precisely the same. So, can you tell us whether the Welsh Government will finally listen to that chorus of voices that is out there and finally get to grips and make a commitment with implementing the review's recommendations? I think that people want nothing more and nothing less. 

14:40

Thank you for the long series of questions. I won't test the Deputy Presiding Officer's patience by giving a long answer to each of, I think the 10 different areas. Look, on the action and delivery plan, I'm expecting that that will be provided in a matter of months, and that should help us, as it's supposed to be a living document, to make sure that we do have milestones and measures within that to go alongside the broader missions. We've made choices in this strategy. Look at those areas where we've got real strengths that already exist in Wales and in different parts of Wales—north, south, east and west—but also look at potential areas for strength in the future. Now, that's about how we look to build on what we can do and what we're really good at here in Wales, rather than trying to do a bit of everything, and so, you'll see that as we go forward with the delivery plan that you've referred to.

Now, I'll try to deal with some of your points about other outcomes as well. We want to see outcomes and see things translated. The reviews we'll undertake at one, three and five years—the first-year review is really important to understand that we are still making the progress that we set out in the mission, but, also, because a number of the funding pieces are uncertain still at this point in time. There's a point about whether the UK Government will really deliver on its mission to use a significant amount of headline budget on innovation to make sure that it doesn't just go into the golden triangle around Oxbridge and a couple of universities in Scotland. It will also be important to see what's happening with the relatively confused landscape—I'll be as polite as I can—in post-EU funds, and, actually, there's policy confusion in there as well with things that are contradictory. We're going to look to try to have a more coherent approach, and we've been working with a range of people in doing that in the run-up to the launch of this strategy as well. That includes businesses being involved in that, it includes higher and further education, and it includes a range of people already engaged. There's also an unfinished piece of work in the UK Government and there's a review that Sir Paul Nurse has been doing—that will have an impact on the funding landscape and some priorities that we'll need to be cognisant of as well.

I do expect that, when we get to the innovation team that is based in my department, and their work not only to co-ordinate what takes place within the Government, but their work with external stakeholders as well—. Because, often, in a country the size of Wales, people are looking for the Welsh Government to carry on with some leadership to help hold the ring, but to draw in those other stakeholders, which is what we've already been doing. But we're also, though, looking to have a joint delivery plan, a joint action plan, with Innovate UK, and that's the first time that we've been able to do that, to secure agreement on that, and they're looking to do that on the basis of the strategy we've launched today. So, we've tried to have a coherent approach to what we're going to do. That should help us with future funding streams. 

In the new curriculum—I just don't accept the Member's characterisation. I think, within the areas of learning and entrepreneurship and innovation, they are there, and it's about how we build on that practically in the work that we do. Much of what business says at this point in time, when they look at the future with all the risks and challenges and opportunities they have, they talk lots about labour and skills and about how we need to be able to get to people not just at 16, 17, 18 and beyond, but actually earlier, to keep those minds open to potential careers that exist. That's not just a point about skills; it is about how we value and embed a culture of innovation and challenge. It was fascinating yesterday, at the launch, to have a range of young people in different parts of Wales saying what they are already doing in looking at innovative ways, so they are thinking about problem solving to go through that, and they're not just—even though Jack Sargeant is in the room—engineers; there is a range of other people thinking about how to deal with challenges in the future. 

And, look, when it comes to the launch of the micro and SME funding, you expect it to happen within the coming months. Again, I will make clear when that fund is being launched. Members will know and will look to go to work with stakeholders. I doubt, sadly, it'll be a headline on television news when we launch that fund, but the people who need to will know about that and the business networks we have are how we're going to be able to try to promote that. And, obviously, for Members from all sides, it would be helpful if they could promote it, because you will all have constituents who will be interested in when that fund comes to launch. 

We definitely care about innovation in all areas across Wales. We've invested lots in innovation in north Wales in a whole range of areas. I was talking with Siemens earlier today, and, with the investment we've done with them in Llanberis, they're engaged in not just manufacturing but really interesting, innovative research as well. So, that is something that has a reach in every part of Wales. And it's one of the points we've made to the UK Government, so they don't perceive research, science, development and innovation as something that takes place in Cardiff and Newport in the semiconductor cluster; we have had to tell them that there are many more areas of strength across Wales, and Sam Kurtz mentioned earlier today the work of IBERS in Aberystwyth. I should say, Llywydd, that's my former undergraduate institution; there's no bias there, obviously. 

Finally, though, on the Reid review, we just need to be honest: we're not going to be able to deliver on what the Reid review suggested we would do, because the funding realities at that time have been completely capsized by not just our leaving the European Union but by the failure to deal, the failure to honour the very clear promises that were made on not a penny being lost to Wales. Our budget has taken real pressure. We're going to be talking about the final budget in the coming weeks, and within that you know very well there is not extra money looking for a home. Our challenge is actually how we prioritise and deal with the things we need to do, the opportunities we can take up, rather than all the things that Members across different parties would want to do. So, I'm not going to engage in a dishonest conversation and pretend we're still in the same position as when the Reid review was published. And Conservative Members need to take some responsibility for the fact that more money has been taken out of Wales and we now have less say over less money. 

14:45

Thank you to the Minister for his statement. 

As the Minister rightly pointed out, our departure from the EU has had a detrimental impact on our ability to access funding. What was it, 'Not a penny less, not a power lost'? Now, at least, the innovation strategy launch allows us to have a shared mission across party lines that joins our attention to making Wales a dynamic nation for the future. 

Now, innovation strategies across Europe have seen success and they aren't a new idea. Finland, in 1967, established Sitra, which is a body committed to innovating, regardless of which party is in power. And within 10 years, Sitra achieved education reform, which just so happens to be the same structure that we, as well as much of the world, have followed. So, there is tremendous potential for a Wales innovation strategy like Finland's to not just impact domestic policy but to influence international change as well. 

Now, for Wales, we have an abundance of green energy potential. If we do this right, this innovation strategy has the capability to not only revitalise parts of Wales that have—and still do—experienced economic stagnation but to also place Wales as a leading nation in green innovation and policies. So, to that end, how does the Minister see the strategy feeding into supporting community-owned energy projects? It's important that the strategy links in with many of the projects up and running around Wales already, but also with those that are still in the works. We know already that community energy projects often find it difficult to get off the ground. I would also ask: how does the innovation strategy factor in the need for a just transition as we head towards a greener economy?

Now, by establishing well-defined goals within the strategy, policy makers will have the opportunity to not just influence green economic growth but to also influence the direction, the impact and the purpose of each goal. And, on the point of economic growth, how will this strategy support and assess requests not just from local businesses and SMEs but also social partnerships and co-operatives that might want to conduct research and development but simply haven't got the capital? There lies a way of developing truly homegrown innovation.

Now, although we look forward to future innovations, we must also acknowledge the recent past. The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had a negative impact on the progress of innovations across Wales, and as a result we must also understand that the mission areas such as the health and care system need critical attention, and we need to act swiftly to remedy this. So, I would be interested to understand how Government might prioritise or be flexible with the missions within this strategy.

Looking at another international comparison, the Research Council of Norway has five core strategic areas. Now, these five strategic areas are intrinsically linked and cannot be achieved without societal change, both within and outside of Norway. As a result, societal change is at the heart of innovation strategy as a whole. Now, if Wales as a society has not bought into policies, then it will be very difficult for them to succeed. A key requirement for success is therefore to have actors and a variety of stakeholders with sufficient knowledge and resources to help connect and embed innovations and novel practices within existing structures and institutions. So, to that end, this will of course be key to achieving the four missions set out, and I'd be interested in hearing the Government's work in bringing those stakeholders together to date.

14:50

Thank you for the questions and comments.

Thank you for the questions.

I heard much about Finland yesterday, the leader of Plaid Cymru referred to Finland at length in his contribution, and of course we have taken an interest in the way that other countries, including Finland, have used innovation as a tool for national improvement and in a range of policy areas. Finland and other Scandinavian countries have had an explicit influence on the way that we've developed policy—not just the foundation phase, but many others as well—and the way that we seek to use our natural assets for the future of the country as well.

I think that goes into the points you were making about green innovation. If you think about the four missions, climate, nature and the economy, there's a really obvious overlap in this area, and it's one of the areas we spent lots of time talking about in this Chamber, not just about the unresolved issues around free ports, but about what we think we can do. With the large energy generation projects around floating offshore wind, there will be more innovation to come, and actually we've seen, in the Deputy Presiding Officer's own constituency, some of that innovation in a range of turbine technology and in different parts of Wales, and some of that could come back to the point about community generation as well, because there is something for us to learn about where we've been successful and where we haven't been as successful as we want to be, and it's also something where I think there's more room for more co-ops. Much of the community generation that has been successful has actually been co-operative, ballot-backed developments as well, and we have a really vibrant co-operative community in Wales. You'd expect me to say that as a Labour and Co-op member, but lots of that innovation does take place. The way we're looking to open up, as I set out in my statement, the ability to access some of that smart funding, should mean there is more opportunity for those organisations, not less, in the way they can access innovation spend in the future, and there are a range of services available to them: Cwmpas Cymru, very obviously, but also Business Wales too.

All of this does take in your point about the just transition. We'll talk about it more in the next statement as well. The transition we wish to make isn't to leave people behind, but how we see innovation improving the lives of people—people whether they're living in communities and the services that they may receive, or indeed people in the world of work and beyond. I want to give you the reassurance that the just transition is something that is a regular feature in the minds of Ministers about the choices we make and about the fact that there's a lot more disruption to come in the future. That can be an opportunity as well as a real risk for the people that we represent.

On your point about COVID-19 innovation, it did prevent a range of areas and innovations that were in train, work that was happening—much of that was interrupted. But I think there's an important point to make here, that actually, because of COVID-19, we had to innovate in a whole range of areas, and we did. There's the way in which, for example, the Welsh ambulance service were able to think again about how they could re-prepare vehicles to be able to go out. That had to happen and, because of the forced innovation, we've ended up with the better system that we have in place now, and, in a range of other areas, the innovation that was forced has actually led people to make different choices. Sometimes it's about products. Sometimes it's about services. Sometimes it's the way that people work. If you look at the innovation that has taken place just in terms of the way we work on a hybrid basis, not just in this place, but it's commonplace in the world of work, where it's possible to do so, three years ago we would not have thought that's the way that people would expect to work in an office environment, for example, today. So, there's much more innovation that is to come. It's not just about, if you like, the obvious people-in-white-coats end of innovation. Much of the innovation that improves our lives come from when we rethink the way we approach the world and the way that we work as well, and then the consistent application of it. And that's one of the things we are talking to our stakeholders about, because sometimes it's about the new and the difficult things, the cutting-edge part of it. At other times, it's about how we translate what we know works much more consistently and effectively. So, we have a new discovery challenge and opportunity. We then also have an implementation and application challenge, which is just as much an issue in the private sector as it is in public services. But, I can honestly say stakeholders are very positive about where we've got to now, and, in the next phase, I look forward to keeping them on board with us.

14:55

I very much welcome this statement. If you study successful nations and regions, you find three common themes—the three legs of a successful economy. Innovation, research and development is leg 1, entrepreneurship is leg 2, and high-quality education and highly educated graduates is leg 3. I've got two questions. How are the Welsh Government working with universities to support research and innovation? What financial support is the Welsh Government giving to support testing and patent applications? Without the patent, the benefit of innovation is lost, and we know in Britain, quite often, we've innovated and other countries have actually turned it into a very successful industry.

We've had mention of Finland, which I think has had great successes, but Finland also gives you a warning. Nokia were the biggest makers of mobile phones in the world. You can't buy a Nokia phone today. You can get it wrong as well.

Can I just throw out three areas that you perhaps can think about? Cambridge, Silicon Valley in California, and Mannheim—these are successful areas. Perhaps we can learn from them as well.

On your final point, part of our challenge is that the three areas you mention have had new ideas, they've had a conference of lots of people, and capital has then gone into lots of those new ideas and it's been kept there. Part of our challenge in the way innovation funding works in the UK is that Oxbridge is one of the areas in the golden triangle, with some London institutions, where it continues to crowd in more funding and investment. Our challenge is not just to say, 'We want to stop money going there.' Actually, we're going to need to see more money going to other parts of the UK as well, rather than a reductive competition that simply takes money out of what is already successful. And that's difficult for us, actually, but it's the mission that the UK Government have set when they've increased, I think by over £20 billion, the innovation money they're prepared to spend. That's a good thing. You don't often hear me say good things about the UK Government, but it's a good thing they've been prepared to do that. They've then got to make sure it isn't just about geographic equity in where it's invested in the rest of the UK, but that they recognise the areas of very real strength and opportunity that exist in other parts of the UK, and it's also the consistency of acting in those three areas you've mentioned as well that have been consistent.

I know very well the Member's warning about Nokia. I used to have a Nokia phone, as indeed did all of my friends at one point in time, but none of us do now.

On patents, it's one of the things we want to work on with a range of people to make sure they have got patents. In my former life as a health Minister, I was really interested in what we were doing in life sciences not just to change and improve treatment outcomes and care outcomes for people, but in making sure that people protected their intellectual property. It's one of the risks, actually, for some of the free trade agreements that are being done, to make sure we do have consistent rules that are enforceable in all countries about intellectual property protection as well. And it's certainly something that we do talk to, through our advice services to business and innovators.

And on your point about universities, there's a warning from your local institution about what's happening with the change in funding. Swansea University have been clear that good, high-quality jobs are going because of the change in funding. Now, we've deliberately worked with the university sector. The vice-chancellor of Swansea takes a lead role on some of these areas, on how we're looking to make sure they're alongside us. And part of my challenge to them has been about what universities will do in the future about gaining access to UK funding sources, because, even in the past, before the non-keeping of promises on replacement EU funds, we still wanted our university sector to be better at gaining access to UK funding competition as well. Now there's a real imperative to do so, and that's part of the conversation we've had.

But also, for the higher education sector—further education has a role in innovation as well; I'm not saying it doesn't, but the question was on higher education—part of it is their collective understanding of where they recognise the sector is strong and that there will be different strengths in different institutions, so that we don't have universities competing to knock over each other and say, 'Actually, there are six institutions claiming to be world-leading in the same area in Wales', because we know that's unlikely to be true, but to have a coherent profile from them that will lead into the missions as well, and actually that has informed the areas of strength that we've identified. So, we're in a good place in our relationship with higher education, and I look forward to that being the case through the delivery of this strategy and the delivery plan.

15:00

I'd like to declare an interest, namely that my husband is employed by Swansea University.

I would like to talk a little bit in more detail about how the strategy will mitigate the impact of the withdrawal of UK structural funds on Welsh universities specifically. You just mentioned the warning that we've had from Swansea University that up to 240 researchers are facing redundancy in that institution alone. I'm sure you'd agree that redundancies on this scale—and many of them are early-years researchers—would fatally undermine confidence in the research sector in South Wales West and across Wales. Here are the words of one of the researchers who has already been made redundant from one of the programmes. He said, 'I could see so much being achieved each week. Beyond the measurable outcomes, the project was a conduit for connectivity and the development of translational expertise', something you've referred to today as being so key to this strategy and is so important, of course, in the development of the research and technology sector in a small country. So, I'd like to know, Minister, are you developing any medium- and long-term solutions as a part of this strategy, and will you explore short-term bridging measures in the meantime that could perhaps include a match-funded package to stabilise employment and underpin R&D in our universities to stem this loss of intellectual capital?

I wouldn't say it'll fatally undermine confidence in the sector. I don't think it'll kill off everything that exists, but it will cause real damage—damage that is avoidable as well. But the problem is that choices that have been made at a UK level take that money out of the sector, and the deliberate design of the shared prosperity fund in particular was to exclude higher education from that. And if we were having this debate in England, they'd have exactly the same complaints about how they've been carved out of it, and it's a real problem; it's a real and undeniable problem, and you don't normally hear higher education vice chancellors talking about the fact that hundreds of well-paid jobs that we want more of, not less of, in Wales and in every region of the UK, are going because of that funding choice.

Now, the UK Government are aware of that, and, in the conversations I've had directly with George Freeman, the science Minister in the UK Government, they're aware there's a problem, and the challenge is that different parts of the UK Government are not connected with each other in the choices they're all making. I think it'll be too late for some of those people, I'm afraid, and, even with all of the ways that we have tried to work alongside people, the reality is our budgets only stretch so far and we can't fill in all of the damage that has been done. It's why we're looking for a stable relationship with the UK Government, and one where there's honesty about how money will be spent, and to move away from some of the damaging and short-sighted competitive processes and just some honesty about keeping their promises on the money. We will be clear about how we're using the money that we have; we will be working with the university sector on how we use that money on the missions and how we're going to move to look forward, and how that has a genuine translational impact into Welsh communities now and in the future. There are still opportunities, but we could do so much more if we weren't starting from a position where damage has been done with foresight and knowledge of what was to come.

Thank you, Minister. I was really pleased to read the strategy showing how we're seeking to embed innovation across all aspects of Government; it's a very welcome approach, and I think it shows why innovation is vital both for our economy and for other sectors as well.

I was very interested to read the section on the circular economy and on the environmental impact of the foundational economy in particular, which you'll know is an area of great interest to me. From my discussions with businesses in Cynon Valley, I know that many of these smaller, family-run businesses are very keen to invest in, for example, renewable energy sources, or more modern energy-efficient machinery, but this can be really expensive. So, how can we better support these businesses to innovate and modernise? 

My second question is around the strategy's rhetoric for creating critical mass clusters for innovation. I understand that completely, and it might sound like a bit of a paradox, but I also think it's important that we take a whole-Wales approach to that as well. I'll give an example: a business I've mentioned here in this Chamber before in my constituency is Pontus Research Ltd, who do some really cutting-edge, world-leading work on the aquaculture sector, which is not something you'd expect to find on an industrial estate in Hirwaun. So, I note the commitment in another section of the strategy that, quote, 'nobody or place', end quote, is left behind. And so, bearing in mind that example I've given to you—and I know there'll be many others—I'd be keen for details on how Welsh Government will work to really embed these opportunities across Wales, providing support but also proactively reaching outwards to businesses as well.

15:05

Great. Thank you. Thank you for the two questions. I think, on your last point first, there's a recognition that clusters aren't just geographic; the clusters of industry sectors and how we draw people together and the connectivity between them as well—. You're right, you wouldn't expect aquaculture in the Cynon Valley necessarily to be a big deal, but it's a big opportunity for Wales when you think about what we already do and what we can do better, and there is really interesting research on that up in Bangor as well. So, it's about how we connect those people up. That's why the point about how we connect—one of those jargon phrases—the innovation ecosystem. But understanding who's doing what where, that's partly our role in the Government; it's also about how we work with business and other organisations to understand where that excellence exists in different parts of Wales and then to make it easier for people to know who they are and who and where they can collaborate with people as well. And, actually, Members do have a really important role in that, in understanding what works really well in their own constituency or region, and then how to promote that across the country, and, you know, the relationships with Ministers in being able to point out that there are opportunities to do more in that.

It's also about how they work with Business Wales as the front door to all of the advice and support, and to direct people to where they can get that support as well. And that also links into your question, I think, about the circular economy and the foundational economy, how we keep more money local. But there's real innovation that takes place there, and it comes back to my point about that some things already work really well but aren't translated into every single business. So, it's what already works, how do you apply it in your own business. And, actually, one of the things, in terms of moving forward, is the Development Bank of Wales and the green business loans scheme they work, because it deals with exactly your point: how do you get more energy efficient, how do you reduce your carbon footprint and reduce your bottom line? It isn't just that loans are available from £1,000 upwards; it's also the consultancy support and advice that exists for those businesses. If you do have businesses that want to improve the way they work and are thinking about energy efficiency to reduce their bottom line as well, definitely go to Business Wales and consider the green business loans scheme that I'm delighted we launched just two weeks ago with the Development Bank of Wales.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, thank you for your statement today and for publishing the innovation strategy. I was particularly keen to read the section on and the focus given to innovation assets. Now, we have many of these in existence around Wales, and they're proving to be fabulous magnets for investment in many communities. One that is currently in development, of course, is the Global Centre for Rail Excellence, and, when it opens in 2025, it will be one of the finest of its kind in western Europe. Indeed, this £400 million programme of work will involve the construction of two test loops and it will be the UK's first-ever net zero in operation railway. Minister, how do you envisage these innovation assets contributing to community cohesion, to prosperity and to innovation in general, not just in the areas where they are based but more widely across Wales, across the UK and around the world? And how would you assess your relationship so far with UK Government Ministers in regard to ensuring that we get as much research, development and innovation pulled away from the golden triangle that you've identified today and which swallows up such a huge proportion of UK Research and Innovation funding? Diolch.

Thank you for the questions. Your point about innovation assets and the example of GCRE, the Global Centre for Rail Excellence, is exactly what I had in my mind, about something where the Welsh Government took a lead, made a choice and saw a gap where something did not exist and we had the potential to create something in Wales, and that's actually levered in money directly from the UK Government, and there'll be private sector money coming in as well. And it will not just be an interesting innovation experiment, but Birmingham, which has Birmingham University, which is one of the leading universities, if not the leading university, on rail innovation in the UK, they're interested; they want to be part of that. We can expect there to be really good jobs in a rural part of Wales directly being created because of the way that we have, as a Government, selected that site with a real gap. And that will produce not just opportunities within the UK, but right across Europe there'll be people, I think, who will want to come to that innovation centre. It means there's more development that will take place not just directly in the rail sector, and not just an opportunity potentially for a museum there, but, actually, because you're going to look at other accommodation needs alongside that, you should have different opportunities, if we think about the environment that it exists in as well. 

So, I'm very keen that we see each of these areas as opportunities to improve the economy in that area, and also to add to the economy of Wales as a whole. And it's all about the story we want to tell about Wales, to not just shout about our own successes but with other parts of the world to see that these things really do happen in Wales and they make a practical difference, as you say, not just for Wales but in other parts of the UK and beyond. And in my conversations with UK Ministers, they're very practical and constructive with a number of them when it comes to what we think we can do, and, thus far, the science Ministers—plural—that I have dealt with have been open minded about recognising they don't have a full picture of where there's innovation excellence in Wales.

The challenge is the consistency in action, and, whilst I'd like to see a different UK Government entirely, I'd welcome a period of stability for at least a few months, which we haven't had for a number of years, because the chopping and the changing of Ministers makes it really difficult to get a consistent answer, and we'll then need to see if the budget in just a few weeks' time actually follows through on the stated good intentions of Ministers involved in the innovation area. It's actually somewhere where we could add to what we're doing with a more grown-up and pragmatic relationship, in direct contrast to what's happened on shared prosperity. This should be an area where there are real strengths not just for Wales, but for the wider UK as well. 

15:10
4. Statement by the Minister for Economy: Net-zero Skills Strategy

Item 4 this afternoon is the second statement by the Minister for Economy, net-zero skills strategy, and I call on the Minister, Vaughan Gething, once again. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm pleased to publish the net-zero skills action plan today. The plan is an important first step in understanding the role of skills in making a just transition to net zero. Our net-zero ambitions include a better, fairer and greener future for us all. Skills are a key enabler to deliver on these ambitions, to ensure the transition is fair and that the most vulnerable in society are not unfairly burdened with the costs of change.

The challenge to meet our net-zero commitment is huge, and our future skills needs will require a collaborative approach across the whole economy. In shaping the plan, we have worked cross-Government, with external stakeholders and key partners to gain a picture of the net-zero skills landscape against the eight emission sectors set out in Net Zero Wales. This plan is the start of a journey. We do not pretend to have all the answers yet. The plan prioritises seven key areas and contains 36 actions. It sets out this Government’s commitment to support the just transition to net zero through a more co-ordinated approach.

Understanding the current skills position and future skills needs for each emission sector in Wales is mixed. Some sectors are further ahead in their direction of travel than others, and there is a level of confusion in some sectors on how net zero will impact the future needs of their workforce. As we transition to a net-zero economy, the skills needs will evolve and become clearer. However, in the meantime, uncertainty will mean the picture will not be static and we recognise that further work is needed to understand the changing skills landscape.

So, we'll start by looking at the skills landscape in more granular detail. l'll undertake a public consultation on the sector-specific skills requirements. This will set out our current understanding of the skills position for each sector, what skills are needed in the short, medium and long term, and how to achieve this with continued partnership work. The outcome of the consultation will support the development of a skills road map for each emission sector, which will support the development and investment of skills in the future. 

Our engagement with stakeholders has suggested that there is a level of confusion and a lack of understanding amongst some businesses, employees and school leavers about what is meant by green or net-zero jobs and the skills required. We need to build a shared understanding of net-zero skills across Wales. We have, to date, interpreted net-zero skills broadly as the skills needed to support each sector on their path to net zero across the whole economy. As a result, all jobs have the potential to make a contribution to help meet our net-zero commitment. There is a strong and urgent need to narrow the definition and to gain a common understanding of the jobs and skills required with a clear flow of information between Government, public and private sectors and employees on the skills needed. We will use the outcome of the Office for National Statistics’ consultation and their upcoming definition of a 'green job' to help inform the definition for Wales.

We need to grow a skilled and diverse workforce and create quality jobs to meet our net-zero commitments in what is a rapidly changing economy. The skills challenges of our workforce are very real now. We need to respond to the growing demand from different sectors for more people to have net-zero skills. Without taking further actions our own net-zero commitments will not be achieved. Supporting people to upskill in existing sectors and to use their existing skills and qualifications will be key to help transition within sectors.

That is why we have invested an additional £10 million in personal learning accounts this year to help upskill employed individuals to help meet our skills gaps, to help secure their own futures. Within this, an extra £1.5 million has been allocated to the green personal learning account pilot that I launched in October. This will provide a total investment of £3.5 million this year to directly support skills in the construction, energy, manufacturing and engineering sectors. 

However, it is clear that we are not starting from scratch. There are many successes across Wales, some of which are contained within the plan as examples. These show the positive impacts and benefits that can be made by delivering change and investing in skills. Working with industry bodies and key partners, we will continue to explore opportunities for new and innovative approaches to grow our future workforce.

We recognise that we need to strengthen the skills system to meet the rapidly growing skills demand from across all sectors. Collaboration between further and higher education, apprenticeships, wider learning provision, trade unions and industry will help us provide the right offer and progression for learners in a more co-ordinated way.

As we know, apprenticeships raise skills levels, help to drive greater productivity, and create more resilient communities. We are exploring options on how the apprenticeship frameworks can further meet our net-zero commitments, but building on these strong foundations, we will look to strengthen the offer of short courses to supplement and enhance net-zero skills for young apprentices in new and emerging technologies and techniques with our personal learning accounts. 

We recognise that we need to promote opportunities for early years and young people to realise their potential. Our children and young people are obviously a key part of the future workforce, and we must motivate, engage and equip them to effectively understand their career opportunities in the changing world of work. The new Curriculum for Wales roll-out is a great opportunity to align our priorities. This plan sets out actions to work with partners to promote engagement to build confidence and knowledge of the world of work.

We know that we can’t tackle the challenge alone, so cross-Government and partnership working will be the cornerstone of our approach. As we move into the implementation phase, we will continue that partnership approach across the whole economy, looking to draw on the strength provided by our social partnership way of working. Delivering a just transition should mean that no-one is left behind, so we would encourage individuals to be part of the conversation, to promote a positive culture that champions fairness and equality in the way that we drive change forward.

Our long-term plan remains to deliver a fairer, stronger, greener Wales for all of us, and invest in the skills to do so. I look forward to working with Members across the Chamber to deliver on this net-zero skills action plan, and of course businesses, trade unions and other partners outside of this Chamber.

15:15

Can I thank the Minister for an advance copy of his statement? As you’ll know, we on these benches have been calling for you to bring forward your net-zero skills strategy for many months, so we’re finally glad that it has been published. Because you're quite right: we have a huge job to do if we’re to get to net zero by 2050, and we have many skills that our workforce needs to be able to get us over the line.

It never ceases to surprise me how quickly things that were once rare, such as solar panels on people's roofs, are adopted by people, particularly when energy prices have been so high. The skills shortage just in terms of that doesn't compare to the huge shortage that we're going to have in terms of the wider renewable energy commitments that we've got—to be able to install new wind capacity, both on and offshore, and, of course, to realise our ambitions to ensure that we take advantage of the energy that can be produced by the tides around the coast of Wales too.

Now, clearly, you've mentioned lots of things in your strategy. We certainly welcome the extra investment that's going into people's personal learning accounts. It's important that we promote those with employers because of the benefits that they can bring to their workforce as well as the individuals themselves, who will, hopefully, take advantage of those new resources.

Yet again, you've referred to the new curriculum and the opportunities that that presents. We know that climate change is something that features in that curriculum, and, hopefully, that will energise our young people to look for opportunities and careers in areas that can help address the climate change challenge. But, we need to do so by taking them with us, and one of the things that you haven't mentioned in your statement is careers advice, and the importance of careers advice when people are making choices about the future. I have to say, my own view is that our careers advice, particularly for young people in schools, is pretty appalling; it's not very good and it doesn't always promote the wider opportunities that there are, particularly with apprenticeships. I think that we do need a greater focus on it by the Welsh Government in order to improve that offer and improve the quality of that careers advice.

You've mentioned apprenticeships, obviously, and the role that they can play in addressing the skills gap. It is important to have those industry links, and I know that the Welsh Government has tried to nurture those links, particularly with larger employers. But there are many, many smaller employers that don't always think that they've got the time to be able to develop apprenticeship opportunities within their own workforce—they don't realise the benefits that that can bring. So, I wonder whether you could tell us what you're going to do to reach out to those smaller and medium-sized companies, perhaps where the owners and directors of those businesses are busy rushing around doing all sorts of other things, and the last thing they want on their plate is to have to try and develop an apprenticeship programme, when, actually, it can be pretty straightforward, with the right support and engagement by local further education colleges and others in order to help deliver those programmes.

In addition to that, you've made reference to the need to monitor on an ongoing basis the skills that will be needed, because, of course, there'll be different skills needed in 2040 than we need now, because technologies will move on. So, will this be a document that is refreshed now on a regular basis? Because, clearly, it will need to be looked at fairly regularly, I would hope, in order that we can have a workforce that is fit for the future and meets the aspirations that we all have.

We know that we've already got a skills shortage in some areas. When you try to get hold of contractors to do some of the work at the moment, even on home adaptations for renewables, it can be difficult to get things scheduled in a timely manner. Of course, that then puts additional risk into the system, because people can go to cowboys and others, which then undermines the success of any programmes that we want to see. So, what action are you taking in the shorter term to make sure that there are proper assurance schemes in place, when skills are out there that people can recognise, in the same way that we recognise CORGI plumbers and things like that, so that we can recognise those people who are accredited to deliver some of the work that is going to be done, certainly in the next five or six years, when people are looking for those home adaptations in particular?

15:20

Thank you for the questions. I think on your final point, there's a point that goes beyond trading-standards work and is more about public-facing accreditation to give people assurance. If you think about the way that—. On your point about solar panels, when I was genuinely young, growing up, on our house we had two solar panels. It was very, very unusual, yet now there's been a real explosion in the industry and in fitters. One of the things we're doing in the green business loan scheme I was talking about with Vikki Howells earlier is that we're looking at ways to keep more of that money local, and part of our challenge is the number of people who can do the work and are available. There is still something about working with that industry on making sure there is proper quality assurance. So, it is part of what we're looking to do to make sure those skills don't just become more commonplace, as they will need to be, but will then maintain the level of public-facing assurance. So, that is definitely something we are looking at. It goes a bit beyond the statement, but it is an important and obvious next step.

In terms of the horizon we're going to have with the action plans we're going to draw up, of course, Members across the Chamber will know that the regional skills partnerships are on the same footprint as our economic regions, which also map on the same areas as the growth deals that exist as well. So, we already have areas where we work more broadly on the skills that exist. Within this document, we're also going to look at a short, medium and longer term horizon, so we will need to keep on making sure that we have provision that matches need for people, for businesses and for public services.

Part of the challenge is how dynamic the system is and whether we get regular engagement between skills providers, but also the businesses and public services who need them as well. As I move around the country and talk to different people, every now and again, I hear someone saying, 'I'm really unhappy with my local FE college', and other people saying, 'My local FE college is brilliant, we get exactly what we want and have a really good relationship.' Well, some of that is actually about the nature of the engagement and the relationship, and often it's that the two people who are unhappy don't talk to each other, or the college isn't aware there's a business complaining. So, it is about how we get people into a more regular and constructive dialogue, rather than waiting until things have gone wrong or not worked at all for them.

On apprenticeships, we've been running a public-facing campaign for businesses to take up apprentices. I recognise that, for some businesses, they understand what they need to do, they see the value in doing it. Yesterday, I was talking to businesses in my own constituency, one of them was a hospitality business, and they were saying that, actually, in terms of the local college and the apprentices that come out of that, they're scooped up by larger businesses very quickly. So, there's a challenge about supply there. There's a good career to be had, but the challenge is getting enough of them, whereas other much smaller businesses don't know that they exist. It's why we've been looking to not just promote apprenticeships as an opportunity, but we're looking more at shared apprenticeships as well between more than one employer, potentially. It's something that I saw when I was up in Deeside in the not-too-distant past: people who work with more than one employer to get a full, rounded apprenticeship experience. So, we're looking to do more in that area in the future as well.

On your point about careers advice, I think you're being a little unkind, but I do recognise that there is always more for us to do and to understand how the advice that people give—. People of our vintage, as it were, can remember careers advice was pretty rudimentary, and it was often a teacher who said, 'I think you should do this,' or 'Go and look over there and look at a book and decide what you want to do.' Actually, we are much better than that. Our challenge is, and it's partly about budget, it's also, though, about the capacity to give people, I think, really good work experience during their time in school. But it's also, in a number of our growth areas, the opportunity to keep people's minds open to the future, and it really does come back to lots of things that happen in the curriculum, because most people have made choices, often subconsciously, by the time they're 15 and 16. So, doing everything then is too late for too many people. But to understand the skills you need to have different jobs, there's a conversation we're having with my colleague the education Minister, but also with people in different growth sectors, including in these areas of green skills, to make sure that the information that schools get, that young people get, keep their minds open to genuine career choices for the future.

On climate, just finally, my son's eight, and he is a great deal more climate and environmentally conscious than I ever recall being when I was eight years old. So, we're already seeing that young people do have a different view on the world, and the new curriculum, I think, will enhance that. It'll help them to see the world even more as they do already, but I think and I hope, certainly, that will add to what we're trying to do with this skills plan, for people to think about those opportunities to change and recreate the world, and make sure it's there for their children and not just ours.

15:25

Thank you for the statement, Minister.

I don't think there's any doubt in the Chamber that the net-zero skills strategy is a step in the right direction. I do think we need to be clear, not just the Government, but us as opposition parties as well, about what we mean when we talk about green skills. That clarity will be all-important, especially when we turn to the FE sector to deliver those skills.

The strategy, as outlined by the Government, will focus, at least in part, on providing training and education to individuals and businesses to support the transition to a low-carbon economy, and there are a number of announcements to welcome in relation to personal learning accounts and the role of short courses. I think it's fair to say that it's not enough to rely on individuals and businesses to make the necessary changes on their own. We only need to look at the current economic and social conditions in Wales, which make it difficult for many individuals and businesses to make the necessary changes. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent and ongoing cost-of-living crisis, and the impact on supply chains, has had a significant impact on the economy, and many businesses are struggling to survive. I've raised previously with the Minister the need for green energy grants for businesses to invest in onsite renewables. Investing, of course, in sustainable infrastructure and systems can provide new opportunities for growth and employment, but this requires, of course, Government investment and support. 

We heard about the skills shortage from the Conservative spokesperson, and he's right to highlight it. But we must acknowledge, in tackling this, that retention is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing our FE colleges and higher education institutions in the coming years. We can create all of the new places on courses and all the new apprenticeships we want, but if students can't afford to stay on them, then they, ultimately, will fail the Government's objectives. We are talking essentially about large swathes of students from low-income backgrounds being locked out of participating in this new green economy that we always go on about. Keeping low-income students in education is in everyone's interest.

I've talked about EMA, but I think we should also consider the need for a national apprenticeship minimum wage, though, of course, the Welsh Government is restricted, in fairness, in what it can do in relation to this. Previously, the Minister has said that we need to talk about upskilling and education as an investment, and we have rehearsed many a time why that simply won't wash with low-income students, not least because they haven't got the capacity to think that far ahead. But if we stick with that investment narrative for the moment, I'd be keen to understand how the Government will start talking to young people now about some of these jobs that might be available in the new green economy. What is the route map, essentially, available to them? We've heard about careers advice; we can't and shouldn't forget about work experience as well. It's vital that we get this right. 

Finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, and of no surprise to the Minister, I'm sure, I must emphasise the need for the Government to address the issue of job security for those who work in industries that will be impacted by the transition to a low-carbon economy. We cannot expect individuals to make the necessary changes if they fear losing their livelihoods in the process. The Government must work with industries and trade unions to ensure a just transition to a low-carbon economy takes place. This means providing support for those who are impacted by the transition, creating new job opportunities in sustainable industries, and ensuring that everyone who needs to be upskilled will be upskilled. It's welcome to see the Government reflect on this today. We simply cannot repeat the mistakes of previous Governments, most notably Thatcher's Government—the effects of her decisions and lack of transition we still feel today. 

15:30

The point about the just transition is something that, as I say, is very much in Ministers' minds in the choices we make about the opportunity, but also the disruption, that moving to a different way of working in a whole range of sectors offers. I think, on the point about what are green skills, I covered that in my statement. The Office for National Statistics will be, I think, helpful in getting there. We decided not to wait for that work before publishing this statement. We've got work to do on action plans, and we can take account of that as we're moving forward. 

On how we engage young people, there's a range of different ways in which we do that. There's different survey work that we do through schools. There's also work we're doing with the young person's guarantee itself, directly listening to people taking part in it. Actually, that has led to some of the changes we've made in Jobs Growth Wales+. From providers, but also from young people themselves, we've actually introduced some further financial support for people to make sure that we were taking care of, and account of, some of the points about travel, but also being able to eat during the day as well when undertaking some of that work. So, we are listening and looking to be flexible on making sure that our offer makes sense for people so they can complete the opportunities that we're providing. 

I think lots of people do have the capacity to understand that there is a potential improved opportunity for them to learn and to earn at the end of those interventions. Our challenge is practically helping people to get through the course to do so, and I know that that's the perspective that the Member takes. We'll keep on looking at what we can do to be as flexible as possible within the reality of the budget constraints that we have. But our completion record on a range of our skills courses, including apprenticeships, is actually pretty good, and certainly compares better to what takes place across England. What we want to do is to not go backwards, and to still be as successful as possible. I do take on board the Member's point on work experience, which we talked about earlier today—the value of high-quality work experience and what that does.

I'll finish on this point in relation to the Member's questions about energy bills and the reality. Again, for individuals as consumers, but for businesses as well, there are real challenges and questions to be raised, and I do hope that the UK Government takes the opportunity in the budget in two weeks' time to do something. The energy Secretary was today saying he could understand that there's a choice to be made, and understands the case being made. Without that, though, a number of the businesses that we want to see survive into the future won't survive the next quarter of activity. There's a real challenge and a real opportunity for the UK Government to do the right thing, and, I think, gain some recognition from people across this Chamber and otherwise. If not, we'll be back here in three or four months' time, talking about, in every region and every constituency, the loss of jobs that should have had a future but have actually not been able to survive because of yet another increase in their energy bills, and the costs for their customers and consumers as well.

15:35

First of all, I'm having difficulty finding this new plan that's been published today on the internet. It would be great to know whether it has actually been made available to us all, because I'm very keen to understand which are the seven key areas and the 36 actions.

Following up on the points that you've just made to Luke Fletcher, we can hope that the UK Government will do the right thing about energy bills, but, really, the sustainable short-term solution has to be improving the energy efficiency of our homes. Britain has the most leaky homes in the whole of Europe, and energy bills are really a struggle for about a third of all our households. We know it's the biggest source of indebtedness. No. 1 must be reducing the amount of energy that people have to buy in order to keep their home warm.

I just wondered, within these key areas and targets, how are you planning to upskill the construction industry workforce so that we have the technical and precision skills to massively reduce the cost of heating Welsh homes? As identified by Darren Millar, there's a lot of interest in putting solar panels on people's roofs, but not very many people who know how to do it, particularly those who like to put new tiles on roofs—they're not saying, 'Oh, and by the way, you should put a solar panel on as well'. We really do need to accelerate the process of ensuring that far more people know how to do this, in order to reduce our carbon emissions, as well as the debt, which is going to foreign companies outside Wales.

On the starting point, the strategy has been published, it's available on the Welsh Government website. And it's not just the actions; I think the Member would find some interest in the eight emission sectors, because one of them is residential buildings. We're looking at what happens already as an emissions sector, as well as opportunities to make sure that fewer emissions actually take place in the construction, but then in the operation of residential buildings. On your point about energy-efficient homes, my point is that we need support now for costs that people pay now—and I know that the Member will have people who are really struggling in her own constituency, as indeed will we all—as well as investing in efficiency. That's both retrofitting homes that exist already—and I look at my own constituency; there are large parts of my constituency with very old housing stock, where there's a challenge about how you retrofit—but it's also then about the new homes that we expect to be creating. On your point about solar panelling, where people have got those skills, they're very busy, because there's real demand out there. The challenge is how we can do more in that area that will help both the new homes and also retrofitting a range of other homes as well. There are real opportunities to keep that money locally as well. One of the things that we're looking to do in the green business loan scheme that I referenced is to try to make sure that we can direct people to support to help improve the energy efficiency of their business and to keep that money as locally as possible. Most businesses in Wales are keen to be able to do both of those things. So, I do have a level of optimism, as well as understanding the real imperative I know the Member regularly brings to this debate about the need to do this and the economic return in doing so, and what it will do in dealing with the climate and nature emergencies we also have as well. 

15:40

Thank you, Minister, for bringing forward today's statement on the Welsh Government's net-zero skills strategy and the action plan as well. Minister, you'll be glad to hear that, last week, I had the pleasure of attending Growth Track 360's Westminster parliamentary reception, joined there also by a number of MSs, MPs, council leaders and members of the Lords as well, from across parties. During this event it was great to see highlighted the fantastic cross-border work and collaboration opportunities through organisations such as the Mersey Dee Alliance and the work of our local councils in north Wales, who are working with businesses, as you know, to help enable a net-zero economy in north Wales. Of course, all of this comes along with thousands of well-paid green jobs, which further support and enhance north Wales's economy, all of which, though, as I'm sure you agree, need those right skills to enable these jobs to happen and for the ambitions of Growth Track 360 and the Mersey Dee Alliance to come to fruition, otherwise we risk all these great ideas just becoming an academic exercise. So, Minister, how will you use this skills strategy and the action plan within it to ensure that current growth deals and future economic opportunities are fully realised? And how will you ensure this strategy is properly futureproofed for the ambitions of organisation like the Mersey Dee Alliance and for projects like Growth Track 360? 

It's part of the point about the eight emissions sectors and the action plans for each one of them, making sure they join up with not just the Net Zero Wales plan, but that we actually have some consistency and understanding within those regional skills partnerships, within the growth deal areas as well, where people are collaborating more effectively, so across north Wales as well as the Mersey Dee Alliance, in seeing the opportunities that exist. This is one of those areas where there is a risk for the future in not being able to transform our economy, in not being able to do that, not just for the climate and nature emergency, but the fact that we will have lost an opportunity economically as well if we don't do so. So, I don't see anything that is inconsistent with our desire to grow the economy in a sustainable way and the imperative to act in a way that reflects on the climate and nature emergency we have, the emission sectors, where we'll be drawing up those individual plans, and, as I said earlier to Darren Millar, the short, medium and long term perspective on what we'll need to do to actually generate the right skills for the different sectors of the economy as well as reducing emissions in those eight key sectors. I'm sure the Member will enjoy going through all 36 action areas, and to look to come back in the short, medium and longer term to see how much progress we have made. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I thank the Minister for his statement on the net-zero skills strategy. Prior to the statement, I took the time to read through the 'Stronger, fairer, greener Wales: a plan for employability and skills' action plan and the annexe, 'Skills emission sector overview and cross-cutting themes'. I was disappointed to find no mention of Pembrokeshire or Pembrokeshire College, only one mention of Coleg Sir Gâr, and no mention of floating offshore wind. I won't read too much into this at this stage, depending on the Minister's answer to this question, as he'll know that I'm a big advocate for both my constituency and floating offshore wind, but to get the benefits for these communities that I represent we need the whole supply chain there. So, given that there are no mentions of these are there, what guarantees can you give to my constituents that your net-zero skills strategy, in aiming to get net zero by 2050, ensures those supply chains will be as local as possible? Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.    

That's a key objective to what we're looking to do and the opportunities the Member highlights. I've said regularly in this Chamber I don't just want to see a decarbonisation of the way that power is produced; I want to see the economic opportunities as locally as possible. I don't want to see those opportunities taken up in France and in Spain in the manufacture of the equipment and in the skills that will be needed in very long-term jobs. I want to see that investment take place in the different parts of Wales. Whether it's in south-west Wales or across north Wales we have a real opportunity to generate significant amounts of power and jobs with a long-term future. It's always the way that, when you give examples of what is taking place in different parts of Wales as examples of what's happening, some people say, 'My part of Wales hasn't been mentioned often enough.' I know that, between Sam and Samuel, you regularly talk about the parts of Wales that you currently represent, and I can give you this assurance: in delivering on the ambitions set out within this plan, in setting out the action plans for each of the emission sectors, there could and should be a real benefit to every single constituent in every single region in Wales, and this is part of what we see as a future in genuinely creating a fairer, greener and more prosperous Wales.

15:45
5. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Dental Reform
6. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Escalation and further intervention to improve the quality of services in Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board

So, we will move on to item 6, a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on the escalation and further intervention to improve the quality of services in Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, and I call on the Minister to make the statement, Eluned Morgan.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Further to my written statement yesterday concerning the extraordinary measures I’ve taken to stabilise and support the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, I want to explain the decisions that I’ve made, what support I’m putting in place and what I expect to happen in the next few weeks and months.

These were not decisions I took lightly. Firstly, I want to reassure the people living in north Wales that they will be able to use their local health services as normal. Every day, thousands of people across north Wales are receiving an excellent service by the NHS, but there is a lack of consistency when it comes to quality, safety and efficiency, and correcting this will be at the heart of the changes that will need to be made. I know that we also have thousands of dedicated health board workers who may be concerned at these developments, but I’d like to reassure them that their day-to-day services and activities will continue and will not be immediately affected by 'special measures' status.

In 2020, we took the controversial decision to de-escalate Betsi from special measures. Many of you will say that it was the wrong decision to take, and we’ve heard some say again today that it was a political decision and one that was premature; this was not the case. There were several reasons behind our decision to de-escalate Betsi from special measures in November 2020. The health board responded well to the COVID challenges, and we received a number of reports that signalled that the health board were taking positive strategic steps towards improvement. We were of the view that the appointment of the new chief executive and the targeted intervention support that was put in place would enable the board to continue to make the improvements that we expected to see. Indeed, the leadership from the new chief executive and developments of a new operating model all signified that the organisation was strategically taking positive steps forward.

But more recently, the health board’s responses on many issues have not provided the assurance needed, despite the considerable additional financial resources that have been provided, and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales's unannounced visits, as well as my own unannounced visits, have demonstrated that improvements are not taking place at the pace required. I have serious concerns relating to the performance and governance of the board as well as concerns about the leadership and culture in the organisation. The description of the board being ‘dysfunctional’ in the recent Audit Wales report further enhanced those concerns. We need to fundamentally change the organisational culture, and I announced my decision yesterday to place the health board into special measures. I’ve subsequently taken further action to ensure board stability.

It has become clear that there is a need for new leadership and direction. As part of being placed into special measures, I have spoken with the non-executive members and as a result, the chair, vice-chair, and independent members have stepped aside. It’s important that we do things correctly and for the right reasons, and that we do them compassionately and at pace. I’ve made four direct temporary non-executive appointments to the board to ensure stability, and they join with immediate effect. Further appointments will be made in the coming weeks and months. These appointments have extensive and wide-ranging experience, especially in the areas in which the health board needs to improve. I’m pleased to announce that they will be led by Dyfed Edwards, a former leader of Gwynedd Council, and deputy chair of the Welsh Revenue Authority. Further direct appointments will follow soon. They will undertake the statutory requirements of the board chair and independent members. In doing so, they will review executive leadership arrangements and structures and take the necessary decisions for improvements, taking into account the findings of the Audit Wales report. A campaign to recruit new independent members to the board beyond this initial period of stabilisation will commence later this year.

I am also of the view that now is not the time to make structural changes. It’s important to focus on the quality and delivery of services, which need significant and rapid improvement, and therefore I have no intention of breaking the health board into smaller organisations, in particular at a time when we are encouraging regional co-operation and working, which is needed to support better clinical outcomes for patients. A reorganisation would be hugely disruptive and would take attention away from the need to focus now on providing the best possible service to the people of north Wales.

The special measures arrangements will involve the creation of a health board intervention and support team. I am today able to update you on the appointment of four health board advisers. They are: Mick Giannasi, Alan Brace, Dr Graham Shortland, Susan Aitkenhead and—I'm sorry, there were five appointments—David Jenkins.

The advisers will initially be contracted for six months, starting today, and will support the health board on board governance and other issues related to special measures. This will include a level of personal support to the new chair and independent members, and to provide feedback where appropriate to the board from discussions and observations. In addition, they will report formally to me, as Minister, in respect of their assessment and views of the board’s ability to deliver and whether any further work is required to develop the board to ensure that it has appropriate finance and audit arrangements. We will also appoint specialist HR support to the new chair and the board to review the organisational structure and portfolios and to provide quality assurance for the underpinning systems and processes and provide support to the board in the first six months.

As independent advisers, their function is not to take executive decisions but to analyse and assess the way in which the board is discharging its decision making in order to assist the chair and the board to meet Welsh Government expectations. This will also involve providing Welsh Government with their assessment of issues, necessary actions and progress. One of the key objectives of this new board will be the permanent recruitment of a new chief executive for the health board. The new board will need to appoint someone with a track record of turning around a health organisation, and someone who has the determination, vision and skills to ensure that the health board meets its potential. Plans are already under way for this key appointment. I will also be looking to the board to ensure that the structures and processes are in place to drive the improvements needed.

Whilst special measures will apply to the organisation, I wish to reassure both the patients and the communities served by the health board, as well as the staff working for it, that day-to-day services and activities will continue as normal, with an increased focus on quality and safety. This is not a reflection on the hard-working and dedicated front-line staff of the health board who work tirelessly to help patients and improve their lives. I want to say again, as I have many times before, thank you to all of the staff members of the health board for their commitment and dedication to helping people. I hope that the decision taken yesterday takes us on the path to a health board that the people of north Wales deserve, that they have confidence in, and that they can be proud of. Thank you.

15:50

I have many Members who wish to contribute this afternoon, understandably on such an important statement. If I may ask all Members to keep their contributions to their time limits so that I can actually ensure that all are able to speak today. Darren Millar.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I listened very carefully to your statement, Minister, and I didn't hear an apology to the people of north Wales for the failure of this Welsh Government to sort out the deep-seated problems in our health board in the region, that have been ongoing, not just since 2015 when the Welsh Government first put Betsi Cadwaladr into special measures, but for a long time before that too. It should never have been taken out of special measures; I still believe that that decision was political, no matter what you have said today, and it should never have happened. We called in this Chamber last June for the organisation to go back into special measures, and you refused to listen to our calls. It wasn't just the calls of these benches; it was the calls of every single person representing a constituency in north Wales and every single person representing that region. We know what goes on in that health board. We see the letters that come in from constituents, and we see the whistleblowing letters that come in from staff as well. And frankly, your response to date is woefully inadequate. I have read with great interest the Audit Wales report—the Audit Wales report that you say has initiated the action that you took yesterday. I'll read some quotes from it. It says, 

'We found clear and deep-seated fractures within the Executive Team',

'we have significant doubt as to whether working relationships'—

this is within the executive team—'are reparable'.

There are

'significant problems with working relationships within the Executive Team'.

'The evidence presented to us points to dysfunctionality and factions within the team'.

It's within the executive team that this report points to these problems, not with the independent board members, who you forced to resign yesterday, instead of the very people who are responsible for the failures on the ground—that executive team, not one of whom have held themselves accountable and offered their resignation to you. I find that appalling, and I think it's about time that we had mechanisms in Wales to remove people like that who do not accept their responsibility for failures when things go wrong. We have a situation in north Wales where patients have died, where patients have come to harm, as a result of the failings that have taken place, and frankly, people are owed an apology. We've got problems in our vascular services, our emergency departments, our urology services, our ophthalmology services, our mental health services, and our cancer services too—people waiting too long for treatment, and the situation under the watch of various health Ministers in this Government has gotten worse, not better, during periods of targeted intervention.

'We need some new leadership'—yes, you're absolutely right we need new leadership. We need new leadership both in the health board on the executive team, and, frankly, we need a new Government, because this Government is incapable of being able to sort these problems out. I don't know why that is. And even when you triangulate the evidence that's in the Audit Wales report to other pieces of evidence, you can see that all of the fingers of blame for the problems and the culture in that organisation point to that executive team. So, can I ask you, Minister, why on earth would you get rid of the independent members who've been doing their best to try and hold to account that executive team in recent months? Why on earth would you ask them to resign and not ask for the resignations of those executives who have been collectively responsible for these failures?

I know, from the letter that was sent to the First Minister yesterday and shared with Members of the Senedd that the chair of the health board has written to you on a number of occasions, most recently in September of last year, raising concerns, escalating concerns to you, and of course to the director general of the department, who is also the chief executive, of course, of NHS Wales. He didn't even receive a response—didn't even receive a response, and this is a health board that is supposedly in targeted intervention. And it's not just his letters that you seem to not pay proper regard to. Geoff Ryall-Harvey of the North Wales Community Health Council wrote to you in August of last year, talking about the assurances on which you were basing your responses to that organisation. He said that the assurances weren't worth the paper that they were written on. But you defended the executive team that were giving those assurances to you to provide to him; you didn't acknowledge that there were serious concerns about the quality of those responses at all. It's unacceptable, Minister, and some of the blame for this has to be laid at your door. Now, can I ask—? The report, the Audit Wales report, refers to the fraud investigation. It talks about the Ernst & Young report, which was commissioned before the NHS Counter Fraud Authority came and had a look over the books because of this missing £122 million-worth of expenditure for which there was no proper records. And it says that that piece of work uncovered some serious problems in the health board organisation. In fact, the letter from the chair of the health board to the First Minister yesterday made specific reference that there was evidence of serious malpractice. I'd like to see a copy of that report. I think, from a transparency point of view, that the people of north Wales deserve to see a copy of that report too.

16:00

Because that will be a third report pointing to problems in that executive team. Can I ask one final question—

—if I may, Deputy Presiding Officer? Lots of these executives have a close working relationship with people, understandably, in your Government department, including, of course, the chief executive of NHS Wales. I want to know what the chief executive of NHS Wales actually does to hold those individuals responsible. Because if she's the chief executive of NHS Wales, you'd expect her to be holding these people to account for their behaviour, which is unacceptable. I want these people out. I want these people gone. The people of north Wales want to see them gone, and we're holding you accountable for not getting shot of them yesterday.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. I'm just going to give you a quick lesson in how the system works, because I think it's really important that people understand—[Interruption.]—understand how the system works. So, I am responsible for the NHS, but I delegate that responsibility to independent boards. I set them parameters, I set them goals, I set them targets. But then I appoint people to those boards to oversee independent organisations, and their job is to run the organisation. It's their job to hold the executive to account. It's not my job. That is why I appoint them—[Interruption.] If you don't mind, I will carry on. When they fail to do the job that we've asked them to do, holding the executives to account—because it's their job to do that—then I have to step in, and that's what I did.

The executives are still there. The executives are still there, and the whole point is—[Interruption.]—the whole point is and I think what's important is that we do listen and read carefully the Audit Wales report, which does talk about deep-seated fractures in the executive team, but it also says that there was a deeply worrying degree of dysfunctionality within the board and senior leadership in Betsi. And I think what's important is that people understand that the step I took yesterday was simply the first step, the first step in a process where I am sure the new chair will want to read very carefully that Audit Wales report, and I'm sure and I hope will take action in relation to that. And I can assure you that I very much read the riot act to some of those executives—[Interruption.] I do not have the power to—[Interruption.] I do not have the power to require executives to step down. I do not employ these people.

I do not employ these people. These have legal rights that need to be respected, and there has to be a process that it is gone through. So, I think it's really important that people understand the system and understand that this is the first step of many.

Now, I think that those powers that I have actually need to be strengthened. That's one of the conclusions that is clear to me—that I do not have the tools that I need to hold some of these organisations to account. And so I have asked officials to set up a group to look at how we can improve accountability within the NHS, and I will be choosing people myself in terms of who will be involved in advising me on how to tighten up accountability within the NHS. I think we're in a position where of course it's important that people understand where responsibility lies, but the independent bodies, I appoint them to do a job. What I've done is to step in when I don't think they've done the job that I needed them to do, which was partly to hold the executive to account, to take the next step, which they'd identified, and that didn't happen.

So, can I just also respond to the issue of Ernst & Young? Let's talk about that. So, there has been an issue in relation to fraud, which is extremely concerning. I think it's probably worth underlining that this money has not gone missing; this is about poor accounting, which is also unacceptable. It is an ongoing inquiry, so it's not possible to publish that report, but what I do know is that there has been the suspension of three members of the finance team already in relation to that situation. But it's an ongoing inquiry. Again, this is something that's going to have to be at the very top of the list for those new incoming members of the health board.

16:05

I'm going to start with where I agree with the Minister—that's on the placing of Betsi Cadwaladr in special measures. But it's pretty clear, isn't it, that it shouldn't have been taken out in the first place, conveniently and prematurely. But the Minister wanted to apportion blame too. She says the recent Audit Wales report was the straw that broke the camel's back; it spoke of the dysfunctionality of the board. She referred in a Radio Wales interview this morning to the huge amount of criticism of the executive board members, but it's the independent members, of course, that she decided to very publicly hang out to dry yesterday. She's defended her actions, saying, 'I don't have the powers to intervene directly in terms of the executive.' She's said that again this afternoon. But that's exactly what special measures allow the Minister to do, effectively running the health board, even supporting the chair and independent members if that's what she wanted.

Now, we have a sugar-coated description, don't we, of what happened yesterday in the Minister's statement—'spoken with the non-executive members. As a result, they've decided to step aside.' Let's be a little bit more direct, shall we, for anybody else who may be considering taking up an appointment by this Government and considering what kind of backing they can expect. The Minister may want to confirm that, having summoned them to the meeting, she told them they had 50 minutes to resign or she'd sack them, and in so doing bar them from other public appointments for two years, and that, even before the 50-minute deadline was up, a draft letter of termination had been handed to them, just to press the matter home. How could they not resign? But their dignified response will have resonated with many. In a damning public letter to the First Minister, they said,

'We have no confidence in the Welsh Government's grasp of the situation.'

Now, that was put to the Minister this morning, and let me tell you what she said:

'It wasn't my job to have a grasp'.

This is the health Minister.

'It wasn't my job to have a grasp, they were in charge',

she said. Responsibility and accountability ends with the Minister. She did actually agree with that, but said that she delegates down to others. And by the way, this isn't an unconditional defence of the independent members; this is to show the glaring difference between blame apportioned to them and the complete denial of any responsibility by the Minister.

Let's return to that meeting yesterday. I believe that the Minister told the independent members that their role was to hold the feet of the executives to the fire. But didn't they do that over vascular, urology, Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, with their judgment being found right time and time again?

Let me read more from that statement of theirs after their resignation. They say they

'uncovered serious failings in the financial management of the Health Board. We commissioned a specialist review...which confirmed our concerns, found evidence of serious malpractice, and resulted in a counter fraud investigation.‌‌​​​‍‌​‌​​‌‌‌‍‌​‌‌​​‌​‍‌​‌‌‌​‌‌ This is underway, but has serious implications for other NHS organisations and the Government.'

You, Minister, will be aware, no doubt, of the questions that some are asking about possible links between that and the actions taken yesterday. I will read on. 'We have also previously and repeatedly escalated concerns to Welsh Government as evidenced by way of correspondence to the director general at the start of September, which highlighted many of the matters captured in the Audit Wales board effectiveness report, which has our full support, and yet we did not receive a response, let alone support in reply to those escalations.'

That's very strange, isn't it, not receiving a response on such serious matters. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that. You'd have thought that the Minister would want to work with and listen to anyone raising concerns of that kind. I told you the Minister said her actions yesterday followed the publication of the audit report. Perhaps the Minister can confirm suggestions that there was a search on for new independent board members as much as five weeks ago, before the audit report. Now, I must say that I found it very troubling indeed that the first message I got this morning, via someone close to that audit report, was this: 'The Minister has got rid of the wrong people.' And do you know what? I think they might be on to something and I think many others will conclude that too, just as many have concluded, as I have, that Betsi, in its current form, is beyond repair.

The Minister refers to culture problems within Betsi, but I tell you that this cultural dysfunctionality runs to Betsi's core. It's years since I said, if things can't be turned around, Government should look at breaking up Betsi into smaller, more manageable parts. Well, the sand on that particular timer ran out years ago. It's been clear to me, and many staff and patients, for some time that Betsi has to go. Successive Welsh Governments, health Ministers, have tinkered, but they haven't taken that decisive action, saying, as the Minister says again today, that this would

'take attention away from the need to focus now on providing the best possible service'.

But we're going around and around in circles, spending more money on failed attempts to get things right than we would on reorganisation. She tells us that breaking it up would be wrong when we're trying to encourage regional co-operation. Betsi can't even co-operate with itself.

16:10

Let's have a fresh start.

And finally, on the Minister's role herself, I suggested yesterday that she should be considering her own position and her own role in all of this. She said this morning she'll remain health Minister as long as the First Minister has confidence in her. Well, I can tell you that confidence in this Government and Minister's ability to sort out Betsi has long gone.

Thanks very much. Well, I think it's really important that people understand that this is a first step and there will be more steps that follow this, so I'll just repeat some of the points that I made earlier to Darren. But I think it's important that people understand that I have the power to dismiss the board; I do not have the power to dismiss executives. They have rights; they have employment rights. I do not employ them; I cannot dismiss them. That is the reality of the situation. So, I'm not sure what exactly you want me to do. Do you want me to directly employ all 105,000 people who work—[Interruption.] No, I do not have the powers, even under special measures, to sack people who work directly for the health boards. [Interruption.] No, I don't, and I think it's really important that people understand that I do not have those powers, which is why one of the reasons—[Interruption.] One of the reasons I want to look at the accountability mechanisms is because I don't have the levers that I think that I require to make the kind of interventions that I think are necessary. So, that is something that I will be looking at and already I've approached a few people to help me in that task.

Now, just in terms of this letter to the chair—. So, the chair of Betsi forwarded an e-mail on 1 September, and it was an e-mail from the chair himself to the then chief executive, Jo Whitehead, and it was marked 'for your information'. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't answer all of the e-mails that I get 'for your information'. And the director general, as a result of that, arranged to meet—despite the fact it was 'for your information'—followed up and arranged to meet with the chair on his return from leave on 21 September. No formal correspondence has been received from the board by the director general. I think it's really important that people understand that. And Plaid's answer to everything is reorganisation, new structures, more managers—that's what we need: more managers. I want more front-line people. Trying to get rid—. [Interruption.] You will be getting more managers if you restructure, I can tell you. That is the consequence of restructuring. So, I want to focus on the front line. I want to focus on getting through those waiting lists. I want to get those cancer referral times down. I want to make sure that people in north Wales can get the service they require, and I don't think that a massively distracting reorganisation is going to help in that task.

16:15

Minister, can I thank you for your statement today and begin by recognising the efforts made by those boards members who've departed, regardless of the situation facing BCUHB, as amongst those members are some of the most respected and competent individuals in north Wales?

The statement you've made today indicates that further change is to come. We've heard that you wish to fundamentally change organisational culture, that the new directly appointed board members will review executive leadership arrangements, and that yesterday's action was the first step in what will be a series of significant changes. And I therefore infer that we will see huge change potentially within the executive team, possibly further into middle management. 

Minister, you've also been very clear on your position concerning structural change, but in order to realise cultural change within the organisation, will you commit to an extensive and genuine exercise in engaging with the citizens of north Wales to ascertain what the people of the region want from any future arrangements? Will you also examine the possibility of allowing the people in north Wales to directly elect board members, in order to make independent members fully accountable to the region's citizens? 

And finally, would it be possible, not necessarily today, for the Government to set out the circumstances that would trigger structural change? I ask this because being clear that failure could lead to structural change should certainly focus minds. Diolch.

Diolch yn fawr, Ken. I think it's important that we do recognise that members of the previous board had made big efforts to try and hold the executive team to account. What they haven't done is the next step, which is to follow through on the findings. And I think what's important is that there's an understanding now that it's that next step that needs to be taken. So, I would like to recognise the considerable talent that there is amongst those members of the board who stepped down.

I think it's really important that we engage, as you say, with the citizens of north Wales. We do need to, first of all, give confidence to them that, actually, these services, the day-to-day work, will be carrying on. And it was really interesting, actually, yesterday in Glan Clwyd Hospital, just speaking to some of the members of staff there about what's happened and what difference this will make, and they were saying, well, actually, they're just getting on with their jobs. This is just a big organisational structural thing at the top. The problem is that, sometimes, you need a little bit more assertiveness at the top in terms of changing the culture that will then filter down. And I guess the fact that they did see that disconnection also suggested that there's a problem there as well. 

I think making sure we do not lose focus on those front-line services, but I think it's really important also that we recognise that, actually, the grip that the board have, and the executives more than anyone else, is quite shocking. I did an unannounced visit to a facility in north Wales and I was stunned by the lack of activity going on there. What was upsetting was the fact that, actually, nobody was monitoring that. That is an executive failure. It's an executive failure, and what's important is why was it, not just that there was an executive failure, but, actually, how come the board wasn't aware that the kind of activity that should have been going on wasn't going on? So, I think that's important.

In relation to staff, I think it's really important also that we understand that there are many people who work for the Betsi Cadwaladr health board; it's a workforce of about 19,000 people delivering care to about 700,000 people. I did a video yesterday, both in Welsh and English, just to try and explain directly to them about what was happening in relation to the board.

I think your idea of electing board members directly—. Well, look, I’m interested in accountability, because at the moment I feel like every single thing that happens in relation to health falls on my head and my head alone, and I’m not sure if that’s a fair system. I think it’s important that we understand that there needs to be a different system. And you’re quite right: in England, that doesn’t happen. So, there are 500 hospitals in England, and I can tell you that the Secretary of State there doesn’t get anything like the kind of scrutiny that I get here on the 20 hospitals we have here. So, I think it’s really important that we start to understand, right, where is accountability. I think that conversation needs to happen.

If we go down the directly elected route, I think there are issues that we need to consider there because we do need people who understand governance and accountability and whatever, and they’re not necessarily the people who can win elections, so I think we’ve just got to do some thinking around that. But I am very interested in looking again at the accountability within the system, because at the moment I’m prepared to take accountability, but I do think that at the moment it all falls on my desk time after time, and, obviously, in terms of holding to account people when I’ve already delegated responsibility, I think we need the public to understand that that is the mechanism that we use.

16:20

I’m afraid I’m also seeking to understand what’s happened in relation to the independent members of the board. We’ve all heard how important it is for Betsi Cadwaladr to go into special measures, and we all want to thank the staff as well. But it is critical that we understand the process, as we’ve all heard from people—and, in my case, from a very well-respected former independent member of the board—of the situation. We’ve heard that that board had a role not in operational management, but in maintaining oversight and delivery of strategy and performance, and we’ve heard exactly what they were doing, and what they were starting to do. Therefore, it seems to me that to actually dismiss them in these circumstances, when they were starting on what feels like a very important journey, seems entirely wrong. So, I would like you to answer these specific questions. What did the independent board members do that was so wrong? How did they depart? And I’m following on from what Rhun said, because I’m afraid I’ve also heard of the situation in which they departed. And what confidence do we have that the next tranche of independent members will not feel silenced, having seen the way that the last group were treated? Thank you, diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thanks. Well, I think it’s really important that people understand that I do have the legal authority to dismiss independent members of the board. So, that’s the first thing: I have that authority, and I can do it immediately, and obviously we checked very carefully before we went down that path.

You talked about them starting on an important journey. Well, you know, they’ve been in targeted intervention for a long time, and prior to that in special measures. It shouldn’t be a journey that’s starting. This has been a journey that’s been ongoing for a very long time. Now, they’ve got some way down the path, but actually it’s the next step that hasn’t been taken. The fact that it has taken so long to get to the point where we’re appointing a new chief executive—. It’s really interesting, actually, just speaking to people in Welsh Government about the differences in terms of the way that the board there responds, the executives there respond. So, in other health boards, other people get on with the job. In Betsi, they wait, they ask for permission, they wait for advice. They need to get on with it. They’re responsible. They’re paid a lot of money to do a job, and they haven’t been doing that. So, the executives are not taking the kind of steps that they should have.

I think the question is not what the independent board members did, but what they didn’t do, and what they didn’t do is the next step, and that’s part of the problem. We needed them to take the next step of really focusing in on, 'So, what are you going to do about the executives?' I think what's important is that people understand that there is a role for independent members to take responsibility, but accountability is key within the system. My role is to set out some goals. This year, I have set objective targets—measurable targets—for chairs, because that is my—. I have so few tools—I am shocked by how few tools I have, as a Government Minister, to effect change in the system. So, what I'm starting to do is to crank up and use the tools that I have at my disposal in a more significant way. But, actually, that's why I'm very keen to have this review of accountability to make sure that it's very clear to everyone where this accountability lies.

16:25

Can I ask, Minister, what are your criteria for taking the health board back out of special measures? I ask that question in the context of—. You said in your statement today, Minister, that your predecessor took the health board out of special measures just before the Senedd election in 2020 because they were taking positive steps towards improvement. Well, I would suggest that the health board remains in special measures until it has demonstrated improvement. If you agree with that statement, therefore, do you disagree with your predecessor—that he was wrong to take the health board out of special measures back in 2020, before the Senedd elections?

Secondly, Minister, the chair and the independent members wrote to the First Minister, and they said, 'We have also previously and repeatedly escalated concerns to the Welsh Government.' They did not receive a response, let alone support, in reply to those escalations. Well, Darren Millar and Rhun ap Iorwerth asked you this question, and I think your response to them was, 'Well, actually, it wasn't sent directly to me or the Welsh Government'—it was for your information or you were copied in. [Interruption.] But, my question is: what you said, Minister, is that if you're copied into e-mails, or you're carbon copied into e-mails, you don't always reply. Well, I don't always reply, but if I was sent something of serious concern, I would certainly reply. So, can I understand why that e-mail was ignored?

Well, first of all, I think you're right: I think we need criteria for knowing when it is we've reached the point to take people out of special measures. So, I've asked officials to look at that, so that we've got a more objective measure for how we can measure improvement and how we know we've got to the place we need to get to.

I have tried explaining the situation in relation to the letter that you talked about. I did explain that, despite the fact that it was 'for your information', the director general did follow up and had a meeting with the chair as a result of that. I think it's really important that that is understood. Thank you.

Many of us, and I'm sure you're amongst us, will remember learning a saying in primary school, which reminded us that every time we point a finger at somebody, there are always three fingers pointing back at us. I don't think that that's been truer than it is this afternoon, because the past 24 hours have demonstrated to us that you, as a Minister, and this Government are going around and around in circles when it comes to health services in north Wales. Into special measures; out of special measures; back into special measures; chief executives being appointed; chief executives being forced, very often, to move on; new chairs being appointed; new chairs being asked to stand down. We have been here a number of times and things are not improving.

Now, when Mark Polin was appointed, I was confident that if anyone could turn this board around, then he was that person. But the fact that he and his fellow members of the board have failed to do that highlights to me that there are deeper, more systemic problems here, and that means that there needs to be more radical action and that there needs to be more far-reaching action from you, as a Minister, and from this Government. So, will you at least commission a piece of work to look at alternative options in terms of the future of the health board? Perhaps it'll come back and say that what we have now is the best we can have. Right, fair enough, but ask the question and start that process, because if you don't, we will continue to go around and around in circles, and it's your successor who'll be here in a few months explaining why we're still in that position.

Thank you. Well, Plaid Cymru's answer to everything is restructuring and more management—[Interruption.] That's what happens. In terms of commissioning a piece of work, no, I'm not going to commission that. I think that the new board will come in, and if they want to look at it, it's up to them, but I won't be commissioning that work. Thank you.

16:30

Minister, can I thank you for bringing forward today's statement and also for meeting with the north Wales MSs yesterday? I appreciate you taking that time. But I'd still like to echo the comments made by colleagues from across the Chamber, first and foremost, because, as outlined by them already, it's clear that the executive team of Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board are not delivering the aims of the Welsh Government or were delivering on the aims of the independent members of the board. They're continuing to fail the people of north Wales, and we cannot continue to see this happen. As you'll be aware, and has already been highlighted, we are probably 10 years down the line now of these consistent failures, eight years of which would have been in special measures if the special measures would have continued as they should have done. It's no exaggeration when we talk about this being a life-and-death situation. People's lives are on the line with the health service in north Wales. It's my residents' quality of life that is suffering as a result of poor management of the health board in north Wales. It's my residents that I care about most in this situation.

Minister, you've mentioned that you don't have, you believe, the levers that you need to be able to make the changes that you want to see, so I'd be interested to hear when you think you may get those levers that you need in your capacity as health Minister to rectify this poor situation. In addition to this, Minister, it's clear that politicians from across the political spectrum want to work with the health board to improve the situation for our residents in north Wales. We don't want to stand up here week in, week out saying how bad things are, we want to stand here and be proud of the health service that we have in north Wales. We want to see change happen desperately for our residents in north Wales. So, Minister, how do you believe we can work more closely together to better serve our residents, not just through scrutiny and challenge in this Chamber, which we continue to do and seemingly continue to be ignored as we highlight the issues that we see in north Wales? What structures do you think could be put in place to better enable us as locally elected Members to support and scrutinise the work of the board to help to have the change that we all want to see? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Diolch yn fawr. I think it's clear that the executive team needs a lot of work in Betsi, and I do hope that the next chair and chief executive will understand the importance of that. I've talked about the levers that I don't have, the fact that I cannot dismiss people that I don't employ. I think it's really important that people understand that these people have rights, you need to respect those rights and due process needs to be followed. But this is the beginning of a process, as I've said time and again.

There were considerable concerns in relation to Betsi in relation to leadership, management, board effectiveness and governance, organisational culture, service quality, patient safety, operational delivery, leadership and financial management. I think what's important is that, despite all of the issues where we have concerns, we don't talk down Betsi. We've got to be really careful about actually trying to attract new people to work in the health board. I think there are things that we can do. I think the north Wales medical school is a real opportunity for Betsi. I think we could be attracting some significant new people to north Wales as a result of that new medical school. We have the north Wales dental academy. We've now got the '111 press 2' mental health service. All of these things are things where there has been progress. I think it's important that we don't forget that, actually, day in, day out, there are thousands of people who are really benefiting from the health and care that is given on a daily basis to people in north Wales.

We've been here before, of course, but the major, necessary changes were not introduced, and, indeed, poor decisions were made in the previous time in special measures. The board was in special measures when the vascular service in Ysbyty Gwynedd was dismantled in the name of centralisation, and we all know what the upshot of that was. So, the fundamental question is what will be different this time. How much time will you give for that difference to start to reveal itself? I assume, and I very much hope, that you as Minister have set out your timetable for implementing change over a full list of measurable deliverables. Can you confirm that, and what exactly that timetable looks like?

I would suggest that you also need to be willing to say what you will do if improvement isn’t made within a particular timescale. You have to have a plan B, ready to go, because I’m concerned that plan A, which is what has been in place since yesterday, will not bear fruit, and certainly won’t do so swiftly enough. Plaid Cymru has set out its plans for the creation of smaller units, and I’m sure if you followed the advice of Ken Skates and asked people in north Wales to tell you what they would like to see happening, then their answer would be the same. But you have rejected that, and are doing so at the moment, so what exactly is your plan B?

I would also like to know what else—

16:35

I will ask one further question. The First Minister, in the question session, mentioned that there were other pieces of information that led you to this announcement yesterday. What is that information? Is all of the information underpinning yesterday’s decision out there in the public domain, or is there more to come?

Thank you very much, Siân. I think it’s very important to understand that these changes aren’t going to happen overnight; we’ll have to go through a process. It will take some time to get a new chief executive in place, and I hope that that appointment makes a big difference. I do know that the new chair is very eager to set out a timetable for what he expects to achieve during his initial period, so hopefully we’ll be able to see what he has in mind in that context.

In terms of those pieces of additional information, what we do know is that Healthcare Inspectorate Wales have been in several times, and we’ve seen their reports. We’re aware that the King’s Fund has compiled reports, and there’s the Ernst & Young report, which is something that obviously hasn’t been shared yet, but we do know that that will cause some problems. We know that three suspensions have already happened. We also know that there’s an independent audit, and once again, that hasn’t come to an end yet.

After Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board attended the Senedd's Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee last March, I wrote to them as Chair regarding concerns about some of the responses that they provided us with and seeking clarity on certain points. Our letter included that we were disappointed by the lack of ownership and responsibility taken by the executive of the problems at the board, referring to various reports over the previous decade, including Holden, Ockenden, HASCAS and Public Account Committee reports. This letter stated:

'We are also concerned about the ongoing presence of executives and managers at the health board who were implicated in the conclusions of these reports and about their ability to deliver the internal change required.'

In your written statement yesterday, Minister, you stated that you've agreed that it is time for the chair, vice-chair and independent members of the board to step aside. How, therefore, do you respond to the alternative perspective placed on this by the independent members of the board in their letter to the First Minister yesterday, on which north Wales Members were copied? They state:

'We are writing to express our sincere concerns about the future of health services in North Wales following this morning’s meeting with the Minister when we were left with no option but to resign as Independent Members with immediate effect.‌‌‍‌‌‌‌‌‍‌‌‌‌‍'

They said that they are gravely concerned at the Minister's response to the Audit Wales report and that to have focus on independent members rather than the operational executive and their delivery exposes patients across Wales and the organisation to significant risk going forward.

Finally, the Senedd's Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee has consistently highlighted concerns around the oversight of the health board by the Welsh Government. Why have you and your predecessor health Ministers allowed matters to reach this head, when the Public Accounts Committee reported concerns regarding board functionality in its reports on the board published in 2013, in 2016, in 2019—

16:40

—and the North Wales Community Health Council has also been raising these concerns with you throughout?

Thanks very much. I think it's important that you recognised that there was an issue in relation to responsibility on behalf of the executives, and obviously that is something that we're very concerned about. That, I hope, is something that the new chair will undertake in terms of his responsibility. I will be speaking to him to recommend that he reads your report to make sure that he's understood your concerns as a committee as well. 

I think it's important to understand also that the Audit Wales report did say that what is needed is a unified and a cohesive response, and a cohesive approach within the board. It was clear to me that that was not going to be possible with the board as it was structured at the moment, and that was one of the reasons why we took the steps that we did. I think the relationships in terms of trust and candour, accountability—. Those were things where there was so much resistance. I think that what's important is that the chair will understand that there is a need to act on the proposals within, or at least the findings of, the Audit Wales report. 

It's clear to everyone now that taking the board out of special measures was a cynical political step, which was done less than three years ago. And in that time, some things have deteriorated: vascular, urology, and emergency services, for example. But, I have a series of questions that constituents in Dwyfor Meirionnydd have asked me to put to you today. 

We've been here before, and clearly it didn't work the last time. So, what does the Minister think will be different this time? The Minister has mentioned a change of personnel and mentioned some of the weaknesses that have existed, but is the Minister willing to recognise the role of the independent members in highlighting some of those weaknesses? The fact that the Minister has got rid of the independent members suggests that she thinks that this is where the blame lies, but it's the Minister who appoints these independent members, so will the Minister at least take some responsibility for these difficulties? The independent members are appointed for specific terms. Some are relatively new, but the deep-seated problems in the board go back a decade, so is the Minister willing to accept that there is blame beyond those independent members? Indeed, in this decade, we have seen five chief executives and three chairs, so it's clear that the blame lies beyond these members. Indeed, the one consistent thing throughout this time is a Labour Government, so isn't it time for her and her Government to take responsibility? 

You've refused to reorganise because you want to centralise expertise. It's regrettable that I have to remind the Minister that vascular services were centralised during special measures, and look at the mess that was made there. You've often mentioned that this would be too expensive. According to the Minister herself, special measures cost £84 million to the Government last time. Doesn't it therefore make sense to look at reorganisation? This cost would be less than you are currently facing—

—and would be less disruptive than what is currently happening. When will you accept that the board is too large, is ineffective and needs to be reorganised? Thank you.

Thank you very much. I'd like to read a message that I had from one of his constituents yesterday: 'Great news. Well done, Eluned. Now we have hope.' That's from one of your constituents as well. I do think it's important also for us to understand that the responsibility does go beyond independent members. I accept that, I've said that time and time again. This is a first step and we need to take the next step and ensure that the people who are acting on behalf of the board and are funded by the board directly do understand that changes are coming. In terms of reorganisation, I've said very clearly that I have no interest in reorganisation, I'd prefer to see that £82 million going to the front-line services rather than reorganising. That's what's happened. I wouldn't want to deviate from that.

16:45

Thank you for your statement, this afternoon, Minister, and, indeed, for inviting MSs and MPs to the Welsh Government office in Llandudno Junction yesterday to receive your briefing.

I'm going to be straight with you, Minister, really. The people of the Vale of Clwyd have had enough, and it's not funny—I can see you're smiling there—because they've had years of excuses, with failure after failure from this Labour Government in Cardiff: the closure of 13 beds in Denbigh infirmary; the Tawel Fan report; the Health and Social Care Advisory Services report; Donna Ockenden; the failure to build a north Denbighshire community hospital in Rhyl after 10 years of broken promises; and the scores and scores of ambulances outside Glan Clwyd hospital. All of which occurred under the last round of special measures, Minister, that you're responsible for. And you often come back to me and say, 'Well, I wasn't health Minister at the time and therefore it's not my responsibility, but that doesn't wash, I'm afraid, as you fall under a collective responsibility in Government and have a duty to provide quality healthcare provision across north Wales. So, how are you going to make sure that you get it right this time, Minister? And how are you going to personally make sure that the failures end now? And if you can't improve Betsi Cadwaladr and take accountability, will you reflect on your competence to do your job and consider your position, as this can't go on anymore? The people of north Wales are sick to the back teeth of a failing health board and a failing Government here in Cardiff Bay. Thank you.

Thanks, Gareth. I was smirking because I just thought it was very odd for you to say, 'I'm going to be straight with you,' as if nobody else before you had been straight with me.

I think it's really important that people understand some of the expectations that we will be putting in place in terms of what happens next. There will be specialist advice on board governance and effectiveness. There will be mentoring to the board. There will be specialis