Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd13/02/2018
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call the Members to order.
On behalf of all Members, I'd like to welcome Jack Sargeant to the Senedd and congratulate him—[Applause.]—on his recent by-election success. You are following in a tradition of proud representatives of Alyn and Deeside in this place, and we all wish you well. Jack Sargeant.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Can I firstly thank you for letting me make this statement today? It really, really means a lot to me. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all the Members across this Chamber for their words of congratulations following the recent by-election in Alyn and Deeside. From the members of the security team, the catering staff, the Assembly Members support staff, not to forget the drivers, the kind words of congratulations have been really, really overwhelming.
It is customary, of course, in your first statement, to pay tribute to your predecessor. Not often though is it in those circumstances that I find myself in today, because not only I am paying tribute to someone who loved his constituency, and who loved Wales, and fought tirelessly across his constituency and across Wales for those who were less able to stand up for themselves, I am also paying tribute to the man that I knew as dad, the man I loved going for a pint with, the man who helped me with my exams, the man who stood by my side right the way through life, and stood so proud when I was graduated, the man that was the glue of my family and held us together on many, many occasions. But he was also the man who showed me that being the right sort of politician wasn't about being the right sort of politician in the Assembly Chamber. It was something that you did in every interaction with every person, no matter who they were or what their situation was. It was important to him that their issues and concerns were listened to and understood. And although we knew that was my dad, we've been touched and comforted by the outpouring of support and solidarity that we've seen from people right across Alyn and Deeside, right across Wales, and across the United Kingdom. And here, in the Assembly, I know you all knew him as my dad as well.
We are, of course, devastated beyond words, and we know that our grief will continue to be shared by everyone who knew him and loved him, and many other strangers who didn't have the chance to meet him. And I also want to say how proud I am to have friends and family here in the gallery today, watching me in my first session. So, thank you to all of you here today and all the family members and friends across Alyn and Deeside and further afield. My dad was truly loved by his community and the special people of Alyn and Deeside. He loved the sense of togetherness, and our community's problems were everyone's problems. That's clear from the way the local people come together when times get tough.
Alyn and Deeside has been through many a tough time, but it's that sense of community and looking after each other that we as a family have seen more than ever in recent months. Like much of north-east Wales, it has a large manufacturing base. It's something we're all so proud of, and we're also so proud that it's not just holding its own where we are now, but we are also moving into the forefront of the manufacturing industry and embracing the new technology to create jobs for the future—great jobs for the future. But we must carry on, and we must do more, to build to give better opportunities to our young people, and our current generation as well, to make sure our communities have the right infrastructure and services for the future.
The Airbus plant in Broughton employs 7,000 people and supports businesses directly and indirectly right across the region, and further into the north-west of England as well. The plant specialises in manufacturing wings and the majestic Beluga, transporting those wings, once they are completed, all across Europe. I was pleased to meet with Unite shop stewards during the campaign and I look forward to returning there soon to discuss what we can do further.
My constituency is also the home of Deeside College—Coleg Cambria, which has students right across north-east Wales and Cheshire. I gained my engineering apprenticeship there, which I'm so very proud of. I want to see it continue to grow from strength to strength, and I want to see that young people benefit from the opportunities that we and the college provide to them—opportunities that, if we get right, can put Wales in the forefront of our industrial revolution.
And, for those sporting fanatics, there is a strong local heritage in Alyn and Deeside. Deeside College's main stadium is the home of Gap Connah's Quay Nomads, which I had the pleasure of visiting during the campaign as well, with Tom Watson, which was great. Not only that, we've had some great footballers from the constituency—Michael Owen, the late Gary Speed, and it was fantastic to meet with Roger Speed just on Sunday; what a true gentleman he was. But I would never be able to live this down if I couldn't thank and mention my own local team, FC Nomads of Connah's Quay, and club chairman, Bernie Attridge. So, I really want to say thank you for everything he's done, and we'll keep that support going. Good luck on the weekend, guys.
I said last week that this by-election was a by-election that no-one wanted to see. And I am not the only person in this Chamber who wants justice for my father, my dad. I know from the campaign we have just conducted that this feeling is shared by the constituents and the community, but further afield in Wales and the UK as well. And alongside my political work in this Chamber, I will also be working to ensure that the inquiries under way will examine the way my dad was treated in the run-up to his death. I owe my family, my friends, my constituents, and, no less, my dad, for that.
Finally, Presiding Officer, I was truly honoured and humbled to have been elected as the area's—our great area's—new Labour AM last week. And I want to thank all the local Labour members, and others, for their work during the campaign, during the snow, when we got out on that doorstep. And I also want to thank all the colleagues from the Assembly who came up to help me with that, on a snowy Tuesday in February. So, thank you all. But, most importantly, I want to thank the voters of Alyn and Deeside for putting their faith in me.
I am in this place to be a strong voice representing the interests, building on the work started by my dad: jobs and skills; aiming to end youth homelessness; working to end the epidemic of domestic violence, domestic abuse; working to ensure that this Government listens to people—real people from my constituency, and across north Wales and the whole of Wales—and working to deliver the policies that will work for them. And there is no greater tribute I could pay to my dad than continuing his legacy and his work, and all the service that he provided for our special people up in Alyn and Deeside. That's what I intend to do, and I hope, as the representative of the new generation in the Assembly, I can do something to build a better, kinder politics for the future. Thank you. [Applause.]
I thank Jack Sargeant.
And so the first item—the next item—is questions to the First Minister, and the first question, Caroline Jones.
1. Will the First Minister outline how the Welsh Government is tackling poverty in South Wales West? OAQ51777
Yes. 'Prosperity for All' sets out how we will support people from disadvantaged households to achieve their potential and live fulfilled lives. And we are investing in the future of our children and growing our economy. The Valleys ministerial taskforce will improve outcomes as well, of course, for the valleys of South Wales West.
Thank you, First Minister. My region is now one of the poorest regions in the UK. It has the lowest employment rate in Wales, high levels of economic inactivity, and some of the lowest gross disposable household income in the UK. After nearly 20 years of Labour's economic plans, things are going in the wrong direction. My region doesn't need economic tinkering, like the disastrous techniums, nor empty enterprise zones. It needs a low-tax, business-friendly economy to encourage businesses to invest in the region. The world's most successful small computing platform—
Can you come to a question, please?
—yes—is already produced in Bridgend, in my region. We should be building a high-tech cluster around Pencoed, and lower tax is the catalyst we need. First Minister, what discussions have you had with your colleague the finance Secretary about emulating Ireland and encouraging high-tech businesses like Intel and Apple to set up shop in Wales by offering them tax breaks once we are free from EU state-aid rules?
Now, let me just understand this point, if I can. Last week, UKIP were arguing that they didn't want to see new taxes, and now they're saying they want to see business taxes, which aren't devolved—. You want to see business taxes devolved to this Assembly—is that what you're saying? Because that's the logical consequence of what you're saying.
And then we have the next question: how do you pay, then, for public services, if there is a gap in the public tax take? And I have to say that she contradicted herself in the course of that question. She said that South Wales West was one of the poorest areas of Wales, then she went on to name some of the successes—one of them in my constituency—that we have seen as a result of the Welsh Government's work in attracting investment into Wales. What is UKIP's economic plan? Cut us off from our closest, most important market, where 60 per cent of our exports go, where 90 per cent of our food and drink exports go. That is not an economic plan that will work for the future. And I can say, as far as GVA figures are concerned, we know that Wales is the fastest growing country in the UK for GVA, with GVA rising to nearly £60 billion in 2016, and we know that our employment rate is continuing to grow. That's because of the hard work we have put in as a Welsh Government, making sure that we have jobs for our people.
Much of the Welsh Government's focus on economic development in South Wales West is based on creating two strategic hubs in Neath and north Bridgend as part of the Valleys taskforce, as I'm sure you're well aware, and a key element of that is the release of employment land for industrial use. Now, given that that is also the case for most of the strategic hubs across the rest of the south Wales Valleys, do you agree that there's a risk that, unless specific sectors and companies are targeted in a systemic way, your Government risks flooding the market with the release of land that you simply will not be able to fill?
That's the old Welsh Development Agency model, where you have land, you build lots of empty buildings and those buildings are not filled. We want to make sure that, as far as demand is concerned, it's closely matched to supply, and, of course, we will look at areas of Wales where there is the skills base to attract further investment. That's precisely, of course, why we have an economic action plan that has, at its heart, the need to target regions of Wales according to their strengths.
First Minister, we were told in a recent committee evidence session into homelessness that one of the main causes now of homelessness is the UK Government's welfare reform programme. Do you agree that, even at this late stage, it is not too late for the UK Government to stop the roll-out of this disastrous universal credit programme?
Yes, absolutely, but they're not listening, are they? I went to visit people who were homeless before Christmas, and I'd advise the Conservatives to do the same; perhaps they might learn something. But the reality is that they are indifferent to the suffering of people who are homeless. They are indifferent to the problem of rough-sleeping. The leader of the opposition sits there, from his country estate, and condemns people for being homeless. That is the reality of where he comes from. We, as a party, have committed £10 million to ending—[Interruption.] I know it hurts. I know it hurts you, and you don't like the truth—I understand that. We have committed £10 million to end the scourge of youth homelessness while the Conservatives have sat and done nothing.
2. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government on the post-Brexit economic forecast for Wales? OAQ51773
I've repeatedly and consistently raised with the Prime Minister and other UK Government Ministers the potential serious economic harm to Wales arising from Brexit, and that includes highlighting the analysis that we published in our 'Securing Wales' Future' White Paper last year, and our recent trade policy document.
Well, First Minister, it seems the cat is now out of the bag that the Government's real evidence as to the impact of Brexit without access to the single market is something that's going to cause significant damage to the Welsh economy. It appears only AMs in Wales are allowed to see these documents, provided we do that within certain restricted conditions. Members of the public, our constituents, aren't allowed to share this information. But the outcome of that evidence is that, effectively, depending upon what level of access we may or may not have to the European market, we will suffer an economic hit of around 1.5 per cent, or up to 9.5 per cent, to our economy. If we had a 9 per cent hit to our Welsh economy, what would be the implications in Wales for jobs and the standard of living of the Welsh people?
We will lose jobs and incomes will decline. I can't understand why the UK Government has been so secretive about these analyses and not shared them more widely with people. It doesn't sound to me like a great deal of transparency, certainly, is exercised by the UK Government in Whitehall. Can I say—? The one thing that we are lacking here is that there are those who say that we would be better off outside the single market and the customs union, but not one scrap of evidence has been produced to support that. Not one scrap of evidence. The reality is it's about time that the Tories moved away from wishful thinking, saying, 'Yeah, it'll all be fine, don't worry about it. Don't worry about the experts. Don't worry about the analyses. Don't worry about the reports; they're all wrong', and came clean with the people of Britain and said, 'Well, actually, when we say we want to leave the single market and the customs union, we were wrong', because everybody else can see that that's exactly what's happening now.
Post Brexit, First Minister, can I ask what plans does the Welsh Government have to dramatically increase Wales's economic intelligence capacity in order to improve public policy planning and delivery in Wales?
Well, of course, we have the Wales Centre for Public Policy, but also we're looking to increase the number of offices in key markets abroad, working, of course, with the appropriate UK Government departments, and that is something that we are doing in the course of this year. We find that they are exceptionally important in terms of sourcing potential investment and sourcing potential markets for Welsh produce. I know how important our Dubai office was to us when we got Welsh lamb into the United Arab Emirates. So, looking for new markets is an important part of the plan we have to deal with Brexit.
It's over a year since you published the White Paper making the case for Wales to remain within the single market and the customs union. You haven't been able to persuade Theresa May of the merits of that policy, and perhaps you can be forgiven for that, but why haven't you been able to convince Jeremy Corbyn?
Well, I'm not responsible for what happens in London. I have discussed this in detail with Keir Starmer and, of course, I know that the Labour Party's policy changes according to the circumstances. But may I say that, as far as we are concerned, the best way for Wales to ensure that we have a prosperous economic future is to remain in the customs union and in the single market?
Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. With your permission, could I extend a welcome to the new Member for Alyn and Deeside on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly, and wish him well in his political career?
First Minister, last week Hywel Dda came forward with a projected deficit at the end of the financial year of some £70 million. This builds on two previous deficits of £47 million and £32 million in the previous two years. In October 2016, this health board was taken into targeted intervention, and that targeted intervention was worked by the Welsh Government to build a sound financial footing. What's gone wrong?
I should have welcomed our new Member as well—our youngest Member. I've done it personally, and I join the leader of the opposition in doing that.
Can I say that the health Secretary has made it clear to the Hywel Dda board that the level of deficit is unacceptable? He's also been clear that difficult decisions are needed to ensure the future sustainability of health services in Hywel Dda. The board were given a clear target to not exceed their planned deficit of £58.9 million, but it wasn't until December that they said they would miss this target. There are still significant concerns with financial management and reporting within the board, which we are following up in detail with them, and we are confident that the health board will still balance overall in the current year, even with this increased deficit in Hywel Dda.
First Minister, my question was: what's gone wrong? This is a health board that was put into—I think the words are—'targeted intervention' some 18 months ago, along with three other health boards, and obviously the special measures health board of Betsi up in the north. So, four of our health boards are under some form of Government intervention. This escalation in the deficit up to £70 million, building on two previous substantial deficits, clearly shows that that financial oversight—and it was specific to financial oversight, that the Welsh Government intervened—is not working in this health board. Now, we know there's a consultation about re-organisation of health services in Hywel Dda. We know, from the apology you gave last week, that you don't give apologies that easily, in fairness, in coming to this Chamber because of the misinformation that that health board handed over to you. Really, how can anyone have any confidence in the ability of the health board to deliver health services in west Wales for in excess of 10 per cent of the population of Wales? A £70 million deficit—how on earth is that deficit going to be brought back under control while maintaining services and getting on top of waiting lists?
I should have clarified that we are confident that the health budget will still balance overall, rather than the health board budget—just to make that clear. Look, all health boards across Wales have a duty to ensure safe and sustainable services. That means that they have to put forward suggestions for how that is to be done. I appeal to Members not to just oppose any changes as they arise, because there are difficult questions here. In fairness, the parliamentary review has looked at how we make the health system in Wales and the social care system more sustainable in the future. We need to have a serious examination of what should be provided where—sure, services as close to home as possible, but that might mean service changes in the future. These are issues that need to be looked at dispassionately and sensibly before any decisions are taken.
First Minister, you talk about Members looking at changes. One of your own Ministers has said that she would vote against any changes that would come forward from the consultation. So, from within your Government people are casting aspersions about the consultation process. I have put to you twice now the escalation in the deficit situation that Hywel Dda faces: £70 million, £148 million of deficit over three years. It's not unreasonable for people in west Wales—as I said, in excess of 10 per cent of the Welsh population—to rely on that local health board to deliver health services in rural locations. I really would appreciate—as I'm sure would many Members in this institution, along with members of communities down in west Wales—some road map that the Welsh Government might have to rescue this situation. The deficit is getting worse. Waiting times are getting worse. The ability to attract staff to fill vacancies is not succeeding. In fact, workforce planning is woefully inadequate in that part of Wales, as we know. So, the third question: can you give us a road map of what the Welsh Government will be doing with the health board to bring this deficit under control, so that people can have confidence that they will have a health service in this part of Wales?
First, he's not correct in terms of what he's quoted the Minister as saying. Secondly, the health board has published a consultation, which contains various options—difficult, some of them; there is no question about that. But it's the health board's responsibility to come forward with proposals, and that's exactly what it has done. I have to say to the leader of the opposition: we have seen, for eight years, cuts in the Welsh budget. We could be £4 billion, by one estimate, better off if he had actually made representations to his Government in London, but he has sat there and done nothing. Ruth Davidson sits in the UK Cabinet. He isn't allowed through the door. The Northern Ireland Executive was given £1 billion, if I remember rightly, for health, or certainly hundreds of millions of pounds. Wales received nothing. There was no consequential. There was no extra money for Scotland and Wales. Can I suggest that, while we are sorting out the mechanics of how our health boards work, he actually does something—that he does what his Scottish colleague does and actually stand up for his own country?
The Plaid Cymru leader—
Can I move a point of order?
No, you've had—
The First Minister has misrepresented—
No, there is no point of order. Leanne Wood.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, you stated last September that you wanted to see a justice system—and I quote—that was
'truly representative of Welsh needs.'
The priorities are to improve access to justice, to reduce crime and to promote rehabilitation. We know that your commission is due to report back in 2019, but that's a little bit late to ensure that justice policy can be devolved in a decisive and clear way in time for the next Welsh Parliament. Are you confident that the case for a distinctive Welsh justice system will be strengthened by your commission and that quick progress can be made if it reports back with compelling evidence for change?
On the swift change, that is a matter, of course, for the UK Government, but we would urge them to follow the recommendations in the report. We've tended to focus on what this would mean for the courts, the probation service and also, of course, the issue of the jurisdiction, which has been well debated in this Chamber. But, of course, if we look at the justice system, we have to develop a Welsh penal policy—something that we've never had before and something that we'd have to start from scratch. So, all these things have to be examined carefully as we look at the potential devolution of justice.
The jurisdiction point, to me, is unanswerable. This is the only jurisdiction anywhere in the world—common law jurisdiction—where there are two legislatures in the same jurisdiction. It makes no sense. I know people out there are not exactly rioting on the streets on this issue, but it makes no sense from a legal perspective. It means that people are misled when they look at the law. Some people believe that when a Bill is titled—and Simon Thomas brought this to the Chamber a few months ago—'this is the law of England and Wales'—. But it doesn’t apply in Wales. It causes confusion, it makes no sense, and it’s always been the case that where a legislature acquires primary powers, the jurisdiction always follows. That’s one issue, but then, of course, we get on to, ‘What should a Welsh penal policy look like in the future?’
I agree with you, First Minister, and that’s why it’s such a shame that the opportunity was missed when the last Wales Bill was going through.
There is one case that demonstrates to me in a very striking way why we must have control over our criminal justice system, and why that must happen soon. The case of Conner Marshall of Barry demonstrated huge failings in the probation system. He was brutally murdered by someone who was on probation and who was not being sufficiently supervised under the system that has been privatised since 2014. Conner’s murderer missed eight probation appointments. Now, there is a clear link between privatisation of the probation service, the pursuit of profit and poor performance in supervision and monitoring. There has been no improvement in probation outcomes since privatisation began. Staff numbers are down 30 per cent and reoffending rates are up.
First Minister, leaving Welsh probation services in the hands of Westminster has not worked. The case of Conner Marshall shows that the public is not safe under this system. Will you support Conner Marshall’s family’s call for an inquiry into the actions of Working Links in this case? And when Wales does gain responsibility for criminal justice policy, do you agree with me that probation services should be brought back under public control?
I'm not familiar with the case, but I will look at it and write back. I think that’s the proper way to deal with what the leader of Plaid Cymru has asked for.
We are in agreement a lot this afternoon. I couldn’t agree more with what she said. Why would you take a service that is designed to rehabilitate offenders and try and make a profit out of it? There is no sense in that, and I absolutely agree that—I say 'hopefully, when' and not 'if'—when we get control of the probation service, we can have a properly functioning, publicly run and accountable probation service in the future, not what we have now. Because clearly, to my mind, it’s not just that the case has not been made for a privately run probation service, it’s that it’s been something that I don’t think has been a great success—and she is somebody who, with her background, is passionate about probation and the need to rehabilitate offenders.
It does society no good at all if they do not have the means and ability to find a way to rehabilitate themselves and remove themselves as a nuisance or a danger to the public. In the future, I’d like to see a situation where it is in this Chamber and, of course, through the Welsh Government that the probation service is shaped in Wales.
Again, First Minister, I have to express regrets to you that we weren’t having this discussion before; we could have prevented the privatisation of the probation service.
I do now, though, want to turn to the question of superprisons. I’m appalled to see prisons held up as a tool for economic development when their main role is to deliver rehabilitation through custodial sentences. Prisoners now are being moved to Wales who are not from Wales to serve their custodial sentences, and that means that they are moved further away from their families and support networks, and, as you know, being close to your family and support network is a very important aspect of rehabilitation.
Figures this week show a concerning range of incidents that have taken place in HMP Berwyn within its first year of operation, which surely raises questions about the need for another superprison at Port Talbot. If we were developing a Welsh justice system, we would not need a new superprison. While prison services are not devolved, you can make the decision on the sale of Welsh Government land for the Port Talbot superprison. Will you now commit to using that land for sustainable economic development and not a prison? And will you make a commitment that you will not facilitate a superprison that doesn’t meet the needs of Wales?
We have had questions of the Ministry of Justice that have not yet been satisfactorily answered. We have taken no decision on the sale of the land. I know of the representations that have been made. In some ways, the issue is bound up with the commission for justice, in the sense of what should a Welsh penal policy, or a Welsh sentencing policy as well, look like in the future. It's right to say there are Welsh prisoners serving sentences a long way from home in England—in the category A prisons in England. How do we resolve that situation to ensure that people can serve their sentences closer to home, certainly towards the end of their sentences when they are closer to release and, we hope, rehabilitation? But as I say, as far as Baglan is concerned, no decision has been taken. We are not yet in a position where we feel confident that we can take a decision because the full information has not been provided.
The leader of the UKIP group, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch, Llywydd. With permission, I'd also like to welcome Jack Sargeant to the Assembly, and to congratulate him on the maturity of his opening speech, very confidently delivered, and we look forward to hearing a lot more of him.
The First Minister will know that lots of people in north Wales think the letters NHS stand for 'national health shambles'. Since 2010, the NHS has cut the number of beds in Wales by 18 per cent, but in Betsi Cadwaladr health board they've been cut by even more, down by 21 per cent. Ten days ago, the Betsi Cadwaladr senior staff met with Denbigh councillors to explain why they're cutting 10 beds in Denbigh hospital but only opening five in Ruthin. Last week, the Daily Post reported that health chiefs are blaming extraordinary ongoing pressures for patients sleeping in equipment rooms and in corridors in Llandudno General Hospital because of a lack of hospital beds. Margaret Cowan, who was visiting her father in that hospital, said:
'There used to be 12 wards in Llandudno, now we have only three left, the people of this town deserve to know what's going on.'
Can the First Minister tell the people of Wales what is going on in the national health service in Wales?
Well, funding it, and at a level higher than England. That's what happens with the health service in Wales, making sure that the money is available for health and social care. We're seeing social care collapsing in England. We're seeing councils—Tory councils—declaring themselves bankrupt in England. So, making sure the money is there.
Yes, there are challenges, and we know that, and those challenges will need to be met head on by the health boards. But he says 'national health shambles'. Perhaps he would like to put that to the doctors and nurses who work in the health service, both in north Wales and elsewhere. And let me remind him—and I'll take him there, perhaps, when it's built—of the sub-regional neonatal intensive care centre in Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, a major investment—a major investment—in Ysbyty Glan Clwyd—an investment decision that was taken by me at a time when it was being suggested that those services should move over the border. I made sure that an independent group of experts was brought together and a case was made to ensure that it was built in Ysbyty Glan Clwyd.
So, we will ensure that where those serices can be made available to the people of north Wales they are made available, and the SuRNICC is an example of that.
The First Minister knows that for every success there are masses of failures. Four of the health boards out of seven are in special measures or targeted interventions, as the leader of the opposition pointed out earlier on. The Welsh Labour Government has a direct responsibility for the state of the health service in Wales. The Cabinet Secretary chairs meetings of the Betsi Cadwaladr health board now and a statement was issued on 1 February saying that:
'The Welsh Government continues to work with BCUHB to ensure that services and patients are not adversely affected by the need to improve financial management.'
We know, though, from the report that Deloitte made on the financial recovery group in Betsi that the governance structure is poorly defined and misunderstood by board members themselves. This financial recovery group meets in private, it doesn't publish any of its papers, it doesn't actually publish any minutes. There's a secret financial recovery review that is being hidden from members of the public. Why doesn't the First Minister take special measures himself to ensure that public confidence can be increased by being more open and transparent, just as in Hywel Dda we had problems only two weeks or so ago because of leaked reports? Why don't we have a more open and transparent health system? Why don't we make it more democratic?
Well, I can say the Cabinet Secretary has increased the oversight from us on actions to reduce the forecast in terms of the finances, and to ensure that
'services and patients are not adversely affected by the need to improve financial management'.
We have said that. We expect the financial recovery actions to result in the health board meeting the revised forecast to the end of this year. We commissioned the Deloitte report in order to assist both the board an ourselves in terms of planning for the future, and the board is expected to demonstrate progress on the actions in that report to meet the recommendations set out by April of this year.
The First Minister will remember that last week, in my question on the agenda, I noted that the Deloitte report said that the financial and strategic planning at the health board is simplistic, with budgets generally rolled forward into the next year. Again, the leader of the opposition pointed out the disastrous financial performance of these boards. Part of this Deloitte report also said there is limited insight regarding how the health board's ultimately going to recover the financial position, and a distinct lack of secondary questioning from board members to facilitate detailed debate and discussion across key areas of risk, and executive level leadership capability and capacity needs to be enhanced.
Labour has been in charge of the health service in Wales for 20 years nearly, since 1999. Does he accept personal responsibility for presiding over a health service that in many parts of the country is worthy only of the third world?
That is a wholly outrageous comment. Let me just educate him a little so he looks beyond his own nose. The third world is an old-fashioned and discriminatory description anyway. We talk of the developing world these days. Let me tell you, there was a hospital in Uganda in Mbale serving several million people—it had seven consultants serving all those people. You could have an endoscopy there but if the endoscopy discovered some issue that had to be resolved, whether it was perhaps a stomach ulcer or worse, there was no treatment. People died of stomach cancer because they could not afford the treatment. Half the patients who entered that hospital went in there with malaria, which the doctors found very difficult to treat. Yes, they were able to perform miracles when it came to accident and emergency, but many, many people died of preventable illnesses. And he stands there and he compares the Welsh health service, with 1,000 consultants for three million people, with those conditions I saw in Mbale. He belittles the people of Mbale and Uganda by his appalling comments.
3. Will the First Minister outline the Welsh Government's concerns about the future of the Welsh agriculture industry in light of Brexit? OAQ51748
For decades, EU policy frameworks have shaped the management of our land, underpinned patterns of food production, and supported farm incomes. Post Brexit, our primary producers will be more exposed to global markets and there will be greater friction in trading systems with significant negative consequences, for the sheep meat sector in particular.
I thank you for your answer, First Minister, but do you really believe that the EU and the common agricultural policy regime has been an unmitigated success story for the Welsh farming industry? Because if so, perhaps you and those supporting our presence in the European Union can explain to me the efficacy of seeing our hill farmers reduced to subsistence level on £12,000 per year while some farmers in the south-east of England have become millionaires under this iniquitous regime. These hill farmers are a symbol of a once proud industry brought to its knees in becoming a begging bowl economy of grants and regulations. Add to this the fact that the common agricultural policy is universally accepted as being an environmental disaster. Surely, the First Minister has to agree that we are better off out.
Well, I'm sure the leader of the Welsh Conservatives would agree with every word that the UKIP Member has said—[Interruption.] I doubt that somehow. CAP has been the method by which we have ensured that farmers are able to survive. It has supported farmers and supported rural economies and their social, cultural, environmental and linguistic development for many, many years. Is he now saying that he does not want there to be any kind of support for farmers in the future? Because I can tell him, as far as environmental schemes are concerned, we had Tir Cynnal, we had Tir Gofal, we had Glastir, we have schemes that help to support the environment. Over £200 million a year comes into Wales in European subsidies. At the moment, there is no guarantee, beyond a certain year, that we'll get a penny of money at all. I invite him to go to any hill farm in Wales and express his view that those farmers are holding a begging bowl out and see what response he gets.
First Minister, when I took an Assembly committee to Dublin and met the Taoiseach, I learnt how Ireland benefits by £2 billion because of privileged access to our beef and dairy markets in the customs union, with a quarter of our beef coming from Ireland. Isn't it the case that outside a customs union it would be our choice either to trade freely and buy beef more cheaply elsewhere, or, if we preferred tariffs, to buy that beef from Welsh and UK farmers instead?
Cheap food is code for undermining British farming. That's what it means, because if you're not prepared to support the farming industry, not even with tariffs, then you end up with the cheapest imports coming in and wiping out our farming industry. That's what will happen. It's simple economics and something that has not been properly explained by those who say, 'We'll just have cheap food and buy it all around the world, no matter where it comes from, and who cares about our own farmers', especially those farmers who will lose the privileged access they have to the European market. Our sheep farmers cannot survive if they find themselves in a position where there are extra barriers in place in terms of them accessing the European market. It is their biggest market; 90 per cent of our food and drink exports go there. We'd be literally mad if we ignored the fact that we need to sort out access to that European single market first before following fantasies elsewhere.
There’s one blessing, First Minister—no farmer has time in the middle of the day to watch these proceedings. When you were over in Ireland recently, I don’t know whether you had an opportunity to buy anything in a shop in Ireland, but if you did, you would have received a receipt, and on the receipt it would have said what percentage of the food and drink produce had been produced in Ireland, and how much you had bought. As we leave the European Union, what are you doing to ensure that we can still sell food and drink from Wales over the border and that it is badged up as Welsh produce with a Welsh stamp, and what are you doing to ensure that we retain the protected geographical indication status, which has increased the export of lamb by 25 per cent since we gained that status?
That is right. There is a question with regard to what will happen to PGI and PDO, and whether there will be a British system. Will that system be on the same terms as the European system, and will it be recognised as such? It's important that we can ensure that we protect the fact that we have lamb, for example, of the highest standard. Welsh lamb is accepted in markets across the world, and the same is true of Welsh beef and a number of other products. What we don’t wish to see is a situation where our competitors can go into the European market on a level that is better than the level that we would eventually have there. We know at present that there are farmers in France and Spain are thinking that there is an invitation for them, if Welsh lamb becomes more expensive in the European market, or an opportunity or them to take advantage of that, and that will not benefit the farmers of Wales. There's no way at all of arguing—and I don't think that the Member is arguing this—that the lamb producers and farmers of Wales will be better outside of the single market. Without that market, the future for a number of our farms will be very bleak indeed.
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on the implications of EU withdrawal for the port of Holyhead? OAQ51781
We are pressing the United Kingdom Government to ensure that Welsh ports, including Holyhead, will not be disadvantaged following Brexit. I discussed this with businesses in Ireland yesterday. It’s crucial that products and goods can be moved just as swiftly and seamlessly as before, and that the tariff arrangements must continue.
Thanks for that response. It’s worth reminding people that trade through the port of Holyhead increased by almost 700 per cent since the inception of the single market. We cannot afford to see Wales and the port of Holyhead being excluded from the customs union and not part of the single market. I am concerned about the implications of tariffs for trade. New routes would be developed, without doubt, between Ireland and mainland Europe. There is no room physically in the port of Holyhead to deal with the checks on trucks and lorries and so on. Now, unlike the leader of your party, Jeremy Corbyn, I am pleased to hear you saying that you believe in remaining in the customs union and the single market, but what are you willing to do about that? How far are you willing to push this? Sub-state Parliaments in other parts of Europe can have a real influence—a veto, even, in some circumstances—over decisions taken by the state. So, how far would you want to see the influence of Wales going in terms of deciding on our voice and the powers of Wales once we’ve left the European Union?
There are two points there. One of the things that I was told yesterday is that it’s vital, of course, that there is no kind of delay in Holyhead, Pembroke Dock or Fishguard, but that it's also vital that we want to ensure that Dover also moves as swiftly, because so many goods go through Wales and England, and then to France from Dover, and the danger is that there will be a slow-down in all those ports. An example was given to me of fish being exported: the ferry was late crossing the Irish sea and so, because of that, the lorries missed the boat, as it were, in Portsmouth, and then all those goods perished. Their worry is that, ultimately, that will be an usual occurrence. It’s right to say that there is no structure whatsoever in Holyhead, or even in Dover currently. It’s impossible to check every lorry, despite the example that was given.
And the second question. I have stated completely frankly that any agreement should come to this Assembly and to Scotland and Northern Ireland—hopefully—and, of course, to Westminster, and there should be a vote to agree on that agreement by every Parliament and Assembly, not just in Westminster, because in my opinion, without that, it's not sustainable.
Both the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee and the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee have gathered evidence from people like the Canadian consulate in Brussels, the Irish Government and others, giving us examples of how low-friction trade occurs across borders and through ports. We know that Irish Ferries last month confirmed their order for what will be the largest ferry—€165.2 million—in the world in terms of vehicle capacity, to run between Dublin and Holyhead. Last Thursday, the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee took evidence on Anglesey from the Anglesey enterprise zone board on the Holyhead port expansion plan, which includes provision for Brexit. What consideration, therefore, have you given to the report from the European Parliament, 'Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland for Customs control and the free movement of persons', which looks at a number of technological solutions and comes to a positive conclusion about how to create a low-friction border? That's from the European Parliament itself.
Well, I met with Irish Ferries yesterday, so I discussed with them their plans, and it is good, as I said earlier on, that they are looking to invest in new ships. But the Irish Road Haulage Association are very, very concerned about the potential for delay. They don't see border controls in terms of there being passport controls, but their concerns are: (a) will there be customs checks; and (b) will they be comprehensive or random? They were never comprehensive in the past; they were always random. And in reality there is no other way of doing customs checks without having miles and miles of traffic queueing.
My argument is this: I want to see an open border between the north and south of Ireland. I know that border exceptionally well, and I know it's impossible to see it, if that's the word you want to use, in any event. In the days of the Troubles, minor roads were blown up by the British Army and there were crossing points at various main roads. That's before there was a motorway built across the border. So, in reality, it's impossible to police that border from a customs perspective.
Good—if a way is found of doing that, I have no argument, but my argument is this: the same arrangements must apply to the maritime border between Ireland and Wales. We can't afford to have a situation where the maritime border is seen as more difficult, more bureaucratic and more troublesome for freight operators than the border between the north and south in Ireland. Why? There's an incentive there for goods to move through Northern Ireland to Scottish ports and into Liverpool and to avoid the Welsh ports, if that border is seen as more problematic. If it applies to one, it has to apply to all.
5. What assessment has the First Minister made of the Centre for Cities analysis that 112,000 workers could face losing their jobs in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport alone, as a result of automation? OAQ51741
Well, predictions of this sort are never straightforward, but we know that there will be a destruction of some jobs by new technology—that we have to accept. The question, of course, then is: can we then be a net creator of jobs through advances in technologies? Addressing challenges and opportunities presented by automation and digitisation is at the heart of our economic action plan.
Thank you. The indications are consistent with other analyses. China recently unveiled plans for a £1.5 billion research park dedicated to the development of artificial intelligence. The United Arab Emirates have appointed a Minister for AI and announced a cross-Government strategy. Their prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed, has said,
'We want the UAE to become the world's most prepared country for artificial intelligence'.
Countries all across the world are gearing up to face the challenges and grasp the opportunities that automation presents, and Wales needs to act fast to be a shaper and not just an adopter of new technologies. Does the First Minister agree that we need cross-Government action, and will he commit to establishing a unit to get Wales ready for automation?
We do need cross-Government action, there's no question about that. I pay tribute to the Member and his huge interest in this, and he flags up an issue, a challenge, that we must meet in the future. I can say that groups across Welsh Government are already exploring the impact of technology and data on public service delivery. We obviously work with businesses.
I know the Cabinet Secretary is considering the creation of a FinTech task and finish group to look at the technologies surrounding financial and professional services, building on the digital action plan that lays out our own commitments to improving our own digital services, and we are working with the UK Government as well. We are actively engaged with the recently launched UK knowledge transfer networks for manufacturing initiative, which is aimed at realising—and you'll recognise the phrase, of course—the fourth industrial revolution, and that team is exploring ways to optimise the application of that programme to Wales.
There are other programmes that we have taken forward, but I can assure the Member that we know that the challenge is there and we intend to meet that challenge.
First Minister, Lee Waters just rightly referred to the urban hubs of south Wales as being most vulnerable, in the first instance, to the effect of automation, and the figures that Lee Waters quoted were astounding. I agreed with your answer that we need to make sure that we are trying to get ahead of the curve in terms of competing with other countries in this respect, and making sure that the challenges posed by artificial intelligence are dealt with. But I didn't hear your answer. Can you give us some concrete examples of how you're going to refocus Welsh Government economic policies to face these challenges ahead, to make sure that areas such as Newport, Cardiff and Swansea, also other urban areas of Wales, and the city region areas that they support and that support them will be able to meet the challenge of the future and get ahead of the curve, which we desperately need?
Our economic action plan clearly identifies the automation and digitalisation challenges that we face—the key strategic challenges and opportunities. Just to build on the answer I gave to the Member for Llanelli, we will be launching our enhanced smart innovation business support in April 2018 for manufacturing and design processes, and that will include support for businesses for planning and preparing for the implementation of technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution. Over the last 12 months, Industry Wales has supplied a number of reports to the Cabinet Secretary on the risks and opportunities that automation will have on the Welsh economy.
6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's relationships with international governments and sub-regional administrations? OAQ51766
Yes. We have relations with many Governments and sub-regional Governments, at many different levels and through different channels, both formal and informal.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. At the beginning of the year, Open Doors published its annual world watch list, which is a list of the world's worst persecuting nations for Christians to be living in. And many of the nations that are mentioned on that list are nations that the Welsh Government has relationships with—Pakistan, India, Qatar and Vietnam as examples. Now, clearly, where the Welsh Government has a relationship, it has a dialogue with those Governments and I wonder what action the Welsh Government is taking, or could take, in order to discuss the infringement of article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights for Christians living in those nations where their right to change their religion and their right to practice their religion is not being realised.
I fully support, of course, an individual's right to freedom of conscience. I have raised human rights issues in the past in some countries that I have been to—I've not shied away from that. Of course we take advice from the Foreign Office; it's hugely important, with their network of embassies and their access to intelligence, that we take advice from them, but nobody, of course, could possibly condone a situation where freedom of conscience is not respected.
Some regional Governments, such as Flanders, for example, as Rhun ap Iorwerth pointed out earlier, do have a veto over the final terms of the Brexit agreement that Wales doesn’t currently have. Of course, as the First Minister will be aware, there is a very close historic link between Wales and Flanders. Would the First Minister consider leading a delegation to Flanders to appeal to them, if necessary, to use the powers that they have to assist Wales in our hour of need, as Welsh people did in their thousands a hundred years ago, on their behalf?
Well, I’ve visited Flanders a number of times, of course, and as the Member says, there is an historic connection and it’s also a very sad connection between Wales and Flanders. Well, what’s important for me is that we urge the United Kingdom Government to give us some kind of indication of what their plans are because nobody has a clue at the moment what exactly they wish to see at the end of this process, and we wish to ensure, through the discussions taking place at present, that, first of all, the withdrawal Bill will be amended in a way that is acceptable to Wales and also to Scotland, and also to urge the United Kingdom Government to secure an agreement that would be of benefit to both Wales and, of course, the UK.
What work has the First Minister done since the referendum with international Governments outside the EU to encourage investment into Wales?
Many things. I've been to many countries. The US, of course, is our biggest international investing country, I've been there. I was in Ireland yesterday, and Ireland is in the top five of investing countries in Wales. Of course, we look at markets outside Europe. One of the things I did when I was rural affairs Minister was to get Welsh lamb into Dubai, looking at a new market beyond the traditional southern European market. Nevertheless, we cannot on the one hand say, 'We need to look at new markets,' which we accept, but on the other hand say, 'We have to ignore our most important existing single market, which is Europe.' The two things run together. Let's make sure that we secure our most important market first, and then, of course, make sure that we look for more opportunities elsewhere.
7. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to improve the welfare of puppies and dogs in Wales? OAQ51776
We take animal welfare seriously and expect others to do so too. The Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs)(Wales) Regulations 2014 introduced stricter criteria for licensed puppy breeders. We recently consulted on a revised code of practice for the welfare of dogs. The code reminds owners of their responsibilities and obligations.
Thanks for the previous initiatives. The UK Government is currently looking at bringing in tighter regulations for dog breeding in England. In the light of that, is it possible that we may need to look at tighter regulations again in Wales, given recent cases, such as Lucy's law?
I have to say that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs followed us. Actually, we were the first to introduce regulations of this sort, and DEFRA is now following suit. We do note the fact that DEFRA have issued a call for evidence on the banning of third-party sales, and we'll consider our own position in due course, but this is certainly a situation where we were ahead of the game and others are following.
In recent years, the sale of puppies and dogs has moved to online sales, and many sick animals have been sold to unsuspecting people. Those sellers are very often not licensed to breed, and they're certainly not putting the welfare of the animals first, but profit. The Blue Cross are calling for a registration and licensing system for anyone breeding or selling animals through any means whatsoever, so, whether that's from home or from large-scale breeding establishments, to include online sellers. Do you think this is something that we might consider doing here in the Welsh Government?
I think there are two issues here: firstly, to examine whether there's a need for further legislation, and, secondly, to ensure that enforcement is what we would want it and expect it to be. I know that local authorities in Wales have recently undertaken a data-capture survey on licensed dog-breeding premises in Wales, and that exercise has served as an opportunity to assess the standards currently applied to dog breeders in Wales, to identify and investigate examples of poor compliance, best practice, and also to improve intelligence to better inform enforcement intervention by local authorities. So, the enforcement, of course, is hugely important in terms of the current law.
8. Will the First Minister provide an update on Welsh Government plans to enhance educational facilities in Islwyn? OAQ51782
Band A of the twenty-first century schools programme will see investment of over £58 million in schools in Caerphilly county borough, with over £28 million spent in the Islwyn constituency. A funding envelope for Caerphilly of over £110 million for band B, beginning in 2019, has been approved in principle.
Thank you. The Welsh Government also has announced an extra £73 million allocated to the twenty-first century schools education programme. This brings the total amount invested to £3.8 billion. First Minister, as you witnessed yourself when you formally opened Islwyn High School, the infrastructure of Welsh schools is being reimagined and rebuilt to serve future generations. How then can this radical, transformative initiative be maintained in the years ahead, so Wales never has to witness again the decaying school buildings of the Thatcher and Major eras, when the Conservatives were last in charge of educational Government policy in Wales?
Many of us were in school in the 1980s, and despite the best efforts of our teachers, we were taught in buildings that were falling apart, portakabins—I remember one portakabin where there was ivy growing up the inside of the wall because there was a gap between the floor and the wall. I saw heating systems that didn't work. I saw no new schools being built. Compare that to now. Compare that to now where we have over 150 schools and colleges in Wales that will be refurbished or replaced in the five years to 2019. That's 150 schools and colleges that, under the Tories, would have been left to decay.
Finally, Mohammad Asghar.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Further to that question, could the First Minister advise when details of which schools and colleges in south-east Wales will be modernised under band B of the twenty-first century schools and education programme will be announced, and how will these building schemes address the growth in demand for Welsh-medium education in my region especially?
Well, I can say that, as far as Caerphilly is concerned, Y Gwyndy campus is complete, Islwyn High School has opened, Pontlottyn and Abertysswg replacement schools—construction is under way there—and, of course, there is the new Idris Davies primary school, which will be built as well, just to give some examples. But, as I said to the Member earlier on, it is rich for the Tories to say, 'Well, give us an example of schools being built' when they would have built nothing; they would have built nothing at all. One hundred and fifty schools and colleges have been rebuilt, built or refurbished by Welsh Labour that the Tories would never have touched.
Thank you, First Minister.
The next item on our agenda is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the leader of the house, Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are no changes to this week's business. Business for the next three weeks is shown on the business statement and announcement, found among the meeting papers that are available to Members electronically.
Can I call for two statements, please, from the leader of the house? One on the process that is followed by Ministers in relation to planning inspectorate appeals: I've been contacted by many constituents in the Nantglyn area of Denbighshire, who are concerned about a decision to approve the Pant y Maen wind turbine farm in that locality by Welsh Ministers, against the advice of the planning inspectorate and against local democracy, which, of course, refused the application in the first place. There's been scant explanation, frankly, from Welsh Ministers as to why they allowed this particular development to get the green light, and I think that my constituents are owed an explanation as to precisely why the inspectors' recommendation to Ministers has not been taken forward, and I think shedding some light on this through a statement would be very helpful in supporting them to get a better understanding as to the rationale behind the decision.
Can I also ask for a statement from the Cabinet Secretary responsible for food and drink on support for the pub industry? One of the—. Again, another concern that has been raised recently in my constituency surgeries is the method of calculation for business rates for public houses and how this is having a severe impact on the financial viability of some pubs across Wales, particularly because, of course, the business rates are based on projected profits and turnover rather than necessarily the ability of those businesses to pay, or, indeed, the square footage of the premises, which, of course, is the case for further business rates. And I wonder whether we can have some sort of statement on support for pubs to see what else might be available to support those businesses, many of which, of course, are in rural parts of Wales and are struggling to make ends meet. We've seen hundreds of pubs close in recent years around the country, and I do think that it's very important that we throw these pubs a lifeline in order that they can continue to thrive and be the centre of their local communities. Thank you.
On the first point that Darren Millar raises, I don't think it's at all appropriate to have a statement about an individual planning issue, so I suggest very strongly that he writes and gets the answer that he seeks for his constituents direct from the Minister.
On the second, I think that support for our traditional Welsh pubs is a very important issue. I was very pleased to see the revival of the cross-party group on support for the pub. I feel obliged to point out to our colleagues in UKIP that I myself have been seen in a pub recently, and not just in coffee shops, as he suggested some women Assembly Members ought to confine themselves to. So, I'd just like to make it plain that I have been known to be seen in a pub, which you'll be astonished by. I think it is a very important point and I'm certainly going to be discussing with my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary, about what we can say about continuing support for our public houses.
Could I ask for a couple of things from the business manager? First of all, is it possible to have a statement or at least an indication of the timetable of an announcement regarding the ward 10 project in Withybush hospital? This is the project that a young girl called Elly has been fundraising for—Elly's flag appeal. I've done a 90-second statement on her appeal here, and I think a lot of Assembly Members will know about it. My understanding is that the business plan has been presented to Welsh Government by the health board about the refurbishment of this ward. Of course, there have been announcements since about possible consultation around Hywel Dda's services, and I'm very clear that I don't want this particular plan to get lost in that. A decision was expected some time in the new year, so it would be good to hear from the Welsh Government either a statement or an indication of when such an announcement could be made.
Secondly, can I ask for a debate around fracking? We've talked about the powers coming to this Assembly, and, in turn, to the Welsh Government, and the delay in those powers—that's something we'll disagree upon. But the issue of fracking has just come back to the fore because of the release of UK Government papers that suggest that, in fact, fracking is not the panacea for our energy ills that was foreseen. The development of fracking is not, in fact, even expected by the UK Government, which is officially in support of fracking, to develop at the pace that was expected or to fill the energy gap. That just allows us to reconsider how we use our natural resources, which are actually wind, Darren Millar, and other resources—how we best utilise them. And I think perhaps a debate on energy and fracking might be an opportunity for other Members to raise their own individual issues as well. But I think it is timely now that we have a proper look at this, because a number are asking for a real reassessment. Even those who may support the technology are rethinking whether the practicality and the cost of this is available.
And the final thing I'd like to ask about is a debate, if we may—we've talked about Brexit today, but I think we need to talk about Brexit and fishing in particular. Fishing is the one area where, as a great remainer, I would say that the European Union didn't always get it right, I have to say. So, I'm quite happy to have a debate around that, and particularly to think afresh about what can we do in Wales with an inshore fishing fleet and a very strong shellfish industry here—about 90 per cent of our fish catch is actually shellfish. The Public Policy Institute for Wales has produced a report on fishing and Brexit. I think that would be a good basis for a Government debate, in Government time, on fishing, and the possibilities and the ability to perhaps, in an environmentally sound way, but also in a way that supports our sea communities, to try and work new ways of supporting the fishing industry and seeing the development of that industry in a sustainable way. I think several Members would take an active interest in such a debate.
Well, thank you for those three important issues. The Cabinet Secretary for Health was listening very carefully to what you had to say about the ward 10 debate, and I think he took your point on board about it not being lost in the general thing. So, I think he'll be taking that on board when he reports back to the Assembly in due course.
In terms of fracking, I share the Member's assessment that fracking is not the panacea for all ills. This Government has made it quite clear that we are very concerned about the fracking direction of travel—is that the right way of putting it—that's pertained elsewhere in the UK. And I was very relieved to see that the UK Government had come to what I would consider to be some part of its senses in taking energy policy in a slightly different direction. My colleague, the Cabinet Secretary, has recently announced a consultation on 'Planning Policy Wales' in general, and I know that she will be bringing back a series of updates to this Assembly when the consultation is finished, and so on. And I'll make sure that she takes into account the energy issues that are inherent in that review, as the Member suggested, because I do think it's a very important issue.
In terms of the Brexit and fishing debate, I don't know if he can remember, but I cast my mind back to my time, in the fourth Assembly, on the environment committee—I think he and I were on the same trip looking at the fishing industry. And I was very impressed, even all the way back then, before we even knew about any kind of Brexit, at how fragile the inshore fishing fleet was, and actually how sustainable it is and how important it is to Wales that we do maintain it. There was a very interesting point on the radio this morning about some of the fishermen, and the plight of the—the issue with the quotas, and so on. So, again, I'll make sure—we have a large number of arrangements, Llywydd, for reporting Brexit issues back to the Chamber already, so I don't think introducing another is appropriate, but I will make sure that fishing features as one of the reports in the future.
Can I request two Government statements, the first a Government statement on financial transaction capital, including rules for its spending and for its paying back? There is public confusion over the use of this money, and a statement will clarify how it can be used and, more importantly, where it cannot be used, because there seems to be a general belief that it is just the same as other capital and can be used for building schools and building hospitals, when that is certainly not the case.
Secondly, a Government statement on support for British sign language and promoting training in its use and Government support for increasing its use by the deaf and non-deaf communities—as you probably remember, you and I were at a meeting, along with Rebecca Evans, with Deffo!, an organisation in Swansea that represents people in the deaf community who use sign language, and they did raise a number of points about making it—it's the third language of Wales—more accessible and providing more support for it and treating it as a much more serious and important language than it currently is.
Yes, thank you for those. It's a very, very important point. I'll do those in reverse, if the Member doesn't mind. On British sign language, we were at a very important meeting, the three of us, and I was very impressed by the strength of feeling there about the lack of opportunity and straight discrimination that some families were facing in their attempts to get proper access to British sign language—for example, in doctors' appointments and so on, and also just general access to education. So, I'm going to be taking that forward with my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Education. We are currently looking at a whole series of issues around adult learning, for example, and the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Bill and so on. So, I will certainly be taking that forward. But I will also undertake to bring a statement back in my own portfolio under my equalities hat, saying, across the Government as a whole, what we're doing for BSL and what we can do to improve it. So, I'll certainly be very happy to say that I'll do that.
The Member also asked a very important—and, I hasten to say, a very technical—question about financial transactions capital, which, Llywydd, you'll be amazed to discover I don't consider myself to be any kind of expert in. I know that my Cabinet colleague has expressed his disappointment that our capital spending has been fettered in this way, but the Welsh Government has, I know, made good use of the financial transactions capital despite the restrictions. I know that he, though, has expressed forcibly to the UK Government that we don't see why we should be fettered in this way, and I'm sure he will be taking the opportunity to do so as those discussions continue into the future.
Could I call for single statement, please, on services for people in Wales with dystonia, a neurological condition that can affect any part of the body? Responding to the health Secretary's statement last September here on the Welsh Government's neurological conditions delivery plan, I noted that the number of people living with the condition had doubled in Wales to 5,000 since the plan started in 2014, and, despite that growth in demand, especially for Botox injections, there'd been no plan to make the treatment of dystonia sustainable in Wales. The health Secretary responded by saying he recognised the real concerns and he'd arranged for contact to take place with Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board. Well, this weekend, we saw BBC Wales coverage of dystonia patients in Cardiff being distressed over cancelled Botox clinics, and the founder of Dystonia Cymru, Graham Findlay, saying a perfect storm is brewing over mass cancellation of appointments.
We also saw coverage by BBC Wales of Ann Pierce-Jones from Gwynedd saying very much the same in terms of north Wales. When I represented her last year, she raised with me concerns regarding services for people who suffer with cervical dystonia, or torticollis, in north Wales and said it's clear patients, including herself, are not receiving regular treatment and a standard of care to enable them to potentially have a better quality of life, and the lack of support and regular treatment affected her life in a really negative—and need I say painful—manner. Given that the health Secretary made the response last September but these concerns are being raised this weekend on BBC Wales, I would more than welcome—I would urge—the Welsh Government to respond to the concerns being expressed by people with dystonia in north and south Wales and provide a statement accordingly.
Thank you for raising that very important point. The Cabinet Secretary is indicating to me that he'll write to Members, setting out what our policy on treating dystonia actually is, and the Member, I'm sure, will be taking it up further from there.
Leader of the house, I'd like to follow up on a response that you gave me last week in talking about the traffic flow and safety problems on the M4 around Swansea. Now, in the last week alone, another five accidents occurred on this section of the M4, with four individuals being hospitalised and one having to be cut out of his car by the emergency services. Last week, you responded by saying that the Cabinet Secretary was looking at a variety of options and that he would update the Chamber on the issue. Following the increasing number of accidents, it’s obvious that we need to take action more quickly. So, please can you give me confirmation of when exactly we’ll have an opportunity to debate this in the Chamber? Thank you.
I share Dai Lloyd's concern about that stretch of the M4. I drive there very frequently myself, and there are clearly issues. As I said to the Chamber when he raised it last week—it's no less important this time—I will be making sure that the Cabinet Secretary does update the Chamber. I'm afraid I don't have an exact answer, but I will be impressing upon him the urgency of the situation.
Leader of the house, may I ask for a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for health on the Welsh Government decision to reject EMIS, the clinical system that provides integrated healthcare and is used by half of Welsh GP surgeries? Concerns have been raised with me that the practices have not been consulted or given a reason for this decision, other than that EMIS 'failed to reach standards'. That is the quote. Forcing GP surgeries to change their clinical system will cause considerable disruption and add to the already immense pressure they are experiencing at the moment in Wales. Could we have a statement on this issue that addresses the concerns of GP surgeries in Wales, please?
Thank you for raising that. The Cabinet Secretary has addressed this a number of times already in the Chamber. I'm sure, if the Member has very specific issues he wants to raise about it, he can raise them individually. I've also, with my digital portfolio, had a long conversation with him about the best way forward for this, and I'm in fact attending a meeting later this week about it. But if you have very specific issues, I suggest you raise them individually.
There were two issues I wanted to raise with the leader of the house. First of all, it's once again the public inquiry into contaminated blood, and I think that the appointment of Mr Justice Langstaff has been welcomed by the families affected and by other Members of the community. I'm very pleased that the Westminster Government has really responded to the calls of the haemophilia society in Wales and to us Members that we have a full public inquiry headed by a senior judge. So, that's great progress, but, obviously, it's taken a long time to get here. But the next question, really, is how will the voices of people from Wales be heard during the process of this inquiry, and I wondered if it would be possible to have an update about anything that the Government can do to ensure that this will happen.
And the second one is about the introduction of universal credit and the problems that this is going to have for tenants in particular. I've only recently become aware that the new system will mean that an arrears payment rate could be fixed at 20 per cent of the claimant's total personal allowance, without any consultation at all with the tenants. So, I wondered if it would be possible to have a debate about this with the housing Minister to see if we could address this particular issue.
On the first one, I think we all very much welcome the moving forward of the inquiry, and I want to pay tribute to Julie Morgan for her tireless campaigning in this regard for her constituents, and we're all very relieved that a senior judge has been appointed and that the inquiry is going to go forward. The Cabinet Secretary is indicating to me—. He's reminding, me, in fact, of something I ought to know, which is that he's making a statement on this the week we're back after the half term recess, so it's very imminent.
In terms of universal credit, I think there are a large number of issues about the universal credit roll-out that are alarming. I myself met with a jobcentre in Swansea last Friday and was really alarmed at some of the stories I was hearing. So, I think it's a little bit of a wider issue. I think we'll have a discussion with Cabinet colleagues about bringing a debate forward on that, because I think there is a much wider issue than just the housing issue, but the Member was right to raise it.
Thank you, leader of the house.
The next item, therefore, is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance on the tax policy work plan for 2018, including new taxes, and I call on the Cabinet Secretary to make his statement—Mark Drakeford.
Thank you, Llywydd. In just over a month’s time, as Members will be very aware, the first Welsh taxes in hundreds of years will start to be collected, as land transaction tax and landfill disposals tax are switched on. However, tax devolution must not only simply be about replacing one tax system with another. We have a responsibility to think more innovatively about tax, about how taxes operate, about their impact on people, businesses and communities, and how they interact with our wider policy objectives.
The tax policy work plan for 2018, which I published today, sets out the Welsh Government's priorities for this year. It contains a variety of short and long-term priorities in the following areas: tax rates, tax policy, local taxation improvements, tax administration and long-term research. As part of last year's work plan, I set out the Government’s intention to test the Wales Act 2014 powers. The Act enables Wales to propose new taxes in areas of devolved responsibility.
Llywydd, I published a shortlist of four tax ideas in October: a vacant land tax, a disposable plastics tax, a social care levy, and a tourism tax. Over the past six months, we have been working with stakeholders to examine the case for each of these four ideas more fully, including their impact on Wales. The Welsh Government also carried out an informal online opinion poll, via social media, to raise awareness of these tax ideas and to gauge public support for each of the ideas. I published the outcome of that poll earlier today.
Members will be aware that the process set out in the Wales Act and its accompanying documentation was basic. I've been very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and to agree a process for devolving new tax powers to the National Assembly. This will involve two distinct stages. The first will be for the Houses of Parliament and the National Assembly to agree the devolution of competence, and secondly, the Welsh Government will bring forward the policy and legislative proposals to the National Assembly. An account of that process was published on our website earlier today.
Llywydd, I've concluded that each of the shortlisted ideas have important merits. It's my judgment that, in testing the machinery for the first time, it will be important to simplify matters by proposing only one tax in the first instance. That does not mean, however, that work will not continue on each of the shortlisted ideas. Let me be clear, too, about what all of this means. The tax proposals with which I intend to test the Wales Act 2014 have the potential to help achieve our policy agenda here in Wales. It does not mean that we are irrevocably committed to introducing such a tax. However, if the power to introduce a specific tax to Wales only is added to the devolved responsibilities of the National Assembly for Wales, then detailed policy work and engagement with stakeholders will follow. If legislation is proposed, it will be subject to all the normal scrutiny arrangements of this legislature.
I now turn to look at each idea in turn.
Llywydd, I turn first of all to a disposable plastics tax. There has been considerable interest in, and support for, a tax on disposable plastics in Wales, and a number of Assembly Members have made persuasive cases for making a plastics tax our first priority in this exercise. Since the original shortlist was published, however, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the autumn budget that the UK Government will launch a call for evidence about how it will address the issue of single-use plastics, including through the use of tax. Whatever its merits, that announcement creates, I believe, a roadblock in the path of any Wales-only proposal. The risk, I believe, is too high that the UK Government would simply respond to a Wales-only plastics tax proposal by saying that its consideration would have to wait until the call-for-evidence process is complete.
More positively, Llywydd, I have been able to discuss the call for evidence with UK Treasury Ministers and, as a result, we have secured Welsh involvement in that process. We will help publicise the call in Wales, to ensure as much engagement here as possible. We will contribute to the analysis of the findings following the call for evidence, and I have agreed to meet the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury to discuss progress at that point and share Welsh views on the development of policy options.
Wales has the third best recycling rate in the world. We are at the forefront of the waste agenda and have much to offer through our extensive experience and research capabilities. Nevertheless, we will continue to work on a stand-alone disposable plastics tax for Wales. This remains an option and will be informed by the results of an extended producer responsibility study, which the Welsh Government is due to report on shortly.
I turn to the issue of a social care levy. An ageing population brings an increase in the demand for, and the cost of, social care. Paying for care remains an unresolved challenge throughout the United Kingdom, and taxation is one possible response. We will continue to work throughout 2018 to explore whether taxation could be used to fund social care in the longer term here in Wales. This includes Professor Gerry Holtham’s indicative economic analysis of a system of enhanced social insurance, which is due to be available to us in May. The First Minister has agreed that my colleague, Huw Irranca-Davies, will chair an inter-ministerial group to take forward this very important work.
Llywydd, as far as a tourism tax is concerned, the work carried out over the last six months has shown how much tourism varies across Wales. I have concluded that a national tourism tax would not best reflect this breadth of local circumstances. We will now explore ways in which local authorities could be given permissive powers to develop and implement a local tourism tax. In carrying out that work, we will, of course, work with the tourism sector, the Welsh Local Government Association and interested parties to do this.
I turn finally, then, to a vacant land tax. I have concluded that a vacant land tax will be used to test the Wales Act 2014 machinery. Housing is a priority for this Government. A vacant land tax could help to incentivise more timely development by making it more expensive to hold on to land that has been identified as suitable for development.
The Republic of Ireland vacant land sites levy provides a useful starting point for how a vacant land tax could work in Wales. Under this model, planning authorities must establish a register of vacant sites in their areas. Once a registered site has been vacant for a year, the levy begins to apply and is collected annually by the planning authority. The rate is set by the Irish Government as a percentage of the value of the site.
The existence of such a model and the relatively narrow focus of the tax make it the most suitable of the four shortlisted ideas to test the new machinery. We will now move formally to seek a transfer of competence to the National Assembly, and I will write to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to set this in motion.
Llywydd, this is the start of the process of developing a new tax. If the case is successfully made for the devolution of the power to Wales, we will consult formally on the new proposals here in Wales and in the National Assembly. I look forward to keeping Members fully informed as the process we have embarked upon develops.
Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for today’s statement? Particularly, I’m sure you’d expect me to welcome the news that common sense has prevailed and the Welsh Government’s much-criticised proposals for a national tourism tax, as it’s now been renamed, have been well and truly land-banked, and not before time. Unless you’ve been living on Mars for the last few months, you will know that the Welsh Conservatives have been opposed to this tax since it was first mooted by the Welsh Government as one of the possibilities. I know that Plaid Cymru weren't supporting it, but we weren’t from the start. We have shared the concerns of the tourism sector about the potential effects of such a tourism tax on business across Wales and the perception that it would potentially create about the cost of holidaying here in Wales. I don’t think that these concerns were ever effectively addressed, even at a point during the process where they could have been.
Now, of course, there was a devil in the detail to the Cabinet Secretary’s announcement today, with the announcement that work will continue, at least notionally, on developing local tourism taxes. That sounds like a way out of a tricky corner to me, but there we are, we all need one of those occasionally. I recognise that this is going to be left to allowing local authorities to develop their own local tourism taxes. So, Cabinet Secretary, can you elaborate a little bit more on the form that these taxes locally could take? Because I’ve already had some concerns expressed to me on e-mail by the sector about the questions that this raises. In particular, would you envisage national guidelines for local authorities in forming those taxes? How rigorous would those guidelines be? Would there be any sort of cap, for instance, on amounts raised, or the types of taxes locally that could be developed?
In principle, I believe in local democracy, and I think that there is merit in developing local taxes. Would the moneys raised locally from these taxes be ring-fenced for tourism in that sector? Would they be left totally with the local authorities? Would they be redistributed? Has any thought been given at the moment to how that would happen? I imagine not, but the jury’s out on that one, so I look forward to some guidance there. What reassurance, importantly—[Interruption.] Following re-engagement, what reassurance can you give to the sector that there will not be a disincentive to tourists coming to Wales? Because that’s ultimately what we all want to avoid in this place.
If I can turn briefly to ‘the chosen one’, the vacant land tax, this clearly has some merits—I would agree with you on that, Cabinet Secretary—particularly in our aim to provide more housing, as we all know there is a deficit of that at the moment in Wales, and anything that can alleviate that problem and remove some inhibitions to developing housing is to be welcomed. You’ve pointed to the example of the Republic of Ireland. I’m not too au fait with the situation there, but I do know that it does have its supporters. I don’t have an objection to the vacant land tax in principle, but, again, there are a number of unanswered questions, and we’ve seen the effects that these unanswered questions have had in other areas throughout this process when you were considering some of the other taxes that have now been put on the backburner.
These aren’t just my concerns, but also some of the concerns of the housing sector—questions such as how much will the tax raise. I believe that the jury is still out on how much a vacant land tax in Wales would raise. And how would you address the concerns of the Federation of Master Builders, for instance, who believe that a vacant land tax, if it is formed in the wrong way, could actually penalise smaller builders in Wales, to the benefit of larger builders? I’m sure we would want to avoid that.
Can I finally say that, going back to the start of your statement, I echo the concerns that you’ve expressed in the past and which others have expressed about this whole process? There is a danger that the two-tier process of developing the consents first of all from the UK Government and then developing the taxes afterwards—it does smack a little bit of the dreaded legislative competence Order system that we had some years back, which proved to be not very streamlined, inefficient and quite costly in the end. So, I do recognise that you have to work within the constraints of that system, but I think that we all agree that, in the future, it probably isn’t ideal.
I thank the Member for what he said, particularly towards the end of his contribution. I absolutely share his anxiety that we design the way in which powers can be drawn down to Wales for these new purposes—that it is carried out in a way that has a clear distinction between the responsibilities that are properly conducted by the UK Government and then the responsibilities of this National Assembly. I hope that when Members see the schematic that we published today, which sets out how this will operate, Members will see that we have succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Treasury in which the Treasury will focus on those matters that I think are legitimate for the UK Government.
I think it's fair for them to want to be convinced that the tax being proposed lies squarely within devolved competence. I think it's fair for them to be sure that we are not proposing something that would gather money in Wales but would have an impact on revenue raising that they are relying upon on a UK-wide basis, for example. But when the power is transferred to the National Assembly, it's then for this Assembly to scrutinise the use of those powers. It's for this Assembly to see whether it believes that any ideas that a Welsh Government comes forward with for legislation stand up to the test of scrutiny, and the detailed questions really do belong to that part of the process. There is no point at all in the Welsh Government committing an enormous amount of time and resources to designing the detail of a tax proposal until we know that the power to bring that tax forward lies in the hands of the National Assembly for Wales.
On the points the Member raised on the actual announcement today, which is of a vacant land tax to be taken forward, of course nobody would wish to design a tax that was formed in the wrong way, and there are important issues that would need to be navigated to make sure that a vacant land tax captured land that is vacant when no effort is being made to bring it into purposeful use, and not, of course, to try to penalise people who are working hard to make use of the permissions that have been granted, or the designations that have been laid out, and are frustrated in being able to do so for reasons that are sometimes beyond their own control. You design the criteria for how land is registered as vacant on the register to capture those things that you want to capture and to make sure that those that are not the object of this tax are excluded from it.
How much would the tax raise? It's too early, of course, to give a proper answer to that question. In the Republic of Ireland a tax is levied at 3 per cent on the value of the land in the first year, rising to 7 per cent of the value of the land in a second year in which it is not being used productively. The republic believe that that would be at least sufficient to cover the costs of the new system, where any money that is left over is dedicated for regeneration purposes.
As to a local tourism tax, as I said in my statement, I will be working with my colleague ministerially responsible for this matter to take the conversation forward. The whole point of a tourism tax, despite the distortion of the idea by some Members in this Chamber, has always been to find better ways of investing in tourism, so that we draw more people to be part of the tourism industry here in Wales. If we are to take forward the idea on the basis of local discretion, it would be clearly on the basis that money raised in that way is used to respond to the demands that tourists rightly make for proper facilities and for services on the ground, and to make those services even better so that people who come to Wales want to visit here many times again in the future.
If I may welcome the statement by the Cabinet Secretary today in saying that I am a little disappointed, of course, that he hasn’t selected the single-use plastics tax, but I do welcome the fact that he will use this new process to test a new tax—we can call it 'taxco' to correspond with the LCO, perhaps. But we, here, do support the fact that this process is to be tested. As he said in his statement, we are not going to commit irrevocably to this vacant land tax. We will want to see how it is developed and what exactly the purpose and use of the tax will be, and the range of the tax here in Wales. But, we certainly support the principle of using that process of drawing up new taxes.
One specific question on the vacant land tax that I can ask now, I believe, is: to whom will this tax apply? The statement talks about land developers, people who hold—and you can think about supermarkets, who are famous for sitting on land for long periods of time. But, the fact is that much of the land in Wales is owned by the public sector—by the Government itself, local authorities and the public sector more broadly, such as universities, colleges and housing associations, who are still in the public sector, unless we pass the legislation that is discussed later today. So, I do want to fully understand: would such a tax apply to the public sector where they hold vacant land? It's slightly strange for one Government to tax another part of Government, and I'm not sure what the purpose of that would be. The Government does have other policy tools to address the problem, other than taxation. That's the question that I have at the moment.
If I could turn to the broader statement, and if I could also say that the oral statement today accords with the written statement and a lengthy policy statement on taxation for 2018 that the Cabinet Secretary has set out. It's far too long to discuss that today, but there are a few things emerging from that that I would like to ask about today. Now, in the taxation policy that you published today, one of the things that you state as one of the objectives of your policy is to use taxation in order to influence behaviour—not only to raise funds but to influence behaviours. In that context, of course, the single-use plastics tax seemed very attractive. I hear what you say about developments at a UK level, but can you tell us a little more now about the involvement and the engagement that you will have with the Westminster Government on the development of a disposable plastics tax? You talk about being part of the evidence-gathering process, but are you also going to be forming policy, influencing policy and ensuring that, if there is a disposable plastics tax, that should be appropriate?
One of the questions that has been raised a number of times in this Assembly as we’ve discussed this issue is that it has to go hand in hand with the high rates of recycling that we have in Wales, and there are different rates of recycling in other parts of the UK. Now, not all taxes are going to be appropriate for us. One of the obvious things emerging, then, is that if there is a disposable plastics tax emerging from Westminster, we—or the Government here—should have some sort of influence on the levy or the level of that tax, or you can't apply the tax to the situation that exists here.
Two questions to close, just arising from the broader context that has been set out today. In the taxation policy, you talk about local taxation and the principle in terms of how these could work. I understand that you are reviewing business rates. We are facing council tax with some very high increases possible this year. You have core funding from central Government that is provided to local authorities, which is also reducing. In England, it is now clear that it is the intention of the Government in England to significantly reduce the funds provided form central sources and to encourage council tax and business rates to be increased in order to make up that deficit. Now, I don't see any statement of intent or policy statement from the current Welsh Government in response to that. So, can you give us some idea as to where you see local taxation going over the next few years?
Finally, of course, we've seen the devolution of income tax, which is on the horizon. You've said in the past that it isn't the policy of this Government to change income tax rates in Wales during this Assembly term. Can you restate in the Assembly today that that remains your policy?
I thank Simon Thomas very much for those questions, and I thank him for Plaid Cymru's support for testing the new system that we have, and to keep an eye on the vacant land tax and how we use that to test the new system. On the one question that Simon Thomas raised on that tax, in Ireland, the tax goes to every person and authority responsible for the vacant land, whether it's in the Government's hands or the local government's hands or anything else in the public sector, because what they say is, if the local authority, for example, isn't doing its work to use the land, where they've been given the permissions and so on to develop that land, well, they're in the same position as any other individual. Now, I'll be going to Ireland, hopefully, next week, and I hope there will be an opportunity for me to meet with those people responsible for that tax once again, and be able to drill down in greater detail on issues such as the question that Simon Thomas posed this afternoon.
To turn to the questions on the written statement, of course, many of the taxes that we're talking about will have an impact on behaviour rather than on revenue raising. That is true of the vacant land tax, because what they say in Ireland is that they don't expect to generate a great deal of revenue, but they do wish to change the behaviour of people who are just sitting on land and not using the land for important purposes in Ireland.
How far will we be involved in the UK Government's work on the call for evidence? Well, I was very glad to have an extended conversation with the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury. I think we've secured a Welsh voice in the call for evidence and being able to shape it here in Wales to make sure that Welsh views are successfully transmitted into that process, that where there are Welsh issues at stake we will be able to flag those up as part of the analysis, and that I will have a meeting with the Exchequer Secretary in that part of the process before anything is said publicly.
So, all of that I think is reason for being optimistic. Does it mean that I feel we can afford simply to rely entirely on what might come out of a UK exercise? I don't think we can. I do think we have to carry on with shaping our own ideas, and if what came out of the UK exercise didn't fit with Welsh needs and circumstances in the way that Simon Thomas pointed out, didn't take account of the way that we do things here in Wales, and it was still better that we moved ahead with a tax of our own in single-use plastics, we would be in a position to try to draw that power down. If we can do it on a UK basis, then I think I am persuaded that the tax could be more effective and could do even more to pursue the ambitions that the people who support this tax have for it, but we would have to be confident that it is being done in that way.
Simon Thomas is completely right to say that the UK Government, as far as English local authorities are concerned, has a clear, articulated policy of reducing to zero the funding that local authorities receive from central Government, and allowing them to raise all the money that they use through local taxation, including business taxation. It's in a terrible mess, that policy, as they find, of course, that those places that have the greatest need raise the least from local taxes, and they've had to develop all sorts of complicated ways of trying to compensate around the system for that. We have no intention of doing that here in Wales. We have a pooled system for business rates. Eighteen local authorities in Wales gain from it, four contribute to the pool, but that's right and proper if you're interested in matching spend with need, rather than some other ambition.
I'm in a pleasant position of being able to give a broad welcome to the finance Secretary's statement today, and I applaud his measured and cautious approach to this important area of policy. He's chosen what I think possibly to be the least damaging of the options that he was facing us with, and I welcome much of the detail of the statement.
I'm pleased that work is continuing on a social care levy. We've raised this in the Chamber before. We have to face up to the problems of long-term finance in this area; it would certainly be irresponsible of us on all sides of the house not to recognise that we do need to raise large sums of money in the future to pay for people to live a dignified life in old age and infirmity. I'm very, very pleased, therefore, to see that Huw Irranca-Davies has been appointed to chair an inter-ministerial group on this topic. I've always regarded him as a very fair-minded and intellectual person, if he doesn't take that as an insult—[Laughter.] It's a complicated subject that will require a huge amount of dedicated work, and I think the right appointment has been made.
I'm naturally pleased that a national tourism tax has been abandoned. I'm not opposed to giving permissive powers to local authorities, if they want to introduce some kind of levy. I think they would be foolish to do so, but as someone who believes in devolution beyond the Assembly, I think that this is something that is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. I fully understand and support the reasons for not proceeding at this stage with work on a disposable plastics tax. I think the Cabinet Secretary is absolutely right on that. I note though that, in respect of the vacant land tax, the Government is not committed to actually introducing it if, in due course, it doesn't seem prudent to do so. So, in a sense, this is rather an academic exercise that we seem to be engaged in. But I do agree that we need to test the powers in the Wales Act and to understand how the procedures work and to identify any faults and flaws that it might contain.
As regards a vacant land tax, I think there are significant difficulties in this. As I understand it, in the Republic of Ireland, it's estimated that the amount that will be raised by their levy is just about enough to cover the costs of collection, which is, I suppose, the tax equivalent of digging holes only to fill them in again. If, of course, the purpose of the tax is to change behaviour then I can understand a motivation behind that, but I mean there are problems. How do you differentiate, for example, between land that has been banked for whatever reason—Simon Thomas referred to supermarkets banking land for long periods of time—? How do we differentiate between land banks of that kind on the one hand and land that is undeveloped for reasons beyond a developer's control? This is going to be important particularly when you're in an economic downturn. Then, often projects that seemed commercial at the time that you purchased the land become unviable and there's no alternative but to stay your hand for development. I think of projects like the Circuit of Wales, for example, where large quantities of land would have effectively been sterilised by the doubt and delay in the circumstances beyond the control of the proposed developers there. It could have a very significant adverse impact on building and construction companies in those circumstances.
And what constitutes the start of development is another interesting point. I remember when I was a planning lawyer that merely digging a spade into the soil could constitute development, or even just marking out by fencing a certain bit of land could constitute for planning purposes the start of development. We have to recognise also that, given that we have a land border with England, if there is no vacant land tax in England, house builders may well be less likely to invest in housing developments in Wales than in England. As Andrew Whitaker of the House Builders Federation says:
'With a national house builder you've obviously got competition between investing your money in Wales and investing your money in England.'
And that's one of the concerns they have.
John McCartney, the director of research for Savills in Ireland, has said that the result of the Irish levy that has been introduced is that
'No developer will now carry a land-bank in a slow market. This means when a recovery follows developers will spend the early years on site assembly rather than the house building they could and should be doing'.
So, we have to be careful that the law of unintended consequences doesn't kick in here. I'm pleased that Simon Thomas raised the question of Government-owned land, whether it's local government or national Government, because the Ministry of Defence sits on vast areas of land that could be usefully developed, and that's been a major scandal, I think, for many, many years. Anything that might help to disgorge land from the public sector that is not going to be used for any practical purpose I think is a good thing.
Many of the problems of vacant property, of course, are in the area of land that has already been developed—empty buildings, particularly in urban areas, that are allowed to decay and become a nuisance to those who are neighbours, as they're unsightly and a problem for local authorities that have to cope with the anti-social consequences that these things create.
So, I hope that the Cabinet Secretary will proceed further with the commendable caution that he's shown in this statement, but I'm very pleased, as I said at the start of my response to the statement today, to be able to welcome what I think is a thoughtful contribution to an important debate.
Llywydd, I thank the Member for those remarks. He and I have agreed previously in the Chamber that paying for social care is one of those issues that successive Governments have failed to grapple with, and to produce a successful policy conclusion. Many of us here will remember our colleague Gwenda Thomas who produced a Green Paper on paying for social care nearly a decade ago here in this Assembly.
I'm very grateful to the First Minister for agreeing that Huw Irranca-Davies will chair this inter-ministerial group to make sure that we draw all our arguments together, but it will also have an important interface with the UK Government, because one of the things that makes legislating on social care in Wales a challenge is that it inevitably has immediate interfaces with responsibilities at the Treasury, at the Department of Health and Social Care and in the Department for Work and Pensions. And successfully designing a Welsh tax in this area would have to be sure that it had seen to the successful resolution of those very important interfaces.
I note what the Member said about his support for permissive powers for local authorities. He was quite right to highlight the fact that I went out of my way in my statement to make it clear that this is about drawing powers down to Wales, it is not a guarantee that if those powers arrived here and we did the detailed work and held the various consultations, that we'll come to a conclusion about what we would then do, faced with that much richer set of knowledge. A number of the questions that the Member raised would exactly be the sorts of things you would want to explore properly in that period to make sure that the law of unintended consequences had been purposefully addressed.
In the Republic of Ireland, they believe that they have got practical answers to many of the points that were raised, but we would have to be confident that we had explored those issues in Welsh circumstances and got solutions of our own.
Can I end by just picking up the point that Neil Hamilton made towards the end? The debate about a vacant land tax tends to focus on housing issues, but in the republic, they were very keen to say to me that they regard it as a tool for dealing with urban dereliction just as much as they think of it as a tool for promoting land for housing, and that where you have parts of our urban areas where houses are being bought up but nothing is being done with them, where you have that downward impact on a whole area that prevents its regeneration, they regard this as a tool—a powerful tool—that they have to try to intervene in those circumstances. So, I’m grateful for the opportunity to say again that housing is a very important policy target for a vacant land tax, but regeneration and tackling dereliction are equally important purposes.
Taxation exists to raise money for public services and to change behaviour—preferably both. No taxation: no public services. There are two taxes currently devolved and soon to be collected. Land transaction tax is there to raise money for public services, and, under the way it has been implemented, to put a greater cost on those who can most afford it That's something I applaud. Landfill disposals tax is a behaviour tax—without it, there would be no financial benefit in recycling, and it has been incredibly effective in its aim to increase recycling, which has taken Wales up to third best in the world.
On the taxes being considered, on a tourism tax, the price of hotel rooms and of staying in caravan parks varies enormously depending on the time of the year. I discovered I paid a tourism tax on my room last year when I was on holiday—not before I went on holiday, but when I looked up countries and cities that charged it, and for the first time I knew that I'd actually paid it.
On a disposable plastics tax, which is something that I think has got to come in, whether it's done by the UK Government or the Welsh Government, to me, doesn't matter a great deal, but we do need it. In fact, when I say 'we need it', I think the world needs it in order to try and stop all this plastic being disposed of and causing such huge problems throughout Britain, but really throughout the world. The old idea that you could throw things in the sea and they would, by some magic, disappear, still seems to exist in people's views on plastic. So, if the Westminster Government does not come up with anything that is acceptable, will the Cabinet Secretary commit himself to bringing back something to here, so that we can take it forward, because I think there is support for it right across the Chamber to deal with what is a huge problem?
Vacant land tax is interesting. I think there's two things to say about land: it can't be moved and they're not making any more of it. I think those are important things. People can't decide to pick it up and take it to England unless they move the border, so it is important. The Republic of Ireland's vacant sites levy provides an example of how a vacant land tax could work in Wales. Under this model, planning authorities establish a register of vacant sites in their areas. Once a site has been on the register as vacant for a year, the levy begins to apply and is collected annually by the planning authority. Does the Cabinet Secretary agree with me that this will have two advantages? One: it stops land banking, which often stops other developers—people buying land in order to stop other developers being able to develop it; and it will also stop the tendency of people trying to get things into a local development plan in the hope that some time in the future they will be able to develop on it. Once they've got it into that sort of land bank, they'll actually have to start putting some thought into—if I can use a rugby term, 'use it or lose it'—and if they don't actually start developing, it's going to start costing them a lot of money very, very quickly.
Well, Llywydd, I thank Mike Hedges, both for his strong consistent support for the approach we've taken in the two taxes that will come into being on 1 April, but also for what he said this afternoon. Tourism taxes are normal around the world. We know there's a growing interest in them across our border, in both Birmingham and Bath, and what I've said this afternoon—as I've tried to make clear—we are not turning our back on this idea, we're trying to take it forward in the most suitable way for Wales.
I have a feeling that the Member is right that a plastics tax is coming. There were 125 million single-use cups thrown away in Wales last year. One hundred and twenty five million of them in Wales alone. This is a problem that is ripe for Governments to grapple, and the public, as ever, are ahead of us on this. They expect action to be taken. If action is not taken at the UK level in the way that we hope, and in some ways would prefer, then I certainly would return to the idea here in Wales, and we'll do the work in the meantime to allow us to do that. I believe that testing the system with a vacant land tax will make it easier to be able to take other ideas, sometimes more significant ideas, around that track in the future.
As far as vacant land tax is concerned, he's quite right. I think it was Mark Twain who replied to somebody who'd asked him for advice on where he could invest his money, and said, 'Buy land, they're not making it anymore.' And it is an area in which we have to do more to make the very best use of the resource we've got. Land banking does happen in order to prevent somebody else from making good and productive use of that land. And there are people who, in a speculative way, try and get permissions for land to be used for particular purposes. The effort that the public has made in giving those permissions allows the value of that land to rise. The person who sits on it has done nothing at all by their own efforts for that to happen, and they hope that they will simply make a windfall profit in which they take all the benefits and the public has borne all the costs. And a vacant land tax is one potential way in which you could make that prospect less attractive.
We're almost out of time on this statement, but I do want to call a few more speakers, but I do need to stress the need for succinct questions now. Mark Reckless.
Diolch, Llywydd. I agree with the finance Secretary that we certainly need to drill down in greater detail on this vacant land tax. He says a vacant land tax would apply to land that has previously been identified as suitable for development. Is the implication of that that it's land that's identified in the LDP, in which case is the 15, 20-year outlook of that really appropriate to have a tax where you're having a 7 per cent charge in year two if you haven't developed? We don't want all the land in the LDP to come forward at once, presumably. Or is it on the basis of planning permissions? In which case, isn't there a very significant risk that people would delay applying for planning permissions, and the amount of planning permissions coming through will decline on account of fear of this tax coming in? He says that planning authorities must establish a register of vacant sites in their areas. Does that then imply that we're talking about something different than places in the LDP or places that have got planning permission? And how on earth is he going to reconcile these three concepts?
He talked, in reply to Simon Thomas, about wanting this to apply to public sector land, and that being important. If the local authority is responsible for drawing up the register of vacant land, why would he expect that local authority to identify its own land so it can pay lots of extra taxes to him, and help out Welsh Government? We also talk potentially about almost—. Sorry, I'll leave that point, just to be a little quicker. But how will you determine the value? Is this value with planning permission? Is this value with the tax applied or not? Presumably having to pay this tax is going to cut the value of the land for whoever owns it. And isn't there also a risk that, combined with his insistence on developers paying 6 per cent rather than the 5 per cent in England when they develop, say, land, including most offices over £1 million, if he then adds to that this additional tax on vacant land, isn't the risk that developers, particularly those from England, look across at Wales under a Labour Government and just see taxes going up, more new taxes coming in, and decide not to invest here at all?
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Well, almost all the questions the Member raises are proper ones, but he was right in the very beginning that they are proper for a point in the process when the power is available to us in the National Assembly, and not at a point where we couldn't do anything in this field, whether we could answer all those questions or not. I make three points in reply to what the Member has said.
First of all, I share the anxieties of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which he raised during his budget speech, in which he pointed to the thousands of permissions for housing development in London that go unused. And that's why he has asked Sir Oliver Letwin to produce a report on that matter, and we will look carefully at what that report has to say.
Secondly, he asked why a local authority should put its own vacant land on a register if they're going to be taxed on it. One of the things I was told in the Republic of Ireland, Dirprwy Lywydd, was what a popular success this idea had been with members of the public phoning up the local authority, to say, 'Why isn't that piece of vacant land at the end of my street on your register?' So, this isn't a matter just of the local authority being judge and jury in its own cause here. There will be criteria, and citizens will be amongst those who will police this policy to make sure that it's a success.
And, finally, and thirdly, let me say to the Member that some of us here do not always believe that because something different happens on one side of the border that it is inevitable that the better development will be on the English side, and that Wales will always be at a disadvantage. We do things because we think we do them better here, and that's what we're here to do.
Can I welcome the Cabinet Secretary's decision to test the new power with vacant land tax? It's helpful to know that the Republic of Ireland's vacant site levy provides a useful starting point for such a tax in Wales. Would he agree that such a tax could go some way to addressing the growing inequalities in wealth, and the way it's distributed, and that, of course, is exemplified in land banking? I understand, of course, that the first step is to secure power from Westminster. I just wonder whether discussions have taken place at official or ministerial level with the UK Government regarding all four tax proposals, including the vacant land tax, to pave the way for testing today's announcement. I think it's important to recognise that a vacant land tax will help address the need to secure vacant land for housing. I'm sure this will be welcomed by local authorities and registered social landlords who are seeking to meet local housing need. Has any mapping or sampling of vacant land taken place, on a pilot or wider basis in Wales, to identify the scope and extent of the land that might be subject to this tax?
I also welcome his commitment to work on a stand-alone disposable plastics tax in Wales. I certainly know that'll be welcomed by Jones Dairies in my constituency, which has already embraced the Blue Planet message and seen a rise in orders over the past week of 500 more bottles of milk to be delivered in the milk floats that quietly come down my street early in the morning. It's really important that we provide more information—as you say, the public have embraced this message—so that the call for evidence can include those who want to engage, like Chris Jones from the dairy in my constituency.
Finally, can I welcome his commitment to explore the prospects for a social care levy? Will he commit either himself or, indeed, the Minister Huw Irranca-Davies to report to the Assembly on this enhanced social insurance model? I understand that a report is due in May. I think, Cabinet Secretary, that taking that forward could be a very important response to the parliamentary review on health and social care. Alongside his proposed vacant land tax and, indeed, his work on a disposable plastics tax, I think this all will show that Wales is at the forefront of progressive social reform.
Can I thank Jane Hutt for all those questions? Many of these debates began during the years in which she exercised the responsibilities as finance Minister here in the Assembly, and I know how familiar she will be with them.
I can give her an assurance that I have discussed all four tax proposals with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, particularly in relation to the social care tax, to get doors open for us to discuss this idea with other parts of Whitehall, and in relation to the plastics tax to make sure that Wales is as much involved as we can be in the call for evidence that the UK Government is taking forward. The fact that we have offered to help make sure that that call for evidence is widely publicised in Wales will, I hope, open doors to her constituents and others to take part in it. She is absolutely right when she points to the fact that the public are ahead of this debate and are already taking actions in their own lives to address the detriment that plastics can have on the environment that we all have to enjoy.
As far as any mapping or pilots are concerned, I can say this to her, that in a sample survey of land identified in local development plans for housing development purposes, 25 per cent of all those sites turned out to have no activity taking place on them at all. It is a small survey, and it's a sample survey, so I wouldn't want to place enormous weight on it, but it's indicative, I think, of the scale of the issue.
In another development, the Welsh Government recently announced a project using £32 million-worth of financial transaction capital and £8 million of conventional capital on a stalled sites fund to bring forward sites so that they can be used for proper public purposes. There are over 400 sites in Wales identified as potential beneficiaries from that fund.
Just a few questions on the work plan in terms of local taxation. Can the Cabinet Secretary tell us whether the work that he’s talking about in terms of renewing council tax is on the radical scale in terms of making the taxation burden fairer, for example, on the kind of lines that my party have proposed in the past, as well as Professor Gerry Holtham? When is that work to be published, and is it his intention to bring recommendations forward during this parliament?
And in terms of the land value tax and related work, has any research been commissioned in terms of when the Cabinet Secretary intends to publish or consult on that? Does he also intend to bring recommendations forward during this Parliament? And, finally, there is a reference to the commitment to review the current devolved taxation within three to five years from April of this year. Well, which will it be? Will it be within three years or within five years? Has the Government made a decision yet?
I thank Adam Price for all of those questions. We haven't made our minds up on the final question because it's still too early, we think, in the process.
In relation to the second home supplement within the land transaction tax, there are two parts of the work programme that have been specifically agreed with Plaid Cymru. We promised to produce a regional analysis of that, once the WRA was up and running, to see whether a tax might be calibratable to a local level, and I've taken seriously the points that Siân Gwenllian has made regularly in this Chamber about the way in which a second home tax may be having an unintended consequence of second home owners switching from domestic taxation to claiming to be businesses, and local authorities losing out on a potential income stream in that way, and that is now part of the work programme.
As far as the future of local taxation altogether is concerned, I hope to be at the radical end of it in that what I've said in the Chamber previously, Dirprwy Lywydd, is that I have set in hand a piece of work in this Assembly term that will look in practical detail at whether alternative forms of local taxation such as land value taxation would be a preferable form of taxation than the one we have presently in Wales. I want the Assembly to be in a position to come to a conclusion on that debate, not on the abstract merits of different policy ideas, but on what it would take to make alternative ways of doing things actually happen in Wales. What would we need to do? Would we have the confidence that it would be a better system than the one that we currently have? We're not in a position of having the information we need to make an informed judgment on that; I hope we will be as a result of the work that's being carried out in this Assembly term.
Thank you. And, finally, Vikki Howells.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for your statement today. I think it's a really exciting announcement. Land banking is certainly an issue that is—very passionately expressed views on the doorsteps in Cynon Valley, and my first question in the Chamber when I was elected was actually about land banking.
My question focuses around the statement you made earlier, where you said that, in Ireland, they see this as a tool for dealing with urban dereliction, and that's certainly the way that it is viewed in my constituency, that land banking leads to urban dereliction. In fact, I hosted an event on access to community spaces for the Land Trust just a few weeks ago, and they highlighted the ways in which abandoned sites that have been left in a poor condition affect their local area. Some of the things they said are that that can contribute to mental and physical ill health, anti-social behaviour and community break-up for those who live around such sites.
My question to you, then, Cabinet Secretary, is: are these arguments that you yourself take on board, and are they arguments that you would seek to further as you develop the proposal and perhaps tie in to the future generations goals here in Wales?
Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank Vikki Howells for that question. I'm looking forward very much to working with her if we get the power to introduce a vacant land tax, because of the long-standing interest that she's had in this matter.
I'm glad we're ending this discussion by going back to the usefulness of a vacant land tax in the area of urban dereliction and abandoned sites. We can all of us imagine what it must be like to be left living somewhere where, all around you, buildings are not occupied, where fly-tipping is taking place, and where there is no sense at all that the place that you live in is loved or has a positive future. And so, if we're able to use a vacant land tax to bear down on not people who have acquired land because they've got a plan for it and they're mobilising the necessary energy and effort to make that plan happen, but people who speculatively buy up places and rely on the market without any effort from themselves to see the prices rise, cash in, and leave behind them blighted lives for those who have borne the price for their actions, and if we can use a vacant land tax as part of the policy armoury we have to prevent that happening in parts of Wales, then this whole effort will have been well worth while.
The next item is the statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services on winter pressures. Vaughan Gething.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Across Wales, our health and social care services have faced significant pressures this winter. None of the challenges we face in Wales are unique to us; the same challenges exist right across the UK. It is testament to the compassion and commitment of our staff that the vast majority of people continue to receive the care they need in a compassionate, professional and timely manner, and I would like, once again, to thank and pay tribute to our hard-working staff for the dedication they have shown in managing and coping with the pressures across our health and care system over the last few months, and I am sure everyone here will share those sentiments.
Despite rigorous preparation across our system, there have been times when our services have seen exceptional levels of activity above and beyond what could reasonably have been anticipated. GPs' and primary care services, both in and out of hours, have seen increased activity, with twice as many patients being seen and treated following the Christmas period. So, to support GPs, I have already relaxed the quality and outcomes framework element of the GP contract until the end of March. This will help GPs and their teams to maintain focus on their most vulnerable and chronically sick patients.
The ambulance service has exceeded the 65 per cent red-call target every month since the clinical response model was introduced. December 2017 was above 70 per cent for the twenty-first consecutive month, despite receiving the highest recorded number of red calls. December 2017 was also the busiest December on record in accident and emergency departments across Wales, with 136 more attendances per day compared to the same month last year. More patients were treated, admitted or discharged within four hours than in any of the previous three Decembers, and that reflects the hard work of staff, who've maintained a typical wait of just over two hours before patients were admitted or discharged. December also saw the highest number of patients aged 85 and over being admitted to hospital from an A&E. As we know, older people often have more complex needs, requiring longer periods of assessment in A&E, and, if they are admitted, they are more likely stay longer in the hospital.
Dealing with pressure in our system is a year-round challenge. We see higher levels of attendance in the summer, but the highest proportion of people, and, in particular, vulnerable people, needing care are present in the winter. However, the monthly four-hour A&E performance in 2017 was better during every month than in 2016, with the exception of a very difficult December.
As Members will know, I have visited several A&E departments and spoken to clinicians in recent weeks to see the challenges faced by front-line staff for myself. The Minister for Children and Social Care has also been out speaking to staff on the ground, and we will both be doing more of this across Wales in the coming weeks. The extraordinary levels of demand this year have been compounded by an increase in patients suffering with flu, norovirus and respiratory illness attending GP practices and A&E. This flu season has seen the highest rates of illness since 2010-11, exacerbated by the cold snap across the UK in early December. Flu rates appear to have peaked, but they still remain high and the flu season will continue for a number of weeks yet.
There are, though, areas of our system that have improved despite the recent pressures. We've seen a 7 per cent reduction in delayed transfers of care in December, confirming that the total number of delays during 2017 was the lowest since our records began 12 years ago. Waiting times have stabilised in respect of referral to treatment and diagnostics, and we expect material improvements to the end of March. Health boards do have clear profiles to achieve this in place. As you know, we provided an additional £50 million to help health boards build on the progress made over the last two years, to reduce the number of patients waiting over 36 weeks, those waiting over eight weeks for diagnostics and those waiting over 14 weeks for therapy services by the end of March.
We continue to provide nearly £43 million to support our primary care services through the primary care fund, and our £60 million integrated care fund is being used to provide care and support closer to home, to keep people out of hospital, and to tackle delayed transfers of care. For example, the Môn enhanced care model in Anglesey is delivering care at home for acutely ill elderly patients. The Stay Well at Home service in Cwm Taf is using a multi-disciplinary hospital-based team to undertake assessments and commission support services to prevent unnecessary hospital admission, and indeed to help people to get back to their own homes in the first place.
We have recently provided an additional £10 million to support front-line services to take immediate action to improve care. Cwm Taf Local Health Board have extended GP practice opening hours on weekends to support the out-of-hours service, and there are early signs that is helping patients to avoid A&E. Hywel Dda has increased therapy, social worker and consultant resource to support weekend discharges, and Cardiff and Vale health board has commissioned additional rehabilitation beds to support patients with their ongoing care needs. Our early information indicates that 69 per cent of patients transferred to the unit have reduced care needs from the point of admission to being discharged.
The social care sector and staff play an equally important role in delivering care and have faced the same considerable pressures this winter. In recognition of that, I'm pleased to confirm that I have provided an additional £10 million to local authorities to address their most immediate priorities in this area. Following discussions with the Welsh Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services in Wales to identify those priorities, this extra money will be used to provide domiciliary care packages, care and repair services to enable quicker discharge from hospital and maintain independence at home, and for short-term and step-down residential care.
Although winter preparation has delivered a greater resilience across our system, there have been times where people have experienced longer waits than are acceptable. The national evaluation of planning and delivery for last winter identified a need to focus on planning for December and immediately after the festive period. So, health boards introduced initiatives this winter that focused on collaborative working and being proactive through escalation to address those pressures quickly and improve patient flow. There is some variation across Wales, but our early indications are that this has increased resilience, means that more patients are being sent home earlier in the day, it's reduced the average length of stay for patients who would typically wait in hospital in a bed for over a week, and health boards and their partners will be expected to evaluate their actions and share learning right across Wales.
There are areas of the system where the exceptional demand has meant, without additional planned actions, pressure would have escalated to critical levels. We've provided nearly £700,000 to the Welsh ambulance service to increase the number of clinicians in their contact centres to 30. This allowed patients to be safely treated over the telephone or to be diverted to other services, resulting in a substantial reduction of unnecessary ambulance journeys to hospital. But all of us can play our part in supporting the national health service. We need to make the right choices for ourselves, but also encourage our constituents to choose the appropriate advice or service when they are sick or injured.
I'll close by saying that winter is not over yet. I've seen some people suggesting that winter is over at the end of February. We should remind ourselves that, last year—there was an exceptionally cold March last year. So, winter does not neatly end at the end of February. Pressure remains in our system at this point in time, and there will inevitably be more difficult days to come. We will continue to work closely with our staff, across health and care services, to ensure the very best outcomes possible for our people by delivering the right care at the right time and in the right place.
I'd like to thank the Cabinet Secretary for his statement today. Your opening paragraph I couldn't agree with more. I too would like to add my thanks and recognition of the hard work that not just the NHS staff do, but also all those who work within social services and within the care sector, to help us get through what is traditionally a very, very difficult time of the year. I welcome the improvements that you cite in your statement. Those positive examples are very thought-provoking. However, it is not all roses, and I think that serious questions remain over the way that services were planned for this winter. We waited until the summer for a review of last year's winter resilience, which was clearly far too late, I think, to learn lessons and develop robust plans, and the health and social care committee heard this constantly—witness after witness after witness, representing organisations, groups and individual GP practices and consultants across Wales, saying that they hadn't been involved in winter pressures.
When you've got 46 A&E consultants who have penned a letter to the First Minister, saying that the safety risks are unacceptable, then we should be very critical about how we handle the winter. When you had, during the height of the winter demand, at Swansea's Morriston Hospital, personal assistants, IT staff and managers called upon to chase up scan results and even medication to help reduce delays, we have to question how we did this winter. We had the Royal College of Emergency Medicine saying that some patients in Wales waited more than 80 hours in emergency departments.
So, there are four questions that I'd like pose to you, and first about bed occupancy. Last year alone, there was an 8 per cent reduction in rehabilitation beds, 6 per cent in psychiatry, 6 per cent in general surgery and almost 6 per cent in geriatric medicine. You stated that health boards had been supported to open additional beds this winter, but it obviously did very little to alleviate demand. So, Cabinet Secretary, I wondered if you could tell us what went wrong with that—why Prince Philip had 103 per cent bed occupancy over those two weeks of winter, Withybush at 98, Bronglais at 100 per cent, Royal Gwent at 98, Nevill Hall at 98. They are staggeringly high, and I would like to understand how the £50 million that you gave earlier last year, the £10 million you recently gave for front-line services—and I do welcome the £10 million you've announced in this statement today for the social care sector—. But, you know, it's not getting to where we need it. Bed occupancy is a major problem.
My second area of concern was about out-of-hours care. The 4-3-4 nature of those two weeks over Christmas and new year really seems to have caught people on the hop. In Aneurin Bevan, we only had 20 doctors on shift when we actually needed 28. Cardiff and Vale—just 92 GP hours were worked despite 192 being needed. I could go on and on. We had GPs unable to cover the out-of-hours, so people of course then ended up going to the hospitals and putting all that pressure on our A&E services.
Turning to A&E, over that two-week period—I'm not going to bore you with statistics; I've got them all here—how many patients were waiting well over the 12 hours? But, when you think that the Heath hospital was able to plan for the UEFA cup final by saying to every single ward, 'You must clear two beds in order for us to be able to manage any influx we may have'—that kind of level of detailed planning didn't take place for the winter pressures. If you look at the Heath, they had almost two wards full of people waiting for a transfer of care to leave hospital, and I think that that must have added to that pressure enormously.
My final point is about influenza. GP consultation rates for influenza were well above the moving epidemic threshold. That means we were reaching—or had reached—crisis point. There was an enormous increase in flu, and I would like to understand, Cabinet Secretary, what you can do to improve the take-up of the flu jab. When we think that only 51 per cent of NHS staff had a flu vaccination, and only 53 per cent of NHS staff who were in the front line had a flu vaccination, then we can see that we actually have to do something about this.
Finally, on the NICE guidelines, the vaccine this year was the £5 trivalent vaccine, and that did not include the influenza B, which has caused over 50 per cent of hospital admissions. That other vaccine would have cost £8. So, I would like your commentary on whether or not you feel that a lesson going forward is that we should try and get a more comprehensive vaccine available to stop it. It is flu, particularly in the young and the elderly, that causes so much pressure on our A&E. There's an awful lot more to say about winter pressures, and I do recognise the green shoots of success that you highlighted. How to make them consistent and how to apply them universally across the NHS is the challenge you face, but you have absolutely got to be forensic in understanding why and where we were not successful this year.
Thank you for the questions and the comments, and in particular your opening and the recognition of the contribution of our staff in what is still the most testing time of the year.
I'll start with your final points on the flu season. On the vaccine, we always work with partners across the UK in trying to order and agree on the most appropriate form of vaccine for the most likely strain. With the different strains that exist in the flu season each year, there is always an element of trying to understand what that should be, but we make those choices sensibly and carefully as healthcare systems—there isn’t a particular difference, as it were, between different nations. And it’s still the case that the flu vaccine is the most effective protection people have against flu before the flu season, and, actually, part of my concern is that, every year, somebody says that the flu vaccine isn’t at all effective.
So, we do need to encourage greater take-up, which goes back to your point about encouraging greater take-up amongst health and care staff on the front line, as well as at-risk members of the public. Because I have had a previous kidney condition, I am in an at-risk group myself, so I have the flu vaccine every year. So, I don’t just have someone stick a needle in my arm in a community pharmacy for the sake of a photo op; I actually do need the jab myself as well. And it’s something we can do in a small role, demonstrating some leadership. But, this year, actually, we started with a campaign fronted by the then Minister for public health. We’ve actually seen an increase in take-up across health and care staff, so I look forward to seeing what the final figures are, and then to see what further improvement we need to make, because there is absolutely no pretence that where we are in terms of staff take-up in particular is adequate or we’d like to say that the situation is resolved, because it certainly is not. I’ve seen for myself at first hand the closures and reduction in capacity that the flu outbreak has meant. When I was in Wrexham Maelor A&E recently, they were closing off an area because they had three confirmed flu cases in there. So, it does affect real capacity within the service, and there’s a knock-on impact from that through the front door and the back as well.
I guess that takes me to your point about transfers of care, then, as well. Because part of what we need to do is to think about how we actually get people out of the hospital part of the system when they no longer need to be there. That’s why the anticipatory part of those models of care matters. The Ynys Môn model really matters, because a lot of that is about keeping people in their own homes, as well as about getting them out. That’s why it’s a good thing that, in the last year, we’ve had a good record on delayed transfers of care, but there's much more still to do. But the £10 million that I have announced today to go into the social care system should help us to get people out of the hospital system and into a more appropriate point for their care to take place, because we recognise that, at any point, we’ve had 300 to 400 medically fit people across the system. And, actually, if you could release those people to go back into their own homes, where they’ll need support, then actually we'd have a much greater amount of capacity for people who do need a hospital bed. That would reduce waits, be a more appropriate way to deliver care, and deliver dignity and appropriateness, and we’re likely to see better outcomes as well. So, we need to be looking at investing in different parts of our system at points in time, and it’s also why the teams that I talk about—if you like, the community rehab and community resource teams—are a really important part of that as well.
On out of hours, there is a mixed picture. It’s been fragile in different parts of the country at different points of time, and, again, there’s no point in pretending that that is a fixed issue. I think 111 still gives us the best model moving forward to help fix some of that out-of-hours challenge across the country, and there’s something there about that helping to manage and underpin the out-of-hours service rather than wholly replacing it. And if you look at what’s happened in Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and, indeed, Carmarthenshire, we’ve seen a real improvement there as well. So, there’ll be more to come, and I’ll be utterly transparent with the Chamber again as we have that evaluation and the step forward in 111 and its further roll-out.
Just on your point about the evaluation of winter and, in particular, I think, about bed capacity, well, we’ve introduced about 400 extra beds across our system—so, if you like, the size of a normal-sized district general hospital. And yet, still we recognise real challenges in capacity across the whole system. So, in the evaluation of winter that we’ll undertake with the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and others, we’ll need to look again at what’s happened this winter, how successful that has and hasn’t been at various points in time and, I think, at where we need extra capacity across our system, whether that’s extra capacity in the hospital part of the system with the staff that we need to have to do that, or whether, actually, if we had extra beds, we'd simply fill them up with more people and not improve flow across our system as well. That’s where we need to think about smart investment choices, either to keep people in their own homes or to get them out of a hospital, and I think that’s the first point to go to. Actually, that was the first point of action in the letter from the consultants at the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, about investing more in social care. To help us to do that, to lead some of that clinical consensus, we have appointed Jo Mower as a national clinical director for unscheduled care. Jo is an emergency department consultant based in Cardiff, and part of her role will be some of that leadership and looking at national systems leadership and local practice across the country. I think she'll be well received by her peers in emergency departments across the country as one part of our response to this whole-system challenge.
I'll keep my comments fairly brief. I haven't been here all that long, but already there's a feeling of groundhog when it comes to discussing winter pressures. There's no doubt that there have been some extraordinary episodes of increased pressure over this winter, and I would like to pay tribute to the astoundingly dedicated members of staff right across our health and care services in Wales who have been trying to deal with the situation that they have been faced with over the past months. You're quite right that they continue to face it up towards the end of winter. But fundamental questions: do we think there'll be a winter next year? I think there will be. What then, assuming there'll be one, are the fundamental shifts that we can look for signs of from this Government that will put the NHS in Wales in a stronger position in order to deal with those pressures when they inevitably come? Because they do.
I was at Ysbyty Gwynedd a matter of 10 days ago, getting the latest insight into the situation there: near 100 per cent bed occupancy, if not 100 per cent. I think the day I was there they were expecting 50 patients in. There were 54 patients in beds in Ysbyty Gwynedd that didn't need to be there. You can see where the problem is. If not every day, every few days I'm hearing tales of patients having their elective surgery cancelled. This is what's happening. This is causing untold distress for those patients and their families, and it is causing delays to treatment that will have who knows what effect on their recovery from the illnesses that they face—[Interruption.] I'm more than happy to take an intervention—
—but being a statement, I'm sure you can make your point in questions to the Cabinet Secretary later.
So again: when are we going to see that fundamental shift towards a sustainable health and care system in Wales that can deal with the winter of 2018-19, and the winter of 2019-20 and beyond? That's all Welsh patients are asking for.
Thank you for the questions and comments. Again, I'm grateful, as I'm sure staff are, for the tribute paid again by the Plaid Cymru spokesperson to the manner in which staff have responded to the at times exceptional pressure and demand that we recognise within the system.
Turning to your questions, this winter, as with last winter and the winter before, we're seeing health and social care some together to plan for winter. So, this isn't an exercise of central Government control. We help to hold the ring with people coming together, and they look at and plan together in their local circumstances. That's actually been helpful, with social care and health recognising that they really do need each other. That may sound obvious, saying that out loud, but for different parts of public services to take time away and actually plan together isn't always a straightforward and easy thing to do. It's consistent with our policy direction and indeed with what the parliamentary review has said, and actually there's something about continuing to do more and to do better with that joint planning right across our system.
It is a system challenge, because your point about medically fit patients, and the fact that they're still often in a hospital bed when they know there are more coming in—well, that is about health and social care together. Some of those people will need to be in a different part of the national health service for the next part of their care and treatment. Some of them could be supported in their own home, whether that's a residential home or a nursing home, or, if you like, a traditional private home, but they'll need social care and support to get there. That's why, in my statement, I pointed out some of the things that are already happening, and things that we could see to, and we'd want to have not just policy levers, but practical incentives to do that as well. The integrated care fund is one of those, but we think we'll need to do more.
That isn't just the Government's view, of course, but that is also the view of the parliamentary review. When they called for a seamless care system, they're looking more and more at examples of what is successful and encouraging us as politicians in the Government and beyond to look at how we actually help healthcare and social care to build on a more consistent basis. Because we always know there will be a winter every time, every year. We know that it may vary in terms of the scale and the pressure, but there will always be extra pressure, because apart from anything else we can expect next year there to be even more people over the age of 85 coming in to our hospitals. We know that is a reality we will face. It's about how fast our system can move to catch up with the challenge of the demand that we see and how fast we can actually move outside the hospital, crucially, to manage some of that demand.
I just want to respond directly to your point about elective procedures. This is something about the contrast between the system here and across our border. In England, they announced a ban on elective procedures to help manage through winter. So, a total ban through England. We didn't do that in Wales. We have unfortunately seen some people have their care interrupted, but I still think that, whilst people are frustrated, if they have their elective procedure cancelled or postponed, most people understand that it's being done because there is an emergency within the system where somebody needs that care on a more urgent basis.
Nevertheless, 22,000 people have had elective procedures through December. There is significant activity taking place. What we need to be able to do across our whole system, in balancing elective and emergency admissions, is to think about how quickly we can get those people who have had elective procedures postponed back in to have that procedure, which we understand that they will need.
It's part of the challenge in running a dynamic system and an understanding that, even though we have reduced the level of elective admissions to cope with winter, at times of extreme pressure, the system will need to make choices, and that often will be about postponing elective procedures because the emergency is at the door. I know what I would want if that were me or a member of my family. I know how I would feel if that was also my elective procedure being postponed. So, there is a need to be sensible and mature about our system and think about how we improve that again, if at all possible, for the year ahead. That's certainly our expectation in the Government.
Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his statement today, and can I join others in thanking the dedication and commitment of all our NHS and care staff across Wales? I'm sure I speak for every Member in this Chamber when I give those thanks, because they have given the service above and beyond what they normally would do anyway, and always do that, and they don't just do it in the winter pressures, they do it throughout the whole year. Can I remind Members in the Chamber that my wife is a member of the NHS and therefore is in the front-line services, so I put that on record? Can I also welcome the investment in social care to improve the care packages that are available to get people out of the hospital? Because we all agree that that is one of the problems—it's people not getting out through the system fast enough to ensure that beds become available as people come in to the front end. It's critical that we address that.
However, we still have those problems at the front end. In your statement, you identified 65 per cent of the red calls target being met. I appreciate that, but the reality is that's one in three not receiving the red call target in time. Therefore, we need to address that because they then have a knock-on effect on the amber calls, which receive delays. I've had many constituents who have been in touch with me recently about 14 to 15-hour waits for ambulances and being told, 'Don't move the patient if they've had a fall', and a vulnerable elderly patient who has had a fall is sitting on the floor waiting for an ambulance. That amber call becomes a red call the longer they wait. Therefore, we do need to address that.
I appreciate the challenges of investing in the ambulance service, but we need to make sure that those ambulances get there on time and get the patients to the hospital on time, so that the ambers don't become red and the patient doesn't stay in the hospital longer than necessary. In one case, I had a patient who had to actually wait in hospital for two or three days whilst they stabilised before they could actually have an operation on the hip they'd broken. So, it is important we address those issues. So, I'm asking the question as to how you're going to ensure that process happens quickly so that we don't get more ambers becoming red and patients waiting for those hours.
Can I also highlight—you mentioned earlier in an answer that the 111 system in AMBU is being piloted. It is actually working, it was referred to us last week in a briefing I had, and it does offer a great deal of choices to patients and to relatives who phone the 111 service and get different answers and maybe therefore no longer need an ambulance but get a better service. But in the situations when they do need an ambulance, can I highlight this point? I phoned the ambulance headquarters last week, wanting to get hold of somebody to get an ambulance out to a patient. I got a number and was told—this was after hours—'Phone the contact centre.' Three times I phoned the headquarters and checked that number, because five times the answer came back, 'This number is not recognised.' That's not acceptable. We need to address that, so that when someone needs to get hold of them, they can get hold of them. So, can we please address that?
Rhun ap Iorwerth talked about the electives, and I appreciate what your comments were on those electives, and I do understand that emergencies come in and those emergencies take priority. I understand that. But many patients are being cancelled. Can you give me perhaps—? I'm happy to do that in writing, in a letter, but how many were postponed? How many were cancelled over the period we're talking about, not just December, but from the start of the winter—let's say November—to perhaps the end of February now, and see hwo many patients—? Because that has a knock-on effect as well, and it's important that we address the knock-on effect of those electives being postponed and delayed, because, again, we've seen situations in the summer that therefore mean that we get pressures in the summer.
And can you also tell me of the investment into the primary care system—? I welcome that, totally welcome it, particularly as we understand the difficulties in GPs being recruited in to cover out-of-hours sessions, and that's one of the problems we have, so the wider community service is important. But can you tell me how much funding was actually put into district nurses, because district nurses are facing very serious challenges, and have you specifically ring-fenced any of that funding for district nurses? If not, will you be looking at how funding for district nurses is being applied across the health boards to ensure that they're able to undertake their duties in the community, which takes the pressure off the GPs, which then takes the pressure off A&E, so there's an actual consequence on—?
And I'll leave it at that, because I can see the Deputy Presiding Officer telling me to sit down.
Thank you. I was just thinking of the word I was going to use to say politely, 'Could you wind up?', but thank you very much. Cabinet Secretary.
Thank you. And thank you, David Rees, for the series of questions, and you're right to highlight not just the professional capability and commitment of our staff, but also the fact that the service runs on the goodwill of those staff as well.
I want to try and deal with your final point about telephony issues and elective postponements and district nursing budgets as well. I think it's best, given that you've asked me for information on elective postponements from November to February, that I write to you at the end of the February period. I have a number of abilities, but being extra sensory perception-savvy is not one of them. I can't predict the future in that way, so I'll write to you at some point in March when the figures are available.
It is worth noting, though, because I've answered a written question from Angela Burns recently on this, that of the postponements in December for elective procedures, over half of them were postponed by the patient, and so there's a challenge there about working across the whole system to try and make the whole system work better. That's not about blaming people who have postponed; it's actually about how we better organise our whole system.
On your other point about care packages to help people out of hospital, that's exactly why we've tried to help direct the £10 million with the advice and support of the Welsh Local Government Association and directors of social services, again looking at it as a whole system. I think it comes back to your point about long ambulance waits, because the easy and the straightforward thing to say is that, of course, I don't want, and no person in this room wants people to wait overly long for an ambulance, whether it's a red, amber or even a green call. The challenge then is what we do about understanding the issues behind some of those long ambulance waits, and that is only possible to see if we look at the whole system. For those ambulances that are held up outside an emergency department while they're waiting to be released, while there's risk in the community that has still got to be managed, there are differences and variations in practice across the country about how quickly that happens, but not only that—it's about recognising that there's a challenge at the front door, but also then to flow through the hospital so that the rest of the hospital system sees the front door as their challenge as well, and not just an issue for the emergency department itself. As with the package of care, there is an issue about reducing the backlog to get people out of hospital when they're medically fit, so to give them the support that they will need to do so. That must be a challenge that health and social care recognise that they own jointly for that individual citizen.
And it's then also looking at the use of local healthcare as well, and how we help people to make the right choices and how we support them to do so, and how we also deal with some of the use of the ambulance service itself. There's been really groundbreaking work undertaken by Cardiff and Vale about those people who regularly misuse the service, but some of that is about understanding what health and care need they do have even it isn't an emergency ambulance. That in itself is releasing lots of extra capacity for our ambulance crews.
So, it's about all of those points and recognising again what we could and should make in each part of them to try and deal with those longer waits, and not simply say, 'This is the problem with the Welsh ambulance service trust itself', but how as a whole system do we see the opportunities to improve.
Thank you for your statement, Cabinet Secretary, and I would also like to place on record my thanks to all the dedicated staff for the way that they've handled pressures this winter.
Spring is just around the corner, but our NHS remains in the depths of a winter crisis, with many operations being cancelled, and therefore we cannot move on. I should rephrase that, because the term 'winter pressures' gives the impression that pressures upon the NHS in winter are unique; unfortunately, they are not. Our NHS is facing spikes in demand year round, often made worse by the backlog created as a result of dealing with winter pressures. The only thing different about the winter months is an increase in respiratory illnesses and perhaps a spike in trips and falls due to snow and ice.
So far, winter 2017-18 has been much milder than 2010-11 and flu rates have been lower, so why, after so much planning and investment, is the NHS struggling more this year? At this stage in 2010-11, consultations for influenza-like illnesses were nearly double what they are today and 86 per cent of patients arriving at A&E were discharged within the four-hour target. Cabinet Secretary, do you believe that the very fact that we had 2,000 more beds and occupancy rates below 85 per cent enabled the NHS to cope better back then?
And also, Cabinet Secretary, although consultation rates for influenza-like illnesses are much lower than in 2010-11, they are still much higher than the seasonal average. So, do you agree that the decision to offer the cheaper trivalent vaccine, which does not protect against the most prevalent B strain, is the biggest contributing factor to the spike in flu cases and will you now opt for the slightly more expensive quadravalent vaccine, which protects against B-Yamagata, or Japanese flu, the most prevalent B strain this winter?
It is clear that we can’t afford to continue approaching seasonal pressures in the same fashion. And while we look forward to your vision for the future of our NHS, this winter has made it abundantly clear: we need radical changes now.
So, Cabinet Secretary our NHS needs better signposting for patients, and while the Choose Well campaign is a step in the right direction, it is still not having the complete desired effect. So, what plans do you have to expand the 111 service to cover the whole of Wales and to act as a gateway to services, signposting patients to the most appropriate resource, whether that’s a pharmacy, a primary care team or A&E?
I was also concerned to hear via a meeting that those training to be GPs—only 30 per cent to 40 per cent have stated that they are willing to work out of hours. This is a great concern to me and to other people.
Finally, Cabinet Secretary, how do you plan to bolster NHS resources so that we aren’t having this exact conversation in three months' time, in six months and again at this time next year? Thank you very much.